The fire before sight
My drawings blindly follow the will of brush and pen.
I begin with a loop and allow the loop to sag or spin
or double-up on itself, and it turns into a face, a chair,
a railroad cutting through a tunnel or a town, a ladder
leading to an attic. Today my pen outlined a plume
of black smoke which breathed heavy out the windows
of a two-story building which fell as a dying bird would,
tumbling through blank space, softly buoyed by an upward wind.
My sister arrives at the party wearing a sequin dress
wrapped tight around her breasts like the skin
of a black adder. She pulls me into the corner.
I have bad news. Mom’s house burned down.
I picture mother clutching the neighbor’s sleeve,
sobbing wild or roughly silent in the company of strangers
as the second floor is swallowed red.
She is miles away from her husband, her daughters.
I see my books burning. The colored smoke
that curls a chemical blue from my photos,
my film, my paintings, my block-prints. Each line
of my two dozen journals, hand-bound, illustrated,
licked black and blown into the crisp constellations
of this February evening. Memories of Italy,
of bygone lovers and dogs and homes, of broken limbs
and flourless chocolate tortes. The pages pumped
into the raspberry bushes behind my mother’s house
by the white fist of the fireman’s hose, the fragile
carbon flakes settling on the pond where the peepers
rattle and croak their confusion through the night.
As soon as we enter the room at the Fairbanks Inn, Mom kicks her shoes onto the carpet and flings herself on the bed, bouncing through bouts of giggles as if this bed is any different than all the others, as if this room is some unimaginable luxury, as if she hadn’t just spent the last thirty-six hours sobbing over the loss of her house. I kneel by the window and begin to peel wet photographs from an album that I saved from the remains of the fire. The room soon fills with the smell of smoke from the photos, our hair, our clothing. “It reminds me of a campfire, like we’re roasting sausages and marshmallows for dinner,” Mom says as she changes into a bathrobe provided by the hotel.
I arrange my photos individually on the carpet so that they may dry. The rows accumulate until the entire area of the floor glistens with flat, colorless faces. Here, a photo of my uncle as a child flipping from a snowy ledge, his skis scraping the tree-line. Here, a photo of my first love, standing with her nose in a book on the sidewalk in wintertime Seattle. Here, a photo of my father, four feet tall, grinning in his fishing waders on a bridge.
Light streams through an open cavity in the roof, through the second and first floors, through to where I stand in the basement, crunching charcoal with my winter boots. I paw through boxes of wet papers in partial darkness as the sheriff snaps photos of the damage. Shreds of insulation hang jagged from the ceiling. Icicles dangle like teeth from the charred attic rafters where the fireman’s hose traveled the night before. My sister dusts a powdered wall from her guitar. It strums hollow smoke. Eventually, I stop counting objects claimed by the fire—oil paintings, jewelry, my entire library—and begin compiling the objects salvaged by the forty-three firemen: an envelope of baby teeth, my clarinet, a sketchbook from my trip to Italy.
For dinner, we munch on buns from the Red Cross and pry open a tin of pecans that Mom rescued from the singed kitchen. “Slightly toasted, but otherwise edible.” We all grin at this curious feast. I am relieved that none of us are crying, but the possibility lurks below the inexplicably sweet and fragile surface of the evening. Soon, we are taking turns in the tub. When it’s my turn, Mom taps on the door and pokes her head in to ask if I need anything. “Not really, no.” She comes in anyway and sits on the toilet with the seat down, smiling, silent. She did this at the house sometimes, just to be with me.
On the kitchen counter, evidence of Mom’s breakfast before the fire: half a banana, now a black fossil. In the sink, dishes she will never have to wash, tinted sepia. A pork shoulder roasted from inside the fridge. Our family mannequin, Monique, guards the top of the eroded stair, her singed head a monument in a plane of ash. Despite the fireman’s warnings, I carefully climb what is left of the stairs into what was once my bedroom. The hollow bed-frame hugs blackened space, not even a wisp of fried mattress or sheet.
I towel off after emerging from the tub and notice the basket of shampoo on the sink counter. My hand reaches out instinctively for the basket. I am struck motionless for a moment by a sense of déjà vu, that this simple action represents the culmination of hundreds of nights spent resting in roadside hotels during cross-country road-trips or during moments of transition between the dozens of towns that we have occupied over the years. Mom has inadvertently trained us to hoard soaps and towels from these excursions. I must have spent half my childhood pattering through lobbies barefoot carrying Styrofoam plates of stale English muffins that would last us through the day until our next road stop. Whenever she gets the chance, she stuffs the empty spaces of her purse, her coat-pockets, and her suitcase with packets of instant coffee, creamers, and apples from the bowl at the desk. Despite the redundancy of these accumulated nights, she prances about with the same pony-like glee in complimentary slippers from one Days Inn to the next Motel 8, and we always return home with more miniature bottles of lotion than our bathroom cabinets can withstand. This time, however, the items from this rented room will be her only possessions, aside from her car, a few sodden photos, and the clothes that were on her back as she watched a lifetime of accumulated memorabilia flame against the Vermont hills.
I climb into bed and nuzzle my mother’s freshly soaped neck. Before we slip into our separate realms of sleep, I wait for her to cry. She hasn’t yet broken this oddly cheerful air, whereas she usually sobs at any little sadness. My sister flings her socks across the room and says, “we’ll live lighter, like Buddhists. We’ll be less materialistic. This is really a good thing, if you think about it.” Mom nods and pulls us both into a hug. “What an adventure, it’s like a sleepover!” She used the same words the Christmas of 1997 in the hotel Circus Circus, Las Vegas, and again at the Comfort Inn, Niagara Falls, on our road trip to Maine, and at the Ho-Hum Motel, Wyoming before she moved to Montana. She always manages to find novelty in this sort of repetition.
Something about this evening, despite the unfortunate circumstances, feels comfortably familiar. I know these sheets so well: the stiff linen pulled painfully tight around the mattress, the hay-tinted polyester throw blanket that inevitably slips onto the floor in the middle of the night, the pillows that collapse into two dimensions upon impact, the hum of the radiator by the window that lulls me into a daze, the forced intimacy of limited space. I know this false moon glow of the streetlamp through the thin curtain. In so many ways, I feel more at home here than I did in the house that has been reduced to ash.