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The Firemen MAG
When I was four years old I changed. I grew older. So old, in fact, that in the winter I would put on my father’s boots – the yellow rawhide ones every child wants – and trudge off to work with him through the chest-high snow and into the giant silver Acura with little blinking lights and the radio that could go as loud as my father turned the knob.
We would charge over the George Washington Bridge, flying on his silver steed thousands of miles above the mighty Hudson, weightless, untouchable. He was my knight, defending me from the mighty howling winds and the swirling currents below.
He would ease into his parking spot on 40th Street while I, nestled in the back seat, silently slumbered as only a 4-year-old can. And then he would turn around, and, with the same raw emotion a lion feels for its cubs, he would watch me. His pride. His joy. In that moment he knew that nothing could ever come between us. And then he would wake me, and we would enter his office together dressed casually in our doctor whites. I loved going to work. I was old, and I was never going back.
Once upon a time, my brother and I were firemen. We wore helmets and heavy-duty vinyl suits, bright red with horizontal yellow slashes across the top and bottom, and badges on our lapels. Our firehouse was in the basement. On the right of the stairs were six green wooden rods connecting the stairs to the sloping ceiling, which served as our poles. They were used often, as houses seemed to burst into flame on a consistent basis – oddly, always immediately after school. We would rush downstairs, donning our uniforms and screaming “Fire, fire!” as we slid down the green poles to the inferno that awaited us. We were the best firemen ever.
When I was four I changed. I changed in the sense that I grew older. So old, in fact, that one cold, wintry day my father, suddenly anxious and stone-faced, took me and my brother to the airport and hurried us onto a private jet, full of little blinking lights and seats that leaned back as far as you wanted. We took off, the city disappearing under us as my brother and I gazed wide-eyed out the window, our small faces and hands pressed against the Plexiglas, our breath causing it to fog slightly.
The city, thousands of miles below, was laid out in miniature. It looked as though a million jewels had fallen from the heavens, and there they lay, sparkling – rubies, diamonds, emeralds – all waiting to be picked up by the first person to notice their brilliance. We sat there, brothers, oblivious to everything but the lights. They blinded us, astounded us, awed us.
We couldn’t speak; the loud whirring of the jet’s twin engines spoke for us. We did not know where we were flying, only that it was not here, that the gems below us would soon cease to exist. We were off – to infinity and beyond, as Buzz Lightyear would say.
My father sat in the front, quietly talking on the phone. Sometimes, he would turn and look at us, our tiny bodies close together as we gazed dumbfounded out the window at the city below, the jewelry box that would soon be closed and left in a dusty attic, in a forgotten house, in the back of someone’s preoccupied mind. There was longing in his gaze, a deep regretful yearning. He needed to be somewhere else, anywhere but on this plane. He knew the destination – he knew why we were spending thousands of dollars that we didn’t have on a private jet, and it troubled him.
He was no longer the lion. He was the gazelle that knew it is being stalked silently from the brush but cannot escape. Time had my father in its iron clutches and would not let him go. Fate had decided the path; now it was only a matter of time.
My brother stayed at the Children’s Hospital of Milwaukee for a few months. I visited almost every day. One in particular stuck with me, like a weight on my chest.
I had just finished my chocolate milk in the cafeteria and headed upstairs to see my brother. I stood on my tiptoes, staring at him through the glass. He sat feebly upright, his back cushioned by pillows. Machines surrounded him, their little plastic hands placed in various spots on his chest. His face was puffed up from the drugs administered hourly, his hair, gone, due to the chemotherapy.
The energy was gone from his body. But it was his eyes that held me. They were not his young, innocent brown eyes. They were sunken in his skull, the skin around them pulled tight. They were dark, the eyes of a sad old man in the body of a child, a man who has gone through life the wrong way, experiencing more grief and misery than happiness. They contained no joy, no hope, only pain. They did not belong to my brother. I wanted to rip them out and replace them with his real eyes, deep brown and full of life, full of innocence, gems – no, rubies – no, diamonds. I wanted to screw in those eyes, and watch as the color rushed back into his cheeks and his strength returned. He would throw off his cream-colored sheets, jump out of bed, and run to me, and we would hug and laugh and roll on the floor, inseparable, forever.
He would tell me all about this weird place where the doctors had kept him under a spell. He would say that I had saved him, and now we were going to go home and jump into our firesuits and helmets and then fly back on our jet to Milwaukee. We would run through the hospital putting everyone’s bright brown eyes back in, and put out all the fires, and we were going to save everyone, everywhere. We would be together always, and nothing could ever part us again. That was the road I wished for. Follow the yellow brick road, as the Munchkins say.
I walked into the room slowly, my face masked, my hands carefully washed. He turned his head and his eyes lit up. A smile cracked his gaunt face, and he pushed himself up. He beckoned for the nurse and asked her, in a voice nearly nonexistent, if she could get the art he had made. When she placed it in his hands, he looked at it with a silly smile and shoved it at me.
“Look, Arieh. Look what I drew for you.”
He had drawn squiggly lines up and down the page, crisscrossing at one point, intersecting at another, turning in circles, ovals, forming squares, rectangles, and then finally gliding to an abrupt stop at the edge. Some were green, some yellow, all the colors of the rainbow. On top of that, he had added all his favorite stickers of trucks and cars and planes and Buzz and people from “Toy Story” and “Pocahontas” and “The Lion King.” It was the most beautiful art I had ever seen.
Something caught my eye. In a lonely corner of the page was a humble sticker. A fire helmet. It had been a long time since we fought any fires, and the town was burning. I had a job to do, even if I had to go it alone. I looked at it for a bit longer, then hugged my brother and left.
When I was four I changed. I grew older. So old, in fact, that one day my father and mother – along with my baby sister and I – packed up the van and drove back to New Jersey from Milwaukee. The drive was long, but I was old and could handle anything. When we were halfway home, I asked my parents where my brother was. Instead of responding, they began to quietly sob. “He has gone to heaven,” my mother whispered as tears fell.
“What will he do for his birthday?” This was too much for them. I got no answer, only more sobs. I stared at my mother hugging her knees and my father looking intently at the road. What had happened to the knight I once knew? The man who would charge over the mighty George Washington as I slept in the back seat, knowing only comfort and love?
It rained hard as we drove. The angels were weeping. We drove through the city, but the gems had vanished, picked up in the maelstrom and lifted off to a sunnier, kinder place. The sky was cloudy, distraught, and my father remained silent. I knew something had moved within him. He had been infected by something I could not explain. He would never be the same, yet there was nothing I could do. There were houses burning and I, without my brother, had to stop the flames from consuming everything they touched. I returned home, slid down the fire pole, donned my fire suit and helmet, and got to work.