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Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

Smoldering-Pile1The sun was coming up and the man had been circling the charred pile of belongings outside my husband’s barbershop when I started pounding my fist on the car’s horn. He gave me a curious glance, then went back to circling. I climbed out of the car and closed the distance between us.

“Move on,” I said.

“What’s your problem?”

“Just move on.”

“What do you care?” he said. “This stuff’s just laying in the street.”

“I don’t fucking care. It’s not yours, so move the fuck on.”

He looked closely at my face. “You should have paid your fire insurance.”

“Get the fuck out of here.”

“You don’t have to be such an asshole, man.”

My voice dropped. “Move on,” I said, then climbed back in my car. He stood there for a minute, still talking to me in words I could no longer hear. Blood thrummed in my ears. He turned and made his way up the street.

I’d been sitting in the car outside the Manly Fireplug’s shop for about an hour, since just before dawn. We’d left his house four hours ago, right after I’d stumbled groggily into the bathroom and heard both the ringer and the text alert going off on his phone in the office down the hall. It was late. Or early, depending on your perspective.

I peered at the phone in the dark to see the words, “Accident at the shop.” I called the friend who’d left the text. “Get down here,” he said. “There’s a fire.”

I drove us down the hill at a speed just shy of reckless, both of us still half-asleep. It was 3 a.m. Or maybe 4 a.m. An hour made vague by daylight savings time, and we drove down in equal ambiguity, holding our breath, wondering if what awaited us would come as a shock or a relief. I wanted to erase all of it, take it away from the man sitting next to me. Erase the seconds I stood in the stark light of the bedroom, looking down at my husband with the phone still in my hand, telling him once, twice, then three times, “Joe, wake up.”

We turned the last corner. Four firetrucks. “Shit,” he said.

And now I sat, hours later, in the car again, watching the man I’d yelled at shuffle up the street. He wasn’t the first man I’d scared from the smoldering pile that morning. I dug out my phone and when the Fireplug answered I said, “Do you want me to protect your friend’s pile of burned-up stuff from the crazy homeless people?”

He sighed. “You don’t have to protect the burned up stuff from crazy homeless people.”

“Good. Cause I’m getting in fights with them. And they’re winning.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” I sipped from a cup of cold coffee that had been sitting in my car since the day before. My hand smelled of smoke. “Are you guys going to be much longer?”

“Just a few minutes,” he said. I could hear the buzz of a saw over the line. He’d gone to the hardware store with Basil, one of the barbers, and Basil’s boyfriend, Ron, to get plywood to cover the broken windows and the two back doors that had been kicked in by the firefighters. This was after the emergency window repair service told us they’d charge $2000 to board everything up. I’d stayed behind to guard the open shop, and as it turned out, fight with crazy homeless guys over the charred pile that had been dumped in the gutter to cool.

“Crazy” and “homeless” were just words I’d used to distance myself from the men I’d scared off. Truth was, the last guy’s wounded tone had gotten to me. Maybe I didn’t need to be such an asshole. Not about burned-up crap.

I suppose I had an excuse or two. The single hour of sleep now well behind me. The holes in the floor and the wall of my husband’s shop that the firefighters had opened with their axes, holes you could peer through to see the still-smoldering pile of belongings that the Fireplug had let a friend store in the basement. The row of folding chairs I’d bought from IKEA for the literary readings that had begun to melt together. The water and the soot and the smell of smoke. The arson investigator who’d questioned first the Fireplug, then me, of our whereabouts before the fire, to whom I’d said, “Look, I know you’re just doing your job, but we are a few days away from closing on a house, and he needs a steady income more than an insurance check.”

The smoldering belongings were not mine, but I felt strangely protective of them. And exposed, as if someone had dragged our own private lives and dumped them in the gutter for the world to pick through. And so I felt relief when the Fireplug and the others returned with the plywood, and I could think about something else.

Dawn gave way to late morning. Friends showed up to help (thanks guys). We swept the broken glass from the sidewalk, and pumped the standing water from the basement. Neighbors loaned us a step ladder and an extension cord. They dropped off a box of croissants. Word spread on Facebook and every few seconds someone called or texted the Fireplug. Still bleary from lack of sleep, I kept thinking about the time I had to explain to him lyrics from a Ke$ha song:

Boys blowing up our phones…

By noon the shop had been boarded up. Later the Fireplug would call the insurance company and there’d be more inspections and paperwork, but for now we’d done all that we could do. Basil and I leaned against his pick-up truck out front and every few minutes broke the news to another shaggy-haired client. I told Basil that he and Ron were the heroes of the day. Privately I wished for not the first time in my life that I was good with my hands. I wanted to offer my husband something tangible, as they had done. All I could do, when he’d told me he was scared, was tell him that we’d get through this, no matter what.

Disheveled men and women, some of them muttering to themselves, continued to circle the pile in the gutter. I figured they were merely looking for something they could sell, something that might buy one more meal, or one more day.

But then a woman pushing a shopping cart, her threadbare slippers scraping along the sidewalk, slowed next to the pile, and I saw then, side by side, her belongings and our friend’s belongings, exposed, dragged out into the light. She looked at the pile, at the boarded-up shop, and then at us, as though measuring our change in fortune. I looked away from her.

Our friend showed up and stood stoically at the side of the pile, looking down at his charred belongings, holding the soot-smeared portrait of his parents that the Fireplug had pulled from the basement.

Another woman, her face marked by everything life had thrown her way, came over and stood near our friend, gazing down at the pile, whispering words in her own language. Then she made a noise of alarm, bent, and pulled a few burned photos from the pile. The blackened, smiling faces seemed to move her to tears, and she made low, keening noises of anguish. She held the photos out to our friend, who nodded at her, turned, and walked back to his car. The woman came over to us, grieving in her private tongue, and we looked down at our feet as she tried to show us the photos in her hands.

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