It was evening but not yet dark, when the Lost Girl texted me. “My neighbor’s house is on fire.”
Houses burn in LaBelle.
Often it’s the faulty electricity, which nobody can afford to update. Sometimes it’s a person whose gas has been shut off for a late payment, trying to survive a cold night on a space heater that overwhelms the wiring. Sometimes it’s homeless people squatting in a derelict and trying to light a campfire. Several years ago we had a neighborhood arsonist who would take it on himself to burn down buildings slated for demolition, but I think he got caught. You always fear it’s going to be your house next, but you try not to think about that.
I was out the door in a minute.
I could see the pillar of smoke rising over the neighborhood, a lighter color than I’d expected, smelling different than smoke often smells. The arsonist’s fires had smelled like gasoline. The squatters’ fires smelled like burning rubber. This smelled a bit like burnt sugar. It was on the next block, near the market.
I rounded the corner past the Baker Street Irregulars‘ house, and there were the flames. They got bigger and bigger as I passed the old Tower of Power church, and so did the crowds: at first, a person standing here and there, crying. Then, as I reached the next intersection, clots of people, all of them staring, some filming, some exclaiming. Some were in their bath robes as if they’d already gone to bed for the night. The lady who runs the little grocery shop on the corner was there. Ezra’s family was there. The whole neighborhood was there, and so were more emergency vehicles than I’ve ever seen.
We all looked up.
The boarded up building on the next corner was an inferno. Bright orange fire was leaping as high again as the building itself: a four-story tower of flame on a two-story brick edifice. Next to that building, another house was burning.
“It’s a gas line,” somebody said with confidence.
“How could the gas be on in an abandoned store front?” I insisted.
It turned out that the building wasn’t totally abandoned. The store front had been closed and boards nailed over the windows for decades, but the rooms in the back were let out as cheap apartments. One of them was occupied and had utilities. Some neighbors later said they’d smelled electricity as the fire began. I didn’t know any of that at the time. All I knew was that for the fourteen years I’ve lived in this neighborhood, there’s been a yellow brick building on that corner, and now there was a pillar of fire.
Two ladder trucks already had the ladder fully extended into the sky; the hose sprayed a jet that looked green against the gray haze. Instead of subsiding, the flame recoiled, jumped, and then grew taller, like a cobra striking.
The Lost Girl texted me that her son, the one who’d been ready to cry at the sight of taxidermized bears eating a wooden salmon at the museum, was panicking.
I skirted a parked ambulance and made my way down the street.
There the whole family was, staring up, agape– except for the boy, who was hiding in the mini van and wouldn’t come out. I leaned in to reassure him. “It’s okay, I promise. Nobody was in the ambulance. I didn’t see any injured people. The medics are just there in case one of the firemen has an accident, but that building is empty. Everyone got out on time. The firefighters are spraying water so nobody else’s house will burn, and then the fire inspector will come and find out what caused the fire and make it stop so no more houses burn, and then the construction workers will tear it down, and then the whole neighborhood will bring furniture and clothes to the new house for the people who lost their old things, and everything will be good as new.”
The boy peeked out of the car at the plume shooting down from the top of the ladder.
“Look at the helpers!” I said in my most pleasant voice. “All the people coming to help so things won’t get worse. They’re flooding the houses with water so the fire won’t spread. This is as bad as it gets, right now. Nothing more will go wrong. No one else will be hurt. No other houses will burn. It all gets better from here. You’re safe.”
I didn’t exactly believe that, but I think the boy did.
The boy pointed down at the torrent of frothy water rushing down the street, soaking my shoes, and smiled.
“You’ve got your own riverfront property!” I joked.
I went back to watching the blaze.
We all watched for an hour or more.
Eventually, the police started roping off the block and ordering everybody back. We didn’t know why, but we obeyed. Someone said that gas and electricity were being cut– nobody knew exactly how far that would be extend. The lady who runs the grocery shop remarked that they didn’t care about LaBelle and wouldn’t hurry turning it back on. I bantered back that it would be a several day ordeal like when the water failed, but at least it wasn’t happening at Christmas.
I started back to the house, to warn Michael that we might not have power or water for a bit.
There was the Lady of LaBelle, terrified.
Her life must be exhausting, but I’ve never seen her afraid before. Not once.
“Miss Mary, do you know… is it true that it’s a gas fire? That the fire could spread through the gas lines and burn all our houses?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I hope not. But we might be without heat tonight.”
“My cousin he’s been telling the landlord that the stove was sparking for days. Woke up to find the whole kitchen burning! He ran for his life. He was lucky he got out.”
I looked back at the fire again, lower, less bright. The gray clouds were muffling LaBelle, but you could still see the black sky and the first stars on the edges– over Brady Estates, over the nicer houses on La Belle View. It was as if the richer neighborhoods could afford an ordinary night, but we’d had our sky shut off for a late payment.
And it was night.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.