In this excerpt from Steven Heighton's new book, a firefighter must decide what lives are worth saving in the heat of a four-alarm fire. The official line is that firefighters save people, or die in the attempt - but what about reptiles?
“Fireman’s Carry” is excerpted from The Dead Are More Visible, copyright © 2012 Steven Heighton, published by Knopf Canada, an imprint of the Knopf Random Canada Publishing Group, which is a division of Random House Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
We shoulder the coffin of my friend Warren Reed down the front steps of the church and on toward the hearse’s gaping back door. It reminds me of the receiving mouth of a crematorium, that door—how a coffin will glide through and into the discreetly quiet, white-hot furnace beyond. I always wonder how they manage to keep such a ravenous blaze so quiet.
I’ve read somewhere that fire, to certain ancient peoples, was an animal, as alive and on the same level as humans, horses, birds, fish, insects, everything. It’s easy—especially for someone who has fought fires, and walked inside them—to imagine how the belief arose. Fire breathes air, like us. Fire eats wood as well as the flesh of animals, the dead as well as the living. It moves on its own, it has a voice and a vocabulary, it can seed itself and propagate, it can hibernate deep in the roots of trees and fully revive, it leaves a sort of bodily waste behind, it attacks, it withdraws, it can be tamed and domesticated, and finally, when it has eaten everything, it starves or else smothers or perishes by drowning. I’ve read, too, about a certain desert tribe who believed that while animals understood the language of fire, humans had somehow lost it, along with the other animal tongues—but that each person at the moment of death regained the capacity to understand. This tribe believed their dead should never be buried but instead burned, so the living flames could guide and sing the dead into the afterlife.
There will be no flames today, though—no furnace door. Firefighters seldom incline to the crematory option. Once we load my friend into the hearse, we’ll be getting into our cars and merging into the motorcade heading out to the cemetery on the outskirts of town, or what used to be the outskirts. Green and peaceful, breezy grounds, tall, stately hardwoods two centuries old.
My friend’s maple coffin is—do I need to say this?—heavy on our shoulders, though it’s not the burden it might be for an average pallbearer. There are six of us, and the five who wear full dress uniform (I’m the odd one out, in my formal civvies) are all in good shape, the way I used to be when I was signing in to the fire hall gym four times a week and carrying serious poundage into and out of burning buildings.
Then there’s the fact that we’re getting used to bearing these coffins and sliding them into hearses. It’s not what you might think, either—not fatalities on the job, floors and burning walls collapsing, chemical explosions. An occupational epidemic of cancer is what it is, cancer of the brain, cancer of the liver, plenty of lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, cancer from all the burning crud we’re inhaling in all the factories, garages, condos and offices we try to save. Still, my friend feels heavy in his coffin, this virtually bombproof carapace whose protection he could have used in life, on the job, but now has zero use for.
I left the department over a year ago. I’m doing sedentary work now, not exciting, but it’s a job, it’s safe, it pays decently, and to be honest I rarely miss the challenge and adrenal rush of what I used to love doing. Plus I work at home, meaning more family time and none of the strife and stress of working with others. That endless chafing of personalities. It was an awkward resignation, if you can call it that. (Did I fall or was I pushed? A bit of both. If I’d wanted to fight it, the union could have saved my job, I’m pretty sure, maybe after moving me to another hall.)
So we ease my friend into the hearse and there’s a curious interlude, nobody sure who should close the back door. Standing beside us in a too-big black suit, the funeral director’s assistant—a thin, fidgety kid who looks like he should be slouching along in loose jeans and an undershirt—hesitates too. Is it his job to close the door? This might be his first funeral. For a moment we stand looking around, then downward, the crew at their own spit-buffed parade boots, me at my laceless, matte-black shoes, shoes shaped like a platypus’s bill. They’re clean and new, not too informal, I feel, though suddenly I wonder. A couple of my ex-crewmates are having a look at them, and they seem to baffle the giant crew captain, Jack Steiger. He and I never got along too well, especially at the end. And yet he surprised me yesterday by calling and gruffly inviting me to join the rest of the crew as a pallbearer. Most people, I’ve come to see, surprise you more often, not less, as they get older.
Big Steiger aims a look of hard inquiry at the apprentice and nods at the door. The kid, helpless in the face of such raw, animal ascendancy, steps forward and swings it closed.
Room 303 was the last one I broke into, during my last fire, my last night on the job. I’d clomped upstairs in the dark with Reed and Steiger, full gear, hose and lifeline, breathing loud and laboured inside the mask. From between the room’s floorboards and out of the joins between the wainscoting and walls, spotlit by my headlamp, smoke hissed up in gauzy sheets that broke apart at waist level, scrolling and spreading through the room. And there was purple smoke, like a stage effect at a heavy metal show. A rooming house is about the worst place for a fire, short of a chemical factory. Narrow hallways, the wiring below code, a dozen rooms or more, each warehoused with the kind of fodder that fires dote on—aged mattresses, bales of newspapers and Reader’s Digest, paperbacks, LPs, dry-rotted furniture. This place was sensationally decrepit. Shredded Insulbrick over century-old clapboard. Packed with flammables and going up in a whoosh. We had four trucks out front, ladders deployed, crews fighting to dent the firestorm that had already blown out the lower windows, seeking more oxygen, more space to expand. The crews were spraying from all angles, triangulating the fire’s heart, trying to buy us a few minutes upstairs. In the south alley, another hose was drenching the side-door stairwell where we’d entered and where we hoped to exit, soon. For now the lower flight of stairs was a foaming, terraced cascade, like a salmon weir.