When Jimmy called early that Sunday morning saying the hotel was on fire, I thought it was a joke. His humor was always dry. His tone gave away nothing, a flat horizon of expression. But he insisted, his voice pitching upward: It’s on fire right now.
Hurriedly, I dressed––last night’s jeans and t-shirt, a ratty sweater, battered boots, a cigarette smoke-saturated pea coat and pilled watch cap––and ran out the door. I walked quickly for a few blocks, looking back for an approaching bus. Nothing. The street was lifeless. Spotting black smoke funneling into the January sky, I broke into a run. My heart pounded a sped-up version of my feet against the pavement. Cold air made my face and breath tight. I slowed my pace as my mind picked up: My job was burning down. Maybe not. Maybe the fire was contained. I told myself this a few times, a little handheld mantra of denial until I turned the corner and saw the building in flames.
A crowd stood across the street, a motley bunch bonded by this old building by the train tracks. The hotel contained four bars, a coffee shop, a barber shop, a restaurant, and hotel rooms, many filled by low-income residents: drag queens, musicians, people who made art and people who talked about making art. A few of my co-workers lived there, eating meals from room service, going to see bands at one bar, drink at another, play pool, and take strangers or repeat offenders back to their rooms. The rumor was that one queen hadn’t left the building in years, but now I could see her standing on the curb bare-faced, clutching a thin robe, and watching her world burn.
Jimmy came over and hugged me. That was what it took for us to make contact: a disaster. Around me people cried and stared in disbelief. Jimmy held my numb hand, moving closer to me.
The fire was mesmerizing, licking away at the three stories. A burst of flame appeared in another window and another. Everywhere. The firemen dragged coils of hose back and forth in a futile dance. The water pooled and froze on the ground.
My god. I almost whispered it.
We watched until the hotel was gone. Some walls stood and the façade like a war movie set on a Hollywood lot. The bright sky showed through the black walls and smoldering debris. Jimmy nudged me along and we moved slowly to a nearby bar where a football game played on multiple televisions. I hugged the hotel’s owners, a brother and sister and began drinking. Some eyes showed shock and raw fear. Others hinted that this day was another in long, sideways lives running out of back roads. Maybe they saw it in my eyes too.
Morning turned to afternoon and then it was dark. Jimmy rested his head on my shoulder. Some people were still in bathrobes or in borrowed clothes or coats provided by the Red Cross. I drank to the point where I couldn’t stand easily. The news came on and we watched ourselves on television. People hushed the bar to listen. Someone else telling the story meant it had happened and it mattered. People cried onscreen.
When the TV went to commercial, everyone was momentarily energized by the official version. A few minutes later, the mood shifted: the news sealed the story. It had happened and was over. On to sports and weather. Clear and cold tomorrow. Tomorrow implied an end to tonight. No, this would go on and on.
Time broke apart after the news. Something was lodged in me, stuck. I was only half present. The rest wasn’t memories so much as flashes of all the false starts and new beginnings: the jobs and apartments and men and friends and acquaintances commingling. I’d worked at every other restaurant and coffee shop and retail store downtown since I’d arrived as a teenage runaway a decade ago.
These weren’t my people, not really. We were bonded by this time and event, but tomorrow we would be townies competing for jobs in a college city in the dead of winter.
The tension of the day, the worry about tomorrow, all of it was amateur hour. I looked at the faces around me. In a few years, I would forget most of the names. Jimmy and I would probably drift apart. A few more years would be wasted.
People started to leave. I wanted Jimmy to take me home. Not because it would change anything or become anything. It would provide the voice that had woken me with news of the fire speaking to me the next morning, and so life wasn’t random fragments; an electrical wire ran through it if you knew where to look and could sense tiny powers. But Jimmy was comforting someone else, his hands moving across the other man’s back, his head tilted in, listening. Probably best.
A cab was idling at the curb. I picked up my coat, not even attempting to navigate putting my arms in the sleeves, and set it on my shoulders like the cape of some disgraced royal challenged to a duel at dawn. I demand satisfaction. I stumbled and walked out to the car without saying goodbye.
Nate Lippens is the author of the chapbook MINCE (Bridge Productions, 2016). His stories have been published by Catapult, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Hobart, SAND Journal, Five:2:One, and Entropy, among many others.