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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

Yes, There’s Smoke

It was around midnight Wednesday when two things awoke me simultaneously. The first was my cat, who was stomping back an forth across my body, same as she does most every night. The other thing was the thick, acrid smoke in the room.

As I lay there smelling the smoke, unaware of the time, trying to make sense of what that odor was, trying to ignore the cat, my first, eventual conclusion was that the last cigarette I’d had that night was still smoldering. So I climbed off the bed and felt my way into the kitchen. I fumbled around the table for the ashtray.

All the ashes were cool, so I went back to bed.

That I was as calm as I was still surprises me. Of all the things I’m paranoid about, fire’s right up there near the top of the list. Not because I’ve ever been in a fire, but rather because I knew I’d probably never be able to see it if one broke out in my apartment, and I’d die horribly.

Yet that night I lay there in bed, perfectly comfortable thinking the smoke — whatever the source — would dissipate in a second and I’d be able to forget about it.

But it didn’t dissipate. It only grew thicker. So I rolled out of bed again, still unusually calm, and began checking the outlets and extension cords, wondering if it might be an electrical fire. The electricity in that place can be spotty, but all the outlets seemed fine. No troubles. Nothing was hot.

It was beginning to gnaw at me now, so I opened the apartment door and stuck my head into the hallway. The air was clear. That, at least, meant the building wasn’t on fire. No other part of the building, anyway.

Once again, I decided I was perfectly willing to ignore it. I turned an exhaust fan on and went back to bed again. In the worst case scenario, there was a fire extinguisher by the front door, which Morgan had picked up for me a few years ago. I’d be fine.

Two minutes later I was back in the kitchen, unsatisfied. I went to the window and sniffed. Yes, it was definitely coming from outside.

That was it, then. Someone in the neighborhood was burning leaves or garbage, and everything was fine. Never mind the fact that in 15 years of living there, I’d never once known anyone to burn leaves or garbage, especially at midnight. But for the third time I returned to bed, where the cat lay waiting.

Barely had my head hit the pillow when there was a pounding on the door.

Okay, that answered that.

I grabbed a bathrobe, then opened the door. I could hear my upstairs neighbors — Sam, Caroline and their three kids — making their way down the steps.

“What is it?” I shouted after them.

“The back of the building next door is on fire,” Caroline called back, as she hustled the kids outside. “You’d better get out of there.”

Ahh, the house next door, I thought with some relief but no surprise. It was a brownstone which had been sold for an insane amount of money about a month earlier. Since then contractors had been “renovating” (i.e. gutting) the place. From the looks of the workmen, a fire along the way seemed inevitable.

As I put some clothes on, the big question remained: do I put the cat in a carrier and get her out now, too? She was 19 years old, awfully cranky, and hadn’t been in a carrier in quite a long time.

I grabbed the carrier out of the closet and dropped it on the bench, figuring I’d run downstairs, assess the situation, and if it seemed at all dangerous, I’d run back up and grab her (and some computer discs, and maybe a book or two). Until then, I figured it would be better not to put us both through the trauma if it wasn’t necessary.

I pulled the door closed behind me and went downstairs, leaving both my hat and cane behind. I sat down on the front steps and listened to what was going on around me. The first firetruck had just arrived.

Nobody was home next door, so Sam was in the backyard with a hose, spraying their back door until the firefighters got set up. Caroline and the kids were on the sidewalk.

It seemed pretty obvious that it wasn't that big a deal. I lit a cigarette and very slowly moved over toward them to find out what I could.

“They think it’s electrical,” Caroline said. “The fire’s in the basement, and the smoke’s pouring out the back door.”

That sounded a bit better, at least, than “the back of the house is on fire.”

More neighbors were stepping outside. Most I’d never met before, and wouldn’t meet that night, either. A few minutes later a second firetruck showed up, and two of the firemen broke through the front door.

“Whoa,” someone said. “They’re gonna be surprised when they come home,”

An older man I’d never seen before approached Caroline.

Ignoring me, he said, “My place is open—you can come and stay there while all this is going on…if you like.”

“ thank you,” she said. There was something creepy about him that she could obviously sense.

“Well, what about the girls then?” he asked. My skin crawled a bit.

“Ummm, No. Really. That’s okay.”

Discouraged, he continued down the street.

Sam let a fireman into our building and led him up to the roof, were he crossed over to the burning building and opened a vent to let the smoke out. Three more firetrucks arrived. All I could see were the red lights.

The fire inspector appeared on the sidewalk and was let inside. I was beginning to wonder why I was still standing out here on the sidewalk at one a.m. The fire—whatever there was of it—was clearly over with, but I guess I was still as curious and nosy as anybody. If something was going to wake me up and get me outside at midnight, I want my money’s worth. I stood near the curb trying to stay out of everyone’s way and lit another cigarette.

One of the firemen came out of the house and explained to Sam that it wasn’t electrical. The floor in the basement where the workmen had installed a new fuse box was littered with cigarette butts, and one of them had obviously smoldered long enough to catch something.

“If someone hadn’t called 911 when they did,” he said, “this whole place would’ve gone up.”

That’s all I needed to hear.

“Great,” Caroline said as she collected her kids, “I’ll be able to sleep tonight, but tomorrow and the night after that, I’m not so sure.”

One by one, the firetrucks and the neighbors pulled away. The smoke still hung fairly thick in the air. I walked back inside and up the stairs to my apartment, unlocked the door and went inside. The air had mostly cleared in there already. I lit a cigarette and suddenly felt bad for not having properly thanked the folks upstairs for pounding on my door.