mattress dropped from the charred sill to the ground two floors
below, hitting the sidewalk with a sooty cough. A brief black
exhalation, like a cartoon cloud of doom, puffed out as the
mattress jackknifed then flopped open listlessly, revealing
a wiry black skeleton of spring under the powdery remains
of its incinerated softness. Tangled in the cindery blankets
there was a baby doll, black and greasy with smoke stains.
Half a block away—for safety’s sake—a barefoot little girl
in a long T-shirt looked on from behind her mother, peering
around, standing on tippy-toe.
A man’s home is his castle, I thought to myself, gazing down
on the scene from my office window. It’s where he keeps the
things he fears to lose, where he surrounds himself with the
tokens and talismans of his authority, his identity, his validity.
As the firemen bashed away the last fragments of glass still
stuck in the window frame, then the mullions and the transom
bar as well—leaving only gaping spaces pantomiming shock—and
pitched the smoked possessions to the street, I thought, “This
poor bastard’s been sacked and his stronghold stormed.”
I don’t know the guy who lives in the top-floor apartment
of the building behind my office; we’ve never exhanged so
much as a word. He’s just one of the billions of guys around
the world I don’t know. And I don’t know the names of his
wife or daughter—or, rather, the names of the people I assume
to be his wife and daughter. But sometimes when I’m working
late and staring out the window—in reverie, comtemplation
or the thick of a slack-jawed, glassy-eyed brain freeze—I
see his family through their windows: Mom reading daughter
a story in a bed heaped with stuffed animals, or daughter
spinning and twirling in silly pantless 3-year-old (I’m guessing)
abandon, or sitting in her jammies cuddling a plush pet on
the couch in front of the TV. It’s always been a sweet and
optimistic scene. So it made me sad to see the destruction,
the violation, of that peace—however passing or idle my association
with it may have been.
And looking at that barefoot little girl down on the dirty
sidewalk staring around her mother at the wreckage of her
room now strewn on the asphalt, I wondered where the story
would go from here. Where does this family stay tonight? Do
they have helpful friends in the area? Will an insurance company
put them up somewhere? Who cleans up all the debris—the family
doesn’t have to do that, do they? Sift through the destruction
to try to salvage bits and fragments of the life they took
for granted only hours before? God, they won’t have to stay
in a shelter, will they? That’s no place for a kid. Has the
dad been notified yet? I don’t see him around. Man, what’s
that going to be like, to return from work and find your home,
your castle, trashed, your children half-dressed out on the
street? Hey, can’t someone grab a toy for that little girl?
Run one under the faucet, retrieve something for her so she
doesn’t just have to stand there looking bug-eyed at the carnage
of a baby-doll holocaust. And bring her some shoes, for Christ’s
sake. That’s somebody’s 3-year-old (I’m guessing) daughter.
Would you want your kid out there barefoot and frightened
like that, with the ashes of her home in a pile before her?
I wanted to know that it was all going to be all right for
them, that somehow there were protections in place for people
like this—unlucky people. I want to think that in days or,
at most, weeks, that little girl would be running around her
new apartment, giggling and pantless again, or half submerged
under a fuzzy mountain of Care Bears or Muppets or Power Puff
Girls or whatever the hell other cutesy things it is that
little girls like these days. I wanted to see some indication
that there was a process by which little girls like that are
taken care of, provided for, made safe. That should be a priority,
right? The fire department had dutifully and efficiently—not
to say brutally—dealt with the cause of the problem; now I
wanted to see someone step in and deal with the effect. The
area is secure—now attend to the people, who aren’t. I’ve
seen the action, now I want to see the compassion.
What I saw was some guy with a clipboard show up to give the
little girl’s mother a business card, and another guy with
an electric saw cutting plywood to plug the open frames, to
shut their indignant mouths. I didn’t see where the little
girl went off to; at some point she just wasn’t there. Taken
off to be wrapped in something warm, cuddled and comforted,
I hoped—but who knows? And I didn’t really have the free time
to allow myself to fixate, anyway.
I had to get back to work; I couldn’t spend the whole day
fogging the window with my breath. They’ll make do; they’ll
probably be fine. I had other things to worry about. I had
to make a grocery list and remember to pick up some jarred
food for my own daughter—I was running low on the good stuff
like peaches and applesauce and had only the green beans,
which she seems very near to concluding will never again pass
her lips. And I’ve got some car trouble to figure out. Oh,
and, shit, I still haven’t filed my taxes. Got to do that.
And I haven’t seen a movie in a while, maybe I’ll check one
out this weekend. I wonder what’s playing around? Maybe I’ll
get out to see The Pianist; I liked Brody’s acceptance
speech at the Oscars.
And, oh yeah, there’s always the war to worry about.