by Matthew Desmond

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Chapter 16

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Ashes on Snow

Sherrena and Quentin are no longer broke. After the first of February, many tenants receive their tax refunds and catch up on rent. To celebrate, and perhaps to forget that they had recently been so broke, they go to the casino. Quentin does not like to gamble, but Sherrena can stay up until three or four in the morning. He enjoys watching her at the blackjack table, however, because she looks so happy.

At the same moment, Lamar is dealing cards to the boys in his apartment on Eighteenth and Wright. Tonight is the first night that Kamala, who lives upstairs, accepted Lamar’s invitation to play cards with him and the boys. She left her three young children in the care of her father so that she and her boyfriend, Devon, could spend the evening at Lamar’s.

Suddenly, Quentin receives a phone call. Kamala’s apartment is on fire. They leave, panicked and hoping that the fire is something minor. They cannot make it down Eighteenth Street, which is blocked with firetrucks and ambulances. All of the surrounding streets are blocked, but Quentin finds a parking spot in the alley behind Eighteenth Street.

The building is engulfed by flames, and Kamala’s apartment is a “gutted, charcoaled shell.” Quentin approaches the house, but Sherrena stays in the car. The fire reminds her of a time when an angry mortgage customer threw a homemade bomb through her office window.

Luke, Lamar’s son, is crying on Doreen’s steps while a teenage girl tries to comfort him. Patrice, who is outside without a coat, points to Quentin and tells a firefighter that he is the landlord. The Hinkston’s house is packed with people. Kamala, whose hair is burned off on one side of her head, is on the floor, screaming, “My baby! My baby!” Devon carries two of his daughters into the house. The girls run to their mother, who clings to them and cries into their hair.

Kamala’s and Devon’s youngest daughter, who was eight months old, died in the fire. Kamala cries, “‘He killed my baby!...I’ma kill him! I’ma kill him!’” Her baby was the second one that she and Devon lost. Last year, Kamala gave birth to a daughter who was stillborn. She and Devon still wear her ashes in lockets around their necks.

After returning home, Sherrena and Quentin discuss the fire. Quentin checks the news and reads that no one heard smoke alarms going off. Sherrena cannot remember if they put smoke detectors in the apartment, though she thought they had.

The next day, the fire inspector tells Sherrena that the fire began after one of Kamala’s daughters knocked over a lamp. Kamala’s father, who was supposed to be watching the children, either left without the baby or—more likely—had left the girls unsupervised. Kamala and Luke tried to save the baby, but the fire was so bad that they could not. Though the question of whether there were smoke detectors in the apartment is not broached, the fire inspector assures Sherrena that she is not at fault. Furthermore, she does not need to return rent to Kamala and Lamar.

Sherrena is delighted that she does not have to reimburse Kamala and Lamar and intends to demolish the property in order to collect the insurance payout. She concludes that the “only positive thing [she] can say is happening out of all of this is that [she] may get a huge chunk of money.” She is also happy to be spared another eviction, since the Red Cross will help Lamar and his sons find a new home.

Earlier that day, Doreen was roused out of bed by reporters knocking on her door. She answered several questions before retiring into her apartment, unwilling to talk more about what happened. She walked to her back window and looks at the remains of Kamala’s second-floor apartment, which looks like a “dark cave” with broken windows and a nearly-destroyed roof. On the front porch, someone had left a bouquet of six lilies: “Spring in the dead of winter.”

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Chapter 15


Chapter 17