Will This Madness Ever End?

The heat was bad, sure, but there was something thicker in the air this time. A haze was everywhere; it consumed everything. The windows of the Hansen and Third corner store fogged up so much you could only see the silhouettes of the men behind the counter—every window in the adjacent building was either open or housing an AC unit. Sounds of all kinds cut through the stranglehold of the heat and poured out into the street: the occasional shout, the clang of a dish, the voice of a DJ coming and going from a passing car radio. “This next one’s ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth,’ but this Ju-ly—goddamn!”

——— 

1.     The Balcony

Todd Greenbaum, premature balder, had decided to brave the haze. Todd owned no AC or fan for fear of a follicle-tugging breeze, so his apartment felt more like a sauna than a studio. He sprawled across the balcony wearing nothing but a white tank top and tattered boxers, not even his toupee—an act of sheer desperation. Todd had been sensitive about his hair condition since the seventh grade, when he slow-danced with the already-five-foot-eight Suzy Henderson at the Spring Fling. A full head taller than Todd, Suzy had a direct view of his scalp, where the signs of hair loss were already showing. She made this known to the whole seventh grade class. After this, he wore a baseball cap every day until he graduated, then purchased an expensive, jet-black hairpiece to start college as a new man. In 14 years, he hadn’t so much as looked out a window without it.

The toupee’s absence was noticed. Mrs. Kazan, the tiny 81-year-old widow who lived across the hall, wearily lumbered across Third Avenue with a small bag of groceries tucked into the wire basket of her walker. Condensation from a carton of milk threatened the durability of the brown paper bag.

As she got closer, Mrs. Kazan grew more and more suspicious of the strange man on the balcony. Her eyes were going, but she had memorized a blurry approximation of every single person who came and went from her building, and this guy wasn’t in her mental registry.

“HEY!” she shouted up at the figure while swatting away a swarm of gnats. “What’s the big idea, hot shot? Who the hell are you?” She steadied herself—shouting in the dizzying heat had thrown her already precarious stance off balance.

Todd, ever conscious of his head’s appearance, knowingly replied, “Mrs. Kazan, I know I look different, but it’s me, Todd. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Squinting with her whole body, Mrs. Kazan grumbled, “Todd? Todd, what happened to you? I can’t keep anything straight anymore. I tell you, I’ve never seen a summer like this. Something has to be done about this, this godforsaken place…” She trailed off as she sluggishly entered the building. A gnat whizzed its way through the door just as it swung shut. Todd sighed, wiping sweat off his waxy scalp.

 ———

2.     The Hall

Mrs. Kazan paused in the entrance to catch her breath. The confines of the building were hardly a respite from the suffocating air—inside it was hot and stale, like no one had opened a window in weeks. Every crease in her face held a layer of sweat; walking any distance in the heat was no easy task, and it had taken all her energy to yell at Todd. Unfortunately, Leslie Dratch, her overly-attentive neighbor, waltzed into the hall to check his mailbox at that exact moment.

“Not this loon,” Mrs. Kazan mumbled under her breath. Leslie didn’t miss a beat.

“Mrs. Kazan, you poor thing!” he exclaimed, rushing over, scanning his beloved neighbor’s body for mysterious bruises or swollen joints.

Forcing a smile, she replied, “Really nothing to worry about. It’s a disaster out there, but I’m fine.” Mrs. Kazan summoned her remaining strength and tried to forge onward through the hot vacuum of a hallway, keeping her head down and avoiding eye contact. Leslie was not dissuaded in the slightest—Mrs. Kazan’s limp attempted escape only made him want to help her even more. He stood up straight, pulled his damp button-down taught, and pushed his sweat-drenched bangs to either side of his forehead. With the determination of a superhero, he said, “Let’s get those groceries into your apartment.”

Mrs. Kazan had had it. She edged her walker around to stare up at Leslie. “You know how they say the murder rate is at a record high?” she asked flatly. “No problem making it go higher. None. Catch my drift?”

They stared at each other until Leslie laughed uneasily. “You’re something else, Mrs. Kazan, you know that? You go ahead on your own this time, but don’t hesitate to ask me for help later! You know where I live!” Mrs. Kazan tried to block out his grating voice as she hobbled over to the elevator.

“Uh huh,” she said, “I sure do.” She did not bother to turn herself around—the elevator doors shut with her back to them.   

It was unlike Leslie to accept that someone could do something on their own, but the haze had gotten to even the most abrasively neighborly of neighbors. Sweating from every pore, Leslie reluctantly accepted defeat—surely there would be a better time to flaunt his helpfulness, when he could operate at 100 percent. Leslie smiled to himself as he sauntered back over to the mailboxes. His was empty.

——— 

3.     The Dratch Home

“Nothing today, honey,” Leslie cooed. He swung the door shut behind him, infusing the first-floor apartment with the hot muck of the unventilated hallway. He wiped sweat from his forehead, smearing his sopping wet bangs across his brow.

“Thanks for checking, sweets,” his wife, Lesley, said without looking up from the TV. Even with their AC blasting, the room was stuffy. Lesley had covered herself with as many frozen things as she could find: an ice pack was nestled in each armpit, a bag of frozen green beans was tucked under her tank top, and a frozen ribeye laid across her bare thighs. A fan was trained directly on her, no oscillation.

Leslie grabbed a canned lemonade out of their fridge before walking over to join Lesley on the couch. Lesley gingerly placed the ribeye on her husband’s legs, gazing up at him dotingly. They each puckered their lips and kissed the air between them before turning back to the TV. “That’s right, Elaine, we’re talking 45 percent of these United States dry as a bone,” said a crisp-suited news anchor. “Both the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers are dried up completely—we’re coming to the point where we’re gonna have to just sit back and watch the fish die. Now let’s go to Scott with this week’s forecast.”

“Oh no, those poor fish,” garbled Leslie while taking a gulp from the lemonade can. Lesley silently patted his thigh. “I like fish, you know? All kinds. Cod, bass, trout, salmon, tuna, yellowfin tuna,” after a gasp of air Leslie continued, “tilapia, catfish, swordfish—”

“I know honey, I know,” Lesley delicately interrupted him. On a regular day she would’ve had the patience, and even some enthusiasm, to absorb Leslie’s every thought, but the heat had reduced her to a mere regular level of courtesy. “You always order fish when we go out. I’ve never once seen you order a pasta or a chicken breast.”

“Exactly,” Leslie said. “These poor guys are probably just flopping around in the dirt. They don’t stand a chance.” He pouted, crossing his arms over his chest. Lesley tried to comfort him. “Don’t get so broken up about this, honey bunch. There are plenty of fish in the sea.”

Lesley smiled timidly, suppressing a chuckle at her own joke. She reached under her shirt, grabbed the bag of green beans, and playfully whacked Leslie with it. He smiled.

“Okay, okay,” Leslie said. “But I’m serious! An entire river drying up, fish dying by the thousands? Doesn’t that sound bad to you? Like ‘end of days’-type bad? Isn’t there anything we can do about it?” Leslie visualized himself single-handedly replenishing the river, pouring in thousands of gallons of water by hand. The couple’s smoke alarm cut the fantasy short.  “Oh!” exclaimed Lesley, “That damned thing is going off again. Would you shut that off, honey?” Just as Leslie rose from the couch, the building’s fire alarm started blaring.

“... record-breaking temperatures. 1988 is just inches away from clinching the title of the hottest year in history. Stay cool, folks,” the weatherman signed off, drowned out in the cacophony of beeps and bells.

——— 

4.     Leslie’s Rescue

Leslie and Lesley shared a brief look of panic until Leslie sprung into action. “Mrs. Kazan,” he whispered to himself, before leaping over the couch and running across the apartment. “Go outside!” he yelled to Lesley over his shoulder. Lesley’s “Where are you going?!” didn’t register.

As soon as Leslie opened the door, he was overcome with a smothering wave of smoke and heat that nearly knocked him over. He staggered backwards, reaching out to the wall for support, then using it for leverage, pushing off the wall and propelling himself towards the stairs. He clumsily lurched and stumbled to the stairwell, feeling like he had been shot out of a cannon. The superhero resolve returned to his face.

Leslie ran up to the third floor as fast as his legs could carry him. He arrived at Mrs. Kazan’s apartment, panting and coughing, just as she was shutting her door. “Mrs. Kazan,” he said hoarsely, his hands on his knees, “I’m here to help!” He fell into a violent coughing fit.

“Oh Christ,” Mrs. Kazan rolled her eyes. “Let’s get this over with.” With a huff, she let go of her walker and held out her arms, knowing that allowing Leslie to help her was her only choice. Her feeble body trembled as sweat rolled down the bridge of her nose. The fire alarm persisted. The smoke from the first floor started to creep up the stairs.

Leslie hadn’t thought this far into his rescue operation—he had envisioned a heroic entrance and nothing else. There was no way he would be able to carry Mrs. Kazan on his own. She was small, but he had expended all his energy getting to this point and his lungs were filled with smoke. His mind was racing trying to think of a solution when a man with hair slightly askew hastily exited his apartment.

“Todd!” Leslie wheezed. Todd jumped, startled, jostling his toupee so much it slid to the back of his head. His hands shot up to protect the hairpiece—one holding it in place, the other covering his exposed scalp. “Please, we need to get Mrs. Kazan down those stairs.” Leslie, nearly keeled over, gestured towards the barely-visible exit route. Todd nodded, wide-eyed, and took in the fear on his neighbors’ faces. He allowed the toupee to fall to the floor.

“Let’s go already!” Mrs. Kazan barked, choking down a cough. The two men hurried over, both dripping in sweat and coughing. They shakily lifted her, each supporting an arm and a leg, but looked at each other doubtfully as they gingerly walked toward the staircase. Just as they began their descent, they heard something in the distance, slowly getting louder and louder, cutting through the continuous ringing. Suddenly, Lesley appeared through the haze, fighting her way up the stairs like a football player emerging through a fog-machined tunnel.

 ———

5.     Lesley’s Rescue

Nobody had time to think. Lesley, running on pure adrenaline, swept Mrs. Kazan up in her arms and immediately pivoted with ballerina-like precision to turn and run back down the stairs. Eyes bloodshot, vision blurred, and arms quaking with the weight of old woman, Lesley held her breath as she battled her way to the building’s exit. After a moment of brief, stunned silence the two men snapped back to reality and followed suit. Down the stairs, through the hall, and out the front door, they burst out onto the street and were met with chaos. The residents swarmed the sidewalk. Red-faced and completely beside themselves, they cried and yelled as fear and complete shock collided under a canopy of sweat.

“I know it’s that bitch in 4C! She’s always forgetting her oven is on! Always!”

“I got takeout from Sakura tonight, asshole!”

“I bet the landlord did it for the insurance money—that shifty motherfucker!”

“Whiskers?! Where are you kitty, where are you?”

“Will this madness ever end?!”

“Well, that’s a little dramatic,” mumbled Mrs. Kazan. She stood off to the side, surveying the commotion, leaning on Lesley for support. Todd and Leslie jogged over to where the women were standing. Leslie wrapped himself around his wife, nearly breathless; Mrs. Kazan shifted her weight to Todd. Lesley stood tall; Leslie looked like a crumpled piece of paper. Todd held his bald head high as Mrs. Kazan’s rigid body clung to his. Though the heat was still unbearable, the mayhem before them was a temporary distraction. They all turned to look up at their building churning out black smoke, engulfed in flames. Sirens clamored through alleys and around corners until the fire trucks finally pulled up to Hansen and Third.

 ———

6.     The Aftermath

The next day was filled with seemingly endless news coverage.

“The first calls came in at 8:37 p.m., and within a minute, several units were rolling. The first units arrived on the scene in six minutes to enter a battle that would last three hours and 42 minutes from start to finish. The fight and the fire escalated quickly. There was no underestimating the size and potential of this fire,” the news anchor said with fervor from behind a slick, glass-topped desk. “There were 40 people inside of the building when the fire broke out. Some got out on their own, after frightening experiences.”

Helicopter footage of the building ablaze cut to an on-site interview. Leslie, Lesley, Todd, and Mrs. Kazan stood in front of the camera. Leslie spoke with pride, his bangs pushed up off his forehead at a 90-degree angle. “I could barely see the stairs, or the exit, because of the smoke. I feared for my life, but I always put the needs of others before my own. Luckily we were able to work as a team to save our beloved neighbor Mrs. Kazan and carry her to safety.” Todd and Mrs. Kazan looked at him incredulously. Lesley’s face was blank.

The anchor appeared on screen again. “The fire's origin has been attributed to an overload of the building's electrical system, but the precise source of ignition was not determined—the fire department can only conclude that its cause was spontaneous combustion. Almost too hard to believe, but there it is. Back to you, Elaine.”

 ———

After a few days, the news coverage stopped. The heat persisted a while longer, but it eventually broke. The wiring in the building was repaired, a sprinkler system was installed. Furniture that had been destroyed was replaced. Todd bought a new, even more expensive toupee. Mrs. Kazan started to pretend to be deaf so she could ignore people more easily. Leslie formed the Anti-Hazard Coalition of Hansen and Third and appointed himself president. Lesley stayed home. Everyone forgot what it was like beneath the haze, and couldn’t bear trying to remember.

Heat Issue | November 2018