Bent Words

Bent Words

January 21, 2011

Saturday 1-15-2011

I arrived home at 3:15pm after work and immediately changed into a pair of comfortable pajama bottoms. The faded blue and black striped ones my father donated to me years ago. I was thinking about work and how I had stayed out a little late the night before, bantering with the boys at another dealership, Motosports Factory, in town. I was tired. But I had a big Packer game to attend to.

Sleep or chill?

I decided to chill. I turned on my desktop computer and sat down to catch up on Grey's Anatomy via Hulu. Rice, cheese, Rooster sauce and ranch tortilla for dinner. I looked up at the clock, just above my living room window (which faces the street), and noted the time. 4pm.

"I have enough time to take a nap... 5pm shower. 6pm arrival at my local haunt, Nice Ash, to secure a good spot for the game. I'm tired now but tonight's going to be a good night."

That's when I noticed a fleeting cloud of white smoke pass by my large, top floor, corner apartment, living room windows.

"That's strange," I thought. "Perhaps snow from the top of the building."

But it was not windy.

"Dude below me is smoking and blowing out his window, perhaps."

But that didn't make sense.

I got up and looked outside. Down, then up. No more smoke.

I removed the child gate (i.e. cat gate) in the entrance of my bedroom and started to walk toward the window and, just as I was about to look outside, I noticed that I could not see anything through my window. Just an enveloping cloud of white and gray smoke that covered the entirety of my window. I backed up, looked at my closet doors, and quickly extricated the two cat carriers inside. I grabbed them, took them to the living room and deposited my little cat, Pumpkin, into the smaller carrier. She meowed questioningly and I soothed her as I again found my way into the bedroom.

"It's just smoke. Maybe it's just a stove fire," I thought.

I doffed my pajama bottoms and replaced them with jeans. I looked up just as I was about to fold the pajama bottoms.

That's when I saw the flames.

Tall flames topped with black smoke emerged at the outside of my bedroom window.

The floor was hot. The whole room felt like a sauna. I was sweating. Sweating. There's a fire. My bedroom window is on fire.

I threw the child gate aside in the hall and stuffed -- with some difficulty -- my other cat Mac, all 20 pounds of him, into a second cat carrier. "Get in!" My heart beat sounded louder than the faint and pedantic *beep* *beep* *beep* of the smoke alarm in the apartment below mine.

There's a fire.

I grabbed my wallet and my cell phone which were both sitting on my computer desk. I was just about to grab my Passport, also sitting on my desk, which contained my social security card, when I heard a woman's high pitched and horrifying scream outside the building.


I heard someone scream in the hallway.

Why can't I scream? Who's got 911? Why can't I yell fire? I should be yelling.

I grabbed the red and black Honda jacket Shane bought for me years ago at the old motorcycle shop. "I'll need my coat." I put on my boots. "I'll need my boots." The keys were in the door. "I'll need my keys and I'll need to lock the door." I unlocked the door and grabbed the cats. I put them down, looked around for what would be the last time, and then re-locked my door. "This is fine. I'll lock the door and get back in soon. The fire department's right there. I could throw a stone and hit the fire department."

I pushed open the side access door to my left. It was not hot but the black smoke, like a wall of penetrating assault, threw me back and caused me to drop one of the cat carriers. I tried to keep going, without the cats, but I could not see anything. I turned back and picked them up. I looked down toward the opposite end of the hallway and saw more black smoke approaching.

Running toward the middle of the hallway, I saw a small, slight woman, wearing only a t-shirt and shorts, tear through the cloud of black smoke and break through with a small child wrapped around her middle.

She was crying. She was screaming.

"Oh my God!" she kept saying.

I opened the center hallway door for her and calmly told her it was going to be okay.

"We need to get outside, we need to get outside. It's going to be okay."

When we got to the second floor, she screamed in terror as the smoke once again assaulted us from every direction. She dragged her son down the steps and he stumbled behind her, literally being dragged down the stairs.

I exchanged my smallest cat for her son and calmly pushed through the first floor, main glass door entryway.

"You're okay, sweetheart, you're okay. We're going to be fine. We're outside," I said, standing just below the concrete steps outside the building.

She had no socks or shoes on. I took off my coat and told her and her son to stand on my coat. There was no fire sirens. No alarms. No trucks. No one but us and a few others standing on the driveway to our burning building.

A man in a fire van pulled up the driveway and ran up toward the building with a small fire extinguisher in his hands. He looked up at the burning window just below mine and then looked at the fire extinguisher in his hands. Then he looked at all of us.

*POP!* *POP!* *POP!*

The glass panes of my bedroom window were exploding with the pressure of the flames.

*POP!* *POP!* *POP!*

"Get down to the sidewalk NOW!" screamed the fireman with the superfluous fire extinguisher in his hands.

I grabbed my coat. Made sure the woman and her son were able to go down before me. We all moved stupidly down the steps. I carefully "stacked" my cats on the sidewalk and then proceeded to call my folks.

My phone said, "User Busy."

I called my brother. No answer.

I called my sister-in-law. No answer.

A woman was holding her daughter who was holding their cat in her arms. The cat jumped from the little girl's arms and disappeared into a nearby bush. Then we all saw the cat race back toward the building. I couldn't do anything. My hands were full.

I called Dan and, finally, got an answer.

"Hey!" he answered cheerfully.

"Hey. Ummm, I know we were supposed to get together for the game tonight but, I just wanted to let you know, my apartment building is currently on fire. Sooooo, that's what I'm doing tonight..."

"Uhhhh, heh heh---"

Dan thought I was joking.

The slight woman, with her son wrapped round her waist, looking up at the flames pouring from my bedroom window, began sobbing hysterically.

"What am I going to do? What can I do?" she kept saying.

"Oh, sweetheart, please, please stand on my coat. Here. It's okay. You've got it." And I pulled her close to me to keep her warm.

Dan, hearing all of this, realized the severity of the situation and asked what he could do.

Sirens finally began to sound.

I started coughing deeply.

"I'll let you know when I know more. I have to go now. They're finally here and now they're taking us across the street," I said.

I left me cats stacked on the sidewalk. I helped the woman cross the snow bank on the side of the road and deposited her and her son into the arms of a reaching fireman. I looked back at my cats as they closed her into an ambulance.


I grabbed the animals and took them across the street to the food pantry parking lot. I was somewhat removed from all the other tenants standing there, watching their home burn. My living room windows were popping with the intrusion of flames. I put my hand to my mouth and began to sob.

My hands were numb by the time my father got a hold of me on my cell phone.

"Dad. My apartment building is on fire."

"Oh no. Oh no. Laura, how bad is it? Do you need us to come get you?"

"I think I should stay here for now. It's okay. I'm okay. I got out and I got the kitties out. Dad, the black smoke... There's nothing I can do. My bedroom, Dad, is on fire. The flames are coming out of my bedroom window now."

"Oh my God. I'm ready to drive right now. Right now. You just say the word."

I couldn't stop coughing.

"We need everyone to make their way to Fuller Street," a man announced.

I walked dumbly. One cat carrier in each hand. Turning to see the flames.

They had a city bus waiting for us. I was the first one on the bus. Someone told me to get on the bus. They said it was warm. I sat down and coughed. I couldn't stop coughing. The smoke was rising above the building and penetrating the space within the bus.

It began to fill.

One person, then another, than another.

The bus driver kept saying, "Oh my God."

Everyone kept saying, "Oh my God."

About seventeen people were on the bus. Some people had no socks or shoes. Some people had on only boxer shorts. Some people were wrapped in blankets and I wondered where the blankets came from. Dave, my neighbor down the hall, had no shoes. We wrapped his feet in blankets. I wondered again, where did all these blankets come from? People were exchanging shoes and socks and jackets. The bus began to back up and move. A police officer knocked on the door and found his way inside. He asked for our names and numbers and ages and apartment numbers.

"David Hillinger. Apartment 30. Where do I go now?"

No one remembers the bus ride to the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army whose parking lot juts up against the burning building's parking lot from a side street. Every one of us watched as our apartment building's roof relit the night sky. Flames and smoke and sirens and power outages and chaos.

I talked to my family and told them to hold tight.

"They have us on a bus. Maybe they need to take our statements. I'll let you know what's going on as soon as I know," I told everyone.

Then I passed my cell phone around to five or six people who did not have phones.

"I didn't have renter's insurance," one man next to me said. "Did you?"

Luckily, I do.

After two hours of watching my life burn away, I called Dan back and asked him to pick me up.

"I'm totally fine but I can't sit here any longer, Dan. I need to pee. I need to be out of here. I can't sit here and watch this anymore."

But I couldn't take my eyes off of the flames. The bus driver and I watched on as the roof caught fire, over and over again.

Dan was on his way.

I texted him that he had better believe I wasn't going to miss the Packer game over this.

He showed up in his giant black truck, knocked on the bus door and grabbed my cats. I walked stiffly toward his truck, never taking my eyes off of the flames, and deposited myself in his passenger seat.


"I made a list. I need cat litter, cat food and a box," I said.

Walgreens was closed due to "technical difficulties with the apartment fire across the street."


I smelled coffee when we walked in. People were smiling, shopping with their kids, chatting gaily on their cell phones, grudgingly trudging through aisles.

I spoke to my brother while picking out cat food and litter and scoops and carpet cleaners.

"Mac pukes a lot."

We walked past the Home Living section. I saw clothes hangers and laundry baskets and bath towels and vacuums. I had no clothes to hang. No laundry to transport. No bathroom to put bath towels in. No carpet to vacuum.

I had nothing.

The roof had collapsed over my apartment.

I wouldn't know this until later that evening.

I called work. Told them I might be a few days before returning -- could they send someone down from the other store to cover my spot. I called my parents and told them I was coming. I called Susan to tell her her home was on fire -- she wouldn't know until later as she was out with her grand kids.

People began calling me.

"Is that your building on fire?"

"The entire street is closed down. North Street is closed."

"Are you okay?"

I'm okay.

The dude who lives below me was taking a long shower while unattended in his bedroom a candle tipped over, igniting his mattress.

My apartment suffered the worst damage. I got out twenty seconds before my bedroom floor began to erupt in flames. I got out before the black smoke consumed my lungs. I got out with my cats and the clothes on my back.

No one died.

The third floor, my floor, is gone. No one can get onto the third floor and no one ever will. The ice and the snow and black smoke and the flames consumed everything. The fire department, a stone's throw from my building, was on another call when the fire erupted. It was 10-15 minutes before another department, across town, made its way to our building as the first responders. Otherwise it might have been saved.

My computer. My first stuffed animal. My Paris photos. My Kindle. My mother's leather coat. My motorcycle paintings. My garden gnome. My books. All my books. My stories. My new comforter. My grandmother's ring -- the one she wore the day we said good bye. My passport.

Gone. Everything.


All my things are gone.

But I am still here.

And you can have my things. You can have my computer and you can have my Kindle and my Dell and my Hoover. You can have my pens and my memories and all my books. Even the ones I have not yet read. You can have my walls, stained with years of arguments and mountains of joy. You can have my carpeting -- tread upon by many, beaten down by only a few -- fine as I kept it. You can have the twelve years of life I exhaled, the letters I never sent, the notes I never threw away.

You can have my Skatin' Place jacket with the gold medals pinned on the front. You can have my dearest photographs, framed in love and hung with care. You can have Shane's waistband mark against my kitchen wall. You can have John's Pepper shirt that hung within my bedroom closet. You can have Chris's written proposal and his diecast motorcycle above my coat hanger.

You can have every copy of every story I ever wrote. All my articles, all my copy-edited newspapers, all my documents and all my passwords.

You can have my grandmother's watch and my taxes documented ten years past. You can have the things I've had for generations in my family, the things I just bought last week, the things I meant to return. You can have my home and every stupid little thing in it.

But you can't have me.

Because I will write new stories. I will make new documents. I will read new books and build new shelves to place them upon. I will take more pictures and write more articles. I will fill more folder and more albums. I will leave new marks upon new walls and leave new tread upon new floors. I will occupy a new bed that no one else can claim to have laid upon. I will see new sights that I could not have seen had not had new eyes.

It is a new year.

And I will have a new home.

Which I will fill with new things.

And I will succeed in this new (possible) career.

Making new memories.

Bigger and better and bolder and brighter than all the ones I had before because, although you tried, you couldn't take the one thing that I have the most right to.


And isn't that the most beautiful thing I have?

Written at 8:24 p.m.