The Peterson Fire

It was snowing the night the Peterson house burned down. Bud Peterson was seventeen then, two years older than me. Bud got out alive because his room was on the ground floor in the rear of the house. His two sisters and their parents slept upstairs, above the livingroom, which was where the fire started. An ember jumped from the fireplace and ignited the carpet. Bud’s parents and his ten and twelve year old sisters could not get down the staircase. When they tried to go back up, they were trapped and burned alive. There was nothing Bud Peterson could have done to save any of them. He was lucky, a fireman said, to have survived by crawling out his bedroom window.

I didn’t see the house until the next afternoon. Snow flurries mixed with the ashes. Most of the structure was gone, only part of the first floor remained, and the chimney. I was surprised to see Bud Peterson standing in the street with his pals, staring at the ruins. Bud was a tall, thin boy, with almost colorless hair. He wore a Navy pea coat but no hat. Black ash was swirling around and some of it had fallen on his head. Nobody was saying much. There were about twenty of us, kids from the neighborhood, standing on the sidewalk or in the street, looking at what was left of the Peterson house.

I had walked over by myself after school to see it. Big Frank had told me about the fire in Cap’s that morning when we were buying Bismarcks. Frank’s brother, Otto, was a fireman. Frank said Otto had awakened him at five-thirty and asked if Frank knew Bud Peterson. Frank told him he did and Otto said, “His house burned down last night. Everybody but him is dead.”




     I heard somebody laugh. A couple of Bud’s friends were whispering to each other and trying not to laugh but one of them couldn’t help himself. I looked at Peterson but he didn’t seem to mind. I remembered that he was a little goofy, maybe not too bright, but a good guy. He always seemed like one of those kids who just went along with the gang, who never really stood out. A bigger kid I didn’t know came up to Bud and patted him on the left shoulder, then said something I couldn’t hear. Peterson smiled a little and nodded his head. Snow started to come down harder. I put up the hood of my coat. We all just kept looking at the burned down house.

A black and white drove up and we moved aside. It stopped and a cop got out and said a few words to Bud Peterson. Bud got into the back seat of the squad car with the cop and the car drove away. The sky was getting dark pretty fast and the crowd broke up.

One of Bud’s sisters, Irma, the one who was twelve, had a dog, a brown and black mutt. I couldn’t remember its name. Nobody had said anything about Irma’s dog, if it got out alive or not. I used to see her walking that dog when I was coming home from baseball or football practice.

Bud Peterson went to live with a relative. Once in a while, in the first few weeks after the fire, I would see him back in the neighborhood, hanging out with the guys, then I didn’t see him anymore. Somebody said he’d moved away from Chicago.

One morning, more than thirty years later, I was sitting at a bar in Paris drinking a coffee when, for no particular reason, I thought about standing in front of the Peterson house that afternoon and wondering: If it had been snowing hard enough the night before, could the snow have put out the fire? Then I remembered the name of Irma Peterson’s dog.