Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Fire

I don't know if it's the heat, or the fire safety manual for NYU buildings that I had to read yesterday, but I couldn't sleep last night and I kept thinking about the fire in 1978. I saw and smelled everything again...Arkansas summer. Carrie and I had just made exquisite peanut butter and honey sandwiches with white bread, sitting at the kitchen table. Here is the baby, crawling on the floor in just her diaper. Here is the babysitter, talking on the phone and curling the phone cord around her fingers. {Our babysitter was named Becky- she was a beautiful, tall blonde from Dad's Baptist youth group. A cheerleader with long lacquered fingernails. We loved her. She died in childbirth several summers later, during an asthma attack.} This fire began with an observation: Becky saw steam rising from the top of the refrigerator and asked me if something were up there (a pie, cooling?) {Ever since moving to Arkansas, my mom had adopted the odd habit of making gooseberry pie, something she was convinced was very Arkan-saw and very southern, though none of my friends had ever heard of it, nor have I ever run across references to gooseberry pie as something embedded in Arkansas culture-}

There was nothing on top of the refrigerator, so Becky pulled open the refrigerator door. With the rush of oxygen, the fire simmering inside the fridge leapt into the room, bringing with it leftovers, a head of lettuce, a glass casserole dish that exploded on the floor next to the baby.

Here we are- frozen in the face of a refrigerator fire- even the baby. I scooped up the baby (why, me? I don't know!) and we ran to the adjacent room where the phone was. I remember the babysitter asking me (!) what the number for the fire station was. {This was 1978, Arkansas, before 911, before cell phones and before multiple home phones ... before car seats before helmets before cable TV}

At this point she took Erin from me, and we all ran barefoot, over the hot asphalt, under the mulberry trees, to Larry Baker's house to have them call the fire department. I could not stop thinking about our sandwiches, left on the table, a bite or two taken out of them.

Firefighters blamed the fire on faulty wiring behind the refrigerator. We came home later that night to find everything covered with a layer of soot: toys, clothes, furniture. Thought #1) Until my parents divorced and we moved, the ceilings upstairs and downstairs stayed black- a reminder of what could be taken so quickly. Thought #2) I had a killer topic for that most ubiquitous of second grade writing assignments: "What I Did Over Summer Vacation."