Within a minute of what sounded like an explosion, a fire truck, sirens blaring, raced past our house. Out the living room window, the beautiful blue sky, so unthinkable and alluring for a February afternoon, was nearly obscured by thick, black smoke.
“Something's on fire,” I said. My husband and I, followed by our kids, rushed out onto the porch, each of us bare- or sock-footed, then down the steps and to the corner where several of our neighbors already stood looking north: one block away, a truck was engulfed in flames, and fire fighters were working to extinguish the blaze.
We watched as a fire fighter and paramedic darted toward the driver's door, then back, shying away from the heat. Soon the fire was under control, and they approached again, disappearing beyond our view. In a minute, they reappeared wheeling a gurney with a sheet-covered figure lying prone atop it. Moments later, an ambulance sped off.
The kids in the neighborhood were almost giddy, strangely energized by the event that had split wide open what had been a typical Saturday. We adults puzzled through what we had seen and heard: An accident? But there was no other vehicle and the burning truck was parked on the side of the street. An explosion, then, but how? And the fire truck: how did it get there so fast? When it became clear that we couldn't make sense of what had happened, couldn't help each other or the driver of the truck or the fire fighters and paramedics in any way, we drifted back to our homes and went on with our days.
Hours later, a tow truck came and took the blackened truck away. My five-year-old son was shooting baskets in front of our house. He, my husband, and I watched as it drove past. “That's a new truck,” my husband said. “What happened?” I went inside and searched online and eventually found a brief news article about the fire: The driver was in critical condition. Police said he had been involved in a “domestic dispute” just before the incident and had used an accelerant to set the truck and himself on fire. Witnesses tried to put the flames out with a blanket. I whispered the information to my husband and we exchanged a glance, each of us feeling helpless.
That night, I heard my son crying in his bed. “I can't stop thinking about the fire,” he whimpered when I went to check on him. I crawled in next to him and wiped the tears from his face—the same wide, soft face I'd gazed at over the years that, at times, reminded me of the moon. I put my arm around his solid little body and whispered the things parents whisper in the dark to calm their frightened children: don't worry, I love you, I'll protect you, you're safe.
Early the next week, the newspaper reported that the man, only twenty-six years old, had died from his injuries. In smaller conversations, those of us who'd stood on the corner that Saturday puzzled again: Was there anything anyone could have done for him? Before the accelerant and the flames and the overpowering black smoke—anything?
Later in the week, I was home from work before my family and, through the screen door, heard their voices as they made their way up the sidewalk. I went onto the porch to meet them. My son—wearing his bike helmet, one hand clutching his monkey lunch box, the other his beloved blanket—was hurriedly making his way up the steps toward me.
“Guess what?” he said, jubilant. “I saw that tow truck today and it had the burned-up truck on it, but it's all fixed! It's okay!”
“Do you think it was the same truck?” I said, though I knew it couldn't be. That truck, I'd seen it. It was beyond repair.
He thought for a moment. “I don't know for sure, Momma,” he said, looking up at me, his face, again, the moon—aglow, beatific, hope and light in the dark. “But I really think it was.”
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