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Home Again, Home Again



"The sun has riz,
The sun has set,
And here we iz
in Texas yet."

---Burma Shave

I arrived in Georgetown around 10 pm after a long day's drive from Fort Sumner. I threw some uniforms in the wash for the next day. 9/11. I was afraid we'd have to be in a parade or something. I don't want to sound ungrateful, but after 2 days of driving I wanted only to pay bills and cook dinner.

As it turned out, there was a parade, but it was for us, not by us. Starting at noon, what had to be the entire 2nd and 3rd grades of Widen Elementary came trooping through the station, bearing posters and cookies, solemnly shaking our hands. It was wholly charming, and I began to think it wasn't so bad to be a fireman.

We had our first run at 3 pm. Came in as investigation of a previous fire. I had seen nothing on the log about a fire there. I called Dispatch on the radio and asked if this was Code 3 (full speed with lights and siren) or Code 1 (normal driving). They replied that they had the person on the phone, the fire was out, and there was no hurry. So, we took our time in the traffic getting over there.

As we walked in, we were greeted by a wild-eyed German Shepherd trying to get out, and a distinct odor of gas. There was also an overlay of cigarette smoke. Things started moving a little faster. A thickset mumbling man pulled the dog back as we went by him. The deeper we got into the house, the stronger the gas smell. He followed us into a partly demolished kitchen.

"I was trying to do a little remodeling..."

"Sir, stand over there." I could hear gas escaping. There were scorch marks on the wall above the stove. It was behind there. Gas was pouring out back there. I got behind it, found the valve, and cut it off at the wall.

When I turned around, the guy had a huge Stilson wrench in his hand.

"I guess I'm not that strong. I was going to use this...."

"Sir, it's not hard to turn. See the way it is now? That's off. If you put that wrench on it, you'll break it. Please don't touch that valve again until someone else looks at your stove and replaces that line."

He turned around and bumbled over to the table. There was a cigarette burning there, in an ash tray the size of a plate, filled with butts. Somehow I missed that in the rush to the stove. He picked it up.

"Sir, put out that cigarette right now. And let's get some windows open in here."

We left him after a while, with more admonitions. We felt sorry for the poor dog, and his neighbors, and worried that we'd be back at 3 am to find a house demolished and burnt body parts everywhere.

This was our day for odor calls. And close calls. When Gaylon pulled out of the station for the next one, lights and siren blaring, he stopped short sharply at the street and leaned on the air horn. A white Toyota was bearing down on us. He leaned on the horn again, but she kept coming. And coming. She passed in front of us, maybe 2 feet from the bumper. Then she stopped dead in the middle of the street, making us go around her.

Dannyjuan and Dan2 were laughing in the back. I was still trying to recover from whiplash and belt burn.

"Woo-woo, talk at her, Gaylon."

"I speak English, not Jerk."

When we got there, we found a slight odor of gas coming from the meter beside a 1950's mobile home. As I opened the gate to the back yard, one of the neighbors said, "There's 3 pit bulls in there." Whoops. We whisked ourselves back outside until the dogs were rounded up, and then shut off the gas. Southern Union Gas arrived, and we left it to them.

At 8 pm, another gas odor. Why do these things come in threes? Turned out to be new asphalt down the street.

Then a psychiatric at 11. A 17 year old chugged 40 ounces of "Mad Dog 20/20" in maybe 5 minutes, and couldn't figure out why her face felt numb. Because she was on psychiatric medications, she was transported to hospital.

When we got back to the station, someone had brought a small potted rose bush and left it with a poster by the front door. "We won't forget. 9/11" .

Flowers for Firemen, once a year. What a great idea. It changed our luck. We slept all night.

The next morning was full of administrative crap, but no calls. We had to take the generator in for maintenance. Thursday is big station cleanup, and Dannyjuan tore the stove apart. And there was a phone call from a hyperventilating acting chief with delusions of competence. Every minor problem is a crisis with this guy.

But all in all it was an easy shift, a simple shift. Boring. And that's the way I like it. Everybody's better off when firemen are bored.

I had lunch with Sean when I got off. He's looking good. And why not? He's 24. He's selling car loans and taking a creative writing class at night. He's got his whole life in front of him.

I ran errands all afternoon. Towards evening I got to sit down, and thought once again about retiring. I don't have to do this. Every month I stay is another few thousand in an account somewhere, but there's only so much that money can be allowed to decide.

On this trip I glimpsed the possibility of another sort of life, another frame of mind. Do I want to lose that to a chainsmoking amateur carpenter?

Or even to the returning habits of a 30 year man, the narrowing focus that any job brings? I need to decide. I need a new start. I need inspiration. After 2 years, I need a smoke.

I went down to the HEB and bought a fruit plate for breakfast and a cigar for supper. This last is a step not taken lightly by a man who's had a heart attack. But maybe this is a cigar decision. That is, a moment requiring ritual, formality, in recognition that there is no turning back.

One can laugh or cringe at the cigar, according to taste, but everyone has their rituals. This one is mine, or used to be.

So I sat and smoked and invoked an omen in the front yard for an hour or so in the evening, considering the options. The sky above, that in the mountains was an imposing endless black shot with stars, is here almost lavender from the lights of town. Like the milkless bottom of a cereal bowl, it merely waits. Opaque. No omen there.

But wait. There are no stars, but half a moon rises gorgeous from the trees, like a slice of lemon in the sky. Is that a sign? It looks like God's own glowing, knowing smile.

Listen as I might, though, it would not speak to me. Indifferently companionable, crickets are humming golden oldies to themselves. But not to me, tonight. This night is non-commital. Ordinary.

I'm trying too hard. No help here.

Perhaps I should rethink my rituals. In the end, this evening was a purrless cat, a lump in the lap. And now I'm sneezing. Coming down with a cold. Great. And I have a furry tongue as well. Better brush my teeth, and try to dream on this some other time.

But sans Cigar. Definitely sans cigar.

It's hell to be so careful, so sensible. So goddam grown up.

And so back in town.


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