The fire alarm jerked me from a fitful summer sleep, the intermittent squeal slicing through our apartment door like tissue paper.
“What?” Mary Anne stirred beside me, a slow riser. I was the one who made the coffee in the mornings.
“Alarm,” I mumbled.
I smelled something burning. In a heartbeat I was up, struggling into my jeans, stumbling into the hallway, blinking in the stinging glare of the fluorescent light. Our second floor neighbors stood outside their unit, two short-haired women, one in black horn-rimmed glasses and a white tank top, the other in a ratty blue nightgown. The horn-rimmed woman pointed at the smoke alarm clinging to the ceiling between our two units.
The alarm’s volume was unendurable, every peal a shiver of cochlear pain. You couldn’t ignore it, which I guess was the point. Our decrepit brownstone had ten-foot ceilings, transoms and airshafts—what had passed for air-conditioning at the turn of the century. Jumping, my fingertips barely brushed the shrieking disk of painted-over plastic.
The stink of burning meat caught my attention. Thin coils of smoke curled up the stairwell.
“I’ll go check on the Old Man,” I shouted. This wasn’t our first late night alarm. I knew who the problem was.
I skittered down the worn wooden stairs, the treads gritty and cool under my bare feet. The Old Man was technically our landlord—he owned the building and lived on the first floor—but between the rental agent and the building management company I’d only laid eyes on him a few times. He was tall and ancient, with a curiously full head of snow white hair and a black eye patch.
His door stood ajar, leaking smoke. I’d never seen the inside of his unit, which included the entire first floor. I hesitated, uncertain. “Hello?”
I let myself in. The living room was dark after the bright hall light, dim and foul, redolent of smoke, musty paper, and unwashed flesh. I made my way slowly down a narrow corridor formed of densely packed towers of stacked newspaper and bundled magazines, many topped with styrofoam meal trays. Mysterious pieces of machinery littered a large dining room table.
I crept to the light streaming through an arched doorway into the cluttered kitchen where a pot fizzled on a merrily flaming burner. A black hotdog welded inside emitted a coursing plume of foul smoke.
I turned off the burner. Wrapping its handle with a dishtowel, I carried the pot to a sink full of dirty dishes and extinguished the mess with a jet of tap water. The pot spewed steam for a few seconds and then was still. I heard a crunching sound from the top of the stairs, and the alarm died as well.
The sudden silence was shocking. A car alarm warbled in the distance. My heart pulsed in my eardrums. I felt like a criminal, an interloper. I knew I should just go, call 911, let someone else handle whatever was going on.
I entered the darkened room across from the kitchen and found the Old Man flat on his back in his unmade bed, fully dressed, a battered fedora over his face. An empty fifth of a single malt Irish whiskey lay on its side on the faded oriental carpet. A cigar smoldered in a cracked saucer balanced precariously at the edge of the mattress.
I stubbed out the cigar and set the saucer on a nightstand. I felt for his pulse, his skin cool and papery to the touch, and found it, light but steady. I snapped on the overhead light and looked around for a phone to call 911. There wasn’t one. Just a dresser, a table with a giant, fifties-era cloth-covered radio with Bakelite buttons, and a closed black door without a doorknob.