“So…what brings you to town?” The landlord asked. He had seen many tenants in his twenty-five years of running this building. The stranger didn’t answer. That wasn’t an uncommon occurrence because, well let’s just say the kind of people that normally stayed there were the quiet types. Not that they were shy or introverted, quite the opposite most of the time. They were quiet because life had silenced them. In order to bring one to live in his establishment, they had to be broken people. It wasn’t like he included it in the ad in the local Penny Saver: apartment vacancy, only losers need apply. He didn’t need to. Frank had run the building for twenty-five years, but this heap was built around the turn of the century, and not the most recent one. The place was already a dump and was falling apart faster than anyone could do anything about when Frank got there, much like the lives of most of his tenants. The scrawny, little man with an obvious chip on his shoulder finally responded with a concise, “Need a room.” Good, Frank thought. He already sounds defeated. He should fit in perfectly.
Perhaps the reason that he attracted so many deadbeats is because in some way they gravitated to him, a sort of scum magnet. You see, Frank had a dream too and it did not involve being a slum lord. His first memory was his father giving him a baseball glove; that sport was the old man’s favorite you see. But Frank had other plans. The first time he saw a basketball game it changed his life and that proved to be the right choice as Frank was six feet, nine inches tall and had always been quick-footed. The wooden floor was his canvas as he would gracefully leap and pivot to the music that emanated from his soul. Most people were in awe when they saw Frank move, apparently not this guy.
“Man, you sure are goofy looking mother fucker. It must just suck ass to be that tall. What good is it to be that long if you’re not playing in the NBA?” The stranger seemed to be on the defensive, though unprovoked. “Great, another hard ass,” thought Frank. That’s the last thing he needed. The last guy that lived in this 3F got caught cooking methamphetamine, an occupation which is not easy to do in an apartment complex, despite the building’s nearly constant demand for it. The manufacture of narcotics was not easy that is, not the getting caught part, well that is very easy to do. The smell alone will make it obvious to anyone on the floor what is going on; even more so in such a small studio apartment, which was really more like a dormitory room at a college or a jail cell. The cook kept all his neighbors quiet about his operation pretty efficiently, and Frank didn’t have a problem if his tenants didn’t. Heck, most of them were this bastard’s best customers. Anyone who initially had a problem with his business was harassed and intimidated by everyone’s favorite speed freak; especially after nearly beating to death an innocent woman that did complain. She had small children and knew whatever he was doing in there was not healthy for them. Ironically, her speaking up was worse for her health. “Yeah, I used to play some ball. It didn’t work out though. How long are you planning on living here in the complex?” Frank asked. He kept on like this, lonely people just love small talk. “You sure do ask a lot of questions.” The diminutive stranger said and then continued, “Why the hell do you care any way? So long as I pay you my rent, I would just as soon never hear from you again. Understand. Now seeing as how I’m paid up for the first two months, why don’t you get the hell out of here and leave me alone.” Frank recognized this, the obvious overkill, knee jerk reaction of a man suffering from little man syndrome. After all, they were in his office. Where did this guy get the nerve? “No problem buddy. I’ll give you some space.” Frank was a little more than disturbed by this violent reaction. After all, he had taken the joking about his height in stride. The last time he was so maliciously verbally assaulted on the first meeting with a tenant was the aforementioned Methamphetamine aficionado. Come to think of it, how tall was that guy? He couldn’t have been above five feet, five inches tall. Some people try so hard to come off too hard, they really just look pathetic.
Frank noticed that after he left, no less than five minutes later he saw his new tenant leaving. Frank knew these apartments were nothing too luxurious and did not afford his tenants much decorating discretion, but wouldn’t most people at least settle in a little when they move in? No, there were too many questions; he needed more information. From his application he saw that the man’s name was Samuel Phoenix. Wow. That was a strange name; he didn’t look like an Indian or Native American or whatever. It also said he worked as a fire fighter. Huh? Most of the people never even bothered to fill in their employer’s information; hell, most of them didn’t work. How could someone that small work as a fireman; and better yet, why would a fire fighter be living in this dump? Doesn’t the city pay them for better digs than this? Frank decided that there was much more to this Mr. Phoenix’s story that met the eye.
…Little Sammy rode his bicycle furiously, with tears running down his face as swift as rivers. He loved his tree house, so then why did he do it? It became clear to him th en, so suddenly and swiftly that Self-realization nearly threw him from his bike. It was Blake. Blake was Sammy’s best (only) friend. They had built the tree house together, and it was their secret. You see, good parents don’t let the children build a tree house by themselves, but those same “good” parents won’t help them build one either. So they set out on their own, discreetly taking wood wherever they could find it, borrowing hammers, and snaking some nails from his father’s rusty bucket o’ nails. Somehow the boys managed to construct a roughly hewn shack. They did not know that tree houses need to be built in trees and cannot be built a moment in advance, after all there were so many trees around to choose from, that part didn’t seem that important. Though it would never be in a tree, it made him remember his best friend Blake. How long had it been since Blake moved to Utah anyway?
Great! Another nosy ass landlord, thought Sam. Why do they always have to ask twenty questions, especially for such a shitty, old dump like this? Oh well, he could tell this Frank fellow wasn’t exactly the type of guy that has a particularly interesting life. Let him ask, I’ll tell him what he wants to hear, keep him entertained. An even better question, why did I go off on him like that? Moving in was always a huge pain in the ass for Sam. He had been doing it his entire life. Though he was still a young man of 25, he had lived in no less than ten different places during that time. Sadly, Sam had already had a career and was retired, with a pension. From his earliest days, he had been fascinated with fire. As soon as he was big enough, he joined his local fire department as a volunteer and was the youngest professional fireman in the city’s history at only 18 years old. His parents were so proud of him, really for the only time in his entire life.
Sam was not an exceptionally bright boy and never did well in school. He knew what he wanted to do since before he even went to school, so it seemed like a waste of time to him to even try anything else. All he wanted to do was become the Master of Fire. And he didn’t think they were hiring. The first time he remembered playing with fire was when he was five years old. He stole some matches from this giant brandy snifter, where his Dad kept his collection. His father was an avid smoker, and also collected match books in remembrance of every place he traveled. Little Sammy took two books out of the glass globe, God it must have been as big as his head! He put one of them in a cigar box his Pop gave him for his secret stuff, the other he took outside to the back yard. Sam took the first match and struck it on the back of the pack, just like Dad did. FLASH! It was like something he had never before seen, a hand held supernova. The smell was intoxicating, sulfur as he later learned in Chemistry class, the only class he never skipped or slept through in high school. He struck another match and set the whole book on fire. He had never felt like this before. If it was possible, he felt alive for the first time.
The next day Sam came back to the apartment complex and saw Frank again. He had slept at his parent’s house last night because this new place kind of depressed him. Sam wondered why his parents had become so sedentary. His old man had kept them in constant motion during his childhood, but now putting his roots down had become so important? Sam was going to live off that crappy firemen’s pension if it killed him. Besides, as far as he was concerned, his happiness and well being never even entered his parents’ thoughts. However, he truly enjoyed his last night of suburban comfort, even if it was also one of his first. Sam felt bad for treating Frank so poorly the evening before. “Hi Frank, what’s up?” Wow, thought Frank. Is this the same guy? Although he was astounded he managed to utter, “Nothing much. Kind of bored actually. Yourself?” The now pleasant Sam replied “Moving day, I gotta put all my crap away. Hey, if your not busy maybe you could help me? There’s a 12 pack of Bud and an apology for acting like a bum’s taint last not for you if you agree.” Strange analogy, Frank thought. He promptly replied, “I think you just named my price buddy.” So they unpacked his few meager possessions. The only difficult thing to move in was the bed, it was brand new. Sam’s was a sparsely furnished place; it only had a bed, a bookcase, and a la-z-boy recliner. It all looked new though and provided a stark contrast with the dilapidated walls surrounding them; they had only been painted twice since Frank had become the landlord. Really, as hard as either of them tried to make the rooms appear different in any sense from one another was a failing effort. Maybe it was because the anguish of lost life cannot be painted over or washed off. Sam and Frank carried the last of the boxes up to the third floor and Sam gave Frank a beer and told him to relax. He was more than happy to oblige. Frank opened the Bud and sat down in the recliner with a full view of the bookcase, one of the few other items in the room. The shelves were quite large, nearly touching the ceiling and they reached ten feet here in this old building. On the first few shelves he put various books, some old dusty novels that looked like they hadn’t been read for years. Along with those he had a few high school year books, some VHS tapes without a VCR and the entire 1983 National Geographic Collection. Finally, on the last and highest shelves he placed three large, glass mason jars. Although this person, Sam, quite intrigued Frank, he did have some responsibilities to perform as landlord of this hell hole. When he told Sam he wasn’t busy, he really just wanted to learn more about his new tenant and more accurately was just trying to avoid his alternate duty as superintendent of the building.
The woman in 3G didn’t have any water pressure. She always complained about that. Frank was a man, not some kind of miracle worker. This building was over one hundred years old and she lived on the third floor, what did she expect!? Well obviously she expected more. It was easy enough, he just had to go next door with his wrench and pretend to work under the sink for about forty-five minutes or so. If that didn’t appease her, he would still leave after the allotted amount of time but he would tell her he had to order some part that would take several days to get there and hope she forgot she ever even complained. Dealing with her just made Frank more depressed. She reminded him of all of his failed exploits with Lady Love.
He knocked on the door and she answered. She was obviously working. She was a prostitute, and one of rare beauty and popularity at that. Her name was Jane, or at least it was to Frank through the application and to the men that frequented her. “Oh, can you wait five minutes, Frank? Mr. Phillips never takes very long and I don’t want to miss this chance to get my shower fixed.” Frank noticed that she did not even try to protect the premature ejaculators feelings as he was well within earshot. “Yeah sure.” Frank could never really seem to say anything very clever or charming to Jane, but he also made a mental note to pretend to fix the shower and not the sink. She was breathtaking despite the fact that she had sex with men, and some women, for large sums of money. Jane was also a little old to be as successful as she was in her line of work. Frank guessed that she was nearly forty. She was another one of his tenants that could surely afford to live somewhere else, but she chose not to. It was more convenient to be able to ‘work out of the home’ so to speak. “Thanks Mr. Phillips, have a good day.” The roly poly of a man quickly scurried off. Suddenly, the shame of what he had just done made him feel guilty. Ironically, he had been seeing Jane for years and this feeling never seemed to leave him. “Alright Frank, come in.”
Just as she uttered those words, Sam emerged from his apartment and laid eyes on possibly the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Sure, he had seen plenty of pretty girls, even some gorgeous ones in his previous life. Women sure do have a thing for firemen. But this one, she had a transcendent beauty that shone out through her cool gray eyes, like beacons calling him home. Her eyes made him feel safe. Suddenly, she disappeared into the apartment with Frank in tow and his heart sank back down to the depths at which it normally resided.
Sam retreated to his new lair and sat down in his recliner. As he gazed upon his book shelf an old familiar feeling set in. It was like he was warm from the inside out, not the other way as is customary. He tried to remember where he had felt this before and suddenly he was five years old again, experiencing fire for the first time. It truly is one of life’s real mixed blessing; this phenomenon known to man as fire. This was especially true for Sam. Civilization as we know it could not exist without fire. Sure, everyone understands the heat aspect of fire. It allowed man to inhabit the middle and northern latitudes. A Diaspora that man is still feeling the effects of today, but it goes deeper than that. Fire is man’s greatest finding; some bold individuals even call it his invention. It was controlled fire that made the agricultural revolution possible. He always got like this when he thought about it: didactic, almost preachy. Sam felt like defense lawyer at fire’s Supreme Court hearing. Everyone wants to make fire their enemy in today’s culture but we wouldn’t even be here without it.
…He floored it. Wow, who knew the old Rambler had it in her? He must be going 70 miles per hour! God, she sure got bitchy all of sudden. Phoebe had never treated him so badly before. It’s not like she had the right to do that, they weren’t even dating. You see, Sam didn’t have the social skills for a real girlfriend, or so Phoebe would have you believe. She could have been a bit gentler with him; after all, most people have a hard time hearing that they are unlovable. Even after that night in the barn. He thought he became a man that night, but he couldn’t have been more wrong, Sam was still the same confused, ignorant little boy bumbling through adolescence now. He even used the same match book, up to his old tricks.
Now his gaze was fixed on the jars. They stared down at him and a great weight was suddenly on his shoulders, replacing the cool, light feeling that seeing Jane had inspired in him. Then Sam went over to his bed and peered beneath it. There it was, his cigar box. It was in the same place he kept it as a child, under the bed. Almost directly under where his head lie while he was sleeping. He took out the box and lay down on the bead to rehash some old memories. Phoenix took out the old match book, it was missing three matches. Beneath them were some old trinkets, a couple matchbox cars, and some yellowed decaying articles. Whenever he got out his ‘vault’, he focused almost entirely on the book of matches. The picture had been rubbed off long ago, something about Gino’s Bar and Grill. Now the only thing that marked the book was the word PHOENIX, just like that in all capital letters. Holding his beloved matches, he fell asleep with an almost frightening sense of calm. Even though it was early, he slipped off into the ether.
Frank was finally done pretending to fix the shower next door. As he left to go he said bye to Jane and fed her the line about needing to order a part. It was still early, so Frank decided to stop back by Sam’s; maybe he had a couple more beers for his new friend. As he traveled the short distance to the next apartment he noticed that the door was ajar. He saw Sam, asleep on the bed, and a cigar box on the floor. Frank was a very curious person, so he decided to take a look inside. He saw the articles and some small trinkets and toys. He read the first article; it was about a barn on the other side of town, near the suburbs, that mysteriously burnt to the ground. The second was about a brush fire in the woods at Overland Park, thought to be the result of some teenagers getting high or some fire loving vandals. The last one was dated only three years ago. It was about a high-rise building that was burnt to the cement basement floor. It said in the article that onlookers watched the entire building melt before their eyes in less than thirty minutes. “Hey Sam! Wake up. Don’t you know you shouldn’t sleep with the door unlocked, especially open? Where do you think you are?” A groggy, yet somehow alert Sam shot back, “Holy shit, thanks Frank. Yeah, I don’t know what came over me.” Frank was overwhelmed with curiosity in regards to the young Phoenix. He implored, “What’s all this junk in that cigar box?” Reluctantly, Sam began, “Oh that stuff? Just some mementos from the past. They help me remember better times, you know?” Frank knew all too well. He still had similar things reminding him of his basketball career that never reached its potential. Frank had dreams of Division I NCAA basketball and the NBA, once upon a time. “Yeah, I suppose I do. Well sleep tight and try locking the door, eh.” Relieved at how easily Frank could be deflected, Sam said, “Good night Frank.” A long time had passed since Sam had anyone to call a friend or even to utter the words good night to. The last people that came to mind as friends were his firefighter colleagues and he considered them more like brothers, even after they betrayed him. All in all he led a solitary life and he liked it that way. Something about that Jane was starting to make him reconsider.
…Suddenly Sam was awoken by a loud siren. The whole room was a swirl of commotion as the men scrambled to finish getting dressed. Fires happened in the middle of the night more often than most people would think. Part of being a good fire fighter is never really allowing oneself to fall asleep, at least at the house. “Phoenix, you better get your lazy ass out of that bed or there won’t be any fire left for us to put out. Move!” In one motion Sam was jumping out of bed and into his fire resistant clothes, boots and helmet. In another instant he was downstairs. He leaped like flames across dry leaves, landing in his spot in the truck smoldering as it was starting to gain speed. Sam had gotten rather accustomed to the rush that came with his vocation, hell most of his brothers were there only for the action. For him it was about something more. He had seen fire devastate so many lives, even in his relatively few years on the job. At age 20, he had already entered an introspective phase of his career that most fighters don’t encounter until they are middle aged and near retirement.
The truck roared down the road, the siren screaming at people to get out of the way. They all solemnly moved their cars to the side of the road, in the back of their minds hoping that other people will have at least that same decency when it’s their turn to burn. It really wasn’t the glory or the girls that wouldn’t let Sam to sell insurance like his old man, the restless wanderer. He liked to help people like him though, and when they are caught in a fire is definitely a time of need, but it was more than that too. He felt fire deep within himself. He felt the release of all emotions, especially anger, even when he was within its apathetic grasp. There is something so solitary and infinite about the ashes that remain after a building had burned down. It was the juxtaposition of those two ideas that really lit Phoenix’s fire, solitary and infinite. How can something that is forever be able to exist alone? Wouldn’t that be the perfect existence; free from fear, no one to hurt or to hurt you? He thought that was why God made man, he was lonely. It seems that such a being would lead a losing battle against time that prevents this from happening; after all even, if one prefers to be alone, often life intervenes. Finally they reached the site of the fire. It was quite a conflagration; he could feel her heat as they approached. After they got there, it only took ten minutes to put the fire out, his boys were the best. It seemed like a dirty thing that they were doing, at least to Sam. As if they weren’t giving the inferno its proper respect. It had the strength to destroy them all, but was cut down in its prime. He couldn’t bear to kill it, but there were enough of his so called “brothers” there to ensure its untimely demise. In a purely business like manner, the men of fire packed up their equipment and returned to the house.
Sam went straight back to bed upon their return, it was now three AM. He lay there restlessly, battling the overpowering feeling that he had from contemplating the infinite solitude. It would prove to be a sleepless night. He hadn’t even considered the possible ramifications of his defiant act. How can a firefighter refuse to fight a fire? It turns out he can’t. Sam, the youngest fireman the town had ever seen, the prodigy, was also the youngest to get an early retirement and a pension for psychiatric reasons. They called it a break down; he never felt more like he was doing the right thing in his life.
Frank made his way up the dimly lit stair case to the third floor. It was noon, so he thought Sam would have to be up by now, he certainly hadn’t left the building because he would have had to pass the old landlord’s apartment. As he knocked, he couldn’t help but notice some things from their last encounter flooding back into his consciousness. The number three kept returning to him for some reason.
…Sam was running for his life. He had never been an athlete, but he was sure he was running as fast as he ever had in his life. It was his 21st birthday and he was wasted. All of his buddies from his department took him out to celebrate, those bastards even promised to get him laid. He no longer considered them his family. A real family doesn’t turn its back on their brother so easily. But here he was, alone at two in the morning, running for his life. They had all ditched him an hour ago, many of them had managed to get drunker than him and they all had other distractions, like their real families, to worry about and blah, blah, blah. He could feel the heat on his back, and all he wanted to do was turn around and watch the warm, comfortable fire. Something deep inside him, like an internal combustion engine, was propelling him forward. What was it? He could not catch it, even though his mind was racing faster than his legs.
Finally Sam crawled out of bed and answered the door with a groggy, almost slow motion speed. “Hey Frank, good morning.” Frank replied in a jealous tone, “Yeah, I guess you could call it morning if you just woke up.” Sam picked up the sarcastic waves, but wasn’t in the mood. He matter-of-factily asked, “What can I do you for?”
“Well, yesterday we were talking about the past and I had a few more questions.”
“I don’t really like questions too much, how about I just tell you more about myself.”
“I think that would be an excellent idea.” “I suppose I’ll begin with the most recent version of Sam. Before I came to live here, I lived in a mental hospital. I was sent there as a plea bargain for an arson conviction…” While he was talking, he went to the cigar box and took out the PHOENIX matches. Frank thought his heart was going to explode from the palpable tension. It all came into focus and he thought his life, as disappointing and pathetic as it was, was coming to a fiery end. Sam went to the kitchen, got a bowl and 2 beers from the fridge. It was the only liquid he had around and damn it if he wasn’t a thirsty fellow when he woke up. He tossed one to Frank, who caught it, much to his own amazement. He didn’t think he had control of his limbs anymore. Then Sam dropped the matches in the bowl and doused them in beer and promptly pounded the rest of it, grabbed another and continued his story. It felt right. Some people say that revealing intimate details about one’s self can have an uplifting effect. Sam felt like he awoken to stumble onto the moon, floating.
“Why did you tell me all of this, it doesn’t exactly make you look good, man?”“I don’t have anything to hide from. I was sick, I’m not a criminal. Besides, I think it’s downright shitty for someone to start a friendship by being deceitful and lying from the start.”“Well, I suppose that’s true. What makes you think I got the time or the inclination to be making new friends at my age?”“At your age? Please! The only people that don’t need friends are dead people. Besides, I need you to introduce me to my new neighbor.”“I gave up on friends and the such a long time ago. I do like talking to you though, and anything I can do to help you with Jane, well I would be obliged. I’ve let too many like her get away.”“Thanks Fra… I mean friend. You know, every good fire needs some fuel. It can’t exist without some oxygen to make it breathe. I used to think that the flame was so destructive that it must remain alone.”
This is a delightful tale that illuminates the human spirit. We are all in this together, so we should make the most of it and look after one another. Ben Harper once said, “Never leave lonely alone.” I agree with this statement and this story tells you why.
There is a little bit of adult language sprinkled into the mix, so kids, ask your parents before you indulge yourself.