A SAFE PLACE FOR DYING

It was a spectacle even on the four-inch screen of my fifty-nine-dollar television.

Edna Rectenberry, the white-curled fusspot of Chicago P.B.S.'s Our Prairie, Our Heritage, was on her knees outside the wall of the gated community Crystal Waters, barking questions at six preschoolers about the purple wildflowers they'd planted there. She'd just poked her microphone at one fidgeting towhead, in short pants and a better necktie than I'd ever own, when the roof of one of the mansions behind the wall rumbled up like a flaming orange spaceship and vaporized into black smoke. The explosion pounded the ground as glowing cinders of charred wood and shattered roof tile began raining down like hell's own charcoal.

Her cameraman stumbled back from the searing heat, into the suddenly blaring horns and squealing brakes of the cars on the highway, but he kept his videocam rolling as the screaming children and poor, arthritic Edna, her knees bleeding, her white hair clumped with black ash, staggered through the hailstorm of flaming debris into the street.

Nobody died. The people who lived in the mansion were away, and the wall had protected the children and Edna from all but small burns and minor cuts.

And there the story would have expired as a minor news item on page three of the metro section of the Chicago Tribune, along with the worst of the day's other house fires, save for the tape. The videotape of Edna and the screaming kids running from a flaming roof made it perfect Big T Television.

All four local news shows hustled coiffures to Crystal Waters, to pose in front of the brick wall and to intone, live at five, six, and ten, that they didn't have much to intone about at all. Voicing over endless replays of the P.B.S. video, they mouthed the obvious: It must have been a gas leak, and there was concern it might happen again.

After enjoying the footage for the sixth time, I blew the sawdust off my gallon of Gallo and poured a celebratory half inch into my coffee mug. I knew Crystal Waters. People from where I'm from drive by it sometimes for a peek at the good life through the iron gates. They call it Gateville.

I call it that, too. But I'd lived there, for the months of my marriage.

And so long as nobody hurt, I was rooting for another gas leak.