Our Escape by Diana Hurlburt

The woman at the bus stop is wearing the same scarf as me.

I got good at not making eye contact with people in cars during my public-transit days, but this woman either hasn’t mastered the technique or doesn’t care to. She looks right through the window at me as we pause at the base of the overpass. I fight the urge to fiddle with my scarf—our scarf? Because I’m sure it’s the same, synthetic and plaid, fished from the discount rack at the Tuesday Morning on Cedar. The plaid is green and black, and one wash will make the colors bleed until the fabric’s the shade of an old bruise.

As Cameron pulls the car up at the curb I glance at her, trying to gauge whether she noticed the woman at the bus stop and her scarf. Our scarf. Cameron’s scarf is the kind of wool you can tell at a glance came from neither Tuesday Morning nor the ritzy vintage boutique in Shaker Square, but was probably purchased on vacation in Edinburgh or handed down from foremothers, carefully preserved in a linen shell. She rubs her gloves together, oblivious to my fidgets, and peers out the window at the row of brick-bottomed houses.

I forgot my gloves this morning. They’re somewhere between my bedroom and the mess on my hall table. Possibly they’ve been worried to shreds by my cat by now. My hands, even in the heat of Cameron’s car, are translucent with cold. This winter has been rough. I’ve begun to believe I can see my bones through my skin.

There is no way Cameron noticed the woman at the bus stop wearing a green and black plaid scarf. Cameron has only ridden a city bus once, to my knowledge, as part of a training activity when we started together at the Center for Urban Development.

“The Gregorys first?” Cameron says. She hands me a clipboard with our schedule for the morning. The Gregorys are a family, a man and his nieces and his mother, who live in the nicest of the houses along this street. Then there’s Kyra Leigh Mason in the shack on the corner, and—

My eyes pause on a third name in the list for this street. “Jensen Marquise?”

“That’s the most recent resident list,” Cameron says. She buttons up the collar of her overcoat as the wind cuts down the sidewalk. “Mr. Marquise has legal occupancy of 132 79th as of two weeks ago.”

“Seriously? Who even allowed—?” Two weeks ago, also known as the last time we came in to see the residents of the neighborhood. “Oh. Didn’t anyone tell him?”

“They left it up to us,” Cameron says. “Go figure.”

Telling the people on Buckeye and 79th and the surrounding streets that yes, it’s true what they’re hearing, their homes and businesses will be razed to make way for an interstate extension—it wasn’t fun the first time around. The community meetings have been heavy. We try to couch it in terms of environmental issues, like the knowledge that you’ve been slowly poisoned by industrial run-off is somehow comforting. By now the Gregorys and Ms. Mason are resigned, making steps toward finding new places to live. Part of our job is to help them. Ease the transition, smooth away the pain of displacement. Telling Mr. Marquise is a fresh wound for all involved. Just when I thought I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, or at least the headlights of cars on the new interstate extension.

I know time is moving as we visit the Gregorys, talking with Lamb Gregory and his mother Regina—the two girls are at school—and then cross the street to Kyra Leigh Mason’s house. I know the sun is in motion, the hands on my watch are ticking, the temperature is rising slightly as we claw towards noon. But the sky above bears no witness. Raw, colorless. It could be 8:30AM or 3:15PM. In my bedroom, from a certain position, all that’s visible from the window is sky. On a morning like this morning, I lay in bed past my alarm, looking at the pale sky and imagining that the world was all sky. That when I stepped outside I would fall into heaven.

Jensen Marquise takes three pushes of his doorbell to answer. We stand waiting, Cameron shifting on her boots and me with the clipboard. From this angle the street looks familiar, more so than it should. It hangs in my vision, weighty. Maybe it’s the heaped and rusty snow that blots out the particulars, homogenizes, obscures. I could be looking at any East Side neighborhood. I’ve seen this house a thousand times since grad school, since childhood, crumbling brick base and faded blue slats, the cracked-pane dormer window, the clothesline strung between a spindly hawthorn and chain-link fence.

The door cracks to reveal a tiny man. He peers at us. “What you want?”

“Jensen Marquise?” Cameron says.

“Why?”

“Mr. Marquise,” Cameron soldiers on, “my name is Cameron Pipps. I’m from the city’s Center for Urban Development. As you may know, your street falls into a district covered by the upcoming urban renewal project. My colleague and I”—Jensen Marquise’s eyes latch onto me—“act as liaisons between the city and residents to foment understanding and provide options for new housing.”

“New housing?” he pipes. “I just move in here not a month ago, now you say I gotta find new housing? Why?”

Cameron glances at me. Neither of us likes this part. But since she opened, it’s on me to follow through. I shuffle a pamphlet out of my packet of papers. “Sir, your house is one of several in the area slated to be decommissioned when the project launches.” Decommissioned, like living here is military service. “The residents are preparing to move into new urban housing located south of—”

“Well, I ain’t heard this. What if I don’t wanna move?”

It usually goes this way. Someone cries; someone curses. Someone refuses to believe us; someone threatens to sue the city. We repeat ourselves, dole out factsheets, studiously avoid confirming that several someones are already suing the city. When we first talked to the Gregorys down the street, the younger girl asked us politely to come outside and look at the oak tree in the front yard. She pointed at a deep whorl in its bark, almost a hollow. You can’t cut this tree down, she said. Worried about the tree instead of her house. Where will the squirrels live?

Once we’ve talked Mr. Marquise into taking our business cards, I follow Cameron back down to her car. We’ve got two other houses a few blocks over, but she folds her arms around herself and glares at the sky. “Want to eat?”

“Sure. I’m starving.”

There’s a barbecue place within walking distance of where we’ve parked. It’s too bad that in less than a month it’ll be obliterated in the name of renewal and development. We’re hoping the proprietors will be able to reopen elsewhere, because they make one fine white sauce. We pause on the corner, waiting for the crosswalk signal that never appears. Cameron leans slightly forward and looks past me, catty-corner. I turn just enough to follow her gaze.

“That used to be a telegraph station,” she says, and points to a tall, sagging building set back on its lot. Cameron’s up on local trivia, despite—or maybe because of—being a transplant.

“Yeah, my mom called it the wire post,” I say. My boot catches on a chunk of half-melted ice, glassy-smooth. I’ve already eaten it on ice three times this winter. I’ve been trying to avoid doing it in front of Cameron, who floats above the treacherous sidewalks.

Cameron gives me a curious look. “You grew up around here?”

“I was born in Euclid,” I say. Cameron has this idea that the city’s not very big, and all its neighborhoods are worth visiting, and sitting in traffic for thirty minutes to get sushi is a worthwhile way of spending time. She grew up in suburbs, real suburbs, where you have to drive to get anywhere worth going. Where you get to claim a city without dealing with any of its bullshit.

I slide a finger beneath my eyes, right and left, trying to wick away tears whipped out by the wind without smudging my eyeliner. “The wire post? Maybe I’m thinking of something else.”

It doesn’t sound like something my mother would say. And there’s no old telegraph station in my hometown that I know of. Cameron shrugs as we cross the street.

“Well, I went to this lecture at the university about telecommunications history in the area and…” Her voice blurs into a muted hum. Cameron’s middle-America voice and wind off the water, the scrape of snowplows, cardinals calling: This is the soundtrack of winter.

When we’re seated at the barbecue joint, Jensen Marquise’s house is visible in the distance. I imagine him puttering around inside, throwing our fliers into his garbage in rage, fishing them out and looking at them. I wonder why he moved into a house on 79th in the first place. I wonder what I would do if someone showed up on my doorstep and told me, flat and final, that I had to leave.

A grimy ray of sunlight filters through the restaurant’s window. I close my eyes. Mr. Marquise’s house floats beneath my lids, unfurling its hallways, beckoning from its eaves. I didn’t see enough of it to envision it in such detail, to glimpse my younger sister bolting through the kitchen door. I’ve seen too many houses, run-down and forgotten, people living in them out of spite or desperation. It’s too easy to fill in the blanks.

“That’s a pretty scarf,” Cameron says. “Where’d you get it?”

~ * ~

My childhood wasn’t so terrible it requires rewriting. Most of what comes out in my therapist’s office is the usual, shriveled dreams and daddy issues, nothing serious enough to warrant medication.

If I took medication maybe that would provide a reason for these… they’re not quite hallucinations. More like an eyelash caught in the corner of my eye. Something sticky and irritating you can’t brush away, even if you scratch your eyeball red. They’ve followed me all day, into the barbecue place and out again, to the houses on 105th to deliver updates to the soon-to-be-displaced, to my car at the city lot and my apartment.

My younger sister, huddled under a blanket. Why am I thinking of her at seven or eight, when she hasn’t looked so small in years? My mother holding a flashlight under her chin with one hand, making shadow puppets with the other. Long rabbits’ paw-prints in snow. A deep, profound tick, faster and chunkier than a grandfather clock.

It’s midnight when I stuff my pajama pants into boots and get into my car. I drive all the way out to Euclid, past the house I grew up in without stopping. I drive back across the county line, coming at the houses of 79th the way I would’ve back then, had I been old enough. The way my mother would’ve, if she’d had reason to. The lake is an empty slate, waves frozen into peaks along the shore. Two days ago I saw people on surfboards.

“We’re going camping,” I whisper. My voice mimics my mother’s cadence, not her earnest tone with long Rust Belt vowels but the hurried, higher jingle that means she’s covering something up.

The houses sit in darkness, no streetlamps lit on the block. I don’t need light to see Jensen Marquise’s house. I turn my car off and feel cold seep in through the window. Mr. Marquise’s porch lamp blinks on. Familiar, all of it: Frigid dark, stuttering light, a street urban and rural. Faintly, like a photograph exposed twice, I see figures moving up the driveway. One tall and two short, one hustling and two dragging, one hushing and two babbling.

I search the street address on my phone. I already know what I’ll find.

It was camping. Kirtland and Chillicothe were the usual destinations, a few cans of beans, a cooler of watermelon and Heineken for Mom, our sleeping bags…but it was too cold that time. Ellie thought the blanket tent we set up in Granddad’s attic was almost as good. That was the last time, I realize, the last time Mom bundled us into the car off the cuff. The last time I believed we were really going camping for fun.

There’s no way the kitchen still has that ugly rag rug over the rotten chunk of linoleum. The lace curtains on the windows are gone. The shelf of sea glass—the football-shaped egg timer—the scuba suit beneath the stairs is certainly gone. Granddad liked taking his life in his hands before they started to clean up the lake. Maybe that’s why he died young. Does Mr. Marquise have grandchildren? Did he expect them to come over and grill in his side yard, to read Where the Wild Things Are in the attic even though they won’t be able to do the shadow puppet monsters as well as their mother?

Did no one tell him, truly, the fate of this house?

~ * ~

The conference room displays a live feed of bulldozers, cranes, flame-orange cones, people in work boots and business suits. And there, beyond the construction workers and the city officials, a straggling row of citizens. Adults in coats, a few kids holding hands. A hand-printed sign, and cops keeping them well back from the razing sites.

Cameron and I sit with the rest of our department. We compare notes with our fellow social workers in low voices. Magid brings in a second round of coffee. Poisonously bad. It smells like period blood and tastes like cigarettes, and it’s my lifeline. I don’t remember when the trip to the break room for coffee became the bright point in my day, whether that’s collateral damage from the worst winter on record or—

Maybe I’ve never enjoyed my job.

Magid points to the screen. “That’s one of our streets.” He means a block he and Lesley visited. I watch his face instead of the feed as the houses crumble.

79th is cordoned off with cones and bodies. The snowfall has halted its slow creep into spring, in deference to the city’s plans. This feels slimy, us sitting around watching rubble pile up. There must be something else I could be doing with my workday. I can’t think of anything.

I lean toward Cameron, pointing at the screen. The blue of Mr. Marquise’s house blends in with the sky. The red brick is a bloody smear. “My grandfather used to own that place.”

“Jesus!” Cameron says. She looks genuinely upset. “You should’ve told Debra, she’d have taken you off the resident.”

I shrug. “Didn’t even realize it ‘til after we were there. It’s no big deal.”

“No big deal?”

The brick shatters as a bulldozer rams into the foundation of the house. This time I keep my eyes on the screen. Cameron is right; our boss has been good about the liaisons doing what they need to do to keep themselves sane and healthy in the face of, let’s be real, hideous cold blood. I didn’t have to visit Mr. Marquise twice more, strictly speaking. I don’t have to watch this now. No one’s keeping score in this game of existential cornhole. It should hurt, this destruction. It does—the way everything does—the air outside a slap in the face and the whine of the bulldozers on the feed like razors in my ears. I can’t remember a time I didn’t hurt, when my adulthood didn’t sting like a betrayal of the child I’ve been. Living here is one long case of pins and needles.

Cameron expects a response. Her eyes flick between the screen and my face. I watch the last panes of glass shatter down onto busted slats and chunks of concrete and say, “It’s been out of our family for years.”


Diana Hurlburt is a librarian and writer in Florida. Selections of her writing can be found at The Toast, Kaaterskill Basin, witchsong, and The Prompt, and in the anthology Beyond the Pillars.


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