Archive for April 2008

Suburban Remains

April 23, 2008

The newspapers called it a four alarm fire. The many colors of the fire departments, six to be exact, blazed across the black and beige newspaper pallet. It had started from a spark in the basement on that Friday December morning, from some exposed light bulb or wire, so they had said. They couldn’t be sure.

I called it my childhood home, the home I had lived in for all of my life. There were memories in those walls that no one but my family and our close friends would know. In one single afternoon and well into the night, when my Dad watched the still burning flames dying down, a beer in hand, with his buddies, everything was gone. The memories faded away and we reached out to grasp them before they floated away like some helium balloon. Our possessions were flooded with water from the long hoses of the fire departments. The smoke clung to the walls, the clothes, everything as the fire finally died.

They had evacuated three times, so the newspapers and my family said. Three times. And when it was finally out, the newspapers had their stories, and we were left numb. By the time the damage was assessed, they were calling it dangerous, rubble, and worst of all, inhabitable.

“You can go in and see it, but no more than five minutes and no more than a couple of people at a time,” they told us. We were supposed to take in the collapse of our lives in five minutes. It didn’t seem possible.

But on that day, Deanna, my older sister and tour guide, escorted my step-brother, Craig, and I up the driveway for our first sight of the house almost a month later. We’d been at college when we’d gotten the calls. The driveway was still diagonally cracked up the middle, something we could never cover up with any amount of cement, and the porch was covered with charred siding, once white, and the remains of our shattered second floor toilet. The porch was solid grey, as if they had just been painted and the second floor was boarded up and isolated.

“Be careful,” Deanna warned us. “The flooring is weak.” We crept up to the house, afraid to disturb the silence and the smoke that lingered there like some unwanted relative. She handed us flashlights as we stepped up to that second porch we had sat on while we shucked corn when we were younger. The white plastic archway was on its side in the garden that had been swallowed by the snow. Craig grabbed the larger one that made a loud clicking noise when you turned it on. The chill was worse as we got closer. There was no indication of how bad the damage was through the back door window for the 9 glass panels were nothing but moist wood under our feet and a large piece of plywood. I took a deep breath when Deanna opened the door. Tears stung my eyes as I looked into the darkness that quickly swallowed the light of the winter afternoon. As we took that one step into our precious rubble, the glass crunched under our feet.

As I closed the door behind us, my fingers came off with grains of soot. I could feel it in my prints and rubbed my fingers to get rid of it. Craig turned on the flashlight and the beam of light spanned up the walls that were once light orange-beige Venetian plaster wallpaper. Now there was a gray hue to it. The coat rack that once held the numerous hats my brother and father collected was still there and, as the beam of light shown further into the room, there was a clear look into the back closet. No folding door there anymore. The light traveled to the right and caught the winter and fur coats that now hung dead and limp on the hangers.

One glimpse into the family room revealed the worst. The furniture was turned and twisted from their positions in front of our TV and in the back of the room was our piano, the finish now bubbled and covered in charred wood and pink insulation. My heart stopped a moment in my chest, and my sister caught my pause. “I know,” she murmured and that was all that I needed to know she felt the same split in her chest when she saw this instrument, once proud with it top raised high, now dead. We had all learned to play on it, each of our fingers skimming the keys as we grew, and I knew that this was one of the worst outcomes of this fire.

“Let’s go. We can’t be here for long,” Deanna said, making us all too aware of how delicate much of this structure was. She warned us once again before we took the doorway in the back of the room, one that always stayed closed, into the dining room. She stopped in the open doorway as I looked at the book shelf lining the wall, finding relief in the blank space where our baby albums used to be. Mom definitely must have grabbed them.

“The floor is really weak here so we can only go one at a time and we have to walk on our toes. Careful.” Deanna crept across the floor like she was passing mom’s room at 2 in the morning and didn’t even stop before the buffet lining the wall that was now torn open. Beams were exposed and dry wall was on the floor and scattered atop the long dark wooden buffet. The large mirror with its gold frame wasn’t there anymore. Mom had said that it was making the fire climb higher and quicker so the firemen had to take it down. As I crept across myself, Deanna and Craig already looking at the rubble in the new room, I hesitated when I got a clear shot of the kitchen through the wall. There was no checked floor, no yellow wallpaper my father had spend hours painting because my mother wanted a French kitchen, no white cabinets I would have to wipe down once every week when I was home. While I stared through the wall, pink insulation hanging from the part that was still there, I noticed the soft floor underneath, which didn’t make sense. These floors were hard wood under this carpet. I rushed across, a squish following each tender step I made upon my toes.

When I turned before me, one last look back at the dining room we rarely used, I found out living room in the same state as the family room. The couches were pushed from their spots and you could see the footprints from the firemen’s boots crossing from the window into the study. I was told earlier that they came in through this window, the one right off the driveway. I didn’t believe her when they said they had sliced through the arm of the sofa. Yet, there it was, as I stepped softly through the room, passing over large splinters and shards of glass from the window. A gash was in the flowery couch and right beside it was the red ax that did it. Above the couch, I looked for the most important thing in the room; our pictures. Mom kept our memories there, from the wedding between her and my stepfather, both of them making fish faces, to my sister and little brother, Robby on a swing, to us girls, lines us on the railing for one of those photos mom loved to take of us after she bought us matching outfits. Only gray outlines remained.

I didn’t realize Deanna was looking back at me from the study, through the French doors to the left. “One guy got them all down, saved them before the fire in the walls took them. He just poured out a hamper and filled it with framed photos. Even got our diplomas.” She pointed before her and I followed with my eyes as well as my feet joining them in the study. And it was true. The framed diplomas upon the wall that reminded me of old wrinkled letter parchment were gone, gray outlines once again in their place. With a look to my left at the stairs, I saw identical marks on the wall. I tried not to breathe as we went upstairs in silence, or as close as we could get to it.

I was afraid of making a sound, even afraid of causing the moan on the third step as always. It was as if the house was frozen in time. No one had been allowed in here for a long time and now, a month later, we have come back to reclaim what was ours.

“Here’s the worst of it,” she pointed out right at the top of the stairs. She was looking into the spare bedroom, or her room, when she came back home to visit. She called it her room, but everyone called the spare one because mom always used it to hide presents and old prom dresses. We filled the doorway, Craig taller than all of us, his red hair swallowed by darkness, and took in the charred walls, or the replaced walls of plywood. Everything was black and there was a good half inch of debris on the floor among blackened ribbons that used to be festive Christmas colors, and dark Macy’s clothing boxes from so many years ago that we had managed to use over and over each holiday. This had been the room where all our presents had been kept, and it was due to this fact, that Mom had called each of us up crying first and foremost about the presents that we would no longer get. “I tried really hard this year, and I knew all you girls would have liked what I got you,” she had moaned into the phone between tired streaking tears.

We had all told her the same thing. “It’s okay. It doesn’t matter,” and it didn’t. I looked into this charred mess, the bonfire smell reeking in our faces, no longer a comforting smell of winter, and turned with this same thought in my head. It didn’t matter. As the newspapers had reported. No one was in the house that the time, well except for our cat, but they didn’t know that. And, on top of that, she was spotted two days later in one of the windows.

What made my heart drop into my calves and stopped the very breath in its shuddering inhale was the room behind it. My room. Dad had said the back of the house got it the worst and he was right. My room, though not as bad as it partner down the hall, was pretty bad. Like the other room, there was a thick layer of debris on the ground and the walls were almost black though you could see the purple walls though some of it. Pink insulation hung like a frozen waterfall over my bureau.

In this mess there wasn’t just Christmas presents, it was my book collection and my CDs and my guitars. My comic collection was still completely wet and when I picked up one of my cherished Ultimate Spiderman volumes, the water dripped from it. The book fell with a wet thud as I dropped it and realized that what I had been told was true.

What had happened was this. As the firemen were stumbling through the smoke to get to the flames that rode at the back of the house, they had knocked over my bookshelf, throwing my books across the floor. The result was this dripping mess upon the floor. Deanna piped up behind me, her voice soft and reaching to that part of me that had sunk beyond numbness, beyond consciousness. “I’m sorry, but we can’t take anything back today.” All I could do was nod, even as my eyes searched for my favorite books, the ones with curving pages and dog-eared corners. I couldn’t see any of them through the pieces of fallen ceiling. “Come on,” Deanna said, leading us to Frankie and Robby’s rooms, both with their vibrant colored walls intact. It was like no one was even in there.

With another turn, we mounted the white carpeted steps to the attic, my parent’s room. We rounded the railing at the top of the stairway and looked into our parent’s closets. The smoke had gotten into every thread of cotton, every stitch, and only a quarter of my dad’s clothes remained. It was closest to the bathroom so it had been swallowed up by some of the flames that left the bathroom in black from its white pristine décor before.

Their bedroom was the same way. The sloping ceilings surrounded the bed that was more gray then white by now. Mom said all of our furniture would have to be replaced, that the smell would never go away, though we could try and save some things.

It was all we could do to move on. Start anew, save what we can, choose what is truly important to us here. Down the steps we descended, our foot prints merging together on the carpet, taking one last look around at a place that was so familiar yet not.