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Home Front

The 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.

—John Rodat

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