He is wearing jeans that have been washed 10,000 times, white crew socks, and sneakers that are old enough to have broken shoelaces although they don’t. His shirt is worn and soft, plaid and loose, like a shirt you’d grab out of a bin at Goodwill because you know it would never be scratchy and always be pretty warm. He is unshaven with short but unruly gray hair. He has a mustache and a prize-winning smile. He looks like the friendliest person in America and he is about to read his story to a roomful of writers.
His piece, not surprisingly, is about a fire. He tells of hearing the alarm, the fire station lurching into action, snapping the straps of his firefighting pants over his shoulders, and leaping onto the truck which hurtles to the address, arriving at the right street, but not being able to tell which house is on fire because the smoke had engulfed the entire block. His story starts that way, the terror of everything appearing to be on fire at once, and hearing from neighbors that there are two little boys in the basement – the part of the house with the most intense smoke and heat.
He reads his story which I can’t tell here because it’s not my story to tell although it’s a scary and heroic one as you might imagine. Throughout his reading he seems to be there again, in the moment almost, biting his lip, grimacing at the smoke, hitting his knee with his fist in frustration. At times, his eyes seem to fill just a bit with tears. When he is done, he seems relieved and spent. I wonder if this is the first time he has read this piece aloud, heard his own words, and got moved by his own writing, which is what happens when what you write is as true as your heart can stand to make it.