Smoke of a Great Fire:
A Novel, A Memoir, A Truth
At sixty-five, a pair of unlikely twins known only as “O.S.” and “O.D.” suffer yet another loss, one that leaves them in a wobbly world searching for a new identity before they are gone forever. Time is short, and with the help of their live-in care-giver “C.J.” they navigate between memory, truth and hope as they work to write a memoir that will explain what the medical world could not. They struggle mightily with fundamental questions—Had they made things happen, or had things just happened to them? Had they been the fire or the smoke? Had they seen too much or seen too little? And like most everyone, they wondered if they would be remembered for who they were or who they weren’t. Their story, surreal as it seems, was a chance for healing, for accepting a new identity that could give some comfort to C.J., friends, neighbors, colleagues and doctors who care about them. In his author’s note to Moonglow, Michael Chabon says “In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refuse to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” And so has Carol Jeffers in Smoke of a Great Fire.
Smoke of a Great Fire: Excerpt
Daybreak again… the 24,000th… and the two retired professors, one small and silvered over, the other small and grayed out, sat down to work at the dining room table. Work was what they trusted, what they ached to do. Work was real, gave them purpose, conferred identity. Work made them believe they were still strong and could regain some measure of control. They adjusted their glasses and fixed their gaze, small, deliberate acts meant to signal they were ready to make something big happen. The silvery one sat on the left—always on the left—and mumbled through a clenched jaw thoughts unarticulated about rage and loss and uncertainty. On the right, the other’s restless fingers pianoed an imagined polonaise, searching for a rhythm that would calm their nerves. They made “quite a pair,” colleagues always said. “Unusual, sure. Very private, enigmatic even.” The silvery one seemed determined, intense, practical, and the gray one more empathic, intuitive, imaginative, yet no one could say much more. Both were frail now, anyone could see that, creaking, breaking more and more in recent months. Neither wanted to waste a minute of what was about to burst into a sunny morning in late May, 2016. They had remained tight-lipped long enough. This was the moment to tear off the mask, reveal their secret story carved out by a chronic condition. They had explanations to give, perceptions to correct, stereotypes to kill.
At 5:46 they had rallied, managed to dress themselves, gray in an ivory hoodie and sweat pants with a blue stripe, silvery in a cream sweat shirt with red letters spelling “Wisconsin,” the state where they had been born. Comfort is what they sought, what they needed most if they were to root out the uncertainty, the loss, the grief snaking into their lives. In decades past, they might have started in the den, a garden in the back, or vinyl seats on a stuttering bus, as long as the two worked side by side. They had always been close, always dedicated to the project of overcoming and passing as normal. The pair could not be separated even as they found themselves blinking, twitching, trying to blend into a world cluttered with worry, stretched tight by unwelcome surprises. The table’s smooth surface disturbed only by a laptop and three bottles of eyedrops had beckoned, and the two accepted the invitation to work unobstructed.
“Morning,” yawned the caregiver from the kitchen. Thin even in her fuzzy blue bathrobe, she stretched to reach the mugs kept in an upper cabinet and realized the radio was silent. Odd, she thought. They loved the radio, she as well. All three of them depended on NPR to keep them up to date and connected to something bigger, a community where they still had a place. “You’re up early,” she said.
“Sorry,” said one.
“Didn’t mean to wake you,” said the other.
“That’s okay, if you’re up, I’m up.”