Saturday, April 1, 2017
Rehearsing for the Fire
Sitting alone in one of the many rooms
(from which I soon noticed there was only one way in and out),
I quietly waited for the doctor to finally knock
and eventually breeze in through the door, interrupting my memorization
of the skeletal chart on his wall, naming all the bones
and the blue-red tangle of nerves--a confused subway map--
as well as my fascination with the plastic puzzle-models of the human heart
and the wrinkled human brain looking something like a sad, deflating football
sunken in its middle, resting on the counter by the sharps-disposal and glove-dispenser
and the gleaming metal sink, so clear I could see my reflection on its sparkling faucet.
Everything smelled so clean and fresh, so antiseptic and scrubbed,
the way it should smell while waiting in a doctor's clinic on a thin skein of white paper...
so unlike the damp, vinegar-mildew scent of the basement
in our old house where I lived during the first part of my life
as a young boy with my family,
that basement that obviously thought nothing of taking in water
through the window wells (those less-than-watertight vases)
where now we stood--my three brothers, myself, and Mom--
listening to Dad going over the procedure
for exiting the house as quickly and safely as possible
in the unlikely event of a fire.
We would grab the nearby stepladder, he pointed out,
and quickly and efficiently slide the latches on the windows
and then kick away the screens to gain soggy access into the wells
and to the rest of our lives. We each got to try our luck
with the latches and the windows, I remember.
Like some carnival-barker, he was: "Step right up, kid!"
though I was only four years old and could barely
reach the windows, let alone the latches,
with my thin, weak bonefingers
(those four-year-old proximal and intermediate and distal phalanges)
so unused to serious work like moving in concert
to save a life.
My young boy's hands in that dank basement were better put
to countless hours spent playing with my brothers and with our toys--
scattered like some motherlode along the dusty rows of wooden shelves.
Matchbox cars. Metal-cast replicas of tractors and trucks.
Plastic Johnny West cowboy figures--
the kind that would sometimes fly apart from overuse,
literally losing their limbs and head, like the worst torture imaginable,
drawn-and-quartered and beheaded all at once.
Until my dad--always frugal and industrious--
discoverered one day how to mend the tired, dismembered cowboys.
Like some frontier doctor himself,
with needlenose-pliers, pins, a hot-glue gun, and rubber bands.
And then--wouldn't you know--those cowboys good as new,
plastic-molded arms and legs all in place once more.
Everything fine--except for the unfortunate head, which would never move again,
glued in place at the base like some stiff-necked plainsman,
never again to casually turn toward a sunset,
or to tilt his head for a kiss from the woman he loves,
or to nonchalantly catch a glance of the lone, mysterious gunman
who carries with him the bullet.
(Always a price to be paid, it seems, for enjoying life one more day.)
These young hands of mine were more used to playing
in that basement with only matters of make-believe, you see.
Certainly nothing like real-life latches and windows and flames.
Those soft young hands were more used to playing
in that basement the thick stack of old 45s on my mother's well-worn
console-stereo--the stack of small, black discs with song-titles like:
"If I Fell," by The Beatles, and The Band's, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."
I had no earthly idea, then, who The Beatles were, of course--being only four.
And The Band's song made no sense to my four-year-old ears and mind.
(Was the song about some girl named "Dixie," I wondered.
And where was she being driven down to? And why?
Perhaps some subway-platform, I thought, to await the Danville train--whatever that was).
I simply knew that for my brothers and me this music
was good. And it was fun. And we quickly learned that leaving up
the arm on the record player saw the needle-stylus
return as if by magic to the abrupt plunk-and-hiss
of the spinning black disc's opening groove, and play
ad infinitum a soundtrack to our lives spent in that basement--
the very basement our dad was trying now to show us how to leave,
if need be. One by one, all of us taking our confused, frightened turns
to rehearse for some fire that he told us could happen...
Or so I was remembering in my appointed room
at the doctor's clean clinic, sitting alone on the table,
taking a break, for a moment, from bones and brain and heart
when the doctor suddenly appeared as promised,
breaking the deathly silence of the grave and memory and
ushering himself into the small room, sitting on a milkmaid's stool
in the close corner of the pristine little room (from which there was no escape).
He looked at me all the while through his fashionable black-rimmed frames
and slowly began to say something.