$1 tacos, a salsa quartet, tables and folding chairs. Four gleaming fire trucks, parked, open for the kids to climb on. Weight lifting equipment cordoned off with Fire Line Do Not Cross and surrounded with potted asparagus ferns.
One man with black plastic glasses and a “Mullet, it’s 2 haircuts in 1!” t-shirt was with his son. The child was exactly the same height as the largest wheel on the engine. He touched a lug nut and his eyes were like saucers. I could see him staring at the firemen, at their badges and Leathermen. I could hear him thinking, dad, these men are not like you, these men fight fire with their hands.
Their dark blue uniforms were stitched with their names. Cassidy. Fry. Guerrerro. Cassidy was the station captain. He had a grey crew cut, a young blonde grand-daughter, and he squinted like he wanted to bench press my entire family.
On a cabinet labeled HEAVY RESCUES a scotch-taped computer print-out listed the “Last Alarms” – men lost in the line of duty. The most recent death, this year, was a man who signed on with the force in 1974. A ceiling collapsed beneath him in a residential fire.
Guerrerro smiled and looked like he wanted us to ask him a question. Harper just wanted to dance to the salsa. I was once the kind of child who asked questions. Um, when did you decide you wanted to be a firefighter?
Now I want to ask: Does your wife still think the uniform is hot? Do you own any ironic t-shirts?
Does seeing the children remind you why you do it? Or does it hurt now to look into those saucer eyes? Or is it just part of the job, a good job, where you can make fart jokes at the clubhouse? How many calls do you answer for fires in meth labs or tent camps or toy district sweatshops? Fires that can’t be put out? Did that ceiling collapse on your friend a hundred and forty hours before he could cash out his pension and buy a little house in Colorado?
Did he make a mistake? Or did he secretly long to go down in a burst of flame after forty years, a hero? Maybe his whole life had been made precious and bearable by surviving each alarm and waiting for the next and secretly, that expanse of empty time, it sounded suffocating.
Of course, that’s me. I want a sense of purpose and a uniform. You look at a ceiling and think: That shit is going to collapse. This is where I am needed.