After the year of fire
vines rise up
through the rest of our lives
As if to say We’re still here.
As if to say Remember us.
The moon is bright tonight. And full. Hanging low above the house across the street where an orange curtain blows in and out of my neighbors’ window. Out and in. And past the curtain there’s the golden light of their living room lamps. Beyond that, there is the pulsing blue of their television screen. I see this all now. I see a world continuing.
And in the orange and gold and blue I’m reminded again of the year when sirens screamed through my old neighborhood and smoke always seemed to be billowing. Somewhere.
That year, from the moment we stepped out of our houses in the morning till late into the night, we heard the sirens. Down Knickerbocker. Up Madison. Across Cornelia. Both
ways on Gates Avenue. Down Ridgewood Place. Rounding the corners of Putnam, Wilson, Evergreen . . . Evergreen.
Sometimes a word comes to you after time has passed. And it catches you off guard. Evergreen.
The name of a family of trees. And the name of a block in Brooklyn. Evergreen. Another way of saying forever
That year, nothing felt evergreen. Palmetto.
A word that has never left me. A word that in my mind is evergreen. Palmetto.
The name for both a stunning tree and an oversize cockroach. Palmetto was also the name of a street in my old neighborhood. And that year, Palmetto Street was burning.
That was the year when, one by one, the buildings on Palmetto melted into a mass of rock and ash and crumbled plaster until just a few walls were left standing. Walls that we threw our balls against and chased each other around. And at the end of the day, when we were too tired to play anymore, they were the walls we simply sat down by and pressed our backs into, staring out over a block that was already, even as we stared at it with our lips slightly parted and our hands shielding the last of the sun from our eyes, almost gone.
We said Well, nothing lasts for always, right?
We said One day even the whole earth will disappear.
We were just some kids making believe we understood.
But we didn’t. Not yet.
We didn’t understand the fires. Or life. Or the world.
But we knew that neighborhood was
And we knew . . . our world was burning.
That was the year of Freddy too.
Freddy moved into the corner building on Palmetto Street right where it was sliced through by a small block called Ridgewood Place. The brick houses on Ridgewood Place felt like they came from another time. Each house was just as perfect as the one beside it. The cars parked out in front of the houses were undented and shining. We didn’t understand how the people who lived on Ridgewood Place got such nice houses and fancy cars. But we understood why their brick houses remained standing long after the wooden houses of Palmetto Street had burned to the ground. So we slitted our eyes as we walked past the houses on Ridgewood Place, jealous because the kids who lived inside that brick didn’t have to worry about how quickly flames flew. And we slitted our eyes because we knew they didn’t have to sleep with their robes and shoes at the foot of their beds. We knew if those kids woke up in the middle of the night, it was only to go to the bathroom or climb into their parents’ bed during a thunderstorm.
5 Hey, girl!
The first time I ever talked to Freddy was the day he called to me from his window. I had been dribbling my basketball through my legs as I walked up the block but stopped to see who was yelling. It was summer, and the one tree on Palmetto Street was in front of his building. That’s what I remember now—looking up at Freddy through all that green. Hey, yourself,
I yelled back. Where’s the park at?
My dad said there was a park around here somewhere. With hoops.
I shrugged. I don’t know anything about some park,
I said. But you got a ball.
A hot wind came out of nowhere and trembled the leaves. I didn’t want to be yelling in the street up at some kid’s window, and something about that wind made me feel a way. So I gave a little wave and then broke into a jog toward the park.
Copyright © 2023 by Jacqueline Woodson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.