La Belle Inferno

La Belle Inferno July 5, 2019


They say the world is burning up.

Wildfires have broken out this summer in Europe and in the Everglades. Here in the Ohio Valley, the power went out at the Follansbee coke plant, causing a blaze. There is always a little fire burning at the top of the plant. I could see it from my dormitory window when I first lived in Steubenville, smoldering day and night. I used to call it the Eye of Sauron. But the night the power went out, a “controlled fire” burned all over the building– or so it looked from LaBelle.

I quietly hoped it would burn to the ground, but the next day it was back to business, poisoning the earth.

The weather heated up as it always has, at the end of June, and I found myself trapped inside with a minor fibromyalgia flare. Heat and humidity make me ill. Every year we plan to move away to a better part of the country and a house with central air; every year we plan to get a car so we don’t have to walk on our errands and I won’t get sick in the heat. Every summer I end up trapped in this house like an anchoress, not daring to go more than a few feet from the noisy wind tunnel of fans and window box air conditioners. I take cold showers and pray for rain.

After a few days, I was even more depressed than usual.

And then it was the Fourth of July, a grim and cynical independence day. Michael took Rosie to the pool, but it closed early, so they came back disappointed. I had such terrible cabin fever that I agreed to take Rosie to the edge of the cliff in the LaBelle neighborhood, to try to watch the downtown fireworks display, in the relative cool of the evening.

That was how I ended up at a crowded block party in the very wealthiest part of LaBelle,  squinting at the overgrown trees, trying to find a spot where we could peer through to downtown.

It was starting to rain– a slow drizzle, not enough to spoil any pyrotechnic displays. The people in LaBelle like their fireworks. There were dangerous backyard fireworks displays going up everywhere, shaking the neighborhood with booms. Children of people I didn’t want to talk to were running around with sparklers. Some of them had bicycles decked out with patriotic ribbons.

Rosie asked if she could run back home and get her own bike. We were only a few blocks from the house, past houses where her friends were playing in the yards; there was plenty of light and she knew the way well. She is allowed to bike around these blocks with her friends during daylight hours. I said that she could go get the bike herself, as long as she came straight back.

I paced around the sidewalk, watching the billowing clouds. Every once in awhile there was a flash I hoped wasn’t lightning, but in the twilight and the overcast it was impossible to tell. I could see the fireworks in Follansbee and across the river in Weirton, but I was cut off from seeing downtown by a stand of trees.

I heard the booms begin, as the downtown display started.

I realized that Rosie was taking an awfully long time to come back.

I picked my way through the throng of people, looking for her, but she wasn’t there. She wasn’t anywhere at the block party. I started back up the street toward our house; she wasn’t on her way back to me.

I’ve written about hell entirely too much this week. It shouldn’t take up so much of my time. But I can’t think of a worse vision of hell than the muggy twilight of a hot July evening; surrounded by strangers and people you’d rather not see; a slow drizzle falling but never turning to rain;  all around you flashes that could either be lightning or explosions– and in the middle of it all, you can’t find your daughter.

“Have you seen Rosie?” I called to one of her friends, but he hadn’t.

Then the downtown fireworks began, but I couldn’t see them. I could only hear the booms, and see flashes reflected off low clouds. It might not have been a celebration but a battle, for all that I could tell.

A rocket exploded right overhead– dazzling color across the dull pink smear of sky, from one tree-lined block to another, deafeningly loud.

Some idiot was lighting fireworks in the middle of an intersection.

The streets of LaBelle are crowded and all one-way, with cars parked on either side. And a large man in a white t-shirt was using the junction of two narrow streets as the stage for his home firework show. As the smoke cleared from his first rocket, he waddled out to light another.

This one was a shower of sparks, like a giant sparkler coming out of a cardboard cube instead of the end of a stick. The sparks became more and more profuse and intense until I was afraid to cross the street at the corner. I stood there watching, stunned, my eyes temporarily blinded to all but that unholy pillar of light. The man and his guests were cheering. The fireworks downtown were booming. I had no idea where my daughter was, but I couldn’t go to her because flames blocked my path. Rain fell a little harder– still not hard enough to wash out the flame.

For all I knew, it wasn’t water pelting me, but ash.

The sparkler box fizzled down to a smoldering coal, and the bystanders applauded. I ran down my street.

Rosie was on our porch, crying. She’d forgotten her bike key. The front door was locked, and Michael hadn’t heard her knock over all the noise.

We walked back up the street, to watch the neighbor’s private firework display.

“It’s a lot better than anything we can see of downtown,” I promised her.

Rosie clung to me as we sat on the steps of a vacant house.

Pyrotechnics filled the air, boom after boom and colorful skyrocket after colorful skyocket. The smoke did not rise into the sky, not on such an overcast night; it descended with the rain, until LaBelle was overwhelmed with sulfur and mist.

“Trump would be proud!” said the man, and his friends let out a cheer.

At one point, the man lit another of those sparkler boxes; I watched, once more petrified, as the intersection filled with flaming sparks. And then one of the drunken party guests, a shirtless and bearded man in cargo shorts, ran into the street. He jumped right over the box, through the burst of light– not at all graceful, not at all playful, evoking nothing poetic. Just a scruffy drunk playing with fire to show off.

The crowd cheered again.

The rain poured harder now, but the man managed to let off one last firework. This one was that most annoying kind– the kind that makes a high-pitched squeal as it shoots into the air, then explodes overhead with a tiny flash and a gigantic boom. A great noise and no light worth seeing– I can think of no better metaphor for so many things, lately.

We went home together in the smoky dark.

This town does a good impression of hell, more often than not.

Perhaps it will turn out to be purgatory, and I’ll get away.

You never know.

(image via Pixabay) 

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