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“The Fireman” by Rick Bass

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  • Pages: 4
  • Word count: 993
  • Category: Marriage

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            In “The Fireman” by Rick Bass, we glimpse inside the mind of an average person, who appears to be just that, very normal.  He has been married (twice), with three children, a dull meaningless job, and a tiny secret.  His world revolves around this secret and it is his internal motivation.  He loves fighting fires, since they him feel vital, help him to hone his focus towards his family, and the fighting is a personal penance for failing at his first marriage.  Fire fighting offers Kirby the chance to be a rescuer or hero of—people, property, his colleagues, and most privately his soul.  From each fire he departs as a cleansed man, absolved and free of sin, “As long as the city keeps burning, they can avoid becoming weary and numb.  Always, he leaves, is drawn away, and then returns, to a second chance” (PG #).

            Kirby is a volunteer fire fighter, so in addition to receiving no pay, he also has the perpetual intrusions this sort of job brings into his personal life.  He is ready to spring into action when the dispatcher squawks the address over the radio.  He leaves his family, and enters into a trance he calls “tunnel vision” while his view narrows to the point where he can barely see what is in front of him.  This concentration forces a temporary amnesia, the ability to forget about his life, and put all of his efforts into the rescue, he thinks “It’s intoxicating; it’s addictive as hell” (PG #).  When he returns, he confesses the details about the fire to his wife, telling her about the unpretentious or unexciting events.  His matter-of-fact descriptions include describing a gay couple cooking hamburgers on an outside grill for the firemen while their house burned.  How a distraught antique collector scooped ashes from his backyard pool.  Or how the small acts of kindness overtake some people in a crisis and they begin wonder about humble things like bats or birds.  He also is rather austere about the burns he receives, stating that he will be permanently spotted before long.

            Mary Ann, on the other hand, does not understand Kirby’s acute interest in his avocation.

She knows that it is dangerous, but she will not ask her husband to stop, it is too much a part him, “She knows she could lose him.  But she knows he will be lost for sure without the fires” (PG #).  She prays in church, the candle flicker bringing about a fantasy of being led out of a burning building.  She started a house fire when younger and she thinks of that experience while watching Kirby sleep.  She remembers the terror and euphoria and cannot decide if it is more powerful to start or extinguish a fire.

            Kirby goes through the motions of his life and during a slow “fire” week, he is anxious, “The fires usually come about once a week.  The time spent between them is peaceful at first but then increasingly restless, until finally the dispatcher’s radio sounds in the night and Kirby is released” (PG #).  He needs the fires.  Mary Ann needs the fires, since they are a part of Kirby.

            Kirby has custody of Jenna, daughter from his first marriage, one day week and alternate weekends.  Jenna personifies Kirby’s failed marriage, since she was left behind in his mind.  The time they spend together is innocuous, but Kirby is frantic anyway.  When Jenna’s mother takes an extended vacation and Kirby is with Jenna for an additional two weeks, he thinks “This must be what it feels like to be rescued…” (PG #).  When Kirby cannot be with Jenna, he lies on the roof of her mother’s house and sniffs the air surrounding the chimney, hoping they are sharing the same air.  Kirby’s love for his daughter transcends his actions and he cannot explain to Mary Ann and “…dreams ahead to when Jenna is eighteen; he dreams of reuniting.  He continues to take catnaps on the roof by her chimney.  The separation betrays and belies his training; it is greater than arm’s length distance” (PG #).  Arm’s length is a standard that fireman use, they should never be any further from each other.  Kirby’s separation from Jenna is emotionally and physically more than arm’s length. Sometimes when he stands guard over her he thinks about his failed marriage and could it have been saved?  He convinces himself that is was not possible “Could I have saved it?  No.  Maybe.  No” (PG #).

            Kirby partners with the rookie fireman so he can mentor their progress.  Unpredictability or recklessness cannot be tolerated, since mistakes can cost men their lives.  We are told “it takes a long time to get used to the fires; it takes the young fireman, the beginners, a long time to understand what is required:  that they must suit up and walk right into a burning house.  They make mistakes” (PG #).  Kirby instructs them not to panic, breathe too fast, and keep control of the situation.  This is a model for Kirby, since he made the mistake of allowing a metaphorical fire to consume him, and this shattered his first marriage.  He mourns the loss of his former marriage.

            Becoming a fireman destroyed his first marriage, but keeps this second marriage together.  Every fire offers Kirby redemption, a second chance to be a better man, better husband and father, while he looks for salvation.  Fire renews and consumes by breaking components into primitive elements.  Maybe he can rescue himself.  He waits for those moments “…watching the horizon, looking and hoping for smoke—and feels himself igniting…as if it is some structure other than his own that is aflame and vanishing; as if he can keep the two separate—his good life, and the other one he left behind” (PG #).

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