FIRE ESCAPE • by Tom Roth

There were nights I climbed out on the fire escape and listened to the voices above. I should’ve been doing my homework, because I’d be stuck in the sixth grade for another year, but Dad had just left for work and Mom always took a while to get home from the restaurant. And I just had to hear them, I couldn’t help it.

“Close the window,” she said. “Don’t you ever get cold?”

“It feels good,” he said. “Just to let the air in. This place could use some fresh air.”

Only the cool wind moved that night. Pigeons kept still on the roofs. No one appeared in lighted windows on the other side of the street. Down below, a group of older kids sat on a stoop and waited for something to happen.

“Cold isn’t always fresh,” she said. “There’s a difference.” She paused, and I knew what was coming — her little way of reopening the argument, a slow-moving cadence before her delivery. “You can’t tell much difference, though, can you?”

“What’s that? You mean about—”

“Yes. That’s exactly what I mean about. That if we go through with this, we’d be what we were again and we’d go on like nothing happened.”

“It’s more than just that,” he said. “It’s another chance. We’d go on with everything. Not nothing.”

I never learned the subject of their argument. I just wrote down their conversations to find clues in what they said. It was hard to keep up — I had struggled with spelling for a long time. I liked it, though, sitting there on the steps of the fire escape, their voices pouring out of the window above me. During the pauses between them, I’d look down our street of rowhouses and wonder what talks were beginning, what voices were out as I waited for the next word, my pen on the page.

“Is that your only definition of everything?” she said.

“If it’s for us, then yes, yes it’s everything.”

“Well, I don’t know if it’s everything to me. And you can’t say it’s for us if it’s only for you.”

“I never meant it that way,” he said. “I only want to with you. And if I can’t with you, then I won’t with anyone else.”

My Dad and I once shared an elevator with them before one of my baseball games. I was in my little league uniform. The guy wore a headband around his long hair and the woman had anti-war buttons on her necklaces. They said they were going to the Capitol that weekend. Dad got off at the next floor and made me take the stairs. He cussed about Vietnam and Bill Baird, and he said he’d never let people like that in his taxi no matter how short he was for the rent.

“There’s something about the city at night,” he said. “You hear more, you know.”

“What more can you hear?”

“It’s just quieter, all right? It doesn’t matter what I say, does it, because it means nothing to you.”

“That’s not true.”

I found the older kids had left the stoop. It seemed I was out of time or on pause — the only thing to do was wait for another moment to put me in motion again. I pictured my mom walking in the dark empty quiet of our street, just herself and her thoughts and the hum of the city. Where does everyone go and what do they think about on their way there? My dad once said no one in this side of town ever needed a taxi, just buses, and I tried to see him driving somewhere else, downtown maybe, looking for business, thinking between passengers.

“I used to say things like that,” he said. “And you’d at least hear me out.”

“Like what?”

“That the city’s quieter at night. We can’t say things anymore without a fight. That’s all I want. I just want us to say things and not fight about them.”

“And all we have to do is go through with it, and we’ll have everything we used to have, and we won’t be so afraid of the next thing we do or say. Is that what you’re saying?”

I looked out at the stillness of the street and kept writing. Cars crowded both sides. Trees had just begun to bud. A cat hurried around an alley. By the end of that spring, I had filled up the rest of my language arts notebook with their talks and my descriptions. Mrs. McCarthy gave me a new notebook when she asked about my stories. I told her I had more, and that summer, before I repeated her class, she helped me rewrite and edit all my pages to make “more action and less chitchat.”

“I don’t want to go through with it if you don’t, but it’s really the only thing left to do.”

“How can you only see it like this?” she said. “You can’t find any other way, can you?”

“Can you?”

This was one of the last things they said to each other before moving out when the trials on the Watergate break-ins began. I never remembered who lived up there after they left. Someone lonely, I thought, because I would go on the fire escape and wait for a voice, but nothing came, and I would make up my own scenarios and people in apartments, on street corners, out in the city. Sometimes, when I couldn’t write, I’d wish they were still around, their voices coming from a rooftop or corner or window, and I’d wonder where they were, and I’d hope for them.

“I don’t know,” she said. “But I’m cold, and will you please shut the window?”

Tom Roth teaches creative writing at a middle school in Cincinnati, Ohio. His most recent publications are in The Baltimore Review, Change Seven, and On the Run. He earned an MFA from Chatham University. He recently finished a draft of a novel titled Silva, Ohio. He has publications forthcoming in Allium, BULL Magazine, and Bridge Literary Magazine.

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