Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Burned Out

The following short non-fiction piece appeared in The Urbanite July 2010 edition. Many thanks to the Keim family, for their friendship and hospitality throughout my childhood. Only as an adult have a truly gained an understanding of the immense heart and courage it took for them to live and grow a family in the place they did- and the wonderful blessings that can come from it.
Visiting my friend Tyler and his family in South Philly was an adventure for me, being young, naïve, and thoroughly suburban. On the drive there, I stayed glued to the windows. The homeless, the hookers, and the glassstrewn parking lots glittering under the streetlights were a mysterious carnival; the city lights above and beyond danced. I wondered what secrets were hiding behind the boarded-up windows.

Tyler's parents were the hipster types, so we kids ran wild. We stampeded from room to room, firing rubber bands at each other and barricading the doors against Tyler's sister. From his bedroom window Tyler pointed out the rooftop where a woman sunbathed topless. Below us, the alley provided ample targets for his wrist rocket. Sirens wailed, and I thought they must be coming for us, but he just laughed.

"The house two doors down caught fire," Tyler informed me, "and the guy died. Want to see it?" His dad led the way into the burnedout house. The fire chief, they said, had found the asphyxiated violinist with the stub of a cigarette still in his hand. Within hours after the last fire truck had left, scavengers ransacked the house for anything of worth. Tyler's dad finally boarded up the house, giving what dignity he could to his deceased neighbor.

I kept thinking about the elderly musician asleep on the couch as flames engulfed the pile of newspapers at his feet. An old upright piano stood blackened in one corner of the room. There were piles of sheet music, smoky but otherwise preserved. Tyler was getting bored. I shook off the sordid feeling that clung to me like soot, and we rushed off to shoot marbles at the alley cats.

—Asa Church is currently sailing on the Chesapeake. He teaches eighth grade but dreams in poetry and prose.