City On Fire

Alright, babe, I’ll tell you… If you want to know then I’ll tell it to you. But this is it… my deepest darkest. And once I tell you there is no going back. You and I will never be the same.”

I paused then, dramatically, waiting for a dog to bark, or the Earth to open and swallow us whole. But none of that ever happens, never when you need it. I was checking to see if I had impressed her yet, but she stared back at me with a blank face. Or maybe she was just nauseous.

“It’s time you knew everything, but just remember: you asked me. You asked to know my secret so I will tell it. I’ll tell it to you. But you have to promise you’ll still love me when I’m finished, you have to promise you’ll still love me at the end.”

She nodded, almost, so I began.

“It was a hot day in August. A summertime day in the middle of August. I remember that day. I remember hot. My younger brother was eleven which would make me twelve. And his friend Alex- a scoundrel- had stolen cigarettes from his chain-smoking mother…”

She leaned back then, her eyebrows arched, her arms folded, and she was looking at me differently. She was finally understanding the depth of my pain, the complexity of my personality. Or maybe she was in the mood for a cheeseburger.

I continued.

“This is the story of my first cigarette.”

And then, through the magic of flashback, we flashed back. Took the two of us back to a hot August day in the middle of the summertime, my hometown. And everything was happening just like it happened then: men buying milk and papers, sweating at the coolers, teenage boys getting taller just to reach the magazines at the top of the rack. Women, too hot to wear clothes, making us insane. My friends and I spent the summer wandering the streets, out of school, out of ideas, and waiting for everything to happen.

That hot August day my brother had told me about Alex, and the cigarettes, and the three of us met in the empty apartment above us. It had been vacant for as long as we’d lived there but there had been people in this place before us. Neighbors, families, business owners… maybe a dentist, maybe a sailor. But we made the place our own, pushed the boxes of newspaper out of the way and brought in milk crates to sit on and a radio for Z100. A shoebox of baseball cards sat by the open window.

Alex was beaming over his stolen Marlboro’s, wanted to tell us the whole story over again, but we got right to it, lit up as Billy Joel faded away and Guns ‘N Roses sang about the paradise city.

Flick. Drag. Burn. The cigarette was sacred, sweet, and as we sat in a circle and smoked something funny happened: A high. Dizzy with the nicotine. Hold on, hold on… the room going funny. Smiles of anticipation. The smoke was going to cure us of childhood, and hopefully the heat of the summer. We restrained from vomiting- out of respect.

In the haze of second-hand we heard Grandma calling, howling at us through the first-floor window, “Boys! Boys!” We ignored her as hard as we could. “Where are you boys, boys?”


It was probably Alex or my brother who flicked the lit ciggie into the box of old newspaper. Then again, it might have been me, but we were so stoned from the tobacco in our lungs we couldn’t remember… even if we wanted to.

We jumped to our feet, spooked like rabbits, scattering, abandoning the plan and denying that we even knew each other. The lesbian babysitters across the way watched us scamper down the fire escape, rolling their eyes without a word and cursing men as a sex. Little did our tiny minds comprehend that the cigarette was still burning, igniting yesterday’s headlines, and inspiring the cardboard box to burst into unprecedented flame.

We hit the streets, still stunned. After eight the sidewalks were ours, and we ruled them with benevolent neglect. Nothing says badass like a Bart Simpson T-shirt, and we blended in quickly with the other packs of stray kids searching for the ice cream truck. The heat never let up, and so we lived with it, took it with us wherever we went, and we would dip into storefronts for AC relief until the owners kicked us out with their brooms.

We were at Bulls Head variety eating Alexander The Grape when the Panicky Man burst inside. He turned to the clerk, panicky, and shouted louder than necessary: “The whole fucking neighborhood is burning to Hell and beyond! How much for a pack of Garbage Pail Kids?

We were on the curb before the clerk could say fifty cents. The ghetto was ablaze and the firepeople- cosmic clowns in submarine boots and halloween hats- spat water at the thriving inferno. It was no use. The slums were burning first… but by the end we’d all be burning.

An old lady in corrective shoes ran by, turned to us. “Your grandmother was incinerated!” We barely had time to thank her for the update before she tripped over a pebble, breaking her neck against a fire hydrant and dying politely.

We stood back and watched the flames engulf, we watched the city burn, a mixture of hot shame and glowing pride: the hospital was torched, and the flames didn’t discriminate between the doctors and the patients. It was a masterpiece of golden triangle: heat, fuel and oxygen to feed the raging beast. We should have been horrified, but we had given birth to the bastard. He was our baby, for better or worse.

The church was scorched and the priest instantly roasted. The video store smoldered as the cassettes melted, the movies dripping down the wire racks. Then the police department caught fire- cops go up like kindling- and then the dry cleaners… The lake was on fire, as was the pre-school, and the high school, and the pet store. The stadium was burning, staining the ozone, as was the cigar store, and the coffee shops, the movie theater, and the government center.

And the people were consumed by fire as well… the mayor lit up like a roman candle and my school teachers proved to be a special kind of flammable. The parking lots, the bowling alleys, the pizza joints and the grocery stores… people burn good when you set them on fire.

The city was destroyed... nothing left for anyone, and the buildings blazed on into the night. We watched for as long as we could, until our child eyes got heavy and had to go down, and no one asked us any questions when we slept beneath our beds that night, just so a stray cinder didn’t fly through the window and bite us or ignite us.

The three of us promised that we would never talk about it again, and we never did.

I exhaled. I turned to face her.

“So that’s it, babe… that’s my deepest darkest…”

She rose up then, stood sure and easy, ready to leave me, ready to deny she’d ever loved me. But she didn’t do that.

Instead she pulled a cigarette out of her pocket and lit up, the white fire lighting the apartment, the silver smoke filling the air. And she exhaled, blowing the smoke into my face.

And that’s how I knew she was the one.


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