Another Memory of Fire | Patricia Cronin
In the meat aisle of Jake's Market, I hold a package of hot dogs. The moist, cylindrical flesh rolls between my fingers through the plastic wrapping. My hands pulse, an imperceptible tremble. Still ringing in my ears are the firetruck sirens. I can feel the pulling tension of my own skin, an onion layer, an auric overlay of black.
Again and again I see the old man stagger from the second floor apartment. The windows break and from their muffled popping, large gray muscles of smoke rise.
I watched motionless, affixed to the scene as firemen, like stage actors, drove up, swarmed the building, sprayed. A 3-D movie; a fast forward of disintegration. They all knew their parts.
Water sloshed in street curbs, and rushed into sewer drains with fury. It sounded a bit like rain.
The hot dogs fumble in my hands when a woman with frizzy red hair accidentally bumps her shopping cart into mine. I regain my grip, leaving her “So sorry, dear” behind, its faint lilt hanging in suspension.
Years ago in my basement, a dank-smelling haven of war games and secret clubs, was a nasty womb. Alone I'd sit inside the cement sink and empty out my pockets: Kleenex, small bits of paper, cotton from the aspirin bottle. My nose twitched for the sulfur scent that made me heady. I'd pull out a book of matches and ignite my own small fires. My favorite: the strips of loose leaf paper burning in a wavy bluish glow. In seconds they'd shrink, curl, and blacken. For larger game, I'd lift open the lid to the furnace and stuff in crumpled up newspaper pages, hungry myself to feed the flames. Ashes blowing onto my arms.
Each illicit visit caused my tiny heart to race, expand in a perverse courage, blocking out my mother's last warning, impervious to the next punishment. My purpose was fixed. I could at any time in the years that followed recall the feel of the crisp ribbons of paper in my palm: light, passive, powerless. A kind of helpless animal, white and silent in the moment of blue-yellow contact.
Still fingering the tubed meat, an urgent hunger comes over me. Already I can smell the over-soaked coals and hear the deep, throaty swoosh when the match hits. The way the flame jumps and arcs is balletic. A deep longing wedges open a myriad of apertures in my body: the base of my spine, my breastbone, a cavernous impatience in my belly. An internal camera eye capturing secrets and dark desires. I envision the meat that first sweats then blisters. Slowly begins to blacken.
I drive back home circling the scene one last time. The corner is empty, save the eerie silence that torrents of water leave behind. It's always the same: show's over, crowd goes home. The charred, rickety square only two stories high reflects in shiny sadness on the wet pavement. It'll have to be torn down. On second viewing it isn't such a big deal after all. Hardly even leaves a smell. Old man just shook up a bit.
With a glance in the rearview mirror, I replay the movie in my head: the reach and twist of the flames, the ambivalent appetite entwining smoke and spark.
I pull away, the tires whining against the foamy residue. There's nothing quite like a familiar, burning flavor in your mouth.