Sometimes, standing beside a homeowner watching flames devour walls and roofs, or picking up the phone to dial the mother of the man whose crime was spectacular enough to warrant front page treatment, or asking grieving family members to tell me about the deceased, I feel guilty.
Why do I think I have the right to intrude into their sorrow, my pen, unceremonious, taking note of tears, of clothing worn, of pictures on walls or picnic tables wreathed in smoke?
Today was one of those days.
I watched smoke thick and acrid mix with the mist rising off mown cornfields behind the burning house; watched how the frost on each stalk glistened in the sunlight, until the wind shifted and those clouds of smoke came between me and the sun.
Droplets of water turned to mist fell on my face and coat and I stepped back; my clothing still reeks of charcoal and smoke, though I never came nearer than 50 yards of it.
Firemen don’t like my presence at scenes like these. The rural road was closed but someone waived me through and I parked on the edge of it, walked to the edge of the property, and watched. I tried to move forward and they waived me back, until finally they gave up and motioned me past the truck, me stepping carefully over hoses in heeled boots.
“You’re safer on this side,” the fire chief told me, even as the wind shifted again and smoke drifted back across the burning roof.
Now invited to the other side of the firetruck I picked my way around the yard, down to the truck parked out of harm’s way, where the homeowner was watching, buddies gathered around the open windows.
He sat there in the passenger seat, watching jets of water shoot through the walls of what had been his home, and I saw him blinking back tears.
“You can tell me to get lost,” I told him, and probably I shouldn’t say that because what if he does? But it assuages my conscious and I think it does help — shows me to be at least a little sensitive even while I prod.
The fire started in the greenhouse, he said, spread fast to the house. He got out OK, but the house – that he remodeled and lived in for 20 years but that has stood in that hollow backed up against corn fields that run right up the ridge to the tree line for more than a hundred years – will be gone by noon.
“No tomatoes this year,” he said, rueful, blinking again, and I was sorry.
The fire chief told me they just had no luck today, couldn’t reach the flames until it had torn from one end of the roof to the other. Even as I watched they shot out again from an attic window, red and angry under the smoke.
My road home was long and winding and twisted, mostly an undivided country road with countless hairpin turns, now crossing the river, now running alongside, river and railroad tracks to the one hand, fast-rising hills to the other. A sign warned of the winding way, and I laughed. The entire road is winding, how come they picked this one small segment to warn drivers about?
I crossed two grated bridges, heard the engine of the company’s Neon start to whine I as crested one ridge and started down, always rising and falling with the hills. A farm’s name, engraved and painted on fence boards, was apt: A Thousand Hills. And they all melted one into another as far as I could see.
The road turns in Creekside, another aptly named place, a tiny hamlet clustered against the edge of the river.
Only the spelling and pronunciation don’t match: It’s Crickside, no matter how educated you are, because it’s a crick that runs through it.
The water ran fast and cold under the bridge, and on the south side I was almost back.
And I was still thinking about that old house going up in smoke, water falling in a smoky shower over the new back deck, and the tomatoes that took it all with them.