by Jason Kapcala
There are no stone angels where Gus Tower is buried. Only a plain white cross in Arlington for time spent in the service and an urn filled with ashes. The county coroner said he died of natural causes—old age. Which surprised a lot of people in Lakeville, given that nobody really knew how old he was. Smoke inhalation, electrocution by live lines, roof collapse. Burning. Any of those deaths might have seemed more normal, or at least appropriately courageous. If he’d rushed straight into hell with a pike pole and a booster line, no one would have batted an eye. But Gus died in bed. And that didn’t sit well with some people.
The story in The Morning Record made it sound like Gus would have loathed such a mundane death, made it seem as though—given a second chance to die—he would have climbed out of his deathbed and lit up some abandoned warehouse so he could burn out hot and bright like a popping ember. Dust to dust and all that. It was your basic hero bullshit—stranger comes to town, stranger cleans town up, stranger should have died a champion or at least a martyr—and the stories smoldered like the remnants of a five-alarm blaze. But I’m not so sure Gus would have seen it that way. In fact, I’d bet the firehouse that he’d take the ordinary demise over a tragic one any day. He’d seen enough tragedy.
Not that you would have known it from reading his obituary.
The obituary was as dry as an empty hydrant. It hit all the basics: who he was survived by (a son, Jaimie—though it didn’t mention that the two hadn’t spoken in years), where his ashes would be buried (Arlington—though it didn’t mention that Gus had never spoken fondly of his time in the Army), and where donations could be made in his name (the Lakeville Volunteer Fire Company). It summed up Gus’s legacy with a brief history of his employment. But any one of us at the firehouse could have done a better job had the reporter who wrote the piece bothered to ask.
We might have spoken about how, as a young man, Gus had battled brushfires out west—jumping out of fix-winged aircraft with a Pulaski and a backpack full of TNT, blowing line trenches, fighting the timber blazes from the insides out. Or maybe we would have started with the summer of ‘73, when he left Colorado and moved east, spending time in a city company down around Philly before traveling north to Lakeville.
Back then, ours was a township on the verge of its first major population boom. Lakeville had turned into a busy little suburb—nothing like what Jacob Lake must have imagined two-hundred years earlier when he came to the Pocono Mountains, built Pennsylvania’s first stone fort on what is now Fifth Street, and slaughtered the native Indians by the dozen. But despite its prosperity, Lakeville had no organized fire company. Neighbors fought fires on their own, or else they watched their homes and barns burn down while they waited for help from the larger neighboring townships.
Gus changed all that.
Monroe County was run by locals with names like LaBar, Kresge, Altemose, and Counterman—it still is. They are names that can be traced back to the turn of the century, names that don’t openly embrace outsiders or change. But Gus came from places with impressive names, too. Bonanza and Eaglebutte and Bonesteel. And that, probably more than anything, convinced the tightfisted township board of supervisors to fund a small firehouse complete with a single engine and a motley assortment of gear.
Today, we’ve got two hook and ladder stations—forty volunteers and four rescue apparatuses. We’re one of the best-equipped fire stations in eastern Pennsylvania. Our personal protective equipment is state-of-the-art, made of Kevlar and Nomex now instead of sticky rubber and itchy wool. And we each carry an eighty-pound air pack that provides us with thirty minutes of breathable air. Gus taught us the value in petitioning and fundraising and raising hell if it meant upgrading our arsenal. We’ve saved thousands of lives that way.
That’s Gus’s legacy.
I think about all of this over breakfast at the firehouse as I study the grainy photo of Gus in his suspenders and overalls that the newspaper has printed alongside the obituary. Captain Gus Tower: tight thank-you-ma’am smirk, face prematurely cragged from years spent in the presence of heat and flame, gray hair that was practically white and shaved to the scalp, and tiny, grave eyes that let you know when you didn’t impress him. Where other men of his generation had gone doughy and stooped, Gus remained big, solid. Six-foot four. Still broad across the shoulders. And, when some men grew old, moved to Florida to await death and to take up bocce ball in the meantime, Gus kept fighting fire. He slept in the fire hall. Ate his meals there. Spent his afternoons in the lounge, watching Days of Our Lives and Passions.
That was his retirement plan.
He used to sit at this table every morning penciling in the answers to the daily crossword puzzle. I know this because he demanded we eat breakfast together like a family. I suppose we were a family. I suppose we still are. But without our patriarch, the firehouse feels strange, instable. The worn hardwood looks especially scuffed. The leather seat is colder than usual. Nick Wolcott scrambles eggs in a cast iron skillet, but he doesn’t sing Elvis this morning. The smell of bacon grease is heavy in the air. Ernie Butler and his brother-in-law, Neil Calvino, sit with their feet up and watch SportsCenter, but they don’t talk about the highlights. Outside, their shiny pickup trucks sit parked in the alley, in the long, cool shadows cast by the bank next door, beds half-loaded with bails of chicken wire, bags of hunting decoys, paint cans, empty Gatorade boxes, and lumber.
Nick walks over holding the skillet with a dishtowel and dumps a lump of egg on my plate. He doesn’t say anything before moving on to the next man. I make a half-hearted attempt to swat at a fly with my newspaper.
Our firehouse mascot, a Rottweiler named Sorry, sleeps sullenly beneath the table. She never goes with us on fire calls—won’t ride in the cab, or even perk up her ears when the alarm sounds. None of us can blame her. We adopted her on my first fire call. I can still remember Gus trotting out of the burning building with a bundle in his hands, while Sorry paced and whined on the front stoop. It was odd. Dogs were usually the first to vacate a burning building, and when I saw Gus open the blanket on the ground to reveal three small puppies, I knew why she’d stayed. He picked one up in his gloved hand and rubbed it coarsely, trying to stimulate some life into it. He even pinched its tiny muzzle shut and breathed into its nose the way you do with a baby. But we all knew it was futile, and eventually Gus gave up trying.
“Sorry, partner,” he said, rubbing the mother Rottweiler’s back.
After that, we brought Sorry to live with us in the firehouse. She was an old dog, and she had arthritis, so she’d stretch herself out in the most inconvenient places—between the couch and the television, on the kitchen floor next to the refrigerator, under the woodstove. Gus wanted to name her Lucky, but we were constantly tripping over her and saying “Sorry”. So that name stuck instead.
“You could dress a wound with these eggs,” Neil says, tipping back in his chair. He means it as a joke, but no one laughs.
Nick glances back at the table. The sun peeks up over the mountains and it casts a glare through the second-floor windows. Nick squints. He turns back and scoops the last bit of egg into the metal garbage can near the sink.
“We’re all a little stressed,” I say. “Let’s just everyone take it easy.”
Neil looks over like he’s going to say something, but he only shakes his head and pushes his eggs around with his fork. Nick doesn’t even give me that much. He violently scrapes out the skillet with a piece of steel-wool. When he’s cleaned the pan as much as he can, he tosses it into the sudsy sink water and wipes his hands on the towel.
“Morning boys,” he says, tossing the towel on the sink and walking out. Downstairs, the door slams shut, rattling the glass window pane.
“Guy thinks he’s too good to eat with the rest of us,” Neil says. He tosses down his napkin and starts to get up, but his brother-in-law stays him with a hand on his shoulder.
“Let him be,” Ernie says. “This hasn’t exactly been easy.”
It’s the understatement of the year, but Ernie is right. We all made the trip to Washington last weekend for Gus’s funeral. Men from every fire company in northeastern Pennsylvania were there. My girlfriend, Gracie, drove. She wore a black skirt and a matching beret, and held my hand during the service. I wore my turnouts like the rest of the guys.
Death—that very real, very constant danger that nags at you every time you pull on your gear—isn’t something any firefighter wants to think too long about. So after the funeral, we all drove back home. We didn’t stick around to sightsee. We didn’t hit the bars to drink to Gus’s memory. We went about our daily routines as though nothing had changed—commuted to our day jobs, trained hard in the evenings on the iron scaffolding behind the prison, and continued preparing to save lives.
Gus would have approved.
I get up to fill my coffee cup and Ernie says, “So, Bud, I hear you’re gonna be a daddy.” I must be looking at him strangely because he pushes some crumbs around on the tabletop and says, “Grace told Donna at the funeral.”
I look down at my coffee cup and nod. “Let’s not go buying any minivans just yet,” I say, taking a careful sip. I might tell them that this is something of an uncomfortable subject for me. That the notion of being a father scares me worse than any fire. That, truth be told, Gracie is handling the surprise much better than I am. She’s already talking about turning our guest bedroom into a nursery. But I don’t say anything.
“Hey, Cap,” Neil says, raising his mug. “Congratulations.”
And there it is.
It’s the first time anyone has called me by my new title. You see, Gus’s death makes me the Captain. It’s a position for which I know I’m not cut out. Just as when a man knows to walk away from a drunken confrontation outside Kelly’s Tavern—when he’s dead beat and overmatched and there’s nothing to be gained from fighting. But I don’t have a choice. I can’t walk away. I’m next in the chain of command. And the chain is all that matters. Someone has to make the difficult decisions.
I’m a car salesman. At least, that’s how I pay the bills. I push soft-tops on paunchy men in the throes of midlife crises, or else big Dodge Chargers that really look nothing like the pony cars they owned back when they were in college. I show Caravans to washed-out soccer moms. My customers mostly nod and cluck patiently while I go over the different features on each vehicle, but sometimes when I tell them about being a volunteer firefighter they perk up a little. Their eyes glaze over, and they ask me questions about the biggest blaze I’ve ever seen or else my best moment, and I can tell I’ve got them hooked and that they’ll be leaving the lot with a new car. It’s a job like any other, and I’m reasonably good at it, but I don’t enjoy it. I know that if it weren’t for the promise of firefighting, the inevitable adrenaline rush at the end of my day, I would be just like my customers—old beyond my years. I would have to pack my bags and leave Lakeville for good.
When I watch families pulling away in their overpriced sedans and mini-vans, I can’t help but wonder how many of them I will revisit two months from now. Twelve months. Two years. MVA’s—Motor Vehicle Accidents—are the most common calls we receive at the firehouse. Most of the time, when you see our engine traveling under lights and siren, it’s because we have been dispatched to rescue occupants trapped in their cars from accidents along the interstate. In Lakeville, we don’t spend as much time rushing into burning buildings as you might think. Sometimes we go weeks without seeing a structure fire. Still MVA’s can be dangerous, and there are precautions to be taken. We always cut the car battery first before moving in with the hydraulic Hurst tool because the air bag meant to save your life in the event of a high-speed collision can decapitate a pinned occupant or a rescue worker if it deploys during extrication.
Sometimes, during those moments when I’m face to face with the trapped passenger, trying to be as calming and reassuring as possible while my crew uses the Jaws to peel back the car frame, I notice something akin to recognition in their eyes. It’s as though they are trying to recall where they’ve seen my face before. And I can’t help but think, Did I mention this baby earned a five-star safety rating from Car and Driver?
Selling cars isn’t only my way of making a living. It’s also the way I met Gracie. Shortly after my divorce, I sold her a Dodge Neon. It was almost the end of the season, and I needed another sale bad when she walked into the showroom, nearly six-feet tall, pink nose, blonde ringlets crammed beneath a silly pink beanie with a wool flower sewn on top. There wasn’t a salesman at the dealership that didn’t want to close a deal with her. I just happened to be standing closest to the door.
“Welcome, the name’s Bud Larson,” I said, trying my “aw-shucks” routine on for size. “Can I show you a specific vehicle?”
Gracie thrust out her hand, but then frowned a little and pulled her arm back at the last second. She raised her hand as though taking an oath and pinched her mittened fingers together a couple times like a lobster’s claw. “Sorry,” she said, pressing her lips tight and shutting her eyes. When she pulled off the mitten we shook hands. “Grace Davis,” she said. “I’m in the market for something dependable.”
“The Neons are pretty reliable.” I led her over to the floor model, and added, “My sister has one and she loves it.”
“Does she really love it?” Gracie asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I don’t even have a sister,” I said. “But if I did, this is the car I would recommend she drive.”
I no sooner opened the door to show her the interior, when my floor manager Barry butted in. “I see you’re looking at the new Neon,” he said, leaning over her shoulder. “An excellent choice. There are a few features I should show you.”
“Why can’t Bud show them to me?” Gracie asked. She let her eyes get wide. “Are they secret features? Like, are you the only one who knows about them?”
Barry blushed. “No, of course not. But Bud has a phone call to take,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder and squeezing.
“It can wait,” I said.
“It’s your wife. She said it was important.”
I shut my eyes and nodded a little. You had to give it to Barry, he was original. “Ex-wife,” I said. “And I haven’t spoken with her in three months, so it can’t be that urgent.”
Gracie looked from me to Barry and back again. “Bud, I think I’d like to take this car for a test drive,” she said.
So I went to grab my coat.
Out in the lot, Gracie grabbed my elbow and halted me. “Please, don’t tell me anything else about the car,” she said. “I’m going to buy it as long as you don’t try to cram it down my throat.”
“They practically sell themselves anyway,” I said, tossing her the keys and pretending to zip closed my mouth, twisting my fingers as though locking my jaw with a key.
I took her the long way that afternoon on the most scenic route I could think up. She drove out on highway 33 toward Wind Gap, and then took the first exit, circling Grady’s Lake near the dam. Fishermen dotted the ice, and the midday sun made the icicles drip from the tree limbs. Gracie chewed off her mittens and talked about teaching orchestra at Lakeville High.
I told her about being a firefighter.
And when we returned to the dealership forty minutes later, I gave her a great deal on her trade-in—two-thousand dollars above the Bluebook value. I thought I was doing her a favor. But when I gave her the quote, she reached into her purse and pulled out an online coupon for a thousand dollars off. It’s not often that I get worked over at the dealership by a customer. Usually, I make a killing for Lakeville Dodge, selling cars on trade-in for twice what they’re worth. But she had me. There was nothing I could do but honor that coupon. I was almost proud of her.
“You know you’re really supposed to show that to me before I offer you the deal of the century,” I said.
Gracie smirked and pulled her checkbook from her purse. “Really? I’m sorry. I’m new at this sort of thing.”
“I’ll bet,” I said, pulling out my business card and writing my cell phone number on the back before handing it to her. “In case you ever need anything,” I explained.
Two days later, Grace Davis did need something. It was my day off. I was standing in my kitchen in my boxers and robe making scrambled eggs when the phone rang.
“There are no floor mats in my new car,” Gracie said.
“No floor mats?” I said, cradling the cordless phone between my jaw and shoulder, as I whisked the egg whites in a bowl.
“That’s strange,” I said. “Did you check the trunk?”
“No, nothing in the trunk,” she said. “I’d have seen them.”
“I’ll take a set from one of the other cars and give it to you if you want to stop back down this afternoon,” I said, turning off the burner on the stovetop and covering the bowl of beaten egg whites with plastic wrap before shoving it in the refrigerator. I tossed my sweatpants and T-shirt on the bed, and stepped into the shower.
When Gracie arrived that afternoon, I took the mats from the floor model and handed them to her. “Sorry about that,” I said. “I don’t know where they could have gotten to.”
Gracie looked down at the mats, turning them over in her hands and smiling as though she expected something else. “Well, I guess I have floor mats now,” she said, clearing her throat.
“Are they okay?” I asked.
“Oh, no, they’re great. They’re great floor mats,” she said, looking up. Neither of us moved.
I wanted to say, “Glad I could help. By the way, your hair looks nice today and I might be in love with you. Will you have coffee with me some time?”
Instead, I said, “Yeah, they’re pretty good.”
Gracie tucked the mats under her armpit and nodded a little. “Well, I guess that’s everything I came for,” she said, turning and leaving.
It took me all of two seconds to grab my jacket; then I was out the door, chasing her. I caught up with her as she was tossing the mats in the trunk of her new car.
“If you still feel bad about fleecing me on that sale, you could make it up to me with a real cup of coffee,” I said, huffing a little cloud. “There’s a diner down the road—Bebe’s.”
“Yeah, definitely,” Gracie said. “I should do that. How many cups of coffee do you think it will take to square a thousand dollars?”
Two years later, Gracie still waits up for me every time I get called away to a fire. Most of the time I can see her through the kitchen window as I climb the side porch steps. It’s a familiar scene: her sitting there in my terrycloth bathrobe, staring down into my coffee mug; me standing outside, still clad in my sooty turnout gear. It’s during those moments, before I step into the brightness of the kitchen and into her arms, that I wonder most what Gracie is thinking. She never tells me, and for that I should probably be thankful. But sometimes, when it’s been an especially bad night, when the flames have shot so high and so hot that my body radiates a high fever, she meets me on the porch, and I know she’s been listening to the dispatcher’s radio.
Gracie never asks me to quit firefighting. But I know she wants me to. And now, with the baby on the way, I can’t blame her for needing me around, for needing me safe.
“So what do we do with the toys?” Neil asks, nodding toward the trash bag that sits beside the television in the firehouse lounge.
I shrug. They’ve been there for weeks. “Donate them to a charity?” I say.
Every firefighter has a favorite story about the man who blows up his patio by using gasoline in his hibachi grill. Or the guy (it’s almost always men in these stories) who sets his neighbor’s lawn ablaze when the wind shifts while he’s burning a scrub pile. They are the kind of stories we tell each other over spaghetti dinners or pancake breakfasts in the mess area of the fire hall. And almost always, the telling becomes a competition. One that Gus always won.
He’d start every story the same way: “People do damn strange things to start fires.”
And it’s true. The story of those toys is my strangest fire call; it’ll be the one I tell the probies about some day after they’ve finished making dinner and washing dishes. It was brass-monkey weather when we got called to a house on Primrose Hill because some woman tried to start a fire in her fireplace and sooty black smoke came pouring back out into her living room. She quickly doused the blaze, but the smoke detector went off. (Every time a monitored smoke alarm sounds, we have to deploy; it’s the law.)
I figured she just forgot to open the flue—we see a lot of that. But when we checked it, the flue was wide open. So we raised the Bangor ladder and Nick climbed up onto the roof and used his pike pole to knock down whatever was clogging the chimney. I figured it would be a bird’s nest or a dead raccoon or something like that. It turned out to be a Hefty bag filled with hand-carved wooden toys—rocking horses and sailboats and nutcrackers—as though Santa Clause himself had climbed up onto that roof.
Naturally, the woman was surprised. She donated the toys to the firehouse, where they sit in the corner—useless, but too beautiful to destroy.
“Why not hold a holiday fundraiser?” Neil says. “We could paint them red, slap our seal on the side, and sell them for five bucks a pop. Put it toward new air packs.”
“You think anyone would pay?” I say, picking up a fire truck and turning it in my hands.
“Are you kidding, for craftsmanship like that they’d pay triple,” Ernie says. “I’ll do the painting.” When we all look over, he points to himself with his thumbs. “I’m a housepainter. Remember?”
The only fire Gracie and I ever had at home was a few months ago. In our bedroom wastebasket. A little contained blaze that I put out with a cup of water. No accelerants. Just a few balls of paper and a match. Nothing very dangerous.
I knew Gracie lit it while I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth. But it wasn’t arson or pyromania—not impulsive or purposeless. Though she stared at it, she didn’t seem to get any pleasure from watching it burn; in fact, she seemed bored by it, and I didn’t get a thrill out of extinguishing it. We didn’t have sex afterwards.
When I asked her about it, she shrugged and said, “Well, since you’re always off fighting fires, I thought maybe I would give you a reason to come home once in a while.”
And that starts the argument. It’s nothing new. We’ve gone around on this carousel plenty, and every time I try to explain to her how important the job is, not just to the people I save, but to me. The excitement and danger is like a drug, the euphoric release that follows every call is almost sexual. It reminds you you’re alive. I tell her about how, rushing into a fire, the breath quickens, the blood runs hot. I talk about the feeling of absolute power—the desire to be a hero. I stop just short of telling her that I sometimes sit in the car dealership, restless and twitchy, hoping some building will ignite.
But none of what I say seems to matter to her. And our fights always end the same way—with silence and an unspoken pact to pretend like the argument never happened.
Even the soundest structures burn slowly to their foundations.
Sometimes, at night, I’ll dream I’m burning alive. I’ll wake at the dispatcher’s call, usually to find Gracie curled against my back, or else breathing on my neck, and I’ll realize I’m sweating. Then it’s a quick kiss and out of bed, out the door, jogging down the front walk to my Durango parked in the street. Much as I am tonight—jogging, not running, because of what Gus told me one afternoon when we were fly-fishing Pocono Run: he back-casted downstream, a high arc catching the sunlight before the line struck the water and the dry fly slow-floated its way down the center of the creek, and he said, “It doesn’t matter if the whole world is burning down around you, Bud. When you’re the Captain, you never let them see you run.”
But I’m running now, toward something and away at the same time. I’ve suddenly got more responsibility than I know what to do with.
By the time I get to the station house, it’s pouring rain, a late-summer thunderstorm building to the south of us. I can see the eerie crimson phantom-light from across town as our engine screams over rain-slicked pavement toward the abandoned Lake House hotel. We’re rolling code three, which means we’re under full lights and siren. And the nighttime commuters—people we see every day, people we work alongside, eat lunch with, buy our groceries from—can’t get out of our way fast enough. They head for the road’s shoulder, changing lanes, swerving along the guardrail. I watch their headlights disappear in the side view mirror.
Behind me, the rest of my crew is quiet. They stare at each other in the darkness of the rig. I know each man’s story. Where they trained, which blazes they’ve fought, whether they are married or single or gay. When he died, Gus left behind a squad of volunteers—insurance salesmen, bank tellers, a real estate agent in one case—just men fulfilling their civic duty and finding some small way to live out a collective childhood fantasy. If I were a betting man, I’d wager they are thinking of him right now and appraising me. I know they trust me; we’ve fought too many fires together to question each other’s competency. Still, I feel like a greenhorn. It’s my first time in charge, and the decisions I make tonight may affect the rest of their lives, could determine if they go home to their wives and children or stay inside forever.
We’re all on the edge of an ax blade.
When we arrive on scene at the Lake House, I waste no time in sizing up the situation. It’s a Class A structure fire, as advertised, and fully involved. Heavy black smoke billows from the wooden sun porch. I can feel the heat from inside the apparatus. It’s an old building, a converted three-story Irish Battleship, which means it presents its own dangers. Old immigrant homes have rotten wiring. They burn quickly, and their narrow hallways and stairwells are virtual firetraps.
I give the stretch command and order my crew to focus their initial attack on the frontage; the men scramble to lay lines and nozzles. The heat and the smoke inside are widespread, and I know we won’t be able to enter until fire streams are applied. I order one of the men onto the deck gun to start soaking the roof. We fight such fires from the outside, indirectly pumping water above the fire so that the spatter rains down on the flames. Depending on the structural damage, we might not make it inside at all, in which case, the best we can manage is defensive operations—douse the non-burned side of the building to push the fire out; contain the blaze. We can draft all the water we need from Grady’s Lake. That won’t be a problem.
The local television news van is parked across the street, outside of the collapse zone, and I can already see the camera crew setting up while my crew uncoils the rubber-jacketed booster lines from the right side of the engine. I’d be content to just surround and drown this one, but if I decide against an interior attack, all of Lakeville will know about it. It won’t be a very popular decision. Lake House is almost two-hundred years old. It’s an historic landmark. Seven presidents have slept inside its walls.
If Gus were here, he’d say, “Who gives a fuck? Are there any presidents in there now?”
There aren’t, of course, but the orange “condemned” sticker on the front door is torn and someone has scrawled graffiti on the porch floor. In large black letters, it reads, “Lake House: Home of the Criminally Insane.” Above that, on the wall, someone has drawn a pair of gigantic breasts with aquamarine nipples.
The local high school kids like to break into the old building to camp out and spend the night, smoke pot, drink beer, and make out with one another. I know it because I did the same thing when I was a kid. It’s practically a rite of passage in this community. The cops don’t even bother to enforce the squatting laws anymore. I also know there’s a possibility that the kids who tattooed the Lake House’s façade with those light blue double D’s are still inside. And that makes my job a lot harder.
“Hats off to whoever drew the tits,” Nick Wolcott says. Even after almost a year on the force, he’s the most impetuous man on the crew. He’s a good firefighter—tireless, smart—but he hurls himself at every blaze like he’s angry at it.
I remember rolling onto the scene of a major rager when he was still a boot—a probie, the FNG—and Gus was in charge. It was a late-summer fire just like this one, down by the railways in the low-income quarter of Lakeville, a two-company blaze at a condemned Taxpayer—an abandoned hardware store with makeshift loft apartments above it. Live flames rocked their way out from every spare inch of that building, any place where oxygen might enter, and before the apparatus had even come to a complete stop, Gus had said, “Grab your scubas, boys. We’re going swimming.”
There were a few groans. Dense smoke rolled upward from the ground—the flammable gasses getting hotter and hotter, ever closer to their imminent ignition point. None of us wanted to be inside when flashover occurred, when fire suddenly enveloped a room and even the smoke ignited.
“There’s likely to be some vagrants holing up in there,” Gus said, pulling a pike from the side of the truck and pointing it toward the second story windows where flames licked at the eaves.
“You can’t be serious,” Nick said. He hadn’t yet learned that Gus was always serious. He flipped up his helmet shield and said, “You’d send us into a blaze like that to search for homeless people?”
“You a firefighter, Wolcott?” Gus said.
“I’m wearing the yellow helmet aren’t I?” Nick said.
“Good,” Gus said, turning on him then with such fury that the rest of us took a step back. He swung the fiberglass pole, hitting Wolcott in the side of the head and knocking him to the ground. And for a moment, it looked like he might just keep hitting him.
We all knew fire did strange things to people. Sometimes it wasn’t only a building or a car that flared up; sometimes tempers burned the hottest. It was one of the reasons why firefighters, like police officers, so often had rocky marriages. Lame excuse or not, a firefighter’s faulty wiring was usually ripe for ignition, and we all did our damnedest not to let it hurt the people we loved.
Wolcott struggled to his knees in the stiff turnout gear. His face was red. He spit in the dirt.
“You won’t be the first guy I left standing on the porch fucking his glove when I booted the door,” Gus said, holding the pike pole out like an offering.
“Right,” Nick said, grabbing his helmet and dusting it off before putting it back on his head. He reached out and took hold of the pole and let Gus pull him to his feet.
“What are the rest of you waiting for?” Gus said, leveling the pike at each of us in turn. “Get your asses in there and put the wet stuff on the red stuff.”
And so we did.
I almost died twice in that fire, and Gus was there both times—once to pull me away when the roof partially collapsed, and once to lead me out of the building when I became disoriented by the smoke. I’ve made a half-dozen other mistakes since then. We all have. But the beautiful thing about that particular day was that no one died—there were no victims inside and every firefighter lived to fight another fire. It’s what I want for this fire. Zero casualties.
If Gus were here, he’d say, “There’s no way to tell unless you get a little soot in your pores.”
“Grab your tanks, guys,” I say, and this time there are no objections, no grumbling—not even from Nick. The men respond without hesitation, and we prepare to enter in pairs, a small team to conduct the primary search—me and Nick, Ernie Butler and Neil Calvino.
I take a drink and switch out my oxygen tank; then I grab my Halligan and my pike and lead the crew inside. It doesn’t take us long with our irons to bust the door down. Heavy smoke has already filled the lobby, banking down to the floor in thick, rolling clouds. To our left, the old reception desk has burst into flames.
We travel in a line up the master staircase. Our mission is simple: find and extricate bodies—dead or alive. When we finish our search and clear the area, the next team will enter to cut holes in the roof to provide an escape for the heated gasses and smoke, the hazards that cause backdraft and flashover. Beneath our feet, a cockloft connects adjacent rooms—it’s part of the reason the fire was so quick to spread—but it isn’t sturdy enough to hold the weight of a grown man. I no sooner reach the top of the stairwell and round the corner when I hear a cracking and see the floor give way, and Nick Wolcott falls toward something empty and dark. He throws both hands out to his sides, making himself as wide as possible, grabbing for anything he can. He makes it halfway down through the floor when Neil Calvino grabs his drag rescue device—the webbing at the back collar of our bunker gear designed as a means for dragging fellow firefighters to safety—and yanks Nick back out of the hole.
“Watch your step, sweetie,” Neil says, removing his mask and making kissy faces, as Nick steadies himself against the wall and climbs back to his feet. He shakes his head. Ernie grins a little. But it’s a restless kind of relief, and for the moment, the singular concentration that we’ve come to count on has been broken.
When we reach the end of the hallway, I send Ernie and Neil down the east wing. “With me,” I say, grabbing Nick by his my arm and swinging him down the west wing to begin our apartment search. The first room is empty, but the second looks lived in. There are bottles on the floor. A pillow. Crawling in the darkness, I sweep my legs beneath an old box spring and bump something small and hard, and I know even before pulling it out that not only I have found a victim, but a young victim—the kind that changes a man permanently, takes a chunk out that pure part of him that allows for miracles and bliss.
“What’s up, Cap?” Nick says, looking over my shoulder as I pull the body out from beneath the bed. He’s quiet, and I can tell it’s taking him a few seconds to comprehend what he’s looking at. The victim—a child—lays face down, his legs bent back in the air, his arms stretched out before him. He has fused onto what remains of the hardwood floor. His skin is a dark brown, yellow in places, and mostly muscular in texture. The outer skin has been burned away and nothing remains of the back of his head but his skull.
“Fucking A,” Nick says, backing away.
“Let’s get him out of here,” I say, scooping the charred body up in my arms, and pushing Wolcott out of the room.
When Nick pauses on the landing to regain his bearings, I say, “Look, I’m following you.” But with the smoke getting heavier by the second, it is clear that neither of us has any idea where we are. Nothing looks familiar. That’s the problem with hotels. They’ve got dozens of connected corridors. Sometimes it feels like you’re walking in circles. Sometimes you are. We come to another “T” in the hallway, and Nick looks back at me and shrugs.
“Fucking great,” I say, nodding with my head that he should go left.
We round the corner and come face-to-face with a hedge of fire. Flames roaring from floor to ceiling. The paint bubbling on the walls. An old maid-service cart has been left in the hallway and the little bottles of cleaning fluid are bursting up in beautiful pyres.
That’s when I see Gracie.
She stands beneath a willow tree, watching the fire burn. She doesn’t say anything to me. Doesn’t wave. Or smile. Or frown. I think about her little fires in the bedroom and her eagerness over starting a family, and I realize I am hallucinating.
It happens sometimes. When you’ve been inside a burning building for too long you’ll see things that you just can’t explain, things that don’t make much sense. It’s partly the heat. Radiated heat can pass through the air and glass, causing objects inside a room to randomly combust. Sometimes it will blur your vision—it’s like when the blacktop shimmers on a hot day. Smoke, eye strain, stress and fatigue, lack of oxygen—all play their part in causing hallucinations. But it’s also something else, something inexplicable. I’ve heard of firefighters claiming to see fallen comrades inside structure fires. That kind of tunnel vision is dangerous.
I’m shocked back into the present by the shriek of my PASS Device—the little motion detector alarms that go off whenever we’ve been standing stationary for too long—and I take a few steps backward.
“It’s mine,” I say. “Let’s move.”
But Nick Wolcott stands frozen. “Down there,” he says, pointing toward the flame. “Did you hear it? A cry for help.”
I look down at the ground, then back up over my shoulder. I can’t tell if he’s hallucinating, too—responding to some sort of aural mirage—or if he really heard someone down there. But if Gus were here, I know exactly what he would say. Flames are devouring that hallway, Bud. Deep fire. Real deep. And we’re carrying a body, here. Even if there is someone trapped down there, there’s no getting there from here.
“Cap, I swear,” Nick says, and behind his mask, his eyes are like two shields.
“You didn’t hear nothing,” I say, turning around and heading back the way we came. What other choice do I have? By now, visibility is zero .The smoke is so thick that I can’t even see my outstretched hand in front of me. Wolcott keeps running into my shoulder. I can tell he’s starting to panic. Then I hear him yell out, and he’s down again. When I turn, he’s holding up the double-jacketed aramid hose. My pulse quickens.
“So follow it,” I say.
When we finally make it outside, I drop the charred body on a wooden pallet and Nick slumps down in the dirt near a Dumpster to catch his breath.
“Man,” he says. He says it again and again as I take off my helmet and wipe the sweat from my eyes.
I wipe my mouth and pace a few steps, glancing at the victim and then back up at the smoking building. I remember what Gus often said about fire being a truly ugly and undignified beast, and when I look down at that once-living lump of char on the pallet, I wonder if this is it for me. I’ve got the bug, that’s for sure—I’ve spent enough lazy weekdays at the dealership thinking about fire, about burning buildings and rescues—and I’m damn good at what I do. But it takes more than desire and skill. What happens after the second such victim? Or the third? Maybe I should be dedicating my life more fully to the pursuit of selling cars.
“He’s so small,” Wolcott says.
“He was probably a runaway,” I say, and then I don’t know what else to say. Or what to do. What else is there to do? What do you ever gain from a call like this?
I step around the building to find a booster line. Nick doesn’t follow me, but at this point I couldn’t care less. Out front, most of the crew has their helmets off. They sit against the side of the truck, taking water, and wiping the soot from their faces with damp rags. They laugh and gesture and share stories about extinguishing flare-ups within the building. Rough slaps on shoulders from heavy gloved hands. But mostly they just watch the Lake House burn. I pick up the radio to announce, “Primary Search, all clear”; then I congratulate each of them on a good, clean rescue and for making it out alive one more time.
When I return, Nick looks up from where he is sitting.
“What are you doing?” he asks, as I kneel down next to the body.
“Something Gus taught me,” I say. I begin spraying the victim as gently as the water will come out of the firehouse.
“Oh, God, you’re not really doing that,” Nick says, covering his eyes and letting his head fall back against the brick side of the building.
Below my knees, the asphalt is warm but not hot. “Damn right I am,” I say, not bothering to look up. “And you’re taking the next turn.”
“Can’t we leave him be?” Nick says.
“We need to cool off the body to prevent further deterioration,” I say. “His parents will appreciate it later.” I turn off the nozzle and toss the hose over, but Nick doesn’t bother catching it. If he doesn’t spray the body, if he walks away, I’ll finish the job myself. I won’t even bring it up later. This is a crossroads, the point where a man decides whether he still wants to be a firefighter, and I respect that, but we need to finish the job.
My words might as well be Gus’s. “Come on, you can feel sorry for yourself later,” I say, bending down to pick up the hose and then holding it out to Nick. “Right now, do your job.”
Nick crosses his arms in front of his chest and stares at the abandoned buildings across the alley. The rusty fire escapes and the boarded windows. The finches flying in and out, building nests in the cool shadows beneath the eaves. Then he takes the hose and kneels down next to the body.
“Imagine you’re watering your garden,” I say, and he shoots me a look.
“There are limits to my imagination,” he says, and I know what he means. No way am I ever going to be able to remember this as anything other than what it is: a dead boy in a dusty alley being rinsed off with a fire hose. I’ll be having nightmares about it the rest of my life, about ending up like that boy—burned past the point of recognition—about getting there too late again and again.
“Just be very careful you don’t wash him away. You’re doing fine,” I say, pressing my hands to the small of my back, turning then so that Nick won’t hear the deep rattling sigh or see my face breaking apart.
The first stop, after kicking off my boots at the door and shedding my wet gear in the mudroom, is always the shower. To wash the grime and soot from my skin. To let the cold water run down over my back and my legs, my muscles quivering spastically. To even feel human again. The smoke never washes out completely. The fine dark particles embed themselves in your pores, bond with you on almost a molecular level. And the smell of things burning stays on your hair long after you’ve toweled yourself dry. I took three showers after my very first structure fire before finally giving up. You get used to it eventually.
Tonight, I can see Gracie sitting at the counter, waiting for me as usual, but I walk out into the yard and lie down in the wet grass instead of going inside. Rain pelts my Kevlar bunker gear. A bolt of lightning flashes across the sky. Clouds roll over on themselves and cover the moon. It looks like smoke. I close my eyes.
In spite of how hard we fought, in spite of the rain, Lake House burned almost to its foundation. My first incident size-up as Captain. A clusterfuck.
I don’t even hear the front door open. But when I open my eyes, Gracie is lying next to me, still wearing my robe. She takes my hand and it’s quiet except for her breathing and the sound of rain hitting our bodies.
“You’re hot,” she says, touching my cheek with the back of her hand. When she pulls it away, her fingers are smudged black. “Tough night.”
“Is that a statement or a question?” I say.
“Take your pick.”
“I’m done,” I say, squeezing her fingers and staring up at the face of the storm. “I can’t do it anymore.”
Gracie doesn’t say anything then for a long while. She doesn’t ask why, or weigh in on my rash decision, doesn’t celebrate or attempt to talk me out of it, or even question me about the fire. Instead, she throws her leg over my thigh and rests her head in the crook beneath my armpit. After a while, she says, “Remember when we went scuba diving in the Caribbean?”
I do. How could I forget? It was our first real vacation as a couple. The boat anchored offshore of the island of Nevis. Gracie, unused to breathing with a scuba tank, kept sucking in the compressed air as though she were afraid it might run out. She used up her oxygen twice as fast as I did. I remember the water as dark and bottomless, and to my surprise the deeper I swam, the warmer it got. The island was a dormant volcano.
“I’d like to go back there some day,” Gracie says. Then she rolls over on top of me and kisses me, and I know she’s not wearing much underneath the terrycloth robe. Her hair smells a little like smoke. The soot from my turnout gear stains her skin—her forearms and calves, the spot between her neck and her shoulder—and she sighs a little. Lightning flashes. A water droplet suspends on her nose. And then I’m reaching into my duffle to show her the fire truck I picked out from that bag of toys in the firehouse.
“There’s pizza and beer in the house,” Gracie says. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
Inside, we make love twice. Once before pizza. Then we toss the crusts in the cardboard pizza box and leave it sitting by the door and make love again in front of the window while the rain patters against the glass and the storm rages outside. Gracie admires the craftsmanship of the wooden truck and makes up elaborate stories about how it might have ended up in the chimney with the rest of the toys. And I mostly listen, a little drunk, adding a detail here and there when it seems necessary.
“Maybe it was a gift from St. Gus, patron saint of Lakeville Hook and Ladder,” I say.
“Ho, ho, ho. You’d better fucking like it,” Gracie says in her gruffest voice, and I can’t help but laugh.
Tomorrow, maybe, I will tell her about the fire. Maybe I’ll talk about the victim and my vision of her in the flames. And maybe we’ll discuss my options. Maybe not. It’s hard to know what to do right now, and I’m desperate not to think about it anymore tonight. I only want to focus on the sound of her breathing, soft and low, and the two pilsner glasses, each with a quarter-inch of Yuengling in the bottom, sitting next to one another on the edge of the coffee table.
Jason Kapcala lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, where he works as a transcriber for students who are deaf and hard of hearing, and where he runs a series of community writing workshops for adult learners. His writing has been published in Blueline, Saw Palm, The Summerset Review, Cleaver Magazine, Prime Number, The Good Men Project Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently shopping a novel and working on his next book project about a small-time rock band from a ghost town in central Pennsylvania. His website is www.jasonkapcala.weebly.com.
Kristen Johansen is a professional photographer based in the USA. View more of her work at http://www.fotografik.com/