WHEN THE FIRE STARTED in the Johnsons’ apartment, it probably looked worse than it was. But then it was allowed to spread and became worse than it probably looked. There were a lot of contributing factors to the spreading. The first one, obviously, was the gasoline; but a close second was Mrs. Knudson – the neighbor in apartment 6A next door. She should’ve been the first to call the fire department but at the time of the fire, she closed all of her windows and put a towel at the foot of her door and kept it to herself. She didn’t do those things because of any smoke or heat, she did it because of the sounds of the commotion. To Mrs. Knudson, it sounded like a fight next door and it made her angry.
Sheryl Knudson had just gotten to bed after spending what felt like hours on the toilet. She was backed up and the effort she used to relieve herself, along with the stifling summer heat, made her dizzy and weak. The sun was long gone but the heat and humidity were unaffected by its absence. The air was sticky and uncomfortable. She pulled the sheets down to the foot of her bed and climbed on top. The digital readout of her radio on the nightstand showed 1:58 am. It was tomorrow already. It was her birthday. She was nearly two hours into the sixty-eighth year of her life, and she spent it struggling to take a shit.
She was pissed. She lay flat on her back and glared at the ceiling. Outside of the open window beside her bed, she could hear the sounds of a typical summer Friday night in Harlem. Harlem considered itself the unofficial 6th borough of New York City but it was really just a small part of Manhattan: the only borough of the five that real New Yorkers called “the city.” When people spoke of the city that never sleeps, they didn’t mean all of New York, they meant Manhattan. All parts of Manhattan from the lower east side to Times Square to Washington Heights and everything in between, which included the corner of West 148th Street and Douglass boulevard in Harlem where Mrs. Knudson was lying in bed in her one-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a six-story building, staring at the ceiling and feeling angry.
She was angry for a bunch of reasons. She was angry that she had to set aside hours of her day just to take a crap and that when she was done her legs would probably be asleep. She was angry that setting hours aside to shit was, on most days, really the only thing she needed to set time aside to do. She was angry that it was the middle of the night and it felt hotter than it did in the middle of the day. Or as hot or whatever. Surely global warming was to blame. Global warming wasn’t a thing when she was young but it was now and she was angry about it. She was angry that she wasn’t that old and yet her body was already failing her. Three hours on the toilet? Three hours! That’s insane! She was angry that Kevin, her husband, wasn’t lying beside her and she was angry that he had passed away and left her alone. All alone in this sleepless city on this backwards planet that for some reason gets hotter when the sun goes down. Then she heard Candace Johnson and her husband Alan fighting in the apartment next door and she was angry about that too.
Maybe it didn’t sound like a fight. Maybe it sounded more like rough-play. “Horsing around,” Kevin used to call it. She heard the commotion and she heard something break but she also heard laughter. Her window was open, and their window was open and the two apartments were separated by a thin wall and there was no doubt; she could hear laughter. There were grunts and heavy breathing and things being bumped into and knocked over and there was laughter. In later days, when Mrs. Knudson would think back on this night, she would remember that before her trip to the bathroom she heard crying also, but she didn’t think of it then. She heard the laughing and the grunts and the heavy breathing in the middle of the night with the windows wide open when people were trying to sleep for crying out loud. The Johnsons were either over there fooling around or horsing around.
If she weren’t angry, she might’ve remembered that the Johnsons were supposed to be separated. Candace Johnson had told her that just yesterday. She had called Alan a piece of shit, Candace did, and said that she’d kicked him out weeks ago. So, they shouldn’t have been horsing around at all. If she had remembered that, maybe she would have considered that the sounds of grunting and heavy breathing and bumps and thumps could just as easily be a fight and not horseplay or kinky sex. If she had considered that it could be a fight, she might’ve considered that it was probably a man fighting a woman and she may have called the police. If the police had been called at that point the fire would’ve been caught earlier and the fire department would have been called and the fire might’ve never had the opportunity to spread. But on top of hearing the grunting and breathing and bumping and thumping, she also heard the laughter. So, to her, it didn’t sound like a fight.
Sheryl rolled out of bed and slammed her window shut. She went to the bathroom and grabbed a towel from the rack and used it to cover the small gap at the bottom of her apartment door. It may not have done much to help block the sounds from next door, but she had to try some damn thing. She stomped back to her bed, climbed on top and stuffed a pillow under her head, then squeezed the sides against her ears. “For crying out loud,” she complained. She didn’t think it was a fight. The Johnsons were next door horsing around.
AS IT HAPPENS, IT wasn’t any of those things that Mrs. Knudson was hearing. The Johnsons weren’t horsing around or fooling around. And they weren’t fighting. The sounds Mrs. Knudson heard weren’t the sounds of two people bumping into things or each other, it was the sound of Alan Johnson knocking over furniture and emptying shelves and drawers into piles on the floor with one hand, then pouring gasoline out of a five-gallon jug on top of those piles with the other. What Mrs. Knudson heard wasn’t arguing or conversation, what she heard was Alan Johnson talking to himself.
He shouldn’t have been there. Candace Johnson had kicked him out two weeks ago because she was fed up with the drinking and the drugs and with some incident with another woman. At least that’s what she told him. But Alan was no fool, he knew the truth. She kicked him out because there was someone else. That firefighter. The Captain. Well, fuck them. Alan’s name may not have been on the lease, but he paid half the rent. He bought half the furniture. It was just as much his place as hers and if he couldn’t stay there neither the hell could they. She wanted that asshole? Well fine, Alan thought as he poured gasoline on a pile of books, the Captain should be there any minute now.
Alan patted his back pocket looking for his bottle, but the pocket was empty. He put down the jug of gasoline and patted all of the pockets on his pants. He was wearing a t-shirt that had no pockets, but he patted his chest too. Nothing. The apartment was dark. He hadn’t turned on any lights when he came in but he had opened all of the curtains and there was enough light from the street to see by. The city that never slept. He looked around the floor for the bottle and frowned at the mess he saw. He said: “Save a cat from this tree, asshole.” Then he started laughing again.
Days earlier, Rob, a friend of Alan’s, had called him crazy. They were sitting on the steps outside of an apartment building a few streets away drinking vodka out of a Poland Spring bottle. Alan was thinking and talking about Candace and how she kicked him out and was messing around with a Captain in the firehouse down the street. “Captain Asshole,” he called him. Alan’s story hadn’t made sense to Rob, but Rob wasn’t looking for it to. He didn’t care enough. He knew Alan had a drinking problem and was always ranting about some new thing when he was drunk. Rob didn’t need to understand or sympathize or even talk back; he just needed to make sure Alan didn’t spill the bottle. Alan was saying something about his wife and how he could kill her. He loved her that fucking much, he could really kill her. Rob snatched the bottle from Alan’s hand and glowered.
“AJ, you crazy, bro. You hea’ me? You straight loco. You know tha’?”
Alan had never considered it before and he didn’t stop to then either; but on this night, as he stood in the middle of the dark apartment with the pungent fumes from the gasoline making him dizzy, he remembered what Rob had said and he laughed. He picked up the jug and went through the rest of the apartment. He continued to make piles and he continued to chuckle. He feared that someone would hear him so in an attempt to stop himself laughing he forced himself to talk. He gave words to his actions. He knocked the paper towel dispenser off the kitchen counter and said out loud, “getting the Bounty now.” And as he doused it in gasoline, he said “Wetting that too.” Then he started to laugh again. How could he not?
Rob was right, of course. Alan was crazy. But not for the reasons Rob thought. Rob was overreacting then; Alan was just drunk that night on the steps. He, Alan, had never been to a shrink and no one educated had ever called him crazy, except maybe Candace. Nevertheless, he may have known it all along. Ever since he was a teenager living on his own, he knew his mind worked… differently. He had never considered himself crazy, but he had to face the facts now. He was soaking his home in gasoline. This was nuts. This was . . . straight loco. It was hilarious.
When the jug was empty, he stood with his back to the kitchen and looked around. He wasn’t really at a point of no return. Not yet. There were about nine piles on the floor of everything from books to furniture to electronics to food. There were maybe two more piles in the bedroom of clothes and sheets and linen. But five gallons didn’t go as far as he thought it would. The smell was strong and the living room floor shimmered like pavement on a hot day, but the apartment was more dry than it was wet. He could still stop this. He stumbled to the wall near the living room window and let it hold him up. He was breathing heavily and there was a knot in his chest. This was stupid. He shouldn’t be here right now. Not here like in the apartment, here in life; in this situation. Candace shouldn’t have ever kicked him out. So what he drank a little? Who the hell doesn’t? And he didn’t have a drug “problem”—he only used for fun, what’s the word, recreationally. Who the hell was she to judge him? And the incident with what’s her name? It was one time! Or two, maybe. Candace was acting like he had been sleeping around the entire time they were married. She was acting like his damn mother. He was back to living on the streets again because, again, someone who was supposed to be there for him and be in his corner claimed he had a problem just ‘cause he likes to have fun and relax occasionally. Recreationally. So now, because she’s overreacting, he has to find a place to stay every night and Candace gets to sleep in a nice comfortable bed?
Alan pushed himself away from the wall and stumbled back to the kitchen. He opened the drawer beneath the counter and looked for matches but all he found were ketchup packets and duck sauce. He opened the refrigerator to check there then realized how silly that was and began to laugh again. He slapped his hands over his mouth and laughed into his palms. Shaking his head, he picked up the roll of paper towels from the floor and walked over to the stove. The towels were heavy from the gasoline. He used the back of his hand to wipe his forehead and it came back wet. It was a hot night. It’s about to get hotter, he thought to himself and laughed once more. He turned on one of the burners on the stove and after a series of ticks, the flame appeared. He wiped the sweat out of his eyes with the palm of his hands and felt a sting from the gasoline. “Fuck,” he spat and used the sleeve on his bicep to wipe his eyes again. He blinked tears away and took a deep breath. He looked around the apartment then down at the flame on the stove. The urge to laugh was gone.
His heart raced and he could hear the thumps it made against his chest. It was so loud he was sure if someone else was in the room they would hear it too. The wall that separated his apartment from 6A, Mrs. Knudson’s apartment, was pretty thin. He worried that if she were awake, she would probably hear his heart racing. He looked at the flame and said out loud, “This ain’t a good idea.”
Alan took a step back and sighed. They had been in this apartment three years. Obviously there were some bad memories but there were good ones too. Great ones, even. Everywhere he looked there was something that he could trace back to a fond memory. Much of it was now on the floor and/or covered in gasoline but still; he’d be crazy to go through with this. Burn his own home down? He closed his eyes and sighed again. His mind went blank. Then he opened them and reached out with the roll of paper towels and touched it to the flame.
A ball of fire erupted in front of him and he screamed, “Fuck!” He dropped the roll. It landed between him and the oven and he checked his hand for burns. The fire at his feet seemed to grow and he was angry at it. “Asshole!” He kicked the burning roll away from him and out of the kitchen where it landed then rolled sluggishly to a pile of books and magazine soaked in gasoline.
The night turned to day in a flash. There was a sound of a rushing wind and Alan thought that there had been an explosion. The pile of books turned into a bonfire and flames shot from it and followed a trail to a pile behind it. That pile exploded silently and spread to another pile beside it. Alan watched everything change in seconds and found his jaw had fallen open. What the hell was happening? Where was all this fire coming from? He began to cough even though he wasn’t standing in any smoke. He ran out of the kitchen and looked towards the window but couldn’t see it through the flames. He turned around and ran towards the apartment door and tried to open it, but it didn’t budge. Panic rose in his chest and he yanked the handle towards him and heard the sound of metal on metal. Behind him crackling and pops and small explosions made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Sweat poured from his forehead into his eyes and he blinked furiously to see through them. He stopped to gather himself and looked at the door and realized it was locked. He disengaged the top lock and the lock above the knob and when he yanked the door open, he felt a tremendous heat on his back. He stumbled out of the apartment, coughing harder now, and ran down the half flight of stairs to his left. He turned back and saw black smoke coming from his apartment riding the ceiling towards the flight of stairs that led to the roof.
“What the fuck,” he marveled and backed away. This is not where he wanted to be. He hurried down the stairs, holding on to the railing, and rushed out of the building.
BACK ON THE SIXTH floor, in apartment 6A, Mrs. Knudson lay in bed with her windows and curtains closed and her pillow over her ears, angry. Why was it so hot? It’s the middle of the damn night!
Global warming, surely.
Jason Powell is a New York City Firefighter in the FDNY and an avid people watcher. He spends all of his free time and (some of his work time) writing and reading and eating chocolate covered pretzels. He has been published twice in Anti-Heroin Chic literary journal and once in The Esthetic Apostle. This is his first feature on the Fictional Café.