Burning House

Flash-fiction by Mitchell Waldman

Mrs. Rosenfeld pulled my stepbrother Ben and me out of our Hebrew School classes that night to tell us the news. Ben and I met at the front of the synagogue and ran all the way home. We were twelve and it was an adventure to us, each of us wondering if we would be homeless that night. Where would we live? How would we get to school the next day?

This was a week before Hebrew School ended and two weeks before our joint Bar Mitzvahs, the day in Jewish folklore when we would supposedly become “men.”

When we got there four fire trucks were parked in front of the Fishburgs’ house next door, their red cherry lights piercing the twilight evening sky.

I saw faces in the flames, faces of strangers but that were somehow familiar. I thought about relatives of mine who had died in the Holocaust, that subject that no one really talked about at temple, only on one day of the year – Holocaust Remembrance Day. The rest of the year we were just supposed to forget about it, like it had never happened, just go on in the old ways, have faith in that pre-nightmare way — lighting candles on this day and that, telling old stories about Abraham and Isaac, the burning bush, Moses wandering, the parting of the Red Sea, Esther, Mordecai, and Haman, the miraculous oil, and crap like that. But it had happened, no matter what anyone said or didn’t, and now I saw faces of long-bearded men and women with shawls on their heads, with somber looks and penetrating eyes in the middle of the smoke and the orange crackling flames shooting up into the dimming sky.

Big black clouds of smoke were rising into the air, and the flames were licking the sky, almost seemed alive, swaying dangerously close to our house when the slightest of breezes touched them. These were split-level, cookie cutter houses that had been built close together in the sixties, when our parents had bought on the street, with only a ten foot or so patch of grass between their sides.

Our parents were outside, in front of our house, at the front of the crowd that a fireman was trying to push back. My father stood with his arms crossed, my mom clinging to his arm, saying nothing more than “Oh, dear, oh dear.” When they saw us, my mother hugged us and my stepfather pulled us each by the arm, shuttling us into the yellow Chevy Impala. The bags, my dad said, were packed and in the trunk. We were going to a motel for the night.

“Just for the night?” I asked from the dark of the backseat. My brother elbowed me and our father pulled away from the street and the smoke and flames, and didn’t respond.

Then he told us what had happened. Simon, the Fishburgs’ five-year old, had been playing with matches in his room. That had started it. The drapes caught fire and before you know it the furniture and the walls. His parents were lucky to get to him before it got too bad. They had fled as quickly as possible and were safe now, staying at a relative’s.

“So, you see boys, what foolishness can lead to?” our father said.

Neither Ben nor I answered.

“Do you?”

“Yes.” “Yes.” Ben and I answered, echoing each other.

We drove on into the night until we found a motel nearby, a Holiday Inn in town. Ben and I pretended it was a vacation, while my mother cried and my father worked the phone calling neighbors. Ben and I watched movies and ate jujubes and drank grape pop from the vending machine. In one movie, James Cagney played a crook with a machine gun standing in front of his mother’s house as he let go a rain of bullets before taking the hit and being bounced around like a jumping bean when the cops finally got him. An awesome ending. Neither of us daring to ask our parents the question whether we would have a place to live come morning.

But at about seven a.m. the next morning we drove back to the house, neither Dad nor Mom saying a word. When we got there all we saw was the soaked charred top floor of the neighbors’ house and lots of black charred remains on the lawn in front. And next to it, our house totally untouched.

My stepfather pulled us into the driveway and my parents both turned around to us, our mother smiling. She said, “Sometimes you just need to have faith that things will be all right.”

We all got out of the car. I lugged one suitcase, my brother the other, and we went to our front door, smelling that awful burnt smell. Ben and me walking in, our backs straight, jaws set, like the “men” we thought we would soon become.

I, for one, was amazed as we entered the kitchen and realized that everything was the way it had been the night before, everything in its exact place, except for that smell, that awful charred smell in the air. And, as I set the suitcase down in the kitchen, I closed my eyes for a moment and remembered those faces I’d seen in the flames the night before, their sad eyes lodged into my memory. Faith, my mother said. Sometimes, you just need to have faith. And, I think, sometimes the wind just needs to be blowing the right way.

Mitchell Waldman‘s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The Waterhouse Review, Crack the Spine,The Houston Literary Review, Fiction Collective, The Faircloth Review, Epiphany, Wilderness House Literary Magazine, The Battered Suitcase, and many other magazines and anthologies. He is also the author of the novel A Face in the Moon and the story collection Petty Offenses and Crimes of the Heart (Wind Publications), and has served as Fiction Editor for Blue Lake Review. (For more info, see his website at http://mitchwaldman.homestead.com).

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