Club Aqua burned on a Tuesday, and by Wednesday morning, the DJ and bartender were celebrities. Val, the DJ, wasn’t pleased. “I didn’t do anything,” she protested.
But Larry the bartender disagreed. “Listen, that whole fucking ceiling was coming in, and you was standing out on the floor directing traffic just like you was calling a square dance or something. If you hadn’t had your shit together, those people would have flipped out and stampeded. We’d all be dead.”
“OK, I wasn’t the one carrying people out on my goddamned shoulders,” Val snapped. “All I did was tell people where to find the doors. You were picking them up off the floor and hauling them out the front. That’s saving lives. You want to call me heroic, you might as well say it about the builder who put the exits in there in the first place, right?”
The interview aired on the evening news, with the expletives appropriately censored. Channel eight even scored a fuzzy cell video taken in the midst of the exodus to air with “Husband and Wife Team Save Scores in Five Alarm Blaze”.
They wanted to compare it to Rhode Island’s fire at The Station in ‘03, when the band’s effects triggered a real burn and sent a hundred people to talk with the Almighty. But after a few days, when the fire inspector ruled Club Aqua’s an electric fire, the news anchors all had to fall back to discussing the DJ and bartender and airing the grainy cell pictures.
The other difference from The Station fire, the one that really kept the whole thing in the limelight longer than was perhaps reasonable, was that nobody died. And that was probably what kept the focus on the two employees. The fire inspector said, “Fire burns up, and this started in the attic. There wouldn’t have been any problem for the people down below if the smoke detectors and sprinklers had come on when they were supposed to.”
In fact, when smoke started filtering into the dance floor through the ducts, the sprinkler system and alarms did kick in. “And that’s what saved people,” said Val. “That and Larry pulling his shirt over his face and getting those women out of the bathroom.”
“I’m telling you,” Larry contradicted. “It was like Val cast a spell on them. The sprinklers came on, and it was just… an annoyance.” The pair was on national news, by that time, wearing somewhat cleaner clothes and using slightly better language. “She had on that Beck song, right before it started raining inside…”
Val gave Larry the title. “Where It’s At.”
“Yeah. And that’s like her song. She jumped out of that booth and started talking to us and she was where it was at, you know? The sprinklers was just irritating, and people was looking for ‘out’, but then this huge chunk of the ceiling fell down, and everybody screamed, but not Val. She said, ‘Larry, you check the toilets,’ and she sent the other employees to find people. And when her microphone went out, she just kept talking, until I had to pick her up and take her out on the third trip through. Like she got caught inside her own spell.”
“Stop it. I wasn’t caught in any spell. I was so scared, it was all I could do to keep from screaming. I kept thinking “two turn tables and a microphone” so I wouldn’t smell the smoke. And I kept talking because I was too scared I was going to scream and start the riot. I couldn’t move. If you hadn’t picked me up, I’d have died in there. Now how’s that for heroism? I couldn’t even move.” Val got out of her chair and just stood there in front of it until Larry reached up and tugged on her shirt. Then she sat back down. “I’m still having nightmares.” Larry put his arm over her shoulders, and she rubbed her face.
A week later, some amateur video editor combined that clip of Val rubbing the bridge of her nose on national television and the cell phone footage of the fire. He wiped out the sound and replaced it with Beck singing “Where It’s At”. It went viral, and after that, bars and clubs around the country wanted to hire Larry and Val the bartending DJ team. But nobody seemed to be able to find them. They just disappeared after that interview.
And the searchers didn’t look too hard. The Club Aqua fire was nearly a month old by then, and the public attention wandered. One of their old neighbors said they bought a boat and learned to sail. Another one said it was an RV. A third, a new age hippie type, said they were never real to begin with, that they were spirits who rose up when called upon and simply returned to their natural element when the need had passed.
But on the video, they didn’t look all that ethereal. They looked real, grimy in every setting, even when they cleaned up for the show, like the smoke sheen never left their skin. It looked as if they were more real, in fact, than everything else around them. During the fire, in all the interviews, they seemed as solid and muddy as the very earth.
I gave Liz Culver this prompt: Monday morning, the sun rose, the world turned, and my dog brought me a fleshy human hand from the creek.
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.