He stole my Pac-Man stickers—the ones with the black background on which I spent my entire allowance—and then, the next day, before I could yell at him, he died. He actually died that night while asleep in his home, along with his brothers, sisters, and his mother. But, for me, it seemed he died that moment the announcement was made in class. Their father was at work, the graveyard shift. I remember Mrs. Dokken crying behind her desk. I remember the bells tolling at Cole School, once for each of the lives lost in the fire. I remember my friend Denise had a crush on his older brother, Ray, who also died. I remember the boy who stole my stickers. Playing. Breathing.
The sticker thief’s desk resided near mine in the back row—not next to me, but close enough that I could see my stickers on his unlaminated name tag. Didn’t he know that you could not peel stickers from unlamented paper? I was staring at the stickers when Mr. Quinney, our principal, confirmed their deaths during morning announcements. He, just a voice over the speakers, requested a minute of silence to honor those lost, and I remember our class did its best to comply. Sam, who sat right next to me, broke down sobbing minutes later during the flag salute and was ushered from class. He had one of my Pac-Man stickers on his name tag, too.
After school, Mom spoke of fire and death. Before we left class that day, we were handed a taped envelope enclosing a letter we were to share with our parents. My brother and I handed it to our mother and quietly sat in the car as she opened the letter and read. I don’t remember exactly how she responded, but it was something along the lines of “I wonder how his father will survive?” That evening, she discussed smoke alarms and fire safety and 911. I did not mention my stickers or the fact that my classmate was a stealer. I knew you couldn’t be mad at someone who was dead, but I remember feeling cheated. Cheated because I was not able to perform my lecture about how stealing was bad, because now he no longer sat in the desk down from mine. He was no longer my classmate. He was no longer someone I could lecture. He was gone.
It took me 25 years to look for him, despite having seen him and thought about him along the way. The boy’s face returned one day as I read the essay, “Westbury Court,” by Edwidge Danticat; Her experience with death and space and memory somehow brought up ghosts from my own past. My dad found our faded kindergarten class photo boxed in the garage. The boy from my past was dressed in a striped sweater, black hair combed into place, eyes focused on the camera. I was there, too, with all the other classmates, but his gaze caught my eye. And I kept looking.
I remember staring at his nametag and reading “Dan,” but according to an archived article from the Idaho Statesman, that was not the name of the sticker thief. How had I forgotten? How could I remember the names of Denise, Ray, and Mr. Quinney, and forget the name of my classmate who had died?
His name was Jim.
The headline on December 15th, 1982, reads, “Children Cry, write notes to dead classmates.” I do not remember writing him a note. I am not sure I cried. I remember grass in the field stiff with frost beneath my feet, a frozen morning where breath hangs in air. I remember Jaime B. (or was it Kimra?) in her blue coat and her frozen breath saying he was dead before the morning bell rang. According to the paper, it rained that morning. How could Jaime’s breath hang in the air on a damp and rainy morning?
The newspaper that day was littered with articles detailing different angles of the tragedy, inviting journalists to pay their tribute to a family they did not know: interviews with neighbors, commentary from the fire marshal, information about smoke alarms, and images from the fire. They even drew the family in a diagram, reproduced bodies, mapping their location in the mobile home the night that they died—black figures in beds, on the bedroom floors, and in the hall: Wai Ling, Kenneth, Raymond, Jim, Tamara, Diana, Rebecca. Jim’s face appears on page four, hidden behind the diagrams, hidden behind the Senate’s pay hike and mall funding. In the reproduced picture, he is not smiling. He looks lost, unprepared for the snap of the camera. As I look at the face from my past, I realize that he is not even ink and paper; he is spinning microfiche at a library. He is projected through light and air, shadows and contrasts; there is nothing tangible to connect to, not even my memory, which continues to shift from a morning laced with ice to a morning filled with rain.
The articles cobble together an image of a family destroyed by fire. They say his father was an immigrant and barely spoke English, that he held two jobs to make a better life for his family, that he was greeted with smoke when he opened the door after work, that he carried the bodies one by one out of the smoldering house, and that he screamed. They say, the fire, started by an electrical heater, used up all of their oxygen; after they died, the fire likewise killed itself, smothering its own flames. They say that from the outside of the trailer people would never know anything had happened. They mention the natural gas, normally used to heat the home, had been shut off for non-payment. The newspaper calls it the “destruction of the Chinese immigrant family.” An interviewed neighbor claims that the real tragedy was that their family “practically had no friends,” that the “language really separated” them from the community. I do not remember a language barrier or difference.
I remember a boy with straight black hair and a mischievous smile, a smile not reflected in photos, but captured in a faulty memory. I remember that Jim had friends—friends who shared stolen stickers in a first grade class in 1982.
At school, we cut butterfly wings from black paper and orange tissue. White paper circles dotted the black border. Teachers attached the wings to our backs with string and pipe cleaner, and we paraded out on to the basketball courts. One by one, we were handed our butterfly, not made of paper, but real butterflies that could fly away on their own if we were careful and held them just so. We walked in a circle, clumsy hands holding fragile wings. When we released the Monarchs, our sky filled with orange and black. As they disappeared into blue sky, dust lingered on fingers. Jaime B. rubbed the butterfly’s powdery scales between her fingers and said, “It is like ash.”
TIFFANY HITESMAN resides in Boise, Idaho, where she grades, advises, and conducts writing workshops. She can often be found in front of a computer screen wasting time on social media, researching trends in developmental writing, reading archived newspapers regarding random local history, and occasionally writing the stuff she wants to write. She holds a Master of Arts in English from Boise State University.