My father was a volunteer firefighter, rose to be chief. That was pretty much my family’s sole claim to any position in the village—Chief Burton. He never accomplished much beyond becoming volunteer fire chief. That was his life. That’s who he was. Everyone called him Chief, like that was his first name. Even us kids, us boys, called him Chief. My sisters called him Papa. As a boy, of course, I wanted to be a firefighter when I grew up. He would take me and my brother Tad along with him to fires. I had my own helmet.
Never did, fight a fire that is. Haven’t worn a helmet since. But there is still that conflagration fascination. I attend blazes whenever I can. If I see a column of smoke on the horizon, I’ll head for it. There’s nothing you can face as ultimate as a wall of fire. Nothing in nature’s arsenal of destruction—not earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes—is as enigmatic and primal as a raging inferno. You do not drown or freeze in hell, after all. For safety’s sake, the Romans built their temples to Vulcan, their god of fire, well outside the city walls. The Vulcan priests were called flamen. Papa Chief was a flamen. In a way, he worshiped what he fought.
I woke up coughing. There was an acrid taste in my mouth. The only light in the bedroom came from the red numbers on my alarm clock, which were too blurry to read. I found the switch to the bedside lamp. A haze of smoke appeared. I live alone in a brownstone on the Upper West Side, off Riverside Drive. There are three other apartments in the building. Each of us has our own floor. I’m on the first, above the garden apartment. One of us was on fire.
Is there anything we take more for granted than combustion? Is there anything more mysterious? The ability of a solid or fluid to transform itself into ashes and energy, into fire and light. In Genesis, the god guy does not create fire. He says, let there be light, not fire; but there could be no light without fire. There would be no life without the fire of the sun. There would be no stars. The Earth is the only planet where fire occurs, just as the Earth is the only planet where life exists. It’s as if we were bequeathed this special gift, as both a blessing and a curse.
There also could be no smoke without fire. The smoke was denser in the hallway, but there were no flames or heat. I opened the front and street doors, and the smoke followed me out onto the stoop and down the steps to the sidewalk. Behind me, there were no lights from any of the other apartments. There was no smoke above my floor, but wisps were coming through the crack above the door of the lower apartment.
I hadn’t thought to bring my phone. I went down the few steps and pounded on the door. I only vaguely knew these people. I was new there. There was a door bell, and I thumbed it with one hand as I pounded with the other. The door opened with a rush of smoke, and a young girl in a flimsy nightdress came out. “Mom started a fire,” she said.
Flames, like us, need oxygen to live. Up close, they compete with us to have it. Such a relationship. At some point in the pre-past, someone who looked pretty much like you or me took a burning branch of this flame’s distant, wild, and ravaging ancestor and domesticated it. That capture was the key to the species’ ascendancy. They would burn things. They would make ignition their slave. But there had always been slave uprisings, holocausts of fire, no need for brimstone.
“Where’s your mom?” I asked.
There were little pink flowers on her nightgown. “In the living room,” she said.
“Anyone else at home?”
“Hal,” she said.
“Wait here,” I said and ducked down beneath the stream of smoke now coming out the door. In the back living room, there was a floor lamp above a sofa with a woman supine upon it. Her left arm rested on the cushioned sofa arm above her head. Behind that was a pile of smoldering laundry with many-forked tongues of flame flicking up from it. Even the smell was dangerous. Beside the sofa, on the floor, was a half-filled ashtray and a half-empty glass of red wine that flickered with the flames.
I pulled on her bare foot to try and wake her, but she just rolled over on her side, away from me. “Wake up!” I yelled. “Fire!” She just mumbled and pulled her legs away from me to curl up.
The man of the house, whom I knew only as Hal, came stumbling out of the bedroom. “Who’s making all this noise?” Then, when he saw the flames, “Oh fuck.” He stumbled to the French doors out to the backyard and opened them, then disappeared through them to collapse in a hammock away from the smoke.
Constantly coughing now, eyes tearing up, I went to the kitchen and tossed things from cupboards to find the biggest pot I could. I filled it with water and took it back to toss on the flames, making more smoke. I did this twice more. The cross draft was sucking the smoke out the French doors. Then I heard the sirens approaching, stopping outside. Someone had called 911. I went back to the street to check on the child.
I’ve never had children. I haven’t spent any time with kids since I was one. They have always been easy to ignore. I’ve never had pets either, any “emotional support” creature. I’ve never been married, as a matter of fact. There are no therapy groups for people like me, because we don’t join groups and we don’t feel like victims. Our numbers are growing, though, just as the membership rolls of all churches are shrinking. The none-of-the-above demographic. People tell me I don’t know what I am missing, but they don’t realize what they have lost by joining the passé canonical parade of domesticity.
Somehow, in the general confusion that ensued, the girl, whose name was Rachael, ended up at my place. I had opened all the windows I could, but the apartment still smelled of smoke. It was by now well after midnight. She sat on the couch in front of the TV and clicked through the channels, stopping at I Love Lucy. She looked cold in just her flimsy, almost see-through nightgown, and all the windows open, so I got her a blanket. She said she didn’t want anything, but she drank the glass of apple juice I brought her. I wanted to go back to bed, but I couldn’t with her there.
Rachael’s mother had been angry at the firemen for waking her. Hal never moved from the hammock. The daughter had been ignored. I told the fireman who seemed to be in charge who she was and that I was taking her to my place, out of the way. It was several hours before Hal came to fetch her. She was asleep on the couch. Hal didn’t say anything. He just picked Rachael up and walked off with her, as if she was a piece of forgotten luggage.
I liked the opium in the front rooms better than the kitchen’s patchouli. Like some hippie from the stoned age, I was auditioning incenses. The ancient temple rites of burning stuff. I wondered if that Arab wise guy in the Bible really did bring frankincense to the baby god’s paddock? French incense? Did he get it from Paris in 0 A.D./B.C.? I didn’t mind the aromas. I had quickly tired of the lingering eau de smudge that they covered. I noticed that some foods, like cheese, tasted different and that my musical preferences veered more toward the mellow. It was almost a week after the fire, a Saturday, when Sarah rang my doorbell.
Sarah was Rachael’s mother. She was bearing a cellophane-covered gift basket of fruits and cheeses. “Mr. Burton,” she said, “a small token of apology for stinking-up your home.” We had never really met before. I had seen her come and go, as she must have seen me; but this was New York, and never having had any reason to interact, we never did. She was professionally groomed, partial to pants suits. She carried a leather briefcase to and from work. She had great posture. I invited her in.
She seemed unaware that I had been there the night of the fire or that her daughter had sheltered with me while the firemen finished putting it out. She approved of the incense. She accepted the offer of a glass of wine.
When I’m not on the road, I work mostly at home and I had made the front room of my flat, what a floor plan would call the living room, into my office, so that I could sit at my desk and look up to see what was happening on the street. Changing focus is good for the eyes and the brain. We sat there.
The only goddess of fire I can think of is Pele, the volcano queen. In Hawaiian mythology, Pele’s archenemy is Kama-pua’a, pig man. Pele was once saved from being raped by Kama-pua’a by her deific soul sister Kapo, who distracted Kama-pua’a by throwing her flying vagina at him. Those were the days. Kapo’s distaff Frisbee slammed into Koko Head, leaving its imprint.
“Not much damage to your place?” I asked.
“It was a ratty old couch anyway. You have noticed the cleaning people coming and going?”
I had. A crew in incongruous white coveralls.
“The painters will be here next week. A chance to spruce the place up.”
Oh yes, and Vesta, the Roman goddess. But wasn’t she more the keeper of the hearth, domesticated fire?
“Hal fell asleep smoking,” she said. “I’d warned him a thousand times.”
“Happily, no one was hurt,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “And you suffered no damages?”
“Only the lingering smell.”
“And no expenses?”
“Well, my incense investments.”
“I’ll gladly cover those,” she said without a laugh, as if she didn’t know that I was joking. “Listen, I’ve brought a paper for you to sign. A proforma thing from my insurers, just confirming you have no damages or claims. They need it to close the filing.”
“More wine?” I asked. It was a Beaujolais, perfect for that type of overcast day. From her stature and features, the width of her brow and blue eyes, her lineage was probably Nordic. Her forebears did not drink wine. Grapes would not grow in those climes. Was there a Scandinavian goddess of fire? More probably a goddess of ice. She leaned toward me with her glass held out for a refill.
“Leave it for me to look over,” I said. “I’ll bring it down to you. How is Rachael?”
The look she gave me was sharp. “Now why would you ask that?”
I wondered if she was a lawyer, a prosecutor maybe. The briefcase and all. “I met her the night of the fire. Seemed a nice young person. Just asking if she came through it okay.”
“You met her the night of the fire?”
“Yes, out on the street. We were both fleeing the smoke.”
“Oh,” she said. “She was wearing her nightgown?”
“I guess,” I said. With pink flowers, I thought but didn’t say. If she wanted to play inquisitor, I wasn’t about to volunteer any unasked-for information. She obviously did not know where Rachael had spent the hours after the fire. Rachael must not have mentioned it, for whatever reason, which was none of my business. Nor had Hal. Change the topic.
“I’m glad to have the chance to ask if I make too much noise up here. I mean I am essentially walking around on your ceiling. I’m not a native New Yorker. I’m just learning the protocols. A couple of weeks ago I was at a large party with a New York associate who told me he could pick out the native New Yorkers without hearing them speak. And he could. When I asked him what was the tell, he said the way they walked. That people who grew up in apartments above or below fellow apartment dwellers walked softly, on the balls of their feet, while us alien invaders clomped around like we were in a barn scaring rats.”
“Well, yes, you could walk more softly. I can follow you from room to room. I’m glad you have stopped using that exercise machine in the back bedroom. That was particularly irksome. That’s above Rachael’s room. It kept her awake.”
“Thanks for the good excuse for why I stopped using it.”
“It was the rhythmical thing and not knowing when it would stop. At first, we thought it was you having sex.” Sarah took a sip of wine. “But it went on for too long.”
I said I would try to be more considerate.
I soon enough had the opportunity to do so. It was an “emergency.” Sarah was out of town, or something. Hal wasn’t clear about that or much else. He had to go out, a crisis of some sort somewhere. Would I mind watching Rachael while he was gone? He was on something, rushing, not slurring his speech, but the middle of sentences went missing. Why people choose to lose control mystifies me. I was also unclear why an eight- or nine-year old girl—however old she was—could not be left to her own resources for a while. Like I said, I’m not a parent.
“I don’t like leaving Rachael alone,” Hal said, “ever since she lit that fire.” Hal really didn’t wait for an answer; he just left, telling me the door was open.
Well, what are neighbors for? A while after Hal left, I went down. Rachael was locked in her room. I knocked on her door, and she answered. No, she didn’t want anything. I asked if she had her phone with her. Of course. I told her to enter my number, and I gave it to her, slowly, twice. Only then did she ask who I was. I said, your upstairs neighbor, Mr. Burton. It did not seem right for her to know my given name.
“Are they gone?” she asked.
“Yes, they’re out for a bit. Call me if you need anything. I’ll be upstairs. Okay?”
I don’t care much for the Bible—a textbook for confusion—but it has its share of conflagrations—the burning bush, the pillar of fire, the flame of the Menorah. Barbecue was the highest form of Biblical sacrifice. Funny, Islam doesn’t go in for that at all. For Muslims, fire is just the devil, who worshiped it. I’ve looked for, but haven’t found, any reputable contemporary fire-worship cults, which is funny if you look at all the other things people worship.
Growing up, we never ate out. I was sixteen before I had a restaurant meal. For one thing, there weren’t many restaurants in our part of Maine. For another, my mother, a master of the anecdotal over the analytic, knew that people were poisoned when they ate out. In reality, we were too poor. So, I grew up two or three developmental steps shy of the luxury of New York take-out. I had gone down a couple of times to check on Rachael, still ensconced in her room whenever I showed up. On my twilight visit—I was beginning to wonder why Hal had not returned—I asked if she was hungry, and she said yes. We agreed, through the door, on Chinese take-out. She liked shrimp.
It was a quiz show with a lot of applause, where the contestants tried to guess what an audience poll had thought were the obvious answers to inane questions. Rachael’s choice. We ate in silence on the brand new, strangely purple, sectional sofa. She wanted to eat her shrimp chow mein from the carton, but I got her a plate. I put some rice on her plate as well and squirted some soy sauce on it. She had never had that before and liked it, at least she ate it.
I don’t know how to talk to kids—small-people small talk—so I didn’t try. Rachael didn’t seem to mind. She seemed content to ignore me. Were all pre-adolescent girls this self-composed? I was relieved to hear the front door open. Hal could have his non-job back. There was even enough take-out left—I had over-ordered as usual—for him to have supper if he hadn’t eaten. Only, it wasn’t Hal. It was Sarah, and Sarah was not pleased.
“What are you doing here?” is not a proper substitute for hello. You can’t exactly return the greeting.
“Hal…,” I began my explanation.
But Sarah interrupted. “Where is Hal? What are you doing with my child?”
Feeding her was the obvious reply, but I didn’t have the chance to answer.
“Rachael, go to your room immediately!”
Rachael was giving her mother the same we-live-on-separate-planets attention she had been giving me.
Rachael put down her plate, picked up her still half-full carton of shrimp chow mein and walked off to her room without a word. There was a burst of applause from the game show audience.
I can think of no positive connotations of fire when applied to human actions or emotions. People “flame out.” The stage beyond being pissed off with someone is being “burned up” with them. We all have sense enough to steer clear of folks with “fiery passions” and know that anyone “with fire in their eyes” is likely a dangerous sociopath. “Fire and brimstone” is just bullshit. And, of course, there is always “ready aim fire.” Maybe Sarah had just had a bad day, a bad trip, a bad flight. She was dragging a suitcase when she came in. In any event, she ignited.
The gist of her explosion—if an explosion can have a gist—was that I was a predatory pedophile. She had learned from Hal that I had taken Rachael off to my apartment—her in her flimsy nightgown—the night of the fire and had kept her there for hours before he could find her. Rachael hadn’t been the same since that night, though she refused to discuss what happened. She had started asking for apple juice, which she would never touch before. Rachael said I had given her apple juice. What had I put in it? Rachael had been upset by the sounds of fucking she heard from my upstairs room, upset more than she should have been, as if it triggered a traumatic memory. Now this, seducing her in her own home.
“I always thought you were creepy,” Sarah said. “I checked you out on the sex-offenders list. You weren’t there, but that’s just New York. I don’t know where else you’ve been, what you are escaping from.”
I wondered how Hal lived with this. Rage isn’t pretty. I was still holding my plate of food. The TV had cut to a drug commercial, and the speed-reader voice-over was racing through the side effects. Somewhere in Genesis—the Bible may be meaningless, but it is sometimes fun—boss god orders Sarah’s name to be changed from Sarai, quarrelsome, to Sara, noblewoman. Good god, as they say, but his fixes don’t always stick.
I put down my plate and chopsticks and stood up. There was no point in trying to extinguish this conflagration. My words would only turn into steam. “You’re wrong,” is all I said as I brushed past her and out the door.
“May you burn in hell,” were her final words.
It’s been quiet since then. As far as I can tell, Hal never returned. Rachael goes somewhere else after school. I’m thinking of moving. This place is too big for one person. Maybe something more rural, back to the country. I really don’t need to be in the city. A cabin would be nice, a cabin with a fireplace.