Albert J. Manachino
Monday is a bad day and something told me that this one was going to be an especially bad one. But, did I listen? No! I went to work.
When I got within a couple of blocks of the post office, my forebodings were realized. Patrol cars with blinking flashers were parked diagonally across the road. Cops were detouring traffic into side streets. Engines cluttered up the area immediately around the post office, and firefighters tramped around in boots and raincoats trying to uncap hydrants and unkink hoses. There was water in the street and a heavy odor of smoke in the air.
With a sigh, I surrendered a buck to the commercial parking lot attendant and continued on foot. The building had been evacuated and I joined a crowd of postal employees across the street. A little smoke drifted out of such second storey windows as happened to be open.
Jack Hammer, our tour superintendent, was standing in the middle of the confusion, arguing with the fire chief, and telling him how to do his job. He liked the nickname "Hammer" because it implied a certain two-fisted toughness like Mickey Spillane's famous detective. Actually, it had been tagged on him because his head, like a hammer's, was made of solid iron.
"I'm telling you," he was insisting, "there's nothing in that building that can catch fire."
He was wrong. My educated nose told me the fire must have started in the bum room. Bums are those canvas bags the mail arrives and departs in. While full of mail, they aren't bums. They don't become that until emptied and stored in the cellar. There's always several thousand empties and some of them have been in service at least a hundred years. In time, they become saturated with grease and oil and whatever else they can pick up in their travels. It certainly wasn't beyond the realm of possibility that a careless mail handler had flipped a still burning cigarette butt among them.
In principle, I agreed with Jack. The building was made of steel and concrete. The offices were partitioned with sheet rock. Even the office furniture was of metal. There just wasn't anything a serious fire could feed on but that mountain of canvas.
Jack and the fire chief were wrapped up in their argument and oblivious to everything else. The employees were B'essing among themselves. I must have been the only one to notice a small, pale face that appeared momentarily at one of the open windows. It was a kida girl.
The fire chief finally told Jack to "Get lost" or he'd have a' cop haul him away. With wounded dignity, he retired from the argument and retreated to his car where he got an early start on his lunchan eighteen-inch hero. The way he fed that sandwich into his mouth was reminiscent of a boa constrictor swallowing another boa constrictor.
Jack didn't like to he bothered while eating. I looked for the fire chief but he had disappeared. Hell! I knew my way around the building as well as I knew my own kitchen. I'll admit the visions of newspaper headlines blaring, "Heroic Postal Employee Rescues Child from Burning Building" was no small inducement for what I did next.
Anyway, what was there to be afraid of? The building was in no actual danger and it needed the fumigation it was getting from the smoke.
I went straight across the truck yard and entered by the door next to the loading platform. No one tried to stop me for the simple reason no one expected anyone to enter a burning building.
The door slammed shut behind me and I made my way to the second floor via the staircase immediately inside. The smoke wasn't so bad. The kid could only be in the personnel office. Like I said, I know the building as well as I know the back of my own hand.
She was standing to one side of the window taking in the fire engines and squad carsa little redhead with twin braids and freckles. I spoke to her. "C'mon, kid, we gotta get out of this place."
Smoke was discernable but not really bothersome. She jumped. Evidently, she hadn't noticed me coming in. A look of obstinacy crossed her face.
"Oh no! Mom and dad told me never to go anywhere with strangers."
She had a point. I'd pounded the same advice into my own kids' heads.
"Look, baby, your mom and pop are right, but this building is on fire. You gotta get out of here."
"Not me. Mr. Brown told me to wait here till he came back."
Brown was one of the clerks. He'd probably been swept outside when the post office was evacuated. But, how come he hadn't told anyone about the kid?
I started toward her. "Look, I don't wanna argue. Give me your hand and let's get out of here."
It wasn't my imagination. The smoke was getting heavier and it was harder to breathe. The little brat ran away before I reached her. She was faster than a weasel in a chicken coop. I'm fifty years old and certainly not up to a prolonged foot race.
"What's your name, honey?"
"Mom and dad told me not to talk to strangers."
I held a quarter out to her, which was about the worst thing I could have done.
"This is yours, just tell me your name."
I was trying to divert her attention while sneaking up on her. If I could only trap her in a corner... My attempted bribe scared her.
"Just like mom said, first they offer you money, then candy."
The fact of the matter was, I was going to tempt her with a chocolate bar I carried in my pocket. She darted away again, this time into another office. Wow! That kid could run! I followed her into the other office. The smoke was thicker here. I located her cowering behind a file cabinet by her cough. Again I reached out and again she sped away.
I was getting a little desperate. My eyes were watering and I couldn't see worth a hoot.
"Come on, you dumb cluck!" I yelled. "The building is on fire! Can't you get that into your thick head?"
I could hear her but not see her.
"It's some kind of a trick you're pulling. I'm going to tell Mr. Morales."
Morales was the postmaster. He had a well-deserved reputation of firing first and asking questions later. What exactly was I getting myself into? Anyway, I was here; the first thing to do was to catch the dopey kid and get us both out of the building.
This time I actually laid a hand on her. A flash of fire seared my eyeballs. She had bitten my thumb. From the way it felt, she must have sheared it right off.
The occasional glimpses I got through rifts in the smoke told me the chase was leading us to the corridor again. I wanted to catch up with the kid if only to spank the stuffing out of her. I heard the hall door open and close on its pneumatic hardware.
If she turned right and didn't run into another office, we were OK because that direction led us to the stairs. But if she turned left, that led us deeper into the smoke. It was getting hard to breathe. I dropped on all fours. The smoke wasn't so bad near the floor but it was only a matter of time.
I found the door and let myself out into the corridor. I could hear her footsteps a short distance away. Good! The kid had turned right. Then I heard a door open and close. The little monster had entered another room. Memory told me it was the postage due office.
I heard a pair of postal scales fall to the floor. She must be having trouble seeing if she'd knocked them off their table. I was beginning to think she was part salamander. Instead of calling to her, I crawled silently toward where I'd heard the crash. The smoke parted long enough to reveal a pair of legs terminating in patent leather shoes. I grabbed one of her ankles. She screamed hysterically and kicked me in the forehead.
Semi-conscious, I heard her run by me, back into the hallway. I think it was sheer venom that roused me. I wanted nothing so much as to catch the little demon and whale the tar out of her.
Her footsteps receded down the passageway. I heard a metal door slam shut. Good! That was the fire barrier at the top of the staircase.
After what seemed to be a hundred years, I managed to reach it. Choking and gasping, I heard her shoes near the top step. Was the stupid kid going to break for the personnel office to wait for Mr. Brown?
I had a sneaking feeling that was exactly what she was doing, so I made it a point to cover as much of the area between the door and her as possible. Smoke billowed up from the stairwell.
Sure enough, she was waiting. I made noise so she could hear me. I couldn't have helped making noises anyway; I was throttling on the smoke. Grudgingly her footsteps retreated down the stairs.
I found the first step and pulled myself erect with the iron hand rail. Here the staircase was narrow enough so that she couldn't sneak back past me. I wondered if I could remain conscious long enough to herd her down to the first floor.
At the bottom, her footsteps ceased. The kid was waiting, evidently in the hopes I'd pass by her.
I coughed. "No, you don't! When I get you, I'm going to stand you on your head and whap the daylights out of you."
I was now only a few feet from the door. That scared her. Her nerve broke and the outside door flew open. I caught it before it closed. Barely conscious, I could discern her figure as a darkened blur only a few feet ahead of me.
We broke out of the smoke into the daylight and fresh air. I sensed photographers' flashbulbs going off. Then I slumped to the floor. There was a sensation of being placed on a stretcher and being carried to an ambulance.
It must have been a good twenty-four hours later before I came to in a hospital room. My wife, June, was there on a chair beside the bed.
She greeted me. "Well, you old boar hog, you made the front page."
She handed me the local newspaper. The photographer had caught us as we broke out of the smoke. I was a few feet behind the kid. The headline shouted:
"Heroic Child Leads Elderly Postal Employee to Safety from Burning Building!"
It developed that Mr. Brown had left her in care of a secretary while he went to the bank to cash a check, and the secretary had left her in care of another secretary, and well, you know how those things go. As I said, it was a lousy day.
Albert J. Manachino
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The Albert J. Manachino Series