Tuesday, February 17, 2009

fire from the sky

The plan crash outside Buffalo was a disturbing horror story. Sitting at home in your living room watching TV - any evening, in fact - you could find yourself under tons of metal pour in through the roof. You could be a cinder before you could move.

Listening to the neighbors’ accounts of the fire that glowed above the treetops, though, it sounded to me like another fire over 20 years ago, one that never made the news.

Perkin’s Alley was an old dirt road down by the railroad between my house, growing up, and the broom handle factory in Corinth, Mississippi. The dirt road and the old shacks there were obscured from view by rows of trees on either side. The story was the shacks had been built for the workers who built the railroad and then abandoned years ago. Squatters lived there now. I used to see them moving around the neighborhood picking poke sallet, a sort of wild greens that nobody ate who could afford to grow or buy food.

There was a bridge over a creek that ran beside the railroad track, where we could duck in and hide from the police late at night when we were up to our mischief, and watch the cop cars roar past on the proper paved roads, one, then another, and another, and get in a good laugh with every one.

One night in the wee hours I was upstairs in our bathroom-sized “TV room” watching our little portable black and white when I noticed a bright orange glow above the treetops. I had been out wandering around at night enough to know the normal glow of the streetlights was cotton candy pink, not like this. I watched this strange orange glow a while and decided to go check it out, just a whim.

I had walked no more than a block when I saw a little knot of people in the street about a block away staring in the direction of the glow. I still couldn’t see what they were looking at for the trees. As I got closer I could see that they had very serious expressions, the kind people find themselves with when they witness a horror they know is part of life, the part of life it’s best not to talk about. It’s not exactly sad. They almost looked sick to their stomachs, not exactly helpless, more like nothing could be done and yet they weren’t sure what to do with themselves.

It was a fire. A solid block of brilliant fire so hot that anyone who tried to approach it got no closer than maybe 50 yards. It was impossible to even see what was burning. But it was Perkin’s Alley. Nobody said a word. There were no firetrucks. Ever.

The next day, and every day for a week, I combed the local newspaper for a story. In this paper a few stolen trash cans made headlines. But there was never one word about the biggest fire I had ever seen. My best friend the Mayor’s boy said the sheriff had set the fire. Apparently he gave the residents “five minutes to pack yer shit and get out” in the middle of the night. Then he lit it up, himself a fire from the sky. And Perkin’s Alley vanished overnight into a sort of no-man’s land between the railroad right-of-way and the broom handle factory. With poke sallet now as big as trees.

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