In the Event of a Fire

All of them. Broken-bottle kids from Butte
mineshafts or the offspring of Ravalli gun-runners
or those taken into state custody after a Kalispell
chemical home-explosion—while their P.O.’s
slogged through intake paper-work, I sat each kid
down to watch the shelter’s fire safety video.
State regulation. They listened to burn victims
with Bronx inflections describe apartments
blackened by smoke, describe waking and thinking
someone smeared pepper in their eyeballs, roach-
sprayed their noses. And the children squirmed
as these folks told of losing everything—heirlooms,
siblings, the smooth symmetrical contours of their
own faces—all erased while they lay dreaming.
For a couple days, the new kids were always cupcakes.
But the battered ones eventually punched somebody
or the shy survivors of incest lashed out at shower time;
familiar roles, usual disasters. Dutifully, I charted
their behavior, arithmetized actions and consequences
like those elusive proofs from my college logic
class when I was bent on making things make sense.
One graveyard shift wildfire singed the gulch,
its hot scent lacing the town’s dreams with broken
clocks and kerosene. A light shone in the fire tower
where some soul kept vigil. On rounds, I found the boys
had cracked a window and while they escaped
into sleep, ash drifted through the bedroom, delicate
grey remnants fleeing some smoldering violence.
It settled soundlessly on their cigarette-scarred arms
and choke-cherry faces. No, they did not wake.

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