Kate stopped her car near the Mission District firehouse, watching two firefighters in tight pants and taut blue T-shirts hose down a hook-and-ladder truck. The snapshot was suggestive as a Calvin Klein ad. What was Sandy thinking? How could her husband, who’d just made junior partner at his law firm and still had student loans to pay off, want to become a firefighter? If he just wanted to drop out and “dabble” — hang out in coffee shops, occasionally defend the falsely accused — fine. That she could understand. But growing up to be a 35-year-old fireman? Wanting to live with the boys for five straight Rice-a-Roni nights a week, then to drop back into their lives — meanwhile relying on Kate’s paycheck?
Kate had toyed with several theories. One was his fascination with fire, and anything related to fire, including chopping wood, which he did in his Home Depot metal shed in the back yard. The fires he ignited in their fireplace were put together with a pride left over from his Sea Scout days on Puget Sound. He lit the fires with a large butane torch, careful never to let their son, Gus, see him do it — like a dog hiding a bone. When the embers burned down, glowing red, he squirted them with kerosene.
The larger of the firefighters squirted his buddy with the hose.
Kate noticed that she was clenching her teeth. She’d already ground a hole through her night guard. Their dog, Stirling Moss, had chewed the last one, nosing the plastic case off her nightstand and cracking it open like a clam. Now the dentist would have to make new plates, stretching her mouth with a metal plug, while she chatted Kate up about what Michael Jordan was really like. “He’s not a client!” Kate had tried telling her during her last drilling appointment. Yet that was the question everyone asked.
The other fireman retaliated, dumping a bucket of water over the bigger one’s head.
Or was it more the hero thing? At their holiday party last year (dinner for eight at eight), Sandy had lit a fire in the fireplace, and smoke had filled the room as Kate passed the salmon mousse. Unbeknownst to Sandy, pigeons had made a nest in the chimney — that’s what he told the guests as he evacuated them to the front porch. Firefighting combined heroism and pyromania, that was it. Kate also couldn’t help thinking of the homosexual undertones — men sleeping in the same room, the long ride down the fire pole, the well-groomed Dalmatians, the well-groomed mustaches. But she knew these were all excuses. She feared that he wanted to get away from her.
√ √ √
Kate parked in a cheap lot on the fringe of Nob Hill, named “Snob Hill” by San Franciscans. But she knew the street where the neighborhood turned bad, changing into the gritty Tenderloin, where she frequented a certain Western Union with briefcases of her athletes’ cash to be wired to their homeboys.
“Hey, Red!” someone called from an alley. Her hair wasn’t really red. It was auburn, and she’d always hated that name. She kept walking, picking up the pace, her heels bending nearly to the point of breaking. It seemed she was always racing. She hopped on a cable car and rode it down to the Financial District.
When she walked through the double doors of Sports Financial on the 19th floor, the phones were ringing. She ran to her desk. “Sports Management” — more like parenting. The athletes were already calling for their money: wires and checks and cash to pay for cars and suits and jewelry — the money went out faster than it came in. And James, the receptionist who Kate wanted to fire but couldn’t because he was the nephew of a sports agent who sent them business, had abandoned his desk.
Kate didn’t have time to be the office manager in addition to the chief financial officer, and she often felt she was getting sidetracked. She’d worked hard becoming a financial analyst, but the athletes weren’t impressed. She felt like the mother of 200 reckless teenagers.
The jobs kept piling on, and when Kate complained to the all-boy management team — “I can’t do it all” — they flattered her, sending her e-mail high fives: They liked the crisp way she stapled the weekly reports and brought life back to their frozen computer screens, and that she was “petite” and had high shoes and “shiny long hair,” and wrote legibly without smudges, and they couldn’t live without her. Kate, needing to be needed, had a hard time saying no.