I’ve seen shit burn. When I was 7, the church across the street from my parents’ house burned down to the bricks in the dead of winter. It was one o’clock in the morning when the bell tower went up in a giant fireball, a ferocious blossom of flame and light that illuminated treetops a block away. My brother and I sat on his bed and watched through the window. That thing exploded, bright as day, and the leftover structure toppled down through the collapsing roof. A mud-colored after-tower of smoke and shingles rocketed up through the hole just before the entire roof caved, a falling grid of fire, everything coming apart. We stared at the building as it turned into a yawning chasm of yellow flames.
On a frosty morning before school we dragged organ pipes out of the charred remains of the church, their alloy edges scraping loud-as-shit over the parking lot, then across the street to one of the side yards where we joined up with the neighbor kids. We made noise on those pipes with coins, nails, and screws, ting-ting-ing and tang-tang-ing away. We even blew across the tops of the pipes, trying to make a tone, the fog of our breath filling the air.
That spring, a basement apartment two doors down got burned out. I remember two kids from the neighborhood who ducked under the yellow tape and looted the place for two big gallon jars of peaches, home-canned. One of the kids lost a jar; it slipped from its precarious balance point on the handle bars of his BMX, dropped right onto the sidewalk in front of my parents’ house. I was throwing an old bowie knife at a chunk of particle board with my brother and a friend of ours. The wet, hollow shattering sound of the jar landing on the sidewalk made us look over at them. These two kids were shouting at each other about if and how they were going to clean up the mess of jar-glass and dirty peaches strewn across the sidewalk. Peach syrup was melding with the crud in the pavement. Time was passing too slowly. They got scared and scrammed.
They were a couple of scrappy, smudge-faced kids, but they had honor…enough to fight over wiping out their tracks…so my brother and I couldn’t beef with them. They were stealing so they could fucking eat. Besides, it seemed like there was always a random day around the corner when the cops crawled over that neighborhood like flies on shit…who knew when it was coming?
That same afternoon my brother, my friend and I hosed down the sidewalk. I didn’t mind. Two kids got to eat and no questions were asked. Not long after that an upper storey apartment on the back side of the block went up, too. Story was somebody was freebasing and got a little carried away. Didn’t add up in my head, though. I figured it was a drunk smoking on his bed. After they pulled him out a little corner of that building stayed wet and charred for weeks. You could smell it when you walked by. A vile, human smell, but burnt, hosed down, like wet dog mixed with old food smoking from the bottom of an oven… We didn’t want to know what it was, exactly. Same building where shots were fired in an argument about a cat. Fucking crackers, shooting each other over a cat that probably went splay-legged and shat diarrhea the moment it heard a gunshot. House cat, dead from a heart attack.
Later, on a gig in California, I shacked up in an old motel that had been converted to apartments. I was playing the lone wolf, and the nights I wasn’t with a girl I spent alone with my thoughts. Maybe I was trying to remember exactly how I ended up there…
Anyway, there was an evening when I gradually became narcotically sleepy while reading on my bed. The lights seemed to grow dimmer. I didn’t know what was going on. Feeling a mild need for fresh air, I opened my door. As I stepped out onto the balcony, smoke poured from the open doorway and mushroomed up under the eaves. Holy Fuck! I had just been in that. How the fuck…like a frog in a pot. It was the kid downstairs. He was a drug dealer, an alpha white boy with long hair, a hook nose, a big adam’s apple, and a booming, throaty baritone. He had locked himself in. Smoke seeped through the cracks at the edges of the windows… Charismatic mother fucker was a schizophrenic, clean off his meds. Smoking drugs and now afraid if he let anyone in the front door his whole life would get blown open.
A firetruck blasted into the parking lot. Then the cops came, then another firetruck rolled up. Cops and firefighters shouted this kid down from outside. He didn’t come out. One firefighter hatcheted the door and the other one kicked it in. They wrestled this kid in that hot, smoky hole of an apartment, and threw him out bodily onto the pavement. He was a big kid, and I watched him fly. When he hit pavement, he landed on a concrete parking slab, got the wind knocked out of him. But it wasn’t wind, it was fucking smoke. He burped out a cloud of smoke, right there in the parking lot while these firefighters ran into that place with their big hoses and soaked everything in there until the place was a char-hole. Then they put this kid into a squad car.
There was a huge fucking rainstorm that night. There’s no such thing as pathetic fallacy; that’s just what happened. I stood out on my balcony, doors and windows to my place swung wide open, chain-smoking Lucky Strikes, waiting for the smoke to clear from my place. I flashed on a conversation I’d had with the kid in the parking lot, right around New Year’s. “Happy New Year!” he’d said. “Year of the Monkey,” I said, “That means prosperity and chaos.” No fucking clue about the prosperity part…
And the next morning I woke up late, no work that day, lounging in bed, enjoying the after-cool of the rainstorm, lying there watching the palm trees sway a little in the park across the street, a parking lot and four lanes of traffic away…and I heard a voice from inside that char-hole beneath me, a boy’s voice, virginal, unchanged, like those children who sing in the King’s Choir at Oxford…saying “No, no…I won’t” And then I heard him, the dealer, in his huge, gravelly, booming baritone, “Let me in, goddammit; I’ve gotta get my shit outta there.” “No, you can’t. The police said you’re not supposed to do that.”
I put on a pair of shorts and walked out onto the balcony for a cigarette. As I lit up I could see the sunshine breaking, the first steam rising off the wet parking lot. It was cool now, but the day was gonna cook. Then I saw him, the kid, the dealer, out there in the lot, stooped, in the same smoky clothes from the night before, staring at the splintered, busted-in door to the char-hole apartment, with police tape all cockeyed everywhere. He was shouting now. And then, thin, lyrical, came this boy’s voice, “No don’t…please…you’ll ruin everything.” I saw the dealer, stooped over, but still as a statue. The voice was him. It was fucking him. He was throwing his voice. He was loco. And yet it was so beautiful, so well done, so perfectly performed…like listening to an overture for two lovers play from the inside of a statue.
I saw the flash of party lights on the asphalt. A squad car rolled up, red and blue reflecting off the pools of rainwater in the empty lot. No sirens, just the sound of wet tires turning on asphalt. By the time they got to this kid he could barely stand any more. He looked like some kind of martyr, his Jesus-hair blowing in the wind. The moment before they pushed his head down to clear the metal of the doorframe, he looked up at me. Our eyes locked. Okay; I got it. We are the same. Except our different locations in three-dimensional space we are the fucking same.
I finished my cigarette just as my right-side neighbor came out on the balcony with a forty in his hand. He was an older guy, white-haired, retired, wearing board shorts and flip flops and a tank top over his beastly, hairy, barrel-shaped torso. Burly. Almost fat. White bushes of armpit hair came out from his tank top.
He handed me the forty. I took a swig; this was the nature of our relationship. As I handed him back the forty he took one of those little shatter-proof plastic bottles of Christian Brothers out of his back pocket and handed it to me. “Try that. Take some a’ that.”
“That’s a boilermaker,” he said.
I swallowed again.
“Pretty good, huh?” he said.
My mouth formed into a line.
We watched the cop car turn out of the wet parking lot, rolling silent, lights flashing off the wet asphalt, steam rising, the Jesus-haired crazy kid in the back, us just the watchers.