Thoughts On The Dead

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The Bravest Of Little Aleppo

Tuesday afternoons are not the longest afternoons–those are Sundays–but they are the sleepiest and most mundane. Sunday afternoons are Texas, but Tuesday afternoons are Nebraska or Kansas or a perhaps a Dakota. If Tuesday afternoon were a dog, it would be a bloodhound napping on a wooden porch; were it a cat, it would be a dead cat. All of life is Saturday night, Sunday morning, and Tuesday afternoon.

But it’s mostly Tuesday afternoon.

The light on the Main Drag was slow and shafty and speckled, and pedestrians walked halfway into stores only to forget what they wanted, walk back out, remember, reverse path, forget again, decide to get coffee, forget where the coffee place was. Anatoly shut the grill down for the day at Anatoly’s American, and the Morning Tavern had slipped into a drunken meditation and was praying to gods with names no one could spell. Congo the elephant, Pax the dog, and all the other animals at Harper Zoo were napping. KSOS was airing reruns of that show where the wife is mean to the husband, and the housekeeper is mean to the both of them; KHAY was playing twenty-minute-long prog tunes because the deejay needed to go to the bathroom. No ships were unloading at the Salt Wharf, and no houseboats were on fire at Boone’s Docks. In fact, nothing at all was on fire. Which was odd, because something was always on fire in Little Aleppo.

At first, just the Segovian Hills, which were not named that at first. The Pulaski name for the mountains translated into something like There are ‘squatch up there; Jesus fucking Christ never, ever go up there, except it was a different god than Jesus and also it sounded a lot prettier. They lived between the hills and the harbor in kotchas made of strips of redwood bark and very rarely burned them down. If they did, it was no big deal: someone kicked the whole deal over and then everyone threw dirt on the smolder and made fun of the jackass who had burned his house down. Then, everyone helped build a new one. People looked forward to it, honestly. Something to do

But mostly the hills burned. It rains every 18 days in Little Aleppo, and by the 16th or 17th day during the summer the chaparral and scrub was dry and crinkly, and though there was not rain, there were clouds which sparked off heat lightning and CRACKAFWOOMP one of the seven peaks would alight. The fire would burn up and down. The Pulaski would bring their beds outside their kotchas and fall asleep watching a mountain eat itself.

The real fires didn’t start until the Whites arrived. They did not believe in a communal hearth, like the Pulaski, but in individual ones and also lanterns fueled with sticky, splattery oil; they smoked tobacco in ashy cigars; they had brought with them something called electricity and shared it with one another in wires that they let lay on unvarnished wood. In the mines of the Turnaway Lode, there were chemicals and gasses, and there was pressure and heat. Flare-ups and conflagrations, there were fires in Little Aleppo.

Once in a while, there were Fires. More than ten died and the word got capitalized and made memorial. The Wayside Fire, which took 38. The Zweitel Footwear Fire, which took 162. 27 died in the St. Florian’s Orphanage Fire and that one hurt the worst of all; nothing has been built on the site to this day, just a sculpture in an empty lot between two buildings on Olivera Street: a painted-shut window made from brass with a small hand against the glass.

At first, the neighborhood would form a bucket brigade from the lake to put out the flames, but very quickly this was not enough. Also, it turned out that the local bucket purveyor, Bucket Barney, was setting most of the fires in an effort to increase business. It was obvious to all that a professional fire department was needed, and no one did anything at all about until the lake was drained by the owners of the Turnaway Lode and they had to do something.

People do things when they have to, and not a second later.

But they don’t do things right, at least not at first. Little Aleppo needed a professional fire department, but what it got was gangs of yahoos in helmets ordered from Back East brawling in front of blazing structures. From the Upside, there were the Inferno Inhibitors; the Downside provided the Fuck Fire B’hoys. There were the Eighth Avenue Hose Monsters, and the Fantic Street Flame-Foulers. Two or more would pull up to every blaze with their horse-or-teenager-drawn water tanks and immediately start punching one another for the right to put out the fire. They rarely got around to putting out said fire, but always remembered to loot whatever was left.

Sustainability was not a concept in 1913. If it were, then the residents of the neighborhood would have called the firefighting situation unsustainable. Instead, the residents of Little Aleppo set an abandoned building on fire to lure in all the renegade fire gangs, beat the living shit out of all of them, stole their water tank wagons, and established an actual fire department. Funds were allocated, then stolen, and then re-allocated to build a firehouse on Alfalfa Street right off the Main Drag. There were interviews, and ten firemen (they were all men) were hired, and there was training. Stairs run up and down, spooling and unspooling. A week after the LAFD was formed, the bell rang in their new headquarters. This was the Zweitel Footwear Fire. Ten of the 162 who died were firemen.

The next day, the Town Fathers wired Back East for some Irishmen.

Dillon Kenny showed up first, and so he got to be the first Fire Chief. Technically, his mustache showed up first: it was as massive and red as the fires he had been hired to fight, and his head was shaved bald. This was not a common look in 1913, and his eyes were the same color blue as a cloudless morning; when he would get sooted up with ash, all you could see was red and blue and also the white of his teeth because the crazy motherfucker would laugh at the fires. Dillon Kenny was chief for a lot of reasons. The LAFD got good, fast.

He was unaged. 25? 55? Dillon Kenny’s face was so crackled and tanned from the heat of the fires he put out that you could not tell wrinkles from creases, and his eyelids were folded and sleepy except when he was working. He was a teetotaler, and an early proponent of exercise: he would force the department through daily calisthenics, and leave the garage doors open and cajole passersby into joining.

“You! Fatty! Come and do jumping jacks with us!”

Naturally, Little Aleppo loved him, and all of his firemen. Dillon’s Dousers, the local wags called them. Bartenders and whores gave them freebies, and none of them could pay for meals. Dillon Kenny preached one thing to his men: their lives are worth more than yours. The rich fuckers and the poor bastards; the junkies and the professors; the children and those that fucked children: it didn’t matter who they were. You didn’t ask. You ran into the building and you saved them. Saints or monsters, it did not matter, and you would never know. The job is to run into the burning building and save whoever was in there. If you had to die in the process: fine. That was the job. If you didn’t like it, then you could so something else. You could do something lesser. You could sell real estate, or socks. You could paint houses. You could be a cop. But, if you wanted to be a fireman–one of Dillon Kenny’s firemen–then you ran into the fucking building and checked every fucking room and every fucking closet, and under every fucking bed. Because that was the job.

Horses at first, great behemoths with shaggy fetlocks and wild eyes chained to giant water tanks and galloping down the Main Drag with a white dog spotted with black sprinting and barking in front. The dog was named Ash, and she was a mean little motherfucker. In 1921, the LAFD bought its first engine-powered firetruck, and Ash ran in front of that, too. The firemen rode on the rails of the truck, and the neighborhood would cheer them as they hit their top speed of 30 mph on their way to the fire. Chief Kenny drove–as fast as he could–and his Dousers hung off the engine clinging on to the ladders and hoses sprocketing the sides.

Ten had to die for a fire to become a Fire, except for the Ambrose Cafe Fire in 1938. The fryer went up–the cook was burned, but he ran out of the restaurant onto 16 Mantid Street with the waitresses and the customers and the manager. A man named Stamp Lovely owned the place with his wife, Berry, and it was their eleventh anniversary and they had taken a very rare night away from the Ambrose Cafe to celebrate. Stamp’s father was watching their two children in the apartment right upstairs. Stamp’s father had emphysema and used oxygen; there was a tank hanging off his wheelchair, and three extra in the front bedroom closet.

One of Dillon’s Dousers scooped up the old man and ran down the flaming stairs. Dillon Kenny was right behind him, but the steps FLAMPED up with red licking death and collapsed, so he ran to the open front window.

Little Aleppo caught the children.

The explosion blew the windows out of houses and cars for half-a-block, and every degree of burn was inflicted on the crowd below from screaming debris, and the building to the right of 16 Mantid Street buckled, and the building to the left caved. A sticky ash settled in the low sky until it rained a week later. The animals at Harper Zoo were completely ripshit for days. Half the neighborhood was half-deafened.

Only one dead, though.

There were no fires the night of Dillon Kenny’s wake. Perhaps out of respect, perhaps out of self-preservation: Dillon’s Dousers were all violently drunk and crying with their fists.

A figure was added to the memorial on Olivera Street. There was the window made of brass, with its joins painted over and sealed shut, and a child’s hand–just the hand–pressed against the glass from the inside. And now there was a man on the other side. Fist raised, about to smash the window open. He was made of copper and tarnished very quickly so that the two parts of the memorial were different colors, and the arm that was raised had a metal cuff of a firefighter’s coat folded about the elbow. His customary firefighter’s helmet was worn far back on his head so that you could see it was shaved bare, and his mustache had not oxidized and was still the color of a brand-new penny. It would always remain so; metallurgists puzzled, but preachers understood.

Flower Childs was not Dillon Kenny in almost every way. She was not dead, for one. She also did not have a mustache. Flower Childs had been the LAFD’s first female recruit, and then the first female fireman (Flower did not give a shit about fighting for titles), and now she was the first female Fire Chief. The neighborhood did not love her like they did Dillon Kenny, either. They respected and feared her, and they thought she was a bitch.

She was 6’1″ and 200 pounds, and had absolutely no sense of humor about her name: Flower had punched a Town Father once for a mild quip about it, and he was giving her a medal at the time. (Her popularity spiked intensely after that episode for a few weeks.) Her father thought he was funny, ha ha ha, and so she was Flower Childs.

The engine whipped down the Main Drag, and she gaped at it. It was the most impressive thing she’d ever seen: loud and fast and spectacularly red and shiny.

“I’m gonna do that when I grow up,” a young Flower Childs said to her father.

“No, sweetie. You’re a girl. Firemen are boys.”

Flower Childs did not die in the line of duty. She passed in a hospital bed in St. Agatha’s at the age of 97, surrounded by her family and her firehouse. And at the point of her dying, she recalled her father’s face when she answered him,

“If I had a dick, I’d tell you to choke on it. I’m gonna be a fucking fireman.”

She was a good fucking fireman, too. Flower Childs was brave and strong, and she volunteered for the dirty jobs and did not complain no matter what. The other firemen gave her shit, and she did not complain no matter what. One grabbed her ass, and she broke his jaw but still did not complain. Flower would ratchet open doors to search bedrooms, and she would descend into gas-filled basements with her air-mask on to cold-weld broken gas pipes shut. She was passed over for Chief twice, both times to idiots who got themselves and others killed, and when she got the job she retrained the force viciously. Flower Childs sent her firemen out of state to train with the best in the world, and accepted nothing but compete effort in her men and in herself, and though she now sat in the shotgun seat of the firetruck alongside a dog named Ash-Nine, she still was the first through the door and the last out of the building. Flower Childs had carried 21 men, women, and children out of fires; they all blended into one. Thirteen men, eight women, and five children had died while she had been with the LAFD; she could recite all their names.

But Flower Childs did not have a mustache, and so the neighborhood respected her, and feared her, and called her a bitch.

The trucks were out on the driveway of the firehouse on Alfalfa Street right off the Main Drag. The company had two probationary officers called probies, and they were washing the trucks and making them as red as humanly possible. Firetrucks need to be washed constantly. There were three: a ladder truck with its runged proboscis atop, and the pumper bristling with attachments and brass doodads, and the Chief’s car. It was a Ford Mustang SPP painted red with white stripes. The Town Father that Flower Childs had punched bought it for her after he saw the polls. It was a two-door with a 460 cubic inch engine that could do 140 mph, and it had a cherry-colored lightbar on the roof and a siren that screamed loud enough to wake Foole’s Yard. The company used it to run errands and pick up groceries. Flower rode in the truck.

Children dragged their parents by the hand towards them, drawn to the massive machines that sat quiet but could be so loud, and parents followed them, drawn to their own abandoned dreams, and also young and hunky probie firemen wearing wet tee-shirts. Flower Childs kept one eye on them, and read the Cenotaph with the other; she kept her nose in the air sniffing for fire, but could not smell anything wrong. Something would go wrong soon. Something would go horribly wrong soon. But for now it was Tuesday afternoon, and nothing was going down at all in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

2 Comments

  1. SmokingLeather

    July 12, 2017 at 9:11 pm

    I think I’m turning into a child or a woman. This must be the 7th time I’ve cried at your storys in as many days.
    Beautiful as always.

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