All day, a delicate mist has fallen over the parched and browning greenery, reviving trees, lawns and late summer blooms. This morning, I could not tell from inside the apartment whether that mist would feel gentle on the skin, but I laced up my sneakers, strapped the beach bag across my back and went out. Within two blocks, I was thrilled to feel this mist on my face and arms. The cool scent of flora drinking in the moisture it has craved is a sweet thing, and my heart sang. Then I turned the corner of South Second and Benner, where the scent on the breeze changed.
Thursday, I woke to the sound of helicopters overhead, which has become a sign that something dreadful is happening. Months ago, a firefighter in my home town died on a day I awoke to the sound of helicopters, and just over a week ago, helicopters overhead signified a bar I used to frequent burned down, taking half a neighborhood with it. The other day, when I heard the helicopters again, my heart sank. The Conservative Temple in Highland Park was on fire. The Fabulous Ex-Husband(tm) and I got married there eighteen years ago. The temple is arguably the heart of this town, even as there are several other synagogues within walking distance.
Fires have different smells that tell the nose important things. A wood fire cannot conceal the scent of what kinds of wood are burning. An electrical fire has a powdery, metallic smell. A house fire combines the smells of burning wood and fabric with the acrid smells of melting plastics and metals. You know the smell of a house fire. I was in New York for a Supersuckers/Zeke show in late September, 2001. The cab driver took us as far south as the police barricades and said, “Now you get out and walk.” We weren’t near our destination. We said, “Walk?” He pointed: this way, that way, this way, over there, you’ll be fine. Everything was covered in a fine dust, and there were bits of paper everywhere. The dust required no explanation but the paper lying everywhere and floating on the breeze was startling. The paper we shuffled through had been sitting on someone’s desk, in someone’s files, when the Towers came down. Then we turned a corner and the smell of September 11th hit my friends and me like a baseball bat across the face: the housefire smell, intense and one might say loud, with the horrible additions of burned chemicals and a certain excruciating smell one might with reticence recognize as flesh-like. Heaven help me, I stopped in my tracks and turned to face it. I inhaled everything on the wind. A breath. Tragic history in fragrant waves. When I exhaled, I said, “Go in peace, sad spirits.” I said, “Goddamnit, I need a beer.”
At the corner of South Third and Benner sits the temple. It runs the length of the block and caution tape dangles from every door handle and railing along South Third Avenue. The tape looks tired. Thursday evening, on my way to the family store, I saw police cars everywhere and people standing in the streets, just staring at the charred temple. On my way home, most of the people were gone but the Eyewitness News van had set up shop on South Third Avenue. Today, of course, everyone was gone.
On this block and for a block or two in each direction, the air smells like a house fire – sort of. There’s also another strong smell. Ever handle an old roll of cheap masking tape? Something about it changes over time, and it begins to smell a bit like smoke, but a peculiar smoke with a slight hint of plastic and brown sugar cure. One step off the curb and the smell is gone. I turn around to see if I imagined it, but there it stands: the temple, tired caution tape, a sad figure in a small town.