Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Chicago Fire Memory #2

I was driving back into downtown Chicago from Midway Airport: Cicero Avenue to the Stevenson, which is I-55, connecting to 90/94 West. Friends from Saint Louis had come up for the weekend—my girlfriend, T., and the man she was dating at the time, whom we called Mr. Zima (though not to his face). Remember that drink of the 1990s? Alcohol that wasn't beer, wine, or hard liquor; a clear, citrusy, malt-based drink with an identity crisis. It became known in most circles as the ultimate wussy drink, so really I salute my friend's boyfriend, for being able to ask for it with a straight face and no shame. People can say what they like. But this is beside the point . . . unless we want to contemplate the potential value of Zima as a wet blanket to a fireball. On the expressway back from the airport, before the exchange with I-90, traffic slowed nearly to a standstill. Up ahead, the right lane was blocked, so cars were merging to the left. We saw black smoke and, when we got close enough, could see the burning shell of a vehicle on the shoulder, emergency workers establishing a safe zone around it. I don't recall anyone actually doing anything to douse the flames; I guess this was a case of police being the first responders, and perhaps they don't carry extinguishers in their squad cars? Anyway, fiery tongues licked the car clean, or if not clean then empty. The thing that stayed with me—the kernel of the memory—was the intensity of the heat as we drove past. Even with the car on the shoulder, the right lane empty, and everyone driving on the left, as we drew parallel with the blazing vehicle we felt a blast of heat that brought our hands reflexively to our cheeks, made us turn our heads as much as we wanted to look. We didn't know how anyone standing any closer could bear it, and I remember wondering, as I always do when disaster strikes somewhere: what if that were me? What if it were my car on the side of the road, or what if I were the car, so to speak? What would it be like to feel not the intense July sun or the first sunburn of the season on winter white skin; not the kitchen burns that blister fingers and wrists as you take sweet treats from the oven, but rather a searing conflagration of hungry flames? We all know that fire burns. We all know that burning hurts. But driving past that car and feeling firsthand, physically, a heat so strong it was as though the air had become solid, I remember in that moment being awed by the power of the elements. And then, silence. No one spoke, and I am quite sure that we were each unwilling to put words to our vulnerability, to this sudden reminder that our bodies—these fragile, earthly shelters for our worries, dreams, and myriad shortcomings—might as well be wisps of gauze or sheets of the most delicate tissue; no match for fire. No match at all.

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