Fire Complex

Justin Bendell

Winner of the 2015 Washington Square Fiction Award, selected by Jacinda Townsend

Jerry Flagler met Tandy Lee Meyer at the end-of-the-world fire party in Steve Z’s backyard. This was June of 1977. The Radio Fire was tearing up the pine slopes of Elden Mountain and the smoke could be seen for miles. Everyone was feeling unsettled and apocalyptic. Jerry worked carpentry off and on since dropping out of school at seventeen and had a job with Sam framing houses at Golden Eagle Estates, a new gated development on Fort Valley Road. Jerry’s family had settled Flagstaff in the 1910s, back when it was not much more than a wilderness camp, and it was amazing to Jerry how fast the town was expanding in his own time. Though he appreciated the clean lines and geometric order of carpentry he felt awful razing wildflower meadows to construct second homes for Phoenix lawyers. But it paid, and Jerry needed the money.

She was standing under the aspens in the backyard, nursing a whiskey and soda away from the crowds on the patio. Jerry had dated a few girls, mostly from bars, but none seriously. An acquaintance of Sam’s bartender roommate, Tandy had come up from Phoenix to attend NAU. After a week backpacking in the San Francisco Peaks before senior year, she’d fallen in love with the mountains and, despite her mother’s pleas to return to the city, Tandy made Flagstaff her home.

Jerry loved her blonde curls and pale blue eyes, the way she held a cigarette, how she watched him coyly from behind her red Solo cup. He passed her the bottle of peach schnapps he’d been holding and asked her to walk. They went out to the road with the bottle and watched the fire lick the hills and the smoke gauze over the face of the moon. He told her about his stupid job and how he’d love to see that fire sweep down and devour Golden Eagle Estates. She aske if he was serious and he smiled and nodded. He’d never been honest with a woman before. Never felt so comfortable, so confident. She said he was funny, a really funny guy. He took her hand. They walked along the empty roads past the dark empty homes. They heard the sirens in the distance and the Forest Service helicopters thumping overhead. The air smelled of wood smoke. They spoke of fate and revelation, love and fire.

“It does feel like the end of the world,” she said.

He said, “Or the beginning.”

A year later, they were married at the tiny, A-shaped Church of the Holy Dove, a wedding chapel on the west side of town up Highway 180, not far from the homes Jerry had helped build. The church, constructed by a doctor in the 1960s, seated a couple dozen people. Tandy Lee Meyer, dressed in a Nepalese filigree gown, was as lovely as a woman could be. Jerry wore a powder-blue suit he bought the day before from Thrift-town. The church was a symbol of pride for the locals worn down by mill closures and high unemployment. At the reception, Steve Z’s bluegrass band, The High Plains Pickers, strummed and twanged long into the night and the happy couple danced under the pines. On stage, Sam saluted the Radio Fire, saying that had it not been for the fire, this union of two of his favorite people might never have happened. “To the fire,” he said. Everyone raised their glasses.

Jerry, now in his mid-40s, sits on the stump in his backyard and looks across the blue grama meadow to the mountains still crusted with snow. It is Saturday, his day off. He is smoking an unfiltered Camel from a pack he keeps hidden in a drawer in the shed—he promised Tandy he’d quit—and waits for her to call him to breakfast. Breakfast is the one thing they do together. There is a thin curl of smoke rising from the pines. It is so slight that Jerry mistakes it at first for a cloud but it is not a cloud. It is smoke. It is fire, first of the season. Jerry flicks his cigarette into the dirt, then opens the sliding door and goes inside.

“Baby,” he says, expecting her to be in the kitchen. “There’s a fire up in the hills, up by where we camped.”

There is a pot of eggs on the stove and a pile of dishes in the sink left from before their camping trip a week ago. Just the two of them. What a disaster that was. He had wanted to talk things out, maybe broach the subject of their marriage, maybe talk about their first son, Mason, but every time he opened his mouth she changed the subject or wandered off to be alone. He kept th campfire going, but there was little point. She was tired, she said, and turned in early.

The eggs click and clack in the pot. One of the eggs is cracked, and a white film collects on the water’s bubbling surface. A half-drunk mug of coffee on the Formica table. Jerry washes his hands with pear-scented soap, dips his head to the sink to rinse out the cigarette taste, and then heads down the brown-carpeted hallway. “Baby?”

He creaks open the bedroom door. The bedroom is empty, the bed unmade. On the nightstand is a picture of Jerry and Tandy from seventeen years back, camping packs perched over their heads, faces cherubic and joyful after three nights in the Red Rock Wilderness. A million years ago, he thinks, as he closes the bedroom door.

The sunroom’s door is open too. Jerry built this room with Tandy in mind. Wide bay windows, skylights, yellow-painted walls. It would be a place to sit with the baby and be a woman. Listen to talk radio. Maybe knit. Whatever it was she wanted to do. She turned it into a junk room. 

He looks out the window. The sky has taken on a sickly pallor as smoke hazes over the sun.

He passes Mason’s room, door closed, as it has been for fourteen years. They sought to preserve the room in its original state. Jerry has never entertained the idea of entering, afraid of what might well up, what he might find.

Trevor’s door, too, is closed, but Jerry can hear the buzz-saw guitars coming from his stereo. He wonders what Trevor would have been like with an older brother, if it would have made him different, easier to get along with. 

Tandy is in the bathroom. Jerry leans into the white door and listens. The faucet water is running. He hears Tandy laughing. He presses both palms to the door, nubby and cool to the touch. She laughs again.

“Tandy?” he says.

“Just a sec.” The toilet flushes. “Go check the eggs.”

She whispers now. Then she stops. She turns off the faucet. The lock unclicks and the door opens. Tandy’s in her pink pajamas, blonde hair pulled back into a bun. The cordless, Jerry can tell, is tucked into her waistband.

“Who were you talking to?” he says.

Tandy brushes past him. “I thought you had to pee.”

He follows her down the hall to the kitchen. “I heard you plain as day.”

Tandy dumps the eggs into a colander. “Oh, yeah? Then what’d you hear?” Her cotton pajama top had slipped to the left, revealing a soft slope of shoulder.

“Well—”

She takes a bowl out of the cabinet, puts two eggs into the bowl, and sets them on the table. “Sit down and eat.” She goes to the bedroom and gets dressed. When she returns, Jerry is finishing the first egg and starting the second. She is in her turquoise Lycra, black fleece vest, and running shoes. Jerry notices that she wears gold seashell earrings. He’s never seen them before.

“I gotta run to Basha’s. Make sure the boy eats.” She walks through the kitchen to the foyer, grabs her purse off the hook, and opens the door.

“Who were you talking to?” Jerry says.

He knows she is standing at the door. She is probably spinning her wedding ring in circles like she does.

“I was talking to Cathy.”

“Cathy,” he repeats. Her sister

She shuts the door with enough force to rattle the windows, but not enough to call it a slam.

 

Jerry darts from the kitchen to the living room, finds the phone, and calls Cathy. Tandy’s sister was once a jazz singer in Las Vegas but now lives in a polyamorous co-op in Tacoma, Washingtona dec with two men and their wives. Jerry doesn’t understand Cathy and rarely speaks to her. As the phone rings, he glances toward the mantle. Between the photo frames are rows and rows of tiny wooden men. Jerry whittled them from balsam after Mason’s death. The phone rings six times before someone answers.

“Yeah, what is it?” Cathy’s voice sounds like wet charcoal.

“It’s Jerry.”

“Jerry who?”

“Tandy’s Jerry. She said she called you.”

“What the hell you talking about?”

Jerry hangs up and wanders into the kitchen. He steadies himself at the sink. Tandy won’t even look at him anymore. He stares out the window to the cinder hills, then goes to Trevor’s room and knocks on the door.

“A sec,” Trevor says. 

He’s been given permission to sleep in on Saturdays in exchange for vacuuming the house. He rarely vacuums and Jerry rarely holds him to it. Trevor comes out in a Dead Kennedys T-shirt and heavy black knee-length shorts. He wears mascara and a leather dog collar around his neck.

“Kill the collar,” Jerry says.

Trevor rolls his eyes, removes the collar and sets it on his dresser amidst piles of dirty concert tees and CD cases. Jerry has yet to find evidence of pot— bowl, bong, bags, rolling papers—but he will. He is sure of it.

“Mom made eggs,” Jerry says.

“Eggs are disgusting.”

“Well, they’re on the counter. Eat ’em or don’t.”

Trevor goes to the kitchen. Jerry returns to his bedroom and closes the door. This isn’t the first time he’s suspected Tandy of cheating. Last week Jerry spotted Tandy’s car at Livewell Yoga Studio. It wasn’t a big deal, except that she wasn’t supposed to be at yoga. She said she was visiting a friend from work. When he asked her about it, she smiled and said he must have misheard her. While camping, he asked her if she still loved him. She stared at the campfire a full minute before nodding, tentatively, yes. Still, she didn’t say anything. She didn’t say, Yes, Jerry, I love you

Jerry bites his middle knuckle. Even when things are rough between them, and the rough times far exceed the good, that’s all he wants. Affirmation. Some of that is his own fault. He isn’t the easiest person to get along with. But, to his credit, he cut back on boozing and has tried to reestablish a presence. It isn’t easy with Tandy at yoga all the time and Trevor cloistered in his room, listening to screaming men. When the family does come together for a meal, they are like strangers, fork tines clinking ceramic and nothing said. It wasn’t always this way. In the early years, Tandy and Jerry had a baby to rear. But Trevor is thirteen now—how did he get so old? And so quick?

Jerry goes to the kitchen. Trevor is sitting on the table, pouring a bowl of cereal.

“You wanna go on a drive?” Jerry asks.

“Not really.”

“C’mon,” Jerry says. “Let’s check out that fire.”

“I gotta do the chores. Remember?

“Forget the chores,” Jerry says. “You can do them later.”

 

They take Turquoise up to Cedar, past the hulking pine trees in the red canyon, and follow Cedar past the hospital to Fort Valley Road.

“I thought the fire was out by Lockett.”

Jerry smiles, shakes his head. “It’s fine. We’re going this way. Just keep your eye on it.”

Trevor watches the mountains as Jerry pulls into the Basha’s Supermarket parking lot and circulates.

“What’re we doing?”

“Looking.”

“Are we gonna stop or what?”

Jerry doesn’t see her Buick. He pulls out onto Fort Valley Road and heads north. There are a dozen gray ribbons rising from the hills.

Jerry hits the pedal. They drive past the last of the apartment complexes where the ski bums lodge in winter. Soon the town tapers off and the forest opens into meadow.

They pass the Church of the Holy Dove.

“Your mother and I got married there,” Jerry says. 

“Yeah, I know.” 

Trevor switches the station to Hard 97, turns it up.

Ahead is a gas station and across from the station is the strip mall where Livewell Yoga Studio is located. Behind the gas station, partly concealed by a beige noise wall, is Golden Eagle Estates. Jerry slows and pulls into the narrow mall lot. Tandy’s Buick sedan is parked in front. 

“You see that,” Jerry says. “You see that?”

Trevor looks over and sees his mother’s car. “Mom’s doing yoga. She’s always doing yoga.”

“She said she was going to the grocery store.”

Trevor fiddles with the door lock. “Why’re we spying on Mom?”

“We’re not spying.”

“Oh.”

“Stay here a second.”

Jerry climbs out of the truck and slams the door and walks into the studio. Hey, hon, I was taking Trevor to see the fire . . . I was taking Trevor up to Snowbowl for some hiking . . . I was going on a drive . . .

“Can I help you?” A pert young lady sits stiffly at the sparsely decorated front desk. A dried purple flower in a vase. A stack of glossy pamphlets.

“I was looking for Tandy Lee Flagler.”

“I’m sorry, she’s not here.”

“I’m her husband.”

“She’s not here.”

“Well, her car’s in the lot. It’s right there.” He points to it.

“I’m sorry, sir.”

Jerry rubs the back of his neck. “I’d like to speak with the yogi. Roger. Can I speak with him?”

“What is it referring to?”

“To Tandy Lee Flagler.”

“I’m sorry, sir, he’s not here either.”

 

 Jerry pulls the parking brake, opens his door, and steps down. The air is thick with smoke. He struggles not to gag. Trevor comes around the truck.

“What’re we doing here?” he says.

They are a half-mile south of the yoga studio, parked at the access lot to the Coconino Trail. Jerry used to come here with a twelve-pack, get drunk, and watch the birds. Ravens. Steller’s jays. Nutcrackers. This was after Mason died. The desolate years. Having Trevor was supposed to change all that. Jerry bends his legs at the knees a couple times, raises his arms to the sky, fingers extended.

“Just stretching,” Jerry says.

“You’re acting weird.”

“Weird?” Jerry laughs nervously. “This coming from a kid who wears a dog collar. When’s the last time we hiked?”

Trevor shrugs. “Never.”

“Never?” Jerry says, and shakes his head. “Bullshit.”

Jerry and Tandy used to walk the mile loop at Buffalo Park when Trevor was in a stroller. They would walk and talk, listen to meadowlarks calling from the dry brown stems. Was that the last time he’d been out with his boy?

“You don’t even know my birthday.”

Jerry smiles. Of course he knows his boy’s birthday. April 23rd. His lips are half-parted when he pauses and lowers his eyes. Mason’s birthday was April 23rd.

“January 17th,” he says, finally. He begins walking.

“Took long enough,” says Trevor, following behind him.

Jerry walks ahead through the tall stands of ponderosa pine. He thinks of his own father, Bern, now thirty years gone. A drunken, boisterous man, his fathe worked in the lumber industry, first as a jack and later in the sawmills, turning the great pine forests of the Mogollon Rim into board feet and sawdust. He wasn’t home much. When he was, Jerry stayed out of his way. He was afraid of his father, whose thick beard and heavy brow looked menacing in the firelight. His mother couldn’t have been more different. A tall, sad woman, she never raised her voice, even when the winds were howling. How she fell in with a man like Bern, Jerry will never know. His father didn’t dislike him, but he didn’t seem to care for Jerry either. He never invited Jerry along on one of his wild-man adventures, never took him to the woods. Maybe things would have been different if he had. Maybe his father would have been closer to the family had he been more a part of it. Maybe then he wouldn’t have done what he did. But of course this was a long time ago. It was best not to think of things that happened a long time ago. No use crying over spilled milk.

The trees groan in the wind. They walk up the narrow dirt path through the lemonberry and New Mexico locust, Jerry far in the lead. 

“C’mon, slowpoke,” he calls.

A Steller’s jay flits to a high branch and makes a shrill call. Trevor has paused to adjust his pants. Jerry keeps walking. At a fork in the trail, Jerry turns toward the half-obscured roofs of Golden Eagle Estates. One of these houses belongs to Roger. Jerry looked him up in the phonebook after the incident last week. He likes to stay ahead of things. Now he wants to see the house, to be sure. He can hear Trevor behind him, his wallet chain jangling as he tries to catch up.

“Isn’t seeing houses kind of the opposite of a nature hike?” Trevor says.

“It’s part of the whole thing.”

“Still,” Trevor says.

“I helped build these homes back before you were born. I was building them when I met your mother.”

“They’re big.”

“Ugly monstrosities. I’m embarrassed to have been a part of it.”

Jerry paces himself up a steep berm to a meadow of grama and needle-andthread and pauses, catching his breath. He smokes too much. He’ll need to quit for his son. Or he should want to. This is something he has to keep reminding himself. In the distance, at the meadow’s edge, is a thicket of raspberries. Maybe he should take Trevor over there. Why worry about the house? He should take more time for his son, focus on what’s here and important. Th boy’s probably never been berry-picking. And it’s June, so there might be some young fruit now. But then Jerry hears it. Hears her laughter from somewhere down slope.

He scans through the branches to the homes nearest the forest edge. They are all the same—a mix of Victorian and ski-lodge architectural features. He spots her opening the passenger door of a silver Cadillac. Her hair is down, vest unzipped. Roger climbs into the driver’s seat. Jerry watches Tandy pull her door shut as Roger backs out the driveway.

Jerry studies the house, the bistro furniture, the gas grill on Roger’s redwood deck. Jerry built this deck. Fifteen years ago. He remembers wondering who the hell needed a fifty-foot-wide deck. What kind of asshole needed a deck like that?

“What’re you looking at?” Trevor asks.

Jerry looks at his son, his pale blue eyes and cheekbones like his mother’s.

“Oh, nothing.” Jerry turns. “Thought I saw a chickadee.”

A low-flying helicopter passes overhead toward the fire. Father and son gaze after it till it disappears beyond the foothills. Black smoke blends into the gray.

“Fire’s getting bigger,” Trevor says.

Jerry wonders if Tandy is thinking about the fire. He wonders what kinds of thoughts come into her head. He doesn’t even know. He wonders how she could betray him like this. He wonders how bad it’ll get.

He rubs his son’s head. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

They walk back to the truck.

 

Jerry sits on his stump, his pack of Camels on the adjacent stump. Trevor is inside doing the chores, or, more than likely, not doing the chores. Jerry should check, but he doesn’t care. What’s the point? Tandy is still gone. He sits and smokes and waits for her to come home.

A helicopter pulses over the house and the meadow en route to the fire. On the way home, Jerry heard the radio update: zero percent containment, but the Forest Service and city officials are confident that, with good weather, they’ll wrangle the fire before the weekend is over. He can’t get Tandy’s laughter out of his head, like some prostitute. He thinks about his father and his mother and then he stops thinking about them.

He hears a car coming up the drive. He can tell that Buick a mile away, th loose beige paneling on the left side clapping against the undercarriage. He waits for the car door to slam, for the jangle of keys as she walks to the front door. He wants her to see him with his cigarettes. He wants her to see him smoking and feel shame because she’s the reason. She will say, Jerry. He will grin and look at her hard and his grin will fade and he will say: Your words are . . . What will he say? He wants to get it right. He wants to make a real impact. She will set her bag on the table and make the rounds and then she will come out to the patio. He lights another cigarette, blows into the yellow air. He can smell the fire smoke now, even out here, miles from the fire. The city is hushed, like everyone is holding their breath. Just like 1977.

Jerry’s neighbor Bill is out on his patio, looking toward the mountains. He waves to Jerry and Jerry waves back. Bill looks nervous. Another helicopter passes over, this one lugging a red tarp full of water. Tandy isn’t coming out. Jerry drops his cigarette and steps it out and goes inside. Tandy is in the kitchen putting away groceries. Trevor is helping.

“Oh, here he is,” she says, angry. “What were you doing spying on me?”

She holds a can of condensed milk in her right hand. Jerry looks to his son and Trevor returns his stare for a brief moment before turning his attention to the grocery bag.

“I—what?” Jerry says.

“Dad—,” Trevor says.

“Trevor, leave the kitchen,” she says. 

Jerry shakes his head and glowers at his wife. “I saw you.”

“You saw me? I can’t believe this, Jerry! Involving Trevor in your dirty work.”

“We went on a hike. We weren’t—,” Trevor says.

It’s too late, boy, Jerry thinks.

“Trevor, I told you to leave.”

Trevor slides out from behind the table.

“No,” Jerry says, to his son. “Don’t go. I want you to see her try to worm out of this.” Jerry takes a step toward his wife. “I saw you with the yogi.”

She shakes her head.

“Dad . . .” Trevor says.

“I built you this fucking house.”

“And I’ve been raising your son—” Tandy looks to Trevor, then returns her gaze on Jerry.

“Oh, c’mon.”

“You followed me to Margie’s last month. Did he come with you then, too?”

“I had good reason for that. I heard the message.”

Tandy laughs. “Yeah. You went looking for some Jack Cowboy to pound and found squat.”

“She sounded like a man.”

“And so what if she was? I need something in my life. You checked out after Mason . . .”

The kitchen fills with silence. The sink drips. There were so many things he’d been meaning to fix.

“I can’t do this.” Tandy’s wrist is upturned, still holding the can. She looks at the ceiling. “We can’t do this.”

Trevor rushes out of the kitchen. Jerry watches him turn the corner, hears him thump down the hall. Hears a door slam. Jerry points a finger at his wife. And balks. He looks to the space where Trevor used to be. 

“What?” he says. 

“You heard me.”

“But I built you this house.”

“I didn’t marry a house,” she says. 

 

Jerry sits in the truck in the driveway, smoking a cigarette. He notes how strangely beautiful the house is in the eerie yellow light. He designed and built it on his own, selected pine board from a guy out in Show Low, collected sandstone from a dry creek bed near Sedona. It as the fulfillment of a promise made to Tandy, to build her dream home if she married him. It took him a year and a half to finish, Jerry working late at night after his day job, using a gaspowered spotlight to cut through the dark. It feels like a thousand years ago, all that, when their love was something palpable and electric.

He drives to The Post and buys a twelve-pack of Bud, then heads south, flooring it on Lake Mary Road past the shrinking reservoir and Mormon Lake and the looming dark pines arched over the road like malevolent ushers. The sun is falling and the clouds are drenched in orange light. He opens a can and drinks it and tosses the can out the window. Then he opens another. He comes to the rutted dirt road along the Mogollon Rim, the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. He parks his truck under the Douglas firs and gets out. He stumbles to the cliff edge.

One thousand feet below are the blinking lights of Pine and Strawberry and Payson, the rolling juniper hills and the growing darkness beyond. Ravens twist and weave in the updraft. A baby dies and that’s all you can do. A thin red line in the west. Wounded light. Jerry thinks of Steve Z’s fire party. Tandy standing under the aspens in Sam’s backyard. Back then there was no Mason, no Trevor, no mistakes.

Jerry tears off his T-shirt and tosses it over the edge. It catches in the updraft, balloons like a jellyfish, and snags on a branch. Jerry drops to the rough, cool limestone.

What he lost is impossible.

In the moss-damp trees, ravens croak in anticipation. He stands, boots balanced on the cliff edge. On the count of three. 

One. He crouches, feels the cool wind on his face. 

Two. He swings his arms. 

Three.

He stands there, legs bent, arms swinging like pendulums, frozen. 

Jerry thinks to Tandy in her wedding dress, holding a bouquet of asters against the moonlit slopes. 

“What do I do?” he shouts. This is the first time speaking to God since he lost his son.

The light of the falling sun hits a high cloud and fills the sky with flame.

 

It is late when he pulls into the trailhead parking lot. Sirens in the distance, fire aglow on the mountain. The stars are out, faint through the haze. He drinks the remaining two beers. They are warm, but it doesn’t matter. He can’t even taste them. He climbs out of the truck, vomits in the dirt, wipes his mouth with a sleeve. He is going to. That son of a bitch . . . he is going to. He reaches into the truck bed and pulls out the gas can. 

He trudges up the trail in the dark, his boots scuffing the soil. He sees his wife ordering him around, making him feel like a failure. He sees Trevor in the kitchen ratting him out. And poor beautiful Mason, love of his life, curled and blue in his tiny crib. That boy would have loved him like no other. That boy was his saving grace. 

Jerry makes it to the meadow. Losing his footing, he tumbles down the embankment to the chain-link fence surrounding Roger’s yard. He tosses the gas can over, then struggles over it himself. He weaves across the yard, fighting gravity, guided by the dim light of the windows. Halfway to the house, the spotlights click on. Jerry goes blind in the fierce white light. Hand over his eyes, he scuttles to the side-yard fence, follows it to the shadows, and hunkers. 

He waits for Roger. He is ready for him. But no one comes out to face him. The night is quiet and the light clicks off and Jerry is returned to darkness. He slinks along the foundation to the rear wall and follows the wall carefully. He uncaps the gas can. Zigs and zags the pine needles under the redwood deck and along the wall. The sharp tang of petrol mixes with the wood smoke from the fire. His head spins. Goddamn you, he thinks. Goddamn you and your goddamn house. Then he lights a match, and runs for it.

 

The next morning, Jerry walks into the Beaver Street Diner, orders trout and eggs and coffee. He has slept in the truck off a forest road a short way from town. He is bleary and tired and reeks of gasoline. His head aches as he adjusts his eyes to the front page of the Daily Sun: “Second Fire Joins First; Complex at 40,000 acres; Evacuations Likely.”

Jerry sets the paper down. A man at the counter is talking to the waitress. “Hot shots’re gonna earn their paychecks today.”

The waitress refills the man’s coffee.

“Damn thing burned the little old church out there on Fort Valley. Started out behind the Golden Eagle and hopped the road.”

“Burned down that little church? I love that church,” the waitress says.

Jerry picks at his trout bones.

“Yeah,” the man says. “Hear they’re evacuating the mesa. Wouldn’t be surprised if we all get evacuated.”

Jerry looks up. “They’re evacuating the mesa?”

The man turns. “Yeah, that’s what I said.”

Jerry drops a twenty on the table and rushes out. He needs to get home.

Jerry takes Route 66 east, winds up the mesa past Buffalo Park. The sky is choked with thick yellow smoke. He didn’t mean for it to spread. He didn’t mean for things to get out of hand. He navigates past a cluster of fire trucks. There are gas-masked men out in the grass with Pulaskis, digging trenches.

After the funeral, Jerry and Tandy had walked Buffalo Park. There were grasshoppers everywhere. She was pale and shaky then. They had buried Mason in such a tiny box, and Tandy kept saying she couldn’t get the smallness of it out of her head.

“What do we make of this?” she said.

Jerry had no answers. They buried him next to Jerry’s parents, a family plot undeserving of the name. He shrugged at his wife. He didn’t have an answer. She reached for his hand and squeezed. Her hand was cold. Jerry didn’t know what to say. He tried to hold his wife’s arm steady, keep her walking. Just keep walking.

She was sick with the need to talk about Mason. She carried his tiny blue blanket around the house. What was there to say? They had had a dream and made a baby and lost the baby and it was the worst damn feeling in the world, but what good did talking do? Instead, Jerry sat in the backyard, whittling lumberjacks out of balsam. There were hundreds of them on the mantle. Hundreds of little whittled men. For a while, she would sit with him as he whittled. But eventually she stopped. She started staying out after work, getting drunk at the bars. She’d come home late, stumble around. Jerry was sleeping on the couch then, afraid of being in the bedroom where she’d get to talking. Sometimes, she’d come into the living room, fall into him, and weep.

When she got pregnant again, Jerry was sure their problems were over. 

A police interceptor is parked across Cedar Avenue, blocking traffic. Jerry pulls up.

“Roads closed,” the cop says.

“My house is up there.”

“Evacuations have been ordered. I can’t let you back.”

“But my wife’s up there. My kids.”

“They’ve been notified.”

“What the hell are you saying?”

“I’m saying you better turn this truck around and go down the hill.”

Jerry rolls up his window, eyeing the cop gravely. Then he puts his truck in gear and revs the engine up the curb and around the squad car and back into the road.

There are lots of sirens. Fire trucks on East Meadow Road. A chopper passes over, its shadow flickering across the meadow like a ghost. The yellowbrown sky casts the Earth in ungodly light. There are firefighters in the street, in the yards, spraying down roofs.

He pulls into his driveway. The Buick is gone.

He walks into the kitchen and pulls a glass of water from the tap. Flame are licking the treetops at the meadow’s edge as men dig a fireline. The winds are too strong. The men drop back, retreat to the road.

The hallway is dark as smoke drifts past the windows of the house. Jerry’s pulse quickens. They abandoned the house. They abandoned Mason.

His feet carry him before his mind can process what he is doing. He opens Mason’s bedroom door. He has not seen inside since the day. The blinds are pulled taut, but the fire outside casts the room in red-gold light. The blue crib in the corner, the handcrafted dresser. One of its drawers regularly jammed— it was something Jerry planned to fix; it was on his list. The toy chest, painted green, a heart carved into the oak wood. 

Jerry lies on the floor in the room. The shingles have caught fire. Smoke is seeping through the windows. Jerry coughs. He is tired. Maybe he will take a nap on the floor. Go see Mason.

A loud blast pulls him out of sleep, the deep muffled voice of a man.

“We gotta get you out of here.”

Jerry is hoisted and spun, taken up in thick arms. He feels the roughness of the man’s soot-stained coat on his cheek. He burrows in. There are other men in the house, saving it.

My son.

He tries to say the words, but his throat is dry as chalk. He begins to sob as the fireman carries him down the hall. The shame, his failure.

“It’s all right, buddy,” the firefighter says.

As Jerry is carried through the living room, the dining room, the smoke lends a sepia quality to everything—the sofa, the faded curtains, the whittled men on the mantle. He sees Mason crawling on the carpet in his diaper till the image fades. Jerry’s sobs subside. He feels a surge of something else. He buries his face in the firefighter’s warm thick jacket. In these firm even steps, the gruff shouts to the other men, Jerry finds relief. He will never see any of it again. He will never have to bear these burdens. As the firefighter moves through the front doorway, he ducks so Jerry’s head doesn’t hit the frame. Jerry tries to wave to the house, but his arm is pinned. It doesn’t matter. He begins to cry again.

“Don’t worry, fella. We got you. We got you, all right.”

 

 

JUSTIN BENDELL is a writer, musician, and educator living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A fiction editor for Sliver of Stone Magazine, his stories and poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Mason’s Road, Sojourns, and elsewhere. He has an MFA from Florida International University and a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Right now, he is thinking about tallgrass, black metal, and/or tacos.