Seventeen Cents

On Dec. 20, 1990, I was the only one home when our house started burning. These are my recollections, originally written for my web site in 2005.


My hair was in curlers. I was wearing black pumps, black pantyhose, and a Snoopy nightgown. I was watching The New Mickey Mouse Club on television because it was keeping my mind off of the dance I was preparing for later in the evening. My mother and sister had left the house to go shopping. My dad was delivering communion to little old ladies who couldn’t make it to church. It was a typical Friday afternoon… everyone was busy, including me, even though I didn’t look like it on the outside.

There was so much to think about! Who would I dance with? I wanted it to be Topper Caraway, even though I mostly hated him. It just seemed to me that of all the sixth grade boys in the world, Topper was the least repulsive. There was always the possibility that I would meet someone from another church. What would he look like? Would he be taller than me? Wear glasses? Know all the words to a Poison song? Like Guns and Roses as much as I did?

I was jarred from my thoughts by a strong smell that I couldn’t quite place. It was sort of like something was cooking, but I knew my mom wouldn’t leave something in the oven for me to take care of without telling me first. I decided to investigate. I opened the door that separated the living room from the hallway and shrunk back in horror. Black smoke was pouring into the hallway from the ceiling.

The television was still blaring (…”cause Fred and Mowava and the Mousketeers say, ‘We gonna rock right here!’”). Time seemed to speed up so fast it was as if it was tangible, heading for a brick wall where it would shatter and define everything from that moment on. I thought about what to do next. I was only twelve. I didn’t have much life experience to draw on.

I decided to leave everything as it was. There was no mad dash to save one last thing, a question so popular in games of Scruples. Because those things are very easy to think about when you are sitting around your dining room table in pursuit of academic discussion. When the moment hits you, the moment you truly realize that your house is burning down and there is not one damn thing you can do to stop it, waves of utter and complete helplessness wash over you. There is no time to save anything. If you are lucky, you will be dressed at the time, and physically able to get out.

I ran next door to the Brabhams, hoping that someone would be home. If they thought it was unusual that I was on their doorstep in my pajamas and curlers, they didn’t say so. I asked if I could call the Fire Department. I dialed the numbers with shaking hands and gave the dispatcher my address.

It seemed like ages before a fire truck pulled up in front of the house. Perhaps it was, or perhaps it would have seemed like ages no matter what. It was all so surreal. Here I was, in my nightgown and hair curlers, watching every possession that I had ever owned disappear in clumps. I worried about my computer. I worried about the pair of British Knights that my mom had gotten for me the Christmas before. My teeth clenched. The dress that I had bought to wear that night was hanging on a curtain rod in my bedroom. I’d never get it out in time. That’s when it hit me.

I didn’t have any clothes.

It was just about then that my mom and sister drove up, terrified to see a fire truck in front of the house. My mom would recount for many years to come how she drove up into the cacophonic scene, wondering if I’d been able to escape and wailing on the inside for she could not immediately find me.

There was palpable relief in my mother’s face when she went to the neighbors’ and saw me sitting on the couch. I was glad to see them for I was tired of being alone, feeling like this fire was my responsibility to take care of, aching for a grown-up to come along and take the weight off my shoulders. The firemen were doing the real work. But I wanted to be saved of being the only person in the family with the knowing- the stomach churning, bile inducing knot of fear that says, “everything is gone.”

I could rest now. My mother was here. My mother could be the one in charge. I gave myself over to the shock, in such a trance that I don’t remember my father coming home, discussion of what we would do next, or in fact, what actually did happen next. I “woke up” a few hours later at my maternal grandparents’ house. The only thing I remember about those missing few hours was going to a store in Daingerfield called Gibson’s and buying enough clothes for the next few days… and the only reason I remember that is because I hated the clothes at Gibson’s. Wearing clothes like that, with no designer label, would get me murdered in sixth grade. I was uncool enough. In retrospect, I know that it was wonderful to have clothes at all. But that was no use to me then.

Over the next few days, once the fire had subsided, we were able to go back into the house and grab anything that didn’t look totally and completely ruined. What we didn’t know was that once something has been through a fire, even if it hasn’t actually been touched by flame, is ruined.

There is nothing that I have left from that period in my life that doesn’t still reek of smoke… a different kind of smoke. Not the comforting kind. Not Paw-paw’s pipe smoke. Not hickory flavored meat cooking smoke. It’s a dense, acrid kind of smell. One that conjurs images of pain- forest fires in which animals are overtaken… crematoriums… hell.

It was some time later that we learned, through a report, that the fire had been caused when a wire that hadn’t been capped started smoldering in the attic.

Total cost of the cap?

Seventeen cents.

5 thoughts on “Seventeen Cents

  1. it made me realise the small things that we take for granted are so important,and loss is only felt when a certain thing is gone.


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