Joseph M. Barbato
The building is burning and I’m inside. Somewhere on the townhome’s third floor a small girl is screaming. She won’t live unless we find her.
We’re two in and two out. The guys outside unroll a hose and hit hot spots, and the new guy is with me. We’re in full turnout gear: yellow helmet and face shield, hood, gloves, jacket, pants, and breathing apparatus. A thirty-pound tank and a bag of rope are strapped to my back. I carry an axe.
The first sweat soaks my cotton undershirt at the neckline. Resting between my collarbones, hanging from a simple silver chain, is my medal. Other guys in the company have medals too, the favorite Saint Florian, patron of firefighters. He saved a town from burning with one miraculous bucket of water. Still, some of them call me superstitious; the same ones who refuse to wear new socks to a call, or have to wear a particular cap during a ballgame. We all have our rituals, our traditions, our beliefs.
* * *
Saints were superheroes and we traded holy cards like baseball cards. Adults told us the prayers on the back were important, but we knew better. The pictures fascinated us: A man holding a knife and his own skin; a soldier alive but shot through with arrows; an angel crushing the devil’s head under his firm heel, sword ready for the final strike. There were others, more pious and less exciting, but they were harder to trade. We created our own litany of saints by trumping each other’s holy MVPs. I took them off-guard one afternoon with Joseph of Cupertino, a rookie.
They all wanted to know who he was, some guessing it was just another Francis of Assisi. But the saint leaned in mid-air above a wisp of incense, hovering over an altar, arms outstretched and hands open. He was a wide receiver leaping to catch a Hail Mary long-bomb, or a star forward poised for the ally-oop dunk. I explained that he could fly, leaving out that everyone thought he was dumb because he walked around with his mouth open all the time. My grandmother, supplier of my holy card collection and other religious stuff, often told me these stories. This one was about a boy who paid so much attention to God that he would float in ecstasy. I didn’t follow beyond the he-could-float part. Of course, she hoped I would be a priest, and I think she told me about Joseph of Cupertino because I wasn’t a smart kid and was often distracted. He became my hallmark saint. No one else had his card, so I put him against whatever my friends slapped on the table. He won most times because he could fly, a gift that went beyond the cards for me.
At recess, we would race to be the first at the swings. There were only four, meaning that some days you got lucky and some days you didn’t. For a reason I can’t remember, we called saints. Michael always got picked, but I most often called Cupertino as I twisted into a curved seat and grabbed tight to the thick chains. The names were like wings, and we pumped and pulled ourselves over the top bar, where the tension on the chains slackened for an instant before snapping tight again with our descent. When we couldn’t go any higher, we jumped forward, yelling out the name of our saint before falling to the grassy ground below. Cupertino was hard to get out fast, so I shouted a long “cooper” on the downswing, and “tino” as I let go.
* * *
At the top of the stairs to the second floor, we crouch low beneath the hanging smoke. It is hotter here than on the ground floor, although there are no flames. The new guy breaks a window, and the smoke drifts out and up. I signal to move on, to the third floor and the girl. Small flames dance on the steps before the top landing. Two doors flank the stairs on either side: two bathrooms, two bedrooms. Black air roils and billows, filled with the hiss, pop, and creak of a structure fire. Heat shimmers where thick fingers of flame grasp upward along the walls toward the attic.
The best of us develop a cautious respect for fire. We joke that if we end up in hell, at least we’ll be in familiar surroundings. But in the moment it is as unpredictable and alive as a dangerous animal. It moves, grows, and reproduces. It consumes and creates waste. It breathes and it dies. Over time, we get used to how it burns, like the way it climbs across a building’s wooden framing, or spreads like water across pooled accelerant. Some of us can anticipate color and texture, whether oscillating wrinkles in a blue and yellow quilt or turbulent plumes of orange. It is as if all flame behaves with a common memory.
* * *
I remember afterwards-—the hospital, the cast, the stern relief of my parents. I get the rest from recountings. We laugh now when we tell it because things are better than they were then, and we’re older. Even without a true memory of it, I know I did it. I can put myself there like my kid brain was busy absorbing details, not planning an escape.
Cartoons kept me occupied most summer afternoons in our small second-floor apartment. I sat on the mottled brown carpet eating crackers and milk. It was part of the routine when I didn’t go to school. Dad came home early that day, and they argued in the small kitchen. It was hushed at first, until Dad slammed a drink down on the tabletop. It spilled onto the table—-the sort of thing that should have made them stop arguing and start smiling. But Dad had lost his job as a security guard, and no one was laughing. I tried to drown them out with the volume from the television. Dad yelled at me to turn-it-down-or-turn-it-off. I turned it down.
They got loud enough to wake my little sister from her nap. She cried from our bedroom. Mom should have settled her down, but that day my sister’s screams were just background noise. So I skirted past my parents and into the bedroom. She didn’t stop, but at least someone was paying attention to her. I helped her climb out of her crib, and we stood there a moment, our parents’ words settling on our little shoulders. My sister continued whimpering. I grabbed Green Bunny, her favorite stuffed animal, and pulled her across the room to my bed. During thunderstorms I hid under it. She watched me drop to my stomach and army-crawl beneath the mattress. I turned around to find her eyes brimming with tears. Even Green Bunny couldn’t coax her into hiding with me. Instead, frustrated that Green Bunny was now out of reach, she cried.
Plan B was an escape. Later, when we came home, Mom and Dad would be happy again. We could have dinner, sit and watch television, or even have baths. I pulled myself out from under the bed, gave Green Bunny to my sister, and took her hand in mine. We were going to the playground.
The front door was past the kitchen, where Mom cried as she dropped dirty dishes into the sink one by one. Dad watched each fall, clanging in the stainless steel sink and clattering on top of each other: plate, cup, fork, plate, spoon, plate, glass. They were loud again by the time we reached the front door, where I struggled with the knob. Dad yelled at me to just-leave-it-alone and go-watch-TV-with-your-sister.
I took her hand again, this time pulling her to the balcony’s sliding glass door. It click-rolled open, and we stepped out into the humid summer air. With the door shut, and the muffling whir of the heat pump, we found peace. For my sister, who sat and played with Green Bunny, it was enough. She was happy now. But I still longed for the freedom of the playground, just across the parking lot, with its long silver slide and the smile of its black rubber swings.
A short drop, I thought, looking down over the railing. No more than when I swung up past the top bar. The bushes below would catch me, and then I could go play. I climbed up the thin iron railing and balanced against the tall post supporting the roof. Like jumping from the swings, I told myself, and pushed off, yelling Cupertino as I flew.
The pain of it must have washed away any true memory of that afternoon, a void instead of the heat, the wrought-iron, and the weightless instant before I crashed to the ground. I remember the X-ray machine at the hospital and the cast around my fractured arm. They said I was lucky I didn’t land on my head.
* * *
The new guy nods to the right, signaling he’ll go in that direction. To the left of the stairs, I check the bathroom. It’s empty. In the bedroom I look under the bed, but the girl is not there. The room shakes with a loud crash from the other bedroom. My radio crackles: collapse, get out. The hallway is full of flaming rafters, insulation, and roofing that slant down from the attic and block the stairwell. I crawl underneath to the other bedroom. The girl is backed against the window, her fists at her face, screaming. A burning pile pins the new guy to the floor, his face up and legs trapped. I clear the window of glass, hoping someone outside will hear the girl. We are at the back of the apartment, and all the equipment is at the front, with the rig. I radio man down and for a ladder, then try to lift the wood crushing the new guy’s legs. I’m too weak. Instead, I wedge my axe between the debris and the floor, levering it up as far as I can. Grimacing and swearing with pain, the new guy pulls himself free. His legs are broken.
I drag him by his armpits across the floor to the window, and he helps me position him at the windowsill, his useless legs dangling over the edge. The girl is hysterical and choking. The new guy gives his mask to the girl, who can only take short coughing breaths. He reassures her while I draw rope from the bag attached to my air tank. I feed it under his armpits, tying it off tight between his shoulder blades. The new guy convinces the girl to be brave even as he turns pale with shock. She climbs onto his lap, wrapping her arms and legs around his body, resting her cheek on his chest. He does not cry out from the pressure on his legs, but with tears in his eyes, he embraces her.
I run the rope from the new guy to the bed, its metal leg a fulcrum, then back through my grip, around my right forearm, and into the bag, where most of it remains coiled. They will be heavy, but I am sitting on the floor, my heels set against the footboard. I cannot see him, but he says here we go and the rope tightens. He moves in measures, increasing the tension on my arms, shoulders, and knees as he lowers himself out the window. My back arches and the rope stutters through my gloved hands. I slow their descent.
* * *
I was a firefighter trainee on September 11, 2001. I watched the television with pride as New York’s bravest rushed into the morning’s chaos, and with disbelief as the towers tumbled in on them. My most harrowing memories from that day are not of the sickening steady glide of a jet into a building or the sweep of gray wind through Manhattan, but of people plummeting down hundreds of feet to escape an inferno. I stand with them at the blown-out windows, hold hands with them as they pray together, watch as they step over the edge, and ask Joseph of Cupertino to intercede for them, that their souls find ecstasy in flight.
* * *
I once saw an old trampoline in a firefighter’s museum. It was ten feet of round canvas stretched as tight as a drumhead by metal springs and a polished wooden frame. A red circle in the middle gave jumpers a target to distract them from the risk of missing the mark or landing on top of their rescuers. Even those with good aim had to survive the rebound and landing. There’s nothing to catch the new guy and the girl if I fail.
They must be at least half way down when my weight isn’t enough, and the bed slides forward until my air tank hits the wall. I hold on despite aching shoulders and throbbing knuckles. The rope moves through my hands faster now, but not uncontrolled. The burn in my muscles feels as hot as the flames engulfing the room. Then they reach the ground and the rope slackens.
I’m on my feet when the rest of the ceiling and the roof above fold down on me. The debris knocks me backward. My hips strike the windowsill and the weight of my air tank pulls me through the window. I reel backward, looking up at the smoke in the sky. The rope I still hold snaps taught, pulls me upright, swinging my feet downward and breaking my grip. A saint’s name flashes through my mind as I rush, arms outstretched, to the ground.
Joseph M. Barbato is thankful for his wife’s support as he earned an M.F.A. from Purdue University in 2002 and a J.D. from Indiana University in 2005. His highest achievement to date is his son, Samuel.
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