The fire

The noise first alerted us to a problem.  Our old house had been renovated so often that the living room was a windowless cave.  We often found solace in the protection from dangers that lurked outside, but tonight it was a hindrance.  It was late that is when bad things happen.

Orange light filtered through the diamond window of the front door as we crowded together to look.  I gasped as tongues of fire consumed the house across the street.

That was the nice house on the street, I moaned.

When 50% of the street was vacant we learned to appreciate the houses that were nice.

Sirens wailed in the distance.  Coming for us, I thought.  Momentary pride over being amid such excitement flashed through my mind but quickly I scolded myself for craving negative attention.

A fire truck roared down our quiet street and we moved to the porch. The heat felt like we were at a huge bonfire, warming my face from 100 yards away.

The entire neighborhood was awake now.  Huddled safely in twos and threes, gazing back and forth from the fire to their neighbor they whispered.

Do you know what happened?  Isn’t that the house that was busted a month ago?  I heard they had a pretty good operation going there.

My mind flashed to that warm evening in May, pushing my toddler boy on the swing in the big Maple behind the house.  The gaggle of neighbor girls surrounded us, taking turns pushing him too hard for my comfort.

Don’t go so high, I warned.  They giggled, probably at my prudence.  These girls walked across the street alone from the age of three and I was worried that my 2 year old would fall out of a baby swing.

I enjoyed their company and the ability to feed them the love they lacked, but sometimes I wanted to be in my yard alone with my child.  Maybe someday we would have enough money and time to put a fence up, but for now their eagle eyes spotted me every time I came out the door.  Besides, isn’t that what we came for?

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a black van pull up across the street.  It seemed out of place, but most of the view was blocked by the side of our house.  As I turned my attention once again to pushing my son a loud crack rang out and in an eternal instant I realized this was a SWAT raid.

Fumbling with the buckle I grabbed my boy out of the swing while and shooed the girls home.  I probably should have walked them home, but in my own panic and worry I took care of us first.  Besides, they didn’t seem fazed, just another day in the ghetto.

Locked.  The back door was locked.

I pounded and pounded for what felt like an eternity.  Maybe it was only 3 minutes, but it was the longest three minutes of my life.  I didn’t have my phone, I didn’t have a key, and I wasn’t about to run to the front door where danger lurked.

Finally, he peeked out, realized it was me and opened the shoddy old door wide.

I walked in shrieking and trembling.  Trauma has a funny way of bringing out the rage in me.

Why didn’t you let me in?

I didn’t know you were outside, I’m so sorry.

We watched out the bedroom window that evening while the police plopped a folding table on the porch to measure and record large packages of drugs.  This was nothing newsworthy in a city the size of ours, but we surely couldn’t stop watching.

The heat brought me back to the fire, a reminder that we lived in an abnormal place.  The kind of place where people eyed you when you told them where it was.  I could never do what you do, they would say.  A pleasant way of saying you’re crazy.

Tears formed as I looked to see folks from the neighborhood, gang members, young men, old men, carrying the weight of the hose from the hydrant to the truck.  This is why we moved here, I thought.   This place is more than a statistic.

I started to see past the brokenness, the hurt and the pain.  This was a neighborhood, just like any other neighborhood, full of good and bad.  As often as I sat trembling at the bad, I more frequently thanked God for the good.

This neighborhood was alive.  People spent hours outside, knew your name, and said hi as they walked home from the bus stop.  I couldn’t help but smile when the opening of a fire hydrant on a hot day turned the whole street into a pool party.  It wasted thousands of gallons of water and was illegal, but kids splashed in the spray, the old folks sat down and dipped their toes in the dirty stream that washed by.

We were no longer frightened by the outward displays of fear and antagonization, knowing there is light in the darkness.

Time seemed irrelevant as we watched the flames lick the house.  How long did we stand there?  30 minutes, an hour?  How long does it take to extinguish a fire?  The house would smolder for days, and the neighbors would gossip for even longer.  This marked the beginning of the summer of fire, a rash of vacant houses burning hot in the night.

That summer, in the midst of the fires, I would imagine the rainy days as God’s great cleansing of the sin and evil in this place.  Maybe it was just rain, but it gave me hope to imagine more  Why not expect things to be different, for good to break through the bad, for the light to shine in the darkness?

Months later I would sit on the porch watching a girl dressed in pink ride her bike up and down the sidewalk in front of that burned out house.  A glorious reminder that God will make all things new someday.

Years later we would watch out that same upstairs window as the city demolished the house.  In one day it was gone, and in it’s place a dirt lot sat waiting, expectant.  The only way to experience newness is to demolish the old.

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