A Burned Out Case

         No one was killed. We all got out safely. Even at the ungodly hour of four in the morning many Warren Avenue denizens turned out to see our dilapidated three-decker go up in flames. I told my tale to the Boston fire marshal and

channels 4, 7, and 25--smoke filling the building, ground floor detectors screeching, me banging on the doors of the two other tenants. My upstairs neighbor, Miriam, got plenty of face time on Fox News. She had to be restrained from going back into the inferno after a cat. None of us had a cat, but as a Boston University grad student in theater, she felt the blaze would be an opportunity to audition for a part. Her standard lines about “we’ve lost everything but at least no one was hurt” were delivered with Academy Award aplomb.

         I had the good sense to grab my laptop, a backpack and a gym bag which contained some extra, albeit sweat encrusted, clothes. Living on the first floor I had a few more minutes than Miriam or Bill Jurzak, the third floor occupant, who broke into tears when speaking to the news folks of his priceless R & B memorabilia collection and several guitars, one once owned by Duane Eddy, now smoldering in the embers. He never mentioned his “herbal” roof garden which supplemented his disability check and left Miriam and me wondering if a disgruntled customer or his penchant for falling asleep in bed with a joint wasn’t the cause of our homeless state.

         The Red Cross showed up around 8:00 AM and offered us shelter at a cut-rate motel in Mattapan plus a voucher for clothing at the Good Will store. I thanked them but refused, thinking I could handle things on my own. I called Mandy, a girl I’d dated off and on for the past year, and asked if I could crash on her couch. There was a hesitant “yes, I guess” probably because she would look like a moral cretin if she didn’t.

         “But only for a few days. My old boyfriend from Utah State is coming to Boston.”

         Great, I got the message. My apartment burns up; I lose all my worldly goods, and she’s worried about her love life. I called my boss at a bookstore where I stock shelves and dispense mocha lattes with a literary banter and explained my fate. I was about to hop on the MBTA Red Line to Mandy’s place in Davis Square, when Miriam snagged me and said she had a friend, Geert, who would put both of us up for a time. He taught “green” courses at a Cambridge adult education center. If I went along she might not feel compelled to sleep with him. I called Mandy and lied to her that I’d be in a downtown homeless shelter for the next few weeks so she need not trouble herself. She sounded both guilty and relieved.


         By the time Miriam and I got to Geert’s apartment it was three in the afternoon. He opened the door while on all fours and invited us into his “humble abode” with a sweep of his hand. He was stark naked. The inside temperature had to be ninety. He stated that he was a naturalist and glared at me when I used the word “nudist.” Evidently it was as offensive to him, like saying “midget” when referring to “little people.” Though we would be sharing “his space,” we were free to follow our own societal norms. Miriam stripped immediately. I had secretly lusted after her for months and found her bare flesh as sensual as I’d imagined it would be. Geert, however, quickly noted that she was shaved “down there” and began a rant on the value of body hair, especially pubic and its role in sexual behavior. This segued into his views on America’s obsession with cleanliness, the toxic elements in deodorant and their ilk. He crept in circles, like a dog preparing to nap, around the small table in front of a stained futon, gesturing wildly, pausing to sit upright like a squirrel, slapping his hairy torso as if keeping time to diatribe. His eyes were on fire, a Charlie Manson look-alike but with dreadlocks.

         With no transition the topic shifted to male circumcision. Holding his member up for our inspection he declared that the only decent thing his may-they-rot-in-hell parents ever did was to leave him “uncut”. Health issues and cultural mores of the practice were probed. To that point I’d taken off my flannel shirt and jeans but steadfastly vowed that my underwear would remain on throughout the duration of our stay.

         Geert interrupted his penis opinions to show us around the place. He still crawled on all fours. “Man was not made to walk upright. Look at the stress the internal organs take from all that weight pushing down. Animals don’t have hemorrhoids or varicose veins. It’s also a given that crawling is very important to the neurological development in children. I could strangle parents who brag about how early their kid walked. I’m doing a study on how crawling enhances left and right brain communication in adults.”

         He crab-walked down the hall towards the bathroom, his balls swinging like church bells. A similarly naked Miriam emulated his behavior. It was about as sexy as a PBS documentary on baboons.

         The apartment had a small bedroom, the aforementioned living room and a kitchen just big enough for a two-seater table. He grew his own bean sprouts. He harvested a crop every other day. They were grown in the apartment’s many dark spaces. Vitamin A content was gone into. We were admonished against the use of too much light in the sprout growing process. Mung beans were his main focus, but he’d recently experimented with wheatgrass and alfalfa. The “sprout” lecture went on for ten minutes before he removed his other dietary staple, a large plastic container of brown rice, from the refrigerator. He piled it on our plates and tossed a generous handful of sprouts on top. He stood next to us playing the nude waiter as we sampled the cuisine. Miriam thought it was surprisingly good. I silently wondered if he had soy or duck sauce to give the sepia-colored mass some flavor but, before I could request anything, I was asked to guess what his monthly food bill might be.

         “Five thousand dollars.”

         He ignored my sarcasm and asked Miriam if she’d like some red wine which he made by the gallon, delineating its many health benefits as he poured her a glass. During the next hour Miriam became increasingly tipsy. She was visibly impressed by the back to nature lifestyle as espoused by the great Geert. I found that a little of him and his ugly penis, often dangling near my right shoulder as he stood by our table, increasingly more difficult to take. I also sensed what the sleeping arrangements were going to be, and that Miriam’s rice flecked breasts, when cleaned up, would not nestle anywhere near me.

         In the living room after the meal, Miriam asked where the TV was; she wanted to see herself on the news. Greg had no television and his lecture on its vile nature was slightly less vitriolic than the pubic hair diatribe. He attacked the way people have lived since the cave man. Ninety per cent of what we put on and into our bodies is wrong. He quoted Nietzsche’s view that the worst thing that ever happened was when we began to think rather than act on instinct.

         “Thinking--that’s our big problem. The minute you smelled smoke and knew there was a fire, what did you do?” His tone was not so much a question as an accusation.

         I admitted that I ran around in a panic grabbing my stuff.

         “Material possessions! You could have died clutching some worthless memento. No animal would do that.”

         I wanted to counter by asking what possessions a dog or horse might possibly have, but he had moved on to bedazzle Miriam. She nodded in complete agreement with him while keeping quiet about her theatrical publicity stunt regarding a non-existent cat. As he continued his harangue against modern man, I daydreamed. Privately I was surprised yet comforted by the fact that my computer contained most of my life. I could easily get new clothes, copies of my favorite books and music. When I snapped out of my few minutes of reverie, Geert was referencing Thoreau’s Walden and a tribe that burned up their worldly goods once a year. It was a busk, a ceremony. In his opinion the fire was the best thing that could have happened to us. I wanted to rebut his naked ass by informing him that his hero, Henry David, took his laundry home on weekends for mom to do and bring up his reputed dalliance with Emerson’s wife, Lidian, but I saw that Geert was otherwise occupied stroking nubile Miriam’s inner thigh. Her eyes were glassy from the wine, and she enthusiastically returned his affection. Tumescence was the watchword for the next few minutes about which I was of two minds. If they were going to have at it on the couch, part of me wanted to watch; the other wished to flee the scene.

         I quickly proclaimed that I was dead tired. It was just after ten, but they took the hint, moved to the bedroom and left the couch to me. I was half asleep when Geert called to me. Oh god, not a threesome. I went to the bedroom. They were sitting naked, Indian fashion on the bed, and had a hookah going. I was invited to get high. From just beneath the bed I saw a large trash bag which appeared to be stuffed with small baggies of weed. I guessed they had had sex in my brief absence. Miriam’s chest was a blotchy cherry red, and she was sitting in an ever-widening ring of dampness. Geert again asked me if I wanted to partake.

         “This is home grown, killer stuff.”

         I thanked him for the offer, but I needed to get up early and see about starting my life over. I used the bathroom. It was small, made even smaller by a gigantic scale, the kind that years ago stood outside drug stores and required a penny to check weight and spit out fortunes. I badly needed a shower but Geert’s tub was a growing medium for his weed. Several plastic gallon containers had plants that were close to four feet. A pinkish Gro-lite suspended from the ceiling aided the process with the shower showing recent signs of having been used to water the crop. I rinsed off in the sink as best I could and went back to the couch. I dozed fitfully through the most of the night, awakening when the feral moaning and grunting not twenty feet away reached periodic crescendos. By dawn I was dead to the world.

         At eight Geert shook me awake. He reeked of dope and body odor. My immediate concern was that he swung both ways, and I was now the object of his primal desire. But he was crawling around fully dressed in jeans and a tie- dyed, long sleeve tee shirt. He had a class to teach. There was plenty of rice in the fridge if I wanted breakfast. Also, there was loose tea that a friend blended especially for him. “It’s a mood enhancer as well as energy drink.” As he left Miriam came out of the bathroom. She was clothed and upright.

         “I’m going to sit in on Geert’s class today. After that there is an African grocery store in Malden where you can find all sorts of healthy stuff. He wants three hundred dollars from us. If you could use your ATM card, I’ll write you a check for my half.”

         I quickly sat up on the couch. “I didn’t know this was going to cost me anything. What does he need money for anyway; the guy claims to exist on tree bark.”

         “He’s a few months behind in the rent. I promised him we’d help out. I know some of his ideas are strange, but you got to admit the world is screwed up. Did you know that McNuggets are 56% corn products and preserved with tertiary butylhydroquinone which is the same butane used in lighter fluid?”

         “I happen to be partial to butane.”

         She kissed me on the nose. Her hair reeked of the evil weed. “If you could get let go for one minute, allow your mind to shake off the chains of convention, maybe you’d discover a new world out there. There’s a lot of sense in what Geert says and does.”

         I waved a disdainful goodbye at her. At least I had the place to myself. I rested for a bit then went into the bathroom. I washed again as best I could in the sink, used the toilet then got dressed. Geert provided willow twigs rather than toothbrushes so I just rinsed my mouth with water. I went back to the couch, plugged in and checked my e-mail. There were several messages from people who offered sympathy but little else. I packed up my knapsack. I went into Geert’s bedroom and dragged the big trash bag from under the bed and into the bathroom. It took fifteen minutes to spread the weed, save for two small bags I kept for myself, into the tub with the live plants. I found several magazines, crumpled them up and tucked them in and around the plants. I lit the paper and within a few minutes the weed was glowing brightly. I doubted the fire could spread much given the confines of the tub, but it wasn’t a major concern. I grabbed my meager belongings, inhaled a few times and then let myself out. I’m sure Geert’s wrath, like the mythological Furies, would come after me with a primordial vengeance, but I didn’t care. I was a card carrying Homo erectus with a full day’s head start. He tottered around on all fours—stark naked, I might add.

D.E. Fredd has had fiction and poetry published in over one hundred literary journals and reviews including the Boston Literary Magazine, Connecticut Review, The Pedestal, Storyglossia, SNReview, eclectica and Menda City. Poetry has appeared in the Paumanok and Paris Reviews. He received the Theodore Hoepfner Award given by the Southern Humanities Review for the best short fiction of 2005 and was a 2006 Ontario Award Finalist. He won the 2006 Black River Chapbook Competition and received a 2007 Pushcart Special Mention Award. He has been included in the Million Writers Award of Notable Stories for 2005, 2006 and 2007 and was a finalist for the 2008 St Lawrence Book Award.

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