There was a house fire on my street last night …well… not exactly my street, but on a little, sketchy, dead-end strip of asphalt, sidewalks, weeds, and garbage that juts into my block two houses down. It was on that street. Rosewood Court, population: 12, adjusted population: 11, characterized by anonymity and boarded windows, peppered with the swift movements of fat street rats. I’ve never been that close to a real, high-energy, make-sure-to-spray-down-your-roof-with-a-hose-so-it-doesn’t-catch fire before. It was the least of my expectations for the evening, though I didn’t expect a crate of Peruvian bananas to fall off a cargo plane either, punching through the ceiling, littering the parking lot with damaged fruit and shingles, tearing paintings and shelves and studs from the third floor walls, and crashing into our kitchen, shattering dishes and cabinets and appliances. Since that never happened, and since neither the former nor the latter situation even crossed my mind, I’ll stick with “least of my expectations,” and bundle up with it inside that inadequate phrase whatever else may have happened that I wouldn’t have expected.
I had been reading in my living room, absently petting the long calico fur of my roommate’s cat Dory. She’s in heat, and does her best to make sure everyone knows it, parading around, ass in the air, an opera of low trilling and loud meows and deep purring. As a consequence of a steady tide of feline hormones, she’s been excessively good humored, showering me with affection, instead of her usual indifference, punctuated by occasional, self-serving shin rubs when she’s hungry. I saw the lights before I heard the trucks or the shouts of firemen or the panicked wail of sirens, spitting their warning into the night in A or A minor, but probably neither, I’m no musician. Besides, Congratulations was playing loud, flowing through the speakers in the corners of the room, connected to the record player via the receiver with the broken volume control, travelling as excited electrons down stretches of wire that are, realistically, too short, and always pull out. The song was filling the space between the speakers and the space between my ears with musings on Brian Eno, so the auditory signal that should have informed me of the trouble that was afoot was blocked out. I saw the lights, the alternating reds and whites that filled my living room, drawing shifting patterns on my walls, ceiling, floor, furniture, and shelves of books, dragging me towards the door leading outside, through the cluttered bike room, past the sleeping, black lump of oblivious fur that is usually my boisterous male kitten, and out into the bedlam I had previously been ignorant to. I could see the smoke, it was white then gray then white, all the while lending an acrid taste to the air, but I couldn’t see where it was issuing from. The wind was blowing the smoke toward my apartment, away from Empire Mills. I tried to count the firetrucks, but there were so many. I counted six on Wilmarth Ave, one of which was the awkward-looking, heavy-duty special hazards truck. In my part of the city, the post-industrial third-wave dirty river valley, you never know if the grease fire that started with homefries in a frying pan in an old woman’s kitchen will escalate into a full-blown mill fire, the century-old wood floors so saturated with oil and kerosene and heroin and manufacturing chemicals and ghosts and god knows what other flammable shit that it lights up like a fifth of July leftover sparkler, burning and melting the hand of the community that fed it for so many decades, leaving scars that are displayed on the local news for a week and are forgotten in a few years’ time.
The night was windy, and the day had been dry, so precautions were abundant, and I counted two more trucks on Fones Ave. One had the biggest ladder I’ve ever seen. It was parked on the corner of Fones and Wilmarth, directly across from the entrance into the forgotten dead-end where the forgotten house was burning, and the ladder was lifting into the air. By now my two roommates had come outside too, to stand on our rickety, wooden staircase, and Jeff said he could see flames in the windows of one of the three abandoned houses on Rosewood, through the third floor holes where windows once were, where boards of plywood were deemed unnecessary.
My neighbor John called up to us. He serves as the eyes and ears and certainly the mouth of our block, always in everyone’s business, without being too intrusive, always aware of what’s going down and who’s involved. He proceeded to tell us the lowdown on the blaze as far as he knew it, that there were two more firetrucks and an ambulance down Rosewood, that the front and back doors to the house were blocked by something from inside, that those somethings were very heavy, that someone was screaming inside, that the fire was growing.
Val had gone inside to get his jacket, because despite the floodlights from the trucks imitating sunlight, the wind and the low temperature and the thought of a person burning alive made the night chilly. Val thought we should go around the block, to see if we could get a better view, to satisfy our congenital need to witness disaster, to see the passenger car flip over the Jersey barrier, to watch the videos of Jihadist beheadings, to stand in line to look at painted corpses in velvet, underlit parlors, and sit in silence while their family members cry. We walked down the stairs, into full floodlight, and there were first responders and police and fully equipped firefighters moving in all directions. We watched two firemen attempting to open an old, rusty fire hydrant, and it could’ve been inexperience, the stress of the situation, the condition of the hydrant, or just poor luck, but rather than opening as it was supposed to the hydrant burst open, sending the cap flying into the side of a firetruck, the water crashing into the younger of the two men’s face and torso, knocking him back on his ass. While he coughed out surprised air and water and a flood of expletives, his partner got the situation under control and got the hose attached. We turned and walked away from the fire, and as we approached the turn we’d take to cut through the rundown parking lot that would bring us to the other side of the block, two firemen hurried past, one leading the other, carrying between them a stretcher full of machines for monitoring and a shitload of wires and tubing. It was the stiff board-like kind, with handles on each end, the kind of stretcher you might expect to see circus clowns carry out, when it’s time to save their fallen, pie-faced cohort. I wondered why they were using this archaic form of patient transportation, and not one of the padded, electrical ones on wheels. We pushed past the crowd that had begun forming, walked past the Laundromat, the 7Eleven, the carwash, and took a left onto the street on the other side of the parking lot, parallel to Wilmarth. There were several older men standing on the sidewalk, facing the fire, hands either in pockets or bringing a cigarette to and from a frowning mouth. They were standing in the ideal place to witness the action, with an unobstructed view of the top two floors of the burning house, its upper windows glowing orange with internal light and vomiting putrid smoke. We could taste the burning wires, the rugs, the insulation, the asbestos, the black mold, the trash, and the smell was so strong I had to cover my mouth with my shirt, though it provided little relief. We said hello, they grunted the same, and we all stood, watching, thinking about what we were seeing, not wanting to see what we were thinking.
Two firefighters were on the roof by this point, they were yelling to each other and to the others on the ground, but we couldn’t hear what they were saying because of the sirens from all the emergency vehicles that were arriving. It seemed to me they sent every firetruck in the city, as well as more than a dozen police cars and a slew of ambulances, all of them arriving from every direction. I guess they expected the fire to get really out of hand, but we could already see the orange glow withdrawing into the dark of the house, steam and smoke rippling out of the stretched, wooden mouths of the rotted window frames. In a gruff, habitual smoker’s voice, we heard
“Chopper called the fire depahtment
We was over at the vet’s home
He says he saw flames in the windas
We all thought he was shittin’ us
We couldn’t see nothin’.”
A man between fifty-five to sixty-five years old was speaking, no hair on his shiny, tanned head, old tattoos etched in bluish gray on his hands, arms, and neck, menthol smoke rising from between timeworn fingers. He brought the cigarette to his lips, drew a hearty chest full of smoke, and as he let it out he repeated
“Yea, chopper called em’
Says he saw flames.”
The men on the roof were just silhouettes, backlit by the dazzling brightness of the lights on the other side. The figure to the left of the roof pulled something large up into view, and we knew instantly by the cord pull and the sound that it was a chainsaw. He began cutting directly into the roof. I wasn’t sure what he was doing, wondered if he was scared of falling into the fire, assumed he probably was, but had at least done this before, tried to figure out if he was doing it to gain entry or release pressure or whatever. The man to the right was hacking away at the roof with an axe. It was surreal to watch, to see two men transformed from public servants into fingers of destruction, the pinkie and ring finger fighting the powerful thumb of the controlled chemical reaction eating the air below them, to watch the dark figures shrouded in ethereal light and smoke and sawdust and what must’ve been unbearable heat from below, to be viewing everything with my own home, my belongings, still visible, to know it could easily have gone up in flames as well.
I should’ve brought my jacket. I remember complaining about it, about how the wind was passing through my skin like a window screen, chilling my blood, in sharp contrast to the heat that was morphing and rippling the air above the house as it disappeared as smoke and gas up into the atmosphere from the inside out.
Ten minutes later, or maybe five, or maybe one, the men on the roof were still working diligently cutting and chopping, but we could no longer see any signs of flames, and there were figures moving around in the house, visible in the windows of the upper floors, despite the smoke. Figuring the action must be reaching its end, we decided to walk back to our apartment. We saw Ken’s brown pickup truck parked next to the Laundromat, unable to reach our parking lot due to all the emergency vehicles and people clogging our street. We came around the corner and saw the other two members of the Infamous Summers standing next to our building with the rest of the crowd that had gathered. Dosin told us the fire was out, and that they had pulled someone from inside the gutted house, but no ambulance had left yet, and his normally smiling face was flat and somber, and the beaten guitar case slung over his shoulder, and his messed up hair, and the red in his cheeks from the cold air, and the way he was moving rocks around with the toe of his shoe made him look like a lost child, chasing a dream far from home but finding a nightmare in its place, instead of the professional who never loses his cool or his direction.
The crowd all began talking at once, so I turned around, towards the dead end and the group of firefighters and EMTs that were emerging. Their faces were stoic, not a single expression on all but one of those faces, a young EMT, probably a Basic, or a Cardiac, or neither, but no older than twenty, who was silently weeping, the tears cutting tracks through the soot on his cheeks, his eyes empty of emotion, his lips drawn tight and still. Four of them were each holding a corner of the maroon stretcher that took two to carry when I first saw it, full of equipment. They did not rush, they did not appear to be tending to a person barely holding onto life, they were just carrying the weight. As they got close gasps and cries of horror or disgust or both issued from the crowd, some turned away, some expressions didn’t change, some eyes closed and others stayed fixed on what they came to see. One woman vomited, right there on the sidewalk, splashing the shoes of those near her with the partially digested remains of her EBT dinner. I felt my own stomach start to turn, but I didn’t look away. I couldn’t.
It was like I was seven again,
in the alleyway running along the side of the junior high school I lived near and would eventually attend,
looking in silent horror at what three eighth graders from my neighborhood were doing.
It was about eight in the evening of a rainy,
late summer day,
and I was walking home with my older brother,
cutting through the alley like we always did.
The three older boys were standing over a small dog,
a terrier of some sort.
They had duct taped its mouth shut and its legs together,
but we could still hear its terrified whines through its clenched teeth.
One of the boys had cut off the dog’s tail.
He had it in one hand,
and was still holding the pocket knife in the other.
None of them were smiling,
nor did they take notice of Andrew and I.
There was a garden bag standing up next to them that looked pretty full,
and there was a small pile of leaves on the ground next to it.
In slow motion I watched,
as one of the boys,
picked up the shaking animal,
put it in the bag,
covered it with the leaves from the ground,
and with wide,
set the bag
with a long-necked
It was too much for me then. I couldn’t control my nausea. I threw up and sat down while my head swam.
I couldn’t understand. I forgot my brother and the fact that he was older, that he should stop this,
There’s a dog in there,
You’re older, I’m sick,
Why can’t I stop them?
It was like