By Jonathan Kravetz
"The flame in the barrel burned like a
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The fire started about three years ago. I was spending all my free time trying to write a masterpiece, the next Paradise Lost. I labored alone at my desk, slave-like, every evening after work. But my poems would have made an atheist of Milton and my blood pressure was beginning to rise faster than the stack of rejection letters on my floor.
Some nights I would get excited and believe I finally had something glorious, but the morning light would melt my enthusiasm and I would see that what I had written was drivel. I would find flaws in my arguments. My metaphors were loose and my phrasing awkward.
I sat working one Saturday night. Scraps of paper, poem ideas, and unpaid credit card bills cluttered my desk. One phrase bothered me more than the others. What did I mean by this: The Angels transform the wonder of music/into the sweet swell of death, yes/come to liquid dreams of floating sound/proof?" The question mark was the capper. The sentence began all right, gathered momentum, but suddenly veered off course. It made sense when I was high, but now I couldn't make heads or tales of it. I tried toking up, just to see, but it only made things worse and I got a screaming headache to go along with my displeasure.
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I snatched an aspirin from the medicine cabinet. My apartment was a tiny studio, 15 feet by 12, in Hell's Kitchen, just above a Chinese Restaurant, The Westside Cottage. My floor was covered with books and clothes and I'm sure my apartment stank. But it was my stink so I didn't notice it and I hadn't had a visitor in more than six months. Good. I was a poet. I didn't need people.
I sat at my desk again and stared at that goddamn phrase until it made less and less sense and I got angrier. My face burned red like a cigar butt and I knew I was about to do something spontaneous to snuff it out. The last time I felt like that I grabbed a bulbous breast on the subway and spent the night in jail.
I walked to Hansens, a narrow slit of a bar, and drank seven margaritas, no salt. I yelled at the bartender. "Fuck you, man... what do you know about truth, goddamn drink blender." He punched me in the teeth and sent me home. But his punch did not satisfy my destructive impulse.
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I smashed my computer with my faithful softball bat. When there was nothing left but hanging wires and bent metal I heaved the piece of junk to the ground. I danced on the broken plastic and metal. It sparked and writhed under my feet, flailing like a dying snake.
"Damn you," I yelled.
I crumpled my poem -- 13 pages -- and tossed the bastard child into my waste basket. There was other garbage in there, a wad of tissues from the previous week when I had a cold, and a sheaf of bond paper that hadn't felt right to my touch when I opened it. I lit a match, tossed it in and warmed my hands over the open fire. It was February and cold in my apartment because the miserly landlord controls the thermostat and won't set it above sixty-eight degrees. The orange glowed against the far wall and lit the room. I felt the heat against my face and had to squint. For the first time in six years -- since I had dedicated my life to poetry -- I knew satisfaction.
I staggered to bed.
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I woke Sunday morning, scratched my head and looked into the center of the room. The flame in the barrel burned like a boy scout's wet dream, evenly and controlled. My first instinct was to assume I was still sleeping.
I literally slapped my face. The sound, like a firecracker, did more to wake me than the pain. The fire still licked and snapped. I tried to remember what had happened the previous evening. There had been a lot of drinking. Some punching. Now my jaw ached. I touched my lip and felt a scab of dried blood. What else? I recalled smashing my computer and burning my poem in a fit of despair. It wasn't a dream. The pages should have burned themselves out hours before.
I wobbled over to the bucket and put my hand near the flame. It scorched my finger.
I raced to the sink and dug through a pile of unwashed dishes and pans. I found, near the bottom, my largest pot. I filled it with water.
I stood over the burning bucket.
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"Now we'll see the end of you," I said. I imagine I looked tough and inscrutable, like Humphrey Bogart in "The Maltese Falcon."
I poured the water over the flame. It crackled and popped, but the intensity never wavered. I was stunned and staggered backwards. I quickly refilled the pot and tried again. But the water evaporated. If anything, the flame grew stronger.
I balled my hand into a tight fist and let out an angry scream: "Why?"
I had never felt so impotent in my life.
So I called the fire department. A guy named Bill took the call. He had been a firefighter for fifteen years, he said. He also graduated CUNY with a degree in English. I explained the whole thing to him, the terrible poem, the vague sentences, my night of drinking, the fire.
"There's nothing I can think that would cause that," Bill said. His voice soothed my aching skull, like preparation H on a terrible hemorrhoid. "I think you may still be drunk."
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"I'm not drunk," I snapped, my mouth full of cotton.
"It's very Kafkaesque," Bill said. Absurd occurrences are frequently labeled Kafkaesque. I knew I was dealing with a literary hack.
"Yeah, Bill," I said, trying to patronize him.
"Have you tried using sand?" Bill asked.
"Sand," he repeated. "Try pouring sand onto your fire."
"Fuck you," I said and hung up. In spite of everything, Bill had been trying to help and all things being equal and this being New York City, that was something to be grateful for, a minor miracle. But things weren't equal. My poetry was burning in my living room like an oil lamp.
I decided to go to Coney Island to gather sand. I boarded the F train at 42nd Street. It rattled and shook and the lights flickered. The car was crowded, disgruntled New Yorkers bundled in winter garb like unfriendly Eskimoes. By the time we reached the Island stop, there was only one other passenger on the car, a shaggy drunk who was sleeping, sprawled across four seats.
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I bought three yellow and green children's pails and a box of plastic wrap. I was going to fill the buckets with sand and cover them for the ride home.
The freezing sand filled my sneakers as I walked toward the ocean. Sudsy waves caressed the shore. Seagulls squawked and for a moment I was distracted enough to think the world was a beautiful place, full of god's tiny miracles.
I stepped close enough to the shore to let the water run over my feet. As my flesh began to deaden I felt my anger dissipate; it washed away with the tide. How could a barrel blaze as long as it had in my living room? Why hadn't my apartment burned down?
I had a revelation. The burning barrel was a sign. I had gotten it all wrong. A miracle! I had been chosen! It made sense! I jumped into the ocean and tossed the pails into the air. I splashed and sang. My heart swelled with the wonder and majesty of the universe.
I sat staring at the barrel for two hours. I tried to talk to it.
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"What is this all about?" I asked.
The flame did not answer.
I knelt beside it. "Why have I been chosen?"
"Who are you?"
It was clear that my burning poetry had no intention of answering my questions. But it wasn't fair of me to expect a response. It was up to me to determine my destiny. I had been ordained for some particular job. Perhaps I would be the next great prophet.
I bought a cape on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side and a pair of leather sandals. If I was going to be a prophet, I needed to look the part.
On Monday I called my boss and told him I was quitting.
"What?" he said. "We have the Konner book..." We were scheduled to have lunch that afternoon with Konner's agent. I was through with trivial concerns. Konner's "Favorite Cajun Dishes of Country Singers," had seemed important on Friday. Now I was going to change the world.
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"I quit," I repeated and hung up the phone.
I stood in the center of Union Square. A few gray clouds filled the sky. Cars honked and people shouted at each other. My people, I whispered to myself.
I waited until noon.
"There is a barrel burning in my living room," I shouted. A flock of pigeons dispersed in a flutter. "You must listen to me. I have the answers to the unspoken mysteries of existence." I really didn't know shit. I assumed the answers would come to me all at once: God's words.
My cape flopped in the breeze and my uncovered toes began to chill. No one stopped to listen. A couple of college girls strolled near, but took a sudden detour when they spotted me.
I had expected people to gather in a circle and listen, but they treated me like just another freak. I yelled louder and stomped my foot. Finally, a large, hairy man tapped me on the shoulder. He was wearing a cape and sandals.
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"This is my territory," he said. His breath smelled like liquor and listorine.
"Fuck off, man," I said, for a moment forgetting I was a prophet.
The hairy man was quicker than he looked. He broke my nose with a punch I never saw.
A young doctor set my nose at the hospital. She was Indian, tiny, with dark hair and penetrating eyes. I told her I was the chosen one and described the barrel burning in my apartment. She nodded. When she finished taping my face she leaned over: "You keep talking like that and I'm going to get the psychiatrist down here."
I shut up.
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The next day I attempted to perform good deeds. I started by helping old men and women cross Park Avenue at 55th Street. It's a long block with no walk lights and is difficult for the elderly. The first old man, dressed in a suit twice too large for him, accepted my help. I was proud I managed to turn down his fifty cent tip. Money was soon going to be an issue. But I assumed the barrel would provide.
The next man was not as gracious. He said he was a former member of the AFL-CIO. He threatened to stick his cane up my ass. It got worse after that. I tried to take the arm of one bent, frail Chinese woman and she screeched like a monkey. Three policemen appeared from out of no where (was it the Starbucks on the corner?) and pressed my skull against the pavement.
At the station, I explained to the arresting officer who I was. I sat in a cramped interrogation room that smelled like liquor and listorine. He put his hand on my shoulder.
"I'm going to let you off with a warning," he said. "But if I ever see you on the streets again in this get up..." He pointed to my cape. "I'm going to put you away." I knew he'd do it. Men who wear capes and sandals are easily misunderstood.
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At home the fire burned as before. I think I detected a slight smirk in its flicker. It was mocking me. I kicked the barrel, but it didn't budge. I threw my wooden rocking chair. It careened and fell, broken, in a corner of the room.
I knew I was not a prophet. Jesus was crucified and Moses cast out of his own land, but at least people listened to them. Surely the barrel was a sign of something, I thought. I was desperate for it to take on meaning.
I called my friend Larry. We had attended school in Boston together. He moved to San Jose and got a programming job, but we were always in touch. He was the only living being I trusted.
"Larry, it's me," I said. "I've got this problem..." Larry was not much of a philosopher. His mind was like a computer program, orderly and logical, and that's what I thought I needed. He would come up with a simple solution.
"Who the hell is this?" Larry said.
"It's John, man. I'm having a terrible time. I need your help. Damn."
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"Listen John. I don't know if this is a joke or how you got my name, but I'm busy." He paused.
"Yeah, my name is Larry. Who's this?"
"It's me. John."
"Listen asshole. I'm busy."
"Larry," I said. It was too late. He had hung up.
I looked at the barrel.
My hand, still holding the receiver, began to shake. "What is going on? Why are you doing this to me?"
I stepped closer. The flame ignored me, flickering as always. I clenched my teeth. I wanted to wail like a baby and beg for mercy, but I didn't want to give the barrel the satisfaction of knowing it was beating me. But it was. I felt, suddenly, that I was vanishing from the world.
I dialed my mother. She lived in Miami, but never left her apartment for fear that the sun would kill her. She planned to live forever.
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"Ma, it's John," I said.
Silence on the other end. I heard the ocean crashing in the background.
"Mother. Are you there?"
"Who is this?" she asked. Her high voice faltered.
"It's John." My mouth felt drier than toast. My heart pumped adrenaline to my fingertips. I was an only child. If my mother failed to recognize me...
"Your son, Ma."
"I don't know who this is," she said. "But my husband is a biker. He'll hurt you." My father, dead for twenty years, could not drive a car without sending pedestrians diving for cover. A motorcycle was out of the question.
The phone clicked.
What did it mean? My life was vanishing like a trail of smoke.
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I thought there was still one chance for me. God was teaching me a lesson, that's what I decided, and it was time for me to learn it.
I bought a week's supply of food and a deadbolt for my door. I hired a mechanic to secure it from the outside. I wasn't going to leave until I was done. Then the burning barrel would let me go. If I was wrong, there was nothing to live for anyway.
My plan was simple. My terrible poem got me into this mess. If I could write a tribute to the barrel, an homage to life, I would be free. I had turned my back on the quest. The burning poetry was my punishment. Another attempt -- a successful one -- was the only way out.
I touched my favorite black pen to paper and hunched over. I scribbled a few words. But one word had no bearing on the next. I tried to remember what my last poem had been about. Nothing came to me. I squinted and scratched my head. Still, I couldn't think what to write.
I lit a Parliment -- the sophisticated cigarette -- for inspiration and flipped it onto my tongue. I managed to scribble my name once or twice. Finally, I wrote, "this is really pissing me off." Even my expression of despair was lame.
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I flicked the half finished cigarette into the barrel and turned away. I felt something smack the back of my head. I looked and saw the Parliment sitting on the floor by my feet. I glanced at the barrel. It was giggling.
I became more determined to write another masterpiece. I sucked a tab of acid. This is what I wrote: Clouds in spring drift over numb thoughts like sugar coated confections/They're from a heedless child's sweet dreams of eternal life. It was the worst thing I'd ever written.
I collapsed on the floor and began hallucinating. God was hovering over my head. He looked like Frank Sinatra in "From Here to Eternity." He said, "There's nothing left for you, man. The gig's all up, you've used and abused it. What a waste, what a waste..." He repeated that as he slapped my face. Suddenly, I saw myself holding a cup of coffee, sitting in my kitchen. A warm, yellow light stretched across the floor. I lifted the beverage to my lips. Red flames licked and popped from the cup. I ignored them and drank the coffee.
I gave up my plan.
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I ate all the food I had stored. I tried to toss items of garbage in the can, but the barrel always threw them back. Bags of half eaten chips, empty Spaghettio cans and candy wrappers covered my floor. I ran out of food in a week and soon began to starve.
One afternoon I began pacing back and forth. I yelled at the barrel: "Goddamn it! What does it mean? I don't understand! Help me!" I turned my back on the flame and looked out my window: two girls were building a snowman. Cars sped down Ninth Avenue. Wouldn't it be nice to just go for a walk, I thought.
I heard a whisper. I looked at the barrel. The flame flickered. I stepped closer.
"Did you say something?"
I heard the whisper again, a little louder, but indistinct.
"What are you trying to tell me?" My heart pounded. Finally, I would discover why the barrel was burning in my living room. I wouldn't have to starve to death, alone in my apartment, after all. I dropped to my knees and hugged the barrel. I put my ear next to the flame.
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"What?" I said. "Tell me. Please tell me."
Suddenly, the flame grabbed my throat and began pulling me closer. The fire danced on the edge of the barrel to make room for my body. I punched the side of the can, I screamed and kicked. I felt the heat begin to scorch my skin. I could see the bottom of the barrel. I thought my answer might lie there. But the surface was charred and black. It was another dead end.
That's when it came over me. I could have let go, allowed the barrel to consume me. But I wanted, more than anything, to live and this desire gave me strength.
I wrenched my head from the bucket and threw myself to the ground. The flame lashed out, but I rolled toward the window. I kicked the glass and swung myself over the sill, holding on with both hands. The flame, stretching from the barrel, poked at my fingers. I found a foothold on the window frame beneath me and let go. With my renewed strength, I knew I would get down.
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* * *
I joined the New York City Fire Department the following year. The pay was good and the work got me out of the house.
Last month I was on a call. A fire was destroying a five story tenement apartment. A woman screamed for help. I raced into the building. The fire raged all around me like a ferocious tiger. I chopped through three walls and found the woman and her small child. They lay unconscious at the bottom of a flight of stairs. I was about to go down, but stopped. Something wasn't right. I saw a flame, below the third step, grinning, waiting for me to step and plunge to my death. I felt my heart shrivel with fear. I wanted to flee. I would be killed, I told myself. I could quit my job, run away, lock myself in my apartment, attempt to write the perfect poem. But then I looked down and saw the woman and her child. Without me they would die. That's when I knew for sure. The quest was over.
I leapt over the flame. I tucked the boy under my arm and pulled the woman over my shoulder. I raced out of the building. I even got my picture in the paper.
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I met a passionate woman, Ellen, at the fireman's charity dance and we are getting married this fall. Her smile is like a sunflower on a breezy spring day. We want to have a large family, at least five kids.
Recently, I visited my old apartment. I walked up the steps and peaked through the keyhole. The barrel was as I'd left it. My nemesis was barely alive. Only a slight glow emanated from the can, like the dying embers of a campfire. When it saw me, the flame burned brightly for a moment. But I smirked. I laughed, turned and went down the stairs to meet my fiancé.
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