A year ago today, at around 12:30 in the afternoon, I heard a banging on our front door and nothing will ever really be the same, I guess.
There was a stranger there, a man in his fifties I'd say, and he had a wild look on his face; he had desperate eyes and a serious mouth. It was the look you get when you need to tell someone that their house is on fucking fire.
He stuck around, the guy did.
I don't remember much because it was all such a frantic blur, but he and the woman with him, who, in my narrative of things, is always his wife but who could have been his sister or his cousin or his lover or his bookie for all I know, they stood there with me and my wife as we ran around and stuffed our kids and the dogs in the Honda while we took brief, painful peeks up at the flames bursting out of our highest roof like a mad tank gunner popped up out of his turret screaming "Kill 'em all!"
Looking back now, I never really knew my heart could pound that hard. It just doesn't seem right. I think I probably should have had at least a minor heart attack right there, rockets of pain splintering down my arm, my breath freezing up in my throat somewhere back near my tonsils or something.
But, I didn't.
We're all built a lot hardier than we usually suspect we are. Even in our moments of weakness and helplessness, the majority of us have this little ass-kicking generator that coughs to life enabling us to go into some sort of mode where we become like mentally bionic.
Looking back now, if I had happened to turn around and noticed a mid-sized sedan parked there in my driveway with some sad bastard's feet sticking our from underneath it like the witch under the house in the The Wizard of Oz, I'm pretty sure that I could have lifted that thing up with my two shaking arms and used my boot to drag the person out.That's how hyped I was in the moment.
But, in the end, I couldn't come up with a way to put the fire out.
I just stood there, I remember, in a split-second of freezing January clarity, watching the inferno giving us the finger as it dangled out of my daughter's bedroom window and did its thing.
And yeah, it sucked a donkey's ass, but what are you gonna do, right?
You're gonna do absolutely positively nothing, dude.
Fast forward the tape a few months later and I'm asleep in my mom's house underneath a bear rug hung on a couple nails nailed into the cheapo 1970's wood fake panneling of the 'spare room' which has now become 'my room'/'Serge's room' since I've been living here for the past week.
We were having problems, I guess is how you put it, me and her.
Oh hell, she had taken to hating the way my voice sounded in the morning and the afternoon. And at night. And I had become defensive and edgy and I was getting fatter because I was eating my way through a frozen aisle of the blues and drinking more cans of beer than were universally marked for me by whoever it is out there in the cosmos who assigns us our beers.
I laid there in the bed, the early spring sunshine coming through the country curtains in baseball bat-sized rods as I stared up at the bear's fangs hanging out of his dumbass mouth, a mouth that hadn't mauled a wild apple or a wiggly grub worm in probably 25 years or more and never would again unless someone had the strange notion to drag him out into the yard and shove his shellacked snout down into the mud.
I wanted to go home. I wanted so badly to just go downstairs and not say anything to anybody down there and not even stop at the Mr. Coffee to grab a cup, but just to walk straight out to my car and toss my backpack full of t-shirts and my toothbrush in the backseat and just drive back to this other house we had ended up in as a family after a fire. But I couldn't. I couldn't because I knew my wife was angry at me and I knew that I was angry at her for being angry and everything had just sort of turned to melted butter in my fist.
There I was, underneath that damn car myself.
And no matter how strong you think you are, no matter how strong you've been in the wake of something as nasty as fate can be, you will never ever figure out a way to free yourself when you're pinned under the wheels of something as heavy as two or three tons of real sadness.
Like three days after the fire an insurance inspector came around while we were picking through charred things and packing up the stuff that had survived. He was a big guy who'd driven all the way up here from West Virginia on behalf of our landlord's policy.
I felt like a stone that day. I felt dead inside.
I think I was scared. I can maybe admit that now, but back then I had no clue, of course.
The guy was a dick, asking me to not pack anything away before he could walk around and inspect stuff. There had been so many inspectors at this point that I didn't even care. The State police had been there, the fire marshall. Barack Obama had been there. Al Pacino had stopped in and looked around and didn't say a damn word.
I looked at the insurance guy and I told him okay. But I cut him open with my eyes when I said it and his guts oozed out of his fat belly onto the floor and we both knew it.
When he was done, he asked me some questions and then he started talking about all the things that we could have done as a family to have caused a fire. It took a while, but I slowly understood that he wanted me to tell him that we had set up the charcoal grill there in the living room that day; that we'd messed up/ that we were pyro people. He was just a man with a job to do. A man from West Virginia who had probably been up before dawn warming up his pickup truck as he got ready for the long slog up to Pennsylvania for an inspection. His job was to save a company money.
I didn't know what the hell my job was.
What was I supposed to do?
He finished up his speech and looked at me. I was so sad inside. I was so angry and confused. I told him I wanted to fight him.
He walked away and left.
The house got rebuilt. We're living here again. Life is so big and overwhelming and shitty and wonderful all at the same time, huh?
Or am I trippin?
The guy who pounded on our door and told us to get out of the burning house was holding Henry at one point, I remember that much. The kid wasn't walking yet and we had him wrapped up in a blanket as we struggled to call 911 and ran around scared and shouting and trying to make things right when they were all going pretty wrong.
I remember looking at him whispering into Henry's tiny cold ear and then he handed him off to the lady and she held him tightly to her chest to warm him and comfort him the best that she could.
Before long, the first fire engines roared up and the noise was deafening and the chaos was insufferable and we were all four of us in the Honda parked out on the road, away from the house, pointed towards the unburning horizon so the kids couldn't see anything.
That couple disappeared then. Back into their car they went, the whole scene fading in their rearview mirror. They had to be shaken up, I'm sure.
God, I'd love to buy them each a beer or three.
These days, I laugh in the spots where the flames licked the walls.
Things aren't perfect, mind you; the woman I love still seems annoyed at me whenever I appear in the kitchen bitching about things that I probably shouldn't be bitching about or when I pop my head into the bathroom when she's trying to get ready in the morning and try and steal a glimpse of some boob or some naked ass. But, we're keeping it real...whatever the hell that means.
She loves me. How could she not, right?
My daughter sleeps in her same old room now, between new sheets of drywall painted a lovely piglet pink, a color she picked out herself during this incredible period of time last spring when Monica had said "You can come home" without even saying it and we found out that our landlords, our friends, were repairing the home we had found and lost and were sure we would never set foot in again.
It was a hell of a time to be me, to be us.
You'd never really think that you could paint over scorched hard times with litebright pink, now would you?
And maybe you can't forever, I don't even know. But for now, there is a house here all around me, a house on fire with life and laughing and shouting and names being hollered up the steps and the smell of microwave popcorn and diaper poop where once it was on fire with just plain old boring fire.
I want to take a moment to thank the many, many people, many who we have never even met, who helped us in the wake of our fire last year. Your thoughts, prayers, donations, boxes of clothes and toys, emails, Facebook messages, wishes upon stars...all of it meant more to me and to Monica and to our kids and our dogs than I will ever be able to find the words to say. But please know that the kindness and spirit that you shared with us helped us through the hardest parts. It really truly did. Thank you so much. Onward and upward.