Not until the fireman presented the charred remains of the lasagna to Michael did he remember the oven. The microwave had stopped working just before the funeral, two weeks ago now. A woman from a nearby church brought the dish, wrapped in tin foil. Condolences, she said, and God bless. He fell asleep waiting on his dinner in the oven. He woke coughing, thick smoke crowding the house, clingy and warm.

    His first instinct: Joseph.

    Michael ran, choking on the gray wisps of air, to his son's room, but staggered at the doorway. It was just as it had been left—the pillow tossed to the floor, the race car sheets torn back, the inhaler in pieces on the dresser. Michael remembered a girl standing at the casket, his son’s classmate, who didn't understand. "Wake up, Joey," she said. "Wake up." Michael had turned away, leaving his ex-wife and her new husband there while he stepped outside for air.

    At the fire scene, two rescuers grumbled behind Michael and shook their heads. A neighbor whispered to them, and the firefighters took one long look at Michael before rolling their hoses in silence. Michael stared at the smoldering leaves of pasta amid the blackened, broken remains of the church lady’s casserole; the dish had shattered in the fireman's hands when it touched the December air. The snow around them still sizzled.

Michael knocked on his ex-wife’s door, then stepped back, shuffling one hand inside the other. The peephole went dark and then light again, before his ex-wife revealed herself in the light of the foyer. She looked tired, baggy eyes, straw-like hair breaking loose from her ponytail. Michael looked down to her step-children’s galoshes in a neat row, just inside the door.

    "It's getting late,” she said. “I have to put the kids to bed."

    He stood there a minute, invited by the glowing Christmas tree behind her, the warm hardwood. "It's always cold at night, in the house, just as I'm starting to fall asleep."

    "Michael," she said. She grabbed her coat from the rack and joined him on the porch. He stared at the bottom of the door, where on the other side, those small shoes were in rows. She touched his elbow.

Michael picked the shards of porcelain off the sidewalk and pitched them in the garbage can under the kitchen sink. He shoved open all the windows. The breath of December sucked at the smoke still inside the house. He walked from room to room, touching his possessions, and turned on all the lights. Turned them off, then on again. Everything was gray. In the living room, he stayed a moment and watched the curtains as they fluttered inward. A heavy fog showered downward from the windows like wafts of dried ice.

    A piece of crumpled paper on the coffee table shivered to life in the breeze. The boy’s best friend had left a note inside the casket, which Michael had pocketed almost immediately. In the jostled scribble of a child just learning, his son’s friend had written, “I want to climb trees with you.”

    Michael watched as the paper made its way across the table toward him.

Christopher Newgent lives as a writer in Indianapolis. His poetry and fiction have appeared in Poetry East, Copper Nickel, and Talking River, among other journals; his non-fiction is featured in Kritik Magazine online. He hopes to begin his MFA studies in poetry in the fall of 2009, and is currently working on a collection of poetry tentatively titled Pillars of Snow.

Back to Freight Stories No. 3


Christopher Newgent

At the Fire Scene