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My Burning Bed 

The fire started with a cigarette -- but whose?

It's important I point out that my brother-in-law Eddie was only blamed for the flaming mattress. The verdict is still out on whether he actually started the fire. There was never a conviction or anything, and calling the police was not really an option, even though I insisted (because it was my bed that was burned). But it turns out it was one of those newfangled horse-hair mattresses treated with tons of flame-retardants I guess, because the cigarette someone left on it only burned a hole through it about as big as a dinner plate before the flames petered out. So there were no deaths or anything, and we didn't exactly lose all our belongings, just my bed, or that side of my bed, anyway. But still.

I mean, I could have been in it. I often wasn't very aware of my surroundings back then, what with me being in my 20s, unemployed and always within manageable distance from a pub. Thank God I was sleeping almost anywhere but in my own bed in those days. So in truth I don't know who left the cigarette there that night, just that the brand was Eddie's, but my mother often bummed them off him, so it could have been her.

Or it could have been Dr. Bleisch, and in fact it probably was Dr. Bleisch. It's just that the thought of him anywhere near my bed, let alone on it, and smoking at that, or even in my apartment -- OK, just the thought of Dr. Bleisch in any sense makes me shake like a bad transmission. He used to answer the door at his own place in an open robe, assuring an ample gander at his black nut-hugger underwear. It was an unadvisable sight first thing in the morning, which is when he used to insist I show up for work, though for what I never knew. It seemed the only thing he needed me for at that hour was to find his socks for him, which meant sifting through the fetid nest of filthy clothes, musty newspapers and half-masticated food in his living area while he hollered at me from the bathroom.

I met him at the Savoy hotel bar, of all places. My Swiss friend Suzi preferred this fancy rich-people liquor pit over my favorite pub, imaginatively named "The Pub," down by the train station. All the English-speaking ex-patriots hung out at The Pub, which lessened the pressure on me to learn the German language in order to cope with the rest of Zurich, where I was living with my mother at the time.

Suzi had been contracted by my mother's company to help solve things for us as we acclimated ourselves to our new environment. The Swiss are nothing if not good hosts, as Suzi practically moved in with us. She seemed determined to find me a rich man, not knowing that I'd inherited my mother's tendency to repel rich people like an opposing magnet. Even at the Savoy, where rich people clustered like nuts on a candy bar, the best I could walk away with was Dr. Bleisch, a decrepit, misanthropic shylock who made his living selling phony Ph.D.s from a diploma mill he ran out of his filthy one-room apartment at the base of a tram stop. Suzi had introduced us with the simple icebreaker, "You need a job, he needs a worker," and from that point I earned my beer money by accompanying Dr. Bleisch to various points throughout the country as he made a big ceremonious to-do over the bogus degrees he bestowed on each bovine who bought one.

My job, it seemed, was to stand at his side and look official. "Congratulations," was all I was required to say, then Dr. Bleisch would collect his fee, force me to have dinner with him and hold me hostage, basically, for the entire journey. Believe me, I would rather have sold street weenies from a pushcart, but the Swiss are pretty strict about employment visas and a crook like Dr. Bleisch was the best I could do for a boss. He was perverted, smelly, 500 years old and flaky, but he paid me 100 Swiss francs a day, and it's hard to beat that when you're an illegal alien foraging for work.

I don't know how he discovered where I lived, but when I stopped showing up for work, he began showing up at my place, and he was exactly the kind of man to which my mother had traditionally taken a hankering -- small, ornery, wild-eyed and borderline felonious -- so she'd invite him in.

"He was here?" I wailed when I first discovered this. "I don't see what you have against him," she replied pertly. "He's a perfect gentleman."

"He's a disgusting old blowfish," I hollered, but it was no use. I had to continue working for him after that, because I figured if he was gonna hang around, he might as well continue to pay me. Then my bed mysteriously caught fire, and even then my mother was blind to blaming Dr. Bleisch, so she blamed Eddie instead. "Big deal, anyway," she shrugged it off, "it's just a little hole." Right, easy for her to say, she's not the one who had a lunatic light a campfire in the middle of her mattress. After that I made sure to show up at Dr. Bleisch's apartment before he would show up at ours, where he'd answer the door in his open robe and greet me with, "How is your burning bed?"

Hollis Gillespie is the author of Confessions of a Recovering Slut and Other Love Stories and Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales From a Bad Neighborhood. Her commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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