Jimmy smells like a burn pile—wood smoke mostly, and tree sap. He doesn’t mind. Truth be told, he likes the work. He’s learned a lot from burn piles:
- Redwood burns fast, Alder slow but hotter.
- You can try to stay upwind, but the smoke will always find you and sting your eyes, and “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit,” won’t do you a bit of good.
- A good burn pile has to smolder, it has to be tended. The red-hot center has to be kept alive even after you have nothing left to add.
The eleven o’clock news ends. Jimmy missed it. He had wanted to watch the local weather forecast but fell asleep in his chair. His chair smells like a campfire. Jimmy dreams his own forecast filled with line storms and thunderheads. Winter is winter but the rain isn’t right. Instead of falling, the drops just hang. Jimmy finds this new, water-beaded landscape beautiful but terribly disconcerting.
The next day, Jimmy tends the piles until it’s time to stop. He puts away his pitchfork and his rake. He coils the hose. Once everything is in its place, he walks to the fence line and stands. He closes his eyes and listens. Jimmy has his old man’s ears. Not the size or shape, but the sensitivity—engine trouble, something behind the woodpile, lies. The difficulty, he has found, comes after identification—the decisions: when to repair, react, when to stay hidden. Tonight he decides to stop listening and heads inside.
It’s happy hour, but liquor has become unreliable. He considers the Indian casino across the interstate, but chance has become a bother. Jimmy sits by the window wishing it would get dark so he could go to bed—tucked away like tools at a job-site, dormant until needed, useful then put away, a folded ladder laid down for the night behind a row of blooming rhododendrons. Finally, unable to sleep, he heads into town.
Jimmy shoulders the motel door, surprised at how easily it gives way. Staring in from the splintered frame, he is suddenly tired and wants to go home but he can’t. The light is on. He steps into the center and surveys the room. His eyes come to rest on her nightstand, composed exactly as it was at home—a perfect reproduction: water glass, pill bottle, cigarettes, lighter, almanac. Her clothes are scattered at the foot of the bed and Jimmy follows the process of elimination feeling momentarily comforted. But then he notices the leg of the chair; the hairdryer’s cord is snaked around it. Accident waiting to happen, he thinks as he unplugs and coils the cord. Jimmy places the hairdryer on the dresser. He notices her watch, the one he’d given her in high school, and wonders why she would have left it. He picks it up and sees the hands have stopped moving. He sets it back down next to a book titled Anatomy for the Artist. The book is open to a drawing of a woman’s face in profile. Her neck strained, turned at a difficult angle, and her eyes downcast—a tired gaze directed somewhere off the edge of the page.
Driving home Jimmy considers the day she left. When it happened, he was standing at the kitchen table over an oil-stained manual, trouble-shooting:
viscosity vs. temperature
smoke and other indications
wondering what he should be listening for.
Jimmy pulls the truck into the driveway and shuts down the engine. He sits for a while listening to the motor cool, metal contracting, fluids settling. When things get quiet, he heads inside. In bed, still in his clothes and almost asleep on top of the covers, the last words she spoke to him swirl in his head like bees defending a hive. He remembers watching her walk out of the kitchen. He remembers waiting for the front door to slam, but it never did. When he went to the living room the door was wide open, the faint smell of gasoline and hum from the stock car races up at the fairgrounds drifting in. Jimmy closed the door, gently pressing it into the frame until he heard the click that told him the mechanism was still sound.
Jason Marak‘s work has appeared in The Paris Review, Raritan, Salmagundi, and online at Vestal Review. He lives behind the Redwood Curtain in Humboldt County, California.