You never know when disaster might hit, and is the average man prepared?
Hell no, the common Joe goes through life thinking two things: it’ll never happen to him, and if it does, well, somebody will take care of him.
Well, screw that!
Have you ever been in a burning building? I have, decades ago, in Milwaukee. A disgruntled former tenant, who had been kicked out of the building, decided to take revenge by torching his former apartment. So there I was, early on a Sunday morning, and the fire alarm was ringing, and I figured it was just a joke, and I could ignore it. And I would have, too, if I hadn’t noticed a plume of smoke—escaping like the Holy Ghost—wisping out of my stove.
How could that be? Still don’t know, but I knew what I had to do, because the Old Man had told me a thousand times. In a possible fire, you put the back of your hand on the door before you open it.
These are things kids need to know. And who is gonna teach ‘em if there’s no father around? You think a woman can?
No, guys are what we need.
Men who know how to do things, like get out of the building when the asshole next door to you decides his revenge is worth more than your life. Well, fuck that!
So I put the back of my hand on the door, wondering as I did why it had to be the back of my hand, not the palm. Was the back more sensitive? Less likely to be sweaty? No matter, the Old Man was telling me: so I put the hand on the door, and it was cool.
So I get out—and what do I see? Nothing, since there is billowing smoke all through the hallway, and that’s where the Old Man failed me. Or I failed him. Because I should have retreated, called 911, gone to the window—I was only on the second floor, for God’s sake—and waited.
Fact—most fires aren’t big enough and hot enough to burn through the average wooden door.
So I should have waited—that’s what the Old Man woulda done. But did I?
Fuck that—I was getting’ outta that damn building. So I charged down the hall—not knowing where the hell the fire was, and how stupid was that? And that’s when BAM! I hit the damn wall.
Whatever idiot it was who built the building had put a curve in each end of the hall. So simple enough when it’s your average Sunday morning, and you’ve gone off to the get the bagels and cream cheese and Sunday New York Times. Right—those Sundays you see the curve, veer off 30 degrees, and think nothing about it. But me? That Sunday? I’m flying down the hall, except not, since the air at 6’3” is pretty damn hot, and I hunker down without thinking. And so I’m hurtling toward the goal line in the first game of Apartment House Football of my life, and that’s when I go headfirst smack into the damn wall. And damn, does that sucker tackle me!
So I’m flat on my ass—all right, my side—and there’s not much of anywhere else to go but out, so now I’m crawling on my knees towards the staircase, and I find it, too. Or rather, it finds me, because now the smoke has gotten bad, and I’m gagging and about to vomit but I can’t, because there isn’t time. So fuck that—I’m getting the hell out of the building, and that’s when the staircase happens before I happen, or rather, before I think it happens. Which means I’m going down headfirst. OK—I could probably do that on a good day, but a day with a fire? Well, that kinda puts a kink in the day….
So if having a belly full of smoke didn’t make me nauseated, now I’m doing cartwheels down the staircase and is it a straight shot? Of course not, because now I get to the landing, where I’m supposed to turn right and go down the other set of stairs. (Remember that curve in the wall up there? Well, that’s where the cheap bastards who built the building got the space for the second flight of stairs! Sons of bitches!)
So now, BAM again—‘cause there is a certain momentum to falling down stairs, so the landing that was was the landing that wasn’t. Which is to say that the stairs landed, but not Marc, and I hurled myself against the wall, which I swear all but pushed me off, and down the second set of stairs.
Fortunately, smoke goes up, and I was going down, and so the air is cleaner down there, and I can see the door outside, which some asshole has left open. Or was it the guy who torched the apartment next to mine? Anyway, the fire is getting plenty of oxygen now, and I will be too, or would have been if I’d been able to get out. But now the damn firemen are coming in, and they’re doing it with all the grace of the Packer’s defensive line, which is also the way they’re charging. Think elephants stampeding. Oh, but they stop to throw some obscenities towards me. I mean, did they think I just drifted in, curious to see if there might be a fire? Well, screw them!
So I’m outta there—but fortunately I’m young and supple, and hitting a few walls and rolling down stairs my body can take. And that’s when I call the Old Man up, and he cusses me out, ‘ cause that’s how men tell their sons they love them. Asked me what kind of damn fool I was, living in an apartment without a fire rope!
Damn straight, he says, ‘cause you gotta get ready beforehand, ‘cause you won’t have time in the emergency. Any damn fool knows that! So I should have had a fire rope, and it should have been tied to the radiator, which was under the damn window. And speaking of which—did I know that I could get out that window? What kinda asshole doesn’t check the window, push the screen gently to test its stability, and then estimate the drop to the ground? Then, dammit, the very first day you go out to the hardware store, and you buy twice the length you need, cause it doesn’t matter how much football—and how many ten-yard lines—you’ve played. Most folks don’t know how long—or short—100 yards is….
Then, he finished up, then you can go to sleep at night, because you know: anything happens? Why, you got your fire rope!
Well, he reamed my ass out good, the Old Man, and then why wasn’t I surprised when I got the package three days later? Because he knew I had called my brothers, to inquire: were they just as damn lacking as me? Surely, my brother, in his sixth floor prewar Manhattan apartment building…surely he checked his fire rope every night! Probably had a checklist—or he damn well shoulda—and if his damn wife had made him put it in a little box, which she had decorated with Martha Stewart faggotry, well, at least he had it! And my other brother? The one who so resembled my Old Man’s younger brother? Remember how he took the boat out for a ride in Lake Monahegan, and forgot to check the damn boat hitch? Plus, he never put the supplemental chains on, either, so there he was, going up the hill. And the boat? Going down!
Well, it was probably trying to get away from the damn fool, and serve him right! Except, of course, that the sheriff was coming up the damn hill too, and right behind the boat that was coming down!
Well the Old Man told me—I wasn’t much. Never learned a thing in my life, and never listened to anyone, either. That’s the problem: I think too much. No common sense. So dammit, if he had to, he’d go to the damn hardware store and buy the rope, and he had half a mind to drive 80 miles over to Milwaukee and attach it, too. ‘Cause I was too much of a smart ass to listen to the Old Man, and hadn’t he been right?
Well, I thought of him, as I lay on my bed hurting with a broken back, these last several months. I though about the fire ropes I had, and the fire ropes I had left behind, tied to rusting, wheezing radiators. The fire rope I had given to lovers long passed, no longer missed. Men who needed a rope for whatever reason, and I had one, and the Old Man? Would he know, sitting as only he could in his damn chair by the fire?
No, he wouldn’t come, and he’d never know. Couldn’t, really. He’d stay right at home, thank you, and let his sons go off to those damn cities, where they’d learn to eat Focaccia and pita bread, dammit, instead of the good white bread they were brought up with. White bread, and you take a bite of it and mix it in with the meatloaf, and is there anything better?
That’s the thing about pain: it’s elemental. Time and distance change, but a man long gone came in the room again, sat down by my side, and told me to lie on my side.
That’s what he did, summer nights in Wisconsin, when I was a child.
That’s what he did, those hot January nights in San Juan, when I was paining.
So he was scratching my back, and the crickets decided to sing half a century into the tropical air, and he was talking softly and about nothing much, since he never did have much to say. Well, he did, but what Old Man says it? So the pain goes on, but the scratching is nice, and I’m drifting off to sleep, when I can tell he’s got up.
“Where are you going,” I ask him.
“To the damn hardware store,” he tells me.
He checked, you see….