Friday, December 24, 2010

Portraits Of Detroit: Peter Oberon

By Patti Abbott

A female reporter stuck a mike in Pete’s face Christmas morning when the fire was finally put out. “How many years have you been on the DFD.”
Seventeen, he told her. All of them spent in a 109-year old firehouse, which was a fire hazard itself. No one knew about the condition of that wiring, but who had the money to replace it? Not Detroit. He didn’t tell her that, of course. They’d been read the riot act about dissing the City.
“I hear you’re usually the one they call on when a fellow fire fighter is buried under debris.” Pete was 6”4 and weighted 270. He could yank floorboards out if need be. Hoist fallen walls, loosen joists, carry two people at once.
“Done that once or twice.”
“Like today, right? You pulled someone out today? On Christmas.”
He nodded.
“How do you feel about risking your life to put out a fire set by arsonists? A house the city’s been scheduled to tear down for five years.” Suddenly she sounded angry; her eyes dark holes. Pete was flummoxed for a second, still taking in the face he’d watched for years on the nightly news rather than hearing her question. A black woman with that many freckles was fairly rare. He guessed the heat had melted her makeup.
“Breaks your heart. Breaks your heart,” he answered senselessly. Then he caught the rheumy eye of his crew commander and tried to come up with something better. “And all of these guys here today—man—they do whatever they can for the people here in Detroit. Today and every day. Specially on Christmas.” He stopped short, seeing she’d pulled the mike away.
She seemed pleased at his answer. The Christmas wreath with bells on her lapel jingled as she walked away. He wondered how she could navigate the icy sidewalk in those high heels.

They didn’t show her reaction on the news that night though. Instead the next shot was the deserted house burned to the ground, an unintentional perhaps, commentary on the DFD failure. But the fire hadn’t spread to the house next door, inhabited by an elderly woman and her grandson. That’s why they had to put these fires out. Or before you knew it the entire city would be in flames. Sophie and he watched the whole thing on the evening news after the family finished off the holiday ham, exchanged gifts. He’d overdone it again but he’d never felt full in his life.
“That bitch,” Sophie said, switching the TV off. “She didn’t have to show that house. She’s just showing you and the guys up doing that.”
“Doubt it was her decision,” Pete said, defending the woman he’d spent two minutes with. The one so familiar to him from years of watching the News—except for those freckles. “Don’t they have editors to decide that?”
“Damn, I wish I’d taped it,” Sophie said, jumping up. “Maybe they’ll show it again on the eleven o’clock news. I wonder if any of the kids saw it” She quickly dialed their numbers. That hadn’t, of course. Didn’t watch the news. And Channel 8 didn’t air the segment again. There were new fires, robberies, and deaths to report by then. The Free Press story the next morning was on page 6 and didn’t even mention him. The headline read EARLY MORNING CHRISTMAS FIRE ON THE EASTSIDE. It barely got a column.

It was a vacant house again just a few weeks later. Another one on the list for demolition for years. Possibly inhabited by a squatter. There were no signs of drugs though. Sometimes a squatter would torch a house he knew was due for demolition—just out of pique. That’s what this looked like to Pete. Pique.
Place was a dump. And also an inferno by the time they arrived. Flames and smoke were already blowing out the windows on the second floor. Engine 28 and Squad Car 2 arrived, joined by two more pumpers, a ladder truck, and a battalion chief. An additional crew stood ready. Engine 28 fired a surge of water that knocked back the fire. The crew stormed the house seconds later, a Detroit fire-fighting tactic not shared in many cities where the approach was more tentative. They advanced with a hose up the stairs. Pete was in front, ready to knock down whatever got in the way. He was high on adrenalin as usual. Fearless. The men doused hotspots as they moved up the steps and into the attic.

It happened quickly at that point. There was a creaking sound, and few pieces of wood from the ceiling dropped to the floor. Less than two seconds later, the entire roof collapsed. Pete Oberon was pinned to the floor. His huge frame pinned under a roof. The pain was enormous, but his death came fast.
He made the headline this time.


Patti Abbott has recently published stories in DAMN NEAR DEAD 2, Needle Magazine, Crimefactory, Beat to a Pulp: Round One, Dark Valentine, Spinetingler and various other venues. She is the co-editor (with Steve Weddle) of DISCOUNT NOIR.


Kate Pilarcik ~ absolutely said...

Rode my reading like a shiny red engine of tale and technique and the nightly news and freckles and oh that pique, that pique ... until, crash'bam Maam, the ceiling fell.

Last liner note ~ a killer.
~ Absolutely*Kate

Alan Griffiths said...

Terrific, Patti. Beautiful writing that had me hooked all the way through, right up to the breathtakingly tragic last line.

Paul D Brazill said...

Wonderfully sad.

Author said...

Very poignant - amd beautifully written, as always.

Al Tucher said...

Detroit noir, as dark as it gets. Another good one, Patti.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, guys. Too many of these stories are based on actual incidents.

Have a happy holiday.

Joyce said...

No one there for him that time. Desperately sad. You really get to know the guy in such a short time and then... Beautifully written, Patti; a real tug at the heart on Christmas Eve.

Scott D. Parker said...

Aside from the too-true-to-be-overlooked ending, I appreciated the commentary in the one line about the firehouse itself being a fire hazard. I have to say this, Patti. In my crime reading, Boston has Lehane, LA Connolly, and DC Pelecanos. Whenever I read one of your stories, I know that I'm going to be in Detroit.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Sadly, yes. But I thank you for putting my in the same sentence with two such great writers.

Evan Lewis said...

Powerful stuff, Patti. I see I'll need to track down your previous Portraits.

Anonymous said...

Flawless, classic crime writing from one of the best.

David Cranmer said...

Another out of the park story, Patti. When is the collection coming I keep asking about?

seana graham said...

Yes, great writing, and I loved the way Pete in a way became a kind of emblem of the great and tragic city itself. Beautiful.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Nice story and a big bummer of an ending, which caught me off guard.

Naomi Johnson said...

Met a firefighter once, he was fresh from 2 months in a coma (on the job, fell thru an icy warehouse roof while trying to hack a vent in it). This story feels scary-real.

R L Kelstrom said...

Lovely prose. Stunning ending. I felt like you took me to Detroit. Are there more portraits?