Perimeter

Four summers ago, a single-engine airplane crashed into a house not a block from where I was staying. It was 6 a.m. I should have been asleep, but I wasn’t. I heard the crash. My cousin called from the other room: “What was that, Kelskels?” and we ran outside together. I saw the flames around the house like a glove smothered around fingers. Even from a block away, where I stood with my family––the first on the scene––and eventually the neighbors, the flame’s heat swelled into our skin. The fire department was staffed with volunteers that morning. Gearhart, Oregon is a small coastal town with, perhaps, no former tragedy blurred across its name. It took at least five minutes to get through to 911 and another ten for a truck to come wailing onto the scene. By then, those who hadn’t escaped wouldn’t. Three children died; two teenagers and an adult survived.

My parents and aunts and uncles ran back and forth between the scene and the house where we were staying, bringing supplies to the survivors: wet washcloths, blankets, anything they could think of. My mother took care of a woman who had come running out of the house, her back on fire. I remember this woman as a huddle on the ground next to the street.

After firefighters had unfurled the hoses and trained the harsh stream of water against the house, after all that, the parents returned. The mother had gone on a run. She came back to wreckage. She broke down. She could barely stand. “My kids. My kids. My kids are still inside,” she said. I remember her bright pink running shirt. Her short black hair was up in a ponytail. She screamed and clutched at a fireman.

Then the father returned from a three block walk to Gearhart’s one café. He must have heard the trucks throw themselves down the street, toward the house he was renting with his family. He was large. His stomach hung over his belt, held in by a tucked-in gray t-shirt. He heard the news. He placed a hand heavily on the mother’s shoulder and leaned toward her as if he was going to collapse. She was too small to hold his weight. He lifted three fingers into the air. “Three kids!” he yelled. “Three kids are still in there! There are three kids. Three kids.” His voice cracked. A fireman walked up to him and touched his shoulder. “Three kids! Three kids!” He kept yelling, kept stabbing his fingers upward.

By the end, when the flames were quelled, the roof sat over the charred wreckage as if to hide the loss. Three firemen kneeled on the sidewalk, hoses propped against their knees so three heavy streams of water fell on the remains. The three survivors were lifted onto gurneys and carefully slipped into ambulances. They left quietly.

**

Sometime during the hour we spent out there, my Aunt Susan had run back to the house and returned with my camera. She gave it to me. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to get as close to the scene as proper documentation would require. I stood still and took a benign photo of water streaming over the house. You wouldn’t know what the photo meant unless you’d been there.

After the ambulances and trucks went back the way they came and the neighbors returned to their houses, my family stumbled back to our houses, at the end of the street on the way to the beach.

I took a photo of my family’s backs. We were all in various stages of disarray. Most had sprinted out of bed to the scene, not taking time to pull on proper clothes. My grandmother had on a long pale-green bathrobe. They’re looking down the path that leads to the beach, all separate and all with elbows jutting distractedly out, as if unsure how to hold their arms, unsure how to step forward into what’s next. Some cousins were just waking.

It was barely 9 a.m., but the world had shifted.

**

It’s been more than four years since that morning. I’ve written about the crash three times now. Airplanes often hover in the background of my fiction. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to be drunk at an airport to get on an airplane. It seems, sometimes, that the more time has passed, the more the crash has lodged itself in my permanent memory. I can’t escape it. I have to force my way back in every few months, to try and reshift the narrative of those three hours, somehow find sense in the senseless scene.

How can I properly write about a tragedy that isn’t mine? I’m on the perimeter. I felt the heat and saw the wounds on the parent’s faces, but that evening, I sat reading and my parents came over to say that, had that been my brother and me… A sentence they left unfinished.

A newspaper photo shows firefighters shoveling through a black, twisted pile. The caption reads: “Firemen sift through charred remains after a small plane crashed into an occupied vacation rental house in Gearhart, Ore., on Aug. 4, 2008.” The fireman in the foreground looks as if he’s standing there, trying to decide how to proceed, how to begin dissembling that which has already been dissembled.

**

The summer before the crash, I picked up a worn copy of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love at Powells Bookstore in Portland, Oregon. I vividly remember sitting in the passenger seat of my then boyfriend’s truck, waiting as he ran into a gas station for food. I took the book from my bag and snuck in the first few paragraphs. It’s impossible, once begun, to step back.

That first chapter is devastating and masterful.

The opening sentence: “The beginning is simple to mark.”

Within the first page, the first paragraph, the narrator, Joe Rose, sees an escaped hot air balloon with a man clinging onto a rope. He hears the frightened screams of the child inside and runs. He’s not alone. Three other men converge on the scene. They grab other ropes, hoping to pull the balloon back down to earth. They almost succeed, but then they don’t.

Knowing exactly what happens, I read these pages now with a clutch in my heart. A dread is persistent and present in each word, each careful manipulation of time and place. McEwan knows what he’s doing.

“We were running toward a catastrophe,” he writes, “which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes.”

Enduring Love bears the weight of what came after, the dreadful circumstances that unfurled out of the unforeseeable and unpredictable.

**

From the Associated Press report: “A single-engine plane crashed into a fogbound coastal home where a family was vacationing Monday, killing the two people in the plane and three children on the ground, authorities said. A woman and two additional children were injured. City officials in the resort town of Gearhart said pilot [redacted] and passenger [redacted], both from Clatsop County, were aboard the plane that went down before 7 a.m., apparently hitting a tree during conditions described as foggy with low clouds.”

**

Enduring Love’s first chapter ends with: “I’ve never seen such a terrible thing as that falling man.” Beneath those eleven words is more than half a page of empty: the breath in the eye of the storm, before the reader walks down the hill with Joe Rose and finds the man. It’s this moment––not the falling but the fallen––that serves as the pivot for the rest of the novel.

My question: What would Enduring Love have been if McEwan had written two chapters before introducing the hot air balloon? What if McEwan had allowed the reader to settle into the world of his characters, a world full of tension and discomfort despite the absence of an implausible incident, and then, in the third chapter, out of nothing, came this fight to save a scared child from floating into the clouds?

Because nothing comes from nothing. Because context matters. Because seeing what came before has weight on what comes after. This, at least, is what we’re told. The story is in its scope, not its moment.

**

My family has spent the first week of every August for the past eighteen years in Gearhart. We’re an abnormally close family: ten cousins, four aunts, four uncles, and Grammy. Each week begins with Grammy’s kransekake: a pastry built like a mountain and dribbled with icing. Krumkake is another favorite––a thin waffle cookie cone.

As children, the cousins begged for quarters for the “candy store,” a general store on the town’s main street, a block from the town’s one café. We bought Fun Dip and Mambos and Snickers. We biked up and down unlined streets. One was a particular favorite: rollercoaster hill. Our feet pumped frantic as we hurtled down the steep dips, small inclines, and steeper dips.

Every Thursday night, we have a bonfire on the beach. The boys take a wheelbarrow of wood down during the afternoon and build the pit. As the sun sets, we walk down in twos and threes and sit around the small but warm fire, drinking beer and soda, laughing, roasting marshmallows.

In the mornings, Gearhart wakes to a shroud of gray. Fog rolls in from the ocean and coats the streets, surrounds the houses like a hazy blanket. The town is quiet and familiar. It waits, patient, for those there to wake.

I can’t tell you how many times I walked past that house.

**

The idea is to present that morning exactly as it was. A plane crashed into a house. Five mortalities; three survivors. But how can I write about this without prefacing it with my own set of biases, without providing the flip-flops that didn’t belong to me but that, in my haste, I slipped into before stepping out into the driveway that morning. Without saying how terrifying it was to step outside and see my father––an Emergency Room doctor––sprinting up the street.

At a certain point, writing is besides the point: how one builds the narrative of the moment, the words one chooses, the moments shown as substantiation. There are memories that have no place inside the whole, but those pieces that don’t belong, don’t seem to fit––the plane crashes, escaped hot air balloons, car collisions––should exist exactly because that’s what life is. Life cannot fit into a paint-by-numbers diagram.

There are moments I still can’t place. Afterwards, my family went back into the house and turned on the news. My just-woken younger brother and cousins came upstairs to find already awake and aching siblings and parents. I escaped to my bottom bunk, where I slept until noon––something I can’t explain, something I don’t want to explain. I slept through phone calls and text messages from friends, demanding to know that I was okay, that I hadn’t been in that house. A week later, I sat in my friend’s basement, listening and not responding to her story about the time she’d met the children, over a fence. Another friend had been the children’s counselor at a summer camp. A year later, I went to the Daily Astorian’s website, to find a piece about my grandmother, and on the front page was an article about the victims’ parents suing the owners of the house for property neglect. Two years later, I had a dream that a woman had decided to reopen the case as a possible homicide scene.

In the dream, the house hadn’t been rebuilt. The property was still there: a square of black charred crooked house supports.

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