“Where’s the fire?” my dad asked me. He put out one meaty arm as I ran, grabbing me around the waist like the bar in a roller coaster car that keeps you from flying free. I squirmed, but he laughed and held me fast. “What’s your hurry, Buddy? Don’t you want to talk to your old man?” The sweat from his bare arm soaked into my t-shirt. Up close he smelled like cigarette butts and greasy concrete. “Nothing to say, kid?” He shook me by my middle, dragging my feet across the linoleum until my shoes’ rubber caps squeaked. “Answer me.”
“There’s no fire,” I said. The first time I said it, he laughed, slapped me between my shoulder blades and told me to run along.
The next time, he didn’t laugh. “Are you sassing me? That sounds like sass.”
His open palm smacked the side of my head.
I could never tell how he would react, yet it became the thing we did, the way some fathers tease their children about eating peanut butter or playing too many video games. One friend and his father always exchanged insults about their hair—you look like a girl; at least I’m not bald like you. It was their ritual. This was ours. Even if I wasn’t running, just walking by, my father would ask, “Where’s the fire?” and I would always answer the same way. Only his response changed. A quirked smile. Hands held up, “OK, OK, I’m just asking.” A yank wrenching my arm so my shoulder ached for a week.
At the firehouse now, I polish the engines. The backslapping is all in fun. Because my ears are always ringing, it’s a relief when the alarm sounds. I drop my polishing cloth, rush into my turnout pants. With the siren wailing, cars skitter out of the way—nothing stops us, not even stoplights. We jolt over uneven pavement that lifts us from our seats. We usually see the smear of smoke from far away. We know where the fire is.
Sometimes we get there and discover a false alarm. There is no fire. When that happens, my stomach tenses. I breathe in and out, comforted by the smoke smell in my turnout jacket that reminds me there will always be another fire.
The flames jet from roof. Black smoke boils up. As we lay out the hose, satiny ashes like notepaper sheets ride the fierce air currents. What is written on them? The letters break into dust. I take my ax to the door and then I’m in, smoke darkening everything. Shredded insulation hangs like cobwebs. A flame peeks through a vent, is gone. There’s the fire. Easy snuffing or engulfing flames, I go towards it as I always do.