Monday, November 01, 2010

Old Fires, Chapter One

By Joshua P. Sheridan

The young widower was well drunk by the time he stopped his truck on the side of the hill. He leaned his temple against the steering wheel and looked out onto the property. The rutted front yard. The trail, overgrown, stretching its way down the side of the hill past birch and box elder till it ran into the river. The trailer sagged on its hip with the weight of dead leaves and acorns. Its back was pressed tight against a wall of limestone and shale, a million years of forest crushed beneath itself over and again.

He took easy steps through the mud and steadied himself on the mirror, pulled his dad’s rucksack to the ground and dragged it to the stoop. The plastic windows in the front door had been punched out. He reached in one and flipped the deadbolt and the door swung open. A sheet of dust kicked up from the carpet and backed away. On the back wall a tarp covered something large and square. When he lifted a corner he saw that it was a fishtank, its sides blackened by algae and the bodies of beetles and flies. He coughed and almost threw up, ran to the door to spit the acid off his tongue.

He spent that first evening spinning, shaking his head, trying to turn the trailer into a respectable place to die.

He picked clumps of dog fur out of the carpet and scooted what might have been chicken bones toward the wall with the heel of his boot. A television set lay on its busted face in the corner of the front room, fallen from the seat of a wicker chair. He set it upright and put an empty vase on top of it. There was a mattress rested against the wall of the back bedroom that smelled of mud and urine and he flopped it onto the floor and threw his jacket on it.

The things they’d left behind were random: a collection of beer bottles on the kitchen windowsill, a tube sock stuffed with pennies hanging from a nail on the wall, a potato with eyes like fingers in the basin of the sink. A nicotine stain, tan and misshapen, on the ceiling above where the couch must have been.

He pulled his things out of the ruck in the living room floor. He hadn’t bothered with much. He had a camp stove with a half-full tank, a few warm beers, whatever was left in the fridge, a toothbrush and a bar of soap stolen from the downstairs bathroom at home. He spread out a newspaper he found on top of the toilet and laid his things in the floor beside him.

That night he sat on the stoop and drank one of the beers. He thought he could hear traffic on Interstate 64, headed east toward Lewisburg or west toward California. Over that, the July flies, their clacking like marbles falling onto concrete. A hundred million stars flickered between naked branches above the trailer and an airplane’s beacon light wove in and out, connecting the dots of all the old fires burning quietly, comfortably away.

Sometime in the early morning he woke to screaming in the trees. In his rousting, he thought of a woman wailing, an abandoned baby rolling senseless down the hill toward the river, a wolf gone mortally wounded by her mate. He stood and came through the dirty brown air of the morning and listened with his ear just out the door. Looked out into the slate grey night for the body of a murdered girl or a ghost. When the screaming started again he saw its shape – a screech owl, its great wings spread away from itself, rocked from foot to foot on the branch of a nearby tree. Beside her, a nest of wrapped twigs and vine. She was calling into nothing for her lover to return with food and he thought how she might wait all night, might wait forever, that she and her chicks might still be unsatisfied if he ever showed up at all.

“It might not work out for you,” he said, and went back inside.

The southern sun burned through to the ground in spindles, twined through kudzu and wrapped around tree trunks. Its sparks flipped over the edges of waves in the river. He sat in the sand with his toes buried down in it, eating a blackened banana and squeezing drops out of a juicebox Annie had left behind. He hung his head down between his legs. He’d slept little after his short conversation with the owl, and had focused instead for hours on a white spot on the floor beside him, lit by a slice of moonlight that came in through a crack between the wall and the window frame. It was a human tooth, and all night he wondered whose it might have been.

For lunch he fixed a can of brown beans over the camp stove and drank another beer. He ate as best he could with one hand and with the other he loaded a revolver that he wedged between his knees. It was an oily old .44 that had belonged to his grandfather and had eventually ended his grandfather’s life. After lunch, he would walk the woods, back down the river and around its bank a couple of miles, to the fire tower above Cold Knob. He could climb the hill and see what he needed to see from the tower and be back to the trailer before sundown.

Writer Joshua P. Sheridan is one of six writers in the "Writing in Motion" project, on Lori Cullen's Times Union blog. Each writer is committed to finishing a book by the end of the year. This piece is the first chapter in Sheridan's novel, called "Old Fires."

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