Firefighters in reflective neon suits stormed into the blazing Texas Thrift Store as helicopters circled the building in surveillance. The flames that escaped from the structure’s openings whipped and stirred together like vermilion lovers beneath a glassy black sky. A generator on the roof of the thrift store flickered—once, twice, like the first few seconds after lighting a sparkler on the Fourth of July—seconds before an atomic cobalt and orange explosion. Fire swallowed the structure in one gulp, almost offended by the attempt to save the remains of the building with hose water. That night, not much light was needed for the team of hundreds who, for hours, battled the inferno. The slight glimmer from the flames flushed against the white and crimson of parked ambulances and firetrucks from 83 units. Crime scene tape labeled “do not cross” enclosed the perimeter of the thrift store’s parking lot: danger, keep out.
As I watched the media’s minute-by-minute sky coverage of the Texas Thrift Store’s four-alarm fire, I held my breath. I wrapped my arms around my knees and pulled them close to my pajama-ed chest. I imagined the sorrow on the faces of onlookers, on the faces of medical crews on standby when two firefighters were not accounted for after an emergency evacuation. Inside the structure, the heat of flames sizzled around brave suited bodies, the smoke heavy like weights in their throats and chests. One firefighter was found and rushed into the back of an awaited ambulance, his body covered in a sheet of black residue. Where was the other unaccounted fireman? Why hadn’t they found him yet?
Parts of the thrift store’s roof caved in and collapsed, like a house of blocks that tumbled down and down and down, as the blistering fire singed through the walls of other businesses in the shopping center. A tingling sensation tugged at the backs of my eyes, but I continued to watch the news updates, mostly nauseated over what might be unearthed after the last flame was extinguished. As the footage continued to play across my television screen, I wondered if my estranged father watched the yellow firestorm engulf the place we once visited so often.
On one of the two weekends a month I spent with my father, John took me to the Texas Thrift Store. He held my hand as we walked in through the glass doors and underneath giant red letters. The inside smelled like one big garage sale. We browsed the little girls’ aisles for clothes and shoes until I snuck away to the more interesting area of the store: the toy section. These rejected or donated toys—some brand new, others slightly used with a film of grey tinge—were piled in low, rectangular wooden bins for children like me to rummage through. Layer upon layer of toys were thrown on top of one another, sometimes in a pile of rubble already plowed through by other curious children. There, I glanced over dolls with ragged hair, play cash registers without batteries, puzzles, and boxes of Legos with missing pieces.
John found me in one of the aisles and held up shirts and bottoms that clung to plastic hangers: a faded floral blouse; a pair of scuffed, knock-off Sneakers; and a few pairs of wrinkled jeans and cargo shorts. Round tags that hung from the garments read five dollars, some two dollars. At the sight, I envisioned the little girls who had worn those items before me, how their daddies had purchased these clothes for them, brand new, as a birthday gift or just because. John pushed the items into the crevice of his arm and led me by the hand to the register. A tired shadow clung to the lower-half of my father’s round jaw and his unshaven skin, but his face still looked so much like mine.
When my father removed his withered and worn wallet from a jean pocket at the register, I recalled how his face looked when I asked for a McDonald’s Happy Meal two weekends before our trip to the thrift store. John had just come home from work on a Saturday afternoon. His skin always smelled of a greasy mechanic’s shop, sometimes with the stale twang of cheap beer and a female stranger’s cigarette smoke. I tugged at the bottom of his shirt that was still stained in white patches near the chest and armpits.
“Please, please, please daddy, can we go to McDonald’s?” I extended the vowels in the question, too eager for the plastic figurine in the Happy Meal.
My father slapped his jean pockets with ashy hands. “We don’t have money for McDonald’s,” he shot back. John used that tone with my mother on the phone. I once overheard my mother say we didn’t need a dime from him, that he could keep his unpaid child support.
His mother, Ruth, whom I once called Momo, chimed in before I could ask another question. She pulled out a few dollar bills and quarters from her coin purse. The skin on Ruth’s face and arms sagged like the withered branches of the front yard’s pecan tree during summer months. The tree was heavy with rotting pecans and empty bird feeders. I blocked out the fact that John’s mother bathed me, head-to-toe, at age eight, age ten. In the court custody battle, Ruth stood on the stand and testified, under oath, that she always waited outside the bathroom door while I showered. My mother cut my hair like Velma’s from Scooby-Doo because, for most of my elementary school years, I refused to bathe or brush out the knots from the bird nest on the back of my head. Ruth handed her son the money, kissed my cheek with thin, wrinkled lips, and sent us on our way.
The newscast on the thrift store fire continued well on into the early hours of the morning. That night I tried to remember when John and I left the thrift store for the last time. I couldn’t. The television screen lit up my living room like an open furnace until the final firefighter’s body was located. The man, a six-year veteran of the department, was a father of two, his wife still pregnant with their third child. I imagined the Texas Thrift Store’s charred entrance doors that John and I entered and exited through before and after our brief shopping trips. These same doors are the doors that many expected one firefighter to run back through, unharmed, able to return to his off-duty life as a dad after a grueling day of work battling other people’s blazes. For those few hours I exhumed memories shriveled and dried like raisins, discolored by the hue of scarlet fury. For those few hours I, too, battled my own fire.