In college, Joey picked classes like fruit from bulging trees. Her major was Undecided for years as she plucked off credits in sculpture, botany, photography, ethnography, welding, physical education.
It wasn’t flightiness; she bore deeply into each pursuit, dug a fresh groove in her brain where the knowledge from each discipline stayed forever.Her grades were high. She worked her hands to calluses, muddied them, taught them a bevy of skills. Jeanette worried she would never find a proper home.
"I am home," she would say. Her kitchen table was covered in modeling toothpicks, architectural models, dried nubs of clay, and plants she was in the process of repotting.
When she graduated (after shaping her many credits into a degree in general education), firefighting was the obvious choice. She needed to be on her feet, but she didn’t have the stomach to be an EMT or the amorality to be a cop. Teaching itself was obviously out of the question. Jeanette, who’d been out of school for a year by then, made her sister a LinkedIn profile and began forwarding job announcements, all of which set Joey’s teeth on edge. In the end she didn’t need to seek a job out. She was called.
One day, she was walking home from the gym and spotted a fellow runner slipping into the doors of a firehouse. From outside, Jeanette watched the firefighters high-five and stride carelessly into their kitchen. Dogs and cats and bulky uniforms were strewn everywhere. There was a flyer pasted on the window, advertising job openings. Simple as that. Joey passed the physical on the first try.
Joey’s sister wanted her to have ambition.
”Firefighting is a part-time gig,” she said.
All that free time Joey had, slothing on the firehouse couch, staring at the ceiling and spinning records— couldn’t she apply that time to a career?
"I’m doing what I want already," Joey said with a shrug. "It’s taken care of."
"But don’t you want to feel some sense of…accomplishment?"
Joey couldn’t explain it to her. She carried a child in her arms through the blazes. Doused a historical home and preserved its centuries-old wood and its thick, musty rugs. She’d taken a frail, elderly woman across a chasm of broken stairs, in a gloriously dilapidated factory the woman called home. There was accomplishment in all of it.
And there was accomplishment lingering in the hours of firehouse camaraderie, too. In the wasted hours spent driving to meet police at the site of 911 calls, many of which required no firefighting at all. There was accomplishment in the gentle gestures, like holding an oxygen mask to a gunshot victim’s face, or wrapping a car accident victim in a metallic blanket that crinkled in her hands. There was accomplishment in filling the animals’ food bowls, in dusting soot from her hair. In replacing the thick, python-like fire hoses with her callused hands. Every moment of it felt productive, sacred.
Jeanette’s idea of excitement was standing on the outside of a stifled fire, in the safety of the sprinkled grass, a pen in her hand. Perhaps in telling people about the destruction she had seen, but only long after the flames had cooled and the more gruesomely damaged victims had been ferreted away. She wanted to be a witness, not a victim or a rescuer.
Writers were like that. They wanted the story of the conflagration without having to sweat. They were better at describing it than living it. Whenever Joey tried to describe a firefight her words got ahead of her, lost suspense as she tumbled over-eagerly into the conclusion. Often she let Jeanette tell people her stories instead.
“Jeanette, tell them about the explosion in Skokie,” she’d say. Or, “There was a forest fire near the conservatory…Jeanette, go ahead.”
"What are you gonna do when you’re old?" Jeanette asked once. They were at the park, stretching after a run along the lake. Joey’s knees were popping sonorously.
"I’ll keep fighting as long as I can," Joey said. "Then I’ll ride the desk. Maybe train new recruits."
Jeanette tensed her glutes and lowered, arms out and straight. “That’s the trajectory, huh.”
It wasn’t like Jeanette’s writing career was bubbling up, either. Writing for her college newspaper had turned into a post-graduate job selling classified ads. That turned into a job editing and formatting the classifieds for the city’s second most popular free alternative mag, which itself turned into a job writing ad copy for an agency Joey’d never heard of. When asked how she liked the gig, Jeanette simply replied that the people were nice.
Joey watched her sister’s ass start to spread. Purplish marks began clinging to the skin under her eyes. The changes were subtle enough that Joey wondered if she’d imagined them. Even still, it made her own future of “riding the desk” all the more portentous.
Joey lived for the tactile. She loved the sense of her body strengthening and bounding into productive use. Nothing topped the severe ache she got at the end of the work day. When she was called into a burning building, weighed down with protective gear and equipment, the heat licking her face and neck, pluming slowly into her throat, she was happy. It felt for once like every cell in her body was being put to use, activated, tingling with energy and purpose.
As she climbed the stairs, batting away the falling embers and chunks of cinder, Joey could hardly distinguish the heat of the flames from the burn of strenuous effort. She threw a leg over the side of the rails, dodged a pile of smoking wood and plaster, and pushed forward, up the stairs. There was an old woman and a toddler on the ninth floor, too weak to rescue themselves.
All Joey’s attention was focused on the moment. Her breath rushed and fogged up her mask as she hurled her body up, two or three stairs at a time, her gloved arms tucked in, pumping. She thought only of her body’s swift, tight movements up the stairs, and of the flames she had to dodge, and of the people above her, waiting for their salvation.
The debris rained down on her in greater and greater amounts, and smoke clouded her vision. Joey could hear the clatter of the other firefighters’ boots, and of their yelling, and of something panicked coming from her walkie talkie. It was all a din in the back of her mind.
She was past the seventh floor and halfway to the next landing. Her pulse was snaking blood into her neck and temples at a rapid, but sustainable pace. There was a great sound of something crumbling, and Joey couldn’t see any more, and it grew hotter.
Her lungs flooded with smoke and she stumbled. It was important, in such moments, not to lose control. Joey pushed past the dizzy feeling and moved toward the people who needed her. She liked to picture the people she needed to rescue, especially when her body began to flag.
Her mind called forth a sweet-faced and grandmotherly woman, the likes of which Joey had never known firsthand. She pushed forward. Sweat pooled from every pore and seemed to almost bubble on her skin.
It was the eighth floor that collapsed onto her. It came in several massive planks, smoldering with heat. Joey was immobilized and struck on the head, but not incapacitated. She saw the flames and detritus rain down, an orange hail marred with blackness. The pain pierced every cell, filled her with heat until they burst and ran, fluid pouring out of her and turning hot, becoming part of the fire itself.
The smoke brought sweet release from the scalding, mind-searing pain. It licked at Joey’s nostrils and slunk into her chest, bubbling her insides, fusing her organs into one another. She went to touch her face and found nothing there. She approached her destruction with a dull, almost academic remove. Huh. This is what it feels like to be burned alive.
She tried to hold onto the accumulating facts as long as she could, studying the sounds and putrid smells of her body burning and coming apart. But soon the smoke overtook her, and delivered her into a detached slumber the likes of which she had never known before, and would never escape.
Read from the beginning.