Smoke From a Distant Fire

July 7, 2002

A forest fire in Canada created a veil of hazy air that has wafted south to hang over New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and on down as far as North Carolina. I heard about it on the news last night but didn’t pay much attention to it. This morning I thought I smelled smoke, and indeed I did. It seems that the blanket of haze brought with it not just its visual characteristics, but its olfactory ones as well. The sun appeared as an orange gash that cast no shadows and the neighborhood smelled as if everyone were having a cookout.

I took a walk early this morning. My neighbors two houses down are moving. This is a neighborhood where you can live here ten years and folks will still refer to you as “the people who bought Barleys’ old house.” These people have been here so long nobody remembers the names of the people who had the house before. They were newlyweds when they came here. They kept a classic Corvette under a tarp in the garage and installed flower boxes with hand-stenciled designs at all the windows.

The woman’s mother died not long after that, and we discovered that although our neighbor was 34 years old, her mother was only 49. Some years later her father lived with them while he recuperated from heart surgery. He formed a relationship with the divorcée two houses on the other side of me. It ended very badly, but the friendship between the two neighbor women endured, the divorcée becoming something of a surrogate grandmother to what grew eventually into a family of six children.They’ve had bad luck in recent years. The Corvette disappeared around child number 4. A layoff led to long periods of unemployment punctuated by temporary jobs that didn’t become permanent and training programs that didn’t pay off. One promising opportunity in the mortgage department of a local bank vanished when it was discovered that the family was in foreclosure. They were unable to save their interest in the house, and it was sold not long ago. They’ll be moving to subsidized housing in a less expensive rural area several counties south of here.

The woman called a cheery hello to me as I walked by this morning. As I made my way through the neighborhood I noticed half a dozen For Sale signs, the most in a very long time. One is on a house vacant for more than a year since the elderly woman there died. Another is on that of the empty nesters where the husband has arthritis and emphysema, a third on one where I suspect a divorce is in the offing.

I’ve been here twenty-six years, the second homeowner in the development to move in. It’s a stable neighborhood in a very desirable area, and houses don’t remain on the market for long. The new people in the house on the corner have completely redone the landscaping, improving the appearance of the place dramatically. There’s a new baby there, and one on the way around the corner. In the long run all these changes will be for the good, although something about it does create some anxiety in me.

There was a large U-Haul in the moving family’s driveway, and as I passed the house on my return I witnessed each of the children carrying a box and marching in a straggly line from the front door to the truck. It seemed a sad parade, but I thought later that maybe they’re not sad. They’re together, and they’re facing their challenges with a certain dignity and can-do team spirit.

By evening the curtain from Canada had begun to lift, although there was still no color in the sky. I was starting out on another walk when the U-Haul passed my mailbox, followed by the family’s van. One of the children lifted a hand and waved to me. I met his solemn eyes, and waved back.