Iím going to tell you what I see when I see 1977. There is a rusted, green pick-up truck on cinder blocks in a field of overgrown grass. It is January, thirty-eight degrees, yet this world is melting. The people in this world, on this piece of southern land, run from a shotgun house, which is burning to the ground. A dog barks from inside. Neighbors come to see the fire, to watch the shadows of the inhabitants dance around the outside, waiting for the sound of a siren. A mother, my mother, wrings her hands, and then pulls at her hair as if to replace the pain of losing what she often referred to as "nothing like the house I dreamed of."
And there are the children, me being one of them, wondering as we stand close to the pick-up truck missing all but its front left wheel. I know how terrible all of this is supposed to be, yet I find it fantastic. It has become a Saturday afternoon movie world where people cry louder, move faster then turn to stone for a few freeze-framed close-ups. I feel separated. I feel safe.
My sister, next to me, is crying like she understands it all. Like sheís an adult or something and understands like a grown up would. And all that I want to say to her is "Look at how high those flames are. They are so many colors."
The sirens come on strong, pierce my ears and make my insides shake. I see my father talking to Uncle Phil who lives next door, and they are sharing something out of a bottle, my father nervously drinking as our house burns to the ground. Him doing what he usually does somehow makes everything seem like itís going to be all right. My mother is doing something else. She and my Aunt Cora are taking small plastic buckets and using the punctured yard-hose, filling them with water then tossing them onto the flames. In their nightgowns they look like two skinny fairies, busily trying to spread joy onto a house on fire.
I can feel the approaching fire trucks. In the distance, my aunt has stopped throwing water and is trying to get my mother to do the same. My mother is somewhere near the ground now, crying, as my aunt holds onto her. I can tell she is crying hard because of the way she shakes. She raises a tired forefinger; I assume sheís saying one more, because my aunt lets go of her and allows her to grab the bucket as the fire trucks pull up to save the un-savable. My sister runs toward them and, thinking these men can do something, she needs to be by them to feel safe. She tugs at my arm, but I donít go with her, as she runs away to join the circle of safety. And my mother walks with her white bucket for one last time to the house. I know she wants to feel that she tried, that she did all she could to save the pictures of her children, the rainbow cake she made for my eleventh birthday tomorrow, the picture of her my sister painted in school yesterday. She tosses the water and keeps walking towards the fire. None of this shocks me, it all makes sense, fits in with the way my mother does things. Maybe thatís why I donít gasp or cry or scream when I see my mother walk towards the fire until sheís in it. I just notice how everything becomes silent, how I canít hear anything, not the others talking, not the crackling of the fire or the sound of windows breaking. All I hear are my fingers cracking, as I stretch them far enough back until they hurt, until I can feel nothing else, until I am numb. It's as though Iím going to die as my mother turns to ashes.
They come over to me, my father, an uncle. "Whereís your mama?" they ask.
"She went in," I say.
My father staggers back, looks at me as if Iím crazy or like Iím the house on fire. "She went inside the house." He turns to look at the house as if heís going to be able to see her. "Sheís dead," I tell him. "Mamaís dead now," I say, as calmly as Iíve ever said anything. It is the truest thing Iíve ever known, the only thing I am sure of up until this point. I donít feel like I knew much, but I knew that my mother, even in her last moments, was determined to go home. Now we will always be able to say that she died on her way home.
My father stumbles away from me as if I have done something wrong by telling him the truth. Then he calls out for help and runs drunkenly across the grass towards everybody else like itís going to do any good. He picks up my sister and she clings to him. I stand by the truck, feeling that as long as I am near it, Iím as safe as they are.
None of it really matters now, not the firemen or the water or the faces of my relatives when they realize my mother is no longer. I donít expect any of them to come for me; they are in too much pain to hold my hand. I donít care that Iíve been left completely alone, but Iím getting bored. All that is going to happen already has.
The door to the truck is jammed, but I pull until it opens. I have always been afraid of this truck, but since it has been with me for this night to lean on and has seen what I have seen, it is my new best friend. This truck will hold me. It smells like musty, fake leather and some sort of alcohol, I donít know which kind. There is a bottle sticking out from the seat and I take it and smell it and think about drinking it just to see what all the fuss over liquor is about. Instead I pour the little that is left onto the floor just to see if it will burn a hole in the floor or make the truck move.
Iím no longer paying attention to the scene outside. Behind this wheel, Iím thinking of other things that have nothing to do with houses on fire. I think about wet places, places I will spend my life trying to find. From this moment on I will always believe that if I can get close enough to the water, I will never have to worry about burning up.
They donít find me until the next morning. My aunt and father, with my sister trailing along, are all talking. My father is angry and saying "boy" in that way that he does so often that it isnít even scary anymore. My aunt is trying to calm him down. She smells as much like whiskey as him, says something like "poor little man."
And they seem to feel sorry for me. My father actually puts his hand on my shoulder. But for the first time, I donít need a hand on my shoulder. I want to laugh at them. I want to tell them that they donít need to feel bad for me. In fact, they should be jealous. I feel sorry for them. Because they donít know where Iíve been in this truck. They donít know that last night I went around the world with Montgomery Clift, kissed him on the lips because we are in love. They have no idea that we swam in the ocean and ate steak served by a man in a bow tie. They donít know that Monty and I skied mountains covered in snow. And that we had conversations at dinner with people who had foreign accents who made me feel smart. They donít know that we had eaten in Paris, or had driven to California and back. Or that all along, I was loving the scar on his face almost as much as I loved him.
"You didnít drink this, did you Boz?" Aunt Cora asks, grabbing the empty bottle. I shake my head. "You nearly scared us half to death," she says, as they sort of pull me out of the truck.
"Iím all right," I say. "I was just sleeping."
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