Behind the Smoke
by Winston A. McMiller
Orange-blue fire attacks his skin with a fury he never imagined. He crawls towards the small vent in the middle of the living room wall. The air vent leads to what he hopes is a merciful escape from the flames. Snapping sounds of burning particleboard wood of a pre-assembled bookcase alarms his senses to real danger. The poisonous fumes of burning plastic draw straight into his nostrils. Earl tearfully wonders how did all the events from the time he opened his eyes this morning lead to this awful turn.
As he pulls himself closer towards the small opening, he notices the red digital display on the VCR at 3:33 PM. His children have just came out of their last class and should be collecting their book bags and saying their goodbyes to their friends before standing at the front the school to await their daddy. He pauses in exhaustion and repugnance over the peeling crusty red, scarred tissue that was only a few minutes ago, his freckled skin.
I cannot let the children see me this way, he thought. They’re all I have in this world. Karen will never take me back now. No woman’s gonna ever want me again after this! If only I had of took the time to come to the school and read for the children, or mow someone's lawn, or anything but stay in this aluminum-sided piece of shit shack.
With all certainty he will die, if he wastes another second with regrets. The floor rumbles from the sweeping flames covering the ceiling with pitch-black clouds. The smoky shroud of death covers Earl's limp body and immobilized legs. No amount of mental effort will bring movement to his lower body again. Far-off in the distance, sirens sound out. Lapsing in and out of consciousness, his will for life has left. Doom meant the end for Earl.
"Earl! You in there!" The familiar obtrusive deep voice of the black male that lives next door shouts out to him.
Earl’s history with his black neighbors was a volatile one...
Why on God’s green earth would FHA give that black woman a loan to move right next door to me? They don’t clean up their yard. They leave trash from their cars on the driveway. Her kids are loud as hell. No one wants to play with them. All the kids call them Hershey Kisses or monkey to their face. Why would anyone put their kids through that? They don't belong here. Can't she see that? She need to just pack up and move back to the project and collect those checks every month, girlfriend. No one will want to rent this place from me now with them living next door. Why the hell are they here? Now she’s moved some ass-wipe lowlife in with her.
I tried to talk with these people. They say they’re gonna clean up but they hardly ever do. Every house on the block has not one leaf on their lawn except for them. Sure the grass is cut, but it looks like shit with all the dirt holes from their fuckin kids. Damn, I wish they'd just leave. I mean what do I have to do. Bribe them with a year supply of fried chicken and rims?
"Earl! Damn it nigga, you in there? Say something," The black guy from next door says.
"There he is daddy. I see’em," one of the neighbor’s kids says
"You see him?" The black man confirms with the boy.
"Umm, hmm, he on the floor over there," the child says pointing to Earl through the window.
"Get back!" The black man lifts a lawn chair from the side of the house and hurls it through Earl’s kitchen window. Glass and pieces of wood splatter over the ashy white linoleum floor. The cool flesh of the black man’s hands grabs Earl’s wrist. Earl’s limp two-hundred pound body drags slow but steady by the six-feet plus former high school wrestler’s force.
The biting sharp plastic of an oxygen mask pierces Earl’s face slightly as he awakens inside an ambulance. In front of him, he sees a Nilward police officer’s smiling at him. The officer turns to the black neighbor and pats him on his shoulder. "Way to go big guy. He’d be dead for sure if you hadn’t went in after him like that. Stupid son ova bitch. No one else wooda stick their neck out for him like that. He betta thank his maker."
The young black guy barely smiles. His eyes stay focused on Earl. Finally, he says, " I betta go get his kids from school." Rage runs through Earl’s veins behind those words. Earl reaches for his mask and mutter through it, "You keep your black hands away from them!"
The young black man stops and raises his eyebrow in surprise. The officer comes over to Earl right shoulder, "Well look a here, Earl. Seeing that Ms. Williams is a registered foster care worker and James just dragged your ass outta there. He’s a fuckin deputy exec for the county. Shit, I think Tommy and Kerry will be all right with them. D.C.W. has already come by several times for those kids not having lunch money and coming to school dirty. I damn near caught a buzz myself from your weed. Now just shut your yap up, will ya? I already called the grandparents. She’ll be here tomorrow to pick them up."
Scolded in every way like a child, Earl covers his shameful face with his one bandage-free arm. All he could think of was this morning and how different life seemed. His life’s ritual of ordering pizza and renting videos for the kids on the weekend fades away. Cans of Coors that stood ready for consumption in the refrigerator, now spilled all over a fire and water kitchen. His 1979 classic Camero, he would award his son, Tommy on his 18th birthday lays victim to a junkyard. The t-shirt reading "All men are idiots. I married their King." His fifth wife, Karen gave him was chard with every item of their eight-month marriage. With no figure to point blame to and barely a finger to point with, Earl closes his scarred eyelids and wishes for another life.
The neighbor's kids had even added the Dixie Chicks CD along with their Lil Bow Wow. They're favorite song and video is "Goodbye Earl"