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(just gonna) stand there and watch me burn

Show and Tell, according to Wikipedia, is the process of showing an audience something and telling them about it, and is usually done in a classroom as an early elementary school technique for teaching young children the skills of public speaking.

Show and Tell, according to me, was a God-given opportunity to show my most prized possession – my Liddle Kiddle Collection – to the rest of my kindergarten class.  I cared nothing about the public speaking aspect of it, a systemic failure which would manifest itself nine years later when I attempted to give a speech at the National Honor Society Induction Ceremony but just ended up staring blankly out at the audience, paralyzed by the flashing camera lights, like Cindy Brady on the Quiz Show Episode.  It was time for Show and Tell, and all I cared about was showing off my toys.

It must have gone well for me in my mind, because, while everyone else was hanging out in the back of the room eating white paste out of a jar and erecting walls out of big red cardboard bricks, I was hanging out at the front of the room, giving Mrs. Gibson every possible opportunity to congratulate me on my impressive Liddle Kiddle Collection. This is how I happened to be in earshot of Mr. Wertz, the school janitor, when he walked in smelling like Pine Sol and puke and quietly informed Mrs. Gibson that, in thirty minutes, we were going to have the very first fire drill of our lives.

I wasn’t supposed to hear this part, but I did, and it sent me into immediate panic.  A fire drill! Oh no! I’ve always been deathly afraid of fire – unable to light even the simplest match from a very young age – and I was sure that every time the alarm went off over at the fire department, it was because my childhood home was burning to the ground. I was always relieved and surprised when I’d get off the school bus after school and see that our house was still standing.

Yes, I knew what a fire drill was … I knew there wasn’t going to be a real fire, that they weren’t going to actually set the school on fire and then sit there laughing on the sidelines as we tried to escape with our lives.  They’d explained it to us as a class, and at the time it all sounded perfectly reasonable: line up and exit the building in an orderly fashion. No big deal. However, now that the time was upon us, so very formal and official, it made the possibility of a fire seem all too real.  People practice things for a REASON; this could really happen to us. I pictured us all standing outside, across the street in the playground, watching the school, empty and alone, get eaten up by flames, and it made me feel like I’d just been orphaned. To make matters worse, I still had my Liddle Kiddles to worry about. I tore off to the Show and Tell area, grabbed the Liddle Kiddles in their white plastic carrying case, tore back to the front of the room, and came crashing to a halt directly in front of Mrs. Gibson’s desk, where I promptly and loudly burst into tears.

Somehow over the next 40 years, by no stroke of my own genius, I successfully manage to make it through life without catching on fire or burning anything down, and life is good, until one humid night in June 2011, when my winning streak comes grinding  to an end.

It’s 2 o’clock in the morning, and this is the sound that wakes me up:

“BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG.”

I have just moved into my new apartment, having relocated from Florida to North Carolina a mere two weeks ago.  It was a company move, and we all packed up our offices and homes, and made the day-long drive from Delray Beach to the Outer Banks.  We just got here. This was supposed to be our welcoming period.

I hear it again.

“BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG.”

It takes awhile for the sound to register, to sink in.  I don’t hear it right away, I don’t recognize its source, and I don’t know that it’s directed at me.

“BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG.”

“What the … ? ” I decide to go check it out.  Maybe I’m being robbed.

I open the door to my bedroom, and realize the sound is coming from my front door.  Someone is banging on my front door, screaming about fire. “Stacey! Wake up! There’s a fire!”

This doesn’t make sense to my half-asleep brain. I just got here. There can’t be a fire yet.  It’s too soon.

As I’m running down the stairs, an incident that happened the day I left Florida flashes portentously into my mind:  I’m making my last trip down the elevator with the last remnants of my stuff, this close to getting into the 4Runner and driving north forever.  As the elevator door slides open to the ground floor, the keys to the 4Runner, which I’m holding in my hands, slip out of my hands and go tumbling right down into the elevator shaft, clinking when they hit the bottom.  It was like a slow-motion scene out of a Hollywood movie where props are used to foreshadow doom, and I was sure the keys were trying to tell me something. “Don’t leave! Stay in Florida! “ they shouted at me from down in the elevator shaft. “No good can possibly come if you move to North Carolina!”

I run down the stairs, cursing myself for not listening to the keys, and open the door.  It’s April, my next-door neighbor, and three houses down, to the south, there’s a building that is completely on fire.  To make matters worse, there’s a strong southwest wind blowing, which means we’re directly in the line of the fire.  To my scared and untrained eye, it looks like we’ll be burning in minutes.

“We’re being evacuated,” April pants. She’s not in the greatest shape, and she’s out of breath from running up the stairs and banging on the door. There’s a sense of urgency in the air, a feeling of pending doom, and it’s like I’m back in front of Mrs. Gibson’s desk clutching my Liddle Kiddles to my chest.

“Grab your most important stuff!” she says.

“My most important stuff?” I look at her blankly, hoping she’ll have all the answers. “What’s my most important stuff?”  I look around hopelessly. If I’m about to become homeless, it’s all my most important stuff.

I start grabbing it all. Not the furniture because it’s too big, but everything else: my most meaningful pictures off the walls, everything I’ve written in the past 20+ years, my computer, my clothes, pillows, blankets, three stuffed animals, jewelry, underwear, and I even manage to carry my big tv along with the cable modem in one fell swoop, which I take down and deposit on the sidewalk of the restaurant next door. This faintly surprise me; I’ve never been able to carry my television on my own before; it’s usually too big and unwieldy.

Even though it’s 2 o’clock in the morning and I’ve never been much of a phone person, I suddenly decide that now is the time to let everyone I can think of know exactly what is going on in my life at this particular moment. I call my boss (and leave a message on his answering machine), I call one of my co-workers (who I’ve woken from a drunken sleep and who doesn’t seem to understand the importance of what’s going on), and of course, my parents, who are not new to the business of talking me off the ledge during natural disasters, and who always seem to get the worst of it. I’m so scared at this point that I unwittingly make it sound like the flames are lapping at my trousers, and not three doors down, well-contained by the Avon VFD (which I don’t know until later), and am informed by my father that most fire-related deaths are caused by smoke inhalation, so I should stay low and get the heck out of the building. “Not yet! I still need to grab more stuff,” I say, so I hang up and get the show on the road. Rome’s burning here, people. I’ve got to move!

I cram my ’09 Kahoonas and my Pro 124 board into my jeep, along with everything else I can think of, stuffing it so full that it looks like a prop from the Grapes of Wrath set.  All that’s missing is toothless old grandma strapped to the top in her rocking chair.  I drive it a quarter of a mile down the street, out of harm’s way, and then run back, to continue the looting of my own house. It took me 2 months to pack up for the move, and in 10 minutes, it’s all scattered, in parts, onto the lawn, around the building, into the parking lot of the Dolphin Den, and down the street.

It’s at this point that I think to remember the news cameras.  There are always news cameras at a fire, and right now I look like a sweaty-toothed madman, definitely not ready to be interviewed on national television. I throw on a bra, swig some Scope, put on some lipstick and deodorant, and then – properly presentable – continue unloading my house into the streets of Avon.

Then, at some point, the danger is over. It doesn’t end with any great fanfare; no one cheers to punctuate the moment.  It just gradually becomes clear that the fire is not going to spread to our houses.  The show is over,  it’s time to go home. There’s a quiet relief in the air, and I’m so grateful when I realize this that I run down to where the firemen are milling around, intending to thank them for saving my house, but when I get there, I’m feeling too emotional and I know that if I open my mouth to thank them, I’ll just start crying, so when I get to them, I just turn around like an idiot and start running back in the opposite direction, as if this is something I do every night at 4 AM: run down to where the fireman are standing, then turn around and run back.

The next day, I do two things.  I sign up for renter’s insurance, and out of gratitude, and because it seems like an important skill to have if houses are just going to start burning down around me at random all the time, I join the Volunteer Fire Department, conveniently leaving out the part that I’m deathly afraid of fire.

I’m sure they’ll figure out that part on their own.

watch?v=PD0yhn_9MyU

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