Sketches on a Short Story “The Wicks”

February 26, 2015

*part of Great Recession Stories trilogy. Also see “Michael and Walt”

This story took place about six years ago when I was 14 and a freshman in high school. I wrote most of it down then, but have changed or improved a few parts because I’m in college now and know a little more about writing.

The Wicks were our neighbors. Dave and Daria, and their children, Kyle and Katie, lived across the street from us in a large stone-and-mortar house which sat on a big lot apart from the other houses on that block. Before the bad times the house would not have been what you’d call threatening or gloomy, although it always had this feeling of being more private, more separate, like a world all its own. The porch light, with its large incandescent bulb swinging from a chain of wrought iron, cast a puddle of light onto the cement patio, and lamps were always turned on in most of the windows. Not exactly a cheerful house, but behind those windows the rooms looked clean and tastefully decorated and I’d even played in a few of them with Katie so I knew the Wicks had a sense of pride in the comfort of their home. The front yard and grounds were well maintained—white Azaleas that became fringed with brown when the blossoms started to wilt, red Rhododendrons, peonies in June, Birch, Japanese maple and Cherry blossoms. A largely neglected gazebo stood in one corner of the yard. My yard (or I should say my parents’ yard) was too small for a gazebo.

When Dave Wick lost his job after 20 years with the firm as a result of many jobs being outsourced overseas, he tried starting his own consulting business (I’m not sure in what) while the family relied on Daria’s job in municipal government for a steady income and benefits. But Dave’s consulting job never quite got off the ground and soon afterwards towns and cities across the country were slashing their municipal budgets or declaring bankruptcy. Daria lost her job too. That was about a year-and-a-half ago. It’s true that the Wicks had a bigger house than we did and a newer car and SUV. Dave and Daria weren’t very active in the community, they tended to keep to themselves, but they were friendly enough and Kyle and Katie were popular in school. We used to have parties at their house, especially pool parties in the summer and game nights every few months. After she’d lost her job working for the town, Daria worked part-time at the local CVS but she was soon let go from there too, and the family had been scraping by on savings and unemployment benefits . . . until recently.

My parents still had their jobs although my father complained that he had not seen a raise in years. Back in 2008-2009 you were lucky if you had a job, you were lucky just to be working. My Dad would rant at the supper table about how the super-rich (he called them the “one-percent”) were sucking the lifeblood out of the middle class and out of the country and leaving everyone poorer especially in terms of what he called “stagnant wages” which made everyone worse off because the prices of things kept going up. When I asked him about the Wick family, Dad would shrug his shoulders and shake his head, muttering a single word like, “sad or “tragic” and then he would get a faraway worried look in his eye and change the subject or stop talking about it altogether.

I didn’t follow everything that happened over those months. I overheard small tales about a succession of failures visited upon The Wicks—a string of bad luck: the loss of health care coverage and having to pay a couple large medical bills; the SUV needing some unexpected and expensive repairs; the hurricane that felled the Silver Maple in the backyard and stove in a corner of the house between the den or family room and the garage, which left a huge hole in the wall and ceiling.

There’d been talk among the neighbors about whether or not the Wick’s hardship was of their own doing or whether Dave or Daria were responsible and at fault for not trying hard enough. I’d never heard them argue or quarrel. My mother said that the Wicks were “stoics” or “stoical,” a word I hadn’t yet come across until it appeared on an English vocabulary quiz a couple weeks later. My mother had told me to look the word up online, and though I learned the correct definition for the vocabulary quiz, the definition that stayed with me for “stoic” was “Wicks.”

“When do you think they’ll be able to fix the damage to their house?” I asked my father. He didn’t immediately answer me. He then mentioned something about the amount of money involved to repair and reconstruct the damaged corner of the house, the family room, but he added that the Wicks were probably screwed because they had lost their homeowner’s policy because of delinquent payments that eventually led to no payments on the premium. I understood well enough at age 14 that if someone didn’t have an insurance policy and their house was damaged they’d be in pretty bad shape.

“Why don’t we take up a charity drive to get the house fixed?” I said. “Something like a spaghetti dinner, or a dance, or maybe a Bingo night at the church?”

But my father thought it might be too late for charity. A number of families in town were also struggling with money and their job losses, and to ask those families to help the Wicks would appear callous to their own needs. The other families may resent it: “Well, if you’re going to help them why not help us?” I guess that was true. I was familiar with the saying, “The Lord helps those who help themselves” though I never heard it in church. Neighbors and other people had been judging the Wicks, saying that Dave and Daria could turn their bad luck around if they really wanted to, that they had not been making a real effort to get out of the hole and expected the government to help them through a crisis instead of relying on their own initiative. While parts of what my father told me may have been true, he and the rest of the town weren’t exactly right in my opinion. I thought the real reason no one wanted to help was because they were all afraid of getting too close to the Wicks, as if the Wicks had a disease that could be caught, the disease of unemployment and poverty and denial, and everyone feared this particular disease was contagious like a plague spreading through our town and over the entire country.

Daria Wick had never been what I heard older people call a “full-figured woman.” She was slender, long and lean, a little muscular and tan, but still shapely. When I accidentally saw her yesterday afternoon, crossing the driveway to her RAV4 SUV, she had turned for a moment and stared at me as if she didn’t recognize who I was. She was thinner than usual, noticeably thinner, maybe what you’d call gaunt. I was startled by her large liquid eyes and the fear and pain that emanated from them. I knew she would not be pulling the SUV out of her driveway (shopping trips, even for groceries, seemed to have ended), but instead I saw Daria sit in the passenger’s seat for several minutes as she rifled through the glove compartment. Later that afternoon there was a “For Sale” sign on the rear window of the SUV.

I talked to my mother about the Wicks again, how they may have been starving and wasting away. After this second warning, my mother decided that she would try and reach out to them, help in some small way. But no one answered the door when my mother called on them one evening. A day or two later, my mother had seen Daria in the driveway, checking something on the SUV “For Sale” sign, maybe waiting for a prospective buyer. And when my mother began to cross the street and wave, Daria pretended not to see her and turned heel and walked back into the house. Other neighbors—the Grants, the Lorens—had reported similar overtures of charity and altruism only to be either rebuffed or ignored by the Wicks. They didn’t need anyone’s help. They didn’t need anyone’s pity or charity.

The corner of the house that had been damaged remained damaged, and in early fall as the nights began to grow colder there were no lights left on in the family room, and it appeared as a black rectangular block on the end of the house (over time all the rooms would become dark each night). The family room had been sealed off from the rest of the house because squirrels and birds had gotten in through the hole in the roof and made nests and pretty much taken over that part of the house and garage. From a certain position on the street I watched the sparrows dart about the family room; I watched squirrels skitter down from the oak branches that overhung the roof and breach the opening, their cheek pouches puffed out with a stash of winter nuts. . . . One night a burning smell came from that corner of the house and a needle of smoke rose from the stove-in roof. That night I saw Dave Wick standing in an orange ring of a small fire he’d started in the family room, I guess to drive the animals away. Dave stood alone, arched over one of those black iron fire pits that used to be in their backyard, and in the sharper throbs of light his face looked aged and worn but his eyes shone with the crazy gleam of a pyromaniac.

At school we started seeing less of Kyle and Katie. They were absent more frequently. Popular during the previous school year, Kyle and Katie now mostly kept to themselves and would go out of their way to avoid any social interaction. They became unapproachable. By early October I no longer saw them at the school. Kyle and Katie had stopped attending class and other kids said they were being home-schooled. But that might have been an assumption, or a rumor. I suspected that no one really knew what the Wicks, my neighbors, were up to.

One evening I was outside after dinner practicing football cheers with Nicole and Jen in my front yard. We were doing some gymnastics too, cartwheels and stuff, and teasing one another. It was almost dark out when Katie emerged from her gloomy unlighted house and tried to sneak off her property. She reached the sidewalk on the other side of the street and started walking fast. I called to her, “Hey, Katie!” but she walked on, faster, almost a run once I had shouted her name. She wore a black hoody and you could barely see her quickly receding figure in the twilight. Jen said, “Let’s follow her,” and Nicole made an unkind remark about what Katie might be up to, but I said we were not going to follow her and that we had more freshman cheers to work on. But we stood and stared for a long time, the three of us testing our night vision by who could see Katie’s shrinking figure the longest until she finally disappeared. I won the contest (she was no larger than an eyelash by that point) but Nicole and Jen accused me of cheating, pretending I could see Katie when really she was already invisible to all of us. Anyway, by that time it was too dark to practice cheers and gymnastics. We headed indoors and Nicole called her mom so she and Jen could get a ride. And before I fell asleep that night I could not chase away the vision of Katie becoming smaller, shrinking as she walked away down our street toward Tarn Avenue. Sadness had gathered about her in the way she carried herself, hunched and dressed in those shabby black clothes, pretty much invisible, maybe even to herself.

Over time the house had an abandoned look: peeling paint, gutters separating from their soffits and dangling moss, mold, overgrown trees and evergreen shrubs, the lawn spreading vertically and horizontally, choked with weeds, mice and insects, and maybe a couple rats (the Wicks hadn’t the money to buy gas for the mower or pay someone to cut the grass). All the rooms remained dark except for one or two that were most likely being occupied at a given time. Aside from the electric bill, could the darkened rooms also have been sending a signal to the neighborhood— that the Wicks were ashamed and no longer wanted even a stage view of their lives?

And what did we know of the Wicks themselves in those latter days? If you happened to see them step out and aimlessly traverse or circle their property in the twilight of the evening, how did they look to you? Gaunt? Attenuated? Wan? Dwarfed or shrinking? Perhaps emaciated? How would you describe them? As the scant light left over from the day faded and then died completely, would the Wicks become mere wraiths and in the darkness simply float back inside through the crumbling walls of their home? There may come an evening when they have had enough and will not return at all but drift away toward the nearest park or shelter or begin a trek to the nearest homeless camp down the state highway: Dave, Daria, Katie and Kyle as evenly spaced as the strings on a violin. Later, one or two of them may be seen pushing a shopping cart bulging and bloated with the discarded and cast off junk, the detritus of middle-class suburban America (a bloated shopping cart alongside the rail thin human). I doubted that scenario. Being homeless wasn’t the Wicks style . . . but something else might have been.

I never knew the reason behind the fire, and no one had ever discovered the reason. Theories were thrown about in my family and among the neighbors. Everyone knew the house was probably heading into foreclosure, so one theory was that if the Wicks still had a homeowner’s policy they might have made a house fire look like an accident in order to collect on the policy. Another theory was the Wicks refused to leave the house they loved and the arson was committed out of spite so the bank or no one else would ever repossess it. A variation on the spite theory felt the Wicks were not exactly spiteful, but that they were bitter and maneuvered to get publicity and media focus on their plight and the plight of ten million other people in this country who had no jobs, who had no benefits or health care and were losing their homes.

No one knew the real reason behind the fire, but what was certainly known was that the house went up in flames one starlit October evening— a clean, brilliant and dramatic burning. The Wicks might have left fuel inside to spread the fire more quickly, because the fire blazed in a swift symmetrical pattern and covered the house evenly. I stood with neighbors and a growing crowd on the sidewalk, hearing the crescendo of fire engine sirens in the distance. Many said the Wicks by now had taken to the road or were secure in a homeless shelter somewhere, but I had first noticed the darkness flooded with a light that wasn’t the moon or street lamps before anyone else had noticed, and as I raced outside shouting for help I heard a long wailing sort of cry as if someone were trapped inside the house, but then it stopped almost as soon it had started and I soon heard sirens and believed that was the noise I’d heard all along. Someone asked if the Wicks might still be in their house, burning to death, or already dead. No one had so much as tried to run into the house and check. It was simply too dangerous. But the majority of neighbors believed that the Wicks could not have been in that house, and the firemen would of course to tell us if they’d discovered any bodies.

And then a moment later I saw them, the Wicks, and I kept my vision a secret because I knew that I was the only one they were attempting to communicate with. I saw each family member clearly—Dave, Daria, Kyle and Katie—illuminated in a separate window of the house, the children’s faces upstairs, the parents downstairs. In the firelight the candle faces shimmered translucent behind the black window panes, urging their waxen detail in a tranquil but concentrated gaze of failure and release. From the roof down the house separated and caved in, leaving an enormous charred maw. The windows burst across the lawn in a spray of glass. And I watched the faces of the Wicks flare keenly one last time before the World impatiently snuffed them out.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: