The man we lost in the fire (Chronicles of Dis-Infection, late Nov13)


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Success isn’t a result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire.
Arnold H. Glasow

[continuation from previous post, in case you’re not wondering] …no, it doesn‘t matter, one can go way overboard, topple over the gunwale. The Q would have been hypothesizing on what degree of self-consciousness beauty might induce. Incite even. But it would‘ve been, as all my writing is, a road upon the blacktop of sheer speculation, smoothed at times by one or the other metaphorical bulldozer, not bulldozer but that other machine which flattens the road, a road towards hell [at the maximum]. Or depending on what emprically ascertained information I can manage to call down from memory, towards a city constructed of equal parts ignorance and thought, not dilapidated but not a place you would want to stay very long either. Supposing of course I [and you] would ever arrive.

• • •

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Fire has come to Lucerne. A kiosk burned not down but out. And its patron perished; the acquaintance we lost in the fire. The next day the place looked perfectly normal, abnormally closed for a weekday but otherwise as per usual. No smoke blackened walls or ceilings or heat-burst windows, just the usual incoherent grand collage of front-pages. One day too old because the manager died in the fire. Though, judging from the news article, he didn‘t die in the fire, few people seem to do, so much as from the smoke development. The smoke development, what a word! Economic development, personal development, smoke development. His personal development was short-cut by the smoke development. It‘s a tiny caboose of a kiosk, mind you. It‘s door appeared to be wide open as the smoke, evolving, searching for its own shape, was pouring out and rising into the night‘s black rain. This constellation of objects makes it very difficult to understand how our acquaintance, the kiosk owner [if he in fact did own it], could fail to escape the development of the smoke. It seems very reasonable that he could‘ve retreated into the unpleasant cool of night and called the firemen to come fight the good fight. This leaves open a number of speculative doors:

A) despite their vexatious plentitude, the kiosk man, sheltered away in his cosmos of glossy celebrity magazines, chocolate bars, overprized cigarettes, teeth-brutalizing candies and Kinder Ueberraschungen, the man failed to ever catch one of those innumerable documentaries or shows where the voice-over instructs us that it is not the fire that kills people but the toxins in the smoke…that even small amounts can lead to letal respiratory failure. Thus wet towels across nose and mouth. The kiosk owner might have imagined he had more time to fight the early blaze when in fact he was already knocking on death‘s door. Not a smoker‘s cough, as he beat at the flames but the cough of death itself.

B) He rises in the early morning hours. The whirr of the trolley buses‘s huge black tires just outside the kiosk is enough to destroy any illusions of sleeping until 06:30 just one single time. It sounds like automative rubber against Chicago cement, a sister city he has never financially had the chance to visist, though he‘s been saving up for a long time. Had been. Anti-merridian noises. Not to mention the hydraulic hiss as the trolley tips sidewalk-wards to accomodate the prams and cripples and those long in the tooth, that is, the doddering silver citizenry, stabbing their canes into the pavement against gravity‘s unrelenting assault. Or embrace. Come back here! Silver beats grey!

Thus: No chance of any more shut-eye for the poor kiosk man. He rises from his little mat, does his daily bit of hygiene in the tiny sink of the storage room, a sink intended purely for washing hands, slips into the day before‘s clothes, hoses himself down with a half-empty or half-full can of Axe, no effect to write home about, cooks up a cup of joe and bruzzels two eggs in a pan, hides all of the afore, welcomes the truck-lady with the day‘s supply of restocking. Again – By the time she arrives he has hidden away the objects of his secret animal existence: the mat, the mat-side lamp, the picture of his one-time nuclear family, the pan, the toiletries, the marmelade and the loaf of bread. His metabolism exchanges butter&jam-sandwiches for life; the rate is constant, as though Keynes were still sucking air, as though pegged to gold. But there is no gold, only shit. A constant stream of shit, which other people, he knows this, call the ,run of days‘.

If the owner knew about the poor kiosk man bedding down in back of the booth he‘d have hell to pay for. (What does this even mean? I mean: how did such a saying come about?) Ipso facto, he lives in an unrelenting state of fear. Thus stomach ulcers. You can see, clearly, where this is going. When the money for the medical bills runs out, pilfered for the most part from the „Chicago-Reserve“ (he knew these specific English words and enjoyed their authoritative sound, they were like a Treasury bond on visiting Paris on the Prairie one day, of escaping Lozaern, if only for a fortnight) his life crumbles in a number of different ways. There is the highly touted Swiss social support-net but he is too idiosyncratic in his ways to be usefully aware of its existence; he doesn‘t give up bedding down in the kiosk with his belongings, it does not even occur to him. Alcohol and debt enter the picture but he perseveres. He rises and gets the shop in ship-shape before the first customer hits the tiles to require a newspaper or pack of chewing gums. The desparate kiosk man regales his customers with good-humor jokes, quips and wisecracks, the origins of which he can, at night on his mat, by the mat-side lamp, sated by a can of re-heated beans, tucked under a wanting comforter, only absolutely wonder at. There‘s a hint there that he could‘ve been a different person, that Chicago and other cities might‘ve been something more than just a fantasy holiday destination. That night the poor kiosk man weeps, his soul drenches into the mat in huge gobs of phlegm and he promises, high and holy, by his departed sister that within an Olympiad he will visit the aeolian metropole.

            The next morning, exhausted, he neglects to unplug the cooking stove before stashing it behind a sizable stack of magazines. No biggie. But then, late in the evening, the store closed for Sunday, he remembers a customer from Oman who was particulary nasty to him. A broken-English argument about Niqabs in which an incredible amount of stereotypes were levelled at each other. For some reason the Omani guy repeatedly pointed at the watch hed had bought across the river. This all the kiosk patron recalls now. The absurd watch, the argument that was powerfully belligerent and yet failed to make any sense whatsoever. And so now, in a sudden rekindling of fury, as he turns onto his cool side, the inconsiderate kiosk man flings a fifty-pack of chewing-gum towards one of the corners of the storage room. It lands in the wedged space delimited downwards by the un-unplugged portable heating element.

Yes, this is still about why he didn‘t flee the tiny booth.

The poor kiosk man fights the fire tooth and claw, to no avail. He can‘t find the bloody extinguisher. Extinguishers are strategically positioned so they can never be found in case of a fire. Just as are CPR devices. Both fitted in red&white caps. Where are they? So the kiosk guy takes what is to hand. But! Fighting fire with rolled up news-papers has a historically bad record of success. He curses, all the while remembering the great fire of Chicago. Chicago! He cannot let this conflagaration ruin his great escape. The blaze keeps growing extra-heads like a hydra in tales. He can fight one at a time while the others slowly make their way around him.

Eventually he finds himself wondering how a coughing fit can make him buckle at the knees; he hasn‘t smoked in decades. And when his grandfather hawked up blood he used to just wipe it off on the back of his pants, no weakness in the legs at all. A tiny bit later, as his jaw shatters on the kiosk‘s white tiles he can‘t feel any pain though he hears the damp crack. He recalls a TV show about fires and smoke-de-something but nothing specific. And when his heart stops for the first time that night it seems to him, subjectively, that he will indeed see his sister again. She‘s not gone away, after all, just requesting the pleasure of his visit in a well-lit hotel room in downtown, a big city by the lake. A room you can hear the El from.

C) Is not a door so much as a horrible inbetween foyer: was he planning to perish or did he fight for his life with everything at his disposal? And graffitied on the wall of that hallway in fat, colorful, impossibly curvilinear letters: Why the good gotta go so young? Which doesn‘t even make all that much sense because the poor kiosk man wasn‘t terribly young. But he was good, making people laugh with his jokes and witticisms. The acquisition of Stimorol was upgraded by a reinforced belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity. He provided a warm spark for whatever day lay ahead.

Now there are many candles, flowers, a small angel figurine and a few pages scotch-taped to the door-glass wishing him all the best on the other side. Despite all the evidence, we persist in pretending there is this „other side“ where we will all meet again. Do you really believe this? Really? People have scribbled on this piece of paper their comemorations. Memories can somehow bring back a little bit of life. I read a few and they ripped my heart to pieces. I cannot deal with death. It wouldn‘t be wrong to cry for everybody who has ever died. But this is about the guy I’ve been telling you about. He caught a very bad break.

The sense is that nobody knew the poor kiosk man personally but that everybody really liked him the way one likes a distant, infrequent uncle. The sense is that, despite his marginality, there is an irreplacable, terrible loss in our midst. It would be ok to weep. Even for only just the kiosk man.

The sense is, finally, that things do end. And we amongst them.

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About tmabona

writer, reader [bolano, DW, bellow, deLillo], runner, badmintoneer
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