Saturday, March 10, 2007

The old man across the street from our trailer died in his bed, in flames. At eleven I was well acquainted with both cigarettes and their burns, and my friend's habit of nodding off in his porch chair worried me whenever I stopped by to chat. So when my mother interrupted an afternoon by ordering my best friend and me to room at the very back of our lot, out of fear that his car would explode as his trailer was engulfed, my first instinct was to clamber out of my window and run to the street. In my head I knew that if I could only get out front I could make him walk out the door, coughing and shrugging ruefully. I knew that through sheer stubbornness I could force him to stay alive.

But my mother would brook neither argument nor escape, and we were herded into her bedroom and left to clutch at each other while the smell of smoke grew heavy and the sirens arrived. By the time we were released, tear-streaked and weak in the knees, the fire had been bested and had left behind only a scorched and melted aluminum shell. The new silver car, driven rarely but cherished as a sign that he had not yet grown too feeble to drive it, sat largely untouched save for a broken headlight. I looked up at my mother and she shook her head slightly, knees popping as she knelt down to look me in the eyes. She explained that he had probably fallen asleep and that the smoke had likely suffocated him before he could feel any pain, but in the back of my head I knew that part of the responsibility was mine. Had I only tried a little bit harder, I knew, I could have thrown the full weight of my childish willpower against sixty years of habit and won. It's a conviction I've never quite managed to shake.

A few months later they hauled away the wreck and placed a big new grey double-wide in its place. The family that moved in had a daughter only a couple of years older than I was, but though we became friends I never could force myself to go inside.

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