Comfort and a Five Cent Coffee
“Those poor women,” Mavis Terkle lamented to the three men in suits. The bankers were dining in the booth nearest the lunch counter where Teddy Smisek sat. “Can’t stop thinking about them.”
Teddy focused on the bright metal sign advertising Grapette for 5¢ a bottle, trying to block out the conversation in the Bright Lights Café.
The men in wide ties told the waitress they’d worked late examining the “liabilities and opportunities” created by last night’s fire. The thought of gaining financially from the tragedy disgusted him. He’d prefer to sit where he couldn’t hear them, but the only remaining seat was at the counter beside him. With the temperature hovering at 19 degrees, the citizens of Davenport, Iowa, were cold and hungry for a hot meal.
On January 7th the call came to Central Station at 2:06 a.m. St. Elizabeth’s was in flames. A truck from Fire Engine Company 6 arrived at the scene minutes later. The blaze escalated to four-alarms, drawing fourteen companies and 107 fire fighters. Among those battling the inferno were a group of volunteers and Second Alarmers from Bettendorf and Green Acres. Second Alarmers like Teddy were called “the fireman’s best friend.” They served food, hauled hoses, and sometimes manned the ladders.
“Last count, thirty-seven women dead. All but one were patients,” Mavis told the men.
“Inmates,” a banker corrected.
“Human beings,” Teddy interjected, a little louder than he’d intended.
The businessman raised his hands in surrender. “I’m not trying to diminish their passing. I’m just saying, if they weren’t crazy, they wouldn’t have been locked up at St. Elizabeth’s in the first place.”
Mavis moved between the two men. “Teddy’s just a little wore down,” she explained. “He was there last night, fighting the fire. Still worked his shift at Oscar Mayer today.” She and Teddy had spoken briefly when he arrived, but then the place had gotten too busy for conversation.
“I’m a Second Alarmer,” he clarified.
“So not a real fireman,” the banker said, turning back to his associates.
“Real enough,” he spit out. While they were safe in their warm beds, he was dragging hoses across the frozen ground. He turned back to the dinner roll he’d buttered and the remains of his glass of milk.
Teddy got the call a half-hour after the first trucks arrived on the scene. He’d dressed quickly in his bunker gear: rubber trench coat, three-quarter boots, long underwear and extra socks. He’d grabbed his work clothes, too, knowing there wouldn’t be time to go back to Bettendorf before his shift. His foreman at the meat packing plant knew about Second Alarmers and would cut him slack as long as he put in his time.
The bell at the café’s front sounded. As the door opened, a freezing gust blew into the room. The woman who entered clutched her dark wool coat. A knit scarf protected her hair and face. She was shivering because she had no gloves. Her feet were swollen. She looked nervously around the café, searching for an empty table.
“Hey!” someone called out. “Shut the door!”
She closed the door and turned back to the room, now paralyzed in the entranceway. Teddy got up and approached her just as Mavis brought his liver and onions. “Excuse me, miss,” he said, “there’s an empty stool at the counter next to me. It’s away from the door.” When she didn’t immediately respond, he added, “It’s the only seat left in the place.”
“Thank you,” she said quietly as she followed him back to his steaming plate of food. He motioned to the coat rack, but she shook her head. She took her seat, but remained tense and uncertain. She stared at the lunch counter. He noted the nursing pin on her coat lapel. She wasn’t carrying a purse.
“The special tonight is homemade chicken casserole, steaming hot, with dumplings and dinner rolls, 50¢.”
“Sounds delicious,” but then she shook her head reluctantly.
“It is. Normally that’s what I have on a cold January night, but I need the iron,” he said, motioning to the liver.
She took a shallow breath. “That looks good, too,” she said glancing at his plate.
She plunged her hand into the coat pocket, and pulled out a dime and a nickel—15¢. “I was thinking about a cup of coffee.”
“Hell,” he said, and then caught himself, “forgive my language. Fifteen cents will buy you two cups of coffee with a nickel to spare.”
She seemed mildly amused. “One cup will be sufficient.”
Teddy noted her reluctance to make eye contact. She still hadn’t unbuttoned her coat or unwrapped the scarf that had fallen onto her shoulders.
“I ordered milk with my supper, but now I’m thinking that coffee sounds good. Why don’t you order two cups, one for you and one for me?”
“Buy you a cup of coffee?”
“It would be a neighborly thing to do.” He paused dramatically. “And in exchange I’d buy you the chicken casserole special, quick like, before the kitchen runs out.”
She blinked. “Why would you do that?”
“I hate eating alone.”
“Me, too,” she said flatly.
Mavis arrived and set the bottle of Heinz catsup on the counter in front of Teddy. “I bet you thought I forgot.”
“Never crossed my mind,” he joked. Mavis was eight years older than Teddy. She’d been working at Bright Lights as long as he could remember, but only recently had she shown any interest in him. Her husband left town a couple months ago. The frequent bruises on her arms were gone. She was laughing more.
“Mavis,” Teddy said, “we need two cups of coffee and a Chicken Special. The coffees are on the young lady, and the Special is on my tab.”
Mavis looked at the newcomer, then back to Teddy. “Well aren’t you the big spender. This a date?”
“Nope. Just two folks in from the cold who don’t feel like eating alone.”
“Fair enough.” Mavis left them alone, satisfied with Teddy’s answer. She had hot plates cooling in the kitchen that needed to go out.
The woman at the counter scrunched up her face. “I’m Elizabeth,” she finally told him.
“Like the hospital that burned?” She nodded. “I’m Teddy Smisek.”
“I’m married,” she added.
“I haven’t had that pleasure,” he told her. Teddy looked around the place as if searching for something. “Your husband’s not here tonight, is he?”
Elizabeth looked startled. “No!”
Teddy leaned in conspiratorially. “Then I guess we’re safe.”
She got the joke and laughed. “For the moment.”
Mavis delivered their coffees. Elizabeth poured in a generous amount of cream from the small pitcher on the counter, then stirred in two spoons of sugar. He took his coffee black. Through the silence Teddy could hear the bankers talking. “I heard there were bars on the second and third floor windows. Locked from the outside. The firemen didn’t have keys and couldn’t break in fast enough to save them.”
“There were reasons for those bars.”
Teddy felt Elizabeth stiffen beside him. He gently touched her arm. She jumped. “Your food will be here in a moment. Ignore them. They don’t know anything about you.” She gave him a quizzical look. He whispered, “I was there, too. At the fire.”
The heaping plate of chicken and dumplings arrived. Elizabeth focused on the meal. She was ravenous.
Teddy worked his way through the liver and onions, liberally doused in catsup. Finally one of the men interrupted their meal. “If you don’t mind talking about it, how did the women get trapped?”
“And why did the fire spread so fast?”
An anticipatory silence spread across the café as the patrons turned to Teddy. The town had been talking all day about the fire, but there was little new information on the radio. The afternoon paper had dramatic pictures, but few answers.
“The building was old,” Teddy said, setting down his napkin and turning in his stool. “The wood wainscoting and the lathe and plaster walls fueled the fire. Plus, the floors had recently been varnished. Once the hallways were ablaze, the women sleeping in their rooms had no way to escape.”
“That wind last night fanned the flames,” a man at another table interjected.
“An open dumbwaiter shaft was a conduit for the fire to the upper floors,” Teddy added.
“At least you fire boys saved some of them,” one of the men said, turning back to his meal.
“And you find that comforting?” Elizabeth asked as she looked up from her meal. “At least they didn’t all die….” She daubed the napkin on her lips and turned on the stool. Her face was flushed. Still wearing the wool coat, she was perspiring in the warm café. “These women had names. They had families.”
“Of course, they did. I’m not….”
“Ella Kral, Betty Loeding, Nellie Watson….” Teddy touched her shoulder and Elizabeth paused. “There was only one staircase to the upper floor rooms, and it was blocked by flames.” She lowered her voice. “From the lawn you could hear them scream.” She said even more softly, “You could smell them burning.”
The diners at the Bright Lights Café sat motionless.
Teddy stepped in. “I was on a ladder with a fireman from Rock Island. I had a crowbar, and he had a fire ax. One woman stood poised at her window ready to escape when we broke through, but the flames engulfed her before we could pry off the bars.”
“What did you do?”
“We moved on to the next room, the next set of bars.”
Finally one of the bankers turned to Elizabeth. “You worked there? At the hospital?” She nodded tentatively. “I see your nursing pin. What’s your name?”
“Elizabeth….” She hesitated.
Teddy remembered the catsup bottle. “Heinz. Her name is Elizabeth Heinz. She’s a nurse’s aide.”
“I was sleeping in a room on the second floor. I wasn’t on duty last night. I woke up to the sound of women in the hallway. I smelled the smoke. So I grabbed a coat and started herding the women down the stairs.” The patrons in the café hung on her every word. “When we got to the lobby, the front doors were locked. I took them to the basement and out a back door.”
A wave of emotion flooded her face. “I tried to go back in, but by then the basement stairwell was on fire.” She began sobbing. “There was nothing I could do. Sister Mary Annunziata pulled me outside. We found blankets to cover the patients in their nightgowns.” Some of the women listening in the café began crying with her. “Sister brought more blankets later to cover the dead, before the body bags arrived.” Elizabeth turned back to the counter, and said nothing more.
“I heard one of the patients admitted to setting the fire,” Teddy added, “but it will take time to confirm.”
Elizabeth stared at the last half-eaten dumpling, the remaining piece of chicken, and the small bit of dinner roll. She set down her fork, no longer hungry.
“Sorry, we didn’t mean to disturb your meal,” the last of the bankers said as he picked up his tab and walked to the cash register.
When the men were gone, Mavis stopped by with more coffee. She looked first to Teddy, and then to Elizabeth. “It must have been horrible for you. I can’t imagine….” A bell sounded in the kitchen. There was another order up. “I’m so sorry….”
After Mavis was gone Elizabeth whispered to Teddy, “How did you know I wasn’t a nurse?”
“You have no purse. You smell of smoke.” His tone wasn’t accusatory. “You didn’t have time to dress. Your coat’s too big.”
“I’m still in my nightgown,” she said sheepishly.
“Chief Schick told us there were two staff members in the hospital at the time of the fire: Anna Neal who was on duty and died from the smoke, and Josephine O’Toole who escaped, but left her coat behind. I spoke with Miss O’Toole.”
“I can’t go back,” Elizabeth said.
“There’s nothing to take you back to.”
Elizabeth waited for him to say more.
“Don’t you want to know why I was committed?”
Teddy shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. There’s nothing insane about wanting to escape a place like that.” He looked at the remains of his liver and onions, and pushed the plate away.
“A year ago I lost a child, my daughter, Libby. She got colic. I didn’t sleep for three days, but my husband wouldn’t let me take her to the doctor. He went to work every day at the insurance agency and told me she would eventually stop crying, just like our other kids had when they’d gotten sick. And he was right. She did stop.”
Tears flooded her eyes again. “Exhausted and relieved, I took a nap with Libby snuggled on the bed beside me. When I woke up, she wasn’t breathing.”
Anger flashed across Elizabeth’s face. “My husband believes I’m the reason she died. He told his parents I smothered her. He told my family that ever since Libby was born I’d been acting crazy. He told the doctors he was worried I’d hurt our other children.” Elizabeth wiped away the tears. “How could I ever hurt my babies?”
Teddy felt powerless. What could he say or do? He reached for the tab for Elizabeth’s meal, but he wasn’t ready to leave yet. “What will you do?”
“I have no idea.” Elizabeth pushed a dime over to him. “For the coffees.” She picked up the remaining nickel on the counter. “I came in to use the pay phone. And maybe I still will, if I can figure out who to call.” She stood up. “First, I need to go to the women’s room.”
“What about your husband?” Teddy asked before she could leave.
“He will view the bodies charred beyond recognition and assume he’s a widower.” She turned away from Teddy. “He found a girlfriend after I got locked up. She’s been caring for our boys while he’s at the agency. My death is an opportunity for him.” Her tone became defiant. “And, of course, there’s the insurance policy he took out when our first child was born.” She made her way to the women’s room.
When she returned there were two plates of pie on the counter. Mavis was setting fresh forks down beside them. “What’s this?”
“The peach pie is the best,” Teddy told Elizabeth. “And we have some time to pass before we can leave.”
“Did you figure out who to call?” Mavis asked. He’d obviously shared the story with her.
“No,” Elizabeth said tersely.
“Good,” the waitress said. “My shift doesn’t end until 8:00. I usually take the West Locust Street bus home this late at night, but Teddy has offered to drive us. You can take a nice long bath at my apartment, and I’ll loan you a nightgown. In the morning I’ve got a dress that might fit you.”
“Why would you do that?” Elizabeth asked, taking her seat at the counter.
“There doesn’t seem to be anyone else.”
“Maybe tomorrow we can figure something out,” Teddy added. “For now, pie is the best I can do.”
Elizabeth pulled the coat tighter and took a breath. “Thank you.” She picked up the fork. “It’s more than I could have hoped for.” She hesitated, fork poised over the dessert. “It’s comforting to know I’m not the only crazy one,” she said, breaking through the pastry crust.
Paul Lewellan lives beside Mississippi in Davenport, Iowa, along with his wife, Pamela Druger, and an annoying old Shih Tzu named Mannie. Paul teaches Communications Studies at Augustana College, a small liberal arts institution across the river in Rock Island, Illinois. His fiction has appeared in over a hundred journals and anthologies.