On a clear, bright, early evening in May, 1992, in a westside Detroit neighborhood lined with weathered ‘50s colonials, squat, swarthy Arnold Russo, his eye to the Panasonic’s viewfinder, backed off a low slab porch onto his neatly kept front lawn. Out of the front door came a teenaged couple, Jeff in a white tux and pink ruffled shirt, Jill in a Portofino blue prom dress with spaghetti straps that kept falling.
Arnold said, “Okay, natural now! Walk to the right.”
Holding hands, the couple moved off the porch to their right.
“No, no, to the right, for chrissake!” Arnold dipped the camera from his eye to function as an exasperated director, then remembered he was his own camera operator.
Jill whined, “We did go right, Daddy.”
Arnold barked, “Jesus, high school graduates!”
“Daddy, you’re swearing on the tape!”
Arlene, tall and bony thin, and Mikey, a ten-year-old version of Arnold, came out on the porch. The wife rolled her eyes. “Oh, right, Mister Hollywood.”
“Yeah, someday you’ll thank me.” Arnold shot the couple posing now on the cracked driveway. “Jesus, do somethin’. It’s movin’ pictures.”
Jill again with the whine: “Mom, tell him to stop.”
Arnold said, “Mikey, get in there and do something with your sister.”
Off the porch, Mikey ran to the couple and tried to stand on his head.
Jill stamped her foot. “Mom!”
“Arnold, this is getting ridiculous.”
Behind the teen couple, two doors up the street, a young black woman emerged from a house with two small children. They headed for an old maroon Dodge on the street.
Noticing her neighbors, the woman stopped and called, “Oh, let me see, honey. Twirl that pretty dress.”
Pleased, Jill did a spin. “Hi, Mrs. Peoples. Hi, kids.”
Her mom on the porch and Juanita Peoples exchanged waves. Arnold kept the camcorder rolling.
Juanita said, “Beautiful, honey. We’re in a rush, or I’d get my camera too.”
A last wave and she hustled her little boy and girl into their car seats in the Dodge and slipped behind the wheel. Arnold was still shooting the teen couple with the Peoples’ car behind them.
Juanita turned the ignition, and with a huge percussion that Arnold felt in the chest, the Dodge became a fireball.
“Oh, Jesus, God!” He flinched yet kept the camera in front of his eye as a kind of shield from the furious orange flames. Jill uttered a high-pitched scream, but it was nearly lost in the roar of the raging fire. Jeff held her tightly in his arms as they both turned away, and Arlene grabbed little Mikey and yanked him back toward the house.
Thick black smoke was billowing now from the burning wreckage and heading up. As it reached the top branches of the giant Dutch Elms lining the street, a breeze began moving it off above this rustbelt metropolis going about its business, oblivious to what Arnold had just recorded.
Within 10 minutes, the leading wisp of smoke was high above a red Viper convertible moving in the same direction.
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