I’m not sure what to ask myself right now besides do you want some more wine? So for the purposes of this self-interview, I will answer the top ten questions people have asked me about The Wrong Way to Save Your Life since it came out, in order of most frequently asked.

 

One: How is Sophia?

My buddy Sophia is five years old and fighting a bitch of a brain tumor.

The Blogger’s Wife

1) I have an idea.
2) It’s called The Blogger’s Wife.
3) I’m not sure if it’s a story or an essay.
4) It’s about a woman who’s married to a blogger and if someone leaves a shitty comment on one of his posts she tracks down their IP address and shows up at their house and duct-tapes them to a chair

The Fire Setter

By Jeff Holt

Poem

He waited on the bed for her to come,
Fists clenched, legs twitching like electric wire
Storms rip from poles. He bit into his thumb,
His round cheeks glowing like the mighty fire
He’d set at dawn. His lighter’s hungry spark
Had multiplied and swarmed through yellowed brush,
Awakening the cold, abandoned park.
Watching flames rage, he’d felt his chilled skin flush.

trailer 2

My father’s farm in Virginia is called Oak Hill. When he bought it, not long after he divorced my mother, there was in fact a cluster of enormous oak trees that shaded a white clapboard, nineteenth-century house that stood on the hill in the center of the farm, but the house burned down before my father could move into it. Some of the oaks survived the fire, which occurred on a Halloween night, but despite whispers that the previous owner had torched the house, no charges were ever filed. I remember surveying the charred remains and spotting, not charred even slightly, an old board game called Why, the Alfred Hitchock Mystery Game, which, according to the blurb on the box, involved “real thinking, planning, and memory.” I took the game home with me—I lived a twenty-minute drive from the farm with my mother, brother, and sister—but I never played it, and don’t know what became of it. Maybe my memory wouldn’t be so faulty if I had better developed it by playing Why.

Swallows in Midair

By Meg Worden

Memoir

Watching the towers, like two roman candles all lit up and waiting to take flight, we tense for the whistle, the earsplitting boom. The air is a sweltering buzz of fiberglass and dissonance, it’s full of walls that no longer protect anyone from anything and it clings to my skin. I breathe it in and it singes my lungs. Someone says the words asbestos and attack.

The absurdity of our direction is becoming painfully apparent.

Standing at the top of the pedestrian entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge we are bookended by two very different sorts of skies. One is so black and the other so very, very blue. It’s a glass marble sky. A circular world sky. We are walking forward with the intention of going into Manhattan to check the office, but the way we are pressed into this crowd it’s just too hard to move. This direction is absurd.

Old stone and new people span the bridge from arch to arch, suspension wire to suspension wire, an exodus of phantoms no longer angry at co-workers, spouses, not thinking about the raise, the stockholder’s meeting, the diet, the myriad of ways they fail themselves. They are now The Great Witnesses Of Gravity, a sea-of-faces, marching on solemn feet this way. Not that way.

The sound is an unearthly roaring – internal, tidal, absolute – and the bridge pulls itself taut like a swing at the top of its rise. The-sea-of-faces, masked in white dust and marked with fear, swivel back toward the city in unison like swallows in midair. Swoosh. The collective intake of breath.

Everyone knows someone who is still there. And the marble spins, the sky upends.

A cloud of dust precedes the collapse of the first tower. It crumbles in a sort of slow motion effect. A special effect. A summer blockbuster, alien and unbelievable. It slips and spreads, down and down and down, until it is swallowed by its own insides. Ashes to ashes, and it’s gone. The Manhattan skyline loses a tooth from its iconic grin, and everyone is bleeding. When the faces reappear they have open, screaming mouths. They are all eyes, throats, tongues, tears.

I have a thick handful of Drew’s jacket as we are backed up to the railing and carried into the current off the bridge, where we spill onto the grass, a little under-the-bridge park scattered with sitting and waiting and seeing. Witnesses telling witnesses where they were when the planes hit, how they got out, where they lived, not here in Brooklyn, but in Long Island, New Jersey, Queens, somewhere where they couldn’t reach their family, get their car out of the  garage because there was no more garage, or car.

Drew and me we make nervous jokes about the grassy knoll, under this strange sky with asphalt-gray clouds punctuated by paperwork liberated from files, desks, inboxes. Pavement clouds. World-turned-upside-down clouds. I still have a handful of jacket, his hand rests on my shoe. But we don’t notice these things. We also don’t say the things we usually say. This chaos is sufficiently trumping our own. And maybe we’re just sick of ourselves and our redundant, self-perpetuating problems. Or we’re scared. Yes, we’re definitely scared. I don’t know whether or not we notice these things. Too stunned to cry, too tight to collapse, we laugh about grassy knolls and their cliched connection to American tragedy.

“Where were you when the towers fell?” the interested parties would inquire.

“On the grassy knoll,” we would reply, stifling inappropriate hysterics.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha and we aren’t really as funny as we were hoping. We notice this and become quieter than quiet. Dense quiet. Asphalt cloud quiet. We would have to completely rethink our plan, change direction. Swoosh. Just like that. Swallows in midair.

There is nothing that wouldn’t require a new perspective. The fabric of our reality has been irrevocably unravelled.

“I finally get clean and the world falls apart.” I say, mostly to myself, but loud enough for him to hear. Last night in Brooklyn, in the basement of Grace Church, they were different than before. They asked if my life was unmanageable, which was an entirely different question than, “Are you an addict?” They sat in a circle, drinking the coffee that Hazel I’m an alcoholic made. They were kind of funny. Mostly, they didn’t make me feel like crap and they didn’t annoy the crap out of me.

Swoosh. Just like that.

Hazel with the coffee pot said I should make no major moves, no big changes for the first year. Just don’t use and come back. She said quitting wasn’t the end of the world.

I woke up the next morning to a city on fire.

Drew pretended to ignore my getting clean comment and, instead, was starting a conversation with a man who’s eyebrows hung low over his narrow eyes, who had stopped in front of Drew and I on the grass, set down an armload of books and asked if they were letting anyone into Manhattan. “I have to get in, to school. A test. Important.”

Confusion was pandemic and all directions seemed absurd. Because no one really knows how to go swoosh, just like that. Because we aren’t actually hollow-boned swallows, covered in feathers, light as air. We have bodies, heavy, fleshy, burdened. It takes an act of Congress, God, Terrorists.

We ordered Reubens with extra Russian dressing at a diner a few blocks up on Atlantic Avenue, iced tea to drink. I can see us growing old together, drinking iced tea. Problem solved.

The pastrami sours in my throat when the waitress announces the second collapse. I notice her tired legs in compression stockings, the way her shoulders strain under an invisible burden. I don’t notice her take Drew’s order for a vodka tonic. Worlds ride high on apron strings.

Two days later dust covers unclaimed bicycles and the witnesses wander the streets, chanting the names of the missing and the dead. Two days later, we shield our faces from the smell, sweet and acrid, identified by the Vietnam Vet on the subway as “Burnt flesh, man. I know that smell, I smelled it before and I swear to you it’s burnt flesh.”

Two days later over styrofoam cups of Hazel’s coffee,  someone asks what would you do if you stood between fire and a seventy fifth floor window? Who can imagine a choice like that? To fall or to burn. Opinions split among us, as they were split among the ones that actually had to make that choice. We knew this for certain: too many burned and too many jumped.

And it was two days after the bridge and the grassy knoll and the reuben sandwiches, all of us still trapped under mortar and glass and grief, that I got pregnant. Swoosh. Just like that.

Condition of Fire

By JL Williams

Poem

I

Lesson

And I asked, what is fire?
And you replied by putting my hand
on the hob to teach me.

You were always teaching us,
weren’t you,
what it meant to burn?

II

Substance

Deep under the water its colour changed
but it was still
anemone, a budding flame.

III

Dessert

In a bowl of ice, an orange flower.

Remember, how as we walked past windows,
my reflection could burn fingers?

How you would keep in your mouth always this,
fire, and my other name.

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.

Last night, a thunderbolt from the heavens struck a 62 foot tall statue of Jesus in Ohio, and burned it to the ground. The statue, originally titled “King of Kings”, has become known as the “Touchdown Jesus” by pretty much everyone who has seen it:

The fact that a statue of Jesus was struck by lightning is likely to cause quite a stir in some circles. How could this have happened? Is there more than a random weather pattern at play?

Watch Touchdown Jesus Burn

People who watched the statue burn had a variety of reactions:

One woman said, “It sent goosebumps through my whole body because I am a believer. Of all the things that could have been struck, I just think that that would be protected. … It’s something that’s not supposed to happen, Jesus burning. I had to see it with my own eyes.”

Another woman was quoted as saying, “God struck God, I like the irony. Jesus struck Jesus.”

The sign for an adult store across the street was untouched.

Touchdown Jesus was constructed out of styrofoam, resin, fiberglass, wood and concrete. Total damages from the fire are estimated at around $700,000.

While I’ll leave the final conclusion to the theologians, I thought I would offer up at least a few ideas about how something like this could have happened. Please feel free to add to my list.

  • God has had enough of Big Butter Jesus video
  • Too many Obama voters in the church (Obama=antichrist)
  • Message from God (something about idolatry)
  • Stern message from Rio de Janeiro Jesus
  • Demonic terrorist attack
  • “Touchdown Jesus” victim of sabotage from other heavenly football team
  • Aliens mistook Touchdown Jesus for nuclear strike system
  • Failed attempt to raise Touchdown Jesus by alien tractor beam
  • Zeus has spoken
  • The statue was asking for it
  • God is actually Jewish
  • Jesus statue was in a pose of “drowning” – act of mercy from above
  • Flyby smiting…
  • Touchdown Jesus forgot to discharge static at the pump
  • Touchdown Jesus failed to follow up Doritos 3rd Degree Burn with Pepsi Max Cease Fire

·


When I was sixteen, I became the dishwasher at a barbecue restaurant in Corpus Christi, a hot, humid city on the Coastal Bend of Texas. I almost didn’t get the job because the manager of the place, Gary, didn’t like me. Gary was a short, grizzled fellow in his 40s who ran his restaurant with a smoker’s voice and an iron fist. I was a skinny kid from the suburbs, apparently naïve, and he didn’t think I knew how to work.

The restaurant was a rectangular building made of painted concrete blocks and a flat roof. Attached to the building proper was a “pit room,” which was a fenced-in area covered by a slanted roof made of corrugated steel. A screen was pinned between the top of the fence and the roof to keep bugs out. There were three cylindrical barbecue pits, ten feet tall and six feet in diameter, which had been made from sections of oil pipeline. Each had three doors: Behind the bottom door was the fire, and behind the top two were grates where we cooked racks of pork ribs and whole beef briskets. The briskets and ribs continuously rained liquid fat upon the fire, causing it to flare on occasion, so you had to pay close attention to the air supply to make sure you didn’t burn what you were cooking.

The only reason I got the job at all was because of the restaurant owner, Kenny. Kenny was Gary’s younger brother. He was more financially successful than Gary and fancied himself as a privileged guy. My family wasn’t exactly rolling in money, but we were closer to the middle class than Gary or the rest of the employees there, and Kenny seemed to like that about me. I think he enjoyed having a “college boy” around, which is what they all took to calling me after I graduated from high school the next year.

For six hours a day on weekdays, and eight on the weekends, I stood in front of a stainless steel sink with an overhead water sprayer in my hand and cleaned dishes and pots and pans. When I wasn’t at the sink, my job was to separate tiny chunks of beef from long strips of leftover brisket fat. These tiny chunks eventually added up to a plastic tub of flesh that we mixed with barbecue sauce and called “chopped beef.” Being so intimate with the fat, this was the most tender meat in the brisket and tasted wonderful on a sandwich bun. It was the second most popular item we sold. But that meat sat on a table, unrefrigerated and uncovered, for hours, and no one who worked there would eat it.

Once a week, each of the barbecue pits had to be cleaned, because the constant rain of fat and grease coated the grates and the interior circumference of the pit. The way we cleaned the pits was to set them on fire. Literally. We removed the meat, opened all three doors, and started a big fire. The fire fueled itself on the caked-on grease and would climb all the way to the top of the pit. As the fire grew we shut first the bottom and then the middle door, leaving the top door open until we could see flames licking at the top. Then we’d shut that door with a long gardening tool that looked like a straightened hoe. As the fire raged inside, flames ten feet high, the air hole at the very bottom would hiss as oxygen was sucked through it. That was the sound of the fire breathing.

Eventually we’d suffocate the fire and allow the pit to cool slightly, and then it was the dishwasher’s job to climb inside and scrape loosened grease off the walls. I was the dishwasher, so that meant me. As you can imagine, it was massively hot in there. Hot and nasty. When I emerged from the pit, the only surface of my body not entirely black were the whites of my eyes. Even after fifteen minutes scrubbing with soap in the filthy kitchen bathroom, I could only begin to find the pink skin of my arms and face.

Eventually, after a couple of years, I worked my way up to the Head Cook job. This was much easier. Mainly you stood in the pit room and listened to music. Or smoked weed if that was your thing. Or you fantasized about which of the serving line girls you wanted to sleep with. I was still a virgin, but I nevertheless imagined that Brenda, she of the giant D-cup breasts, would one day saunter into the pit room and seduce me. She was thirteen years my senior, and the stories about her exploits with older men at the restaurant became my imaginary porn. There was no Internet back then and my family didn’t subscribe to Cinemax, so what else was I supposed to do?

In the morning, the cook on duty would take briskets, forty or fifty of them, out of the walk-in freezer and load them into one of the pits. Then he would take a natural gas “torch” and use it to start a new fire. The torch was a half-inch natural gas line with a metal fitting on the end. It took forever to light a fire this way, like thirty minutes on a good day. We didn’t have kindling, after all. Just mesquite logs.

As it happened, the morning of December 24, 1989 was my shift. Residents of Texas and other areas of the south may remember 1989 as one of the coldest Decembers on record. The low that morning at Corpus Christi International Airport was 15 degrees, which was actually two degrees warmer than the previous morning. The palm trees were not happy. It was so cold the thermostat in my truck’s coolant system froze stuck on the way to the restaurant, causing the engine to overheat. So I was late to work and already pissed off when I got there. I had no patience to watch a feeble natural gas flame ignite eight mesquite logs, especially not when Brenda stepped into the pit room and asked if I would help her carry a pot of barbecue sauce into the kitchen.

I never worried about the burgeoning fire. It was 15 degrees outside, so I figured if anything the logs would take longer than normal to ignite. Brenda and the other girls were inside, and I was happy to chat them up about whatever. The restaurant wasn’t scheduled to open for another two hours, so Gary the crotchety manager was still at home in bed. Everything was good.

This is why, when we heard someone banging on the front door, I didn’t immediately understand what was happening. Even when he yelled, “The pit room is on fire!” my brain didn’t want to make the connection. I’d only been inside for five minutes, maybe ten. Nowhere near enough time for a fire to start.

Still, I took off for the back door. My heart begin to hammer in my chest. What if the pit was on fire? It was fully loaded with briskets. Hundreds of dollars worth of briskets.

I reached, the door, yanked it open, and what I saw was a monster.

Flames were pouring out of all three open doors. The pit was ten feet tall, remember, and the slanted roof was only another three or four feet higher. The flames from the top door had already burned a hole in the corrugated steel. From my vantage point, the open doors blocked me from most of the heat, but I knew what I had to do–get those doors closed. If I didn’t, the whole pit room would burn down. Maybe the entire restaurant.

I found the hoe-like tool and approached the pit. The heat was immense. Overwhelming. Even protected by the steel doors I could hardly approach it. And my efforts to close the doors were futile. They wouldn’t move. When I pushed on them, the fire pushed back. It was a live thing, that fire. It roared at me.

This angle was never going to work, so foolishly I decided to try another tactic. I walked around pit #3 and approached the burning pit head on. This was a big mistake. Without the doors to protect me, I was exposed to the full force of the fire, which immediately flash-burned all the exposed skin on my body. It was like standing on the surface of the Sun. I retreated. I stood back and watched flames consume the briskets, watched the fire climb through the hole in the roof. I imagined the entire restaurant would burn to the ground, all because I had stupidly left an open flame unattended.

Eventually the fire department arrived and sprayed water everywhere. When they were gone, the pit still stood strong, but the briskets were a charred, soaking mess. They were lost. The 80-quart plastic ice chest, the one we stored cooked briskets in, was melted like candle wax. I was devastated.

Gary arrived a few minutes later, and I knew it was only a matter of time before he sent me home. But somehow he didn’t. A few minutes later, the owner, Kenny showed up. He pulled me aside and told me not to worry. The fire wasn’t negligence on my part, he said, because I’d been inside helping the girls. He called my mistake a “hustling error.” Which was partly true and partly not, so I still felt terrible.

Later that evening, after the restaurant closed, we held a Secret Santa Christmas party. I was in a sour mood and not interested in exchanging presents. All I wanted was to go home. But eventually someone handed me a wrapped box, which I reluctantly opened. What I found inside finally made me smile.

It was a toy fire truck.

After I finished college and moved to Tulsa, I drove my girlfriend to Corpus to show her where I had grown up. I was especially excited to take her by the restaurant, since I had told her many horror stories about that place. But as we approached the parking lot, I could see something was wrong. Where the building should have been, there was just a pile of ground-up asphalt

We went somewhere else to eat, and after we ordered, I pulled the waitress aside and asked her if she knew what had happened to the barbecue restaurant.

She nodded gravely, as if I were inquiring about the dead.

“Yeah,” she said. “It burned down.”

Fires

By Matthew Gavin Frank

Travel

The fire-eaters, fire-dancers, and fire-spitters decorate the street corners. Beneath each traffic light: hordes of vendors peddling scratch-off lottery tickets, caramel candies, paper flowers. Louisa and I watch from the taxicab windows as the heart of Mexico City, even at midnight, beats as if riddled with morning coffee. Pockets of deafening horn-driven music ignite then die as we push slowly through the crowd toward Hotel Rioja. The city seems to glow as if with silver foil, peeled back just enough to reveal this contained and somehow irreverent human vitality, left to thrive on its own beneath Mexico City’s infamous ceiling of pollution. When we are hidden from the stars, we’re safe to engage what obsesses us, and here, shooting from a side street into the ballooning Zócalo square, what obsesses us seems to be essentially good.

After confronting my mother’s mortality head-on in Chicago, Louisa and I are more receptive to things like caramels and paper flowers—the small beauties that allow us our small joys, which are, after all, the stitches that hold us together, keep our blood inside us. We’re receptive to things like the Christmas light sculptures and façades that decorate the Zócalo’s Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María cathedral, the Aztec Templo Mayor, the National Palace with it’s mansion-sized Mexican flag. The flag’s emblem, as dictated by Aztec legend, was a gift from the gods. The gods told the Aztecs to found their city on the land where they were to spot a chimerical eagle, clinging to a prickly pear tree, gorging itself on a snake. It was here, in this same square where a skinny mother and her toddler son now peddle oranges from a green blanket to the midnight citrus snackers, that the Aztecs fulfilled the vision. This is the square where Moctezuma II had his houses, and in these garish light decorations, we can sense the ancient Aztec belief that this was, indeed the center of the universe. I reach for Louisa’s hand, wondering, in the Aztec scheme of things, which animal we are; which one my mom is.

And steering us through it, as celestial as the night scene itself, is an old bald man pointing with cigar-stub fingers to each building, each lamppost, each greening sculpture and muttering explanations as mysterious as wormholes in lisping Spanish, spittle adorning his words like gold tinsel. I lean forward to hear him, a series of pathetic fireworks explode their white light as benign as camera flashes to our left, and can only make out the muffled, but reverently spoken word, “Zócalo.” His mouth squashes the word like a cucaracha and it sounds, in this tiny cab as if pressed through the static of a shortwave radio.

Louisa touches the window as if attempting to get closer to the action. Tiny women in impossibly blue kerchiefs carry obese bundles of rolled bathmats on their backs. Children swordfight with pink glowsticks. The old man circles the square twice for us, making sure we take it all in, which, of course, is hopeless. We’re weary and hungry, and sinking into that wonderful hot-tub of travel, snapped out of our comfort zones, and light-headed. It’s unwise to keep our hearts beneath the surface of the water for too long. We might just die dazed and elated.

We turn onto one of the many dendritic side streets that extend like cephalopod arms into the roaring night-ocean of Ciudad de México. Hernán Cortés once described these roads as having the width of jousting lances. Surely, just by driving it, we cave in the chest armor of some benevolent ghost. Soon, we are parked in front of the Hotel Rioja—an old whore of a place, skin peeling, watermarked, skeleton pressing from beneath, but bearing a defunct regality, operating from the tender misconception that lipstick masks all age. I want to hug this hotel, deserving of both our generosity and respect.

Around its hip-corner, I will soon buy my Leon Cervesa Negra for about thirty cents. But first: dinner. And before that: shaking hands with the cabbie who sandwiches my fingers in his palms, stands on his tiptoes to kiss my wife on her cheek. We roll our suitcases over marble and step into the scarred belly of the whore, where even our breath echoes, and another short old man in a white dress shirt steps from behind the front desk, beaming like some reincarnated eagle.

There burned a pyre of memory of beloved trees, one sick but healing, others that fell through the air.

Earth sign with water rising, I tended the fire. If I were made of Kevlar, I would have climbed inside the hearth and stoked with toes and fingertips.

* * * * *

The medieval maw consumed the swamp chestnut’s branches. Before we moved to this house, the tree had been neglected for more than a decade. Its sapwood oozed and festered in the summer. Rotted pulp filled the gap of its triangular wound, the illusion of strength, the texture of sponge. I named it Stinky then for the homebrew scent of its fermented sap. In spite of its illness, slime flux mold disease, Stinky was sturdy, resilient. Its shade was nearly as valuable as its beauty, so it was spared, pruned of dead and dying branches. Twigs gathered from its canopy in the fall fueled the fire’s start. A stray leaf, large as a cow’s ear, flared red at the edges and collapsed.

That tree lives, sleeping now, its roots in the rain contained by the clay.

It was early in the morning.  Lori answered the phone and handed it to me.  My father’s voice.

“Uche…there’s been a terrible…”

“Uche…you should know…”

A pause as gruesome guesswork played through my mind.  I wanted to hear rather than continue imagining, but did I really want to hear?  He drew a constricted breath, and it came in a wave before his voice broke.

“Uche, Chika died tonight.  Imose died tonight.  Little Anya is just barely hanging on…”

Died.  Died.  Barely hanging on.

My nieces.

“I’ve already told you: the only way to a woman’s heart is along the path of torment. I know none other as sure.” —Marquis de Sade

Stop shaking your head. Gimme a chance to explain…

Long distance relationships open like pop-up books. Her pop-up book is in Manhattan.

I like stealing stuff—if I like you. I case every woman who catches my eye trying to see what they’re hiding.

You can’t give your phone number without giving something of yourself. Every little hair on a woman, even the peach fuzz, is a fuse.

I watch some guys staring at their girls like kids staring at a candy store window. Which gets me wondering–––along with the girl in most cases–––is he making that sweet expression at her or to himself in the reflection? So the girl looks over at me and sees the crowbar in my eyes. I can’t hide it.

But every time it feels the same when it clicks with somebody. I pick the lock and break into their life and instead of trying to steal everything, I end up wanting to move in.

I’m in full-on burglary-mode when all of a sudden I find myself liking the way you crookedly hang that painting, the way your bookshelves lean, that you’re a pack-rat for every letter an ex sent you and you’re amused I burned everything I had with my first kiss, that you kept a lock of your hair from when you were six and now your hair’s a different color, how you had a street portrait artist embellish your likeness when you were going through an ugly phase and everybody pretended you were really that pretty, you were entirely frigid with one boy and put out on the first date with another and you don’t know why the difference, that I thought my first girl was the one until we popped each others cherry and I knew she wasn’t and told her so, that you want a dad and your cute little boy at the same time out of a husband—oh yeah—and the guy you’d risk all that for to cheat with, you want to have your blueprints for the rest of your life approved of, you want your history to be a rumor that you spread, you want me to cast my net at you swinging over and over and never get more than half your butterflies, you want to be my private petting zoo, you want me to pry you down from your ivory tower over the intercom, I want a muse who fucks like a whore, you want to be able to hurt me and build me up, you want me to trudge through your sewers and step out onto your penthouse balconies, you want to take your top down in conversation and have my breeze run through your hair, I want you to kiss the stretch marks and cellulite on my brain, you want me to contemplate every guy who ever wanted to get into your pants, you want jealousy, you want me to be loyal but only because you’re amused that I’m a born serial-cheater, you want the church of your heart to have the choir on fire and neither of us willing to piss on them, I want you as a cookie jar, you want to get our plans on wheels, you want somebody with no plans, you want Monopoly on weeknights and Risk on weekends, you want somebody who can fuck people up but also listen, your personal angelic caveman with a daunting reading list, you want me to be fucked-up but lucid, you want our kid as the final jury on us, I’m not sure you really do, you want relativity here and there but stuff that comparison can’t touch other places, you want love letters and suicide notes and me to pretend with a straight face like I know what the fucking difference is, you want your melody to feel like a symphony, I want my note to feel like a melody, you want me to wonder how many inches it takes to reach your heart, I want you with telescopes and microscopes and a club and a cave and no viable heat source but me, you want me to accept that Brinny can still fall in love 10,000 times but it doesn’t have to be with 10,000 different girls it can just be with me, over and over, like some karma on spin cycle and no tag-backs, and we can be off-key, and every soliloquy can be one long stutter, and why the hell am I inventorying all this shit, oh yeah I’m nervous about Thanksgiving, I just mean… my garbage and maladjusted apparatus wasn’t flammable until I met you, be my pyromaniac and I’ll be your kleptomaniac, we’ll get the hang of it, epileptic embrace, be each other’s Rosetta Stone, here, this is a piece of chipped paint off my Davega Bicycle, we can be cigarette train wrecks in each others ashtray, you can sign letters in lowercase so I’ll imagine you on your knees and try to map out more ways to sweep you off your feet, now you’re making me a little nervous for not having wiped this thing’s nose, and I better stop cause everything else’ll feel like drinking from a bent straw but yeah, do we have a deal?