THE DAY OF THE FIRE
by Jeff Bakkensen
There’s a special smile when they see you walking a dog. Like, Yep, one of the tribe. Mei’s said pregnant women get it too, earlier than you’d think. But the funny thing I noticed was that we wouldn’t get the smile when all three of us were out together. As if people wanted us to pick a side. Have a child or get a dog; both at once was just selfish.
Lola wakes me when she jumps down from our bed and sticks her nose against the gap at the bottom of the door. Mei will sleep through the day while I work in the spare bedroom. Then she and I will walk Lola to the subway, and Mei will head back to the hospital. She used to work days, but nights pay more. She says nighttime is when she can think most clearly.
We have yogurt for breakfast/dinner, coffee and herbal tea. We brush our teeth. Then Lola and I leave for our walk.
If I could speak to Lola, I’d tell her that if life is a series of reinventions, I still get surprised at the version of ourselves we’ve landed on.
But our choice of words is limited. “Sit,” means, Sit. “Wait,” means, Keep sitting. A scratched door means, I would like to go out. A tugged leash means, I would like to go over there. We can only talk about the things we can talk about.
Our apartment is on the third floor of a three-story brick row house that hasn’t quite hit its upswing towards being nice again. The carpeted staircase Lola bounds down, nearly falling forward in her excitement, is scuffed and threadbare. We pass through a tiled foyer, and then go down one more flight to the basement, where the back door leads to an alley. The two basement apartments sit at either end of a concrete hallway, the boiler room and a washer/dryer fitted between them. Lola walks ahead of me, nose to the mouse droppings lying along the baseboards. I’m always a little apprehensive of what she might find. A year ago, just after we moved here, she found a body.
We were on our way to the back door, just like today. Lola had gone down ahead of me, and when I reached the bottom of the staircase, she was standing over a man lying on his stomach in the middle of the hallway. He was wearing jeans and a light jacket. As I watched, she bent down to lick the area around his mouth. I made a sound like Hepp! which was the fastest sound I could make, and ran to pull her away.
But a funny thing happened. The man’s eyes popped open, he rolled over and became a living thing and then my downstairs neighbor, Jonathan. I’d met him while we were moving in.
His eyes wandered the walls until he saw me. He sat up. Lola was beside herself with joy.
“I think I lost my keys,” said Jonathan.
I helped him stand. He looked around the floor and patted his jacket and pants pockets. He tapped his apartment door, and the door swung open. His keys were on a table just inside.
“Oh,” he said. “Fuck.”
It takes time, in a new place, to settle your sense of what’s normal and what’s not. You find your neighbor sleeping on the basement floor, and you think, That’s just the way things are here, because you have no context to know anything different. Wish the broker had told me about that. Then the next day you don’t see him, and the next day you don’t see him, and eventually a year goes by and you’re still reminded of those first scattering days every time you pass through the basement, and you think how strange it was you ever didn’t know the things you know now.
We continue through the back door and into the alley. It’s a crisp late summer day. The windows in the building in front of us glare in checkerboard pattern.
There’s no mystery to the interior lives of dogs. I can tell Lola’s mood by her walk. There’s the prance, the buck against the leash, the salamander scuttle when she spots a squirrel. I have one style of walking, so far as I can tell. But maybe everyone in the apartments abutting the alley is standing by their windows watching, taking notes as I step, as I stumble, as I stride.
We stop at a gravel parking space so Lola can pee, and then turn onto another alley that slopes up to a residential street leading to the park. On the sidewalk, we pass two men dressed for work. Lola sniffs them as they walk by.
The park is a green strip running from the train station at Back Bay to the one at Forest Hills. A bike path weaves a sine wave between tennis and basketball courts, community gardens filling the irregular slices left over. The house to the left of the entrance has a rainbow flag hanging from a window, and on the door is a poster that says Immigrants Welcome Here, with a picture of a mother holding a child. The train itself runs beneath us.
It’s the type of place where you have a kid before moving to the suburbs. That’s why it was so jarring last week when someone sprayed Trump eats babies in blue paint across the concrete wall at one end of the tennis court. We buzzed for a few days about who might have done it: surely not the family with the Immigrants Welcome Here poster. Someone from outside the neighborhood trying to troll, trigger, or otherwise provoke a reaction from us libs. If that was the goal then it worked; the graffiti’s still there, and it bothers me whenever I walk past.
At one point in the distant past, the train ran above ground and the city bulldozed a swath of buildings to put in a highway that was never finished. So they gave us a park instead. The neighborhood then was mostly poor and Black, which is probably why someone thought it was a good place for a highway, and as the neighborhood has Whitened, the park has too, acquiring first basketball courts and gardens, tennis courts, and finally a dog park, which is where Lola pulls me now.
We cross a street with traffic at a standstill in both directions, and pass more commuters and a few morning joggers. The dog park is a converted basketball court with a fence around the perimeter. The hoops still stand, netless, at both ends.
The morning regulars are out in force: Tivoli, Max, Ruby and Rosie, along with their owners. They are, in order: German Shepherd, retriever, and mutt sisters with border collie bodies and reddish fur. Lola’s a goldendoodle.
The breed is important because that’s how we introduce ourselves. “I’m Jack and this is Russell, and he’s a Jack Russell Terrier.” Or if the new dog’s some undetermined mix, the owner will scrunch up his face like a Harvard grad who’s aware of the effect the Harvard namecan have, and say, “We don’t really know for sure. We haven’t done any genetic testing.”
Which is like, Alright buddy, keep on saving the world.
Lola and I go in through the double gate, and she runs to join the pack swirling around centercourt. Rosie, sniffing the wall, sees Lola and runs up to her and bows, then spins around and bows again. Lola takes the bait, chasing her around the edge of the park. They pass Ruby, who gets caught up in the chase and then turns on Lola, who has to slam on the brakes to avoid being caught, and almost runs into Rosie going the other way.
I give a wave to Ruby and Rosie’s owner, Jay, and walk over to say hello.
Dog and owner pairs come and go at regular intervals. The gate opens and a man in a suit walks in behind a big St. Bernard. He has earbuds in and he’s talking on the phone. He picks up a ball and waves it in front of the St. Bernard’s face and throws it. The dog doesn’t flinch.
“Any plans for the weekend?” asks Jay.
Mei and I are going out to the suburbs to celebrate her mom’s birthday. Jay asks if they’re pressuring us to have kids, and I feel my brows pinch. Did I tell him? But no, of course not. And he wouldn’t recognize Mei if he saw her on the street. I’m the morning walker.
“Not yet,” I say.
We’re interrupted by the man in the suit yelling through his headset.
“Well why the hell isn’t it on my calendar?” he says.
He leans down and guides his dog towards a potential playmate.
“Do you hear yourself? Why would I want to have that conversation?”
Jay and I look at each other like, Some people. I take out my phone to check the time. It’s just before 8 a.m. It’s too early to be yelled at, early enough that the person on the other end of the phone probably knew they were going to get yelled at when they woke up this morning. Hopefully it’s not his wife. A secretary. Maybe she, assuming it’s a she, gets yelled at every morning. Maybe she got yelled at on the first day of the job and thought, That’s just the way things are here.
I’m reminded of a story, which I whisper to Jay as we watch the man in the suit pace through the swirl of dogs. Mei’s med school had a cadaver lab, and at the end of the anatomy course, all of the donors’ families were invited to come speak at a ceremony in the school auditorium. Most people used their time to say they were thankful something good came out of their loved one’s death, maybe they told a quick story about a doctor who’d been helpful. One woman brought a stack of photographs that she went through one by one, using each to illustrate another of her husband’s qualities: here being generous, here empathic, etc. At first it was kind of heartwarming, even though we weren’t close enough to really see the pictures. Then her tone shifted. She said her husband deserved better than his last years had given him. He’d suffered tremendously. But wasn’t that the point? she asked us. Illness was profit. The goal was to treat, not cure. We rustled awkwardly as an administrator tried and failed to guide her offstage. Her husband was a brilliant man. We owed him this time. She gripped the podium like a bereaved Mussolini until the last deathbed picture was turned over. Then she smiled, waved, and walked calmly back to her seat.
“People have no self awareness,” says Jay.
The man in the suit laps the park and comes to a stop a few feet from us. He looks at us and rolls his eyes as he points to his earbuds.
We both nod.
“I think that’s my cue,” says Jay.
Like, Don’t involve us in your bullshit, man.
Jay calls Ruby and Rosie, and I call Lola, and we leave the park together and then go our separate ways.
Are they pressuring us to have kids?
Lola and I cross the street and pass the basketball court to our left, the house with the rainbow flag to our right. Beyond the basketball court, I see the defaced tennis court. Trump eats babies. As we turn onto the street next to ours, I dial city services and navigate to a live person.
“Hello,” I say. “I’d like to report a graffiti.”
At home, I check in on Mei to make sure she’s fallen asleep. Then I pour Lola a bowl of food and head into the spare bedroom.
A boxed crib lies propped against one wall, a pollen-dusted post-it stuck on top reading, Build me. The crib needs to be moved to storage, but I haven’t been able to find the time.
I journal now. That was our therapist’s advice. If you can’t say it, write it down. Today I write, Mei got home around 6:30 and Lola and I woke up…
Then I begin to labor through the morning emails. I consult for small businesses, installing and testing network security software. It’s self-directed work; I’m salesperson, technical support, and account services rolled into one. The only immediate item today is a suspicious email forwarded – stupidly – for me to decide whether it’s an attempt at phishing.
I’m most productive when I take frequent breaks. Lola lies in a patch of sun below the open window while I walk around the apartment, or stretch and refill my water bottle, or sometimes just stand and look at my phone.
I’m doing just that when I realize the room has filled with smoke.
It’s like when you’re in the shower and the water turns from hot to scalding. I’ve been smelling smoke for a while without noticing, and suddenly it’s too smoky not to notice.
I run to the kitchen and open the oven, open the apartment door and sniff the staircase. It’s not in our building. I go back into the spare bedroom and look out onto the street. Lola puts her paws up on the window sill beside me. A woody skein is winding towards us over the park, but I can’t see anything more specific. I walk around the apartment shutting windows and crack our bedroom door to make sure Mei’s still asleep before heading up to the roof.
On my way upstairs, I search the Twitter feeds for the Boston fire and police departments, but there’s nothing there. Nothing under local news. The air is thicker on the roof and Lola doesn’t want to follow me, so I prop the door and walk to the edge on my own. Across the park, a building is one fire. Three spouts of charcoal smoke gush from the top row of windows, combine, and spread into the morning sky. I trace the smoke as it rises. It has an urgency almost, like it’s escaping the fire, hurtling up and then, more slowly, out.
The park laid out beneath me is quiet. A mother pushes a stroller along the bike path. Two older women lob a ball back and forth across the tennis court. I wonder if they haven’t smelled the smoke. For a moment it feels like I’m the only one who’s noticed something’s wrong.
Finally there’s a siren in the distance, getting louder as its pitch slowly rises and fall, and then stops. From this angle, I can’t see down into the street across the park, but presumably the firemen have arrived. Lola whines behind me. I take her back down into the apartment and secure the roof door behind us.
There’s no point in sitting back down to work. There is a fire in the neighborhood, and I have to go see it. I text Mei, Fire in the neighborhood!, and hear her phone ping in the other room.
I check Twitter again while Lola pees in the gravel parking space, and @bostonfire finally has an update about an apartment fire a few blocks away.We head that way, passing the tennis court, where the game of lob is still in progress. No one’s been by yet to clean up the graffiti.
The fire is on a street that dead-ends against the far side of the park, nice old bow-fronted buildings with commanding entryways and a fenced strip of grass down the middle. Blue lights flash on the flowerbeds along the bike path, and Lola’s strides get shorter and shorter as we approach. Then turn onto the street and suddenly we’re up close to it, a different angle of the same three windows piping smoke and there, yes, a tongue of flame reaches out to scorch the brick.
Have you ever stopped to watch a fire? One Fourth of July when I was a kid, there was a fire in a house on the back side of the hill where we lived. A neighbor and I snuck away from our family barbeques and ran down to watch. We stayed until the firemen carried a woman out onto the crumbling porch and made us go home. We were told later on that she’d fallen asleep with a lit cigarette in her hand. Poof.
There’s no one to carry out here, it seems. Two gawkers stand by a wooden barrier halfway down the street, a police officer leaning against its far side. Lola and I walk over and join them. The firemen in their helmets and black and yellow jackets walk slowly back and forth between the fire engines and the building. One of them has his jacket open. Everything seems utterly normal.
If there were a fire in our building, Lola would bark and scratch at the bedroom door to wake up Mei, and we would help her dress and gather our essentials. I would hold Mei’s hand and carry Lola as we made our way outside, and everyone gathered to watch would break into applause when they saw us because we were so calm and so brave, and we finally would have suffered something public to match our private sense of tragedy.
Because you can talk about a fire. On those scattering aftermath days, people will want to know where you were, what you were doing. You’ll wait until you have the whole room’s attention, and then begin, On the day of the fire. You were barbequing. You were heating some water for tea, and you got a feeling in your gut that something just wasn’t right, and then the phone rang. The first kernel of the microwavable popcorn that you’d just popped into the microwave had just popped when you heard…
Lola stands and sniffs, and I look up to see the man in the suit from this morning. His St. Bernard is pulling on the leash, and he’s got his feet spread apart so he doesn’t get pulled over.
I bet he’s been walking around yelling at his phone this whole time.
He turns towards me, and I realize I’ve been staring. A light of cautious recognition comes over his face, and his hand comes up like he’s not even sure what it’s doing, and he gives me a little wave. Then my hand comes up, and I wave back.
About the Author:
Jeff Bakkensen lives in Boston. Recent work has appeared in A-Minor Magazine, Oblong Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, and The Antigonish Review.