Wednesday, May. 11, 2005 - 10:05 a.m.
~ 15-minute burn time ~
“I hate to wake you, girl, but the smoke alarm went off and there are two fire trucks parked outside. I’m going to run down and see what’s up. Put whatever you can’t live without in a bag.”
When I was four and a half, our house caught on fire. I’m not sure if people ever forget things like their house being on fire when they were too little to realize their lives were in danger but old enough to know their new bunk bed might burn up.
I guess the neighbors called the fire department. Mommy always said they had their noses in everybody’s business, so it figured that they would’ve been watching us when the fire started coming out the windows downstairs. One of the big boys from next-door banged on our front door before his dad could get up the stairs first. The dad next-door had two big boys, one boy two years older than me but in my kindergarten class, and one little girl who squinted a lot and had really yellow hair.
“Your house is on fire! Your house is on fire!”
His dad was not that excited. He seemed angry, like maybe his breakfast hadn’t been over yet before he had to leave his house and climb up to tell us to leave our house because of the fire under us. They always had spaghetti for dinner, but I didn’t know what they ever had for breakfast. Mommy wouldn’t make us spaghetti because she said meat was better for us. The dad from next-door banged hard enough to make the door glass shake.
“Come on,” he hollered. “We just called the trucks.”
He took his son back down the steep stairs that I always held onto the railing of because after falling one time with my Barbie box, I never wanted to fall down them again. Mommy had apologized a lot that day. She said she and Daddy shouldn’t have been fighting. She thought it was her fault I had fallen, but I knew it was just because I was crying that I had missed the second top step and then missed the rest of them until my Barbies and I ended up on the landing.
Daddy never woke up fast, so he wasn’t a lot of help. Mommy was used to him not being a lot of help. Daddy pulled on his corduroys and striped shirt that were on the dresser from the day before. His hair was all sticking up the way it did every morning and all day long most weekends. After he got dressed, he just sat on the bed and waited for Mommy to say what to do next. We waited for the same thing, standing in their doorway in our short nighties because Summer hadn’t been too long ago.
Mommy was already digging in her purse, the one that had the big blue stain on one side in a lopsided circle from when a pen broke. Her purse was always a mess, so she had to dig past her checkbook that Daddy peed on one late night in Maine by accident when he thought the big purse was the pot you used instead of going to the outhouse. Mommy dug past her markers, bills, coupons, and keys and finally pulled out her makeup bag.
“Get me the phone.”
We couldn’t reach it because it was up on the high dresser. Daddy stood up and got the phone and pulled it over to the bed for Mommy. He didn’t sit down again. He just stood and waited, rubbing his face and looking at his warm pillow and blankets that he would have had to leave anyway soon because of going to work. We all waited while Mommy dialed the fire department. She never believed the next-door neighbors when they told her their kids hadn’t been playing in the broken glass behind our garage or when the people across the street said their little girl hadn’t pooped in our front yard, so she wasn’t going to believe the fire trucks were coming until she called herself.
“Take them outside fast,” she told Daddy without looking at him. “I still have one eye to do.”
We went outside with Daddy. Mommy stayed upstairs, the phone hugged between her shoulder and ear while she finished putting on her mascara. She didn’t let anybody ever see her plain eyelashes because they were really hard to see. Daddy held our hands down the stairs and outside and right away gave us to another grown-up. It looked like the whole neighborhood was standing around in pajamas and shoes. The fire truck pulled up and a lot of men climbed down with thick hoses. I wanted to play with the kids who had squeezed past their moms to follow the firemen, but my sister and I were taken onto somebody’s porch.
And then I started crying. My sister went in to watch cartoons and Daddy was somewhere else and I just had the mom from next-door with me. I could not stop crying. The mom let me cry and some other moms came to watch. Nobody touched me until I had almost made it to the porch door.
“Pooh! Pooh Bear is still upstairs!”
I gave up trying to get off the porch and just kept crying and screaming for Pooh Bear. Letting go of my arms, moms tried to talk to me but I couldn’t hear them. All I could hear was the fire I hadn’t seen yet pounding up our steps and blasting through our door like a robber who didn’t care who heard him, coming to steal away my Pooh Bear. Mommy wouldn’t be able to stop the fire. She was probably still coloring her eyelashes and waiting for the firemen to answer the phone even though they were already at our house. Plus, she hadn’t stopped my sister from shoving Pooh Bear in the toilet that time we had our aunt and uncle who weren’t related to us over for dinner with their sons who were never called our cousins, so I knew Mommy wouldn’t try very hard to stop the fire.
I only stopped crying when the next-door dad put Pooh Bear in my lap and told me that was enough now. By then, the fire was over and there wasn’t a lot left to see. With Pooh Bear safe, I ran into our backyard where there were puddles under the downstairs neighbors’ upside-down chairs and kitchen table. A couple firemen had a pile of burnt stuff on our back sidewalk that they were looking at. Daddy was already at work because Mommy said he had to go. Mommy went upstairs to be upset about how dirty her ruffled white curtains in our kitchen had gotten all because the downstairs neighbors had stuck a fork in their toaster.
At kindergarten that afternoon, I didn’t get a chance to tell anybody about how Pooh Bear had almost gotten burned up. The boy next-door stood up first and said how five fire trucks and a hundred firemen had all been on our street this morning and how the fire had been really hot and how he helped hold a hose. After he said all that, I guessed it would be copycatting so I didn’t talk about the fire when it was my turn.
“My Mommy didn’t walk me to school today. I got to walk with the next-door mom instead,” I announced, happy I had a second thing to share with the class.
When the fire alarm went off a few weeks ago in my apartment and Mr. Man woke me up, I wasn’t panicky. I followed him around sleepily as he pushed our cat into her carrier and let him kiss my forehead before he ran downstairs to see if it really was our building that was in jeopardy. I didn’t have to put on mascara because I don’t wear makeup all that much. I didn’t need to call the fire department because I could plainly see two long trucks wedged on our narrow one-way street. I upended the big backpack I carry to work every day and filled it with the few things I wouldn’t want lost forever, like the journal we kept when we were first falling in love and my checkbook and cell phone. I put the backpack next to the cat carrier and next to that I placed the handled basket I keep at the foot of our bed. In the basket sat my Mr. Man's childhood stuffed animal with the three stuffed friends who had stayed with me this long, Gumdrops, Andy, and Pooh Bear about to survive the second fire of his furry little life.