Ray McNeill.

A few years back, I was walking into Montpelier’s co-op when a man walking out said, ‘Hey, you used to come in my bar all the time.’ He was Ray McNeill, a brewer and musician. In the 1980s and ’90s when I lived in Brattleboro, I spent many evenings at Three Dollar Dewey’s, the bar Ray and his wife owned, and then at McNeill’s when the brewery opened. This weekend, McNeill’s Brewery in Brattleboro burned. Ray McNeill perished in the total loss fire.

I’m not at all a fan of Facebook, but I’m included the passage below from Ray’s daughter Eve Nyrhinen. A passionate man, with a good heart, Ray is deeply mourned. And while, sadly, each tragedy is unique, this eloquent piece is reminder that decency and kindness endure.

I’m Ray’s daughter. I’d like to share some details and dispel some rumors about Ray Mcneill‘s death. He was told in June that due to the structural instability of the building, the fire department would not be able to send a crew in there safely if a fire were to break out. There hadn’t been a fire in his 30-some years there, and he had an extensive sprinkler system, so he chose to stay. Anyone who loved him knew that you couldn’t tell that man what to do.

He knew he couldn’t open the bar this winter, and he didn’t need to be there for construction (in fact, he was told the renovations would be easier if he moved out) so he booked a tiny beach house in Baja, and planned to drive out here to Reno to spend some time with his grandkids and then drive on to there. He drained the sprinkler system so the pipes wouldn’t freeze while he was gone. He had “a few more errands” to do, and there were storms rolling into the Rockies and around Reno this weekend, so he stayed a few extra days. It never occurred to anyone that it was unsafe for him to stay in his apartment after the sprinkler system had been drained.

The fire likely started from an old multi-port electrical outlet behind his TV, next to stacks of magazines. He was probably asleep when it happened, as he’d told several people he was going to bed shortly before. From the scene, it looks like he awoke to an apartment full of smoke and fire, and between the smoke and carbon monoxide he only made it to the top of the stairs before he collapsed. My understanding is that smoke and carbon monoxide poisoning makes a person giddy, happy, and unafraid in their last few moments, and I’d like to think that his death was like this, as peaceful as a death by fire could be. His body was not burned, and he was not trapped. It took at least 90 minutes for the fire department to break through the right part of the roof to sight him, and at that point they were certain he was dead. Due to concerns that the recently-burned and completely-soaked wood floor might collapse, they couldn’t risk a firefighter’s life to check. They even brought in an engineer to try to emergently assess the situation, and were told they needed to wait for a team to come in the morning before broaching the scene.

I was an EMT in college, and the one cardinal, inviolable rule was that you do not proceed onto a scene until it is cleared for safety. You cannot risk losing a second life. My heart goes out to the firefighter who had to climb back down that ladder and tell the crowd they’d done everything they could. As a doctor, I remember the names and families of every patient I have failed to save. Each one was followed by months where I tortured myself with alternate scenarios where they might have lived. The truth is, we do our very best with the information we have at the time. They didn’t know he was up there – none of us knew for sure, and there was some confusion at the scene about whether he was in Mexico already. Had they known, they still would have had to proceed in the same manner. I promise you no one in that fire station wanted my father to die. There is something called Second Victim Syndrome, which describes the way a doctor tortures themselves after the death of a patient they failed to save. I’m sure firefighters experience it too. I hope they are not haunting themselves with the what-ifs. Please extend your love and support to the Brattleboro Fire Department. They followed protocol. They made decisions that might have prevented losing a second young hero’s life.

The building was torn down immediately because it was a risk to the community. What if another fire had broken out? What if people had ventured in? Yes, they drove an excavator onto the main floor to demolish it, demonstrating that the foundation was sound enough for that, but their real concerns were the top floor and roof, damaged by fire.

And no, the fire department did not put things from the bar out on the sidewalk for anyone to take. They entrusted what could be saved to a few individuals, with my blessing, and those things are being stored until my sibling and I can go through them.

Our community is in mourning. I’ve heard rumors that my dad committed suicide, setting the fire because he knew the fire department wouldn’t go up there. I’ve heard outrage that the fire department didn’t “save him.” I’ve heard conspiracy theories about how they tore down the building to cover up their mistakes. These sensational fantasies and lies are not helpful to a small town dealing with a large tragedy. Please have some grace for everyone involved and the difficult decisions they had to make, with limited time, limited information, and high stakes. Please believe that everyone did their best, and extend your support to *everyone* involved. I know my dad would have.

Twelfth Month.

A woman steps out of Positive Pie on Main Street with a stack of pizza boxes and nearly bumps into me. Late afternoon, and a rainy twilight has gradually thickened all day. I’m walking home from a reading at the town Memorial building by an author who’s published a historical novel about Hardwick. Decades ago, when this town shifted from broke-back subsistence farming to the granite boom, the town fiercely debated the railroad construction (why let in the outside world?) and the economics of electricity and streetlights. Now, not so many years later, the tracks are torn up, the roads paved, the granite empire crumbled.

This afternoon, the streetlights are on early, the colored lights glowing at this junction of routes 14 and 15.

The woman with the pizzas asks me to open to her car door. I step off the sidewalk curb, breathing in the scent of garlic and bacon. Before she gets in the driver’s seat, she stands for a moment overlooking the colored lights and river. “December,” she remarks — that’s all — and then gets in and drives away.

In the brick courtyard, the kitchen staff is getting high, wearing t-shirts in the strangely balmy air. December: this descent into the amorphous darkness with no clear edges. Long after the stranger has disappeared, I stand beneath the building’s overhang while rain falls and light ripples across the wet world.

Memory Game.

Thanksgiving weekend, we pulled out the memory game. Not so long ago, my youngest and I played the game almost daily. The game was from my own childhood, and somewhere along the way came to us.

The cardboard squares are now old and well-used from hundreds of games. We turn them around and around in our hands, talking and playing, remembering and mis-remembering.

On this December 1 day of sunlight, I cut kale from the garden. The soil beneath my boots is soft, the ice melting into mud. At last night’s virtual Almanac launch, the editors spoke about the importance of print, of books you can hold in your hands, press your face into the opened pages and breathe in the scent of paper and ink.

The memory pieces all have names we’ve made up: pointy tree and leafy tree, yellow girl, blue girl, ugly quilt, the ball, the sun. Strangely, there is no moon. I brew tea. We eat leftover pumpkin pie. Here again is the question: what’s real? Answer: bird in the hand.

Stitches and Snippets.

At night, I knit and read, diligently counting stitches two-by-two before beginning the yoke pattern. I read about witches in 18th century New England, about muddy roads and fieldstone chimneys, about hunger and families and the complicated passions of small communities. About fear and remorse.

Around my house, the wind howls, lifting pine needles and crows’ feathers. November is the season of reckoning and looking towards the new year, of town and school budgets, of placing what you have beside what you want, of financial cost-and-benefit analysis, of a personal reckoning, too.

I remain awake unreasonably late, determined to proceed carefully this time to avoid ripping apart these stitches, anticipating the pattern work, the joining of color to color. Outside, I imagine smoke rising from our chimney, dissipating into the starry sky. A mouse nibbles in the wall. I keep counting.

“Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.” 

— Flannery O’Connor

Last the third Vermont Almanac —one of the loveliest (and most useful) print publications — is out. The Almanac folks are virtually kicking off the third edition at Burlington’s Phoenix Books Thursday night, 7 p.m. You should come!

Reading. Fear of Dogs. Starlight.

The July after I graduated from college, I stayed in a cabin a short walk through the woods on a back road. The one-room space had been built as a studio with a wall of windows that faced what had once been a view and now was shaded by leafy maples. In winter, the cabin was heated by a woodstove. An outhouse had been dug behind the cabin. My friend was visiting her mother in California. I stayed in the cabin and fed her dog. The dog didn’t listen to me at all. He ran off and chased the sheep down the road, whose owners claimed they could shoot the dog. I was twenty-two and knew nothing about farming, but I was afraid of the angry farmer and didn’t argue. The dog still didn’t listen to me.

Despite the dog and the farmer, I loved the cabin. The economy was terrible; there were few jobs, and I was trying to figure out my next step. I read a lot of Ann Beattie who was popular in the 1990s. I remembered that small paperback Chilly Scenes of Winter I owned for years, when I stepped outside yesterday evening. I had been reading Tess Gunty‘s The Rabbit Hutch, a novel a far stylistic throw from Beattie. In the dark, a truck towing an empty trailer rattled by.

Down the sidewalk, a dog growled. A man tugged the dog’s leash. No: the dog snarled. I knew the mutually unhappy pair, the man’s sole dominance apparently through that leash. I crossed the street and cut down along the brook through the log yard, walking quickly in the tepid night. On my living room rug, that Gunty library book waited, spread pages-down, spine up. Sure, the world changes, moment by moment. And yet, sometimes not so. Overhead, stars and no moon.

“What will happen can’t be stopped. Aim for Grace.”

— Ann Beattie


I must appear half-drowned when I walk into the library, because the librarian asks me just how bad is the weather?

I reach into my jacket and extract a few books, then slip under my sweater the one he hands me. Three-thirty in the afternoon, and a dark rain presses against the windows. The weather reminds me of Ethan Frome, of Walden, of the wildness of Dostoyevsky, the human longing for a hot hearth and candlelight over a bowl of soup.

At home, my cats — self-satisfied as cats are — are pleased they survived the visiting dogs. They’ve regained their places before the wood stove, still slightly disdainful that we’ve allowed in the canines. There’s no one out, the roads nearly deserted, the sky concealed beneath the clouds. A wet wind blows.

At home, I wash the dishes and empty the compost in the bin beneath the apple tree. A cardinal flies into the tree’s thickety branches, a welcome sight.

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that receives it.” 

— Edith Wharton