We are being shipped back to 1963, so many feelings flash through my mind. We have had it up to here with neighbors in just this way.
Hair trying to wither, winds whipping off the rain. Aching to be outside and away from the house, watching the universe while it flocks around us and we do our best to stay in the house. But the flood can move so fast, up and down the stairs. Whether on or off duty, my character on the third floor trembles with the noise and the unfamiliar smells and glances through the door, which takes more time now.
Lights go dark. Scent overwhelms the room. We slow the TV from a racing zigzag toward something in far-off Washington and we can hear a conversation via two phone lines. It is the inside of someone’s head, with old flames flickering. It is exactly what a crisis feels like: knocks on the door. A voice is talking. Or we hear one around the corner.
“Your house is on fire.”
I hear one of my neighbors’ eyes blink at a shiny sidewalk below. “I don’t know how to tell you this,” says the voice. “But I just have to tell you. You have five minutes.” The candles in the kitchen flicker. You want them to. You want to see if your household is still intact. I have to pull the blinds out of the way to avoid looking over the snow-covered door. I want to wait till a firefighter shows up, until I feel like I can make a rational decision.
So I do. I pull the blinds closed again. My fingers briefly hurt. I look again. The kitchen is gone. My husband and I have managed to keep our house from burning to the ground in about five hours.
The first two-thirds of “Mission Impossible” were amazing. Supermen on the run, their nicknames of the most interesting note or last thought they’d ever had and then gone. Their omen may never be found. The next three-quarters, however, are close to tragedy. Far too many unanswered questions. And their final third is a gray where their bodies should be.
Three stars out of five. Better than the rest of Hollywood.
Mrs. Brown always asked her friends to remember her when they changed their names. Her husband was a tennis-playing lawyer. They had a happy, close family. In 1992, she told me, he wrote the book What People Didn’t Know About Mrs. Brown. I told her when I learned that every so often he would read my own magazine column aloud. “How great,” she said.
I suppose I asked more questions. Asked in deeper voice. All along, there was a horror at the heart of every moment. Mrs. Brown has only a single image, too: her husband swinging the mail he would carry to deliver to his clients into the frigid air at the end of their winters. So he has been upholstered in a large sporting coat and forced to sit in the snow as long as the window remained open on the wall in the direction of the house. An emptiness which makes the last third of the film much of a tragedy, but the beginning is a dream. The snow comes, from past and into the house, and they disappear.
When the door swung shut, from the cobalt blue of September, it shook as hard as the roof of the house had a month ago.
I see footage from the next morning, the firemen first at our front door, waking us with pepper spray and the blast of the blue lights. The house where two generations had lived and grown was gone. All I had left was a moment to deliver the mail. They knocked at my window and the outside world could once again be outside.
A shout of welcome. Mrs. Brown’s nickname for me.
I remember as I pushed the door shut — one of many, many times she said that — how for a moment, I felt really safe.
Toto dowell is the national correspondent for the Fordham Journalism Review. Her next book, Death of an American Woman (Third Floor Press), will be published in April.