By Dana Grantham
The fire hissed unmentionable things as I listened intently to every word until it puffed out a big cloud of smoke at me. Something else was smoking too and smelled like burning rubber. I looked down to see my shoe was starting to catch on fire. Next would be my head, with all of its wicked and wrong thoughts. As I had been watching my life burn, I wondered if the rest of the small crowd gathered in my brother’s back yard were watching it burn too. I looked around to see that they were; including someone’s small child who was sitting in my lap and whose eyes held steady the reflection of the flames. I clutched tighter the beer I had been holding for God knows how long now. I took a long hard swallow for the sake of not wasting the brand name someone else had paid for; and for the sake of the child in my lap and my new baby niece who was inside asleep in her crib and for my own lost soul. The rest of the beer I used to save my only pair of shoes. A good pair of shoes they were too. They had gone for miles with me on my wretched drunken adventures and would continue on for many more miles (until the new puppy years later.) I didn’t deserve them. They were expensive and had a good soul—much too good to carry around the shell of a person that was in them.
My brother was only twenty three and an honor college student. Now he has a ready- made family by this bitch I have to be nice to, even though I don’t like her. I was two years older than he was and I had already dropped out of college to become a full blown alcoholic and slut. I loved the attention and power I got from having sex. There seemed to be an understanding that it was only for one night and in the morning they would have to leave. I never took money for my favors, just the satisfaction of knowing I had given them something that they couldn’t give me in return (feeling).
This new guy I met says he’s really in love with me though, and I can’t seem to shake him. I thought he was beautiful from his down-turned, thick lips to his nine inches (measured exactly) of perfect penis. I moved two states down with him and lived on “love” for two years. Don’t look back, some of the heads that didn’t burn said, and I never did. We nearly froze to death and burned up in an old mobile home Alex paid the rent on with his job at the liquor store. I got bored and began noticing an old church house for colored people (by colored I mean black, but in Louisiana it’s hard to tell). It was just across the road. It seemed they went to church a lot and stayed for a lot of hours so I got brave enough to walk over one Saturday when they were having church. I got “the spirit, “as they called it, somehow. All I knew was that I was changed forever.
Open the window and breathe again. The butterflies are dancing around that bush I planted that I don’t know the name of, still. They say everything is just fine in their world. Why can’t everyone be like them? Just minding their own business, spreading their beauty through lives is all they have to do. I see the ugly stumps that the bulldozer left on the property next door of this developing neighborhood and I wonder when the men will be back to finish their job. They left a lot of beer cans on the stumps. I’ll probably have to burn them myself less they should be in my view forever.
Shut the window now. Get that ugly outside world gone. I hate it when I can’t take it anymore. Everyday it’s the same mess: that half drank cup of coffee from this morning, still sitting on the desk; the same pile of dirty laundry and bills; feed the damned cat; take the child to school; feed the child; love the child. I see my poor pregnant cat, loaded to the gills, like she’s about to pop. I see she’s distressed so I place my tired body in the floor beside her, rub my hand over her tummy and feel baby kittens fighting. She gives me a look and I understand completely. I stroke her furry tummy some more and assure her that this will never happen again. I am suddenly renewed with energy and feel like I can conquer the world again. I look at the red devil eyes telling me it is 10:52, with the dot on the PM and I smirk at them. I still have a lot of homework to do (imagine going back to college after all of these years; with all of these grown-up responsibilities.) I didn’t care. I had found a pool of knowledge and I drank every bit I could hold. So, the red devil eyes got me anyway, three hours later, screeching horrible things louder and louder in my ear. Reality hits harder every day. Sometimes I wonder why in the hell I’m even here or if I am here. I feel invisible at times. Only two more semesters, I remind myself. Right now a job at McDonald’s was looking pretty good compared to all of this school work. I stuck my head all the way out the window at the drive through one day and peered inside to see what my job would be–even though I knew they wouldn’t hire me. No experience.
That was the worst whipping I ever got from my Daddy. Actually it was the only one that I really remember besides that other one that I think I got but if I did I don’t know what it was for. This one I remember because of the horrible circumstances that surrounded it. First of all I had an accomplice, my favorite cousin, who would have to suffer consequences with me. We tried to outrun our crime on our bicycles that we were just learning to reach peddles on; but they caught us. One of my Mother’s brothers—not the one we stole the matches from—the one with the shiny new mustang– came up and put the fire out with a shovel as he laughed at us, somewhat proudly, I thought, and puffed on his cigarette. Daddy had come to pick me up after work and was looking at the smoking chair sitting next to the house that my two uncles and grandparents lived in. I could see he was getting the thorough explanation when I approached. He was pulling off his belt. I was shocked. He was terribly mad or he whipped me for showing he was sorry I had done this awful deed. Either way it must’ve hurt something awful because I wanted my Mommy and I could never remember wanting her before.
Now what was that they said about chronological order? I let a clump of grass burn around the pear trees before spraying it out with the water hose and lighting another one. It had gotten too tall last year after the third lawn mower had broken down. I was proud of my small pear orchard. I may have to live on them one of these days. I had known a little about writing before; but now things had changed. Why did I have to pick this minor of all things? Well it wasn’t really that I picked it. It was the only one left, so here we were in our first semester of “writing” and I was already running out of bullshit. Too much reality had crept in since that famous story I had written in fifth grade. The last story I wrote included the death of a relative and it actually happened. Well, we could all see it was coming, but still. It was starting to make me wonder what these writing classes were doing to me. It was coming to the point where I almost couldn’t distinguish what was real from what I just thought was real. I noticed the dog talking one day—in his own language of course— and thought perhaps there was a story there. I’m sure there was—a best seller probably– but I couldn’t pull it out of my ass just then.
I began to feel like a walking novel with all of these writing classes. The flowers danced in the wind…..were quivering under the cold rain drops……said good morning with their sweet scent. Why did I hate pansies so much? At least I could remember their name. Maybe that’s why I hated them—the name alone. Or maybe it was the fact that they could bloom through a snow storm that I resented them so.
No one called anymore. I had quit drinking and being a slut after my two year trip out of the state with poor Alex, who thought he loved me. I had learned my lesson, but it seemed no one else I knew had. I had been back for three years, working hard as a secretary, in a good paying job; but couldn’t stand the sexual harassment from the boss so I moved on. I was such a fanatic now about Jesus and doing the right thing and all of that good stuff but no one wanted to hear it.
I must’ve been on that couch for a month now. Being an apartment manager was gravy work. I didn’t really realize how stagnant I had become until Ray stopped by one day. I heard the rake scratching outside around the sidewalks. Finally, I peeped out the blinds to see that he had already lit a pile of them and was chatting with the old man who lived next door. He later explained that in the old days (at least in the South) that raking or sweeping was a way of showing respect when someone had a death in the family. Lord knows I could use some help anyway. He wondered in and popped open a beer so close to my face that the spray hit my top lip. I still didn’t move.
“You know what you need?” He finally blurted. I wondered if my horoscope had said anything about an unwanted visitor today. I gave up on horoscopes too. Some things they just couldn’t predict. Like the fact that your only sister was going to be murdered by a date rapist and thrown in some pond where cows probably shit and piss. (Woops, I hope that didn’t really happen; but it probably did, at least in a round- about way.) I pulled my dead body and soul up a little straighter. Ray and I had been friends for so long we didn’t really have to speak—almost like kin. He had lost one of his brothers to AIDS, so I trusted he knew some of what I was going through.
“Come on, get off your ass!” he said, grabbing another beer out of his small cooler and pointing it at me like a loaded gun. I just looked at him, without moving and he set the beer on the coffee table and plopped down beside me on the couch. How did I ever get to be such friends with such a loser? And don’t touch me you stupid asshole were some of the thoughts I was having right about then.
“Put your high heels and mini skirt on and let’s hit the dance floor. It’ll do you good.” Well, he gave it his best shot. God bless him. I told him there were no good bars around here anymore and I didn’t do the VFW and besides I had quit drinking.
“It’s New Year’s Eve and you’re going! There’s going to be a good rock band there.” He protested. I started thinking about Memphis and ZZ Top and Lynard Skynard, Bob Segar, and all the rest—some better than others and I really questioned his “rock band.” There was no threat of going out with Ray. He was ten years older than me and had already had his heart broken, was scared of women, and I’m pretty sure hated his mother. He wasn’t gay though and he was a pretty good dancer for a straight guy and a real good listener. How he managed to be this way I did not know. We had a blast at the party, where I saw a different side of him. Afterwards, back at my apartment, we fell into it on the couch before I knew what was happening. So was the end of my three year celibacy and with Ray! We would go out again two years later for my thirtieth birthday, and that is when I met my future ex-husband, Bryan. Ray suddenly turned into this person I didn’t know. Even though he knew we would never be an item (he was too fucked up in his mind to be an item with any woman) he was acting jealous! I had to tell him, though, and everyone else that this man was it for me. He was THE ONE. The words bar fly, loser, liar, and everything else all meant nothing to me. Everyone was just jealous that they hadn’t found this perfect chemistry that I had found with Brett. Besides, there was no way I could have resisted. He had that kind of thick, unruly head of hair that I adored, he made love to me like I was the only woman in the world, and my biological clock was ticking. Perfect.
Bryan didn’t mean to set the neighborhood on fire. He was an idiot though, if I do say so myself. We didn’t know that someone had put an aerosol can in the trash during our Christmas feast. I was still bummed out that his family had come and it was my first time doing the meal at my place and I forgot to serve the drinks and his grandmother had to fix my gravy that was going the wrong way. When you lived out in the country and burned your trash in a barrel in the middle of a dry February, with the wind blowing like crazy, in a yard surrounded by a grass field, an aerosol can is your worst enemy. I mean anybody would know that.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” I said. “It’s awful windy today.”
“Oh hell, what are you worried about?” famous last words. When it exploded, I had never seen fire go in so many directions at once. I picked up a nearby pan of water and dropped it, as I saw the raging flames begin to engulf our yard and head across the path. I ran in to see if there was anyone home at 9-1-1 in this poe dunk town. There was indeed one fire truck but two other fires on the loose right at the moment. Time for battle. The neighbors began moving cars out of their driveway. We managed to save their house with a wet mop from their front porch, two rakes, and I think someone took off their shirt. The flames licked me good on my exposed neck. I ran in the house to grab the baby, who was just walking, off the middle of the kitchen table, with its mouth full of caramels.
Everyone in the entire neighborhood was standing around on the side of the road, watching this spectacle and waiting to see if the fire was going to reach that open field and eat their homes. I was amazed at the power of the blaze that wouldn’t stop. The po-dunkville fire truck arrived with just enough water to put out the circle headed towards the woods. Our new neighbor just politely asked if we minded if he got some homeowner’s insurance before we burned our trash again. It was not a good way to welcome the new neighbors but it was the beginning of a lasting, friendly relationship. Bryan and I gathered up our baby, whom the neighbor girl had been holding –with her own baby and went back in and plopped back down in our living room; exhausted. We both stared at each other for a long time with an expression that neither of us had ever had before or since. It was one of surrender, I think.
It was nearing the end of the semester that was the last one before the very last one and things were already looking bleak for finishing. News came in from various relatives that my mother was acting strangely. I drove two hundred miles to our home town to check on her. She seemed fine when I got there but the next day she came down the hallway holding a packed suitcase saying she wanted to go home—demanding to go home! Oh God. I had seen this devil before and had read about it too. It was the beginning stages of that old Alzheimer’s disease. Damn it! Well, there seemed but one thing to do at the time, since I was probably one of the main contributing factors to her on-set of mental illness. I convinced her that she should move in with me and she could use her extra money to take a trip “home.”
This lasted for several months, in which time she had set the kitchen curtains on fire, packed several suitcases, made numerous long distance calls to someone in Mississippi with the last name of Coleman, whom she was convinced, was her family, and then she began hallucinating about some men chopping cotton. This wouldn’t even make a good story for one of those writing classes. It wouldn’t even make a good story for publication. I had to drop out. I was failing algebra anyway. What did they think I was a mathematician in disguise? I could always go back to college and this was the last I would ever see of what was left of my only mother. It all ended when the now half-grown child and I walked into the kitchen one morning and she was standing there naked, pouring oatmeal on herself and demanding that we get out of her house.
The decision was final, now. She had to go into a full care facility. I took her to a local one but I knew I couldn’t stay in this town anymore. Something here was final—over and done with. After I dropped her off I came home and laid on my bed and buried myself in all of the papers I had collected from the three years in school and all the newspapers and things like that I could find and didn’t move from my trance until my baby came home from school and asked me what in the world this was for.
“Bring me the gas. I’m going to set myself on fire.” I said. I didn’t mean it but drama classes must’ve been paying off. She called her uncle Mark on her Dad’s side, crying and carrying on and told him she was scared for me.
During my stay at this new type of institution (to rest) they said, they encouraged us to write down our feelings. Keep a journal they always said in therapy. I stayed to myself mostly. So much for the psychology major. I suppose even therapists need therapists sometimes. Don’t they? I wrote some poetry to convey the bad and sad feelings I was having. One lady really liked my poetry. So, through the friend of an acquaintance’s husband, who was the president of some television studio, I got two of them turned into songs. One turned into a very bold rap song, with some curse words and the other a very sad country song. I sold them fairly cheap and gave up all copy rights. It’s okay. The bands were no names and the songs were never played on the radio; but it was enough to make a new start.
The fire hisses unmentionable things, now in a faster, more familiar tone. As I sit at the fireplace in my more comfortable home, now. I am happy with my life and my new job I got with my Associates of Liberal Arts. I think about my niece’s high school graduation coming up in a couple of months. She is such a beautiful girl—looks like my brother. I want to look as good as I can for the event. I am considering a new dress. I know I’ll cry no matter what, just like I did at her kindergarten graduation. I’m already crying. She’s acquired a few hours of college credits so she will go straight on to some University in Missouri, where she is planning on becoming a veterinarian. I can’t even imagine it or anything else to do with blood and guts. Something about the sight of it lays me out cold. I tried to overcome it but I never could.
Ray and the rest of ‘em are still around. They just sit around waiting on the first of the month for their checks, now, so they can start the party again. When no one cares about you it’s a safe place to be. They don’t have to worry about what you think about them not caring about you. I know. I’m not one for playing it safe though. That’s why I know I’ll never end up like Ray and them—even though I can see where their position deserves respect. Maybe it has something to do with that good old whipping Daddy gave me. If you’re going to burn bridges make sure you do it right—I guess is what he was saying. I would like to say more, but as it stands time and circumstances will not allow it. One day, when I have more time, I would like to tell my real story, just as it really happened.