The smoke poured out of the house, long grey plumes at the back of the house, clouds of black at the front. Not flames, just smoke, billowing smoke, hay stacks of smoke, curling fingers of smoke, smoke snaking around the eaves, smoke blanketing the roof, smoke climbing the walls and escaping through every orifice, every uncaulked crack, every flaw, every where.
Smoke. Smoke, not flames, not yet. Not what she expected from her house afire, house ablaze, house collapsing in a conflagration. But, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, so she knew the flames were coming, would appear eventually to add color and drama to what was already a worrisome sight, smoke spewing from every opening in the house, a prelude to the final drama, the ultimate destruction, the leveling of everything that was hers. She’d be left with the clothes on her back.
She was quite interested in how readily the clichés came to her. It was comforting. The clothes on her back, where there’s smoke—that kind of thing. She’d spent her life excising platitudes, big red marks on every bromide, quizzical exclamation points in the margins of student papers. But now, in the most dramatic moment of her well-organized, thoughtful life, all she could come up with was a string of predictable metaphors sprinkled with truisms.
Two things happened simultaneously. Just as she was mentally preparing a writing assignment for her third hour class, something either about destruction and loss or high drama and the effects of adrenalin, just as she was forming the assignment: close your eyes and imagine . . ., the first beautiful orange flame licked the shingles of her house, folding them neatly like envelopes, sealing them as they were consumed, and she felt a hand on her shoulder, heard somebody call her ma’am and move her like a mannequin to a place called Safety.
It was a fireman, a ruddy, sturdy, handsome fireman. How predictable. He had the full outfit, helmet, boots, yellow suit with black buckle, even an axe in his left hand and a mustache on his kindly face. Ma’am, he said, as he steered her to Safety, the place he knew that she’d always been most comfortable.
She resisted—as an experiment—to see what he would do, how he would raise the ante, up the stakes. “Ma’am, I have to insist.” Yes, he was trained to be polite, probably one of her students. Did he recognize her? Not yet. If she resisted even more, perhaps he’d scoop her up and carry her to Safety, a damsel in distress, just like in the movies, her very own cliché.
Yes! She held back just enough, until she was hoisted like a rag doll, tossed over his shoulder, and carried off into the sunset.
© 2011 Kathleen Coskran