The Man Could Put Out a Fire
by Janelle M. Williams
She saw Keith two months ago. He had a girlfriend and a face full of razor bumps. She’d never seen him forego his three-inch beard, and she wondered how long he could keep the girlfriend without it.
It’s hard to describe her own relationship with him, but the first word that comes to mind is inconsistent. They are consistently inconsistent. Every couple of months or so, she receives or makes a phone call, hears his gruff voice on the other end of the line. She never knows what he’s going to say, if their conversation will result in an argument or a lukewarm compromise. Sometimes when they see each other, which is every now and then, they make out. PG shit really, nothing more.
Tonight she lay on her stomach on a rug that resembles sheepskin, thinking of the first time they met, how his eyes seemed to burn her, they were so intense. His mouth was intense, too. Even then, she knew his lips were of the largest variety she’d ever kiss, but more substantially, what came out of them was appalling: we should just burn them all. He didn’t mean that of course.
Tonight, she asks, “how’s the department?” Imagining him in a room full of men sharing stale spaghetti, waiting for an alarm to sound. He’s been a firefighter for less than six months now. Got his PHD in African American Studies to become one, and she remembers how bad of an idea it was to question that decision.
“It’s alright… How’s graduate school?” The latter he says with slight disdain.
“Good… Great, I guess,” she says.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Well, nobody asked you to guess.” Smug, he thinks he knows everything, that those floor to ceiling stacked books lining the bare walls of his bedroom make him an expert or something.
“Was there a fire today?” she changes the subject.
“Well, did you put it out or what?”
“Yeah, I lost a fucking finger putting it out.”
“Are you ok? How did it happen?”
“We had to go through the window, and when I used the jawn to breakthrough it, I was a little overeager, pushed a little too hard. Glass got me pretty good.” Jawn. The Philadelphia slang comes out when he’s trying to be macho.
“Which finger? Is it all the way off?”
“Nah, just the top half of my pinky.”
She considers this. How he said he lost a finger. I lost a fucking finger versus I lost part of a pinky. There’s a huge tonal difference there, no matter how you slice it, literally, men.
“Did you save anyone?” This is the thing that might add to his sex appeal, not losing a finger. She should tell him that, but doesn’t. Instead, she goes on, “That would be cool, if you saved someone.”
“No, it wouldn’t be cool?”
“No, I didn’t save anyone.”
“So the place was empty?”
Fuck. She almost wishes she hadn’t asked, but now she knows she’ll plow even further. With a different guy, maybe she’d bite her tongue, but Keith was born to be verbal. “So someone died?”
“He was old wasn’t he?” She thinks of her grandfather, who has lived alone in the house he built her grandmother ever since she passed away a few years ago. They don’t make men like that anymore, her grandmother used to say.
“Yeah, pretty old, ” Keith says now.
“In his eighties, I think.”
“And he lived alone?”
“That’s really sad. Was he sleeping? Do you think he felt it?” She wishes she could see his face, wants to look for the empathy that it’s always missing. Sometimes it’s so blank that she’ll say just about anything to rile him up.
“Well the fire didn’t actually get to him. People think it’s the fire that kills you, but it’s the smoke. Burns are treatable, but let that smoke get in your lungs, and you’re done. Bull didn’t stand a chance. He was already dead when we got to him.”
“Was this the first time you put out a fire that killed someone?” she picks at the rug, pulling off tufts of soft white synthetic fur, knowing she’ll regret the damages she’s done later.
“Yeah, it was the first time,” he says.
“Do you feel any different?”
“No, why would I?”
“I don’t know. Seems like you might feel like you were a part of it.”
“Yeah, I was a part of it.”
“So maybe you did feel something?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Then what are you saying?”
A car drives by her window, blasting old school Mary J, Love No Limit, it’s a summer barbeque kind of joint, and she imagines herself in a big-bodied convertible on the way to one. She cannot imagine Keith driving the convertible, and this bothers her, his inhibited spirit, he’s the kind of guy who can’t slow sip at a noon brunch without politicking. Still the music comes through her window at such a persistent angle that it is almost too loud for her to hear him say, “I think something happened.”
An air of silence breaks through as the car is now gone, and she can feel Keith holding his breath.
“Like?” She manages to say.
“Like my hand feels weird.” He coughs as he says it. Uncomfortable.
“Yeah, it’s missing half of a pinky.” She wants to save him from himself.
“No, weird in a different way.”
“Hmm… And your girlfriend? What does she say?” Why was he telling her this? It felt like he should be telling someone else, anyone else.
“What does she say about what?”
“About your hand.”
“Well, I think she would prefer it be intact.”
“Obviously. But about the weirdness? What does she say about the weirdness?”
“Well, I haven’t mentioned it to her.” She has never met Keith’s girlfriend, but she’s seen photos, and they all went to college together, so maybe she saw her around campus once or twice, though she can’t recall a direct interaction.
“Why not? Why haven’t you mentioned it to her?” she asks, thinking of the way his arm might slide around his girlfriend’s shoulder as they do relationship type things together—movie screenings, grocery shopping, post coital cuddling. It’s been a long time since she herself has been in a real relationship.
“Didn’t think she would understand,” he says.
“And you thought I would? Have you told anyone other than me?”
“No, you didn’t think I would understand? Or no, you haven’t told anyone other than me?”
“I haven’t told anyone else.”
“Should I feel honored?”
He laughs, and she likes his honesty behind it. She has always liked this about him—that he doesn’t laugh as a favor, that he never laughs to lighten the mood. Now, he clears his throat. “Remember the first time you came to my apartment and you said being close to me was like being in the Twilight Zone?” Of course she remembers.
“Yeah, I said you created a force field, and I still feel that way.”
“Well, that’s how my hand feels, like it’s fireproof. I touched a flame to check, and well, yeah… What if I told you that if my hand was what it is now then—when bull died—I think I could’ve saved him.”
“I’d say you’re probably doing better than most people who’ve lost part of a pinky.”
He doesn’t say anything for a while, and she knows she has to throw him a bone.
“It won’t change who you are, you know, who you are at the heart of things.”
“Would you want it to?”
“Nah, I think I’m fine with who I am.” She realizes that that wasn’t really what she meant. He has an air of unhappiness that trails him. He’s weighed down by earthly matters, namely racism and shit, so jaded that he refuses to exist in any dedicated societal way. She was confused when he first said he had a girlfriend, a tall thin woman with loose curls locked like a young Lisa Bonet at that.
“But the world around you?” she asks.
“But the world around me.”
“What about it?”
“I won’t save them, you know. I won’t do more than my old self could. I won’t be some fucking super hero. People don’t deserve one. People would never fucking learn, and that just ain’t my style.” She thinks about what little she knows of Philadelphia—the mainline, she’s heard that only the rich can afford to live there. And the historic brick buildings of the inner city, she wonders if gentrification makes it so they echo her neighborhood in Harlem, though maybe they ring an altogether different Liberty Bell. She doesn’t know which district or neighborhood Keith serves as a firefighter but wonders if it might affect his stance as a fucking superhero.
She admits that something’s amiss when she says, “You decide to become a firefighter to let people burn?”
“Shit. Risking my life to put out a fire isn’t enough for you?” In this moment, she knows that there are people he would walk through the flames for and people he wouldn’t. She can’t say she blames him, even if her politics are slightly different.
“Look, I get it,” she offers.
“No, you don’t.”
“Oh, really? Then why didn’t you call your girlfriend? You love her, right? You called me, knowing I would understand.” A part of her wants him to correct her, say that it’s more than that.
“Who says I love her?”
“You’re with her.”
He doesn’t speak for a while, then says, “I should come visit you.”
“Yeah, now. It just feels right.”
“Oh, did your weird hand send you spidey senses or something?” She makes light of the situation for the lack of any real skepticism. That she hasn’t questioned him, called him crazy, doubted his story in the least, points the loony finger in her own direction, and she knows it. But then she also knows about miracles and impossibilities and the nature of the world, and who is she to weigh a miracle, to say how Magic Johnson can still be alive, but her friend Keith cannot have a flame-proof hand?
“It’s not funny, ” he almost cuts her off.
“I know—I just… I’m home,” she concedes.
When he gets there, she’s reading by candlelight, and the smell of tropical fruit has enveloped her one bedroom apartment. Her thick afro is tightly pushed back by a stretchy headband. It’s a hairstyle that calls attention to her face, a heart with coffee bean brown skin and high cheekbones where a small smile settles. He says that the shadow cast behind her makes her look beautiful, no that didn’t come out right, she has always been beautiful, but he really sees it now, shit, maybe that fire/glass/whatever got to his eyes, too.
They watch old clips of Bernie Mac standup together, and she knows that she’s gotten herself into something deep, how did this happen, she doesn’t know, but she doesn’t push the arm he’s wrapped around her waist aside either. He doesn’t say anything suggestive, but maybe somewhere in the back of her mind, she knows. She knows that she’ll marry a fucking superhero, don’t fucking call me that, he’ll say, so she’ll just think it instead.
Janelle M. Williams received her BA from Howard University and her MFA in Creative Writing from Manhattanville College. She was a 2017 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow. Her work has appeared in Kweli, Lunch Ticket, Auburn Avenue, The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere.