I was going for my walk after dark, after the heat of the day had broken.
I walk past the latest burned-out wreck.
I didn’t mean to walk past it, but I mistook the street numbers in the dark, and there I was. The police haven’t released the official cause of this fire, yet. They haven’t even finished their investigation; the pile of rubber-scented charcoal is still there, with an old Comcast satellite dish sitting on top of the ash and the stone foundation of the kitchen still half standing up, all surrounded with a funerary garland of caution tape. The house was officially a derelict, but the neighbors say it was a meth lab. It exploded on the fifth of July, at three in the morning; before anybody even got out of bed to look, it was shooting flames over the tops of houses. You could see it from over on Oregon Avenue; you could smell it all around LaBelle. I woke up when I smelled it– I thought my own house was burning down.
I walked from East to West down the block. It was like looking at a timeline in a museum. My father used to take us to the science museum, in Columbus, where we’d walk through the “time tunnel:” a series of windows in a dark hallway with “Also Sprach Zarathustra” playing in loudspeakers overhead. We saw a diorama of lumpy rubber dinosaurs next to a diorama of skulking cave men, next to the Roman Senate with a mannequin Julius Caesar; then a grisly diorama of the Black Death, hooded monks dragging tormented bodies out of the street. Then there were pioneers pointing purposefully across the frontier, then the Gettysburg Address, then the Moon Landing; finally, a sphere of flashing television screens against a night sky, which was meant to represent earth in the future. Walking down this particular street reminds me uncomfortably of that– it’s like the passage of time illustrated in life-sized dioramas, but the future it shows isn’t hopeful.
Here’s an inhabited house, with lawn short and the lights on. I can see plants in the living room and a big fish tank. Someone is watching television inside. Next to that house is a lot that’s been mowed this summer but not this week. One side of the house still has whitewash, but it’s chipped and peeling. Broken windows reveal nothing but black indoors. The other side is charred and smells like melted plastic. Police tape covers the porch, but not the yard. Next to that house is the one that exploded, the whole yard cordoned off by yellow tape that says CAUTION CAUTION CAUTION. Next to that, a vacant lot. There was a fatal fire here several years ago; I think one of the victims was a child. The neighbors planted two flowering pear trees as a memorial, and placed an ugly lawn statue of a baby angel in between them.
The grass is growing out of control on that lot. Someone comes and mows it, once in awhile, but it’s usually left fallow. Some days it’s hard to spot the angel.
I wonder if LaBelle has a guardian angel.
I’ve been told that cities, cultures and communities have angels. Does LaBelle have a guardian angel?
I was also once told that guardian angels look like their charges, but I don’t like that. I don’t want the guardian of LaBelle to look like one of the envious rich on the very edge of the neighborhood, in the mansions that overlook the cliffs. I don’t want him to look like the neighbors we had when we lived on the very worst street; the ones who stole from us and hot-wired another neighbor’s car when she went to the hospital. I don’t want her to look like the people who were arrested for putting their children in crates for hours as punishment. I don’t want him to look like our senile old neighbor next door, who threatened my husband with a knife she didn’t really intend to use. I certainly don’t want the guardian angel of LaBelle to be a meth-maker or a crack dealer, one of the neglected children who scream obscenities at me, the man who threatened to “take me for a ride” as I waited for the bus.
Most of all, I don’t want him to look like me. If he looked like me he would be as small, as fearful and as hard of heart as I am, and God help us then. I can’t save LaBelle.
I think she looks like all of us. I think she’s having such a hard time helping us, because when we see her, we see our neighbors, and we have forgotten how we ought to see our neighbors. God have mercy on us, we don’t see one another as persons, but threats.
I wonder what would happen if this whole neighborhood suddenly looked like the end of the timeline– not the hopeful one at the museum, but the fatal one here. What if we all burned to death in one night? What if there was nothing left from Brady Estates all the way to cliff’s edge but an overgrown lot, two cheap saplings and a grave without a body inside?
Would anyone mourn for us?
Would anyone place a plaster angel over the site of the fire?
Would anyone look at the ashes and say, “This was once LaBelle?”
Would there be anyone to give a eulogy and pray for our souls? What would they say? “This was once a neighborhood, with hundreds of people. They weren’t good people, of course. They weren’t memorable people, not anyone you’d want to admit that you knew. They were ministers, store clerks and waitresses. They were meth dealers and crack dealers, junkies, alcoholics. Some of them were the rich folks– richer than everybody else around here, that is– right up on the cliff’s edge, who complained loudly about how trashy and greedy their neighbors were to collect food stamps, and who tried to make the poor disappear by the passing of ordinances. Some of them were college students just passing through, who left couches on the porch and wrecked cars on the curb when they left. Some were people who had never been prosperous no matter how hard they worked and were used to it. Some were equally poor, but blamed the government and the ones who had always been poor. Some were neglected children whose existence was considered “a shame” by their neighbors. They were Mary, Michael, Rose, Sean, Laura, Kim, Brian, Barbara, Josiah, Cheyenne. They were children of God, I suppose, and may He have mercy and grant them eternal memory.”
I wonder if anyone but the guardian of LaBelle would plead for us.
It would serve us right, I suppose, but mercy is always better than we deserve.
(image via pixabay)