Friday, November 30, 2012

Slow Burn

This piece appeared first in TOSKA MAGAZINE
October 19, 2012 / Nonfiction, Volume One | Issue Two 


by Christopher Ripley

Smokey spring air nipped at my nose, ripened with curious stink. Not far, an old man chewed on a thick cigar. He sat perched on the rear bumper of his car. I headed his way.

My neighborhood consisted of old men and their silver haired brides. They glided about Ninth Avenue in giant spit-shined cars named Lincoln, Chrysler, and Chevrolet. Not many kids around so we talked some, the old men and I.

Mr. Banks wore red suspenders drooped over a white T-shirt, the straps each holding up their halves of faded blue trousers. Pounds clung to his belly like years, giving him roundness. The retired fireman lived with his wife, two sons, and a daughter in a modest home. His house was four doors down the street from mine.

I asked him if he was ever a fireman. I knew.

“Long time ago,” he said. The old man breathed deep like a prized steer. Air roiled through his nostrils. He grumbled, raising the cigar to his lips for a pull, stared back with grim etched in his face, then exhaled into the wind. He’d eaten smoke for a living, before. My lungs were spared.

“Is that what you want kid? Be a fireman?” He lifted an eyebrow and took another hit on the cigar. His face was massive, with a large nose underneath a pair of intense eyes. Day-old stubble, grayed and grizzled, sprouted up on leathery cheeks and down his neck. He reminded me of John Wayne.

“A fireman like you someday,” I told him.

His chest rumbled like a train engine, his smoked-filled lungs caught unprepared for laughter. Labored coughs followed. He gathered himself after a few booming hacks.

“Not for everyone, kid.”

Mr. Banks’ yard and house drank in the morning sunlight, angling in from the Southeast around and below a canopy of tall, leafy oak trees. His open garage door looked like the entrance to a cave. I knew the fire helmet was inside, hidden like a rare treasure in the shadows. 

I meant what I had said. As a five-year-old boy, all I could think about was growing up to be a fireman. Five Little Firemen, a Little Golden Book by Margaret Wise Brown, was my favorite. Mom read me the story so often the cardboard cover was lost somewhere in my youth. Friends and I put out fires in the neighborhood like real firemen, dispatched by imaginations. Alarms, sirens, three and four big wheel serpentines rolled down the sidewalk over and over again. We saved Ninth Avenue from the flames several times every afternoon. And we’d return to the station house after a tough job, battered and fatigued, backing into our spots all in a row against my garage door.

Like real firemen, we’d gather buckets and soap and scrub the smudges and memories of the last fire from our minds and our fire trucks. We retold the close calls, heroic actions, and lives saved. In the middle of washing, or drying, or just getting started, the imaginary alarm would go off – like always. Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding, one of us would shout. We’d speed off again to save the neighborhood. Like real firemen.

Mr. Banks’ cigar had burned down to a small nub in his hand, to not much of anything. He syphoned precious sips from it like they might be his last, pinching it by the scruff between his middle finger and thumb. He held it like a man; not the way women held cigarettes. A quick tap sent ash cascading to the driveway with a hushed plop. Exposed, the red hot tip blazed a short path to his flesh, closer and closer still. The end reminded me of live coals beneath the flames of a campfire. And I was afraid the fireman might get burned.

He didn’t care, knew what he was doing.

I shoved my hands in my pockets, stared at my feet, and the silence overtook us. An old man and a boy struggling to communicate. Though we tried, our words sloshed like water from buckets. He seemed uninterested with me, wanted to return to whatever old men did to fill their days.

Anxious, I asked about the helmet. “Can I see it?” pointing to the shadows over his shoulder.

“The fire helmet?” he knew why I was there. “A closer look, sure. I don’t let kids put it on, because it’s heavy, and dirty, and I’d hate to send you home with any scrapes or bruises.” He tossed a quick look back towards my house. Such a gentle old man.

He took a knee and stabbed out what was left of the cigar against the driveway pavement, a small sacrifice for my prize, his eventual return to peace. Getting to his feet wasn’t easy. He managed, though, and turned for the one-car garage.

The gnarled husk smoldered at my feet. Sputtering smoke wafted, but rather unceremoniously. I wanted to inspect it, kick it, maybe even pick it up.

“Don’t touch that,” he said, reading my mind. “You’ll get burned.” He vanished behind the car into the shadows.

I couldn’t see Mr. Banks, but I could hear his hulking breaths. Clutter of all sorts stirred from slumber. The crack of a falling broomstick hit the floor. A heavy box scraped over polished concrete. Pails clanked against a wooden bench. Plastic containers rattled, some with nuts, others with screws. He grumbled at all the dusty ghosts with contempt. A lifetime’s worth of squared-away junk, but junk nevertheless. No sooner he emerged again, trophy in hand, blowing on the large brim in the back and thumbing the insignia on the front. He regarded it for a moment, reflecting.

“Don’t put it on,” he said, “just hold it.”

The fire helmet was charcoal black, dusty and big. Heavy like a gallon of milk. I measured everything against the weight of milk. I was mesmerized by his fire helmet; heroes wore fire helmets. It was like Superman’s cape, or the Lone Ranger’s mask.

I asked him if he was ever the chief.

“No.”

I told him chiefs wore white helmets.

He told me that was right.

I asked him why.

“Because they’re the smartest,” he said, tapping his head as he said it.

His words made sense to me, because I watched ‘Emergency,’ and wanted to be a fireman like Johnny Gage and Roy Desoto on TV. And like my friend the retired fireman who lived four doors down the street from me.

He faded, would spend less time out front under his oak trees talking to kids like me. The cigar smoke remained, though, ever present and tinged with memory. He was still there. I knew. Talks about firemen would come to mind, him and his dusty fire helmet. He simply vanished into the fabric of our neighborhood, gone from the forefront of awareness, somewhere in a smoke-filled haze over Ninth Avenue.

The old man battled dementia. A slow burn. It consumes like fire, absorbs whole, grows by destruction, and digests whatever needed for fuel. Fuel like a life. A reputation. A legacy of helping people escape the heat. But himself unable to escape the flames within.

Those standing with him stood too close, witnessed dementia’s final act played out. They would burn with the husband, father, neighbor, and fireman. They would burn with Mr. Banks. He took his own life, but not before killing his wife and maiming two of his adult children.

The revelation was heavy, freakish, happening where the dusty fire helmet hung in the garage. I felt burned, too.

Idaho native Christopher Ripley got a journalism degree in 1992 from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, AZ. His work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction #42 and #44, Format: micro essay. Check out his blog at talentdmrripley.blogspot.com.