Friday, July 20, 2012

Fire in the Hole, Part II

And now, the continuing saga of getting a bunch of my stuff burned up, coated with soot, waterlogged, and otherwise fucked up.

7:31 AM

Sitting up in bed, I squinted at the flashing light on the wall of my motel room and listened to the harsh sound of the fire alarm.

“Really?” I said aloud.

For an absurd moment I looked around for anything that might need saving from the flames, then realized that nothing in the room belonged to me, and just exited the room in search of the stairs. To get to them I had to pass the elevators. At least twenty people were queued-up there, looking anxious. I thought about reminding them of the little signs posted in their rooms warning guests to use the stairs, not the lifts, in case of fire, but for reasons surpassing (at least my) understanding, they were aiming crusty expressions at me, so I refrained from reminding them that they were in danger of reenacting the best parts of The Towering Inferno, and that Steve McQueen and Paul Newman weren’t going to arrive any time soon. Instead I hurried to the stairs and hiked down three flights to the lobby.

And about then, a disturbing little pest of a thought starting flitting around inside my head like a fruit fly.

I told the night clerk about my fire. Now I’m here and there’s a fucking fire. They’re gonna think I’m Arnold the Arsonist. Sweet shit.

So, I started looking around at the motel staff, trying to gauge their overall interest in me. They weren’t interested in me at all, as it happened. Not a jot, not a tittle. And, strangely, they seemed even less interested in the fire alarms. A group of them stood behind the desk in their spiffy matching blazers, chatting amiably about who-the-hell-knows what. One of them looked at me. A made a kind of grand sweeping gesture at her, trying my befuddled best to encompass the hotel, the alarms, my general state of mental disarray, and the rather salient—I thought—threat of potential, perhaps even immediate, immolation. She girl smiled at me. Just a normal, run-of-the-hospitality-service display of dentition. No concern. No sign of anxiety. No nothing. Just a bunch of white teeth.

A woman’s voice called down from the open, second-floor balcony above. “Is it safe? Can we go back to our rooms?”

“Oh, sure,” said the girl, and returned to the desk-clerk confab.

I looked up at the old lady on the balcony. She looked down at me. She shrugged. I shrugged. She waddled away. I went to the desk, putting my palms on the faux-marble countertop. The fire alarm stop shrieking. The girl turned to me.

“What happened?” I asked.

“About what?” she asked.

“Uh…the alarms?”

“The fire alarms?”

NO, you fuckin’ salt-lick! The goddamn fucking ICEBERG alarm!

“Yeah, the fire alarms.”

“Oh,” she said, rolling her eyes. “It was nothing. Someone in the kitchen burnt toast.”

“Ah,” I said, and went back up to my room.

The Morning Evolves

I parked in front of the main office building at my apartment complex at just after 8:30, to find all of the management personnel who been on the scene the night before, plus several others, rushing about clutching cell phones and manila folders. One held up a “just one minute” finger and I sat down to wait. A few minutes expired, but then another of the complex’s seemingly endless supply of petite blond chicks collected me and we sat across from each other at her (presumably) desk.

This I must say: the management folks were very efficient. Less than ten minutes after I sat down, I was in possession of another apartment in the same complex, less than 200 yards from the old one, as the crow flies. They even knocked $100 bucks off my rent, just, apparently, cuz.

As I rose to leave, new keys in hand, I asked the lady if they knew how the fire started.

“Yes,” she said, growing steely-eyed. “She lit a barbecue grill on her balcony and set the ceiling on fire.”

“No shit?” I said, but I was thinking Oh, shit, as I recalled how less than a month before I’d grilled some steaks on my balcony.

“It’s illegal in Oklahoma to grill on a balcony. We’ve been looking the other way, but now we’re going to enforce the policy.”

“OK. You’ve got my vote.” First order of business, I thought, ditch my grill. “Can I go in my old place?”

“Uh huh. Sure. Fire department says everyone can.”

I thanked her and left. First, I went to the new pad and found it was identical to the old, then I drove to the old place and stood outside the half-demolished door, not wanting, not even a little bit, to go inside. But I did.


In order of importance, I was worried about the following:

1)      My computer (plus assorted add-ons), because pretty much my entire dippy life revolves around that little electronic wonder.
2)      My books, because they make my neural net spark and sizzle like water drops on a griddle. I have close to 3,000 of them, with maybe 30 of those being rare, or signed, or limited, editions. And there is some fucked-up, materialistic element in my lower consciousness that says: without my books I might just shrivel up and blow away.
3)      My movies. I’m a movie junkie of the highest degree. Over 800 of them, not counting the 200 or so stored in my computer. Rich’s House of Videos.
4)      And that’s about it. The rest of my crap was just that: crap. If it had gotten destroyed, so be it.

I went up the stairs, stood at the top, and surveyed.

The place was a total shambles. It looked like several randy elephants had gotten jiggy wid it and not stayed to tidy up afterwards.

And, well, truth be told, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared (or as bad as Denny had led me to believe the previous night). In sum: I lost most of my (already quite crappy) furniture, my TV (but I had been looking to replace it), a couple of lamp shades, a bunch of clothing (troublesome, but not dire), and less than 200 books, none of them among the valuable volumes. Somehow, my computer had survived its ordeal (I’m writing this on it), as had the rest of my small collection of electronic add-ons.

Before I began salvage operations, I went downstairs for a smoke and to scout out a place where I could drive onto the grass, and thus get closer to my unit in order to facillitate whatever schlepping my future had in store.

That’s when I ran into Denny, my downstairs neighbor.

Crazy Denny

This guy is well worth an aside. Hell, this guy is worth a complete battery of psychological tests, and quite possibly some hardcore drugs. But anyway…

Denny had moved into the apartment below mine about three months earlier. First day I met him, he buttonholed me outside my car and demanded to know if I was a former Navy SEAL.

“No,” I answered. “I’ve never served. My brother has almost twenty-five years in, but not me.”

“Bunch of us were wondering,” Denny said, gesturing with his tallboy down at my right leg. “We were talking about that shark. Figured you were a SEAL. SEALs get sharks.”

I have a Maori shark totem tattooed on my right calf. Sharks are cool and they make me happy.

“Do they?” I asked Denny, truly curious. “I didn’t know that. You in the service?”

“Yep,” he said, his chest inflating like a prairie chicken’s in April.

I took a closer look at the faded green ink on his forearms and biceps; lots of military and military-type designs.

“You were in the service?” I asked.


“Marine Corp?”

“Yup. Seventy-two confirmed kills. Held the record there for a while.”

“Oh yeah?” I said after a pause that was so short I don’t think he noticed. “So you were, what? A Green Beret? Sniper?”

“Two-man sniper team. Let’s see…Iraq, Somalia and one in Syria.”

“Syria?” I asked, working like a dog to keep the incredulity out of my voice. “You shot someone in Syria?”

“Well, yeah. But I’m not supposed to…I can’t talk about it.”

“No worries, man,” I said. “National security and all that, am I right?”

“You got it.”

My bullshit-o-meter was just a-clanging away by now. In addition to my brother, I have other friends on active duty, and over the years have talked with dozens of combat vets, vets from Normandy to Desert Storm, and the only commonality among them is this: they don’t brag. They don’t preen. Shit, most of the time they won’t even talk about their wartime activities. My new pal was full of shit to his eye sockets.

“When I got out,” Denny went on, “I fought MMA.”

Oh sweet weeping Christ on an ant farm. MMA? Really?What’d you do after that: locate Jimmy Hoffa? Invent cold fusion?

“That how you messed up your ankle?” I asked, nodding at the bandage-wrapped brace on his leg. “Originally, I mean?”

“This? Oh, fuck no, brother. Stepped wrong getting out of my truck and turned it.” He pantomimed the injurious maneuver for me. Martha Graham, eat your heart out. “No, man. Thirty-seven MMA bouts and never a broken bone. Prob’ly gonna need surgery on it now, though. Prob’ly.”

“Bummer, man. That sucks.” Then, looking for some words that, when properly assembled and delivered, would provide me with a friendly exit line, I added, “Nice there’s a pool here, though. Swimming is good physical therapy.”

“Fuck me if I’ll ever swim in that sewage dump,” Denny growled. “Too many little toads.”

I cocked my head at him, but because I was wearing sun glasses he took the tilt of my noggin to mean I hadn’t understood what he’d said. So, he repeated it, and added further illustrative remarks.

“Y’know, toads,” he said. “Niggers.”

Sadly, it took nearly another ten minutes for me to escape Denny’s clutches and put my apartment door between me and him.

Oh, and I forgot to mention Denny’s largest personal accessory. Every time I saw him he wore around his neck, on a leather lanyard, a great big wooden cross. And by big, I mean it had roughly enough girth and heft to anchor a swordfish boat.

How jolly. Another batshit Christian in the Land of Batshit Christians.


My interaction with Denny the morning after the fire was…uh…special. And, it turned out that what I was now calling the Fire Situation was only beginning to become a situation, and was already well on its way to becoming a Complete Cluster-Fuck.

So, watch for Part III of Fire in the Hole. Coming soon to a computer near you. And don’t forget to bring your sippin’ whiskey…


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Fire in the Hole, Part 1

OK, so, for my next little essay I had planned on talking about the wonderful occasion that was the FreeOK convention in Tulsa that happened a couple of weeks back. Ah, but then I ended up having one of those days I’m so fond of telling you about, one of those days that simply befuddle my unwieldy little brain. This one, however, turned into something a bit more unusual. It turned into a really fucked up week, which now seems likely to morph into a really fucked up month.

So, without further ado…

Friday, June 29th

The shitty day-cum-shitty-week started off in its ordinary dull fashion—work, taking stupid calls from people too stupid to own smartphones. But when that was over at last, I headed home with big plans for my evening. I had drinks with my pal Jane, followed by a late dinner of Chinese food. It was a really nice time, relaxing and full of energetic conversation. On the way home I Red-Boxed a couple of flicker-shows, intent on a few hours of sofa-time, accompanied by a few glasses of fine bourbon (Booker’s, if you’re curious).

My apartment complex is “secured” by a gate, which spans the entrance at the end of a short double-sided driveway. Sometimes cars line up on the entry side, waiting for someone to buzz then through, or simply waiting for a tenant with a key card to come along and let them in. See: security…

I rounded the corner into the short drive and came to a rocking halt. There were about ten cars lined up in there. Shit. Impatient to get to my movies and bourbon, I fidgeted in my seat. And when I craned my head around for a better look and saw that the gate was wide open, my annoyance increased. Talking to the entire conglomeration of cars, I muttered, “Oh, come on. Move your ass.”

Right about then a fire truck, lights off, rolled slowly by the group of autos, out the exit drive, and the cars began moving. Problem solved. The stage, as they say, was set, for a communion with the liquid goddess of Kentucky.

My apartment complex is one of those big suburban motherfuckers with like ten thousand units, all kludged together like a gerbil habitat with a thyroid problem, and my place was way in the back at the end of a twisting traffic lane. Rounding a curve, I saw a disco-worthy wash of flashing red blue and white lights; emergency vehicles of various sizes and occupations.

Hmmmm, I thought.

And right on the heels of that, I thought, Looks like they’re near my building. That thought jangled against bourbon thoughts as I drew closer to the action.

Yep, lots and lots of fire trucks, ambulances, and cop cruisers, alongside the usual number of firemen, EMTs, and lawdogs—and, yes, the usual number of scruffy, bathrobed onlookers getting in the way of the professionals. I slowed. Then parked, surprisingly close to my customary slot. I climbed from my car, staring.

Not only was the action happening near my building, it was happening in my building.

A couple of firefighters seemed to have just finished hosing down my balcony and my bedroom window. Which I had left open. And under which sat my desk and my computer.

Awwwww…fuck me in the eye.

Observing some still-billowing smoke, I wandered over to a clutch of my neighbors. They were sitting in Nylon camping chairs arranged around a big cooler of beer. The guy who lived directly below me, a freak of nature named Denny, tossed me a can of Coors Light. The scene felt like a barbecue at H. Bosch’s pool.

“What’s happening?” I asked, generally, then added, feeling stupid, “I mean this. What caused it?”

“Drugs,” said Denny, and the weird old dude from across the courtyard, whose name I can never remember, nodded in wobbly geriatric agreement. Denny has drugs on the brain. And, so far as I was ever able to tell, very little else.

“What?” I asked, thinking, What?

“Drugs. Meth. Bitch in the place behind you was cooking meth.”

“Oh,” I said, this time thinking, Oh, bullshit. No one was cooking meth. It’s explosively toxic, and you can smell the  ammonia and chemical solvents hundreds of yards away. That’s why they cook the foul fucking stuff out in the country. Dumbass.

Not that I voiced any of that to Denny, mind you. He’s crazy as a wharf rat and about as predictable as a spastic puppy, but more on him in a bit.

I stood around drinking my beer and watching the firemen for twenty or thirty minutes, then started calling people, just to see if I could locate a bed for the evening. Sadly, it was, by now, after midnight, and folks weren’t answering their phones. Maybe, I reasoned, the damage wouldn’t be too bad and I could camp on my own floor anyway. Yeah, right, sure. No sooner had I thought that thought that a fireman galumphed from my doorway and I heard him ask some people from the complex’s management team who lived there. I strode forward and announced myself.

“Better find a motel for the night, guy,” said the fireman. “Your apartment’s trashed.”

“Like trashed, trashed, or like totally trashed?”

“It’s bad,” he said. “You can’t go in there ‘til tomorrow morning.” And he headed away on some other flame-related undertaking.

I looked at the management people. Didn’t say anything. Just looked at ‘em until they grew weary of it and talked to me.

“We are working on it, sir,” offered a petite blond, who I recalled seeing in the office from time to time. “Come by first thing in the morning. We’ll have more information.”

“OK,” I said, and I have to admit that a strange sort of dazed feeling was turning my brain into a soggy hand towel.

Several tenants gathered around, asking all the questions people ask when their stuff is suddenly turned into what looks like the leftover crap at the bottom of a charcoal grill. Some were screaming. One tall guy just kept shouting, “Fuck you all! This is your fucking fault!” over and over again. Then he stomped off toward the parking spaces, still hollering. Other people were quietly and calmly inquiring about replacement apartments, access to their present places, etc. Crazy Denny, who a minute before had been informing everyone within earshot how he was “…gonna sue the shit out of someone,” turned into Mr. Obsequious, nodding like a bobblehead and avidly lapping up everything the management people served him as if they were the Greatest and Most Caring People he had ever met.

I didn’t see any reason to continue hanging around, so I drained my beer, tossed the can in the bushes (they had a half-roasted building to clean up, so what was the big deal about an aluminum can), took my Red Box movies and drove away. I roamed around for a while, knowing I should be looking for a motel, or a handy refrigerator carton, but not really getting anywhere, largely due to the disconnected murkiness in my head. But then I happened upon a Courtyard (by Marriott!) and veered across three lanes to access its parking lot.

Sweaty (since this was Oklahoma, it was still about ninety degrees out) and dusted with residual soot, I wandered into the lobby and approached the desk clerk. Since I hadn’t managed to contact anyone by phone, I felt I needed to tell someone what had happened to me, and the clerk provided a sympathetic ear. He also offered 30% off my room and a couple of free bottles of water, both of which I accepted with true gratitude and a handshake.

Up on the third floor, my room was already nicely air-conditioned. I drank water, wished I could brush my teeth, and fell into bed.

At 7:30 the next morning the fire alarms went off.

(Coming soon: Part Two of Fire in the Hole…)