The 727 Cat
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The 727 to center city is a quiet train, and on it each passenger is pressed tight within their morning routine: a Wall Street Journal balanced on the lap, Christina Ward by way of headphones or just staring, sleeping with the eyes open, and pretending that the empty seat beside them is occupied. That is until two noisy women boarded the train at North Broad.
“I kept telling her to jump,” shouts the first woman, dressed tight against the bitter cold in an Eagles parka.
“Why?” asks her companion.
“Cause she got a balcony below her,” continues the first.
They are large women, struggling as much with the cold as the effort of boarding the R6. Nylon ruffles against the doorway as they pass by; a grunt can be heard from the first woman as she sits down, and the second woman exhales loudly before taking the front seat, as if she were emptying a tank of very cold air from her lungs.
“You seen the flames lickin’ out?”
“I did,” says the first woman, the storyteller.
“So much smoke, somethin’ awful,” says the second woman; she is nearly shouting and as she does so, her red braids swing in an arc above her thick collar.
“I said jump Esi, jump.”
“Could you see her?”
“I seen her hands, almost like she’s waving at me.”
A woman with a tweed jacket and hat adjusts herself in her seat. Her hat is angled to the side, so that no one can see her nervous eyes; the woman in tweed scoots herself closer to the window. She has positioned herself at maximum distance from any strangers, especially large boisterous ones with stories to tell; and she thinks that the briefcase she’s placed on the seat will protect her from the possibility of anyone sitting beside her. There is talk of fire in the air; it prickles her ears until she feels flush beneath her reddish curls. She glances anxiously at the two women. The window is cold but she leans against it, feigning sleep, as if this will protect her from the tragedy on North Broad Street.
“Why you tell her to jump?”
“I told you, she got a balcony below her,” says the storyteller.
“Wouldn’t she die if she jumped?”
“No, no, maybe she’d break a leg but that’s better than burning.”
“Mmm, yeah, anything better than that.”
The woman with braids stretches her left arm, extending into the space behind her. The man sitting there looks up and catches a quick expression on the woman’s face, that of anger and disgust. He takes the look to be directed at himself and quickly looks away. She has no idea about his fears; she’s far too engrossed in the story to care about anything else. “What happened then?” she asks as she caresses her hands for warmth.
“This man on the street, he pulled right up in the grass,” the storyteller says, slapping the seat and startling a woman across the aisle.
“A fireman?” asks the woman with braids.
“No, no, this like when it first got started. Just some man in a truck.”
“I don’t know, didn’t look like it, but he jumps out his truck and hands me a phone, says call fire.”
“So I did, I called 911,” says the storyteller, “You know, ‘cause he couldn’t speak English too good.” She rolls her tongue across her teeth and gums, humming in a disappointed tone. Her lips pucker out as she does this.
A young executive wearing high heels reads a passage from her Cosmopolitan magazine again and again. She can’t stop herself from eavesdropping but feels inclined to use her magazine as a buffer zone; she is not the type that likes to get busted for staring, even if it is only with the ears; but she has fallen away from the article about safe tanning methods for winter and finds herself transported by this story of a fire at North Broad. She feels as if she’s standing in the cold with the two women, staring up at a building as foreign to her own home as Jakarta, Camden or even Cambria Street.
“Was the whole building burning?”
“No, everyone’s on the street. I only seen her room on fire.”
“Did she stay at the window?”
“Couldn’t tell,” says the storyteller, “then I seen her again, just her hands. Smoke thick as anything now.”
“Lord help her, poor thing.”
“I keep screaming for her to jump. And Jayson tells me he tried to break her door down.”
Wearing a silver bow tie loose around his neck, a man with a mole on his chin watches the woman with braids stare at the storyteller’s face, wild-eyed and intent on every word – for it is here within the deep trenches of her cheeks, the spittle on her purple lips, and the way her eyelids are twitching: this is the fire burning in a high-rise. The flames dance as new-born wrinkles from the corners of her mouth.
Shadows cross her eyelids as she tells the story. A dark apartment complex, the lighting twitching in the hallway as brave young men try to warn those who might still be sleeping, unaware of the fire in 715B. Despite their screams in the corridors, the complex is quiet; it is still early in the morning and most who live here are retired or unemployed. It is quiet in the hallways without the ring of a fire alarm; quiet because all the residents have left but one. Smoke tapers from beneath a door, creeping along the soiled carpet like gray fingers – vacant and deadly at once. Something cackles behind the door at 715B, the snapping sound of wood being tasted by a building fire, a tapestry being consumed as an appetizer by the fire behind the door.
“Then I see hands pokin’ out of the smoke with her cat,” says the storyteller.
“You couldn’t see nothing else?”
“No, nothing, but I seen her drop that cat and hell if it didn’t screech all the way down.”
“The yellow cat?”
“Didn’t he take apart a pit bull?”
“No but he made it cry”
“That cat has lived some lives in its day,” says the storyteller.
“Sounds like it," says the woman with braids, “He make it safe?”
“Best I could tell he landed on the balcony.”
“She must’ve been waitin’ to find him.”
“No,” says the storyteller, closing her eyes for a second. She takes a deep breath and sighs.
“No? asks the second woman. “Didn’t she get out then?”
“I kept yelling jump Esi, jump.”
The fire continues to play out on the storyteller’s face. Through it, a fire engine makes its approach to the scene, still eight blocks distant. On her forehead, furniture and drywall ignite at a furious pace, the curtains blaze and the front door burns like some kind of horror film portal. Her features reflect the inside of the apartment where a television is tuned into Sesame Street; Big Bird is talking to Oscar about the number 11. Some toys are setting in front of the television, still brimming with the energy of a young child’s touch but deserted now. There is laughter in the living room coming from the television.
No one is looking at the storyteller. Everyone listens. No one looks.
“They couldn’t break it down?” asks the woman with braids.
“No, they tried. Said she’s got a steel door.”
“Do you think she could hear you?”
“Oh yes, lord, she heard.”
Pale and drained, the storyteller’s face has gone blank. There is a long pause in the track of the fire as she rubs her temples with thick callused fingers. For those who are listening and pretending that they’re not, and for those who cannot help but follow this story but imagine that it isn’t worthy of their time, they are left in a state of suspended animation – the morning news report at Allegheny Station has suddenly gone off the air. How will they e-mail their friends about this account without a conclusion? Every passenger is an actor of disinterest, pretending not to care, but in truth, the peripheral energy of each passenger – straining ear and eye muscles to capacity, is enough to freeze an interstate with a traffic jam of rubberneckers for hours. This is a highway crash, a six car pileup and although no one would admit to it, everyone listens carefully. As snow melts from their boots, the train’s passengers are left breathing warm balmy air, a forced calm, within the eye of a storm.
The storyteller resumes her story. Her hands reach for the air with each finger stretched as far apart as she can manage; it’s as if she’s about to preach or break down in tears, but she can only hold the position for a few seconds before her arms collapse at her sides, limp and unanimated.
“Sharita told me she had bars on the windows,” says the storyteller.
“Bars? Why? She on the Seventh floor.”
“For her grandbabies,” says the storyteller, shaking her head, “She baby-sits all the time.”
“How many kids she have?”
“Her babies all grown up but she’s got grandbabies, four or five I believe.”
“You think any were in there?” asks the second woman as she zips her jacket down below her breasts.
“No,” says the storyteller, “I don’t know, maybe, it’s been so long since I’ve seen her.”
The train conductor passes through the car. As he punches tickets, he leaves a little trail of paper holes in the aisle. He doesn’t seem to notice the fire in the front seat, a steady flame from the storyteller’s mouth – but the passengers can see it reflected in the windows, plain as day. The fire is fueling itself on the adipose of her chin; it’s reached bone now and burns until the stubble there is nothing more than crisp twirls. Her mouth bellows with the oxygen this fire seeks. The blaze races up the sides of her face. Please help me, she says with the lines of her face and to see this is to see something like a life-size animatronics doll speaking to you in slow, stammering speech – a broken voice box that has consumed too much smoke, too much fire. Her mouth continues to work like that of a ventriloquist’s dummy, the wood jaws chattering with only the resonance of flames, blue, orange and red, licking up the sides, consuming every inch of wood, flesh and anything else that stands in the way.
“Those bars permanent?”
“Yes,” says the storyteller.
“Can’t open the windows?”
“You can, but them bars are mounted on the outside.”
“Think you could squeeze between?”
“Please girl,” says the storyteller, “she’s no broomstick; hell, I’m not sure if even a child could slip through.”
And now the fire has spread; it has jumped from the storyteller’s mouth into the ears of an eavesdropping crowd, to be exchanged as water cooler fodder, lunchtime small talk and even train chatter for those who are continuing past Market East. But for some the fire has sparked on their brain and it burns bright and furious in their minds.
For a number of passengers the images are very clear; this is true of the older man with gray hair poking out beneath his blue stocking cap. He can feel the fire sizzling in his own brain pan. He imagines the kitchen wall with smooth blue tile, a collection of iron pots hanging from a hook, a photo of the family reunion; and behind that wall, an outlet –ancient and faulty, causing an electrical fire that eats its way from the wood framing to the drywall above.
“Did it seem like a bad fire?” asks the woman with braids.
“Of course, you saw it, you were standing there too.”
“I know, but I haven’t seen a lot of fires, maybe this wasn’t too bad.”
“Girl, there ain’t no good fires, ever.”
A nurse, dressed for work at Temple, has her own version of the story. She has seen too many burn victims during her time with emergency room pediatrics; she is fixated on the tale. What if there’s a child in that fire? Will she be able to stay out of reach long enough for the firemen to arrive; and even if she does, will the superheated smoke slash the lining of her lungs? Will she die, paralyzed, coughing up black phlegm and blood before the flames ever reach her? In her mind she imagines a girl trapped in the fire with her grandmother.
“How long did it take the engine to get there?” asks the second woman. She stoops down to tug at the Velcro on her boots.
“I heard the sirens and I thought, oh lord, what happened.”
“I don’t know,” says the storyteller, “even when they got there, they took their merry old time rolling into the apartment.”
Crossing his arms across his chest, a man wearing a black Fubu jacket with bushy eyebrows stares at the seat in front of him. His eyes blaze with recognition, anger even, as he runs his hand across a broad jaw line with terrible scars. He imagines the fire being set by juveniles smoking crack in an adjacent apartment; eight of them living in an apartment vacated by one of the punk’s deceased grandmothers; eight of them earning enough money for their persistent habits by small-time drug running and South Street hustling; eight of these punks with no clue as to what was going on in the outside world, how much effort had been delivered by parents and teacher alike to keep them straight, to give them an opportunity for something better than this. But they are happy, high all day – cooking only when absolutely necessary and sitting in a dark apartment by candlelight for lack of electricity. They are a small worthless gang with no idea that their state of semi-consciousness has crossed into an six month streak; that one of them will be dead by gunshot within the next year, that another is carrying lice at this very moment and that all of them, all eight punks, are responsible for having left a candle by a curtain until a spark becomes a flame and the inferno runs rampant across curtain, wall and apartment alike; these worthless boys are responsible for the fire that will spread through a heating vent and trap someone else, an older woman and her three grandbabies, in her 7th floor apartment.
“How long she live there?” asks the woman with braids.
“Long time,” answers the storyteller, her voice hoarse and broken.
“Like ten years?”
“I imagine,” says the storyteller, closing her eyes again, “she been there since that place opened … maybe 12 years ago. She rarely ever left.”
“I used to see Esi at church.”
“Yeah,” says the storyteller, “that’s really the one time she left her apartment.”
The man in black scratches below his nose; he imagines one of the punks stumbling home and ignoring the crowd outside. He can only think about his stash in the apartment. The elevator is broken and so he runs up the stairs until he reaches the seventh floor exhausted and sweating profusely. It’s incredibly hot in the hallway. He hears a woman’s scream as he approaches 715B; television no doubt, he thinks, having heard the sounds of Jerry Springer’s guests in the hallway many times before. As he starts to step away, the door opens; a woman is kneeling there with her hair and face on fire. She looks like she’s made of wax and something smells awful. He thinks he’s about to flee but the fire has sensed the hallway … fresh oxygen and fuel abound in the corridor … the fire rushes out to eat it. The punk doesn’t even have a chance to blink before he’s on fire. He turns to run. He trips. He burns.
“Did you see her again?” asks the woman with braids.
“Once, for a second and then the whole place went up.”
“Bars on the windows,” repeats the storyteller, pulling her thick hood back on.
“Shame, terrible shame.”
“It sure is, yes it is.”
The train rumbles on, silent once again. Passengers sit tight within their routines as a story lingers in the air like the smell of burnt tires. A man resumes reading his Time magazine. An iPod is rescued from its holding pattern in pause. A woman stares at a steel window frame. The next station is two minutes away. The fire burns on and on.