Suburban Soliloquy #57

A Warm Evening

It was 1978 and I was living with my first wife, Matsui-san, in Queens, New York. It was a Thursday and I had stopped after work at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) to meditate on the giant diptych of water lilies by Monet. Then I sat in the museum's Sculpture Garden drinking a dark German beer until Matsui-san joined me. We were both tired, so we grabbed the E or F train and went straight home. The night before we had been up late enjoying The Mikado at Lincoln Center, performed by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, with John Reed. Midnight the night before we were still in Manhattan drinking Champagne.

So that day we didn't linger in the City, but reached home early. I was too tired to change from the pants I wore to work, the offices of Sears, Roebuck & Company, to my comfy jeans. We both came home quite prepared to sleep. That is when we heard children's voices screaming in the hallway.

They were running up and down the hall screaming. It sounded like they were shouting "Fire." I went to the door and opened it just in time to see two chubby Korean kids, naked exept for towels grasped in place, running past. They were followed by an elderly fat woman. At first I thought she was chasing them, perhaps because she wanted them to wear clothes. The old woman could not speak English and was in fearful tears. The kids stopped, turned, the older one pointed past me and shouted, "FIRE!" I turned to look the other way down the hall. The door at the end of the hall was wide-open and black smoke came billowing out, rolling along the hallway's ceiling.

I came in and told Matsui-san, "There's a fire." I told her to call the fire company, but she was afraid of being misunderstood over the telephone because of her accent. So I called while she started water running at full force in the kitchen sink and bathtub. She pulled the mop bucket out of the closet, the largest pot out from under the sink. The Korean woman cried nervously in my ear as I gave the address to the dispatcher. I told the kids to stay in our apartment. As soon as I was finished with my telephone call, I grabbed the pail in the sink and ran down the hall. I met Matsui-san running back from having made the first dousing.

The fire was in their kitchen, which was pitch-black with smoke. Breathing was near impossible and very painful. Our eyes were blinded by stinging tears. Still, after passing into the blackness and getting much closer, I could see the flames climbing up two walls like a yellow waterfall turned upside down. The heat was incredible. I examined the layout for the best target. The stove appeared the source, the cabinets above it wore a fuzzy coat of flames. Before I tossed the water, the thought flashed, what a mess the water will make. Then I tossed it. The water hit the flame and there was an explosion followed by hissing. My limited view of the fire disappeared behind steam. Although blind to my surroundings, I knew my way out of the kitchen. That's when I discovered the bathroom adjacent to the kitchen, it had a bathtub filled with water. The naked children had been bathing. After my second dousing using water from the tub, Matsui-san returned with water from our apartment. I showed her the nearby tub. She filled the pot and pail from the kids' bath and passed them to me. I threw them at the fire in the adjacent room and passed them back. We ended the fire. I was in my bare feet.

Smoke had filled the hallway, and since our apartment door was the only door opened, the smoke turned into our apartment and filled our rooms. My good pants were soaked and Matsui-san and I were covered with ash and soot. The neighbour's kitchen was devastated. There was a black hole in the ceiling. I could now see the story. The curtain from the kitchen window had been blown by the wind until they caught on the flame at the stove.

Concerned about the possibility that the fire might still be burning in the walls and ceiling where I couldn't see it, I ran upstairs to make sure everything in the apartment above was all right. Upstairs I found the apartment over the fire occupied with a Hispanic family. Their door was also wide-open and the mother was in the doorway crying. She ran to me and begged me to make her son call the fire department. There was smoke coming up through the floor of her kitchen. Her son, the only other member of her family at home that day, was on the telephone speaking to a friend, apparently asking for advice? I explained to both of them that the fire department had been alerted, meanwhile the fire was out, that I had only come upstairs to be sure everything was okay.

Their small apartment was stuffed with thousands of valuable bric-a-brac. The décor reminded me of a Victorian household and I wondered how many of the objects were heirlooms or memories. All of their investments and collected life had been at risk. They were glad by my being the herald of good news. I suppose they were not angry that I walked across their rug with feet wet and black.

I returned to the fifth floor to change my pants. My office pants were soaked. Our apartment was still filled with the fire's smoke. Matsui-san had stayed at the burnt apartment keeping a watchful eye on the site to be sure it didn't re-ignite, but then the superintendent arrived. He thanked Matsui-san and sent her back to our apartment. I went down to check our handiwork. The superintendent thanked me as well. I wanted to inspect the kitchen, but he stood in my way. Nevertheless, I pushed my way past him. I turned off the knobs on the gas stove and then I left.

It was about this time the elevator door opened and I could see it crammed with firemen dressed like fishermen prepared for a winter storm, but armed with axes and picks. They fell out. They then tried to get into our apartment thinking the fire was there, because that was where the smoke gathered. Matsui-san was trying to keep them out. I went back to the burnt apartment to make sure the fat woman was all right. She was next door with another Korean neighbour and the neighbour translated. She was okay and very thankful, but the superintendent had chased the two kids out of our apartment and she didn't know where they were. I ran downstairs to search for them.

Fire engines filled the street and many people had gathered. They stood under our window. "5G" a guy told me with a scowl, not realizing it was my apartment. They thought the fire was coming from our apartment and that we were jerks. I was embarrassed and explained the only reason smoke was coming from our window was because we were the only ones who responded, that we put the fire out. Everyone else hid behind closed doors. We had no assistance. I didn't find the kids. Turned out they were still upstairs.

Later, I borrowed a fan to blow the smoke out of our rooms. Matsui-san and I showered. My hair was brittle and dry - I had more hair in those days. It occurred to me only then how dangerous hair can be near a fire. Next time, if there has to be a next time, I will soak my hair before entering the scene of a fire.

After we were cleaned, as clean as could be - the most difficult thing being to clean the black soot deep in our nostrils - we took each other out for dinner. It was a celebration because we felt ourselves heroes, a perfect team working smoothly together. Neither of us had been scared nor panicked. Wide awake, for any feelings of sleep had been banished, we saluted and complimented each other. "A toast," I announced, "to the Matsui-Bentzman Fire Brigade," and we drank. Matsui-san told me how she had asked a fireman how to get the smoke out of our apartment because they managed to get the hall cleared so fast. Try as she might, the fireman entirely misunderstood, and thinking she was worried said, "Don't worry Miss, the fire is out." She was offended. The idea was laughable. Of course the fire was out, she put it out! We both felt guilty because we had fun fighting the fire.

The family of the burnt apartment moved out permanently. Perhaps they had been invited to leave. The father did visit us a few days later to bring us a bottle of Johnny Walker.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is the fifty-seventh in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is now available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"