It’s a fine spring day as I emerge from the tunnels that led me back to Dodge City from China, my mind full of the wrappers of dime-a-dozen digging to China thoughts, what with the tunnels being kind of handmade-feeling, accomplished with more enthusiasm than professionalism, and so on. Looking at the sun, hearing the birds, smelling the pollen, the ground seeming still-washed from snowmelt, walking into Dodge City and then across town to my part of town, it’s like the kind of day someone in prison might imagine as the day of their release, or escape, the day they finally break through from the Inside back onto the street where they live, blinded by the light, free at last, etc.

It’s almost like that scene in the Robin Hood movie where he comes off the ship and falls down on his Home Shore and starts kissing and even then sort of almost eating the sand — it’s like a less hysterical, maybe less naive version of that, occurring, as it is, later in history.

Now I’m on my street. No one seems to be around, not even any parked cars or dogs. There are some birds, but they’re high enough up to be, essentially, on a different street. Certainly not privy to, or at least not concerned about, the situation here, which is:

My house has burned down.

My whole life’s worth of rigorously quieted worries about having left the stove, the toaster, the space heater on has come to naught, I think, or to fruition, depending on —

The strange thing is that it looks like it’s burned down very recently — is even still smoldering in places — but there’s no one around. No firetrucks or -men, no onlookers. I wonder if they haven’t come yet, or if they’ve already come and gone, or if they aren’t coming, either because they don’t know or because they do know but this knowledge just doesn’t do anything for them, anymore, at this point in their lives.

I go up to it, stand there unsurrounded. A single crow comes down from a telephone wire, dances in the ashes, its eldritch beak — no, that’s too much, I’m getting worked up.

It’s just me, trudging among those ashes, looking at what used to be my house (my “very first house,” I think, on the verge of tears, though this may not be true, there may have been thousands before it that I’m forgetting to list).

Then the tears are ready, and out they come. I’m all shaky and snotty, bawling like that scene in Gladiator where he kisses those charred ankles.

My life in Dodge City is over, I think, howling, pitching forward and back, heaving with the tragedy of it. My sneakers get burnt by the smoldering bits, and I’m on my back stomping my feet and pounding my fists when something catches my eye.

I have to rub it several times before I can get it dry enough to use, but when I do:

I see my house standing next door, unscathed. Even its lawn looks pretty good.

It takes me a while to realize that this burn site must actually have been my neighbor’s house. Kind Old Mr., or Mrs. … doesn’t matter, mainly I’m elated.

I sit on the curb to collect myself, try to wonder how I could have made such a mistake. Now some cars and pedestrians pass by, like they’ve been released from a holding pen now that I’ve come to my senses.

Underneath my relief, I feel pride. I’m proud of myself for the depth of feeling I was able to muster for my neighbor, my Fellow Man or Woman, the sympathy I felt for their misfortune. That’s surely what it was, I decide, not that I ever really thought it was my house.

That’s simply not a mistake that’s made. I mean, they don’t even look similar.

When my breathing and heart rate have stabilized, I stand up, dust the blown ash from my pants and shoes, and go up the driveway of my house. I can see the scorch of my neighbor’s backyard, and again a wave of tenderness takes me.

I never carry a key, so I have to force the backdoor open. It’s not easy. I have to throw my shoulder and hip into it.

Inside, I take off my shoes, wash my hands and face. Nothing’s familiar. Not the soap in the bathroom, not the damp towel, not the waterlogged magazines piled by the toilet.

Guess I’ve been away a long time. Longer than I appreciated, to have forgotten the interior of my own house. I chuckle at what’s possible.

I’ll make some coffee, I think, turn on some lights.

It takes me a long time to find where the coffee’s kept, the filters. Even working the coffeemaker isn’t, dismayingly, buoyed by any force of habit.

I sit at the kitchen table as it’s brewing, my mug with milk in its bottom (I’ll admit the presence of fresh milk in the fridge doesn’t bode well for this house being what I hope it is) ready on the counter.

I listen to the machine work, and hear footsteps on the stairs, someone coming down, no doubt, to investigate who’s here. “Just let me have my coffee in peace,” I remember thinking. “Just grant me that, please, then I’ll leave and never come back.”