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Fire Escape

June 23, 2011

by Nancy Devine

She’s been relegated to this: a group of boys on the third floor, each has a hand down his pants, through an unzipped zipper, an index finger sticking out. With the other hand, each pitches quarters at her when she passes. Oh and the boys wiggle those fingers—the pointers, little pig tails trying to straighten out. However, if they could get what she reportedly gave on a fire escape during an assembly, they would take it. I know they would. They’re fourteen and fifteen, easily sprung, short to last, oblivious to foreplay.

But this throwing of money, exaggerated and deliberate, is designed to demonstrate that not a one of them would stoop, would deign to be in any position with her, let alone on the metal stairs outside our school, his jeans at his ankles, his most unpredictable part in a girl’s mouth… literally the skin of her teeth. And those fingers, small and pink, because the boys flap and wag them so unabashedly, are meant to say, “I’m so confident about my size and shape that I will stick out my finger which is certainly the opposite of what I’ve really got in my pants.”

And she’s an ugly girl, her face bird-like, the features concentrated in a place too small—the nose sharply hooked, her eyes tiny and easy to forget. Her skin is pale, lighter than the wall color around us and her hair is nearly as light, a bleach job run amok. It’s thin and flyaway like a swimmer’s during season; you can hear in your mind, the sound that hair would make if it were touched. A small and brutal crunch. I should befriend her, be kind and humane to this girl the boys call “BJ,” after all no girl with any measure of self-esteem performs fellatio on some kid on a stoop while the rest of us at a pep rally are cheering our boys to victory… as if the two are completely different acts. (The word “humane” stops me. Isn’t that how you are nice to animals?)

The guy? The recipient? No one seems to know who he is, or if someone does, there’s no divulging; he’s the spectral victim in this story, the one wronged, the one who shall remain nameless in this high school lore. Is he one step above the girl’s class? Two? Maybe he’s even among the boys on the third floor, making fun of a girl who probably gave him pleasure, albeit, brief? Right now, mouths are closed; lips are sealed… oh unless you’re going to say, after coins land on carpet, “Hey, BJ. Take this.”

Where am I? At the entrance to the school library, my left hip and hand pushing one of the big double doors open, a bundle of books cradled in my left arm, all sorts of unease in my mouth. I did what I could in there. A geometry proof due in an hour, a bland history worksheet on some country I’ll never visit. In my next class, that boy I like; sallow complexion, dark hair in intriguing disarray, a star debater. He’s smart; he wants to write his sophomore paper on theories of time. And he’s never lined up with those boys and I have looked for him there since it all happened two weeks ago. But then that sound blasts through. It’s like the taking in, when an air compressor sucks in more to increase the pressure in the tank, a rattle tumultuous at the elbows and the shins, as if the psi in my body has been jacked up, too. But it’s not that. It’s the fire alarm, that full-throttle blare that assaults you in the ribs, that means get out. Flee. Escape. Now.

I push the library door open where it sticks so we can get out. I round the corner and head down the stairs, where it feels as though every student is, as if there were no other stairways in the school, a single path from top to bottom, like an alimentary canal. We wend around the corner at the landing and take on the next flight, my hand sliding along the rail, smooth as bone. After a couple of steps, the crowd of us settles in and finds a rhythm to our exiting; we’re one being… one hurrying student at ease.

When we get to the door that gets us outside, the girl from the fire escape comes up from the basement and pushes through. She is perennially awful looking, someone stripped of color, an utter wash-out, except for blemishes collecting around her chin.

She keeps pushing and when she gets right next to me, her push knocks me off balance and I bump into the wall.

“Move over, bitch,” she says and she opens the door. We have never spoken; I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know me at all. For a moment, I’m trapped behind the door until she gets outside and some boy grabs my arm. “Be careful. You gotta get outside,” he says. I don’t get much of a look at him, and I don’t recognize his voice and then I’m outside, students everywhere on the sidewalk north of the school. Some lean against “No Parking” signs; others stand in clusters at the curb, hoods up. Is it possible that the boy I like is standing near her, condensed breath like language issuing from their mouths?

Fire engines take over our ears. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a fire. They show up even if it’s only a drill. And really, we try to escape no matter what.


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Nancy Devine (blog) teaches high school English in Grand Forks, North Dakota where she lives. She co-directs the Red River Valley Writing Project, a local site of the National Writing Project. Her poetry, short fiction and essays have appeared in online and print journals.

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  1. Nic Sebastian
    June 24, 2011 at 8:11 am

    ‘After a couple of steps, the crowd of us settles in and finds a rhythm to our exiting; we’re one being… one hurrying student at ease.’

    Despite the pushes and pulls and tensions and individuals and small groups, there is an organic (whole-organ) quality about a student body as a whole – a living organism with beautiful bits and nasty bits about it. You’ve captured this very well – congrats!

  2. June 25, 2011 at 9:42 am

    thanks for stopping by and for commenting.

  3. Heidi
    June 26, 2011 at 9:19 am

    Nancy, I enjoyed getting sucked into that atmosphere if HS, and held fast to your voice, the intelligence and depth, just saving the reader from suffocation of the place. Thank you! -Heidi Arneson

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