Fire Man Answers a Call
3 Fireman Series
By Terry Butler
You Billy, right?
Sometimes, yeah. What’s up?
Friend of mine say you in here a lot. Ax me to look you up. Cat
How’s my friend, Lionel?
He cool, want you to know he got something for you.
You have it?
Naw. He say come up to Lupine.
Buy you a drink?
Aw-ight. Thanks, man. Double Johnny Black.
This is my daily. The Brass Rail on Vallejo. The only working
man’s bar on the Beach now that our town has been invaded by successive waves
of self-seeking outsiders fleeing inauthenticity in order to find something
resembling it in an historic neighborhood, in an historic small city not New
York, Chicago or L.A.
If they’d just ask a native he could set them straight. Kerouac
and Ginsberg are dead. Bob Kaufman and Corso stayed here for a run with the
hippies, and Ferlinghetti might be in the bookstore in the evenings, but the
vibe is in SOMA now, and you can find that shit in any town.
Just before this cat approached me, I’m trying my best to be sincere
with Geno, my homeboy from forever. He’s telling me about his woman problem.
Again. Right now, he’s got two great ones, Jenny from Mission High days and his
wife from the streets, instead of a string of whackos
like usual. He sits on the same stool every
day and when he knows it’s time for me to come in, he gets the one on his left
empty so he can talk at me.
Hey, Geno, I gotta go. Tell me about your talk with Jenny later,
OK?. No, yeah, it’s all good, it’s just a
heads up, a need to know. Say hi to Jenny.
And your old lady too.
I haven’t been to Lupine Court for a while. Aubrey’s house is
bulldozed. Corner stakes are up, showing the lot boundaries, but the yellow
tape is up too. There’s still a dumpster in front. My gut is tight.
That night, carrying her out of the fire, a crazy kill I’d never
expected, caring for her until she calmed, loving her to sleep. Never to be
forgotten by her or me.
Across and into the cul-de-sac, Lionel sits in a lawn chair
inside his lit up garage. His system plays softly and spreads peaceful Marvin
Gaye into the twilit drizzle. Brother, brother, there’s just too many of us
He knows I’m here, so I walk up. This is the first time we’ve
met beyond those momentary connections, but the connection is strong. He’s big,
and I am too, but he’s solid in the way a wall is solid, his bump and embrace
is an illustration of physical power beyond ordinary.
Hey, B. Thought you should know. I seen her.
Yeah, right here. On foot. She was all covered up, but I knew it
was her because she went dead to the burn pile and walked right in. All the way
to the back of the lot. Old shed back there didn’t burn. I started to follow
quiet, but I knew I wouldn’t make it through all that shit without her hearing
She went in?
I heard the door open. She come right back out. Walked fast
right by me. I’m standing on the sidewalk and she looked right through me. Hey,
man, she knows me. We talked a few times,
she came to a barbecue I had. The girl
ain’t dead but she’s a ghost.
Did you talk to her?
I told you, I was like a phone pole or some shit. I called her
name and she didn’t even notice. She went to the bus shelter and when the 52
bus come, she got on it.
52 goes downtown, right?
Yup. Greyhound terminal to out here.
The drizzle is turning to rain. The smell of the ashes gets more
noticeable. I can see the shed, the door hanging open. When I step inside, I
wonder if its empty because it always was or if people have taken the contents.
It is definitely empty. Aubrey hid something here.
Nothing seems out of place. It’s just a shed for garden tools.
Shit, Lionel. Guess I’ll go downtown.
Looka here, Billy. I ain’t no friend of god damn Sleepy myself,
know what I’m saying?
Right. And I will back you when it’s time, but those motherfuckers
all know me. Go to the terminal on your own this time, ask some hooker where
A Grey Dog depot is the same everywhere. Big city, small town.
Other than size there’s no difference. It’s about who is around there. Poor
folks mostly, and those who have no eyes for a settled life, as well as those
who prey on both. Bus depots are always downtown and always dirty, with a view out
onto the broken parts of their city or town. This one was once a painted and
of bus traffic. Now it’s dying. A terminal for folks who have to travel and
can’t afford to fly.
Standing outside and watching the pale light settle on the loser
side of the street, on its locos, thieves and innocents, an emptiness grows in
me. I think Aubrey is familiar with bus
depots. She never explained a thing or told me a full story, but I know she’s
seen these corners.
I’m feeling a fool, looking for heaven, walking in limbo.
Hey, man, you’re Fleur right? The nice lady said I should look
for you here.
What nice lady?
Oh, Cookie, over on the other side there.
What you want? Must not be Cookie.
Actually, I’m looking for friend of mine. Aubrey. One of her
neighbors told me she disappeared after her house burnt down. He said she was a
hooker and said to try asking around the Greyhound depot.
Neighbor? What neighbor?
I didn’t get his name. Older man lives around the corner. He
knew her well enough, I guess.
I don’t know no Aubrey. All I got is pussy for sale. If you
don’t want none then I can’t help you.
But Cookie seemed to know who I was asking about.
Fucking Cookie got a big mouth.
Fleur takes his gold tooth pick out of his pretty mouth and at
last looks right at me. If he had a dream other than this one he’s living in,
he would want to be a spoiled fop in the decadent French court of Louis XIV. He
tries to look dangerous.
This the truth fool, you take your ass out this neighborhood.
Don’t come back no more. Aubrey ain’t none your business.
You know her then.
Oh, Man! You a smart-ass motherfucker ain’t you? Fuck this
Yeah it’s me.
Where the fuck am I?
I brought you to my place after they dropped you behind the
dumpsters. Me and Deirdre.
Man, everything hurts. Fleur did it?
Shit, that punk ass bitch would worry he might break a fingernail.
No, it’s those assholes who hang with him. But he told them to do it.
Wow. Cookie. You helped me.
Aubrey is my friend. We go way back. Fleur put us in his string
the same day.
You know where she is?
Maybe. It seemed important and I tried to hang on but pain and a
glimpse of a dark hole I could crawl into pulled me in. I needed to close down
so I did.
In a burning house I watch a beautiful child run from room to
room in panic and fear. My feet won’t move. I’m paralyzed, my lungs are filling
with choking smoke and my heart is hammering. Aubrey! I scream. Billy! She
I’m fading from life, whispering, Aubrey…? Billy, she moans.
And then it rained.
Take this ice water Baby. You need to drink.
No, baby. Cookie. Lionel’s here too.
Physically I’m feeling like a hurricane and an earthquake just
happened right on top of me. But even in the fog and with the annoying ringing
sound that is my consciousness I can still be startled by the idea that Lionel
and Cookie are both here in this room. I try to sit up, I feel puke rising.
Lionel lifts me and places my shoulders against a pillow and I spew into a bowl
that Cookie has ready. I tell my head to stop spinning and my gut to stop being
Lionel? What the fuck is going on?
Lionel tells me that he has known Aubrey since she stepped off
the bus. There wasn’t any band that dumped her, no scuffling for singer gigs.
She was one of many kids running from the empty middle of the country to the
mythic coasts and the bright, lit up interior cities. She was looking for an own-self,
someone in a dream, a version of what could be created in the right place and
time. Just a runaway.
Lionel, the sometime predator, chained to a gorilla habit that was
killing him little by little, happened to be in that terminal when her bus came
in. She was a small goddess, he says, almost
perfectly formed, looking over the top of her shades, casting about for
something, a newborn lost in the forest.
She was open, available to the world, and he was instantly in love. His
love was immediate, but his commitment was temporary because after all, it was
just business. She was more valuable to others than to him in his currently limited
usefulness, so he took her to Sleepy, and after, with his purse full of silver,
he went back to his slave life.
He never let go of her or what he had done.
She was 16, Billy. My sister was 17 and I thought about that.
Didn’t stop me though. Man. Shit. Fuck.
Me, Lionel, Geno, and a kid Geno says is the greatest driver
he’s ever known, going up from Broadway with nothing good in mind. Geno
and Lionel each take a sidewalk. I go down the middle of the narrow
street. Cookie sees us and she lets the
girls know to get clear and watch. It’s not quite dark but the street lamps are
starting to come on. Beer signs in bar windows are just beginning to get bright
and inviting. A street sweeper just passed so the pavement is shining, the air
smells clean right then.
In front of The Blues Saloon Fleur poses leaning against his
Benz. His boys are slack, backs to the walls of a pizzeria and a coffee house.
The house band is tuning up, customers are drifting to the door, paying the
cover, getting their stamp. Testing, testing. A wailing fragment of Chicago
blues harp through a Fender amp, a running scale on electric bass, a drum roll
and a rim shot, a thumping bass drum, and cutting loud and clear on top, a few
deep-toned 12 bar rides up and down the neck of a Gibson ES 355.
I’m in his face before he can react.
Is this how you want to die Fleur? Just shot down in front of
here? I can kill you and gone.
I’ve got his jacket and shirt above his belly twisted in one
hand and a .38 deep in the softness just below his belt. He’s scared, not used
to this, maybe never saw this since the projects, but that shit was never him,
always somebody stupid.
Where’s Aubrey, Fleur? See, a beating like you gave me is one
thing but a bullet in your gut is another. I’ll let the ass whipping go if you
talk. Either way its pain. Your choice, bitch.
He looks around and sees his friends paying deep respect to mine
and the several hard-eyed women moving to close a circle around us.
He points his chin at me and tries not to let go of his
self-image as a bad ass.
She’s dead, man. She told Sleepy she wasn’t working for him no
more and without no protection some sick fucker cut her up and dumped her
across the bridge.
Police know this?
How the fuck I know what the fucking police know man!? It was in
the Chronicle this morning! You don’t read the fucking paper?
I let go of his clothes, push him away, and as he straightens
himself and gives me a threatening look I put a bullet in his left knee.
The girls turn to face out but keep the tight circle. Geno and
Lionel are watching Fleur’s soldiers run. We walk up the hill to where the kid
has the plain looking Chevy waiting. I hear the pimp moan as Cookie nudges him
in the ass with the pointed toe of her stiletto heel.
Hey Fleur. Now we gone call you the Pimp Who Got a Limp.
I hear the cackling of whores getting even.
We climb into the four door and ease out into Saturday night
traffic. Streets fully lit up, people walking against the lights, double
parking, buses and cabs. The kid deals with it all like skating alone in the
Where we going Billy?
I don’t know. Hit the liquor store on Franklin and Lombard. I
need to get a Chronicle.
As it has lately, the violence leaves me empty. No adrenaline
rush, no sense of justification. One asshole shoots another asshole, so what?
Am I looking for war or a woman to live with?
I’m not sure Aubrey even knows I’m looking for her. I’m
Terry's book, CROOKED LADDER is available in paperback from Amazon at :
Terry lives in the country, near a small town
south of San Jose, CA called Hollister. He used to write steadily, publishing
both in print and
online as Terence Butler, but after some health
issues, the energy needed to write seemed to dissipate somewhat. He has been a
professional photographer and a painter/collage-assemblage maker for most of
his working life, so painting and photo art have taken the place of genre
fiction as an outlet. Recently the story “Fire Man” appeared all as a piece in
his mind so he simply wrote it down. He sent it to Cindy, and in
the ensuing back and forth. They somehow discussed using some of his
visual art, too. Cindy is simply the best, and a real stalwart in this little
world. She has a big heart and a deep love for animals, too!