Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Worldly Goods

Mom cleans my jewelry
What of all your worldly goods do you pull from the charred and soggy embers of your home if given the chance? At that moment, it was just a drawer full of jewelry: some bought at estate sales, some gifted by people special to me. They're not quite diamonds, or even almost diamonds, but they’re diamonds to me.

The Coroner had come and gone, and the young fireman preceded me up the stairs. My door and Marks stood wide open (mine white, his charred black). The entire roof had caved in on both our homes, and we carefully walked back towards the bedroom. I handed him a shopping bag and pointed to the chest of drawers. While he did that, I upended the trunk full of family pictures hoping they would survive, until I could get help to rescue it. I noticed the laundry I’d been sorting and put 4 pair of jeans over my arm.

As we passed the kitchen, I grabbed another ecco-grocery bag hanging on the pantry door. I stepped across the soggy kitchen floor and took the bottle of Tito’s vodka my sister had brought me from Atlanta, back out in the hallway, I took the sparkly ruby slipper shining from the bookcase shelf full of soggy books and put it in the bag.

Nothing else caught my eye, except the tall black statue that was a gift from Mark a year back. The fireman and I descended the stairs, and I was instantly engulfed in hugs. Patti and Ree were there. I turned to respond to a woman frantically asking, “where’s Mark?” My shaking head and face said it all and as she burst into tears, I realized too late, it was Mark’s mother. I felt bad; I felt insensitive, but there are no right words to say that unsayable truth. I still didn’t believe it myself. We hugged; she cried; I cried.  Her husband came, and then more family. They took her home.

I just wanted to get in the car and drive away, too. I still stood with the myriad things that must be done. Give names and details to the fire chief and the police and formally request copies of their reports. They would not be ready for well over a week. Pick up Jazmine from the Parcak's house.

Patti and Ree walked with me to the car I’d re-parked in front of Greg and Sarah’s house. We put everything in the trunk and said goodbyes. I was still on automatic pilot; go to the store for cat food and litter for Jaz, beer, toothbrush, toothpaste for me, pick up Jaz.  They say you can't go home again, but where do you go when you've lost all your worldly goods and the roof over your head.  Of all the offers of sanctuary I had, there was only one real choice.  I poured me a go cup, strapped Jaz's carrier in the passenger seat and headed home to Mom's house in Hoover.

Next: Back to the Scene

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Blue Skies & The Kindness of Strangers

As I stood watching the building smolder, the sky lightened and against an incongruously azure sky, the full horror of it all came into focus. The air was cold and crisp and clear and tainted with an unclean smoke. 

Tommy took Jackie, Ms. Louise, her son and granddaughters across the back alley to his house to get warm, and be comforted.

The kind neighbors who live on the street behind us and all around us reached out. The archaeology professors from UAB, offered me coffee and a warm haven for Jazmine, who was now meowing piteously every time I opened the car door to comfort her. She’d been in her carrier for over 2 hours now. I accepted for her. Sarah put their cat in an upstairs bedroom then started coffee, while Greg set up an impromptu litter box, food and water for Jazmine. She was beyond comfort, and simply sat in a warm corner and watched us all with fixed golden eyes.

I sat and drank coffee in their warm kitchen, as we made small talk and watched out their back window to the still smoking embers of my home.

I went back across the alley to get an update from the fire chief. It was 7 a.m. - time to make a few difficult phone calls. As I paced back and forth in the parking lot of Wilson’s Market, I pulled out the cell phone. I didn’t want the family or my friends to see this on the morning news and panic. First I called Mom and began, “first, I’m okay. There was a fire; Mark is gone. You have to call Barbara, Billy, Rick, George and let them know, I’m okay before they see the fire on the news.” She was dumbstruck, but recovered and I hung up knowing she would follow through.

Next, I called my friend Ree. “Ree, you’re the only one I know who knows everybody I know and then some. I don’t want people seeing this on the news first. The apartment burned down this morning. I’m sorry to just dump this on you like this, but yours is the only number I know by heart, and I’m in no shape mentally to make the calls. Mark didn’t make it out.” She lost it for a bit, but then she took charge of herself and said she’d start making calls.

So many unlikely angels: Louie drove up and offered the key to his place in case I needed somewhere to stay. The Parcak’s had offered their spare bedroom indefinitely if I needed it. I had two other offers of safe haven, but I knew when all was said and done, I was going home to Mom’s house in Hoover. 

I couldn’t be still and the firemen were not letting any of us in the building yet. I went back across the alley to Tommy’s to check on Ms. Louise and her kids. I walked back across the alley to ask the fireman again, hoping against hope, if they had gotten Mark out when I wasn’t looking – they had not. “We can’t let anyone in until the coroner comes and goes.”

With those words, words that belong in a CSI episode, echoing in my head, I walked back to Greg and Sarah’s kitchen to hold vigil. 

Next: Worldly Goods

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Smoke Detector Woke Me at 4:15 a.m.

I bought a new rug yesterday – a small charcoal 5x7 to go under my new writing desk.  It was $19.99 at Aldi’s, and I love it.  My old rugs, considerably more expensive rugs, lie buried beneath the charred remains of my once roof in my once home. It’s been over a month now, and I can finally cull all the rambling journal posts from just after the fire.  They were written in late night with a little too much wine racing through my veins or early mornings - I still wake at 4:15. 

On February 12, 2011, a Saturday, at 4:15 a.m.  I wakened to the screech of the smoke detector.  “Damn, did I leave a candle burning?” ran through my mind as I raced down the hall to the living room.  No.  The smoke was coming over and around my front door to the landing I shared with my friend and neighbor, Mark.  I could barely see across the room, as I rushed to get the phone and dialed 911 I tucked my nearby laptop under that arm and reached out to touch the doorIt wasn’t  hot, so I peekedthe front stairs were not an option. 
I quickly pulled it to, and as I passed into the next room closing the living room door behind me, the operator finally answered, “911 what’s your emergency?”   

I shouted my address first followed by we’re on fire, as I slipped on my shoes, pulled on my coat and stuffed  the laptop and purse into a handy Publix ecco-grocery bag hanging nearby.  I couldn’t believe, the operator said, “hold please, I’ll transfer you to the fire department.”  Then the phone went dead - not good, have to hurry.  I was still in motion, shoved my cat, Jazmine, unceremoniously into her carry cage,  and with the bag over my left shoulder and her cage in my left hand, I dug the cell phone out from its resting place next to one of the girls.  I dialed 911 again, as I headed toward the back door. 

We’re on fire I shouted and you just put me on hold. I blurted the address again and as she apologized saying they were on the way, I could hear the sirens coming.  I hung up on her and banged on Mark’s back door, but thick smoke was already pouring out his back door, too.   

Keep moving was all I could think to do - down to the next landing.  I was grateful that the doors were so close together.  I set Jazmine’s carrier down, and banged and screamed fire at each door at the same time.  It seemed forever before either door opened, but they did.  Half awake, Jackie on the left was first.  She ran back to get something, but came back quickly.  Then Ms. Louise, an elderly lady in a panic yelling 'my babies, my babies', ran back into her place to wake her granddaughters and her son who were staying with her. 

Assured, that they were coming out, I took the cat carrier and my bag to my car at the bottom of the stairs to free myself up to help where needed.  The firemen started coming, and I pointed to Mark’s place and told them he was still in there.  The fireman told me to keep back and get to a safer place. They ran up the stairs to get Ms. Louise and the children down more quickly than they were coming and prevented Jackie from returning for whatever it was she wanted to go back for.  

I got in my car and pulled it around by Wilsons Market, to get it out of the way and keep my Jazmine nearby – she was really upset and incessantly meowling piteously. 

Jackie, Ms. Louise, her grandkids, and son were soon there.  While we stood on that parking lot corner by my car, several neighbors came with blankets for everyone. We stood and watched as 3 engines fought the fire. It would take over 2 hours to put it out.  We couldn’t look away; we knew Mark had not made it out.   

Next: The kindness of strangers. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Georgia Bottoms Makes Scarlet Seem Tame

In his latest novel, Georgia Bottoms, Mark Childress introduces readers to a southern belle who makes Scarlet O’Hara seem tame by comparison.

Georgia is the sole support of her family, and she tries always to put her best foot forward to maintain the family image of genteel wealth. That’s hard to do with a no-account brother who’s rarely employed in anything legal and an elderly mother who is losing touch with reality and who daily rails against that “evil Rosa Parks” whom she blames for everything wrong with this new South of 2001.

To maintain her image, Georgia sweats it out every Sunday in a sweltering hot church. She sits elegantly dressed and shod in her family’s pew because she must. Church is de rigueur in a small southern town, but showing face doesn’t mean she has to listen. She considers her manicure and contemplates whether a rebellious Jesus was a Tide fan to spite his Father, whom the preacher assures the congregation is an Auburn fan, as are most of the men in the church. She studies those around her and wonders if they, like she, are just there to show face, when suddenly the preacher catches her attention.

He’s about to repent his sins, and she is one of them. Her mind races; he can’t do this to her. What can she do? What would any southern belle do? She makes it to the church aisle and very convincingly faints dead away.

Thus begins Georgia’s personal hero’s journey. The hero’s journey is epic, but it’s not always huge and larger than life. Some are just like you and me and sweet Georgia Bottoms. She’s facing change against her will, trying desperately to hang onto the status quo, making difficult choices at every turn in a comedy of personal and serious world events that conspire against her and turn her world upside down.

Georgia is making it on her own terms. She’s not exactly Louise Wooster, nor the fictional Belle Watley, but she is a woman with a heart of gold making her way the only way she knows how for herself and her own.

This is a delicious Southern novel full of colorful language. No political correctness here. Stories about real people are rarely PC.

This is a story about endings that lead to beginnings, the face we show the world, and the face that’s true. It’s about knowing when the price of saving face is too high.  Georgia faces that ultimate choice and she shines.

Previously published in First Draft Magazine a publication of The Alabama Writer's Forum.