JAMIE felt like he was stepping into a thick bank of fog. He took a shallow breath through his nose, savoring the acrid smell of burning wood and melting plastic. Almost regretfully, he brought the regulator up and twisted it into the opening of the clear mask he wore over his face. Now each time he inhaled, his lungs dragged a noisy breath of bottled air from the tank on his back. He shifted the straps on his shoulders and tightened the waist belt, feeling the heavy rig settle a bit more comfortably. Instinctively he looked left, then right, but he couldn’t see much through the smoke.
A gloved hand thudded against the sleeve of his coat. “This way.” The lieutenant’s voice was muffled behind his own mask, and only long practice let Jamie understand him.
They trudged down the corridor to the left. As they drew closer, Jamie could see more smoke, thicker and darker, drifting out of the open door of the last apartment on the right. “Want me to call for the line?”
“Not yet.” Loo led the way into the apartment. Jamie followed, the hiss of his regulator loud in his ears.
It never ceased to amaze him, the way fire and smoke transformed the urban landscape, leaching away color and character, touching the ordinary items of daily life and rendering them foreign, even alien. Fully enclosed from head to toe, slow and clumsy in his gear, he had the curious feeling of being isolated even though three other men were with him. It was like being in space. Like walking on the moon.
The fantasy came to a very mundane end, as was most often the case in this line of work. They followed the smoke into the kitchen, where Loo cracked the oven door and was rewarded with more dark plumes. He twisted the dial to “off” and pulled a pan out, dropping it noisily in the sink where the blackened and desiccated remains of someone’s dinner continued to smoke pitifully. Looks like pork chops, Jamie thought as he moved to the window and shoved the sash up.
The lieutenant got on the radio and called dispatch. “Be advised we have a 10-26 at this location.”
“Roger, Unit Four. 10-26, food on the stove.”
Loo switched channels and called down to the ladder truck, instructing them to bring up the smoke ejectors. Since there was no fire, he sent the engine back to quarters. “Kill that goddamn alarm,” he ordered. Jamie climbed up on a kitchen chair and smashed the wailing smoke detector to pieces with the head of his ax.
They set up the big fans to vent the smoke and stood around waiting for the air to clear, bitching about stupid people and reminding each other of similar calls. Just as the stories turned to outright lies, Loo ordered them to pack up. They humped their gear back down to the truck. The lieutenant called them in as 10-2, returning to quarters, and they headed back to the firehouse, sweaty and not having seen so much as a spark.
Riding in the open jump seat, facing the rear of the truck and completely open to the summer stench of the city, Jamie couldn’t help but grin. Damn, I love this job!
Back at the firehouse, the driver swung the truck out into traffic and backed it into the bay, the backup alarm echoing in the cavernous space. Jamie swung down out of his seat, his boots thudding on the concrete floor. He shoved his helmet onto the top shelf of his gear locker and hung up his heavy coat, which had his last name sketched in block letters in Magic Marker across the shoulders. He shrugged out of the wide suspenders and pushed the fireproof pants down to puddle at his feet. Stepping out of his boots, he left them cradled in the legs of the pants and tossed the whole bundle in the bottom of his locker. Finally, he slipped into his own worn sneakers with a contented sigh.
His shiftmates also made short work of their gear, eager to return to their interrupted dinner. While the lieutenant called the truck back into service, everyone else headed to the kitchen. Thankfully, it was Reggie’s turn to cook. He was one of the better ones, especially with the memory of Ed’s Bayou Surprise still fresh in their minds. Fresher, it turned out, than the shrimp he’d gotten such a bargain on.
Reggie had a simple secret to his success: he didn’t try to get cute. He made plain, filling food, and he made a lot of it. Tonight he delivered once more, serving up a huge bowl of spaghetti with homemade meat sauce and half a dozen lengths of garlic bread. The men fell on it like starving wolves. It was the first lesson any firefighter learned: eat quick, because you never knew when the next chance would come around.
Food gone and dishes loaded in the dishwasher, most of the men headed for the ready room to relax. Jamie and Dennis Kennedy headed for the tiny weight room to get in a workout before bed. Dennis was Jamie’s age and had been in his class at the academy. They’d been fast friends in training, only to be assigned different duty stations after graduation. After the heavy losses the FDNY suffered on 9/11, they’d found themselves reassigned to the same house.
From his perch on the seat of the stationary bike, Jamie watched as his friend did bench presses, the muscles in his arms shifting fluidly each time he raised and lowered the barbell. He had a tattoo on his right bicep, a fighting leprechaun that was barely visible against his pale skin. “Quit lookin’ at me, you fuckin’ queer,” Dennis puffed, shoving the bar up again.
Jamie grinned. “Like I’d watch a pussy like you. Why don’t you put some real weight on that thing? My grandma could lift that.”
“Fuck you,” came the cheerful reply.
“C’mon, I’ll spot you.”
“What, so you can rub your balls on my face? No thanks.”
“You know you want it.”
“No, I don’t fuckin’ want it.” Dennis brought the bar to rest on the horns and sat up, a dark V of sweat staining the neck of his T-shirt. “Keep your fuckin’ balls to yourself.”
Jamie shook his head sadly. “I have been, for too damn long.” He pedaled faster, as if that would work off his building frustration.
“You need a trip to Jersey, son.”
“Soon, buddy, very soon.”
They worked out for another half an hour before calling it a night and heading for the shower. “Don’t look at my fuckin’ dick,” Dennis warned him. Jamie thought about how nice it was to have one person in his life who knew his deep, dark secret and really didn’t give a shit. And just to piss him off, he totally scoped Dennis’ dick in the shower. And made a disparaging remark about Irishmen and size, managing to work in both leprechauns and potatoes. He was pretty proud of that.