Prince Rupert also meant Pop. When I returned, he still lived in his room in the grey-lumbered apartments on 8th Avenue, and I expect I crossed the ridge back of downtown to visit him there as I had before. But one day he turned up in our room in suspenders, no coat and no cap, and I vividly remember him sitting there, stooped in a wooden chair, telling what had happened.
There’d been a fire in his apartments. When it began and before it seemed serious, he was in the laundry room back of his own room, I suppose doing laundry at the old wringer washer or occupied in some other way at the industrial double sink.
A family occupied the rooms where Pop and I used to live. They shared access to the laundry room where Pop was working. The father from the family came in with his two infant children, and, explaining that a gas stove downstairs had caught fire (I suppose the building had upgraded from coal since 1958), he told Pop that he was going downstairs to fight it.
He carried his children through and placed them on Pop’s bed. Pop continued working in the back room, not giving much attention to what the father had said.
The father, after all, had left his children behind. How serious could the fire be?
Then Pop noticed smoke coming out of his room. It had already filled that space when he ran to it. He couldn’t see anything at all. Where were the children? He felt around on the bed and found one baby. He couldn’t find the other because of the smoke, and because of the smoke he couldn’t stay. He took the baby he’d found and brought it outside. He tried to go back, but the smoke stopped him, and when he tried again, somebody else stopped him.
And the other baby died.
The weight of that dead child bent my grandfather’s shoulders over because it was clear he thought he’d saved the wrong one. The older child, the one he’d rescued from the smoke, showed signs of Down’s syndrome. The other, the newest born, was visibly normal and healthy.
“I saved that ugly, stupid thing,” Pop said, “while that beautiful little baby died.”
My father and I went over to the site of the fire later that day. The building was distressed but still largely standing. Old Pop’s window was broken, and just inside the broken glass was a little box which contained one of my father’s service medals from World War II.
A man was standing around who’d been there while the fire was going on. The man explained to my father how Pop had tried to rush one more time into the smoke and how he, the man, had stopped him.
“It’s too late, George. It’s no use. The baby’s dead already. It’s too late.”
That fire and tragedy were my last story from 8th Avenue. I can no longer even precisely pinpoint where on that street Pop’s old address was located. After that day, Pop moved into a room off the entrance hall of the rooms above the Grand Café, and, until he was relocated into the home of Uncle Gus and Aunt Irene in Port Edward in his final days, he lived there for the rest of his life.
More than ever before, when I was in Prince Rupert, at least, those unlikely rooms resembled a home to me.