Under the last stop of Jerome Avenue’s rumbling elevator train, Tom Thumbs was the perfect location for an after-hours club. Because of the train’s clanging and banging, no residential buildings were nearby, and the joint was perfectly sandwiched between Moshulu Golf Course and the entrance to Woodlawn Cemetery. Golfers don’t play at night, and the dead never complain. The noise made by crowds coming and going well past sunrise was never a problem.
A cute blonde tended bar. She was short, savvy, and as fast and fluid behind the bar as any man. Her name was Geri Ann, but everyone just called her “Toots.”
Although a lot of cops were regulars, a blackjack game flowed full tilt in the back room, and the bony, bald man who shuffled cards out of the shoe was another popular Bronx bartender named Pete Watson. Every bar owner, bartender, and waitress in the North Bronx hung out there, and Pete and Toots knew them all. The patrons were the kind of hardcore drinkers one would expect to find in a watering hole only open weekends after 3 a.m.
Mick ordered a Heineken from Toots and headed straight for the back room. He bought $500 worth of chips and sat at “third base.” He bet the $10 minimum and started to count the cards that Watson shuffled across the felt. After 20 minutes of boredom and monotony, the picture card count was low and the percentages high, so he began to bet $100 a hand. A few minutes later, Pete reshuffled. Mick did a quick count, realized that he was up $500 and cashed in.
Might as well have a few pops at the bar with Toots.
No clocks were in Tom Thumbs by design, so one squirt led to another, and when Mick’s phone read 7:30, Buffalo was deep in conversation with an overweight brunette. Mick could have pressed him to leave, but the big man was catnip for full-sized women.
Once Buffalo entered a room, he sucked the air out of it. Not only because of his prodigious physique, but because of his hunger for life. His appetite required alcohol and laughter in massive amounts, and what he didn’t gobble up splattered over an eager entourage of hangers on and bottom feeders who figured 50 percent of Buffalo was better than 100 percent of anybody else.
Two decades older than Mick and indispensable, his blotchy-faced buddy had the remarkable gift of making everyone around him feel more alive. Mick knew that there was no sense in arguing. Buffalo wasn’t going anywhere until he closed the deal, so half stewed, he told Buffalo he was splitting for the firehouse.
When he left Tom Thumbs, dense clouds hid the sunrise. Above the gray elevator-train platform, the dawn barely broke through the bitter, bleak sky. Gusts of wind whipped piles of leaves along tires of the parked cars lining both sides of Jerome Avenue. When the low moan from the south side of the tracks turned his ear, he looked up to see the train’s single eye pick out the last station before coming to a screeching halt.
Well familiar with the racket, Mick continued to trudge his tired legs down the long block toward his Honda. He turned the ignition, heard the engine bark to life, and headed for his apartment to walk and feed his constant companion, his Jack Russell terrier, Oliver.
His chore complete, he grabbed a container of coffee at the local bakery, and darted down the Major Deegan. Once off the highway, cheerless streets littered with beer cans and broken glass sped past his car windows.
At each corner, mountains of large, black-plastic garbage bags awaited pick-up.
A hand-drawn cardboard sign advertising “very cold cuts” rushed past his windshield. Mick always grinned when passing that delicatessen window. In the South Bronx, English was a second language, and the next store he passed usually spurred another smirk. A painted cardboard sign promised Chinese food “to go or take out,” but Mick wasn’t smiling today.
He hadn’t slept a wink, and his mouth felt like the Turkish Army had marched through it barefoot. He prayed for a slow New Year’s Day, so he could grab some shuteye; but the odds weren’t good. In poor neighborhoods, winter shifts were usually busy.
In half abandoned buildings without heat, desperate tenants plugged illegal space heaters into overloaded sockets. Mick figured that he would be hopping all day and night, yet he was praying for a miracle, a couple of hours sleep in one of New York’s busiest stations.
He parked in front of a windowless, blue Buick with milk crates for wheels. Imagining some poor bastard trying to start it, he said to himself.
It’d probably just groan.
He hiked the firehouse stairs to change into his uniform. Rummaging through the back corner of his locker, he spotted the amber glass vial that he was looking for and began a familiar ritual. With a rolled up five-dollar bill, he snorted two lines of white
powder off a mirror, rose to his feet, closed each nostril with his finger, sniffed, blinked, and widened his eyes. Then he licked his finger, wiped the residue off the mirror, and rubbed it on his gums. Well fortified, he went downstairs to guzzle caffeine.
Over a dozen firefighters sat around the two, long, thickly laminated dining tables that dominated the dayroom. Mick said a casual good morning, reached over Pete, grabbed a bagel, and began slathering it with a quarter inch of cream cheese. Sipping his coffee, he was just about to sink his teeth in when three air-horn blasts shattered the silence.
The house-watchman’s voice thundered over the intercom, “Everybody goes, truck, engine, and chief. Everybody goes. Get out. Get out. Get out.” This refrain was followed by three more deafening air-horn blasts.
The two giant apparatus doors lifted, and the Brothers scrambled to don their turnout gear and boots. They leapt on the two weathered, red rigs and their sirens roared into the sleepy streets of the South Bronx. While tearing through the second intersection, the dispatcher reported possible children trapped.
In the distance, thick, ugly smoke painted the cloudy morning sky with black ink. The Brothers rounded the corner minutes later to flames roaring from a ground floor window.
“We have a 10-75, working fire,” The Lieutenant transmitted to the dispatcher.
“Ten-four, Ladder 60,” dispatcher 330 responded. “Alert all incoming units. We have a 10-75 in the Borough of the Bronx.”
The officer replaced the voice piece, rotated his body, and hammered his fist on the Plexiglas separating him from his crew.
“We’ve got a job.”
Mick slipped his arms through the straps of his Self Contained Breathing Apparatus, fastened the harness to his waist, and although he wasn’t green enough to turn his air on, last minute nerves drove three fingers to routinely tap his air valve.
The ritual completed, he clutched his tools, sprang from the truck, and raced toward the involved apartment. A roaring tongue of flame from the first-floor window painted the second-floor’s brick edifice a coal black. Despite the danger, Mick’s eyes sparked a gleam of recognition, and a slight grin teased his face.
My parents lived in an apartment just like this. I can find my way around in there blindfolded.
By the time a line was stretched and the front door forced, he calculated any possible survivors would be lost. He also knew that he couldn’t start a search through the window next to the flames. If he broke that glass, the fire would chase the oxygen and fill that void as well cutting off any chance he had of escape.
If he leapt directly through the fire window and hugged the wall, the fire would seek its least resistance, which would be the open window above him. Remembering the dispatcher’s warning that children might be trapped, Mick had an edge and decided to use it. He vaulted the sill and vanished into the flames.
“Holy shit, Lieu. Get water on that fire fast,” Pete screamed, his face reflecting red from the blaze. “Mick just jumped through the fire window.”
The Engine Lieutenant cursed from the cab. “Jesus Christ, even a fucken Probie knows better than to start a search without a charged line in place.” He yelled at his crew. “Stretch a hose. Get me water, fast.”
Snaking hose lengths toward the building’s entrance, Engine 17 flew into action. The chauffeur hooked the Pumper up to the nearest hydrant while his boss screamed, “Come on. Come on. Move it. We have a fireman in trouble.”
Not at death’s door, but hardly safe, Mick had rolled below the window, and the flames hungering for oxygen were licking, and bellowing skyward above him. A blast of radiant heat burnt his ears, driving his chin even farther to the floorboards. He had gambled that his turnout coat would protect him from the intense heat, but he had forgotten to pull down the earflaps lining his helmet.
Crawl left or right? A closet or a bathroom where a child might hide should be opposite the window.
The flashlight attached to his helmet speared a dull beam through the thick smoke. Mick slithered slowly and sightlessly to his right, his gloved hand tapping the wall for guidance. He crawled away from the fire-breathing window, past the closed window, and into the heart of the darkness.
His heart was pounding so hard in his chest that he thought his ribs would break. His eyes were pressed shut, maybe because they were useless, or maybe, like the metaphorical atheist in a foxhole, he was praying. One thing was certain, he had better make a quick search and get the hell out of there fast. If radiant heat blew out that second window
down on him, plaster, shards, and burning hot embers forced his nose ever closer to the floor. Whatever little visibility he had was at ground level, yet through the blinding smoke, he could still see the hungry orange rivulets of fire glowing along the ceiling’s length.
Groping slowly, he could almost taste the acrid, black gas though his mask. When the wall made a left angle, he gained a splinter of hope and quickened his pace.
I’ve got to glue the pattern of the wood planks to my brain. If I get disoriented, at least I’ll know if I’m crawling parallel or perpendicular to that window.
The flashlight lit a foggy soft glow into the shadows. His left hand dragged the wooden hook and the heavy, steel Halligan tool, right hand splaying the floor for balance, elbows inching ahead of his knees, the little muscles in his hands and thighs twitching and dripping sweat.
His stomach seemed to be jarred loose, his heart rattling inside his ribs. It was so quiet that he thought his ears had failed him, until he listened to the measured sounds of his own breathing, but then out of the tomb like silence came a voice almost like an open-mouthed statue laughing at his recklessness. No sound, just a voice taunting him how he had overplayed his hand.
He inched farther and farther, absolutely convinced he was about to die until he stumbled upon a miracle. The tip of his nose almost smacked into a small, metal wheel. A wooden leg seemed to climb from it. Was he lucky enough to have found a crib?
Shimmying the wood, his gloved hand probed between the slats, and felt a bump in the bedding. He stood, held his breath, and lifted his face-piece.
Holy shit an infant.
He let his tools slide to the floor, unclipped his turnout coat, and wrapped the baby inside. Any minute now, the engine company would burst through the front door, open their hose, and turn the living room into white-hot punishing steam. The silent voice from the darkness reminded him that if the blistering heat blew out that second window, both he and the child would be memories.
It’s gonna be a crapshoot to get out of here. Stay calm Mick.
The atmosphere had become so toxic that his eyes were useless, but he knew that if he cut vertically across the horizontal pattern of the wood floor, he should find his way out.
Waving like a blind man, Mick could hear the crackling and slavering of the hungry flames devouring what was left of the room’s oxygen. With his left forearm cradling the baby, his fingers clutching his tools, he probed the darkness with his right hand and tiptoed gingerly, almost glacially until a shrill alarm shattered the silence. His heart rose to his mouth, a throbbing pulse pounding at his throat.
Shit, only a few minutes of air left. You got this, Mick. Don’t panic. Slow your breathing. Drop back to the floor. Tap above your head at window level.
He let his knees collapse, hugged the limp baby tighter to his chest, and began crawling and tapping, crawling and tapping.
If I don’t find this window fast, we’re screwed. Is this poor little thing dead already? Should I risk a few precious seconds to stick my mouth over its face?
He kept inching and feeling, scrabbling, and sensing.
Fuck it. Maybe I should just stand, make a run for it, and just pray that I don’t trip over the furniture. If that window breaks, I’m dead anyway.
When the wall turned again, he chanced it. He thumped the corner and sprang, his gait morphing into long quick strides. After three of them, his gloved hand struck gold.
Thank God, the windowsill.
Even though the glass was black, soft, and weak, Mick was left-handed and wasn’t sure his right hand had the strength to take out the entire pane. With fire still roaring from the adjacent window, he had to bail out fast but couldn’t expose the child to more gases.
His right hand weakly swung the steel Halligan-bar, nothing.
I might have to risk placing the baby on the ground.
Summoning strength he didn’t know he had, on his second swing the glass burst mercifully into the street. He ignored the pain of his singed ears and frantically pushed and pulled the heavy crowbar like tool, knocking large shards of glass from the corners of the window frame.
A firefighter in the street ran to the hail of broken glass, his six-foot hook gripping the casement, the iron tip yanking again and again until the entire frame blew outwards. As dense smoke poured from the room, the yellow stars and blue circles of a child’s wallpaper materialized by the baseboard. He reached under his turnout coat and gently placed its precious contents into his comrade’s eager hands.
Garbled voices from the doorway caught his ear. The Truck had forced the door, and the Engine’s inch-and-three-quarter canvas line would soon advance down the hallway, its heavy bolt of water ripping and churning into the guts of the fire, crashing, splashing, and carving a path through the thick smoke, pushing the boiling steam out of the living room and into the crisp Bronx morning.
Mick leapt the sill and hit the pavement just in time. He ripped off the face piece of his spent air tank, collapsed onto the concrete, and hurled black phlegm from his mouth. Spread on all fours, the sidewalk a foot from his face, his heaving chest felt like chards of glass had punctured his lungs. He puked the tar-colored poison into a pool of his own spittle.
Minutes later, his chin rose to the sound of the chauffeur’s voice.
“Nice grab, Mick. That kid’s gonna make it.”
His blood raced to Jack’s sweet words and a warm ripple, as invigorating and intoxicating as a powerful drug, surged through his veins. The fast charge of adrenalin flew through him like an electric shock, sweeter than any rush he had ever felt from gambling or any sport that he had ever played.
Mick wouldn’t have traded the thrill of that rescue, that one single moment, to be the CEO of Goldman Sachs. In that one jubilant instant, he understood why men chose this profession. Even if he never got to feel this thrill again, he would chase this powerful, addictive dragon the rest of his career.
The blaze extinguished, the apartment gutted and overhauled, char-faced firemen methodically repacked multiple lengths of lines on the engine hose bed, some sipping water, many hacking and spitting coffee-colored saliva into the gutter. With a cup of water in one hand and a Marlboro Light in the other, Mick sat on a nearby curb, dry heaving and coughing the corruption from his lungs. The Safety Chief approached.
“Didn’t you get enough smoke inside that apartment?”
He poured water from the Styrofoam cup over his singed ears, studied the frail man’s bent body a moment, and smiled.
“Funny Chief, it seems like the only thing that gets that harsh taste out of my mouth is more smoke.”
The Chief’s jaw stiffened, his face shining like a red lamp under his white helmet.
“I don’t know whether to recommend you for a medal or department charges, Mullan. You should know better than to start a search before a protective line’s in place.”
“It was instinct, Chief. The dispatcher said kids might be trapped. My parents lived in a building just like this, so I knew the apartment layout. I figured if I stayed low enough and hugged the bedroom wall, I just might make a grab.”
“Taking the rescue into consideration, I’ll overlook the breach of regulations. That was one hell of a move, but I won’t stand for any more insubordination. You’re only on the job a few years, Mullan. Learn it first. Then play hero. This is not the first time I’ve warned you about safety issues. Do it again, and I’ll send you down for psychiatric observation.”
“Sorry, Chief. I guess I screwed up. Every firefighter has a reverence for life, me more than most.” Mick took a long drag on his cigarette before he spoke again. “Thanks for the break. I know I was a bit reckless, but the kid’s gonna make it, and that’s why I came on the job. If it were your kid . . . well, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. I get it,” the Chief said. “His parents weren’t so lucky. God rest their souls. We found them in the bedroom dead from smoke inhalation.”
Mick stood, took one last drag of his butt, flicked it into a pool of water and joined his brothers loading wet, dirty hose back on the engine bed. He had beaten the Grim Reaper temporarily, but death plays hard every day.