by Eva Rosenfeld

Fire Escape 3, Eva Rosenfeld

Mr. Antoine worked in newspaper distribution. He was so mumbly and cryptic whenever he passed me in the hallway, often wearing a hat with large woolen ear flaps, that I was envious in an almost fiery way when I saw him talking to the FedEx deliveryman at length. Those two men. They raised eyebrows, looked concerned, then at peace, wizened shrugs of resignation, hand gestures. I heard Mr. Antoine say “Ah. That boy was born in the gutter years.” The gutter years? Where did he get that? He was not straightforward, but he was a beautiful talker.
            On the few occasions we did speak, it was his work that got him going. He liked materials, like paper, ink, and shipping pallets, and these seemed to be his gateways into the psychological world. For example, a man at the press named Patrice.
            He hated Patrice. “This is how Patrice replaces an ink cartridge. Waits until it’s all dried up. Then he thinks he can clear it out with a solvent and replenish it. It’s coated with dried ink. Inky on the front side, a little less inky on the back side. A lot of ink on both sides. Dried out, then refreshed. Dried out, then refreshed. Christ.” He sighed, resigned to Patrice’s antics.
            He sounded to me like a little girl explaining the lives of her dolls to a visitor. I say girl because he wasn’t quite like most little boys. He was too inner. He didn’t seem capable of staking out territory. Little boys own mountains and stomp around on mountain tops. That’s just been my experience with little boys. Mr. Antoine only wanted to explain municipal distribution patterns before retreating into his strange apartment.
            For instance, the inequalities of early morning delivery. As he explained to me once—and I might butcher this because it was during a very late encounter, my eyes kept drifting to a green spot on the bristly hallway carpeting—the industry standard is that the most correct and up-to-date news, printed latest in the night, is delivered to the city, the next tier to the suburbs, and the most lagging, unexacting news to the perimeter.
            “That’s what they call a logistical dilemma. It’s simple. The truck that goes farthest has got to leave earliest,” Mr. Antoine had said. “But you remember that phrase. You’re not going to find the most wicked behavior spelled out in the front pages of the newspaper. Nope. You know where you’ll find it?”
            “Back pages?”
            “Nope. Wherever they’re using depraved terminology like logistical dilemma. Beware the logistical dilemma.”

I moved out of my building on a winter day around six a.m. No one was around; Mr. Antoine had once been an early and active riser, but by the time I moved out, his door had scarcely opened in weeks. A pot of coffee brewed while I showered. I ducked around the shower curtain to avoid hassling the cockroach perched in one of the folds. It had been there for two weeks, stuck, or possibly it liked to roam and then return to the same home base. At the end of the shower, the cockroach fell and landed on my boot. I picked up the boot and flushed the cockroach down the toilet. As it swirled around, it looked up at me with total bewilderment and shock. I was shocked too, at my easy betrayal. Who knew I was such an opportunist, a tenuous ally? I lugged my boxes down two flights of stairs. I mouthed goodbye to that building. When I opened the door, I saw bats.
            That must have been the big day when bats come outside to remind everybody that they are bats. They turned up a few times as I drove. I was crossing the part of western New York where you see just three colors: dark purple streaks, pale yellow strips, and the gray white sky. The bats were little black triangles against the gray. They could not have been birds.
            I thought of Mr. Antoine’s warning as I drove farther from my former home, across the county’s ragged edge. Beware, the logistical dilemma. The image of the depleting delivery service depressed me. In the friction of my tires I felt myself moving the wrong way across the earth’s long gradient of dissolving prestige. I passed through suburban roads and watched the morning papers already gathering frost on doorsteps. There was nothing to do except exit the zone of my life, a wayward and brutalizing place I could no longer survive.

Mr. Antoine had lived in that building since the seventies, an original tenant grandfathered into stabilized rent as the landlord changed over to a co-op model and the neighborhood commenced a slow-burning course of gentrification. Before my departure, I lived there almost five years, over the period of my employment at Red Creek. They called me a lab tech, but what I did was take care of mice. Washed them, fed them, cleaned their raspy steel cages. The mice played video games about foraging for raspberries in a field of bushes. Something about human decision making. Probably for the military. To help soldiers choose the best raspberries. I don’t know, I was just a tech. Everyone at the lab liked having me, though, because I’m a little bit prettier than you would expect a mouse caretaker to be.
            A sprawling Armenian family filled up most of the building the first four years I lived there. Then they left abruptly and five apartmentfuls of young marketing types encroached. I felt different from these people in style and temperament, but I couldn’t exactly judge, being a young laboratory type who chose the same apartment just a few years earlier.
            Angela came first, arriving on one of those hot moving days of late summer that make you believe in beginnings and eternity and the sweat pleasures of heavy lifting. I felt a confusing desire to serve as an ambassador for the building, to demonstrate to her our communal spirit, though I had never seen evidence we had such a thing. I helped her carry up boxes of organizing technologies, the modern progeny of things I recognized mostly from vague, technicolor impressions of infomercials seen in childhood. Stackable linen storage cubes, vacuum sealed garment bags tinted mauve, pewter milk crates with copper handles.
            “The secret to a happy life is putting things inside of other things.” she told me, angling a cabinet through a doorway. I laughed the laugh of dutiful ambassadorhood, but my mind turned to Mr. Antoine’s apartment.
            I had seen inside two or three times, before the door swung shut. At first, it was an oceanic white mass. Then the intervention of my logical mind put things into focus. Mr. Antoine was a newspaper distributor. His apartment was filled with newspapers. At the top white and loose, at the bottom yellow and compressed. Forty years of news. It was astonishing.
            “Thanks for all your help, seriously,” said Angela.
            “Thank you for moving here!” I said, going too far.
            Back in my room I lay on the floor next to a box fan which seemed only to draw the hot air into a concentrated blast. Unable to escape the heat I began to feel tired, exhausted as if by the end of life and not just the end of a day. A line appeared which separated me from other people my age, like Angela. I was messy, unmodern, and I touched mice every day, which seemed like a fact to be quiet about, so I didn’t get pariahed like a coroner marred by the touch of the dead.
            Angela never detected these qualities. She saw me as her ilk, and after she moved in, we sometimes walked together to the subway stop until our routes split off. Her path continued straight, mine pivoted down a smaller, danker tunnel. Gravity forced my footsteps to accelerate, like the world was rushing me ahead, promising forward movement.

Within seventeen days of Angela’s arrival, six more came, each with boxes of their own. There were two couples, and two people came alone. The first few I helped move in, but soon I felt overeager and became shy. They bonded with each other quickly. I saw a woman from the first couple, Jana, wearing slippers in the hallway, carrying a martini shaker over to the second couple. She asked me to join for housewarming drinks. Why not, I said, trying to sound freewheeling, but I think it came off as unfriendly. She gestured for me to follow with so much warmth and confidence that I became the newcomer, she the experienced tenant.
            “Picked up a straggler in the hall,” she announced to the seated trio.
            They all welcomed me with vague exclamations. Jana introduced me to her partner Mark. Then there was Anaga and Jennifer, who worked at the same advertising firm, where they had met and started a romance.
            The conversation became a chorus of anecdotes about first romantic encounters. Everyone was great at this. They laughed when it was called for. They pitched in with follow-up questions or their own stories, short and long, always the right amount of time. I sat back and floated on the buoyancy of their words. A bong was passed around. We ate cheese. Someone said we should play a game.
            “Do you guys like chess?” I offered. I used to play chess as a kid. It would be nice to present them, too, with an artifact from my past. They would start to know me, if we played chess.
            “Chess? I don’t know if we were thinking about such a late night,” said Jana.
            “A game doesn’t take that long.”
            “I never learned how to play chess,” said Anaga.
            “I could teach you! I used to play competitively.”
            “Oh my gosh. I’m crossed. I can’t learn a new skill,” she said. After that I stopped pushing chess, and no one else suggested another game.
            We split up not long after. It was like there had been a game going all along, a spinning top that would have teetered gracefully into lateness, except I had knocked it over with a clumsy swipe and brought the night to an artificial close. We slouched in all directions towards our identical doorframes. It seemed that something about the vast improbability of living your life in the same building as another person should link you to them with a cosmic bond, but no, that was asking too much of probability, of the cosmos, of a building.

The air cooled fast that fall, and construction workers on our street rushed to finish the projects of summer before ice filled the cracks in the road. When I saw the new residents in the downstairs hall, I wanted to apologize on behalf of the violent jackhammering that rang out into the crisp mornings. I’d usually encounter at least one of them when I left for work in the morning. If one of us was already a bit ahead of the other, we’d wave hurriedly and allow the gap between us to widen. If our paths aligned just so, we’d act like we had been suddenly blessed with a few extra minutes to chat. Little rituals like that.
            They continued to occasionally invite me to their apartments, but only for short visits, like a drink before they left for dinner plans. I felt some guilt because I could never return their invitations, even though it was so simple to go visit each other, all of us being in the same building, like a slumber party between siblings. You didn’t even have to put on shoes. Mainly I was insecure about interior design. Their living rooms had brightly patterned throw blankets, glass coffee tables, fresh yellow flowers. Through their bedroom doorways, I saw comforters as airy and mercurial as fresh meringues, always white or grey. Packages from interior decorating websites arrived at a rapid clip in the vestibule. I googled their labels, browsed online shops, and even placed items in my cart, but never checked out, fearing that someone would deduce what I’d done if they ever saw the items so clean and new and real in my apartment.
            Their stack of packages was always being replenished and remained constant in size over time. It felt intrusive to observe this hulking evidence of their personal needs. Jana and Mark also set up a “giveaway table” in the lobby, where tenants could leave or take old possessions. Angela came to my room to help me look for items to discard. She called it “purging.” I braced myself for her to be shocked and disturbed by my dustiness, disorder, lack of coherent style, by the wallpaper that had lined this room since I moved in, now yellowing towards the floor. But she seemed not to register her surroundings. She only plopped cross-legged on my futon, her gaze bouncing around sunnily.
            I was at a loss. I possessed only essentials and undesirables. I couldn’t give away, for instance, my bed, or a half-used box of charcoal sticks stacked among my old drawing materials, cramped along the windowsill beside seed cuttings in plastic cups. Where were the perfectly in-between items, nice yet dispensable? The others all had precious objects to donate—percolators, ergonomic neck pillows—which were loved briefly and conditionally, until they were cyclically displaced by new ones which came in the mail. Where had the dispossessed gone, before there was a table?
            I decided to bring down a dongle and a retired fishbowl.
            Some men had come recently to repaint the lobby. On our way back down, Angela gestured to the walls in a way that seemed to claim some responsibility.
            “It’s lovely, right?” she said.
            It was just walls. “It looks a little brighter,” I said.
            “Exactly. I wish it could stay so nice and bright forever. But as soon as you finish painting it, the damage has already begun.”
            Mr. Antoine walked by, his gaze drifting to the fresh paint, to Angela, finally to me. He wore his hair in a short, wiry ponytail. Tools and junk sunk his pockets to a deep sag.
            “That’s nice,” he said, looking me in the eye. “That’s a job well done.” Satisfaction radiated from Angela’s face. Her green eyes beamed.

Flyers for the annual neighborhood block party were posted on the front door of the building. I could picture the enthusiasm of the new tenants and knew that all of them would go. I went almost every year, usually meandering around, exchanging brief words with acquaintances. I hadn’t, in the past, had many specific ties to my neighbors, and yet in the crowd I’d felt like a particle in a whole, circulating freely, pouring myself drinks from the cardboard dispensers of hot cider, observing the families and friends who sat on blankets equally spaced apart on the grass. This year was the first time I was attached to a particular crowd, who wanted to talk to me, sit with me, comment to me on everything happening around us, and thus separate me from the neighborhood organism.
            The potluck took place, as always, in the nearby park which on Saturdays was filled with teenage girls practicing gymnastics tricks, Russians playing basketball, Revolutionary War reenactors. Mr. Antoine was there, leaning under a sycamore, talking to some men from the older generation of Russians, who abstained from basketball.
            Jana gave me a hug and asked me if I wanted to take a lap around the park. It felt surprisingly good to have something to do with my body. A small rottweiler on the path attempted to climb up onto a pile of leaves and fell through to the ground, looking around bashfully. Jana and I burst into laughter. I felt a sense of wonder at the realization that dogs could be embarrassed. My sense of calm deepened. I wanted to open myself to her, just another inch, and then, if it went well, another. So I did what I hadn’t yet dared: I told her about my job. Her eyes widened and her mouth made a tight shape, like an acorn, as I described my daily routine of mouse caretaking. “So interesting,” she replied, and that was the last word on mice.
            She asked about the neighborhood. I told her about the presence of the Russian mob. She seemed alarmed. But I said any possible violence was concentrated strictly within its own social universe, and to those of us who had no stake in any conflict, it might as well have existed in a different neighborhood altogether. She said, softly but with passion, that there’s no barrier we can put up between ourselves and the proximal reality of violence, and its mere adjacency damages us in ways we can’t always see or understand, because if we are nearby to violence we are nearby to suffering, and in every happy moment we actively turn our faces away from it.
            “But why does it matter then whether the violence is happening in our neighborhood or somewhere else, where other people are suffering?”
            “Well,” she said thoughtfully, “You can’t worry about everyone. You wouldn’t be able to do anything. It’s more about what you’re really physically close to, and what you can see with your eyes.”
            It occurred to me then how much I preferred Angela, who seemed not to be aware that I was strange, to Jana, who was nice, and forgave me.
            At that moment we came around a bend that revealed the creek which ran along the park’s edge. A man stood a little ways off the trail, gazing down into the water.
            “Mark, what are you doing? Your pants will get wet,” Jana called out. It was true, the mist had already left a dampened expanse all the way up to his thighs.
            With a jerky movement he looked our way, and I could see that he was struggling to remove one hand from inside his pants and the other from inside his shirt.
            Jana rushed me back the way we’d come, deluging me with apologies for what I had seen at the creek, harshly deriding Mark. I tried to tell her that I didn’t feel strongly about it one way or another. I only felt sorry that I’d imposed on his privacy, and by extension, their shared privacy. I was sorry that my eyes were the cause of their shame. And I was sad we had turned around, and wouldn’t finish our walk.
            “I know you’re revolted right now,” she said.
            “I’m not,” I said.
            “No, of course you are. Who wouldn’t be? I have no idea what was going through his head. He was so close to all those people. And with kids around.”
            “It really doesn’t offend me,” I insisted. “I’m not just being nice. Seeing him that way, it doesn’t automatically change the way I think of him, or of you.” I tried to smile.
            Now she saw that I was being honest. Instead of relief, distaste spread across her face.
            “What do you mean?” she said. “You see that and you have no reaction whatsoever? I’m disgusted, and I’m his fiancé. What, are you turned on or something?”
            We looked at each other blankly. She could see she had overdone it. I was finally angry, shocked, everything she expected me to feel towards Mark. I was trying to give her a little relief, and now she had turned her disgust towards me. She said, repeatedly, “I’m sorry”; “That was wrong”; “That was not nice”; and “I’ll talk with him, of course”; it was as if she could only believe that I was outraged and needed to be placated, or that I was perverse and needed to be scolded. She couldn’t keep the real facts in her head. “Please, in the meantime, don’t bring this up with anybody,” she said.
            “Fine,” I said.
            “Please don’t say anything to Angela.” My face must have given away my confusion, because she added reluctantly, “I don’t like Angela. She’s so goody goody. Sort of pious, but not Christian.”
            “I thought you all were friends,” I said. Jana paused.
            “What do you mean ‘you all’? Do you think that all of us who moved in are some kind of group? That we all knew each other beforehand?”
            I didn’t know what I had thought. I told her again, I wouldn’t say anything to anyone. Once we returned to the crowd, she went off to find Mark, and I was on my own again. Angela, for her part, never showed up to the potluck.
            Soon, a representative from a community organization stood on the baseball bleachers to give a little speech, praising resilience and explaining local resources. I wandered over to the tennis courts, which were tucked away, shrouded from the park by tall greenery dotted with yellow blossoms.
            There was Mr. Antoine, hitting a ball off the chain link fence. It returned to him dully over the course of four or five slow bounces. I waved hello. A deserted racket lay on the court. Not knowing what to expect, I walked over and clasped it between my hands. I was no tennis star, but I had played one summer in childhood at the pool and knew the basics. Mr. Antoine held up his tennis ball. He gave me a nod of encouragement. I lifted my racket into the air.
            The speech ended. The sky went from pink to dark. The crowded park thinned. We stayed, secretly playing tennis.
The next day I crossed paths with Angela on my way to the supermarket.
            “Where were you last night?” I asked.
            “I discovered something repulsive,” she said. My mind drifted to Mark, hand in crotch. But Angela couldn’t have known.
            “You know that apartment on the first floor, where that old man lives? Have you ever noticed anything unusual about it?” she said.
            “I’ve never been inside,” I said. A vast discomfort descended on me.
            “Well, I saw him leaving there last night, and I saw inside, and guess what’s there?”
            I didn’t respond. She continued: “He’s a hoarder. Have you ever seen one? A hoarder? He has all these piles of trash as high as the ceiling.” I wanted to correct her—not trash, newspapers—but I’d already said I had never seen the place.
            “Well, he’s eccentric in a lot of ways,” I said carefully.
            “It’s dangerous, right?” She said, more serious now. “You probably don’t understand because you haven’t seen it. But it’s a building fire waiting to happen. And it’s really unsanitary. Do you want to come see?”
I didn’t go, I said I believed her. What I really wanted was not to encourage her, for her to forget what she had seen or move beyond it. For weeks I felt like a small nervous mammal, lying in wait in the high grasses. In my actual life, though, I was pretty busy with work. The video game experiment had reached a critical juncture. The mice were making great progress. The results were not far off. I was needed as a handler for these high stakes days, now longer and more demanding, for no one more so than the mice. If I was a mouse, I thought, I would slip out of these jabbing hands, think: the wants of these hands are not my wants, run for the prairies, roll over in the hot breeze, fuck field mice like crazy, impress them with my knowledge of another world and its metallic thrums, flatter them by insisting that this one is better, the girl mice here are sweeter, that all mice ought to live under the sun.
            The mice actually seemed to like the video games. When I opened the cage they sprinted for their wheels, teetering in front of video screens like it was a miniature drive-in theater. They leapt on and spun their hearts out. Tiny. It put me in a great mood, just to watch them.
            In the early evening, as I pulled into my parking spot at home, I saw a figure pacing around in a tight orbit near the fire escape. As I got closer, I saw that this person moved with a pained gait. It was Mr. Antoine, his frame swallowed by a great brown overcoat. Missing man discovered after decades lost in coat, I thought. He was juiced up, his face electrified with a new expression. New to me.
            “You are crazy,” he said. “You are all crazy.”
            What was this ‘you’, what was this ‘all’?’ I would break apart these words with a crowbar. “Who is crazy?” I asked.
            “You are crazy,” he repeated. He seemed so vacant, like a ghost, as if the apartment was long empty, his debris really the product of simple neglect. Or was I a ghost, unable to defend him, impotent against the drive of the living. Was I crazy, I wondered—was he my friend?
            I tried to respond, but Mr. Antoine was already getting into his car.
            When I arrived at my floor, I saw a note taped to Mark and Jana’s door, one of many identical notes placed all along the hall. It alerted everyone to the problem of Mr. Antoine’s hoarding, warned of the potential dangers, the fire, the health hazards of mold, the logistical headache of cleaning for subsequent tenants. Finally came a request that concerned tenants sign a petition to deliver to building management. It was signed “Angela 2B.”
            I was furious, at the recklessness of Angela, at myself for doing nothing before this moment, both of us spineless and rotten. I could take down the notes, but Angela was diligent, she would follow up. The best thing to do was to summon my bravery and speak with the neighbors, though I hadn’t spoken to Jana or Mark for weeks, since the potluck incident. I knocked. Jana answered faster than I expected. When she appeared, I realized she had not yet read the letter, so there was a lot of background explaining to do which I hadn’t prepared at all. Cautiously, she said hello. I froze. I gave her the letter.
            “You’re delivering this letter for Angela?” Jana leaned forward, peering down the hall.
            “No, I’m not delivering it,” I said. “I oppose this letter.”
            She took her time to finish reading, bobbing her head slightly.
            “She’s not wrong, is she? It is dangerous. If there’s a fire? None of us wants to think we could have done something to stop that and didn’t.” Oof. This was why I needed Jana on my side. She had that talent for balancing everybody’s concerns and sounding extremely reasonable.
            “She is wrong,” I said. “Mr. Antoine hasn’t started a fire in four decades, why should he now? He’s lived here longer than any of us. He deserves to be left alone. He’s careful. Meticulous even. You should hear him talk about his work.”
            Her eyes flashed in all directions, anywhere to avoid contact with mine. Her shoulders shuddered slightly, as if forming the beginning of a shrug and then thinking better of it. Aren’t you nice? I thought. Aren’t you anti-suffering? Isn’t the cruelty of this plan self-evident?
            “And—” I continued, taken aback by the emotion rising in my chest, “He’s my friend!” I nearly shouted the word ‘friend,’ although, of course, he was no longer my friend, that was clear.
            Jana softened. “I hear what you’re saying. Give me some time. I’ll let you know what we think before we do anything else, okay?” As I walked away, I heard a soft sound, between a murmur and a cough. She was leaning out of the doorway. “Thank you for knocking,” she called to me. Even far away I saw a sad look—for who?—in her face. “Come by again and we’ll have a drink.”
            Definitely definitely, I thought, and maybe you’ll invite Mr. Antoine too. Still, I hoped she would really think, and ultimately decide to protect Mr. Antoine and his apartment.
            Soon a notice appeared on his door. I couldn’t bear to read it. His destiny became the central concern of my life, and I was constantly distracted. I caused the death of three mice at work, forgetting to rinse the cleaning fluid out of their water bottles.
            Then the day arrived that Mr. Antoine propped open his apartment door and cleaned. He worked wide eyed, sweaty, and fearful, his limbs slow and trembling. A blanket of sun fell onto the hallway carpeting, and each time he walked out of the door, carrying another trash bag bulging with papers, his face caught the dust and light, giving him the achingly bright look of a woman photographed on the beach.
            So this was how it was. You were given a body, maybe you still had some unresolved resentment about that, in any case you had to surround it with things, you tried to find the right ones. You had to find a place to put them, you tried to find the right place. These basic requirements fulfilled could become, over time, satisfactions. And then.
            The newspapers diminished; the bags filled the hall. A hole formed in the middle of the old apartment which devoured matter as it grew. The building manager came to check in and, seeing this progress, gave an approving nod. A tear rolled down Mr. Antoine’s cheek, and then a few more, forming a stream which ran into his mouth. It was otherworldly that he should weep, it was like if a dog wept.
            That was the last time I saw Mr. Antoine leave his apartment.
            “Where are you going?” Jana intercepted me as I stepped onto the sidewalk.
            “Nowhere,” I said, which was true. I had no plan, I wanted the opposite. Action was not my friend, any plan would edge me toward the fate of Mr. Antoine. Each of my movements revealed my deformity. I, and everything I used, wore, ate, were plainly animal forms. I lacked the equipment for my human position, which I had acquired by mistake. Instead of moving forward in my life, I would attach myself to a staticky television, to the image of the sky, something with its own partial life, stare at it forever and let it absorb mine.
            “Things happen,” Jana said. “Sometimes things happen that are deeply disturbing.”
            This was her apology? For going along with the plan to dismantle Mr. Antoine’s life, she could only summon a statement of brutal acceptance. Then again, she was right. The situation was inevitable. Show me a world Jana and Angela willingly inhabited alongside Mr. Antoine.
            “But we want to explain things to you, you can’t just avoid us.” she said. “Mark has been humiliated since that day, and you come over to discuss other things and act like nothing happened.”
            I could barely understand her. “Discuss other things”—this was how she remembered my plea to her.
            “You’re here to talk about Mark?” I saw the image of the misting creek in my mind. A frog had been sitting on a stick. The frog had been more interesting than the man touching himself in a public park.
            Her voice took on a confessional tone. “I’ve barely been able to look at him since that happened. It’s so gross. To think of him as the kind of guy who would do that.” She shut her eyes and wrinkled her nose. I understood. She was looking for the camaraderie between two women who had witnessed a male horror. But more than that, she was egging me on. If I would admit that I had been horrified, too, it would shade the memory in a kind of equilibrium, and from there she could allow her fiancé to redeem himself over time.
            “You always think of those men who will do vile things in public, but you don’t think, oh, it’s my boyfriend, oh, it’s my dad,” she continued. My thoughts had deserted me, they were making a bridge between us and the old man crying in his doorway inside.
            “Did you see Mr. Antoine today?” I asked.
            “Oh yeah, like Mr. Antoine,” she said absentmindedly. “You could imagine him pulling down his pants on the street.”
            I said nothing. I turned and walked to the park.

I walked all night. Early the next morning I returned to the apartment. Amazingly, it had begun to snow. When I returned, the plastic bags in the hall had been taken away. I didn’t expect anyone to be awake, but I heard voices from upstairs.
            Angela was crying. Mark was on the phone, leaving a panicked message. He turned to Jana and said, “They’re still not answering.”
            “Fucking of course they’re not, it’s five in the morning,” she said. “Call them again and tell them they need to come over as soon as they open.”
            It wasn’t just them, everyone was in and out of their rooms. Others were sobbing, kids especially. It was like the scene of a building fire, but everyone was inside, and there were no sirens, no smoke.
            Inside my apartment, I saw. Cockroaches everywhere. Big, little. They seemed to laze and mingle across every surface, like Parisians at the park. I stepped on a few, listening to the faint crunching underfoot and feeling pointlessly cruel. I even kicked one. Why? I stomped on seven. I felt like a true villain. The kind of foolish villain who squishes without a great plan, forgetting about birth, how eggs will grow and hatch, even in the pipes.
            As the exterminator would explain later that day, it was textbook habitat destruction. The cockroaches had found a long-term home in Mr. Antoine’s newspapers, and when he threw them away, they had dispersed through the vents, looking for new places to nest. They came by the thousands. They didn’t leave a single apartment uninhabited.
            I sat on my bed and watched the snow outside the window. A few big storms came each winter. At that rate it was amazing they did not deliver more tragedy, amazing on the whole how weather places animals all the time at the edge of tragedy. I had a feeling this would be a big one. It had that anxious, electric feeling. Frenetic bits of snow skimming the road like dust, skittish twigs twitching in the air. If you saw twigs or snow behaving that way, you would definitely know something was happening somewhere, but you could never be sure what or where. That morning I knew, it was happening here. I watched the snow. Through one pane of my window, across the alley, I could see a second, smaller window. It was like if you stomped on a shiny brown beetle, and an identical, smaller beetle crawled out from below her belly, toward new life, tender chest pressed against the cold world.

Fire Escape 1, Eva Rosenfeld

Eva Rosenfeld is a writer and artist from Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is a Goldwater Fellow in fiction in NYU’s creative writing program and a founding collective member of Redbud Books in Bloomington, Indiana. To tune in or reach out, go to