There was smoke and the fucking thing went off and he had to disconnect it and he broke it. Poor fucking design, that's what kept them selling. The little plastic hooks the housing hung from got soft and failed as anyone could see they would. A fifteen cent latch a far superior mechanism but then they would not break after four openings and few would be sold.
He needed a working one. He needed to know a working one was downstairs though he reminded himself there was a time when such alarms did not exist. When he was a kid no one had one because they did not exist. And remember this—when he was a kid, everyone smoked all the time.
Things burned of course.
That, and people died. Not everybody. Not every day. Now and then. As now. He wasn't sure if more died then or now. It was one of those things—he had not been paying attention.
If his house went up in the night, you understand, he did not want to burn or choke and die. If it were working, he might have a chance. Without it, he suspected he would have no chance whatsoever.
He feared sometimes he'd never wake up.
Or he'd wake up and suffer horribly in horror until his agonizing end.
It had happened to others and he knew he was no better than them.
And no stronger. If he were strong enough, that might help, but he was not.
One was overcome, you know.
That was how it happened.
He remembered the crazy bastard he'd found on a bus stop bench when he was 16, 17 years old. The crazy bastard called out to him, begged him to help. Help? This guy was fifty, sixty years old. The crazy bastard wanted help getting to his house, a rickety depression brick model maybe two hundred feet from the bench. The crazy bastard was drunk or crazy or both but he half-carried the bastard to the house and got the bastard stretched out on the couch and in the course of it noticed how emaciated and sallow—jaundiced—the bastard was and he knew the bastard would be dead soon.
A dying old bastard.
The house crammed with stacked newspaper and shitty church sale furniture.
The old bastard asked him to go to the gas station and buy some cigarettes—Chesterfields or some fucking brand nearly extinct even then. He did it and when he got back, the crazy bastard told him a confused tale about some woman the bastard had done everything for who had inevitably taken everything and left now that the bastard was sick and helpless.
Even at 15 or 16, he knew the bastard's self-pity was infinite. The bastard talked while he studied the faded paint visible between the stacks of newspaper. Then he left.
The bastard asked him to stay. He was as happy leaving that house as he was leaving any house.
If he needed help, whom would he beg?
If he'd learned anything about begging, it was to leave the self-pity out of it.
And the bums.
He'd heard some guys burned one down at the river. Poured gas over him and lit him up. Back in the time of the crazy bastard. All the bum stories then, the quasi-mythical yet frequently seen bums of that time as disposable as children in fairy tales.
Worked then as a dishwasher in a hospital in a bad area. A building abandoned maybe nearby or maybe still renting in its near total decay.
Bums stayed there.
And it burned. Somebody said the bums lit it on fire when they were drunk. On purpose or by accident was unclear. Two killed too drunk to notice or too drunk to leave. They found one, it was said, in a front room dead of smoke inhalation.
But the other.
The other, the story went, realized there was a fire so he filled the bathtub and got in, not realizing the water would heat. And it did. To a boil.
Word was when they found him he had split like an overcooked hot dog.
He did not know if that could happen. And why bums anyway? And all this past? Hadn't he slipped two of them down on the flats when he was 11, two he feared wanted to fuck him?
When he was 17, they were trying to force his father out at work by humiliating his father.
His father walked in the door one night and said, They burned me down, burned me down like a paper doll.
Remember that Old Hot Dog?
Not long after, he left the house and never saw his father again.
He wheezed and drank and drank and wheezed and glanced at his swollen, sallow face in the mirror.
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