SOOT by Audrey
courtesy of Boyd Photography, La Grange
"The north wind—unusually
strong this March—carried the voices from those gathered below to me, and I could
hear their whispers and gasps. And it wasn’t the ablaze Botts Title Company that
trumped the conversation, or the equally ablaze China Inn Restaurant, Bertie’s
Barbershop, or the income tax lawyer’s office. No, it was the Cozy Theater, slotted
between Bertie’s on the left and the JC Penney catalog store on the right."
the courthouse. |
Photo courtesy Boyd Photography, La Grange, 3-8-00
following text is based on the author's experience of the fire on the La
Grange, Texas town square, Mar. 8, 2000 (Ash Wednesday). |
dry heat wafted across Washington Street and forced my eyes open—WIDE—so as to
take everything in. Green-gray smoke billowed from the cinder blocked exterior
as citrus colored flames reached toward the late afternoon sky. The fireman arrived
just as the courthouse clock struck four, the tower being only a few yards away
and level with me, now three stories up. Today, even from here, the chime sounded
so distant because of the commotion.
“Get ‘em out of here!”
“Step back! You can’t go there.”
“But why the…”
Trucks roared. Hydrants opened. A
city bucket truck came to a screeching hault. Volunteers poured past. Systematically,
almost mechanically, the firemen began clearing the sidewalks, unrolling hoses,
and stepping into their uniforms, trying desperately to prepare themselves to
fight a fire unlike any the town had ever seen.
courtesy Boyd Photography, La Grange, 3-8-00
work, but we didn’t. The drive-thru lanes were blocked by engines, which put the
tellers in a hellfire panic. This made the bookkeepers nervous, which made the
loan officers flustered. I just wanted to get out of there. So I punched out early,
deciding to forgo the invitation from Sylvia in New Accounts to join her in the
fire resistant safety of the money vault.|
“I’ll bring peanut butter crackers,”
she said. “And the radio’ll work in there. We’ll listen.”
I shook my
head on the way up the lobby stairs. I made my way through Bookkeeping, through
the supply closet, and opened the security door onto the roof. The alarm wasn’t
even heard. Not today. I made my way around the air conditioner unit and stopped.
And from this perchtop post of the State Bank, one of the highest points on the
town square, I watched the mayhem and desperation of a town that tried to prevent
her landscape from changing.
Grange's famous "Muster Oak" witnessed the blaze; but escaped unscathed.
courtesy Boyd Photography, La Grange, 3-8-00
sat on the curb, staring in disbelief. Another man, his customer, paced nearby.
There was still loose hair on his neck. Weary-eyed Lutheran school children lined
behind the stop sign, their butter soaked popcorn left uneaten, their cartoon
movie, unfinished. A lawyer brought his cell phone to rest on his cheek. The Chinese
woman wept. An elderly couple stood next to her, their foreheads smudged with
centered gray. They bowed their heads and held hands. I reached to my own forehead
and brushed my fingers in a half circle across my skin. I lowered my index finger
and looked at the sooty mark: my holy day reminder. “Of all the days,” I thought.
“Of all the days.”
By now, most of the Fayette County courthouse has emerged
from the limestone chambers and gathered under the Muster Oak at the corner of
Colorado and Washington. The county judge had stepped on the sidewalk with his
hands tightly clasped and pressed hard against his chest, leaving the others on
the street. I could see him mutter before his mouth dropped. No, Judge, there
would be no sanctimonious sending off of a football team to the state championship
today, no glorified goodbye to a troop, no political promenade beneath her mighty
limbs. We were there to bid another farewell of sorts: an end to Hollywood, whose
influence became soot in a small central Texas town that Ash Wednesday.
north wind—unusually strong this March—carried the voices from those gathered
below to me, and I could hear their whispers and gasps. And it wasn’t the ablaze
Botts Title Company that trumped the conversation, or the equally ablaze China
Inn Restaurant, Bertie’s Barbershop, or the income tax lawyer’s office. No, it
was the Cozy Theater, slotted between Bertie’s on the left and the JC Penney catalog
store on the right. The theater. Our theater.
theatre had always been a town staple, not unlike cotton of the 40s, Chicken Ranch
hookers of the 60s, or oil of the 80s. It was a prime hot spot. First dates, first
kisses, first tastes of Cokes not from cans—all in the Cozy. It was the Friday
night hangout, the Sunday afternoon retreat, the weeknight default. Everyone—kids,
teens, parents, and even grandparents—had been to the Cozy. Had been. Had
been. ... next page
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Audrey A. Herbrich|
Photos © Boyd Photography, La Grange, Texas