Lucky continued his Saturday morning fires throughout that summer and started bringing a friend along with him. The man had an unkempt beard, greasy hair, and always wore jeans that hung low around his waist, exposing his butt.

“Mom, who’s that guy with Lucky?” I asked the first time he showed up. “He looks like one of those guys we see hitchhiking along the highway.”

My mother walked to the living room window and looked out. Without saying a word, she turned and locked the front door. Then she crossed the trailer and locked the back. She had never done this before. Something was wrong.

“Mom, who is he?”

“His name is Ricky Trutt,” she said. “And you are not to go outside when he’s here. Do you understand me?”

“I don’t go out anyway.”

She knelt next to me and placed her hands on my shoulders. “Do not go outside when he’s here. Do you understand?”

“Okay,” I said, even though I wondered why.

Every Friday night we went to Lewistown for groceries. Small shops lined Valley Street, the main street through Lewistown: Kay’s Sporting Goods, Video Vendor, Foss’s Jewelers, and C. G. Murphy’s, which still had a lunch counter. Families and couples walked the streets at dusk and window shopped. Teenagers cruised past the cannons perched on the lawn of the Civil War – themed town square. While my mother shopped for groceries at the Giant Store, my father sometimes took me along with him for a visit to the Coleman House, the hotel Lucky and Helen owned.

The building sat on that town square and dated back to the late 1800s, when Lewistown had begun to transform into a tidy little city. Once it had been a popular and respectable place. A man named Harry Gardiner, who my father said was called the Human Fly, had as a publicity stunt climbed the outside of the seven-story hotel in the 1920s. In the years since then, the quality and care had declined. By the time my grandparents purchased it for next to nothing, the hotel housed Lewistown’s riffraff — the low cost of rooms was cheaper than renting an apartment. Most of the residents were men soaked in cheap liquor and dressed in stained clothing. Many were also Lucky’s friends.

“Grandma and Pappy will be glad to see you,” my dad said as he opened the glass door to the building’s lobby. “I bet Grandma will even give you some candy.”

“No, Dad, please no candy. Last time it was terrible.”

At Halloween the year before, my dad had painstakingly painted my face in a clown disguise and insisted on taking me to the hotel to show his parents. As usual, Helen cooed and hawed; Lucky, though, propped his feet on the counter and stared at the opposite wall. The Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups Helen gave me that day looked like they were covered with cataracts, misshapen and hazed over with the kind of whiteness teachers at school warned us not to eat. I was certain that the candy in that display case near the front hotel’s desk hadn’t been freshened since last Halloween.

A television in the lobby blasted Wheel of Fortune. Three grizzled men sat on couches and stared in silence at the screen. The upholstery was ripped in spots, revealing yellow foam. The tiled floor had probably been white at one time; it now resembled the crusted bug shield on the hood of my father’s truck.

Helen, wearing a flower-print dress, stood behind the display case and wrote inside a log book next to the cash register. She looked up and smiled.

“Oh Lucky, look who’s here,” she said. “It’s Jay and Denton.”

Lucky sat in a recliner behind the counter reading National Geographic. He stood and placed the magazine on the seat of the chair.

“You ever read National Geographic, boy? You should. It’d make you smart.”

“Come on back here and give your grandma a big hug,” Helen said. She opened the flimsy particle board gate to let me behind the counter. “You want some candy?”

“He doesn’t need any,” my dad said. I squeezed his wrist and smiled up at him — if I held on to him, perhaps I wouldn’t be forced behind the desk for that dreadful hug. The scent of Helen’s cheap perfume always seemed to cling to my clothes.

“Well, guess what?” my dad said. He smiled and paused, letting the tension build. “We found a house.”

Lucky tongued at his toothpick. “Did you now?”

“Looks like we’ll be moving in by March or April,” my dad said.

“Oh Lucky, can you believe it?” Helen said. She turned to Lucky and smiled. “A new house. I can’t wait to see it. How big is it? Does it have a dining room? You should at least have a dining room. And you’re still going to build a basement, right?”

My dad nodded and explained that the double-wide was twice the size of our current trailer. He’d already made the calls to contractors for estimates on a basement.

“And you’re still putting it where our old house used to be?” Lucky asked. He flicked the toothpick into a trash can behind the counter. “Lot of good memories there.”

“Remember my ring, Lucky?” Helen asked. She turned to me, her mouth loose and smiling. “The first wedding ring your grandfather bought me, I took it off to wash dishes and I put it on the windowsill. And wouldn’t you know, it fell out the window and onto the ground. I never found it after that.” She scratched at her knee and lifted the purple dress up so high that it exposed a thick, panty-hosed thigh. I’d noticed this habit before — she often pulled up her dress, exposed her legs, and sometimes caressed her thighs.

“I looked high and low for that ring,” Lucky said. “I didn’t want to lose it.”

A lost treasure hunt flashed in my mind, a Saturday spent climbing over those busted concrete slabs, gliding a metal detector over the ground, all in search of that lost diamond ring.

“So it’s still there?” I asked. “Do you think it might still be worth something?”

“’Course it’s worth something, boy,” Lucky said. “It’s a diamond. You think they’re free? In Africa, little boys like you get told to go into mines to dig them out. And if they don’t dig in the mines, they get sold to people who’ll make them behave.”

My dad and his parents chatted for a few minutes about the trailer and about the fire company. Lucky listened with a blank stare while Helen nodded and smiled. When Lucky asked my father to look at a window in one of the rooms upstairs, I begged him to take me along with him. The only remotely fun part even about visiting the hotel was riding the elevator — an old-time contraption with a lever that had no doubt once been run by a bellhop. My father pulled the latticed metal gate across the elevator’s doorway and then yanked the lever. After a jerk, the cables grinded and we rose to the third floor, where my dad stepped out and told me to wait inside the elevator. He walked down the hallway and went into a room. The mud brown carpet looked polka-dotted with black stains. The entire place smelled of turpentine and dirty socks. After a few minutes, my dad came out of the room and we descended back to the lobby.

“Fixed it,” my dad said. “The spring inside was busted. I left the window open. Stunk pretty bad in there.”

Lucky nodded and thanked him. He eased back into his recliner again, the National Geographic in his hand. “I think Ricky Trutt and I might be up again soon. Got some old mattresses I want to burn up.”

My father dug both hands into his pockets. “Didn’t I tell you what Teena said about Ricky?”

Lucky stared back, unblinking and angry. “You told me. And you can tell her that it’s my ground. I can do what I want on my ground.”

“Dad, come on,” my father said. “I’ll help you burn them. He doesn’t need to come along.”

“If she doesn’t like him, then you tell her to leave,” Lucky said. “I don’t tell her who she can talk to. Ricky’s coming and that’s all there is to it.”

My dad didn’t speak. The sound of Jeopardy! spilled over the lobby. He glanced at his watch and said that we should leave. He took my hand and we walked out of the hotel. I wondered what my mother had said about Ricky Trutt and just why she always locked the doors when he came around.

My father stared blankly out the windshield as he drove.

“Dad, what happened to that house near our trailer?” I asked.

“Which house?”

“Your old house, when you were a kid,” I said. “The one we’re going to put the trailer on?”

He held his stare for a moment and cleared his throat. “You know, that’s funny. It burned down.” He voice softened. He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel as if nervous. “I remember losing all my toys. Slot cars, Rock’em Sock’em Robots, Lincoln Logs, and LEGOS. Board games too, like Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders.”

These were the same toys that he had bought me for Christmases and birthdays. If he never played with them as a child, I wondered why he never wanted to play with me now.

“All the photos burned up too,” he said. “I don’t even have any pictures of me when I was your age.”

“How did it catch on fire?” I asked.

“Just an accident,” he said sharply. “It was an accident. That’s why you should always be careful with matches and things like that. Fire is dangerous.”

Lucky stopped his weekly fires at the hole — it would soon be excavated with backhoes, and then bricklayers would arrive to lay the cinder-block foundation. One Saturday night at the end of August, my mother and I walked around the heavy, iron I beams that sat next to the hole. I begged her to watch me balance myself on the beams like a tightrope walker. My dad promised to come outside and play Wiffle ball with me once he got off the phone. Probably talking to one of his friends in the fire company, I thought.

The back screen door on the trailer slammed shut and he walked across the driveway and onto the dirt. He glanced at my mother, sighed, and then looked toward the horizon. He often did this when nervous, as if he wished he were following the sunset to somewhere else. He jingled change in his pockets.

“That was my mother on the phone,” he said. “Dad’s on his way up here to burn some things from the hotel.”

“Some things?” my mother said. “You said he wasn’t coming back.”

My father tugged the bill of his hat, rubbed his neck, and said, “It’s his ground. I can’t tell him not to.”

She crossed her arms and looked toward the highway. “Well, it’s too late now. Here he comes.”

Lucky’s pickup crowned the hill, and as he slowed, I saw that the bed was piled with mattresses. The trailer hitched to the back of his truck was also filled with them. Another truck followed behind. I instantly recognized the driver’s scraggly brown beard and hollow face as Ricky Trutt. His truck was also piled high with mattresses.

“Go inside,” my mother told me. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

I ran across the yard and up the porch steps. I turned and saw the trucks drive over the lawn, past my jungle gym and the tool shed, and then stop. They had parked next to the cement floor leftover from where the workshop had once stood.

When my mother came inside, she locked the door behind her. We huddled around the kitchen window and watched.

My dad climbed onto the back of the truck and grabbed one end of a mattress, Lucky grabbed the other. Together, they swung the thing back and forth and finally tossed it onto the ground. They continued until both trucks and trailers were empty. My father talked with Lucky and Ricky for a few moments. Then he walked across the yard, unlocked the door, and came inside. My mother sat on a chair at the kitchen table. When my dad crossed his arms, leaned against the wall, and looked toward her, she continued to stare out the window.

“What?” he asked.

“What are they doing?” she asked. “It’s almost dark.”

“He’s just burning some old mattresses from the hotel.”

“I thought you told him not to bring Ricky Trutt here anymore.” Her words came slow yet forceful, as if holding back a scream.

My father shrugged and said, “Dad needed the help.”

“He needs help,” my mother said. She turned from the window and looked at my father. “He’s sick. They’re both sick. And did you have to help them? They shouldn’t let that man have matches. It’s illegal for murderers to have guns.”

“What do you mean?” He laughed and shook his head. I could tell that he wanted her to drop the issue.

“You threw those mattresses off the truck with them.”

“My father can’t do things like that anymore,” he said. “Do you want him to have a heart attack?”

“How dare he keep coming here with that creep, in front of his grandson no less.” She stood, pressed a hand against her cheek, and said, “You know why Lucky comes here, Denton?”

My father pointed at her. “Don’t you say it.”

“Why? You don’t want your son to hear it?”

“Hear what?” I asked.

My dad squinted at my mother and clenched his jaw. He marched toward the door again, stomping his feet so hard that I thought they were going to pound right through the floor of the kitchen. He slammed the door and then walked back across the yard toward my grandfather. My mother and I continued watching out the kitchen window.

Lucky and Trutt circled the mattresses and splashed them with gasoline. Then, just as he had done for those Saturday morning blazes, Lucky poured a small trail through the grass and away from the mattresses. He struck a match and dropped it onto the ground. He and Trutt hustled backward and watched the flames erupt. Air hissed and the crackling roar sounded like a jet engine. A ginger-colored lambency spread in ripples across the yard and leaked through the windows of our trailer. That glow from the flames swirled on the ceiling, bounced off the walls, and the trailer felt submerged in some kind of intangible hell.

My mother and I stepped onto the porch and watched the roaring fire. I felt the warmth of the flames press against my face. Heat devils shimmered in the air and smoke clouded up into the blackening evening sky. The inferno was perhaps thirty yards away from us, and my grandfather and his friend stood beside it, their postures relaxed as though watching a fireworks display. The smell of smoke thickened the air. I had never seen anything like it, and my heart beat hard inside my chest in fear. My grandfather had done this, I thought.

My dad walked onto the porch and stood next to my mother and me. Sweat beads sparkled on his forehead.

“Can’t you make them put it out, Dad?” I looked up at my father but his eyes were fixed on the fire. I tugged at his jeans and asked again.

“It’s his land,” he said. He shook his head and looked to the ground. “I can’t stop him.”

“But you’re the fire chief,” I said. “What if it spreads into the fields? What if it comes toward the house?” Vast fields of fire spread through my imagination — helicopters hovered in the sky, dropping bursts of water onto the scene, and men with axes raced toward the flames. My father commanded all of them like a general in battle.

“I don’t know,” my dad finally said. “I don’t know.”

In the end, he did nothing. When the fire finally dwindled, Lucky and Ricky climbed into their pickups and drove off into the night. Later, before I went to bed, I looked out the window once more. The glowing embers looked like a thousand wicked eyes peering through the darkness.

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JAY VARNER grew up in Central Pennsylvania. He earned a B.A. in creative writing from Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, PA. He helped found The Susquehanna Review, one of the few national literary journals dedicated solely to undergraduate writing.

After college, he worked the police and fire beat for his hometown newspaper. Along the way, he wrote obituaries, covered school board meetings, examined the extended debate over a county skatepark (which included riding a skateboard for the first and last time), and a local man who spent years collecting one million pennies (Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey referenced the story on Saturday Night Live’s "Weekend Update").

He received his M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. While in graduate school he taught creative writing and literature courses. He also served as nonfiction editor and eventually managing editor of Ecotone: Reimagining Place.

He is currently at work on a novel and another memoir. He lives with his wife near Charlottesville, Virginia.

2 responses to “An Excerpt from Nothing Left to Burn

  1. Greg Boose says:

    Man, arsonists, and those who deal with fire in general, have always interested me. Great excerpt, Jay. Really curious of what’s up with this Ricky Trutt character.

  2. David Wolf says:

    Jay – Lucky was a longtime friend of our family – he would always spend time with me as a boy growing up working at my Dad’s lumber yard and we would visit him at the Coleman hotel. My father owned Philip Wolf & Son (a lumber yard) and we would see him all the time and became close friends. We had a terrible fire and Lucky was the arsonist suspect, but my Dad, Bernie Wolf never believed he set the place on fire. My Dad was always loyal to Lucky and even visited him in jail. My Dad is still alive and had fond memories of Lucky – he never had a bad word to say about him.

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