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Fireside scene

Misfire Night
Where There Was Smoke

Not the good-night kiss I was looking for: I was done with the evening’s work, I was settling down for an hour’s worth of TV-induced stupor with Cheryl (our reliable method of decompressing from the previous fifteen hours’ bull-racing without bulls) when the scene, pictured above, interrupted the evening’s plans. Our neighbors’ house, some eight or nine feet beside ours, was smoking up a storm.

The neighbors had just returned from picking up one of their children at the Girl Scouts when they walked up to their door and noticed smoke pouring out in thickets. They didn't open the door. They called 911. Eight trucks showed up, some twenty men and women in that get-up we’ve all come to associate with 9/11 heroism, a little too much, milled about the lawn, nosed in and out, smashed up some glass out back. The smoke kept pouring out thicker and thicker, first through the front door, then through the garage door, closer to my house. Still no flames though. The rest of us neighbors gathered on the lawn across from the not-yet burning house. The lady of the house in question was in tears, her dog being in there still, but it didn't take long before a firewoman brought out the poodle, safe, and another neighbor, giving it a whiff, declared the fire to be electrical: “The smell of electricity is on the dog.”

An hour later we’re not better informed: the smoke gradually subsided, the trucks are still out there as I write these lines, the cul de sac’s women, and a couple of men, are drinking rosé compliments of our other neighbor, and the most we’ve learned is that a television, the television the neighbors bought just a month ago at Big Lots, was the problem. It’s the first I ever hear of a television not directly related to Elvis flaming up. I’m not sure it’s the problem. I’m not reassured it’s all it is. I guess we'll know by morning, reading the fire report. But a fire in a neighbor’s house might as well be a fire in one’s own. And even if it isn’t, it’s a reminder of the fragility of our roofs, the real and the metaphorical kind.

The neighbors—father, mother, two young asthmatic children—won’t be able to sleep in their house tonight. It so happens they have nearby relatives with plenty of room. That’s besides the point. Their place down to their bedroom’s pillows and dish towells will be infused in smoke for the next month. Better than a burned down house of course, but no less distressing a thought, considering how easily and quickly our assumed comforts can burn. Of course here we are anguishing over our rare suburban fears when not quite half a world away the anguish is a fact of life day and night and domestic house fires, in the cruel hierarchy of cataclysms, are a luxury .

Relative? Not really. Loss in the end is all the same, even if the fear of loss is sometimes less well informed than its realization. I’m cradling my son as I write this, knowing only that we’re fortunate things didn’t go worse tonight, a stray spark being all the difference between luck and infernos. Grateful, too, not only for the evening’s fortune, but its reminders.

Meanwhile the trucks are still out there, clinking their gear, as are the cul-de-sac’s women, clinking their plastic cups emptied of rosé.

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