[ToC]

 

I SAVED THE BABY FROM THE BURNING BUILDING

Vincent Poturica

I saved the baby from the burning building. My skin melted from my bones, but the baby was safe. I climbed the clouds like a ladder to heaven. I watched the baby grow into a boy and then into a man. My children slowly forgot they had a mother. My ex-husband forgot he had ever been married. The man forgot I had sacrificed my life so that he could live. He taught middle-school algebra and played softball on the weekends. I resented his lack of imagination, that his life had been saved to serve such a banal purpose. My children also led unimaginative lives: my son drove a tow truck and my daughter answered calls for a pro-bono legal firm that represented drug addicts like her father. I resented their lack of ambition, but I resented the man much more who had forgotten I saved him. My husband continued to shoot-up crystal methamphetamine and live on the street, so it was harder to resent him. I asked God to punish the baby-turned-man for his forgetfulness. God was listening to a Billie Holiday record under a crude wooden table made by children who had died of cancer before they were old enough to take woodshop in school (God loves Billie Holiday). I asked God, Can I please throw a lightning bolt at the man who forgot I saved him from a burning building when he was a baby? God said, You're not Zeus, child, you'll get hurt if you throw lightning. I told God I was willing to give it a try. God said, Okie dokie. Then He crawled back under the table to listen to Billie Holiday. I grabbed a lightning bolt from a bothered cloud. My skin melted off my bones again as soon as I gripped the blade of light—I'd since grown new skin in heaven—and my eyes again dripped out of their sockets. Rather than go through the slow and painful process of growing another epidermis, I decided to remain a skeleton. I began publishing a weekly journal called Rotten Flesh that consisted principally of my polemical editorials denouncing ­­­­­­the skin's vain purpose to shield us from our true form: our naked bones. But these editorials were, of course, a ruse—I didn't believe that bones were any more honest or pure than skin—I just wanted to rant against the man who had once been the helpless baby I had martyred myself to save. I gave a free copy of Rotten Flesh to God who read it and then asked me why I was so angry and sad. I told God that the baby-turned-man still wasn't thanking me or even thinking about me as I perched over my peephole in the clouds and watched him singing karaoke in a Seattle piano bar. He was so ungrateful to the woman who had saved his life. God said, That's just how it goes sometimes, people forget. I ignored Him. I passed out free copies of my journal to the citizens of the suburb in heaven where I lived. People generally said things like: Well, we like having sex; I don't know what's so rotten about flesh if it gives us pleasure. Or things like: Who is this baby again? Your argument for purity is interesting, but we don't care about this baby. Of course, there were some devout followers of various faiths who respected my commitment to remain a skeleton. They took me for a prophet. A few of them created a special sect to worship me. The baby-turned-man served as the perfect evil counterpart to my skeleton-God. God took no notice of this new religion. He remained mostly under the table, listening to Billie Holiday and clipping His giant toenails. People threw coins in my direction and asked me to dance. They didn't care for Rotten Flesh, but they liked the sounds my bones made when I moved quickly. Like a pump organ made entirely from bamboo. That's what one of the leather-jacket kids who hung around the local movie theater said. I usually obliged their request. Dancing helped me to forget the man who was just a baby when I saved him.

I saved the baby from the burning building. The baby lived, but I died, and my son did not forgive me for my sacrifice. My ex-husband was too high to know I was dead. My daughter didn't care—she spent her days sleeping with men in the backseat of a Buick Century white as cocaine, even the leather seats were white. The men gave her pretty clothes and jewelry in exchange for her services until one of their pistols, nuzzled too tightly on a hip, went off by mistake and shot her. My son blamed me for my recklessness that left him without a mother. His hurt grew inside him like a small ugly person. He stole a motorcycle and raced suicidally around the Southern Hemisphere until he crashed somewhere on the coast of El Salvador and lost the use of his legs. I was reborn as a Pizza Hut oven in Sacramento. I spent my days with the dough rising inside me as I wished I had read to my children more often from books about dinosaurs. Children who learn about dinosaurs seem to grow up better, have a better sense of themselves, be happier, make healthier decisions. Dinosaurs are good for children. I don't know how long it was before I was reborn as a radish root. I've always had a fondness for Dürer's gouache nature study "The Great Piece of Turf" in which the grass and earth look so real. I imagine I live inside his painting now that I occupy the tendril of this radish. I shouldn't say occupy. Now that I am this thin root strand. Even though I cannot see the radish, I imagine that it is healthy in a patch of plant growth much like the one Dürer depicted. I know, or rather I feel, that the world directly above me is close to Dürer's beautiful representation: slanting, silent, indefinite. I delight in stillness. I like to lose myself on purpose throughout the day wondering about the sky that I am no longer able to observe. I think back to the summer evenings under the lemon tree at my grandfather's beach house where I used to let the ants crawl up my fingers and toes as I watched the clouds change between the leaves. I play a game now. I pretend my son and daughter, my mother and father, my favorite friends, and even my ex-husband and former lovers are the other roots. I miss them all for different reasons. We guess what color we think the sky is. I always guess blue. I think blue is a safe guess.

I saved the baby from the burning building. The baby survived and so did I, with minimal injuries. I wrote a book about surviving. The first draft praised Jesus Christ for saving us. But my publishers convinced me to revise my thesis, so to speak. They said Jesus wouldn't appeal to their secular demographic, so I rewrote the book and claimed the power of my positive thinking was the secret to my survival. The publishers liked this draft much better. And so did the public. My book was wildly successful. I went on talk shows and made hideous generalizations about the meaning of existence—Just be here now!—with unwavering confidence. Then I wrote a song about surviving. The single sold well, so I cut a record. The record sold well, so I went on tour. The shows were sold out. I'm especially big in Japan. My publicist suggested that I save another baby from a burning building, so I saved three babies from the same burning building. Then I really got going. I saved babies from a burning duplex, a burning yurt, a burning car, a burning airplane (in flight), a burning hang-glider (also in flight), a burning moon-bounce, a burning guitar case (the baby was living inside it), a burning satellite (I didn't even need a spacesuit), a burning television (the baby had crawled on top of it), a burning yoga center, a burning frozen yogurt outlet, a burning dumpster (the baby was playing peek-a-boo in the garbage). I wrote another book, cut another record. I am campaigning to run for Congress. I enjoy talking about myself. The world loves to listen.

I saved the baby from the burning building. But within three hours we had both died from inhaling too much smoke. We were sent directly to hell. I was shocked. How could a baby be sent to hell? How could a baby warrant eternal damnation? Let alone a woman who had just risked her life to save a baby? In fact, heaven is vacant. People shouldn't even talk about going there. Only a few souls have been sent by mistake. And those who've been there say it's really not that great. Just a big empty cafeteria with an impossibly clean and shiny floor. The air is so pure it's hard to breathe. But I've never been there. I live in hell with the baby and everyone else who has ever died. There are many of us as you rightly imagine. Life isn't so bad. We live in a tenement, the baby and I. The baby, though still unable to walk, now speaks seven languages fluently. I work at a dry cleaner's. The pay isn't great, but I have first-rate health insurance. Everyone in hell has good benefits, surprisingly. Probably to keep us in fit condition for the duration of eternity. It really isn't so different from my life before I died. Except for the daily whippings that occur every evening just before twilight, the time changes depending on the season. We are whipped in dark hallways with thick ropes studded with broken glass by older though not yet elderly people who flay us viciously with the shame and regret of their past lives. I've learned a great deal here. No one tries to fix each other in hell. We may sometimes be frustrated at an afterlife that, like life, systematically wounds us, but we all have more compassion. That's my take at least: that people in hell hate each other less. I'm no longer proud. And neither are my children or my ex-husband. We all get together for dinner most Fridays and tell each other stories that we were always too afraid to share when we were alive. We have a better relationship with each other now. The baby, lacking the life it never had, luckily, has never known pride. Sometimes he will roll his eyes wildly and won't stop rolling them even when I ask him politely to calm down. So I make him necklaces from dried macaroni. He likes to chew and suck on the macaroni pieces as if he were teething. But he will never grow teeth.

I saved the baby from the burning building. We both survived though the skin on my left arm will always be disfigured, and the baby's lungs are permanently scarred. For a week, I felt wonderfully empty of worry, like I was floating. At night, I didn't even dream. But then the next Tuesday at work, eight days after I'd saved the baby, I became annoyed that Emily had taken the stapler home and had forgotten to bring it back to the office. So I had to use paper clips to secure the invoices, which annoyed me. I don't like paperclips. And then my son forgot to pick up my daughter—his sister—from play-practice. She was crying by the time I came to get her after work. It was also raining and she didn't have an umbrella. Then I dreamt that my daughter and I were dead. I was wearing her skin. And she was wearing mine. I asked my therapist the next day what the dream meant and he prescribed me Kolonopin to take twice a day along with the Xanax I was already taking on an as-needed basis. Emily once again forgot to bring the stapler back to the office, and though I tried the breathing exercises the meditation class I've been attending suggested, I still yelled at her and called her a flake and other less kind names. I apologized immediately, but I still felt bad. During lunch, I read the Dalai Lama's book on happiness and tried to become as blank as I'd been the week before. I thought maybe if I adopted a dog from the local shelter I'd feel better again. My daughter likes dogs. But my son is allergic. Then I got a text from my ex-husband saying that he was in Detox again and needed money. I knew I shouldn't give him any money. He would just use it to buy dope. But I drove to the Detox and gave him one hundred dollars cash. He asked me if he could stay with me and the kids until he was back on his feet, but I said No. At least I didn't agree to that. When I returned to the office, my manager Mr. Rodriquez lectured me for taking such a long lunch and praised Emily for always eating quickly in the office to save the company time and money. I spent the rest of the afternoon scanning Facebook for evidence that my son had been smoking marijuana. I couldn't find any proof. My head was spinning by the time I left work. I decided to take a long walk home though the park. The legless man on the skateboard was singing near the duck pond: I have no legs, I have no legs. I dropped a dollar into the baseball hat he was using for a beggar's bowl. The man resembled my ex-husband; his eyebrows were very close to his eyes. I felt a little better having given him money, and I told him to have a nice day. He continued to sing: I have no legs, I have no legs. And I remembered again that I had saved a baby from a burning building just nine days before. I'd saved an actual human life from annihilation. Shouldn't I be changed? I thought that the act would make me feel whole, or at least worthier, more at-peace. Why then did I still feel so incomplete? I can't answer that question.

 

 

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A couple summers ago, I tried to write a story everyday, which didn't happen, but this is one of the stories I finished. Robert Walser, César Aira, Padgett Powell, God, and my wife are all influences. I listen to music while I write, usually the same song on repeat, and I think I was listening to either [this Jay Reatard song] or [this Jesus Lizard song] when I wrote this story. The legless man singing "I have no legs" is a nod to the movie Kids.