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February 19, 2024

Orange Sky

By Sand Pilarski

The summer of 1964, between fourth and fifth grade, when I was ten years old, I awoke in the night to a bizarre sky, and the keening call of the town's fire station. It was dark in my room; Mom must have come in and turned off my beside lamp while I slept. But it wasn't completely dark, and the odd light that was coming in the window wasn't the color of the pole light in the neighbor's big garden plot across the alley. Pulling the curtain aside, I stared with confusion and wonder at a sky the color of a Christmas orange, a neon cloud so solidly colored that I didn't understand what I was seeing. Then a drift of black cloud roiled the perfect glowing night, and I realized there was a fire somewhere -- too close!

I went up the stairs to the hall that led to my parents' room and my sister's room, and without any hesitation rapped my knuckles on the doorjamb. Dad was off that night, and he grunted a "What? What is it?" sounding groggy. "Solange?" my mother said, refusing to call my by my nickname, even in waking from a sound sleep.

I didn't know what to say -- was it really a fire? Was it something worth waking them up for? I walked across their dark room to pull their curtains open. "The sky's orange," I said. "It looks like a fire up the street."

They were out of bed and at the windows in an instant, and then Mom was padding over to Jesse's room. Click click. "Power's out," she said. Dad was already pulling his pants on and scuffling in his shoes. Jesse was awake by that time and she came into the room with my mother, holding her hand. "Can I come, too, Dad?" I asked, knowing that they would never let me leave the house in the middle of a dangerous night. But he said, "Get dressed, Sully, hurry up."

I pelted back down the stairs, spun around the bottom of the stairway to my room, and opened my dresser.

I remember that I was wearing a set of pajamas given to me by my best friend in that summer, a girl named Debbie who lived on the far side of the block from me. They were made of a soft but sturdy cotton, a top and shorts, both trimmed in tatted lace. She'd loaned them to me one night when I spent the night at her house after an afternoon of play. When she saw how much I liked them, she asked her mother if she could give them to me. All my pajamas and underwear were get-your-use-out-of-them utilitarian, and those soft and pretty pajamas in muted leaf-tones (colors my mother hated and would never have bought) with ivory lace -- I loved them.

I made a daring decision for my ten skinny years. I shut the dresser and grabbed my blue jeans from the floor where I'd dropped them. Just like people can do in the movies, I pulled my jeans right on over my pajamas. The pajama top was modest enough. Now sneakers, and I was meeting Dad at the front door. I ran beside him as we headed up the street. He never ran, but he was so tall and his legs so long that his stride was as good as a jog. No street lights were lit but there was no problem seeing the uneven sidewalk under the ancient maples that lined the sidewalk. Everything was lit with a glow of hell, punctuated by the flash of the lights from three fire engines.

We slowed as we joined the growing crowd standing in groups and clusters in the street, shouting questions and answers and when did they first see the fire, cupping their hands around ears to hear each other past the unexpected roar of the fire and the continued rising and falling howl of the station's fire siren, still calling for help from other little towns.

At the top of our Arch Street, where it met Jefferson Avenue, there had been a neighborhood supermarket with a bowling alley under it in a huge cellar. When the wind was in the north, everyone on Arch Street could hear the sounds of the bowling alley if they had their windows open at all. The market had been the biggest one in the county, and the owner Bill Harry, was a wealthy man because of that building. Bill Harry's was a little more expensive than the little grocery stores that used to cater to close-by neighborhoods, but at Bill Harry's, dads from all over the county could amble downstairs for a game while the moms shopped and gossiped, and it was air conditioned, very enticing in a time when air conditioning was a marvel and a luxury.

Never again. Even the arrival of the refilled pumper truck from the river along with the three big engines couldn't abate the roaring blaze. The flames screamed up three stories high. Inside the cement block walls things could be heard exploding, glass chiming as it broke, the crashing of walls and floor falling down into the bowling alley.

We stood there for a long time, the heat from the fire on our faces, until it seemed sure that the wind would not kick up and start tossing sparks onto the nearby houses. The volunteer firemen turned their attention and their hoses onto the roofs of the Kennedy's and Mrs. Bysline's houses, the closest homes, whose families stood in the street and in the alley, unwilling to risk being caught inside in case the fire spread.

I was changed that night. No longer just a child dragged hither and yon by adults, a sponge that knew to soak up only what liquids were put before it, or an innocent whose news was filtered and watered down. In our house, for the first time, I was the one who saw the danger and sounded the alert. And when I did, they listened to me! I stood beside my father, watching the biggest breaking news story of my young life, listening to him talk to other neighbors, trying to make myself look serious and grim, inwardly exulting to be a little bit of a heroine in exotic garb under the orange sky.

(Excerpt from Dreamer, a 2001 NaNovel)

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2002-10-25
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