The quaint gray house across the way with its peaked roof and moss-covered wooden shingles is abandoned.
For the last few days, the firefighters—eight of them—have converged with their trucks in front of the house to train for the job they do.
They are there now, in their bulky black suits with the bright stripes of yellow-green reflective material on the chests, elbows, wrists, hem of jackets, cuffs of pants. When missions are accomplished, and jackets come off, their suspenders are revealed. For whatever reason, their uniforms remind me of something out of a Jules Verne story. I don’t know why. They are journeying not to the center of the earth or the bottom of the sea, but to the hidden places of a house I’ve never been in, though I’ve lived across from it for nearly eight years. I was never invited inside, though someone once sloppily spray-painted a peace sign on the dilapidated basket ball hoop.
Peace, neighbors, wherever you are.
The firefighters set ladders on the roof and go in that way. Or they enter through the boarded up doors and windows. The lights on their hats cut thin, white beams through the thick smoke that billows from inside. After some time, they emerge with brown dummies slung indecorously over their arms and shoulders. The dummies are very like the articulated wooden figures that artists use for reference to draw women, children, and men. They have the same teardrop shaped heads, blunted point for a chin. Perhaps women and children first, the firefighters fling these bodies on the muddy ground. They land, limbs akimbo.
Once there was a garden where the mud is now. Even last spring, when rumor had it, homeless people were squatting inside, the yard was a lush bed of little purple flowers, surrounded by tall trees. I never went into the backyard, but a neighbor told that not four decades ago, and even more recently than that, the garden there could have won awards for its ferns alone. An artist lived there then, the father of the most recent generation of owners. He carved magical figures from wood. Mushrooms and fey woodland creatures. The neighbor wonders where they have all gone.
When we first moved into our house, the couple across the way would decorate the rustic wooden fence with greenery. I thought even then when things were clearly a bit more ramshackle than they might have been, that the little gray house was like something out of the Ideals catalog my mother used to read. The fence has gone the way of the little purple flowers and the tall trees. The stone walkway is gone. There is only mud, and the last brown dummy that I truly wish someone would pick up. Resuscitate her, I want to say. She is naked and cold and dirty. She would be humiliated if she had a brain in her teardrop head. Make her comfortable, or if it’s too late for that, cover her up.
Yesterday on Halloween, I photographed my son and his friends in front of the gray house. For the first time in his life, my son wore a scary mask and taloned hands. His Cardinals uniform from Fall Ball finished the ensemble, along with a whiffle ball gat. He was a zombie baseball player. He loved his costume. I did not. I loved him beneath it. I thought the gray house was the perfect backdrop for the occasion. I moved closer to the boys; I wanted to photograph their delighted faces, and the scary mask that hid my son’s beautiful face. Next thing I knew, something in my step set off an alarm. The house beeped, blared, and buzzed, and an inhuman voice warned us to stand back, stand away, stand back, stand away.
My son, in his startling mask, was startled, as were his friends, as was I. We bolted.
The house will be razed soon. There are rumors around that—why and how and what will happen next. For some months, as winter sets in, most likely nothing will happen at all. We will watch the snow settle on an empty lot.
For now I just want the firefighters to pick up that faceless, brown body from the muddy ground. I want them to do right by her. Except for the fact that they have yet to do this, the firefighters make me feel safe. I don’t have brothers. I allow myself to feel that they are my brothers.
And then I look out again and she is gone. She is somewhere safe, I tell myself, until the next time she is called upon to do her job, to help my brothers, help my neighbors, help me, firefighting.