Hardly Noticeable

Monday, October 31, 2005


It was about this time that I began to smell the smoke. I was reminded of the winter, when he had set a plastic garbage can ablaze while drinking with some of his friends. They had been outside at our condo in the city, using a candle to light firecrackers and throw them at a pile of empties they’d set up on the patio. They had rested the candle on the plastic garbage can when they went inside to get some refreshments from the refrigerator. On the way back they were sidetracked by an old episode of Cheers on TV. When they finally made it back outside, the plastic garbage can had become a bubbling, oozing blue mess on the sidewalk that they were never able to clean up no matter how much they chipped at it with a metal ice scraper.
My mother made it outside right before me, and by that time the picnic table was fully engaged in becoming ashes rather than a picnic table. It was covered with a patina of burns, the oak barely distinguishable. My mother quickly ran over to the grill, turned it off, and pushed it around the garage, struggling as the wheels got caught up as it moved through the grass. I stood on the first step of the back stoop, mystified. I couldn’t move, but a slight smile was wrinkling the corners of my mouth. It wasn’t because I was glad my father got his comeuppance—at that age I would have never thought that way—but at the ridiculousness of the situation. When I saw the chicken burning, I felt my legs get heavy. I put my thumb in front of my eye and blocked out just the chicken burning, everything else I left.
My father came back around the house from his trip to the hose and tossed another bucket of water on the table. The flames laughed, cackling at the futile attempt to stanch their conquering force. The water seemed just to enrage them further, and they rose higher into the sky. My father again ran back around the house to fill his bucket, but this time my mother followed him.
My face had by now lost its smile. I couldn’t keep the chicken out of my view, and I didn’t know what to do, as I had not yet been imbued with the weathered umbrella of common sense that comes only after making costly mistakes. I first walked towards the garage, then back towards th house, then towards the picnic table, then backed up, then put my hands out in front of me and clenched and unclenched my fists rapidly, as if I were able to quench the flames through sheer force of will.
My mother returned, dragging the hose along with her. The hose was tipped with a pistol-like nozzle that could control the flow of water, making it capable of a wide, rainbow-inducing mist or a strong, focused jet. She squeezed the trigger tightly and focused all its power at the base of the flames. The water quickly cut down the fire, as the oil had been consumed by now and what was left was an out-of-control wood fire. What had once been a cause for concern was now a minor annoyance, the little flames dancing like butterfly wings.
“What happened?” my mother asked. “Why the hell were you running back and forth with the bucket instead of grabbing the hose?”
“I don’t know. I don’t—“ he began.
“Your eyebrows are gone,” she said. She chuckled and then grew serious. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I closed the lid when I went to get the matches—the gas was running, obviously. Dumb, dumb, dumb,” he said.
My mom went over to my father and hugged him tightly, squeezing him as though she were afraid he would melt if she let him go. I still stood on the stoop clenching and unclenching my fists. My eyes were glazed and fixed upon the picnic table. It was chaotic, destroyed, beautiful. The fire had cut ribbons of black across the surface of the tannin-colored oak. The turpentine fire had left a cloudlike scorch where it had spilled out. The rivulets of oil and stray splatters of turpentine created angels in the charred wood, all of them worshipping at the feet of a cloudlike deity of destruction. I mouthed the word wow and turned around and walked to my room.

My father would have said that turpentine caused the fire. I am not so sure. Perhaps I am some minor prophet. Maybe a Hezekiah, an Amos, perhaps an Obadiah. I am no Jeremiah, but I am something. Because those words, I wrote them without writing them, they existed even before I did. I am Gabriel. My name is Gabriel. Those words were through me but not of me. The silence that swirled around me congealed into words with power, words with actions. I had written that the chicken would burn, and it burned. Written and fulfilled.


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