Sunday, October 31, 2010

Livin' on Silver -- Part Five -- Fire!

There were two reasons I felt safe on Silver Avenue: One being that God's Miracle House of Deliverance was located on the first block and while I was not a member of the church, I basked in its claim to be divine. Secondly, the street was home to several hardened Greensboro criminals; it was their home turf, they left Silver Avenue to do their robbing and their mugging and their stealing, they didn't mess with the neighbors.
One night I was walkin home from the library. It was close to 9:30 when I rounded the corner off Lee Street, bright with lights from the 7-11, the Beef Burger, and the pawn shops. It only took a few steps into the first block of Silver to be swallowed by the darkness of the street. The city attempted to replace our street lights every so often and no sooner did they fix them, did someone shoot the lights out. The first house on the left, before God's Miracle House was the Lumbee Indian house . . . there were at least three families living together in there and they tended to fight with one another on the front porch, so it was right there, that you stepped off the side walk and positioned yourself on the center line of the street. This is how everyone walked on Silver. It was just safer in the middle of the street.
So on this night, I'm walking home, and the lights from Lee Street are pouring past me down Silver and I catch sight of this tall lanky black woman hurrying down the sidewalk into the maw of my neighborhood. She was just past the Lumbee house and melting into the shadows in front of the House of Deliverance, and I could tell by the way she was walking that she was afraid, looking from side to side and obviously not from around here, cause she was walking on the sidewalk. I decided to trot down the street to catch up with her. I called out, "Hey . .. hey there!"
"Oh!" She nearly jumped out of her skin when I spoke to her, "Oh, oh my goodness!"
"Do you want to walk with me? Its not safe over there on the sidewalk, really, you should be out here, in the street."
She stopped and sized me up in the dark. She was elegant, in a long top coat and her long legs in high heels. She was like a black Olive Oil. "Are you kidding me?"
"No, I'm serious. Nobody walks on the sidewalk here, even during the day." She looked both ways and stepped out on to the street.
"You really gave me a scare!"
"I'm sorry. I just wanted to help you. I live a couple of blocks down, where are you going?"
"To my cousin's house, she lives on the fourth block."
"Oh okay, I'll walk with you, no problem."
"Can I tell you something?" She shivered and crossed her arms, she was still hurrying, practically running, and I was striding out to keep up with her.
"Yeah, sure, do tell."
"I'm down here to visit my cousin. I've never been to this town before. I live in Queens. Do you know Queens?"
"Yeah, New York!"
"Well, I live in a bad neighborhood up there, but I've never been so afraid in all my life as I have been here!"
"Didn't your cousin tell you to walk on the street?"
"No!"
"Maybe she assumed that you knew that rule cause you live in Queens." She laughed and slowed down.
"We walk on the sidewalks in Queens, honey! Aren't you afraid?"
"Sometimes"
I escorted her to her cousin's door, she asked me to come in, have a drink with her, but I declined the offer, my cats were waiting for me.

******

I remember a blizzard coming one February. Greensboro was blanketed in two feet of snow, maybe a little more. The whole city shut down. The light off the snow was blinding. Silver Avenue glistened and sat silent and purified. Py showed up at my door, "The library's closed." We spent the day drawing and making love and eating stir fry.
That night Kimmie and J. knocked on our door, we went outside and built snow men all over the front yard. Snow balls began to fly, but something went wrong, J. hit Pyro too hard or Pyro hit J. too hard and last thing I remember was Kimmie dragging J. into her apartment and me dragging in Py into my apartment, all while swear words were being exchanged. Later that night I knocked on Kimmie's door. We sat in the cold hallway for a while, "Py asleep?"
"Yeah, J?"
"Yup?"
"What the hell happened?"
"Men!"
"I know . . . that was ridiculous."

*******

Ken kicked the lesbians and their baby boy out of his apartment not long after they had moved in. I came home one day and all their stuff was piled in the front yard. Terry was sitting on the stoop with the boy, rocking back and forth. She looked cold. And the sky looked cold too, and full of rain. "He can't do this to us, he ain't got no right." I felt sorry for her, but I was glad Ken was getting rid of them, I only foresaw murder of some sort if they remained. "He changed the locks." I stood in the yard, and pondered turning around and heading back to Tate Street for the afternoon, see what was happening at Hong Kong House, let this thing blow over without me around.
"Where's Mandy?"
"She's still at the garage. Can I use your phone to call her?" I hesitated, but I figured if she called Mandy, then this thing would be over sooner rather than later. And she didn't need to be sitting out there in the cold with that baby.
An hour later, Mandy pulls up in the driveway, the driveway that no one ever drove in. I watched from my window as she loaded their belongings into the old sedan. Terry sat patiently in the front seat. I heard some commotion in the hallway, Mandy was pounding on Ken's door, "You bastard! We'll get you for this!" My cats paced the hallway and I sat quiet and still, as though moving might let Mandy in my front door, as though she might take it out on me. I heard the car roar and back out of the driveway, the bumper scraping pavement as they swerved into the Avenue. Tires squealed and they were gone. Never to be seen again.

********

My apartment filled up with smoke one afternoon. I was studying for my final in Primatology, the best class I took in college, bar none. At first, I thought I was just tired, that my eye sight was foggy from lack of sleep, but the air took on a strange smell, like hair burning, and then Keith was suddenly banging on my door, "Hey! Is your apartment filled with smoke?"
Keith never came up to my apartment, he was always down there writing, or leaving for his girlfriend's house. She never came to our building. I went out in the hall and now the hall was filled with smoke. Kimmie came out of her apartment holding Pussums, "The building's on fire!"
"Kimmie call the fire department!" Keith ran downstairs and we followed with our cats in tow. We busted out the front door and stood in the yard. A large plume of smoke was billowing from the back of the building. I put my cats in my Volkswagen bug (they were not outdoor kitties, this was absolutely traumatic for them.) Keith ran up the driveway and around the back of the building. Kimmie, clutching Pussums, pursued Keith and I brought up the rear.
What we found in the back yard was not at all what we expected. Smoke was pouring out the basement door and rising up the back of the building like a genie from a bottle. I didn't even know the building had a basement until that very moment. Keith hopped down the concrete steps that led to the basement door, which was painted green, a marvelous shade of leaf green, which seemed like some sort of cosmic joke to me, and just as Keith went to open the door, it flew open and a middle aged black man exploded out the door. He was coughing violently and he blasted past Keith, up the stairs and fell to his knees gasping for air in front of me and Kimmie. Pussums hissed. Smoke was falling off the man like he had just emerged through a portal to another world. He looked up at us, "Who the hell are you people?" And then he coughed some more.
"Jeeeezus!" Keith hollared, "There's a mattress on fire in here!"
"Keith come out of there, you're going to get hurt!" But Keith went back in and started stomping out the fire. Acrid chemical black smoke flooded out the green door and carried Keith with it. We heard sirens in the distance.
Kimmie was incensed with the man, "Who are WE? Who the HELL are YOU?"
"Ken told me I could live in the basement for a while."
"Ken? You mean Ken in Apartment one?" Kimmie put Pussums down on the ground, Pussums sat like a dog and whipped her tail angrily at the man.
"Yeah, that Ken. We were in prison together." He rose up off the ground and started to brush the soot off his pants. He coughed some more and spit at our feet. Kimmie looked at me and I looked at Kimmie. Keith came up the steps, he was coughing too.
"Why the hell was the mattress on fire?" Keith looked like he was going to punch the man in the face.
"I lit it to stay warm. I been down there freezing my ass off for a few days now."
"You lit the mattress on fire? To keep warm? You coulda burned the whole building down!" Kimmie lunged for the man, the sirens were coming up Silver now, they were getting louder and louder.
"Did y'all call the police?" The man's eyes went wide. He began to circle like a cat in a cage.
"Of course we called the fire department! Our apartments are full of smoke!" With this from Kimmie, the man took off running. He hoisted himself over the back neighbor's chain link fence and disappeared into the December light.
The fire trucks arrived and oddly enough so did Eddie -- someone in the city called him to tell him his building on Silver was on fire. They all ran in the front door and we called to them and they all came back out, "Where's the fire?"
"The basement, in the back of the building. Its a mattress, but its out now. I stomped it out." Keith was entering mild Hero Land now. "Some dude lit it on fire to keep warm, can you fuckin' believe that?"
"What dude? Where is he?" The fireman with the most authoritative uniform asked -- he obviously had powers to arrest dudes who set mattresses on fire. Eddie puffed up and pulled his pants higher and cleared his throat, "You girls okay? Is everybody okay now?"
"We're okay Eddie, we just need to open some windows upstairs."
"Who was in the basement Keith?"
"Some friend of Ken's . . . says Ken let him move in down there."
" Lord love us!" Eddie shook his head and feigned more concern than he really had at that moment. He looked to me slightly like a man disappointed that the builidng hadn't burned to the ground -- that would have been a real win -win situation for him. He looked around, his stance shifted, his moods were changing at lightning speed, "Where the hell is Ken?"
"Don't know, he's been missing since the lesbians and the baby moved out."
"Lesbians? Baby? What in the HELL is going on around here?" Eddie turned eight different shades of purple. The firemen were dragging the smoldering mattress out of the basement. All hell was breaking loose. Kimmie scooped Pussums up off the ground, and I noticed a fireman stop, drop the mattress and watch Kimmie walk away. He was smitten. Amazing, I thought, Kimmie is honey to the Bee Men.
The firemen inspected the building. I was sure we would be condemned, but Eddie must have slipped them some cash. The fire trucks and the rescue squad all drove away. And Ken's stuff was out on the curb by dinner time. Eddie padlocked Ken's door and drove off in his big Mercedes. I sat in my apartment with the windows wide open, freezing and wondering if it was going to snow that night.
By morning Ken's stuff was gone. I figured he'd returned in the middle of the night and found that fate had done him, just like he had done the lesbians and their baby. Apartment One remained empty for several months after that. It was quiet, real quiet down there without a tenant, but worst of all, I had no one heating the rooms below me. My apartment was twice as cold now.

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