(c) Chuck Teixeira, 2015
Mom woke Sis and me in the middle of the night. I’d heard the sirens in my dream; and, when Mom called, I could see the fire engines on our street. They were trying to save the Kinsevej place, the ground floor already engulfed in flame. Now and then, they hosed the side of our house closest to the blaze. Neighbors gathered in small groups across the street. Many wore heavy coats over their pajamas. Some had rosaries and looks that accompany prayer.
The fire captain was downstairs talking with Mom. He unbuttoned his jacket and pushed a hand through salt-and-pepper hair. He suggested the family evacuate in case the fire jumped to our home. Looking over Mom’s shoulder, he smiled at Sis and me.
Earlier in the day, Mom had made a cake. “It’s for your brother who’s returning from Korea,” she said and left it on the kitchen table, like a talisman to protect our future.
I took the rosary I’d just received for first communion. I considered celebrating a miniature mass – the way Sis had made a small but real cake with the baking set Santa had just brought. But there wasn’t enough spare attention to make the effort count. I was just a liaison with universal forces that grew angry if ignored after being summoned. Anyway, when confronted by the burning house, I sensed that failure to subdue demons that threatened our block, might lead neighbors to doubt my utility in future crises. I entrusted our survival to the fire captain. I hoped he would appreciate my desire for world safety. When the fire was out, I would entertain his crew with my Elvis Presley imitation.
I had developed that occult power over music at community picnics, where I made my way to the dance floor and gyrated like the King – though too short and fat to fool anyone for long. People cheered me; some fell on the floor laughing. Sis said that people were only making fun of me. She didn’t understand that laughter was part of the universe I was learning to release.
I walked toward the fire captain to tell him how I planned to demonstrate my gratitude; but he pushed me away and shouted to get back. From a dark artery in the cosmos, bad thoughts began to bleed into my brain, doubts about the captain’s appreciating my contribution to the general welfare and the precious bond I was willing to create.
I settled into a group of rosary-wielding neighbors. Katarina was in that group but wasn’t praying. She was one of the few teenagers left in town. She boasted about sneaking into movies and committing other mid-century American sins. She smiled at me; but her being nice wasn’t going to save her from hell, unless my own transcendence could trickle down. Her Aunt Clare was leading the rosary, in a Third Order of Saint Francis habit, instead of a top coat.
Katarina kept abreast of trends and helped with the cool parts of my life that complemented the holy ones. Her interests, however, lay in stand-alone country music without motion picture offshoots that had real community impact. She had just learned the lyric to “Wolverton Mountain” and offered to teach me it for a quarter or, for a little more money, a raunchy substitute. When she gave me a sample for free, Aunt Clare scolded that we should pray instead, so God could hear us above the hoses and the engines. I didn’t like the way Aunt Clare was leading the rosary, with too much emotion. If anyone should Elvis-up prayers, it was me.
Suddenly, Aunt Clare called out to Serge, her retarded son, to stop interfering with the firefighters. Serge had worked his way into the periphery of the crew. With a determined grimace and arms waving wildly, he was directing operations. The captain had let Serge join the force but had pushed me away. Serge was just showing off. I was a real ally in the struggle. I knew eventually truth would out – perhaps when live embers ignited Serge’s trousers – leaving me the frontrunner for commendation: maybe big hugs back at the station, maybe leading a parade in the captain’s own hat amid the throng that attended Serge’s funeral.
The Kinsevejes themselves were a little way off — far enough from the crowd to mark their special status — Mrs. Kinsevej in a quilted housecoat, the pockets stuffed with tissues that had absorbed her tears. Mr. Kinsevej, his back bent from a mining injury, hovered near his wife. He sensed his neighbor’s scrutiny, their wondering how someone would handle catastrophe after being unemployed so long. When he tried to put his arm around his wife’s shoulder, she shrieked and pushed him away. He had started the fire when he fell asleep, while smoking cigarettes bought with money from her purse.
The next morning, Serge grunted his version of events to anyone who would listen. Pacing in front of our open doorway, he held his nose conspicuously as Sis and I scrubbed the place with vinegar to remove the scent of disaster. That afternoon, when our brother arrived from Korea and saw the ruins of the Kinsevej house, he said he was glad no one got hurt. Later, Katarina stopped by to join the family for a sliver of the cake Mom had made and to show off the fire captain’s hat she had casually acquired. Right in front of her, our brother said I had to do a better job of keeping order around the place. I knew the fire captain would have said something sweeter had he recognized his debt of gratitude toward me. And when I started to cry about never having another chance to win the captain’s trust, our brother told me to stop being a pansy because Sis, wrapped in his arms and smiling, is the only princess this family needs.
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