The Fire Escape
Asha hurried through the aisle of pulsating washers and whirling dryers. The machines sang like a choir of middle-aged American ladies, but she ignored them. She was headed for the table marked “Give-Aways.”
The laundry room could have been a refuge if it hadn’t been for the other, darker room beside it, which housed the apartment building’s incinerator. There was no telling when the huge creature would come to life, roaring, snarling, devouring trash that came hurtling down chutes from the apartments above. Even when the incinerator was silent, the pitch-black room stank of scorched rubber and melting plastic.
“Keep away from that machine,” Ma warned the girls. For once, Asha found it easy to obey.
Ma mistrusted the laundry machines, too. She and the other Indian women in the building scrubbed their laundry by hand and then took it up to the roof, where they pegged it to lines.
The colors of the discarded quilt had faded into a soft pattern of pastels that smelled faintly of lemons and soap. Asha grabbed it and dashed past the incinerator. The apartment upstairs smelled of stale spices from yesterday’s cooking. Asha threw open her window, climbed onto the fire escape, and closed the curtains tightly behind her.
One ladder led down to the next floor and the next, and another led up and up, as high as the roof, where her mother and sister were collecting laundry. Asha arranged the quilt in a corner and sat cross-legged on it. The autumn afternoon was fading quickly. Wispy, rose-colored clouds floated behind tall buildings, and sparrows swooped and called to each other. Far below, children screamed as they played tag.
Like a deep-sea diver coming to the surface, Asha drew in a long, deep breath. Then, she opened a small notebook and began writing. Words were springing up inside of her; she’d been waiting all day to spill them across the page.
“Osh!” a voice called from inside. “Ma wants you!”
Asha sighed. “Coming!” she answered.
“Were you out on that fire escape again?” her sister asked. “She’ll find you sooner or later. She always does.”
“No,” Asha answered, lifting her chin. “Not this time.”
Rita shrugged. “I’ll cover for you,” she said. “But be careful. Come on.”
On the roof, Ma was removing clothespins from the line. “Where were you?” she asked Asha, frowning.
Asha shrugged. “Rita found me,” she said.
Ma shook her head and went back to work. The girls began to fold a sheet, stepping together to make the corners meet, backing away to stretch it taut again.
A neighbor approached them, another Indian woman who lived down the hall. Asha nudged Rita, and the sisters ducked behind the one sari still floating on the line. This woman liked to pull them aside and ask what the fighting had been about the night before. Flinging the sari out of her way, she surveyed the girls. First, she held Rita’s chin and swiveled it from side to side, like she was checking a mango for bruises. “This one’s a good girl,” she told Ma. “You’ll have no trouble with her.” Then she pinched Asha’s cheek. Hard. “But this one …? Sly. I’d keep my eye on her if she were mine.”
With Ma’s back to her, Asha picked up one of the laundry baskets and escaped. It was chilly on her balcony. She wrapped the quilt around her shoulders and watched the sparrows dance against the darkening sky.
Inside the apartment, a door slammed shut. “Where’s your sister now?” she heard Ma ask.
“I don’t know, Ma,” came Rita’s dutiful answer.
Ma’s sigh drifted out to the fire escape. “That girl always wants to be alone.”
She was right. Asha pursued solitude with a measured desperation, like a hungry tiger stalking a rare delicacy. In India, when she was six, she’d crawled behind a sofa with her books and crayons. Her grandmother had pulled her out, dusted her off, and scolded her. Next she’d escaped to the flat, low-walled roof, but her aunts had convinced Ma that she would fall. The servants were instructed to padlock the door. When they came to America, she’d discovered the park, a wide, grassy field studded with shady, empty benches. But Ma forbade the girls to leave the building alone. Then, about two weeks later, Asha claimed the fire escape.
Her sister’s frantic whisper found her in the darkness. “Dinnertime, Osh! Hurry!”
Baba was already eating, and Ma was heaping rice and curry on their plates. As usual, she was muttering under her breath, and Asha caught a phrase or two as she took her seat at the table: “Sending half his paycheck to his mother. What does that leave for us?”
“We have enough!” shouted Baba. “That fellow on the eighth floor can’t even find a job — I found one as soon as we came to this godforsaken country.
Ma turned, wooden spoon jabbing the air like a sword. “Some job! Hardly pays enough to put food on the table.”
“Enough!” Baba said, slamming his hand on the table. “Money, money, money. YOU wanted to come to America, remember? I have a good mind to go home. With or without you.”
“Did you girls hear that?” Ma asked. She put one hand to her throat, and Asha saw her fingers tremble. “Tell him, Rita, to stop talking like this. Tell him how much it upsets you.”
Rita looked at her father, who sat glowering at the head of the table. “Baba —” she whispered, but she couldn’t finish.
Asha saw the steam rising from the rice, the spices sizzling in the pan on the stove, the red chili peppers her sister was slowly removing from her plate. With one last swig of water, she stood up. “I’m done,” she announced. She had mastered the skill of gulping balls of rice after only one or two chews. She could even swallow a chili pepper without flinching.
She hurried to her fire escape, where cold, still air greeted her and cooled her cheeks. A neon sign across the street made the colors of the quilt glow beneath her knees. Asha pulled out her pencil and notebook and began to write.
It started raining at noon the next day, and Asha hurried home after school. She’d left her notebook on the fire escape. It was tucked inside the quilt, and she was hoping it had stayed dry. She headed straight for the bedroom when she got home.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Asha dropped the window with a bang. Ma was holding the notebook in one hand and the quilt in the other. “Where did you get this … dirty blanket?”
“It’s mine,” Asha said. “Give it back.”
“Is this what you’re learning in America? How to dishonor me with crooked answers? I asked where you found this. Answer me!”
Asha took a step forward, and then stopped. “In the laundry room,” she muttered.
“And you brought it here? Full of other people’s germs? I’m getting rid of it right now.” Ma gathered up the quilt and headed for the kitchen.
“No!” Asha cried, running after her mother.
Ma was opening the incinerator door in the kitchen wall.
“Stop!” Asha shouted, trying to grab the quilt.
Rita joined her. “Stop, Ma!” she yelled.
The tug-of-war continued. Then, with a sudden burst of strength, Ma yanked the quilt out of the girls’ hands and stuffed it down the chute. Asha groped for it, but it was too late. The incinerator consumed Ma’s offering without a sound.
The three of them stood for a moment, breathing heavily. Then Asha looked around, remembering her notebook. She spotted it on the floor, picked it up, and brushed it off. It was full of words she had woven together, words that made pictures glow in her mind each time she read them. “Did you read this?” she asked her mother, holding it between them, a last token of parley.
Something in her voice made Ma take a step back. She turned to her older daughter. “I have to find out why she’s becoming so sly, don’t I?”
“You shouldn’t have read it,” Rita said quietly.
Even then, Ma didn’t meet Asha’s eyes. For a moment, she glanced around the room fearfully, like a child in a crowd of strangers. Then, she sat down, gathered up the loose end of her sari, and pulled it over her head.
Asha cradled her notebook in both hands. It was too late for this one – the words inside were captured. But in the top drawer of her desk a new notebook waited, full of blank, cool pages that would shelter the sentences to come. Opening the door in the wall once again, Asha tossed the old notebook inside. It tumbled and banged down the sides of the chute, as if her words were shouting their last defiance, like zealots refusing to recant.
When she could no longer hear the roar of the fire, Asha walked to where Ma was sitting. Gently, she fingered a bit of the soft, faded cloth of the sari, admiring the ease of her mother’s ancient escape.
A Brief Q&A with Mitali Perkins
YARN is thrilled to be featuring “Fire Escape” by Mitali Perkins. Mitali’s books, such as “Secret Keeper,” “Monsoon Summer,” and “First Daughter, Extreme American Makeover” shed light on the experience of a teen living between two cultures. Mitali has a gift for transporting her readers into worlds so vividly realized that the settings are tactile, the colors are vivid, and the private thoughts of the main characters resonate in the reader’s mind days after the book is completed. “Bamboo People” is Mitali’s most recent novel and has received much critical acclaim including being a Junior Library Guild Selection and being nominated for ALA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults.
YARN: Today’s teens are constantly tethered to technology. Cellphones, computers, ipods… “The Fire-Escape” points out the importance of quiet and time for reflection. How do you point out the importance of quiet reflective time for young aspiring writers to whom being alone is almost a foreign concept?
MP: It’s not just teens who are tethered to technology, that’s for sure. I’m addicted myself. It feels a bit hypocritical to give advice here, but I’ll share what I do to build in quiet reflective time.
I start each day with prayer and writing in my journal. Sundays are screen and plug free for the most part, and I take at least 2 overnight retreats a year on my own to read, write, and be silent. I back away from technology in the summer and winter, too, and stay more connected in the fall and spring, when I’m also interacting more in real life via school visits.
Solitude is an absolute must if we’re to give our imaginations space to flourish and create good stories.
YARN: What advice might you give young people who are considering writing across the lines of culture?
MP: If you’re an “outsider” to the culture, do your homework. Listen, do research, love someone deeply who belongs to that culture. Let it be read by people of a different class and/or culture than yours and receive their critique. Consider whether the story wouldn’t be better served if written by an “insider,” and have the grace to let it go. Or to wait on it.
The other part of the equation is power. If you’re perceived as a powerful outsider thanks to race and/or class and/or gender, your story is going to be told and heard differently. Are you going to commandeer space on the shelves and displace a story that could be told by a less powerful “insider”? Or is there room in the global library both for your version and hers?
On the other hand, I don’t believe in setting up some kind of “right-ethnic-credentials” apartheid in stories. Who gets to decide who writes for whom, anyway? We’re all essentially outsiders when we write fiction, right? Otherwise, we’d be writing memoir. Let’s represent lots of races and cultures in our stories as the setting and plot demand.
Bottom line—cross cultures boldly, but humbly.
YARN: Teens today are barraged by a slew of images of people who are considered to be important and perfect. How do you encourage young people to ignore the faces on the book covers and the television screen long enough to believe that the stories they have to tell are valid and important?
MP: Even though our culture is saturated with celebrity worship, I think we’re all still on the hunt for heroes. Real heroes. That’s what story offers — the chance to know and root for characters who, though flawed, still strive to be and do good.
Life gets interesting when we study nuance of character, focus on the undercurrents in conversation, explore the stuff that happens under the waterline of the human psyche, and fiction does that so well.
Stories, written and verbal, also hand more power to the imagination of the hearer and reader than stories in a movie or television show. The reader gets to picture the characters and setting, and be in charge of the timing of story consumption. I like the fact that control is shared, don’t you?