Around 5 am Saturday morning, an NYC police officer buzzed our Brooklyn apartment and gave us a number to call. It was a stark, confusing way to wake up. The officer expected us to know what the number was for, we didn’t. He called to check, perhaps the number wasn’t meant for us.
I was standing in the doorway with just a pair of pants on. Everything seemed a little surreal, and displaced, like i was standing a couple feet behind myself. The officer was on his cell phone. He was very young. My mind was slowly catching up, my body had answered the door on its own really. I began to wonder if some elaborate prank was underway. But he was in proper uniform, including a fire arm.
The visit was not an accident, the number was for us. All the officer knew was there might have been a fire at our cottage in Woodstock. But moments later he said a car may have hit our home. A car hitting out house was the better option, our cottage is up on a hill, a drunk driver would have to work very hard to hit the house. If there had been a car accident, they almost certainly meant the garage, located right along the road. Other than tool storage, I don’t have much attachment to the garage.
The officer left and I called the number, Woodstock’s emergency dispatcher. There was a fire, near our house, possibly our neighbors. All information was broken by long silent stretches as he fielded other calls from the sight of the incident.
Eventually this is what came together. At about 3 in the morning a driver woke our neighbors. They borrowed the phone to report a fire, coming from a home, our home in Woodstock. The fire department responded within a few minutes, but by the time they arrived, the roof had already collapsed, and damage was “extensive”.
Veronica, Niney and I were in the city. No one was inside at the time of the fire. No one was hurt. We are most thankful for that
By the time we reach Woodstock its after 7am, the fire is out. The driveway is blocked by a cop car, and the neighbor’s drive is filled with other emergency vehicles.
It is pouring rain. The season has only begun to turn here, the trees are still barren. The wall of our house are the brightest thing in sight, a gentle mint green that suggests spring. We can see smoke stains rising from all the windows.
This lone wall is the best view of our little home. Closing in we realize it is the only standing remnant. Everything else is leveled, no porch, no roof, no other walls. No color but black. There is a strange smell, not the smell of burning wood. I know the smell of a campfire and love it. This is a different smell.
I knew before we arrived it would be bad. I was braced and I was standing tall, for myself and for Veronica.
Veronica was already in rough shape. She had fallen into an unexplained sadness 2 days earlier. I think it was a preemptive sorrow–a blessing (as well as curse) of being magically intuitive. When the cop first appeared in Brooklyn, I was thinking, “what now?!” But I was approaching it backwards. I should have been thinking, “Now we’ll find out what!”
The extent of the damage makes it easier I think. There is so very little I recognize, it is just a pile of ash and cinder. I can pick out a few appliances, the oven, fridge. I can see most clearly our wonderful wood stove. But everything else is just gone. It is better that way, no half burned furniture, no charred paintings on the wall, no melted toys from my childhood. Nothing to spike a hope of recovery, or pang of loss.
I don’t cry till I see the crawl. Of all the stupid things, I’m walking around the grave site of my home, and I look down into the crawl, and I start to cry.
I fucking hate the crawl. Its dank, its too short to keep from banging my head, the sump pump strays you with water when it kicks on, and the only stuff down there is mechanical. Who gives a shit about their crawl? But now it is the least damaged part of our home. Yes, it is five feet deep in black ashen water, but it never burned. The brand new water pressure tank Francis and I installed is there, floating on its side. The new plumbing I cut my knuckles on is there, fresh pipes running from the water heater to blackened nowhere.
What is needed to develop a relationship is just time and effort, more than friendship or understanding. I have a relationship with this stupid crawl. I put all that stuff down there. The new floor joists are my work. There is a hole where the sump pump sits, a hole cut in solid stone. I know because I chipped it myself. The hardest work in the house has happened down there, and now the crawl has left me, abruptly. Hours of banging my head, cussing and cutting my knuckles is a relationship. Its like an abusive lover has left. Its the only part of the whole house whose passing I should celebrate, but instead I’m crying.
Veronica has asked the firemen to dig in one particular spot. She knows where her journal was kept. All her journals were there, but she is looking for one journal in particular, her wedding gift to me, testament of our love, the singular collection of all our early moments. I journal I have never read. She has lost her proof that we were meant to be together, lost record of all the little omens she received. She has lost the words her grandmother gave her in a dream, the words which became our wedding invitation. She has lost the poems I wrote her, the pressed flowers from our first road trip. She has lost all her childhood photos.
A public adjuster has slinked his way up the driveway. They get 10% of your insurance claim for their services, and they move very quickly. The kitchen is literally still smoking, and a stranger is trying to pull me aside for a business card exchange. Veronica orders him off the property. He does not leave. I sense the anger welling in her, and I separate them immediately.
I have my arm around his shoulder leading him quickly down the drive. He is still proposing to me as Veronica is literally cursing him from above. She is not cussing, she is cursing him. I am trying to protect him, by getting him away as soon as possible.
I reassure myself that he can’t be capable of understanding, or he wouldn’t be here. He must just be missing some basic human ingredient. I try to be understanding. He gets in his car. I return to our… home. Veronica is still yelling. She says something about sadness, about the sadness that will come into his life. From his car window adjuster decides to retort. Maybe he is incapable of understanding that his presence is causing sadness? I’m trying to be understanding.
He yells something at Veronica. And I loose myself. I’m walking, pointing him away. Then I’m running, and my body is halfway through his window. And I have him by his collar and I am screaming. I tell him to never ever speak to my family. I tell him many other things I cannot remember even as I am saying them. Its all rage, but I am sure it was all true. Maybe now he will understand, or maybe his life will just stay sad and confused.
A firemen hands Veronica her journal, matted and wet and burned to a small black oval, maybe having the center portion of many pages will be enough to spark her heart and memory.
When the cops and firemen leave. We pick through the rubble. I help Veronica drag remnants to the garage. They are garbage and I know it, a melted bike frame, a shattered christmas ornament. But I help her.
Then we walk up the hill, and sit. And we see the daffodils, the first sign of spring, clean stalks of green and yellow buds. They return every year, and they have not stopped for this. And the moss is growing, covered in dew. The rain has paused by now and the mist makes everything soft, even the black ashes below. This home was our friend, we have lost a friend. But nature has no surrender, no ending. It will swallow this death in rain, and sun and moss and lichen, and a thousand little creatures will bed in this sorrow and make new life. The mice are probably inside already nesting for children. The pond has eggs and tiny tadpoles. Life here on the hillside is emerging from a deep sleep. And everything will be alright.
If I were as wise and grand as as the land we stand upon I would know it is already all right, as it always has been. I have only forgotten the steps for a moment, but I will fall back into the dance soon. Spring is coming. And we will build again.