When the volunteer fire department trains its new recruits each year, he is the man who teaches them to respect fire, to prepare for conflagration so that no one experiences one. In the Boy Scouts and Army, he honored preparation and it honored him back. Prepare the ground, clear the area, be ready to stop a fire before it gets too big for its britches and leaps from tree to tree, sends sparks to land on roofs, burns so hot that dead tree roots burn underground and leap up a field away, the very earth smoking. Know the worst that flame can do. Then avoid it. He could say the same for water and wind. Make friends of them.
The whole structure leans at a sixty-degree angle, all but fallen in on itself. He feels lightheaded when he stands and takes a minute to breathe through a stab in his side and clear his mind. He walks around the structure as filaments of flame change color from yellow to orange to blue, leaping with life, taking big bites, the fire licking its red lips now, hardly a breeze moving. He makes sure flames don't grab outward to pastured broom sedge or to woods nearby. Nobody needs a forest fire.
His daddy liked to say that people love a good fire--referring to what happens in fireplaces and bonfires, campfires, places to sit with friends, drink a beer, sing something friendly, and watch the colors dance until you're as mesmerized as if you're watching exotic fish swimming. What Waitsel keeps is "good fire"; he is quick to make the distinction between those and bad fires--house and business, gas and chemical fires, explosions, the ones that destroy property and lives. No, he likes to see a good fire do its work. He is careful to case a site and clear it of kids, bums, pets, even nesting animals. If owners still use it for storage, he leaves it, even if it is an ugly blight on the landscape. He removed a hive of bees from a barn last year and regularly chases away snakes, mice, birds, and skunks in residence. A while back when he pulled away kudzu and poison oak from a neglected silo, it sank in slow motion like an elderly woman fainting. He keeps a clean burn notebook in his head of longabandoned barns and useless sheds in need of care, neglected now to gravity and nature's steady pull. Each facade falls, an ancient weary face that silently begs him to help it go.
What he has been doing is illegal, sure, but it is not wrong by most accounts he overhears. He is cleaning up the land for careless folks who let their buildings lean for years, decline, an eyesore for decades. They watch the roofs crack under fallen limbs or burning sun, watch as kudzu covers window frames and doors, watch as new-growth trees slip up through rotted floors, until the whole is like a lonely grave with weathered bones sticking up through the soil. And why? Taxes. They will not pay taxes to remove a building, their flavor of passive resistance. But if somebody burns it, that is not their fault. Free services rendered.
The shed collapses into hungry flames, the wood already rotten and still a bit damp from last night's rain. He drags an old tarp over his footprints and walks to his truck parked on the forest trail where it cannot be easily seen, puts away his tools, rake, and tarp, and pockets his lighter. From his thermos, he pours a cup of black coffee, and sits with the door open and takes his tablets for pain, writes in his journal, dates it, and puts it back into his glove box. He hears the last wall crash down and walks back to make sure. The fire is busy at the beams, no sparks beyond his boundary, just embers, a nice clean burn. Nothing will be left but ash and a few rusty nails. He pulls a tree limb behind him to the truck. Time to go.
He heads up Hwy 52 at a casual pace, washes up at the Mobil station, and stops at the Lakeview Hotel and Restaurant, which is more a motel that has no lake and no view, but the pork chop sandwiches are first rate and the waitresses friendly. The clientele is sure to include law enforcement officers who come for the coffee and the desserts made by Mennonite ladies, pies with meringue piled high like toasted clouds.
"Hey, Waitsel," Julie says, seating him across from a deputy having his dinner. They nod at one another in the pleasant way Southerners do to acknowledge there is another of their species present. Waitsel's cousin from New Jersey rode with him to Myrtle Beach one summer after they graduated from college, astounded when everyone on the road waved and Waitsel lifted his index finger to them. "Do you know everybody that lives south of the Mason-Dixon?" he asked. Waitsel still thinks it is funny, how simple civility on the road would flummox a Yankee. "It's how we say, 'hello, brother, I see you.' That's all." Waitsel likes kindly manners, learned from his grandpa and mama, and used all his life. "Nice man," people say of him when his back is turned. That is why the waitresses hover around him, why children talk to him, why old women insist on fattening up his wiry frame. "Thank you," "Excuse me," "That's mighty nice of you," "Yes Sir and Ma'am." All free to use. Let others do the talking; keep your own counsel. They don't need to know much more than your name and where to bury what's left of you when you go.
"Say," Julie's back with his meal. "What kind of name is Waitsel? I don't reckon I've ever heard it before you."
"The kind your daddy hears in the war and can't spell right," he says into her warm eyes.
Before dessert time, the officer gets a call. Arson. "Anybody hurt?" he asks, and listens and nods. Rita rings him up and whispers, "I hope it's nothing bad."
"Just a nuisance. Same arsonist as last time, I reckon, taken a liking to burning old barns and sheds that are almost fallen down anyway. Hardly worth the effort."
"Don't he leave no clues? They always leave clues on TV."
"Yeah, well, that's TV. This particular arsonist knows his stuff. Safe as a campfire and never anything but abandoned buildings. If it won't against the law, setting fires, I'd give him the keys to the city."
When Waitsel and Julie laugh politely, the deputy seems pleased that his joke is appreciated. She smiles at Waitsel. "Pyromaniac strikes again!" He nods, but he doesn't like to be called maniac, as if he is sick. He would like to explain distinctions to Julie. A pyromaniac is a random burner--doesn't care for the damage done as long as he can feel the heat and watch the flames work while he feels powerful for striking a match. Waitsel is a professional, who understands fire and protects people. If he's sick, it's not of the mental variety. He's just a working man who wants to give back before his cancer eats into his brain. He feels it nibble at him and knows it's too late for the ladies to put flesh on his old bones, too late to spend time with jails and trials.
He is no better than anyone else, he knows that, but he wouldn't like to answer to the law. He is never greedy, burning every day, and never when it is dry. He always checks if anything is inside to care about, then he performs last rites to each old place, sweet gratitude for better days, Godspeed to ash and rot. He lights dry wood and lets flame do its work. A year from now, the burn sites will be green rolling pastures, pretty as a painting. How much can one man do to change the world? The lighter in his pocket warms his hand. Such places burn themselves, he likes to say.
Jane Shlensky, a veteran English teacher and musician, holds an MFA from UNC-Greensboro. She has recent poetry in a number of online and print magazines and anthologies, including Writer's Digest, Pinesong, Kakalak, Southern Poetry Anthology: North Carolina, and Poetry Market. The North Carolina Poetry Society has twice nominated her poems for a Pushcart prize, and her short stories have been recognized as finalists in Press 53, Doris Betts, and Thomas Wolfe contests. Jane's poetry chapbook, Barefoot on Gravel (2016), is available from Finishing Line Press. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories. She lives with her husband, Vladimir, and a bossy cat in Bahama, North Carolina. Reviews
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|Title Annotation:||North Carolina Writers' Network Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, Finalist, 2017|
|Publication:||Thomas Wolfe Review|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
|Next Article:||Getting Tom Right: Dates in Wolfe's Life.|