Smoke

May 16, 2008
By
Everybody in New York City knew Walt Tolstoy. He was fifty years old but looked much younger. He had bright blue eyes, no wrinkles, dark, black hair, and a toothy smile. He was a self-made millionaire and people all over the state came to him when business ideas were sought.
Many days a week he would have to look at the magazine stands just to see what they said about him now. The New Yorker often caricatured him as a short, stout man with a pipe and a three piece suit. As he stared at the most current issue, he felt his heart drop. “Walt Tolstoy: Man of Wealth, Man of Loneliness.” He turned away with a feeling of disgust. ‘If only they knew,’ he thought.

One Christmas, after his car had been totaled in a wreck, Walt had to walk home to his penthouse apartment suite. It was cold and dreary. He could see his breath as he steadily breathed. Snowflakes began to fall and blanket the already white ground. He slowly shortened his pace and looked around. He had never seen the city so empty. All who were out were just the usual homeless people. He sidetracked his route just so he wouldn’t have to go to the lonely apartment. As he walked through an alley a homeless man stopped him. “Young man, do you have money?” he said.

Walt reached in his pocket. “Well, if I can’t have a merry Christmas, you should,” he said, pulling out a $20 bill.

The old bum smiled. He was surely a younger man but his appearance added a good twenty years to him. Walt felt awkward even standing by him as if his presence were not even humanly. “Well, sir, I shall have.” Then, as if just noticing, he glanced a little harder at Walt. “Are you Mr. Tolstoy?”

“Yes,” Walt replied. “But that doesn’t mean that you should get any more money. That was all I carry.”

“I could care less about the money,” the bum said, standing up. Walt reached out to help. “It’s just…”

“Just what?” Walt said, trying not to hurt the man.

“Well, youngster, I could probably finish if you didn’t interrupt.” He then started brushing the snow off of himself. “You look like someone I know from the NYFD.”

“As flattering as that is, it’s unlikely. I’ve no family in this country.”

The man snorted. “Ha! That’s a good one. I can’t change your mind though, I’m just a bum chatting it up with a businessman. Do you have a pen?”
Walt searched his pockets again. He then revealed a blue ink pen. He handed it to the bum. “Okay, Mr. Tolstoy. Just to prove that this money will go to good use, I will make a distinct marking with it.”
With these words, the bum took the pen and circled “In God We Trust.” He showed it to Walt who didn’t care in the slightest bit. Then the old man walked away from Walt, fondling the $20 bill.

It was about midnight when Walt reached the apartment. He sighed piteously and sat down on a couch. He stared at the skylight. The snow had stopped and the stars twinkled brightly above. He slowly closed his eyes. Just like every night though, he began to think about his real life. His breathing became heavier and heavier. Sleep had just about taken him over when an atrocious smell began to make way. He opened his eyes drearily and saw smoke. ‘My apartment is on fire!’ he thought.

He went to the phone to dial 911. “Emergency operator,” the phone answered.

“This is Walt Tolstoy, of Tolstoy Tower. There’s a fire here.” He then quickly hung up.

He ran towards the door and tried to open it. He struggled and finally got something to pry it open. He heaved with all his might and the door opened, sending huge flames at Walt. He screamed in pain as he rolled on the floor, trying to extinguish the flames that engulfed him.

He moved as quickly away as he could, yelling in pain the whole way. He approached the window, trying to get to the fire escape. Through much agony, he found that he could not do it. He laid on the couch again and began to sob. He felt dizzy and became dizzier by the moments. He felt the heat drawing closer, as if the flames were like a snakes’ tongue and could sniff their prey. He closed his eyes. He felt a monstrous headache as if he were having a heat stroke. Slowly, he felt as if he were out of the fire.

Walt saw himself when he felt he had woken up. ‘No,’ thought Walt in horror, seeing a kid that he knew was himself.

The child was looking up at a man about Walt’s present age. He was limping on a crutch. The man looked at the small Walt. “There, there child,” the man said. “When the Red Army returns from Stalingrad, I’ll be here again.” He stopped for a moment, pretending not to see the tears in young Walt’s eyes. Reality seemed to hit him. He knelt down. “You know that you will probably head the family soon.”

Walt felt a jerk. The image cleared away. Now he was looking at himself at the age of eighteen. He remembered that he was now in America, but the rest of his family was dying in Siberia, opposing Stalin. A girl was with him. She was very pregnant. “We cannot afford it, Imelda,” Walt said.

“I refuse to,” she told him, stepping away as he walked forward to embrace her.

“We can barely afford to keep ourselves,” teenage Walt laughed, nervously.

“I will not abort this baby!” Imelda finally shouted.

The teenage Walt now appeared mad. Imelda was crying and was a violent shade of red. He walked over to her and slapped her, hard. She fell on the ground, trembling with shock that he would even do such a thing.

“I’m leaving,” she said in no more than a whisper. Both Walt’s turned away from looking at her.

Finally, Walt was looking back on tonight. He watched as the bum circled “In God We Trust” on the bill. Then he awoke in a hospital bed, coughing and gasping for breath. He rapidly fell back into unconscious when he saw doctors run in.

Walt was in the Intensive Care Unit for about a week. His condition was declared so bad that he couldn’t even have visitors. As his healing progressed, his chances of living declined. ‘I’ll end up like my dad,’ was all he could think of.

Visitors were finally allowed after two weeks. He was out of the ICU and able to move on his own. He was almost all the way wrapped in casts for third degree burns. People were lined up at the door to see him. Get Well cards were lined up on his bedside table. Things started coming back to him. “You almost died in there,” a person reminded him.

"Part of me did die," he replied.

The rest of the day, no more visitors were allowed. A few more days passed eventually. Walt was so mad to be alive that he was drawing plans on how to fulfill the most painless suicide. He called the nurse in to his side one day.
“I…want…you…to…bring…me…the…firefighter…that…saved…my…life.”
“Sure,” she said, unbeknownst that Walt was even feeling the way he was.

That evening, a man all covered with soot came into the room. He was in his firefighting clothes. “Are you the guy who saved my life?”

The firefighter nodded.

“Do you know how much pain you have caused me?” Walt growled.

The firefighter sat down in a chair. “It’s my job!” he said, angrily. “Do you want me to save some and not others?”

“No,” Walt said, calming down and remembering all of his past experiences. “Do what is right.”

The firefighter stood up. He was a young man who looked about twenty. “You know though, you’re lucky to even be alive now! Your suite is melted. I’m surprised you didn’t have a heat stroke.”

“Something kept me going,” Walt chided. He looked at the young man who bore a lot of resemblance to himself.

“Well, I guess my momma always taught me that strong will will keep you alive.”

“What about your father?”

“Mom didn’t talk about him much. She said he wasn’t worth the energy to talk about. I could tell she missed him though.”

“A deadbeat then?”

“Let’s put it this way, Mr. Tolstoy. If it was up to him, I wouldn’t have been there on Christmas to save you.” The firefighter stared off into space.

“Imelda,” Walt said to himself.

“Beg pardon, Mr. Tolstoy?”

“Was anything left intact at the suite?” he asked.

“Now that you mention it, there was. Ironically, the furniture melted and everything else melted, but this $20 bill was found where the fire started.” He handed it to Walt. Clearly seen, a blue circle enwrapped itself around “In God We Trust.”

Walt smiled and began to cry. The firefighter was befuddled. “What is it, Mr. Tolstoy?”

Walt looked him in the eyes, seeing a mirror-like reflection, “We have a lot of catching up to do.”





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