House fire


(For Patrick)

The house was on fire, I believe it was the house on East Iowa Drive where my mother and sisters and I moved after mom remarried. I was twelve. I believe it was that house, but I’m almost certain that it wasn’t. My stepfather was there, as were my stepbrothers, as the ground floor began to smolder, casually, innocuously. My stepfather ordered us boys to retrieve whatever was important to us from inside and place it on the lawn in front of and well away from the burning house. Quickly. There’s little time. The fire department will be here soon to douse the flames, he said, and then we can move on to somewhere else, another house, perhaps another city. Naturally I took the computer notebook, the one upon which I now construct these words, a device I naturally didn’t possess when I was twelve, and that moment of self-regard was the first indication, the first lucid injection into my subconscious that I was in fact dreaming, that there was no house and there was no fire, at least not right then, not in my immediate experience. So I grabbed the computer notebook as I have told myself countless times to grab first in case of a fire — If there’s ever a fire, grab the computer, if nothing else, yes, of course, save the people, but don’t forget to also grab the notebook, it is essential, for what is a painter’s worth if he or she has no canvas upon which to paint, what value does an auto mechanic have if there is no car to operate on — and retreated to the front lawn. A lovely sunny day, spring, perhaps. My brothers had likewise begun grabbing what was valuable to them and placing it out on the lawn and my three brothers, all of them in various stages of their lives and appearance of age, moved quickly, almost recklessly, piling clothes and video game consoles and assorted items of personal significance onto the grass, and it was then that I felt the heat of the fire for the first time, the flames had spread out and slightly upward, as flames tend to do when sated, but then no flame is ever fully sated. I looked up at the house and I thought it was only a matter of seconds until the wood and stone would begin to crackle and fall, to disintegrate into charred fragments of the place we formerly used to live, and I did not feel sadness nor nostalgia but a crazed rush of adrenaline and I plunged back into the house just to feel its power and energy on my body. My stepfather yelled for me not to go back into the house but I ran in anyway, passing my youngest brother on his way out, his arms full of clothing or blankets or whatever. I stopped in the living area and looked upward at the staircase and saw each individual stair coated in blue and red and orange liquid fire like nothing else on the planet save the waves in a sea and I knew nobody would ever walk or run up or down those stairs again, not the way the stairs used to allow it, anyway, and the flames swelled to the ceiling, melting away the material there, the flames in complete control now, the fire’s insatiable thirst swallowing holes in the world and transforming the holes to black. Back outside the fire department had still not arrived but awed neighbors collected about the fringes of safety, looking up at the flames and the wonder therein, then down to our meager collection of valuables piled on the lawn, all of them peering into the intimate secrets of what we four boys decided we couldn’t live without. Crack and burn, hiss and moan. The acrid smell of smoke and us boys looking up in wonder at how the things of our lives smelled when they burned. Impulsively I ran back into the house despite the pleas from my brothers, my stepfather, the people standing near them but not too near, and immediately upon reentering the jungle of flames sections of the house collapsed around me, essentially pinning me inside, blocking out the power of the sun and sky that I knew I’d always taken for granted and might never again behold. Impossibly large beams of wood and steel fell around me as the house burst and multiplied in size, thirty, fifty times the size of the regular house so that it was no longer a house at all but a giant warehouse, or larger yet, a construction site on the scale of an airport terminal or a small city and we were trapped inside, my brothers and stepfather and I, as the building crashed around us, enclosing each new possible escape route, forcing us to run toward the light and air only to be suddenly rerouted upon its closure by a sheet of corrugated metal, my stepfather yelling as he ran, Where’s the fucking fire truck? Running through the careening frame of the building while it threatened collapse and our steps pounded faster, my incredibly small twelve-year-old body jumping over steel and iron obstacles and looking up to see whole portions of the building falling before me, crashing behind, dropping to the side of me. I was soon alone, separated from everyone else, desperate, my hope enclosed in my heart like I inside the warehouse, and just as I thought I would never make it out alive to breathe and to drink water and to laugh I found daylight at a hole in the side of the building and without looking I jumped out, floating silently in the freshest air hundreds of feet above a lush horizon of endless green lawn where I knew I would land, whether I survived the fall or not, to find my computer notebook and begin writing about it.

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