Nearly all his earliest memories involve his sister crying.
Rarely is her crying the central focus, other things take up the foreground, her operatic gasps for air and stuttered sobs like a gentle breeze at his back, a half-heard song on a faraway radio.
He is riding in a speeding car, staring out the window as the world rushes past. A hubcap flies off clanging onto the asphalt, ringing like a bell; his sister is crying.
It is raining, he hears the loud staccato of rain on the tin can shell of their mobile home trailer as he tries to sleep, he is imagining long thin fingers drumming on a tabletop; his sister is crying.
Their mother is in a shadowed motel parking lot at night, stumbling toward the open door of a strange room, a man's face hovers in the doorway, it looks to his childhood eye as if the man has devil’s horns; his sister is crying.
Always, the gentle breeze, the faraway song. As an adult it reminds him of those old musicals he has seen on late night TV, where the characters feel an emotion so strong it cannot be circumscribed by mere words and gestures and are compelled to break into song to communicate. Perhaps she has colic, a rash, growing pains in her tiny bones and muscles. Perhaps she is revisiting a fearful place, over and over, some memory that can not be put to rest.
Perhaps she is simply very, very angry.
He is four years old, she is two, when the world breaks opens in a baptism of fire and light. They are in their childhood bedroom, the window centered between their beds and the sky beyond, all that sky, and they are sleeping when the smoke detector above their beds begins to shriek, their mother’s door flies open in a rush and thick, black smoke pours through the opening. Their mother appears from out of the shroud of smoke, hurrying them out of their beds, trying to push them out of their beds with the force of her voice alone, but his sister and he are transfixed by the peal of the alarm directly above their heads, they cannot hear their mother, they cannot move their feet, their minds have been emptied by the sheer volume of the alarm.
There is a shadowy figure at their mother’s side. He disappears in the smoke and chaos.
Soon the alarm is joined by the sound of far away sirens; mother has coaxed them to the edge of the gravel path by this time. Their flashing emergency lights join the mix, the firetruck skids to a stop in a hail of gravel, firemen pour out like circus clowns spilling out of a car. And still the children are held spellbound by the smoke alarm screaming from inside the mobile home, convinced it is the source of the smoke, the fire, the crowd of firemen and neighbors, the flashing lights, the acrid smell. Its corrugated shell is like a toothy grin to them; it’s reset button a beady, unblinking eye.
The fireman go in, come out hauling the smoking ruins of a mattress. They admonish the mother in stern tones, then walk over to where he and his sister stand, comforting them with gentle voices and distracted pats on the head. Someone turns the smoke detector off. The firetruck drives away. The crowd disperses. Mother goes inside and opens all the windows, sets a box fan in the doorway and turns it on. She is able with much coaxing to get her children to come inside the trailer but cannot get them to lie in their beds. They are terrified and crying, too young to express why, clambering out of their beds as quickly as she can tuck them in. She tells them the fire is out, the fire is gone, there’s no more fire, please, please go to sleep. Mommy needs her rest. They cannot be comforted. She brokers a compromise for the night by allowing them to sleep on the living room floor, while she sleeps on the couch beside them.
The children keep their eyes on their bedroom door until they can keep their eyes open no longer. The smoke detector is inside. The toothy grin, the beady eye. They cannot understand why the firemen took the mattress but left the hellish thing that caused the fire. They spend much of the next morning huddled under the bedroom doorway, eyes glued to the smoke detector, refusing to leave their post for more than a few minutes at a time. She has to remove it from the ceiling and pretend to throw it away before they will eat their breakfast.
They regard all smoke detectors they see with suspicion for years afterward.