Ten miles inland from Narragansett Bay sits an old mill road, where men and women used to work in twelve-hour shifts in the mills making velvet, corduroy, and lace. The old mill road in West Warwick leads nowhere now. There are no more jobs in the old mills of Rhode Island. Along Cowesett Avenue they built a Cumberland Farms and a Chinese restaurant. The old mill road is only used now as a shortcut from the nowhereville of West Warwick to the nowhereville of nearby Coventry.
The Station nightclub is also on Cowesett Avenue. Even in its heyday this place was considered a dump, a backwoods prefab thrown together with plywood and recycled shingles. Sometimes a good band might play there. If you were lucky you might catch Blue Öyster Cult or Grand Funk Railroad on a better night. It was one of those last remaining safe-havens where some of the old bands from the 60s and 70s were still trying to eke out a living.
Cain Johnson attended the Station like it was his own personal church. That Thursday after the big ice storm he sat in his apartment going through some old letters from high school. It had been fifteen years since the class of 1988. But what was there now? Going to the Station was the high point of his week. He worked at a pizza joint, same one since high school. Rhode Island College hadn’t worked out. Neither had the Community College of Rhode Island. The girlfriend from Seekonk lasted only two months. The redhead from Lincoln lasted only two weeks. Anne-Marie — the brown-haired girl from Westerly, the mother of his ten-year-old daughter — lasted only six days.
He hadn’t been on a date in three years now. He was beginning to think that maybe girls weren’t in the cards for him at all. He once tried to write down who he was, his likes and his dislikes. He found this incomplete list about himself tucked in with all the letters from high school.
1. I like King Crimson
2. I don’t like Radiohead
3. I make nine dollars an hour
4. I drive a 1974 Nova, it’s red
5. The Patriots are good
6. The Red Sox will never be good
7. Clam-cakes are okay
8. I want to be rich some day
He never filled out the rest. What do you say to a girl when that’s who you are?
Sixty-two letters, fat like an accordion, tied together with frayed blue ribbon. These were letters from Julie Farrell from his senior year in high school. Cain and Julie had gone to the prom together. Back in high school that was like being married. And they loved each other the best they could when they were eighteen. They once thought they had it all figured out too. It was all written down in blue Bic pen, recorded for posterity in the letters Julie wrote to Cain in the gray classrooms of Scituate High School.
He must have read them a hundred times over the years. He was still amazed at the detail recorded in them. Their house would be white with blue shutters. It had to be somewhere between the city and the country, but not in either one. Julie would teach first grade. Cain would play in a band. He would teach guitar on the side to give something back. They would grow vegetables in a garden behind the house. Julie would be in charge of driving the kids to school in their hunter green minivan (light blue if the dealership didn’t have the hunter green in stock). Cain would get to drive the red Camaro on the weekends. It was all written down like gospel in those letters he was holding in his hands.
He looked out his second floor window that overlooked downtown Arctic. Outside it looked like winter. There was a white, frozen blanket of snow on the ground and the sky was covered in gray clouds. The old mill villages of Arctic, Centreville, Riverpoint, Natick, Phenix, and Crompton looked like worn out photographs taken from a Polaroid twenty years before. Cain remembered the mild winter from the year before. In Rhode Island you never had two mild winters in a row.
Great White was playing the Station that night. Cain thought about the band. Seeing Great White live would be like watching a bunch of hams trying to imitate Led Zeppelin on an off night. But it would be better than Poison or heaven forbid Mötley Crüe.
He took the entire afternoon off to get ready. He trimmed his beard himself. It wasn’t much of a beard. The men in the Johnson family were only able to grow half-beards that only half filled in. He wore his black jeans, which were a little snug from a lack of exercise, but they fit okay. He decided to go with his favorite gray sweatshirt. He wore his Red Sox cap to hide his receding hairline and his cowboy boots because he thought it made him look like he was in a band.
He got a fast haircut at Fantastic Sam’s. He never would tell anyone that was where he got his hair cut, but they did a nice job and it was cheap too. He knew with his Red Sox cap on no one would be the wiser. He wouldn’t take that cap off unless he met a girl. He hadn’t kissed a girl in four years, so he wasn’t too worried about taking the cap off.
After his haircut he grabbed a burger at the New York System restaurant across the street from Slip Disc. The cook at the New York System — her name was Sandy — always teased him. Cain thought maybe she only teased him and no one else. At least he felt that way sometimes.
Cain drove over to the nightclub at half past ten. He decided to park on a side street, because the parking lot in front of the club looked full. The sky had cleared and it was black and full of bright blue stars. There was snow all along the side of the road. The snowfall was about ten inches deep in the front yards of all the houses.
His boots scraped the pavement as he walked. Salt and gravel had been put down on the road to stop it from icing over. The music already playing inside, and the lights outside the nightclub cast an orange glow around the entire area.
The nightclub was crowded. Dozens of people crammed through the front door of the single-story building. Cain’s heart began to race. There were pretty girls everywhere. Some had do-rags on while others wore see-through tees. Some girls wore no coat even in the cold. He tried not to feel guilty as he looked at various girls. It was sort of like looking at Corvettes going by, because the night had this anything-is-possible vibe. Cain knew this was the reason he was there: girls, music, and that vibe.
He paid his seventeen bucks to feel it. He handed the money to a girl behind the ticket counter just inside the main door. The girl had blond hair that was teased out on the sides with hairspray. He felt like a loser. He looked down at the money he had leftover. He had only three singles to buy a drink. And this was his money for the entire week too.
“Have a good time!” the blond girl collecting the tickets yelled to Cain.
He waved his hand instead of trying to say something over the roar of the opening act up onstage.
The nightclub was standing room only. There was egg crate Styrofoam on the walls and ceilings, pool tables to the right of the stage, a dart room in the back. Everyone was crammed into the main room in front of the stage. Cain could feel the vibration of the bass guitar going through him as he noticed a dozen other guys wearing Red Sox caps just like his. There were a lot of people, men and women, wearing Patriots caps too, as everyone in New England was still basking in the afterglow of the Super Bowl win from the year before. The air hinted at a thousand unseen rooms: he could smell popcorn, lemony shampoo, and Aqua Net; coconut, cologne, smoke, and beer.
Cain made his way over to the main bar. It was directly to the left of the entrance. He knew the bartender who worked there. Her name was Laureen. She was blonde and about his age. She had a daughter the same age as his daughter. She was a single parent as well. Cain had talked to her each time he had visited the Station. They had talked about old movies the last time. He remembered being surprised, because she liked film noir and the Marx Brothers just like he did.
Laureen was already helping someone. She gave Cain a nod and smiled at him.
Cain looked away, because he thought that maybe she was looking at someone else, but then he had to look right back at her to make sure.
Laureen nodded to him again.
“What do ya have?” she asked Cain.
He was amazed. There was so much confidence in her voice. She looked at him the entire time she was making a drink for someone else.
Cain pulled out his three singles.
“How much is a Heineken?” he asked.
“Four bucks,” Laureen told him
“And Rolling Rock?”
“I’ll have the Rolling Rock.”
Laureen finished the drink she was making and handed it to the customer standing next to Cain. He watched her take a few steps back behind the bar, pull out a bottle of Heineken, pop the top, and hand it over to him.
She was dressed in tight white slacks with a tight white long-sleeved shirt on. Cain nervously cleared his throat several times right before he handed her three dollars.
Cain handed her the three dollars.
She looked at him kind of strange.
“You don’t talk anymore?”
Laureen tapped her fingernails on the bar. Cain looked at her, but he couldn’t get any words out.
“Are you a man or a mouse?”
Cain continued to stand there as she waited for him to talk.
“I’m just busting your chops,” she said. “You were so talkative last time. Maybe I should make you another Alabama Slammer like last time.”
He looked down, and then looked back up at her. He thought about his job. He thought about having to take her out in his old Nova. He thought about having to take his Red Sox cap off.
There was this sweet, lopsided grin on her face. He hadn’t seen anyone look at him like this since, Julie, and that was back in high school. He didn’t know why, but this suddenly made him feel at ease.
Throw some cheese on the floor and we’ll find out, he thought hoping to do his best Groucho Marx impression for her. But as he looked at Laureen just then he noticed how really beautiful she was; and he thought about his job and his car and that Red Sox cap he had on, and suddenly he began to feel more like Charlie Chaplin, so he just didn’t say anything.
Cain opened his wallet and held up the picture of his daughter.
“This is Samantha.”
“I remember,” Laureen said. “She’s beautiful.” She paused for a second. “She must take after you.”
She seemed so damn sincere. He didn’t get it.
“Maybe we could get our girls together sometime,” Laureen said. “I’m sure my Elizabeth would love to meet your Samantha.”
There was a long, awkward pause.
“Okay. Maybe when the weather gets warm.” He immediately thought about borrowing his sister’s car. Maybe Uncle Ralph’s car. Uncle Ralph has that brand new Grand Marquis.
“Well, you have a good time tonight,” Laureen said.
She nodded as three more people came over to the bar.
Cain raised his bottle of beer up to her.
It was eleven o’clock now. Great White was beginning to make their way up to the stage. The lead singer wore a blue do-rag with white stars on it. The sound of guitar and bass suddenly began to slash through the air of the club. Heads in the crowd began to bob up and down. The sound of drums kicked in. Pyrotechnics began to shoot up from a couple of spark-spewing tubes at the back of the stage. The lead singer of the band began to sing. Hands and fingers rapped and pointed and slashed above the shoulders of the crowd as everyone, Cain included, got into it.
Cain stood amid the crowd and watched in delight as brilliant white sparks lit up the stage. These were beautiful white cascades that traveled upward from the tubes on the floor all the way up to the ceiling.
“Oh no!” Cain heard someone say.
The band continued to play, but Cain saw it: the white cascades from the pyrotechnics sparked the egg crate Styrofoam up on the wall behind the stage. Flames began to burn on both sides of the wall right behind the band.
“Get out!” someone yelled.
“Is this part of the show?”
“Awesome!” someone else yelled.
“Everyone get out now!”
Cain suddenly got a bad feeling in his gut. He had never felt this feeling before. The band was continuing to play even then. The flames had moved upward from the wall and were beginning to snake across the ceiling now.
Half the crowd completely turned around and began to move backward away from the stage, toward the front entrance. Cain went along with the crowd. There were hands up against his back like people waving goodbye, discretely nudging him forward, while his Heineken and free hand gently pushed the back of the person in front of him.
All of a sudden Cain realized the music had stopped playing. The chords and notes of the band had completely disappeared.
The rush of cold air was unexpected, and then came this all encompassing sound—like the whoosh of gasoline being poured over a fire. Seconds later the room was plunged into darkness.
Cain couldn’t see. He felt dozens of hands pushing hard against his back now. It’ll be fine, he kept telling himself. It’ll be fine. He could feel the cold air coming from outside the front door. That’s how close he was.
“Oh God!” someone yelled.
Cain suddenly was pushed forward as though a wave had come up in back of him, knocking over everyone who had been standing up. His arms instantly were pinned to his side. There were people lying below him. There were people piled on top of him. He tried to yell, but couldn’t. He couldn’t even feel the boots on his own feet anymore.
Everything stayed dark. Dozens of patrons got stacked up on top of one another like cords of wood in someone’s backyard. There was moaning, and then screams. Cain began to feel it was all over now. I’m not going to make it out, he thought. He felt a calm go through him. His life didn’t flash before his eyes. There was no revelation from God. He thought about his daughter. He thought about his parents. This is it, he thought, I’m going to die now. This is how I’m going to die. I’m going to burn to death five feet from the front door of the club.
However long he was trapped, trapped in that mass of human arms, hands, legs, torsos, feet, hair, faces it seemed like a million years. Any screams he heard quieted very quickly. He could feel the bodies squeezed, tight, against him. He found himself completely turned over on his side now. Both his arms were pinned to his thighs. After awhile there was absolutely no movement from anyone that was piled up with him. He could hear a fireman talking. He could hear other sounds. He heard sirens outside the club. He felt the trickle of water soaking down against his clothing.
Cain began to feel the weight above him shift. He then began to feel the pressure on him lighten. He could still hear the voice of a lone fireman who was trying to shout out to people still inside the club.
Out of nowhere Cain could see light. He could feel the bodies on top of him slowly being pulled off.
Cain could clearly hear the voice of one fireman now.
He didn’t feel anyone directly on top of him anymore. He made himself think about his daughter. He forced his torso straight up, grabbing the boot of the fireman who was standing right there.
“Oh, Jesus!” the fireman screamed. There was fear in his voice. “We’ve got a live one!”
“I’m all right. My legs are caught,” Cain said.
He looked around. The nightclub looked like a plane crash. All the bodies beside him, the ones below him, and all the ones that had been above him were all lying there lifeless. It was the worst thing he had ever seen. Only he was alive.
Cain walked out on his own. His boots were gone. The nightclub was in ashes, completely deconstructed by the fire. He saw club patrons, people who were burned, going over to the snow banks along the edge of the parking lot. They were cupping the snow up with their burned hands, rubbing it on their faces and chests, anywhere they could reach. There were fire trucks up and down the road. Police cars were everywhere. Fire hoses were laid out in every direction. There was a steady stream of water dosing the burned out nightclub from twenty different directions. There were people, all of them burned, standing around everywhere. Hair was singed off heads. Pieces of flesh fell off bodies. Steam came rising off some of the victims. Many of them were trying to go across the street to the Cowesett Inn, where a triage had been set up.
A paramedic rushed over to Cain. “Are you okay, guy?”
He looked at the young man who was trying to help. The paramedic’s face was burned like he had fallen asleep in the sun. Cain looked down at himself. He thought about Laureen, the bartender. He thought about her white outfit. The white shirt and white pants she had worn that night. He never did see her get out of the nightclub. He looked around. He looked for anyone wearing a white outfit. Their clothes wouldn’t be white now, he thought to himself.
He looked back at the paramedic.
“I don’t have a scratch,” he told him.
Cain began to walk away from the scene in a daze. He traveled up the road and found the side street, where he had parked his car.
“Oh my God!” he said out loud.
He looked up and down the road. No one was around, but there were the abandoned cars of dozens and dozens of patrons who never made it out of the club. He looked up into this one snow covered blue spruce tree that was right in someone’s front yard. There were several red cardinals sitting there like burning red ornaments. He turned and looked away.