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Fire Escape
By Gemma Roskam

Having never before called 911, I assumed my civic duty ended with my original call, and the fact that I was now expected to play host to this fire was alarming. I flew out the door, stopping only to brush my hair, apply lipstick and gargle mouthwash. Just the way any single woman would if she knew in advance she was going to encounter firemen.

Before I even reached the corner I could see that Avenue A was aglow with flashing red lights. When I turned the corner, I was disappointed to see that the operator hadn't heeded my advice but had, instead, dispatched four enormous full-sized trucks. I hoped the fire was big, but in a safe way.

I raced down the block toward the trucks.

I noticed, just ahead, at the corner of Sixth, a smolderingly hot fireman looking my way. When he saw me running towards him, he began to run towards me. "You the woman who reported the fire?" he asked, desperation gleaming in his hazel eyes.

I nodded with a humble smile as if to say "Thank me later, let's go save some lives."

"My name's Tony," he said, and then he turned to the driver of the first truck. "This is the woman who reported the fire." The driver, an older man with a bushy mustache, a kind smile and twinkling eyes, saluted me and turned on the blaring sirens. As I blazed up Sixth, leading Tony, eight firemen on foot and four screaming fire engines, I prayed silently, please God, please make Tony be the one. This would be the best "So how did you two meet?" story ever.

By the time we reached the Wonder Bar, residents were peering out of every window on the block. People were standing on fire escapes and rooftops, and all the diners in the French bistro had their noses pressed to the window; two festive drag queens were screaming in terror, and the sparks were flying between Tony and me. I wondered if later, when I rode one of the trucks to the after-party back at the station I would have to sit up front or if they'd let me stand in the back. I wondered if we could drive by my ex-boyfriend's house. No, wait. It'd be better if he just saw me on the TV news.

Tony was looking at me with those eyes again. "Which building?" he asked. I carefully counted the buildings and pointed to the fourth. Tony reached for the buzzer, and I put my hand on his arm. "I'm not sure what I saw," I said softly. "I don't want to scare everyone." He nodded, and I knew he understood. He'd buzz just one person, keep this calm. And then -- he ran his thumb up and down all the buttons, shouting "Fire!" and I knew we'd have to work on our non-verbal communication.

Someone buzzed us in immediately.

The building had no lobby, just some mailboxes, a rickety staircase and a long hallway with a door to the backyard. I moved to guide Tony and his comrades to that back door, but they had it from there. Suddenly all eight firemen were running down the hall, shouting orders.

The door to the first apartment in the hallway opened and an elderly woman wearing a pastel nightgown and track socks, curlers in her hair and a well-fed cat in her arms began to scream in a thick Ukrainian accent, "What is problem?"

One fireman stopped to tell her that there was a fire in the building. "Luckily a woman reported the fire," he said pointing to me.

"Thank God for her!" the woman gasped.

This building, like most in the neighborhood, housed a cross section of people from the old country, NYU students and methadone clinic outpatients. Representatives of each were now helping each other down the stairs, demanding to know what was happening. The old woman explained about me. "She saved us," she told each one. Two coeds in NYU sweatshirts waved at me, and a man with a tattooed face and metal studs in his cheeks gave me a thumbs up.

Then suddenly the clamoring in the backyard stopped and I heard Tony calling for me.

"Yeah Tone?" I called back, giving the tenants a knowing look.

"Come out here," he said.

I politely excused myself and ran out back where, to my surprise, all eight firemen were just standing around.

As I walked down the few steps into the barren yard, Tony looked hard at me. "There's nothing here," he said.

Sixteen eyes were on me.

My heart sank. Had I gotten the yard wrong? No. "It was definitely this one. At least, I mean, I think it was this one," I stammered. Two firemen clambered over the fence on either side of the yard to check. A tiny flicker of hope that I might yet be redeemed was extinguished a minute later when they both called "nothing here."

We stood there, silent again. I looked around the yard to see if there was any way I could possibly start a fire.

By then the tenants had gathered near the back door, and as the firemen announced their verdict, the crowd parted and the captain, a frail, wrinkled prune of a man, pushed his way through. He strode to Tony's side and, nodding in my direction asked, "Is she the caller?"

I noticed immediately that I had been demoted from "the woman who reported the fire" to "the caller." Which I later figured out probably stood for "Crazy-Ass Lying Lady Everyone Resents." He asked me where I lived, and I pointed behind us, up to my window.

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