Chemical Fire

by

12/01/2002

1st Ave & Whale Square, Brooklyn, NY 11232

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Sunset Park

The building, Morgan described, was a monolith of brick with a flat, black hole blasted out of the side. Standing at the edge of the entrance, he peered inside and swore that he saw someone moving. He shivered and stumbled to the curb, then quickly retraced his footsteps back up First Avenue, skirting the fringe of industrial Sunset Park, passing broken factory windows and the rusty metal loops of barbed-wire fences.

He straightened his vision. The sky was navy in the weak pre-dawn light.

Six months later, Morgan was still talking about the warehouse. It was the weekend before Christmas; Morgan and I were sitting in his apartment in Bay Ridge, drinking Jack Daniels and wasting the daylight. The walls glowed blue with the light of the muted television screen.

“Come see it,” he said. “You’ll be impressed.” I set my drink on the windowsill and ran my finger along the dimpled wood. Heat bubbled up from the radiator, causing the paint to pocket. I cracked the window.

“You don’t want to go alone?” Morgan paused. He was a solitary wanderer and an even more solitary drunk. Morgan didn’t drink for confidence or for social stamina; he drank because his limbs demanded it. Whiskey loosened him like hot water on packed ice. It caused his joints to pop and crack.

“No,” he said. Morgan’s fingers began to sort bottle-caps on the table. He shook his head.

It wasn’t a long walk down to the water but it was cold. A chill whipped down First Avenue like a frozen slice of a hurricane. My hands turned red in the wind. We found the building just as Morgan had left it: hole blasted out of the side, crumbling bricks, graffiti that read “ENTRANCE TO HELL, DANGER, DO NOT ENTER” in thick, red swirls. We squeezed our way through the entrance, taking care not to trip over the piles of tires, smashed ceramics, and metal scraps that spilled from the gut of the building onto the sidewalk.

Once we were inside, the brightness of the air took us by surprise. The sun was setting, painting a slate of deep powder blue above us where a ceiling should have been. In the center of the room, a looming tower of corroded steel caused the floor to bend. We followed a path through the trash and saw that the tower was actually a pile of abandoned cars that had been smashed and set aflame. We moved as close as we could without causing the ground to collapse. The floorboards buckled beneath my feet; plastic bags snaked around my ankles but I didn’t stop to tear them away. Morgan pointed to the places where the steel had melted, sizzling in the burning paint and chemicals, then dripped like candle wax and burned through the floor.

“A chemical fire,” he said. “Whatever it was, the flames were hot enough to weld the cars together.” I looked backwards, towards the jagged entrance. Someone had driven through the wall in order to drag the wreckage inside and burn it. The tower was powdered with ashes and dust. I couldn’t understand why the fire hadn’t spread, why the rest of the building hadn’t burned to the ground.

Morgan lit a cigarette, smoked half of it, and put it out on the floor. An aura of emptiness and stale anger hung in the air, twisting with the meat-hooks that dangled from the ceiling, swinging in the wind.

“The basement,” Morgan said. “I want to find the basement.”

We toed our way around the cars and headed into the rear of the warehouse. The floor sagged, creaking in places where it had caved in and had been patched with slats of cheap plywood. The garbage was becoming sordidly domestic: broken records, ripped books, spent needles. A pile of trash blocked our way to the back wall, an area where the floor had collapsed at the foot of an iron staircase. A gaping black hole opened like a set of jaws. Morgan began to part the trash with his hands.

“Don’t,” I said. I grabbed his shoulder. Morgan froze. There was something finely-tuned and immediate about his body, as though his muscles were composed of tightly-wound copper springs. He looked at me without looking, like an animal about to disobey, then threw the plastic crate he’d been holding back into our path. I took a deep breath. The air stank of gasoline and decaying meat.

“We can try that one,” I said, pointing to another rusted staircase, one whose bottom stairs had collapsed and fallen to pieces in a rusted heap on the floor. The stairwell rose almost forty feet into the air, connecting the ground floor to a small, precarious balcony and a doorway that glowed black in the waning light. Morgan hesitated, then nodded quietly. I grasped the banister and began to climb, testing my weight on the edge of each step before I trusted it with my entire weight. I felt Morgan’s breath on the back of my neck. He jerked the rail nervously, then stepped around me and sprinted up the stairs, disappearing into the doorway.

At the top of the stairwell I paused, surveying the ground below. I squinted my eyes and listened, hearing nothing but the rustling of plastic bags in the wind and the clanging of chains and levers.

“It’s safe,” I heard Morgan call. I hesitated, then stepped around the corner and into a small room. The walls were covered in brightly covered designs, tags layered over other tags, some done artfully, others in violent slashes of paint. Another hole in the wall led to a crawlspace between buildings. The room was almost empty, save for a pile of rusted tin cans and a spotty, stained mattress that lay askew like a limber body.

“Come look at this.” I tip-toed to the top of the next staircase, following Morgan’s voice onto the third tier of the building. The stairwell let out onto an expanse of exposed concrete, boxed off like a chessboard. Square holes opened up in the floor in order to let the chains of the meat-hooks through. Metal beams hung above us like the ribcage of a slowly decaying whale. Morgan waved for me to walk over to where he was standing, and when I did, the floor opened up in a sea of shattered glass that twinkled blue and silver in the dying light.

“It’s like being in a movie,” he whispered. I nodded. In the shadows, Morgan’s shoulders took on a soft, molded contour. He buried his face in his scarf, then reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his flask. “A drink?” I nodded. We stood side by side, passing the flask back and forth between us, watching our breaths condense. We were silent for nearly fifteen minutes, waiting for the sun to sink below the horizon. When it did, the warehouse sank into a cave-like darkness. I could hardly distinguish the holes in the floor from the floor itself.

When Morgan turned to leave, I followed.

We walked home in silence, side by side. We followed the BQE, stumbling along Third Avenue underneath the trembling metal rails of the freeway. The wind whipped around us, freezing the puddles on the sidewalk into slick plates of glass. Morgan turned up the collar of his pea-coat and pulled his hat over his ears. As we got closer to Bay Ridge, the streetlights coated us in a tangerine glaze. Morgan’s cheekbones were glossy in the light. After a second glance, I realized that he was crying. We took a left on Seventy-Third and headed home, cautiously, stopping at each crosswalk to wait for the lights to change.

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