Watching Old Fires

“So there was nothing left to look at now but the fire; they had now been watching it for three hours. They were now used to it, accustomed to it; now it had become a permanent part of their lives as well as of their experiences…”


Writing prompts issue from nowhere and everywhere seemingly at once. Even if a writer like me thinks he has mined the ore of every possible memory from his childhood, or even his early adulthood, he will encounter, if he is high on coffee or somehow just naturally alert, passages from his constant reading like the one quoted above. 

Passages that he may have already read through and past, countless times. 

I encourage my students to read and re-read because each time we do so, it’s not the text that is new and different. It’s ourselves, in whatever deep state or almost somnambulant consciousness we’re in.

So as I reread this passage yesterday in preparation to continue teaching Faulkner’s charged novel of racial identity and race hatred, I found myself fixated on these resonant lines and what they are saying to me now.

At first, I considered the idea of a house fire in general, and how devastating the event is for not just the family but for the community, which has likely nurtured and accepted this house, over time. In Faulkner’s novel, everyone knows the house, though what they know of its true insides and past, as they watch it burn, is next to nothing. After it becomes truly nothing, they’ll understand the ashes far better than they’ve ever understood the wood, the foundation, or the person who used to dwell within. They won’t fret or express any regret for her, but they will remember and understand that this house was a part of them, even if they feared it, hated it, or perhaps especially if they did so. 

For that was my second thought: things–houses, neighbors–become a part of our common mosaic or tapestry without our ever knowingly sewing them into the weave. Someone or some thing did the sewing, and maybe we woke up one day to realize that this new pattern isn’t even new anymore—that it’s been seamed in for a generation, and we pass it often, seeing it clearly or not, but always knowing that it’s there. Now, though, without it, there’s a change coming, maybe even an uncomfortable change, and we will have to reckon with and reconcile ourselves to it.

I won’t say here how that works out in Light in August, but it’s Faulkner, and you know that the curse of our past will be invoked, though we aren’t always ready to accept our part in that curse, or that past.

And then, as I was thinking about the patches in my own past, my two house fires emerged as if they had literally been kindled inside me, though not by my own hands, of course, but by the words on this page, which I had finally seen on the fifteenth read.

I was four years old when our family home caught fire one January night. My grandmother screamed; my parents got my baby brother and me up, threw clothes on us, and we all escaped across the street to the Terry’s house. We stood and watched our house, the firemen who swarmed and sprayed and rescued most of it. My friend and neighbor, Joe Terry who was six at the time, said that not only does he remember the fire as if it occurred last night, he still can feel the intensity of the heat, though he stood across the street and up a steep hill from the blaze.

Our house caught on fire because our next-door neighbors, the Hale family, were thought to have set theirs on fire themselves, as people in trouble with money are wont to do. Reputedly, they sat in the back alley on this freezing winter night watching the house burn to the ground. And watching our house almost go with it. We lived at the Holiday Inn for the next month, and while I remember that hotel and even our room numbers—201 and 202—the only other real memory I have is that when going through the burned side of our house, my mother found that her wedding dress, stored in an upper closet, was scorched beyond repair.

That might be a symbol of something, I guess, though I don’t feel like exploring what it means here. 

I don’t know where the Hale family went afterward, but they didn’t return to our street. Sometimes my mother would run into one of them about town. And then, when I was ten, we heard that Mrs. Hale died, and that her last wish was to be cremated. I had never heard of cremation before. And the town had never heard of someone being cremated and then having her ashes taken up in an airplane and strewn out over the city. But that’s what she wanted, and that’s what was done. Ashes and ashes.

My second house fire occurred when I was a college senior. I lived in the Episcopal Church house, not that I was Episcopal, or religious at all. But I knew people, was a fine and dependable student, and the rent was free. The catch was that on every Sunday morning, children’s Sunday school met in the house. Often I got out early. Sometimes, I stayed in bed listening.

My roommate, Mike Guthrie, liked to tempt fate. So one night, after smoking a joint in his room while sitting on his tapestried rocking chair, he accidentally knocked the hot rock into the folds of the chair. He said later that he thought it had gone out. I was on a date with my girlfriend Lynne, whose aunt had helped get me into this house in the first place. After the movie we saw in our little college town, we walked back to my house. I didn’t notice anything amiss until I opened the front door and was met by a solid white wall. It took a few seconds to register that the wall wasn’t really solid, but vaporous. A smoky vapor.

Our phone sat by the front door, so I pulled it outside and called the volunteer fire department. They saved the house, but my entire college wardrobe smelled like smoke for the rest of the year.

No one demanded that we pay for the damage, and we weren’t asked to leave once the house was restored. The weirdest thing was that I don’t remember where I lived in the interim, or how. Mike’s parents lived across the street, so he stayed with them. He returned while the house was still burning that night and ran upstairs amidst the smoke and flames to rescue his bag of pot.

Lynne and I broke up a few weeks later.

The next year, after I graduated, Mike was killed when his car ran off the road and plunged down a steep hill. It caught on fire, and he had been drinking.

He was on his way home from his own bachelor party.

The other truly weird thing, and something I didn’t know until I returned to my college campus about eight years ago, was that the Episcopal congregation decided to build a new church house on the exact spot of the old house. There was nothing so wrong about the old place except that it was outdated and ugly. To get rid of it, they could have just torn it down.

Instead, they decided to burn it.

And though I saw the new house for myself, when my memory sees this street, it’s always the old house I see, with Mike’s old Renault in the driveway, his folks across the way, and even his old black Lab Shag moving from one to the other.

I heard that after Mike died, poor old Shag seemed lost, often roaming the streets searching for his own past. Like all the other pieces contained here, that, image, too, is part of my fabric, a permanent part of my experience.

My remembered life. 

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