Jaime Perez crept up the fire escape as quietly as he could and stopped at the third floor. He leaned over the guard rail to the kitchen window that he had been told didn't have a gate. He waited patiently to be sure that no one on the street had noticed him, while vapor from the cold steamed out of his mouth. He pressed his short, skinny, drug-ravaged body against the wall until he felt ready, then he took a metal tool from his pocket and stealthily pried the window open. He couldn't hear any sounds from the dark apartment, so he carefully slipped over the rail and climbed inside. The landlord had assured him that they didn't own a dog, so although still alert, he began to relax. The landlord had also carefully instructed him how to place paper next to the pilot light of the stove, run a paper strip to the nearest inflammable material and ignite it so it would appear to be an accident. There was a cardboard cake box on a table next to the stove and he ran the strip of paper to the box. He paused and listened intently, his body a menacing hulk in the darkness, then greedily opened the box. It was some kind of pound cake, not his favorite, like chocolate or pineapple, but better than nothing. He broke off a chunk with a gloved hand and stuffed it in his mouth, crumbs dribbling on the floor.
The landlord had insisted that he not take anything, but a piece of cake didn't count. Besides, the greedy pig would never know. Jaime needed a hit on the crack pipe and the sugar from the cake would settle his jangling nerves. He silently cursed the landlord for a moment. He knew why the landlord wanted this family out. Then he could renovate the apartment cheaply and triple the rent. When the tenants rejected what must have been a low offer and other pressures failed, the landlord sent for him. Jaime was known as 'the torch' to a few pitiless landlords on the lower east side, whose lust for profit at the expense of decency was aroused by gentrification. He could smell the paper by the pilot light smoldering, so he lit a match, put it to the middle of the paper strip and made sure it was burning both ways. Then he slid out the window to the fire escape and closed it behind him. As he hastily went down the metal steps, he thought: 'To hell with those gringos. Let them burn. They forced my people out of the neighborhood. Now they'll get theirs.'
Some kind of noise brought Peter to the surface from a deep sleep. He groggily stretched, not sure what happened, then suddenly smelled smoke. He leaped up and dashed to the kitchen and saw the fire. The flames were high enough to keep him from reaching the sink with its flexible water hose, so he tore off his T-shirt and tried to smother the flames, but this only fanned them higher. He rushed back to the bedroom, pulled the covers off his wife and shook her arm. "What's wrong?" Beth sleepily asked. "It's a fire," he yelled. "We've got to get the kids out." She instantly snapped awake and took charge: "I'll take Jen and you take Andy." They hurried to the children's bedroom, where Jennifer and Andrew were sound asleep. As the children gradually awakened, they wrapped them in their blankets and carried them out of the bedroom.
The smoke was rapidly spreading through the apartment. "Should I try to grab my wallet?" Peter asked. Beth looked around and quickly decided: "Let's get the kids into the hall, then you can see if it's safe to go back inside." Flames were pouring out of the kitchen and the acrid smoke was blurring their vision. The children were wide awake now, frightened and crying. They made their way through the living room into the hallway that led to the front door. The room was rapidly filling with smoke and when Peter opened the door, smoke billowed into the hall. They paused at the head of the stairs and Peter looked back, considering if he should risk returning for his wallet and other valuables. Beth realized what he was thinking and said firmly: "No way you're going in there." He protested: "All our money and credit cards are in there, and our coats. It's freezing outside." She shook her head. "At least we're not hurt. We'll manage the rest."
Officer Herminio Corrado was just carrying a container of coffee to his partner in the patrol car, when he saw the flames burst out of the window from a house down the block. He knocked on the hood to get his partner's attention, pointed, then set off at a run. He moved faster than the usual officer's cautious approach to danger, since fire couldn't attack him from a distance and rapid response was essential. But he was already trembling and his insides were churning, because he was terrified of fire. He leaped up the steps of the building and knocked loudly on each door as he passed, shouting: "Police. Fire." When he got to the third floor, he found a family of four at the landing and yelled: "Get those kids out now." The man started mumbling something about losing all their possessions, but there was no time for that nonsense. "Get going. You can worry about your things later." He gave the man a shove and watched him start downstairs, as the woman tugged him along.
The flames were shooting out of the apartment door and smoke was filling the hallway. He hesitated, afraid of being trapped by the fire, then started upstairs to warn the other tenants. He was halfway up the flight of stairs, when someone grabbed him from behind and he almost jumped out of his skin. He turned around and saw that it was a fireman in full protective gear, looking like a giant insect, ready to dip its proboscis. The fireman pulled up his mask and said: "I'll take it from here." Relief zoomed through his body. "Thanks, buddy." He watched the alien figure hurry upstairs and thought: 'Thank you, thank you. I don't know how you do it, but better you than me.' He quickly went downstairs and out of the building. His partner was waiting and congratulated him for his fast reaction. "You did good, Coro." He nodded thanks, then confided; "I could never be a fireman. It scares the shit out of me. I'd rather face a gunman any day." His partner grunted agreement. "Me too."
Firefighter Eugene Jones was dozing in his seat, heading back to the firehouse after shopping for dinner at an expensive grocery. When the call came in they were only a few blocks from the scene, so it only took a minute or two to get there. He put on his gear as they went, holding on to the safety bar with one hand as they tore around the corner. They were the first truck on the scene and he adjusted his mask and rushed into the building, followed by the rest of the crew. Tenants were streaming out and he carefully forced his way upstairs through the panicky flow. He saw the cop ordering some tenants out, caught up to him on the stairs and told him that he'd take over. As the cop started downstairs, he thought: 'I could never be a cop. I'd be terrified if someone was shooting at me.' He shook his head at the distraction, then went and knocked on each door on the fourth floor. By this time, the commotion, sirens and smoke had awakened everybody and he calmly urged them to leave the building.
One of his partners had evacuated the fifth floor and came down and beckoned him to help check the apartment directly over the fire. The door was ajar and they entered warily, concerned with a sudden blaze through the floor. They knelt and felt the kitchen floor which was hot, but not incendiary. They carefully checked the walls, then the rest of the apartment and followed the same procedure in the hall. They didn't find any indicators that the fire had spread upstairs. The smoke was already dissipating, so they went downstairs to the apartment where the fire started to help the rest of the crew. By the time they got there, the fire had been extinguished and they joined the search for any further hot spots. The kitchen and part of the main bedroom were thoroughly burned, but the destruction to the rest of the apartment was moderate. Gene studied the scene and thought the damage looked peculiar, but left it for the fire marshal to examine. He saw that he wasn't needed, so he began to lug fire hose downstairs.
Peter was freezing in his pajamas and Beth wasn't much warmer in the bathrobe she had managed to put on before their rapid escape. They had been able to snatch down coats for the children, so at least they were warm, but they were still traumatized by the sudden evacuation. The organized chaos that had followed the fire had shattered the once calm night for them. Neighbors had poured out of their houses, eager for the spectacle of disaster. Although disappointed that no one had jumped, a fiery meteor plunging to earth, or had been carried out blackened and smoldering, the crowd avidly gaped at the building, faces tense with expectation, still hoping for something titillating. The flashing red lights on the fire trucks and police cars cast incandescent glows on the savage spectators, who didn't seem overly evolved from their ancient ancestors. Peter watched in utter bewilderment, unsure of what to do next. Beth sensed his confusion: "Ask someone if we can go back to our apartment, now that the fire is out."
Peter looked around and saw a fireman coiling hose nearby and called to him: "Excuse me. Can we go back to our apartment now?" The fireman turned his head and looked at him tiredly. "Sorry, sir. The fire marshal has to inspect the premises to determine the cause of the fire. Then they have to check the building for safety and stability." Peter's voice was getting shrill. "When do you think we can get in there?" "Maybe tomorrow afternoon, depending on the damage." "Can't we just get some clothes? We're freezing our butts off." "That's just not possible," the fireman said. "But I can give you some blankets that'll at least keep you warm." The fireman walked to the truck and pulled out some gray, heavy wool blankets and handed them to Peter, who just stood there and asked dumbly: "What do we do now?" "Do you have somewhere to go for the rest of the night?" "No." "Friends? Family?" "No." "Why don't you bring these blankets to your family," the fireman said. "I'll see if I can get someone to help you." Peter shuffled back to Beth, lugging the blankets, dazed by the distressing events.
Gene saw the cop from the stairs leaning on his patrol car and walked over to him. "Hey, pal, how're ya doin?" The cop's face was streaked with soot, but he looked cheerful. "O.K. What about you?" "Good. We didn't lose anybody." They grinned at each other in the instant camaraderie that shared danger brings, especially to the uniformed services. The cop extended his hand. "I'm Coro." Gene took his hand. "I'm Gene." They stood there for a moment, reassured by the bond that helped them protect civilians. Coro said confidingly: "I almost pissed my pants." Gene whispered: "When you're a firefighter, they spray so much water on you that no one notices." They laughed comfortably together. "Thanks, buddy," Coro said. Gene smiled. "That's O.K. Listen, there's a family that doesn't have any place to go." "Where?" Gene pointed. "There." Coro recognized them from the stairs. "I'll see what I can do. Take care, buddy." "You, too." Gene waved cheerfully, then went back to coiling hose.
Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theater director and worked as an art dealer when he couldn't earn a living in the theater. He has also been a tennis pro, a ditch digger and a salvage diver. His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off-Broadway. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines and his published books include 37 poetry collections, 14 novels, 4 short story collections, 1 collection of essays and 7 books of plays. Gary lives in New York City.