The rising smoke must have been visible for at least fifteen or twenty miles. Black. Thick. Spreading out toward the west as it rose and was buffeted by the wind. Leaving a charcoal grey haze across the evening sky. Fire, and not where one would expect it.
As I stared into the distance I wondered to myself what could be burning. Certainly not leaves! Too much smoke. And the smoke was too dark. Could it be someone burning a pile of logs and brush recently cleared from a woodland to create a clear space for the building of a new shopping mall? Too dark again. Tires?
And then the news began to come in over the radio. And on the television. And Facebook. The old abandoned cordage mill down by the river was ablaze. Origin unknown. It had been sitting empty for years. Teenagers used to go down there to hang out. Evidenced by the graffiti. And there were homeless souls camping out there many years ago. And the glass in the windows got smashed. The roof had giant holes in it that had rotted through. The floors were probably rooted too. Not much more than a shell.
It had been fenced off several years ago to keep people out. I’m pretty sure folks still got in there though. I always thought it would be interesting to see what might still be in there. Relics of an industrial past. But I’m sure it had all long since been looted or salvaged. I had also thought it would be cool to buy it and convert the buildings into loft apartments. But it was on the wrong side of the river and no one wanted to live there.
Maybe some kids got in there and started a fire by accident. They still went near the building to get own to the river for a party or two. Or maybe the homeless had returned. Or maybe, like Jack Lemon in Save the Tiger, the building had outlived its usefulness to the owner and was an economic burden best lifted via a torch. All speculation. Unknown origin.
Looking out over the horizon, seeing the smoke, I was reminded of a fire I saw when I was a young boy. The grocery store near my neighborhood burned to the ground one evening. I say grocery store but it was an early version of something like a Wal-Mart. From the residential hillside over looking the store the people of the neighborhood gathered to watch the conflagration with excitement, awe and a new found respect for fire. As we watched we realized that although there were a number of fire trucks there form the local volunteer fire company, they obviously were not trying to save the building. Contain the fire. Don’t let it spread.
With a loud bang and the sound of shattering glass, fifteen hundred square feet of window glass suddenly shattered and blew out into the parking lot. As the air flowed into he building the heat of the flames sucked any and all moisture out of the mortar holding the building blocks together and it crumbled away. The blocks then began to separate. Each one delineated by the lines where the mortar used to be. And then the walls collapsed. A total loss.
Something else now stands where the grocery store was. A shopping mall I’ve never been to. And the residential neighborhood still sits on the hill overlooking the stores. Every time I drive by the neighborhood or the spot where the grocery store once stood I remember that fire. And how mesmerizing it was. And frightening. The black smoke I saw on the horizon, coming from the old mill, couldn’t possibly be good news.
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