Thursday, January 05, 2012

Sunday Supper (February 2, 2003)

Mr. Fliegel, my sixth grade teacher, once told me that you can’t write a story where you put a turkey in the oven without taking the turkey out of the oven before the end of the story. This story starts with Sunday supper. The main course in question is not a turkey, but a potato and kale casserole. It is seven o’clock on the evening of February 2, 2003. Sam Decker is in the kitchen preparing dinner for the family. He is grating cheese on a warped wooden cutting board on the counter next to the stove, where the potatoes are boiling. The kale is washed and in a colander in the sink, ready to go. A buttered white casserole sits next to the cutting board.

It is a Sunday evening like so many others. Sam Decker is in the kitchen; the other Deckers are spread around the seven room apartment. From front to back, from youngest to oldest: Dinah is doing homework in the dining room, her books and papers strewn across the polished table, headphones over her ears. Henry and Charlie are in their bedroom glued to a video game. I am in my bedroom curled up on the beat-up sofa, half of my attention on the files I am reading for work, the other half listening to the television, waiting for the stop watch tick that signals the start of 60 Minutes. The three cats, Judy and Lola and Betty, are lounging on my bed. Somewhere near the front of the apartment, the dogs, Pink and Miss Joan Rosen, bark a “someone is at the door” warning. And Sam’s voice moves down the hall, calm but pitched a notch too high. “OK,” he says, “Everybody get out. There’s a fire.”

We gather shoes and coats and leash the dogs and go out in the hallway. With our neighbors we move towards the stairs. There is smoke coming out of the apartment at the head of the staircase, and the firemen are already there, and they tell us to go back. I am the daughter of a cop; I respect authority. It is not until much later, in the middle of that first night spent on someone’s beat up sofa, that I think about the World Trade Center, about Tower Two, about the people who stayed at their desks while the world collapsed beneath their feet.

So we go back to our apartment. We wander, calm but pitched a notch higher. I try to remember what to do in a fire. It seems silly to crawl, so I wet towels; I wait for the firemen. The fire escape is in the front of the apartment, off Dinah’s room. The smoke is stronger there. The firemen said to stay. I wait for the firemen. I wet more towels. We move the kids and the dogs towards the back of the apartment. I go to the closet for the cat carrier, then remember I gave it away. I can’t find the cats. I wet more towels.

I move to the front of the apartment to block the door. It’s only been five minutes since the firemen told us to go back but the smoke is so thick I can barely see, I can barely breathe. As I stuff my towels under the door I glance up, and the calm leaves me as I see thick black smoke billowing through the walls like fog rolling down a hill. I cannot see, I cannot breathe. I take a lungful of smoke, thick black and viscous as oil slicked water. The calm returns as I realize I have to keep my children alive, keep them from drowning in smoke.

We gather – Sam and me and Charlie and Henry and Dinah and Pink and Joan – in the boys’ bedroom at the very back of the apartment. Sam is on the cell phone. I hear him use the word “trapped.” Dinah is weeping for Betty, her favorite cat. I clutch her hand tightly, afraid she will bolt into the smoke. I am beginning to make choices. I assure her that Judy and Lola and Betty have found a safe spot, that cats are smart, that they will be fine. If I am lying, it is a white lie. To keep calm I have to believe it is the truth.

I herd my children to the window, where there is air but no escape. We are on the sixth floor, the top floor. The only fire escape is in the front of the apartment, drowned in smoke. I glance over my shoulder and see the smoke creeping under the bedroom door. I lean out the window and call for help. There is a crowd below staring at me screaming, and I feel silly. I lock eyes with a fireman on the ground. “Stay where you are,” he calls. His voice is calm. I stop screaming and wait for the firemen.

I have watched news footage of people being evacuated from apartments on fire truck ladders. I have watched with fleeting interest, my main though being “I could never do that.” But the thing is, when the ladder is there, when there is smoke at your back, you do it. When there is smoke at your back, even if you have no respect for authority, you do exactly as you are told. The hard part is making choices, realizing that only one person goes down the ladder at a time. The hard part is deciding who goes first.

Last summer, on vacation, the Deckers devised a system for taking showers when returning sandy from a day at the beach. We went in age order, youngest to oldest, with Dinah going first.

My fireman’s name is Patrick, and his eyes are icy blue and calm. He takes Dinah down the ladder, then Henry, then Charlie. And then it is me and Sam. I am one year and five months older than Sam, and last summer, a thousand summers ago, I always took the last shower. Now, he gently pushes me towards Patrick. “I’m the Dad,” says Sam Decker, and makes me go before him.

Patrick talks to me all the way down the ladder. He grabs one ankle and places it on a rung, then the other. “Don’t look down,” he says. I have no idea how long it takes. I feel silly in my pajamas and heavy coat, shamed in Patrick’s icy calm presence. “I’m sorry my butt’s in your face,” I babble, “it’s not my best angle.” “Don’t look down,” he says, placing one ankle on a rung, then the other.

I join my children on the ground. Dinah had been weeping as she went through the window in Patrick’s arms, but now she is calm. Someone has wrapped her in a blanket, put a cap on her head at a jaunty angle, handed her a Coke. A young girl I have never seen before and will probably never see again hugs me, offers water, a place to sleep. In the days to come I will continue to be awed by simple acts of kindness from strangers.

Dinah is ten, but her eyes are as wide and wondering as a two-year-old as she looks up the ladder at her father, framed in smoke at the window, waiting for Patrick. Charlie and Henry are 16 and 10, respectively. In two years, Charlie will be old enough to fight in a war. If we lived in Louisiana, Henry would be two years away from a learner’s permit. Now, on the ground, staring at their father framed in smoke, these are my babies.

The crowd keeps a respectful distance as my children and I watch Patrick guide Sam down the ladder. I note with inordinate pride that Sam needs no one to grab and place his ankles; he moves swiftly and steadily to join his family on the ground, away from the smoke. Reunited, the Deckers stand at the corner of 181st Street and Fort Washington Avenue, in front of the churchyard, across the street from our burning building. The flames, thankfully, are on the courtyard side; we can’t see them. We watch the smoke billowing from the windows of what I hope we can still call our home.

Patrick does not go back for the dogs; firemen make choices, too. We respect the firemen and watch the smoke billow from Dinah’s room, from the dining room, from the living room, from the kitchen, from the bathroom. Sam tells us that he put Pink and Joan on the bottom bunk of the boys’ bed and told them to stay. He assures us the smoke isn’t so bad in that back bedroom, that they’ll be OK. If he is lying, it is a white lie.

Sam takes the children to a neighbor’s house down the street and comes back to watch the smoke. A fireman I have never seen before, not Patrick, assures us that when he was checking apartments for people he saw our dogs, that they are OK. Do firemen tell white lies? We watch the smoke for three hours, then go to a nearby church where our displaced neighbors have gathered. I have walked by this church countless times since we moved to the neighborhood 11 years ago, but I have never been inside. There are old folks in bathrobes, babies in strollers, dogs without leashes, cats in carriers, a bird in a cage. It is very quiet.

The Red Cross arrives and we register as disaster victims. A Fire Marshall comes in to tell us the situation is under control; Sam goes back for the dogs. I follow a few minutes later and wait for a long time until Sam emerges with Pink and Joan on leash, greasy and stinky but alarmingly perky. Sam has tears on his cheeks. He explains that it took so long because the fireman who took him up helped him find the cats. Lola and Betty didn’t make it, and Judy was nowhere to be seen.

The children are asleep when Sam and I get to the friends down the street who have offered to put us up. I spend the first of many nights on someone else’s couch. In the middle of the night I get up to blow my nose. The tissue is black.

* * *

Question: if you had five minutes to grab what is important to you from what used to be your home, what would you take? I took my wedding album and the files I had been reading for work. Sam, for reasons only he could explain, grabbed a container of deodorant. He was reaching into his closet when he leapt back as if he had been burned. There was an outraged “Meow,” and Judy, who was always the smartest kitty if not the sweetest, emerged from the pile of sweaters she had burrowed herself in. She barely smelled of smoke. As I carried her from the apartment, I stopped in the kitchen for a towel to wrap her in. The cheese sat on a warped wooden cutting board on the counter next to the stove, where the potatoes still sat in the pot. The kale was in a colander in the sink. The buttered white casserole was next to the cutting board. Everything was ready to go, except it was covered by a thick film of black smoke residue.

There you go, Mr. Fliegel – the turkey is out of the oven.


rosi-r said...

You have a rare gift. Thanks for giving us a little taste. But now I want more.

Anonymous said...

Rosi! How lovely to see you, and thank you for your kind words. xoxT

Rozaroni said...

I'm with Rosi - I want more.

Terri H. said...

it's old stuff I'm reapproaching slowly ... written almost 10 years ago now ... more later. xox

KnittingReader said...

Please write more--I'm amazed by your writing.

I'd grab our cat, wedding pictures, a quilt my grandmother made, and cry about the yarn I'd have to leave behind.

ZantiMissKnit said...

Terri, I love you, and I am going to share this with Mike, if you don't mind. I really think you should be writing books.

Terri H. said...

...ZantiMK, of course you can share with Mike ... if he sends me 5 dollah (I kid, I kid; and thanks xox)

Fi said...

Fire is, and always has been, my greatest fear. When I was a kid, if there was a fire drill at school, the teachers knew they had to come find me specifically because I was liable to pass out from fear (not the best survival tactic, really).

Years later, I walked over fire, and much of my fear has become slight panic when I think of it, but it doesn't make me faint. Touch wood. I do, however, have a whole bunch of things I do just in case - all my photos are uploaded to the net, as are many of my files, just in case. They are some of my most precious things. I scanned and uploaded the ultrasound of my baby that wasn't to be, just in case.

I would take my cat, maybe my wedding album if I could, and probably stupid random stuff I thought I needed in the haze of panic.

Terri H. said...

Fi, the idea of flames is really something I won't even think about. The smoke was scary (and deadly) enough. xoxT