Waldorf Do You Think the Reader Is Expected to View Kirby and Mary Ann’s Marriage as A Good One?

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Waldorf Do You Think the Reader Is Expected to View Kirby and Mary Ann’s Marriage as A Good One?

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3 full pages double spaced total


For this writing assignment, you were asked to read “The Fireman” by Rick Bass. Write an essay that analyzes “The Fireman” as a story about marriage. Specifically, do you think the reader is expected to view Kirby and Mary Ann’s marriage as a good one? Why or why not?

————————-Please follow this structure carefully—————————————

1. . 5 paragraphs in total, 1 introduction, 3 body paragraphs and 1 conclusion

2. . Introduction should have a thesis statement, which proper response to the question — do you think the reader is expected to view Kirby and Mary Ann’s marriage as a good one? Why or why not?.

3. For each paragraph, you should have a top sentence that support your thesis statement.

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“The Fireman” by Rick Bass 5 10 15 20 25 30 They both stand on the other side of the miracle. Their marriage was bad, perhaps even rotting, but then it got better. He–the fireman, Kirby, knows what the reason is–that every time they have an argument, the dispatcher’s call sounds, and he must run and disappear into the flames–he is the captain–and while he is gone, his wife, Mary Ann, reorders her priorities, thinks of the children, and worries for him. Her blood cools, as does his. It seems that the dispatcher’s call is always saving them. Their marriage settles in and strengthens, afterward, like some healthy, living, supple thing. She meets him at the door when he returns, kisses him. He is grimy–black, salt-stained and smokysmelling. They can’t even remember what the argument was about. It’s almost like a joke–the fact that they were upset about such a small thing–any small thing. He sheds his bunker gear in the utility room and goes straight to the shower. Later, they sit in the den by the fireplace and he drinks a few beers and tells her about the fire. Sometimes hell talk about it till dawn. He knows he is lucky–he knows they are both lucky. As long as the city keeps burning, they can avoid becoming weary and numb. Always, he leaves, is drawn away, and then returns, to a second chance. The children–a girl, four, and a boy, two–sleep soundly. It is not so much a city that they live in, but a town–the suburbs on the perimeter of the city–and it could be nameless, so similar is it to so many other places: a city in the center of the southern half of the country–a place where it is warm more often than it is cold, so that the residents are not overly familiar with fires–the way a fire spreads from room to room, the way it takes only one small errant thing in a house to invalidate and erase the whole structure–to bring it all down to ashes and send the buildings former occupants–the homeowners, or renters, or leasers–out wandering lost and adrift into the night, poorly dressed and without direction. They talk until dawn. She is his second wife; he is her first husband. Because they are in the suburbs, unincorporated, his is a volunteer department. Kirby’s crew has a station with new equipment all they could ask for but there are no salaries, and he likes it that way; it keeps things purer. He has a day job as a computer programmer for an engineering firm that designs steel girders and columns used in industrial construction: warehouses, mills, and factories. The job means nothing to him: he slips along through the long hours of it with neither excitement nor despair, his pulse never rising; and when it is over each day he says good-bye to his coworkers and leaves the office without even the faintest echo of his work lingering in his blood. He leaves it all the way behind, or lets it pass through him like some harmless silver laxative. But after a fire–holding a can of cold beer, and sitting there next to the hearth, scrubbed clean, talking to Mary Ann–telling her what it had been like–what the cause had been, and who among his men had performed well, and who had not–his eyes water with pleasure at his knowing how lucky he is to be getting a second chance, with every fire. 35 He would never say anything bad about his first wife, Rhonda–and indeed, perhaps there is nothing bad to say–no fault or failing in which they were not both complicit. It almost doesn’t matter; it’s almost water under the bridge. The two children asleep in their rooms; the swing set and jungle gym out in the backyard. The security of love and constancy–the safety. Mary Ann teaches the children’s choir in church, and is as respected for her work with the children as Kirby is for his work with the fires. 40 45 It would seem like a fairy-tale story; a happy marriage, one which turned its deadly familiar course around early into the marriage, that day he signed up to be a volunteer for the fire department, six years ago. One of those rare marriages, as rare as a jewel or a forest, that was saved by a combination of inner strength as well as the grace and luck of fortuitous external circumstances–the world afire. Who, given the chance, would not choose to leap across that chasm between a marriage that is heading toward numbness and tiredness, and one that is instead strengthened, made more secure daily for its journey into the future? And yet–even on the other side of the miracle, even on the other side of luck, a thing has been left behind. It’s almost a perfect, happy story; it’s just this side of it. The one thing behind them–the only thing–is his oldest daughter, his only child from his first marriage, Jenna. She’s ten, almost eleven. 50 There is always excitement and mystery on a fire call. It’s as if these things are held in solution, just beneath the skin of the earth, and are then released by the flames as if the surface of the world, and the way things are, is some errant, artificial crust–almost like a scab–and that there are rivers of blood below, and rivers of fire, rivers of the way things used to be and might some day be again–true but mysterious, and full of power, rather than stale and crusty. 55 It does funny things to people–a fire, and that burning away of the thin crust. Kirby tells Mary Ann about two young men in their thirties–lovers, he thinks–who, bewildered and bereft as their house burned, went out into the front yard and began cooking hamburgers for the firefighters as the building burned down. 60 65 70 He tells her about the man with a house full of antiques in a house that could not be salvaged. The attack crew was fighting the fire hard, deep in the buildings interior–the building “fully involved,” as they say to one another when the wood becomes flame, air becomes flame, world becomes flame. It is the thing the younger firemen live for–not a smoke alarm, lost kitten, or piddly grass fire, but the real thing, a fully involved structure fire–and even the older firemen’s hearts are lifted by the sight of one. Even those who have been thinking of retiring (at thirty-seven, Kirby is far and away the oldest man on the force) are made new again by the sight of it, and by the radiant heat, which curls and browns and sometimes even ignites the oak leaves of trees across the street from the fire. The paint of cars that are parked too close to the fire sometimes begins to blaze spontaneously, making it look as if the cars are traveling very fast . . . . Bats, which have been out hunting, begin to return in swarms, dancing above the flames, and begin flying in dark agitated funnels back down into the chimney of the house that’s on fire, if it is not a 2 75 winter fire–if the chimney has been dormant–trying to rescue their flightless young, which are roosting in the chimney, or sometimes the attic, or beneath the eaves. The bats all return to the house as it bums down, but no one ever sees any of them come back out. People stand around on the street-their faces orange in the firelight and marvel, hypnotized at the sight of it, not understanding what is going on with the bats, or any of it; and drawn, too, like somnambulists, to the scent of those bloodrivers, those vapors of new birth that are beginning already to leak back into the world as that skin, that crust, is burned away. The fires almost always happen at night. 80 85 90 95 100 105 This fire that Kirby is telling Mary Ann about–the one in which the house full of antiques was being lost–was one of the great fires of the year. The men work in teams, as partners–always within sight, or one arm’s length contact of one another, so that one can help the other if trouble is encountered–if the foundation gives way, or a burning beam crashes across the back of one of the two partners, who are not always men; more and more women are volunteering, though none have yet joined Kirby’s crew. He welcomes them, as from what he’s seen from the multiple-alarm fires he’s fought with other crews in which there are women fire fighters, the women tend to try to outthink, rather than outmuscle the fire, which is almost always the best approach. Kirby’s partner now is a young man, Grady, just out of college. Kirby likes to use his intelligence when he fights a fire, rather than just hurling himself at it and risking getting sucked too quickly into its loomagain maw and becoming trapped–not just perishing, in that manner, but possibly causing harm or death to those members of his crew who might then try to save him–and for this reason Kirby likes to pair himself with the youngest, rawest, most adrenaline-rich trainees entrusted to his care–to act as an anchor of caution upon them; to counsel prudence and moderation, even as the world bums down around them. The fire in the house of antiques–Kirby and Grade had just come out to rest, and to change oxygen tanks. The homeowner had at first been beside himself, shouting and trying to get back into his house, so that the fire marshal had had to restrain him–he had the homeowner bound to a tree with a canvas strap–but now the homeowner was watching the flames almost as if hypnotized. Kirby and Grady were so touched by his change in demeanor–by his coming to his senses–the man wasn’t struggling any longer, was instead only leaning out slightly away from the tree, like the masthead on a ship’s prow, and sagging slightly–that they cut him loose so that he could watch the spectacle of it in freedom, unencumbered. He made no more moves to rejoin his burning house, only stood there with watery eyes–whether tears of anguish, or irritation from the smoke, they could not tell–and taking pity, Kirby and Grady put on new oxygen tanks, gulped down some water, and though they were supposed to rest, they went back into the burning building and began carrying out those pieces of furniture that had not yet ignited, and sometimes even those which had–burning breakfronts, flaming rolltop desks–and dropped them into the man’s backyard swimming pool for safekeeping, as the tall trees in the backyard crackled and flamed like giant candles, and floating embers drifted down, scorching whatever they touched; and the neighbors all around them climbed up onto their cedar-shingled roofs in their pajamas and with garden 3 110 115 120 125 hoses began wetting down their own roofs, trying to keep the conflagration, the spectacle–the phenomenon–from spreading. . . . The business of it has made Kirby neat and precise. He and Grady crouched and lowered the dining room set carefully into the deep end (even as some of the pieces of furniture were still flickering with flame), releasing them to sink slowly, carefully to the bottom, settling in roughly the same manner and arrangement in which they had been positioned, back in the burning house. There is no longer any space or room for excess, unpredictability, or recklessness; these extravagances can no longer be borne, and Kirby wants Grady to see and understand this, and the sooner the better. The fire hoses must always be coiled in the same pattern, so that when unrolled, they can be counted upon; the male nozzle must always be nearest the truck, and the female, farthest. The backup generators must always have fresh oil and gas in them and be kept in working order; the spanner wrenches must always hang in the same place. The days go by in long stretches, twenty-three-and-a-half hours at a time, but in that last half hour, in the moment of fire, when all the old rules melt down and the new world becomes flame, the importance of a moment, of a second, is magnified ten thousand–fold is magnified to almost an eternity, and there is no room for even a single mistake. Time inflates to a density greater than iron. You’ve got to be able to go through the last half hour, that wall of flame, on instinct alone, or by force of habit, by rote, by feel. 140 An interesting phenomenon happens when time catches on fire like this. It happens to even the veteran firefighters. A form of tunnel vision develops–the heart pounding two hundred times a minute, and the pupils contracting so tightly that vision almost vanishes. The field of view becomes reduced to an area about the size of another man’s helmet, or face: his partner, either in front of or behind him. If the men ever become separated by sight or sound, they are supposed to freeze instantly, and then begin swinging their pike-staff, or a free arm, in all directions; and if their partner does the same, and is within one or even two arms’ lengths, their arms will bump one another, and they can continue–they can rejoin the fight, as the walls flame vertical, and the ceiling and floors melt and fall away. The firefighters carry motion sensors on their hips, which send out piercing electronic shrieks if the men stop moving for more than thirty seconds. If one of those goes off, it means that a firefighter is down–that he has fallen and injured himself, or has passed out from smoke inhalation-and all the firefighters stop what they are doing and mm and converge on the sound, if possible, centering back to it like the bats pouring back down into the chimney. 145 A person’s breathing accelerates inside a burning house–the pulse leaps to over two hundred beats a minute–and the blood heats, as if in a purge. The mind fills with a strange music. Sense of feel, and the memory of how things ought to be, becomes everything; it seems that even through the ponderous, fire-resistant gloves, the firefighters could read Braille if they had to. As if the essence of all objects exudes a certain clarity, just before igniting. 130 135 Everything in its place; the threads, the grain of the canvas weave of the fire hoses, is canted such that it tapers back toward the male nipples; if lost in a house fire, you can crouch on the floor and with your 4 bare hand–or perhaps even through the thickness of your glove, in that hyper-tactile state–follow the hose back to its source, back outside, to the beginning. 150 The ears–the lobes of the ear, specifically–are the most temperature-sensitive part of the body. Many times the heat is so intense that the firefighters’ suits begin smoking and their helmets begin melting, while deep within, the firefighters are still insulated and protected, but they are taught that if the lobes of their ears begin to feel hot, they are to get out of the building immediately: that they themselves may be about to ignite. 155 It’s intoxicating; it’s addictive as hell. 160 165 170 175 180 The fire does strange things to people. Kirby tells Mary Ann that it’s usually the men who melt down first–who seem to lose their reason sooner than the women. That particular fire in which they sank all the man’s prize antiques in the swimming pool in order to save them–that man becalmed himself, after he was released from the tree (the top of which was flaming, dropping ember-leaves into the yard, and even onto his shoulders, like fiery moths), and he walked around into the backyard and stood next to his pool, with his back turned toward the burning house, and began busying himself with his long-handled dip net, laboriously skimming–or endeavoring to skim–the ashes from the pool’s surface. Another time–a fire in broad daylight–a man walked out of his burning house and went straight out to his greenhouse, which he kept filled with flowering plants and where he held captive twenty or more hummingbirds of various species. He was afraid that the fire would spread to the greenhouse and burn up the birds, so he closed himself in there and began spraying the little birds down with the hose, as they flitted and whirled from him, and he kept spraying them, trying to keep their brightly-colored wings wet so they would not catch fire. Kirby tells Mary Ann all of these stories–a new one each time he returns–and they lie together on the couch until dawn. The youngest baby, the boy, has just given up nursing; Kirby and Mary Ann are just beginning to earn back moments of time together–little five- and ten-minute wedges of time–and Mary Ann naps with her head on his fresh-showered shoulder, though in close like that, at the skin level, she can still smell the charcoal, earl taste it. Kirby has sears across his neck and back, pockmarks where embers have landed and burned through his suit, and she, like the children, likes to touch these; the small, slick feel of them is like smooth stones from a river. Kirby earns several each year, and he says that before it is over, he will look like a Dalmatian. She does not ask him what he means by “when it is all over,” and she holds back, reins back like a wild horse to keep from asking the question, “When will you stop?” Everyone has fire stories. Mary Ann’s is that when she was a child at her grandmother’s house, she went into the bathroom and took off her robe, laid it over the plug-in portable electric heater, and sat on the commode; but as she did so, the robe quickly leapt into flame. The peeling old wallpaper caught on fire, too–so much flame that she could not get past–and she remembers even now, twenty-five years later, how her father had had to come in and lift her up and carry her back out-and how that fire was quickly, easily extinguished. 5 185 190 But that was a long time ago and she has her own life, needs no one to carry her in or out of anywhere. All that has gone away, and vanished; her views of fire are not a child’s, but an adult’s. Mary Ann’s fire story is tame, it seems, compared to the rest of the world’s. She counts the slick, small oval sears on his back: twenty-two of them, like a pox. She knows he is needed. He seems to thrive on it. She remembers both the terror and the euphoria, after her father whisked her out of the bathroom: as she looked back at it–at the dancing flames she had birthed. Is there greater power in lighting a fire, or in putting one out? He sleeps contentedly, there on the couch. She will not ask him–not yet. She will hold it in for as long as she can, and watch–some part of her desirous of his stopping, but another part not. 195 She feels as she imagines the street-side spectators must, or even the victims of the fires themselves, the homeowners and renters: a little hypnotized, a little transfixed; and there is a confusion, as if she could not tell you, nor her children–could not be sure–whether she was watching him burn down to the ground, or was watching him being born and built up, standing among the flames, like iron being east from the earth. She sleeps, her fingers light across his back. She dreams the twenty-two sears are a constellation in the night. She dreams that the more fires he fights, the safer and stronger their lives become. 200 She wants him to stop. She wants him to go on. 205 They awaken on the couch at dawn to the baby’s murmurings from the other room, and soft, sleepbreathings of their daughter’s, the four-year-old. The sun, orange already, rising above the city. Kirby gets up and dresses for work. He could do it in his sleep. It means nothing to him. It is its own form of sleep, and these moments on the couch, and in the shells of the flaming buildings, are their own form of wakefulness. Some nights he goes over to Jenna’s house–to the house of his ex-wife. No one knows he does this: not Mary Ann, and not his ex-wife, Rhonda, and certainly not Jenna–not unless she knows it in her sleep and in her dreams, which he hopes she does. 210 215 He wants to breathe her air; he wants her to breathe his. It is a biological need. He climbs up on the roof and leans over the chimney, and listens–silence–and inhales, and exhales. The fires usually come about once a week. The time spent between them is peaceful at first, but then increasingly restless, until finally the dispatcher’s radio sound in the night, and Kirby is released. He leaps out of bed–he lives four blocks from the station–kisses Mary Ann, kisses his daughter and son sleeping in their beds, and then is out into the night, hurrying but not running across the lawn. He will be the first one there, or among the first–other than the young firemen who may already be hanging out at the station, watching movies and playing cards, just waiting. 6 Kirby gets in his car–the chiefs car–and cruises the neighborhood slowly, savoring his approach. There’s no need to rush and get to the station five or ten seconds sooner, when he’ll have to wait another minute or two anyway for the other firemen to arrive. 220 It takes him only five seconds to slip on his bunker gear; ten seconds to start the truck and get it out of the driveway. There used to be such anxiety, getting to a fire: the tunnel vision beginning to constrict from the very moment he heard the dispatcher’s voice. But now he knows how to save it, how to hold it at bay–that powerhousing of the heart, which now does not kick into life, does not come into being, until the moment Kirby comes around the comer and first sees the flames. 225 In her bed–in their bed Mary Ann hears and feels the rumble of the big trucks leaving the station; hears and feels in her bones the belch of the air horns, and then the going-away sirens. She listens to the dispatcher’s radio–hopefully it will remain silent after the first call–will not crackle again, calling more and more stations to the blaze. Hopefully it will be a small one, and containable. 230 235 240 245 She lies there, warm and in love with her life–with the blessing of her two children asleep there in her own house, in the other room, safe and asleep–and she tries to imagine the future: tries to picture being sixty years old, seventy, and then eighty. How long–and of that space or distance ahead, what lies within it? Kirby gets her–Jenna–on Wednesday nights, and on every other weekend. On the weekends, if the weather is good, he sometimes takes her camping, and lets the assistant chief cover for him. Kirby and Jenna cook over an open fire; they roast marshmallows. They sleep in sleeping bags in a meadow beneath stars. When he was a child Kirby used to camp in this meadow with his father and grandfather, and there would be lightning bugs at night, but those are gone now. On Wednesday nights–Kirby has to have her back at Rhonda’s by ten–they cook hamburgers, Jenna’s favorite food, on the grill in the backyard. This one constancy–this one thing, small, even tiny, like a sacrament. The diminishment of their lives shames him–especially for her, she for whom the whole world should be widening and opening, rather than constricting already. She plays with the other children, the little children, afterward, all of them keeping one eye on the clock. She is quiet, inordinately so–thrilled just to be in the presence of her father, beneath his huge shadow; she smiles shyly whenever she notices that he is watching her. And how can she not be wondering why it is, when it’s time to leave, that the other two children get to stay? He drives her home cheerfully, steadfastly; refusing to let her see or even sense his despair. He walks her up the sidewalk to Rhonda’s like a guest. He does not go inside. ~~~~~~~~ 250 By Saturday–if it is the off-weekend in which he does not have her–he is up on the roof again, trying to catch the scent of her from the chimney; and sometimes he falls asleep up there, in a brief catnap, as if watching over her and standing guard. 7 A million times he plays it over in his mind. Could I have saved the marriage? Did I give it absolutely every last ounce of effort? Could I have saved it? No. Maybe. No. 255 It takes a long time to get used to the fires; it takes the young firemen, the beginners, a long time to understand what is required: that they must suit up and walk right on into a burning house. They make mistakes. They panic, breathe too fast, and use up their oxygen. It takes a long time. It takes a long time before they calm down and meet the fires on their own terms, and the fire’s. 260 265 In the beginning, they all want to be heroes. Even before they enter their first fire, they will have secretly placed their helmets in the ovens at home to soften them up a bit–to dull and char and melt them, slightly, so anxious are they for combat and its validations: its contract with their spirit. Kirby remembers the first house fire he entered–his initial reaction was, “You mean I’m going in that?” but enter it he did, fighting it from the inside out with huge volumes of water–the water sometimes doing as much damage as the fire–his new shiny suit yellow and clean amongst the work-darkened suits of the veterans. . . . Kirby tells Mary Ann that after that fire he drove out into the country and set a little grass fire, a little piss-ant one that was in no danger of spreading, then put on his bunker gear and spent all afternoon walking around in it, dirtying his suit to just the right color of anonymity. 275 You always make mistakes, in the beginning. You can only hope that they are small or insignificant enough to carry little if any price; that they harm no one. Kirby tells Mary Ann that on one of his earliest house fires, he was riding in one of the backseats of the fire engine, so that he was facing backwards. He was already packed up–bunker gear, air mask, and scuba tank–so that he couldn’t hear or see well, and was nervous as hell; and when they got to the house that was on fire–a fully involved, “working” fire–the truck screeched to a stop across the street from it. The captain leapt out and yelled to Kirby that the house across the street was on fire. 280 Kirby could see the flames coming out of the first house, but he took the captain’s orders to mean that it was the house across the street from the house on fire that he wanted Kirby to attack–that it too must be burning–and so while the main crew thrust itself into the first burning house, laying out attack lines and hoses and running up the hook-and-ladder, Kirby fastened his own hose to the other side of the truck and went storming across the yard and into the house across the street. 270 He assumed there was no one in it, but as he turned the knob on the front door and shoved his weight against it, the two women who lived inside opened it so that he fell inside, knocking one of them over and landing on her. 285 Kirby tells Mary Ann that it was the worst he ever got the tunnel vision; that it was like running along a tightrope–that it was almost like being blind. They are on the couch again, in the hours before dawn; she’s laughing. Kirby couldn’t see flames anywhere, he tells her–his vision reduced to a space about the size of a pinhead–so he assumed the fire was up in the attic. He was confused as to why his partner 8 290 295 was not yet there to help him haul his hose up the stairs. Kirby says that the women were protesting, asking why he was bringing the hose in their house. He did not want to have to take the time to explain to them that the most efficient way to fight a fire is from the inside out. He told them to just be quiet and help him pull. This made them so angry that they pulled extra hard–so hard that Kirby, straining at the top of the stairs now, was bowled over again. When he opened the attic door, he saw that there were no flames. There was a dusty window in the attic, and out it he could see the flames of the house across the street, really rocking now, going under. Kirby says that he stared at it a moment and then asked the ladies if there was a fire anywhere in their house. They replied angrily that there was not. He had to roll the hose back up–he left sooty hose and footprints all over the carpet–and by this time the house across the street was so engulfed, and in so great a hurry was Kirby to reach it, that he began to hyperventilate, and blacked out, there in the living room of the non-burning house. 300 He got better, of course–learned his craft, his calling, better learned it well, in time. No one was hurt. But there is still a clumsiness in his heart, in all of their hearts–the echo and memory of it–that is not that distant. They’re all just fuckups, like anyone else, even in their uniforms: even in their fire-resistant gear. You can bet that any of them who come to rescue you or your home have problems that are at least as large as yours. You can count on that. There are no real rescuers. 305 Kirby tells her about what he thinks was his best moment of grace–his moment of utter, breathtaking, thanks-giving luck. It happened when he was still a lieutenant, leading his men into an apartment fire. Apartments were the worst, because of the confusion; there was always a greater risk of losing an occupant in an apartment fire, simply because there were so many of them. The awe and mystery of making a rescue–the holiness of it, like a birth–is in no way balanced by the despair of finding an occupant who’s already died, a smoke or bum victim–and if that victim is a child, the firefighter is never the same and almost always has to retire after that; his or her marriage goes bad, and life is never the same, never has deep joy and wonder to it again. . . . The men and women spend all their time and energy fighting the enemy, fire–fighting the way it consumes structures, consumes air, consumes darkness–but then when it takes a life, it is as if some threshold had been crossed–it is for the firemen who discover that victim a feeling like falling down an elevator shaft, and there is sometimes guilt, too, that the thing they were so passionate about, fighting fire–a thing that could be said to bring them relief, if not pleasure–should have this as one of its costs. . . . 310 315 They curse stupidity, curse mankind, when they find a victim, and are almost forever after brittle, rather than supple. . . . 320 This fire, the apartment fire, had no loss of occupants, no casualties. It was fully involved by the time Kirby got his men into the structure, Christmas Eve, and they were doing room-to-room searches. No one ever knows how many people live in an apartment complex: how many men, women, and children, coming and going. It can never be accounted for. They had to check every room. 9 325 330 Smoke detectors–thank God!–were squawling everywhere, though that only confused the men further–the sound slightly less piercing, but similar, to the motion sensors on their hip belts, so that they were constantly looking around in the smoke and heat to be sure that they were all still together, partner-with-partner. Part of the crew fought the blazes, while the others made searches: horrible searches, for many of the rooms were burning so intensely that if they did still house an occupant, no rescue could be made, and indeed, the casualties would already have occurred. . . . You can jab a hole in the fire hose at your feet, if you get trapped by the flames. You can activate your ceased-motion sensor. The water will spew up from the hose, spraying out of the knife hole like an umbrella of steam and moisture–a water shield, which will buy you ten or fifteen more seconds. You crouch low, sucking on your scuba gear, and wait, if you can’t get out. They’ll come get you if they can. 335 340 345 350 355 This fire–the one with no casualties, the one with grace–had all the men stumbling with tunnel vision. There was something different about this fire–they would talk about it afterwards–that they could sense as no one else could: that it was almost as if the fire wanted them, had laid a trap for them. They were all stumbling and clumsy–but still they checked the rooms. Loose electrical wires dangled from the burning walls and from crumbling, flaming ceilings. The power had been shut off, but it was every firefighter’s fear that some passerby, well-meaning, would see the breakers thrown and would flip them back on, unthinking. The hanging, sagging wires trailed over the backs of the men like tentacles as they passed beneath them. The men blew out walls with their pickaxes, ventilated the ceilings with savage maulings from their lances. Trying to sense, to feel, amidst the confusion, where someone might be–a Survivor–if anyone was left. Kirby and his partner went into the downstairs apartment of a trophy big-game hunter. It was a large apartment–a suite–and on the walls were the stuffed heads of various animals from all over the world. Some of the heads were already ablaze–flaming rhinos, burning gazelles–and as Kirby and his partner entered, boxes of ammunition began to go off: shotgun shells and rifle bullets, whole caseloads of them. Shots were flying in all directions, and Kirby made the decision right then to pull his men from the fire. In thirty seconds he had them out–still the fusillade continued–and thirty seconds after that, the whole second floor collapsed: an inch-and-a-half thick flooring of solid concrete dropped like a fallen cake down to the first floor, crushing the space where the men had been half a minute earlier; and the building folded in on itself after that and was swallowed by itself, by its fire. There was a grand piano in the lobby and somehow it was not entirely obliterated when the ceiling fell, so that a few crooked, clanging tunes issued forth as the rubble shifted, settled and burned: and still the shots kept firing. No casualties. They all went home to their families that night. 10 360 365 370 Grace. One year Rhonda tells Kirby that she is going to Paris with her new fiance for two weeks, and asks if Kirby can keep Jenna for that time. His eyes sting with happiness–with the unexpected grace and blessing of it. Two weeks of dean air, a gift from out of nowhere. A thing that was his and taken away, now brought back. This must be what it feels like to be rescued, he thinks. Mary Ann thinks often of how hard it is for him–she thinks of it almost every time she sees him with Jenna, reading to her, or helping her with something–and they discuss it often, but even at that–even in Mary Ann’s great lovingness–she underestimates it. She thinks she wants to know the full weight of it, but she has no true idea. It transcends words–spills over into his actions–and still she, Mary Ann, cannot know the bottom of it. Kirby dreams ahead to when Jenna is eighteen; he dreams of reuniting. He continues to take catnaps on the roof by her chimney. The separation from her betrays and belies his training; it is greater than an arm’s-length distance. The counselors tell him never to let Jenna see this franticness-this gutted, hollow, gasping feeling. To treat it as casual. 375 380 385 As if wearing blinders–unsure of whether the counselors are right or not–he does as they suggest. He thinks that they are probably right. He knows the horrible dangers of panic. And in the meantime, the new marriage strengthens, becomes more supple and resilient than ever. Arguments cease to be even arguments anymore, merely pulsings of blood, lung-breaths, differences of opinion, like the sun moving in its arc across the sky, or the stars wheeling into place–the earth spinning, rather, and allowing these things to be scribed into place. It becomes a marriage as strong as a galloping horse: reinforced by the innumerable fires and by the weave of his comings and goings, and by the passion of it. His frantic attempts to keep drawing clean air are good for the body of the marriage. Kirby and Mary Ann are both sometimes amazed by how fast time is going by. She worries about the fifteen or twenty years she’s heard get cut off the back end of all firefighters’ lives: all those years of sucking in chemicals–burning rags, burning asbestos, burning formaldehyde–but still she does not ask him to stop. The cinders continue to fall across his back like meteors: twenty-four scars, twenty-five, twenty-six. She knows she could lose him. But she knows he will be lost for sure, without the fires. 390 She prays in church for his safety. Sometimes she forgets to listen to the service and instead gets lost in her prayers. Her eyes blue upon the votive candles. It’s as if she’s being led out of a burning building herself: as if she’s remaining calm and gentle, as someone–her rescuer, perhaps–has instructed her to do. She forgets to listen to the service. She finds herself instead holding in her heart the secrets he has told her: the things she knows about fires that no one else around her knows. 11 395 The way light bulbs melt and lean or point toward a fire’s origin–the gases in incandescent bulbs seeking, sensing that heat, so that you can often use them to tell where a fire started: the direction in which the light bulbs first began to lean. 400 A baby is getting baptized up at the altar, but Mary Ann is still in some other zone–she’s still praying for Kirby’s safety, his survival. The water being sprinkled on the baby’s head reminds her of the men’s water shields: of the umbrella-mist of spray that buys them extra time, time on earth. 405 As he travels through town to and from his day job, he begins to define the space around him by the fires that have visited it, and which he has engaged and battled. The individual buildings–some charred husks, others intact–begin to link together in his mind. I rescued that one, there, and that one, he thinks. That one. The city becomes a tapestry, a weave of that which he has saved and that which he has not–with the rest of the city becoming simply all that which is between points, waiting to bum. 410 He glides through his work at the office. If he were hollow inside, the work would take a thing from him–would suck something out of him–but he is not hollow, is only asleep, like some cast-iron statue from the century before. Whole days pass without his being able to account for them. Sometimes at night, lying there with Mary Ann–both of them listening for the dispatcher–he cannot recall whether he even went into the office that day or not. He wonders what she is doing: what she is dreaming of. He rises and goes in to check on his other children–to simply look at them. 415 420 425 When you rescue people from a burning building, the strength of their terror and panic is unimaginable: enough to bend iron bars. The smallest, weakest persons can strangle and overwhelm the most burly. They will always defeat you. There is a drill that the firemen go through, on their hookand-ladder trucks–mock-rescuing someone from a window ledge, or the top of a burning building. Kirby picks the strongest fireman to go up on the ladder, and then demonstrates how easily he can make the fireman–vulnerable, up on that ladder lose his balance. It’s always staged, of course–the fireman is roped to the ladder for safety–but it makes a somber impression on the young recruits watching from below: the big man being pushed backward by one foot, or one hand, and falling backwards and dangling: the rescuer suddenly in need of rescuing. You can see it in their eyes, Kirby tells them–speaking of those who panic. You can see them getting all walleyed. The victims-to-be look almost normal, but then their eyes start to cross, just a little. It’s as if they’re generating such strength within–such torque–that it’s causing their eyes to act weird. So much torque that it seems they’ll snap in half–or snap you in half, if you get too close to them. Kirby counsels distance to the younger firemen. Let the victims climb onto the ladder by themselves when they’re like that. Don’t let them touch you. They’ll break you in half. You can see the torque in their eyes. 430 Mary Ann knows all this. She knows it will always be this way for Him–but she does not draw back. Twenty-seven scars, twenty-eight. He does not snap; he becomes stronger. She’ll never know what it’s like, and for that, she’s glad. 12 Many nights he runs a fever, for no apparent reason. Some nights, it is his radiant heat that awakens her. She wonders what it will be like when he is too old to go out on the fires. She wonders if she and he can survive that: the not-going. 435 There are days when he does not work at his computer. He turns the screen on but then goes over to the window for hours at a time and turns his back on the computer. He’s up on the twentieth floor. He watches the flat horizon for smoke. The wind gives a slight sway, a slight tremor to the building. Sometimes–if he has not been to a fire recently enough–Kirby imagines that the soles of his feet are getting hot. He allows himself to consider this sensation he does not tune it out. 440 He stands motionless–still watching the horizon, looking and hoping for smoke–and feels himself igniting, but makes no movement to still or stop the flames. He simply bums, and keeps breathing in, detached, as if it is some structure other than his own that is aflame and vanishing; as if he can keep the two separate–his good life, and the one he left behind. ~~~~~~~~ Rick Bass is the author of more than fifteen books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novel Where the Sea Used to Be. Bass lives in northwest Montana. 13
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