Sunday, March 30, 2008

BURN PILE by Todd Powell

Late in August, smoke drifts through the open window, entering the house well after the Uhlman dog has quit barking at the raccoons. Even the late-night yokels—the half-drunk teens lucky not to veer off the road down below, the middle-aged thunder riders leaving the local biker tavern—have gone home to bed. The valley is silent as Janice rises to the window and sees the glow beyond the trees.

When she wakes him, Ollie has been dreaming of inconsequential acts, neither troubling nor erotic. He’s so groggy and REM-ed up by trivialities that he forgets, momentarily, where he is.

“What stinks?” is all he can muster.

“I’m calling 911. Get your clothes on and run over there.”

It takes a second before the outline of Janice’s body develops before his eyes. Head over shoulders over breasts over belly. Legs cut off at the thighs by the edge of the bed as if she were wading at the beach.

“Over where?”

“The Eggerts’. I think their house is on fire.”


He’s in jeans and a shirt in seconds. His shoes take twice as long, but soon Ollie’s out the door and racing through the grass.

The stars have been pure for weeks, but now the smoke is thickening into low clouds as Ollie approaches the fence that Walt Eggert helped him build last year. Unable to see the gate, he finds a post, sets a foot on a board and hoists himself over. He lands on both feet and a hand, then bounds onto the gravel road. Reaching full speed, Ollie leaps the ditch and lands in Eggert’s pasture. (Once, maybe the day after they moved in, he met the retired English professor here for the first time; Eggert was sitting on an idling lawn tractor, drinking a Dr. Pepper.)

Ollie races up the pasture, the glow annealing behind a grove of apple trees, the smoke swelling through the branches. There’s a trail, Eggert’s mowing path. He scoots past an Adirondack chair, a picnic table, a small greenhouse. Through an arbor and past the lawn, Ollie sees the two-story building, nearly half of it dressed in flames. Despite the smoke, the other half seems oddly serene, untouched, as if a lion has knocked out two gazelles and one lies quietly in the grass while the other is being devoured.

The intensity of the blaze is more than Ollie has ever experienced. He draws sideways, attempting to flank the heat, to find a window or door. He yells their names, screaming into the heat and catching smoke in his lungs. Dropping to the grass, he crawls across a patio toward a side window opposite the flames. Here, he finds a terra cotta planter, about the size of a volleyball, which still holds the cool of night on its underside. Ollie hurls the planter at the window and hears the pop and shatter of glass, the sudden influx of oxygen filling the room. A rake leans against the house near the window. He grabs it and clears the remaining shards from the sill.

Ollie leverages himself up and into a utility sink, next to the washer and dryer. He turns on the water and douses his head and shirt. There’s a door, which he touches to check for heat. He pulls it open.


Eggert’s wife is found in the family room on what was once the davenport. Next to her, on the floor, lies Walt. In the kitchen the firefighters discover Ollie, still alive but unconscious from the smoke.

At the hospital when Ollie first wakes up, Janice says how sorry she is for sending him there. She didn’t think he would actually go into a burning house, yet she hoped he would do something brave. “You did both,” she says, “or at least you tried.”

According to Ben Uhlman, the pile had been there for months. One day he saw it—a stack of brush—and noted, casually, that it seemed too close to the house. That was in June, though, when rain still pelted the valley walls at regular intervals. But with the dry spell and all, you can see how one spark might do it.

Other neighbors add their own ideas. The fire was set on purpose, a burn that got out of control. Someone even suggests that maybe the fire didn’t start in the pile but inside the house, that maybe she was in there sleeping as he set it off. During the investigation, Janice confirms that Eggert was distraught about the health of his wife, who had been ill for a long time and never left the house. Maybe she died from her illness, and he couldn’t bear to live without her. The fire was his way for them to go out together. “It’s just so tragic,” she says. “It seemed like he loved her very much. And there was the music.”


Yes, she explains, Eggert liked to sing. They heard him sometimes in the pasture warbling Neil Young tunes. “Heart of Gold” and a breeze full of cottonwood fluff would come their way late in the spring. In August, you might hear Sinatra’s “Summer Wind.” In fall, it was back to Neil Young and “Harvest Moon” or “Cinnamon Girl.” Come winter, though, they were all inside, but chances were Eggert was still singing.


As the heat wave ends, Ollie recovers. His lungs take to the cooler air. From the bedroom window, he sees all the scattered fir boughs from a recent storm, the blackberry vines that have gone unchecked. Usually he’s on top of the yard work, but Janice has made him take it easy. She watches him; he can feel her gaze coating him as if he were a child.

In the tool shed Ollie finds the machete. Outside, he walks the fence line and stops at the gate Eggert helped him construct. Not as simple as it looks, building a solid gate that can bear enough stress. He studies the slats and the diagonal support, tests the swing. It glides smoothly, easily.

Ollie follows the line of the fence, which runs the length of his property. When the two men finished building it, Ollie offered his hand. “Thanks. It’s a good fence.” The professor grinned. “Good neighbors make good fences,” he said. When Ollie didn’t catch the reference, Eggert added, “It’s a literary joke. You know, Robert Frost?”

Now, Ollie closes the gate and walks toward a bank of blackberry vines. His eyes trace their entanglements as they weave randomly through the Oregon grape—thorns consorting with glossy, serrated leaves. It’s hard to say whether they’re choking or embracing each other. Janice, he concludes, would opt for the slow, uncultivated dance.

He brings the machete back, holds it up for a second, the tip pointing toward the house, then swipes it hard through the lattice of vines and branches. The separated pieces ride high with the blade before dropping to the ground. Ollie gathers them up and tosses them into a pile. To these he adds all the fir boughs he can gather from the property.

In the afternoon, he lights a fire and watches the flames grow long and toothy. Every so often he tosses on a new bough, choking the flames until the fire bites into the needles and their moisture releases. Hundreds of crackles erupt with ardent applause. Waves of rapid claps, speeding up as if for an encore. He turns and gathers more boughs, enough to occupy both arms. Swinging these around, he dips at the knees to lift them airborne. When the boughs land the fire gives off a stunned exhalation, as if someone nearby has been clocked in the gut.

Smoke furls out the edges. Ollie steps forward, looking for a limb to adjust, when, suddenly, the blanket of green bursts into a riot of marigold flames. Ollie stumbles back, dazed by the rush of heat and frightened by his carelessness. He hasn’t forgotten, of course. He could have died that night. He came that close. Yet somehow this burn pile feels necessary.

After confirming that he hasn’t been singed, he looks back toward the fire. The orange flame surges, and, eventually, the plume thins out. Limbs will char black before crusting white.

Janice calls him into dinner, and he knows that she’s been at the window. When they sit down, she tries to read his mind. “You’re thinking about it, aren’t you?”


“Building that fire. Does it help?”

“I’m not thinking.”

“Then you must be re-enacting, maybe subconsciously?”

She’s not a therapist, he reminds himself, just a lawyer. When they met at the courthouse twelve years ago, he was certain she was looking right through him to the jock-jawed attorney by the elevators. She was, but not for long. Ollie, a half foot shorter than the other guy and considerably less experienced in the courthouse layout, asked where the ex parte courtroom was located. Janice volunteered to show him. He immediately fell for her voice. In the elevator, as the inevitable questions arose, he couldn’t believe that someone who heard all those abysmal stories in family court—the deadbeat fathers, the crack-addled mothers, the abusers, the abused—could sustain such a mellifluous tone about life. Nor could he believe that she was engaging him in a conversation about his legal practice. Encouraged, Ollie told her about the tricked-out Ford Econoline with a balance far in arrears, about the whacked-out customer who had a penchant for holding his client’s repo man at bay with a shotgun. Ollie needed a writ of replevin to authorize the sheriff to intervene.

Looking at Janice this evening, Ollie thinks he knows why she took an interest in him back then. It was the story he told. She liked the stories of family court, depressing as they could be. And she liked his story. After Ollie took a corporate post with an actuarial firm, she could have dropped him because the stories were far less interesting. But she didn’t. He knew she loved him and would plunge, as did he, into a state of despair whenever they were separated for longer than a few days. He had seen it, had felt the yearning in her shoulders when they reunited after business trips. And when it all got too much for him, when he needed to relieve himself of the city, she had seen that in him. The fretfulness bordering on panic—a quick change of the radio station in heavy traffic, a sudden interest in chewing gum, his jaw vising faster and faster the worse the roads got. She, Janice, a thoroughly urbanized woman who held tickets to the symphony and who had once dated a professional baseball player, suggested they move to the country.

“You’ve been through a lot,” she says now as she clears the plates. “Maybe you should consider speaking with a professional.”

“I’m fine,” he says. “Really.”


Ollie sits next to the low fire in a white, plastic chair. This time, instead of adding more fuel, he rearranges it, closing in the circle, making certain that every last part of a log or branch gets consumed and turned into a husk of ash.

The embers remind him of the city lights they left behind, clicking off and on. He takes his poking stick and flips a limb. Small medallions leap and tumble like distant acrobats bounding from platforms, lanterns in hand. Staring long enough, he makes out causeways and empty lots. Restaurants open all night. Rooms going to sleep. Floors shutting down, save for the lone custodian. With his stick he scatters the remaining fuel. Inside the house Janice sits by the living room window, feet perched on the ottoman, cup of tea on the end table.

Later, as the last of the fire smolders outside, Ollie joins her in bed. He’s still warm, his ears flushed, his forehead simulating fever. He sleeps with the sheets knee high while she pulls the covers tight over her left shoulder.

By the middle of the night, Ollie grows cold, his bladder swollen as a grapefruit. He stumbles to the bathroom and back, adjusts the covers, and sleeps until morning.

When he wakes, Ollie finds her right arm angled across his chest. He listens to her breathing inches from his ear.

She has watched out for him all these years. Ollie can’t imagine having to take care of anyone like that. He’s afraid of failing somehow, of letting love turn into a burden. He might not be able to handle it.

Janice stirs briefly, removing her arm and rolling onto her back without waking. There’s a strange beauty about this state of slumber. Janice with eyes closed, mouth split open, as if she were about to speak then thought better of it. It must be what their friends with kids mean when they say how much they like to watch their children sleep. He’d always assumed it was because all the activity—the noise, the chaos—was gone from their day, and so they were more relieved than anything. No more parenting. No more responsibility. But maybe it’s more than that.

Ollie watches her, waiting for the next intake of air and the rise of the sheets around her chest. He watches her at length, observing the repetitions in her breathing, how she follows a pattern, and how she breaks it every now and then.

It’s good practice, he tells himself. Just in case.


BURN PILE earned an Honorable Mention in the 2007 Competition.


Todd Powell received an M.A. in English from the University of Virginia and has worked as a paralegal, magazine editor, and freelance writer. In addition to his honorable mention in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition, he took first place in The Writer magazine’s 2007 short story contest. He lives in Duvall, Washington.