--I HOPE YOU HAVE THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE
...A friend of mine had a story published in the prestigious lit journal, Tin House. Since then, he's had three agents query him, asking if he has a novel. That's pretty impressive.
So yesterday I wrote something for TH. It may be too traditional, but I like how it turned out.
Here it is:
From our tree fort, using Benny’s stolen Boy Scout binoculars, we watched the fast-moving fire scream across the Cascades, watched the flames twist and spark and rage.
“It kind of looks like a dragon,” I said, my teeth chattering despite the summer heat.
“A dragon straight out of hell.”
Even though the fires were still far away, the air around us had turned spicy, hot and thick with soot. Breathing felt like sucking down sand.
We were kneeling, looking out the opening. My foot wouldn’t stop twitching and it made dull, rabbit-thumping sounds on the slatted wood floor. “You think it’ll reach us?” I asked, hoping my voice didn’t sound reedy.
“I hope so,” Benny said.
“Are you nuts?”
“Man, I hate it here. This place sucks.”
He meant his life sucked. Benny’s sister had gotten pregnant at sixteen, just a year older than us now. She wouldn’t say who the father was, though town gossip had it being Benny’s Dad. Into her second trimester, the girl ran away and no one had heard from her since. Benny’s father used to work for the lumber mill, but being perpetually drunk, consequences caught up with him one day when he cut his arm off at the elbow. Since then he spent his days drinking away insurance checks at “The Silver Dollar.” Because of that, and because Benny had been motherless as long as I’d known him, Benny was left with more freedom than anyone our age.
“Whoa!” Benny said.
“Let me see.”
“Just a sec.”
I wondered about the animals, if they could outrun the flames. I had a dog, Rosie, named after my favorite baseball player, Pete Rose. Imagining her on fire gave me the willies and prickled my forearm flesh until it looked like one of those bald chickens Mom bought home to fry.
I kept wondering if we shouldn’t get down, go inside the house and watch the news. There was talk that we might have to evacuate, depending on the strength of the winds. Outside the fire split into two’s, then three’s, like a burning hydra, torching pines and evergreens, leaving a smoldering, black rug in their wake.
The blaze crested the mountains and swung down the slope at a rapid speed. I squinted my eye, trying to estimate how much distance the flames covered over the span of a minute, then factoring in the expanse between us and the fires. Math was my weakest subject, but if my guess was even partially correct, the fire would be on our heels in less than two hours. I told myself that couldn’t be right. I was an idiot at math. We were safe. God was a busy guy, but he’d never allow us to roast.
“It doesn’t seem real,” I said, having difficulty speaking.
“Oh, yeah it does.”
“It looks like a movie.”
“Don’t smell like one.”
Earlier in the year, Benny and I had seen “Towering Inferno” starring Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. Afterward, I’d thought I might want to be a fireman someday, but now I knew I didn’t. I could never be that brave.
Benny handed me the binoculars and reached into his sock, pulling out a pack of Tareytons he’d lifted from his dad’s dresser. “Want a smoke?” he asked, grinning, remembering the last time I’d taken a few drags and ended up vomiting in a black berry bush.
“Didn’t think so.”
Benny was an excellent smoker. He blew tight circles that looked like fuzzy onion rings and each time he’d break the ring in two with his forefinger.
“Are you hungry?” I asked. I wasn’t, but figured it might be a way to get us out of the tree fort.
“Man, we ate like a whole box of Twinkies.”
I’d forgotten. Those, too, we’d filched from Benny’s dad. The man was drunkard with a sweet tooth. Benny had opened up the cramped closet inside his father’s bedroom, revealing a treasure trove of goodies—Hostess Fruit Pies, Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, you name it. There were Playboy magazines, as well, old ones. Playmate of the Year for March, 1970, was Chris Koren. Benny ogled the centerfold and said, “Man, isn’t she hot?” which troubled me because Chris Koren looked just like Benny’s sister, only naked and wearing makeup.
Benny tilted his head back, blowing smoke at the ceiling, watching it meander ghostlike into each cobwebbed corner. He sang, “Come on baby, light my fire.” Then, “I fell into a burning ring of fire.”
I already felt light, dizzy, too. Nails moaned and boards creaked as the wind sashayed our fort. “How old’s this thing?” I asked.
“How ancient exactly?”
“It was here before the Indians.”
Bennie knew how to get my goat. I felt like puking and had to pee.
“I’ve got to take a leek.”
“Be my guest,” Benny said, wanding his arm like an usher. He meant for me to pee out the opening, down into a heap of beer cans and moldy cardboard boxes below. That was what we always did, wanting to stay in the fort as long as possible.
“I think I have to do the other, too.”
“Take a dump?”
I hated the word dump. I hated crap as well. “Yeah,” I said.
Benny raised an eyebrow. He didn’t believe me. He knew I was scared. “Better do it before you drop a loaf in your shorts.”
I told him I’d be right back.
“Grab a couple of Pabsts while you’re at it.”
“And a couple of Playboys, the newest ones you can find.”
Going down the latter, the wind whipped my shoulders, threatening to throw me off. The air was filled with chaff and tiny bits of dirt. My eyes stung, then started to water. I hoped Benny wasn’t watching because I worried he might think I was crying.
“Oh boy!” I heard him squeal. “The earth’s turning into one giant weenie roast.”
I made it to the house, turning on the television. Benny only got three channels. Soap operas were on two and a game show on the other. No news coverage of the fire.
In the fridge, I found two whole shelves filled with Pabst Blue Ribbon. I opened one and swallowed half a can. It burned going down, but tasted delicious, just the right kind of sour. Benny’s trailer was no more than thirty feet long. Wood paneling lined the walls. When I thought how much the fire would enjoy those walls, I got scared again and gulped the rest of my beer.
Outside, in just the few minutes since I’d left the fort, the air now wore a thick, charcoal fog. It was mostly overhead, but it hadn’t been there before. I yelled up at Benny, “How close is it?”
He leaned over the opening, only holding on with one hand as the fort swayed and convulsed.
“Where’s my beer?”
“Damn it, Benny.”
“I’m dying of thirst up—“
A violent gust came out of nowhere, jarring the tree fort. High up, a branch cracked, flying off, then smacking the ground inches from my foot. It took a moment for the dust to clear, longer for my fear to ease.
“Holy crap, you almost got nailed.”
“Let’s go,” I said.
“It’s crazy to stay.”
“Are you kidding me? This is like the world’s greatest fireworks show.”
I didn’t always understand Bennie, and right then I didn’t know if he was brave or dumb, or if he enjoyed the thought of being burned alive.
“Don’t be stupid,” I said.
“Stupid is as stupid does.”
“Have a swell trip.”
“I mean it, I’m leaving.”
“And you the same, my good buddy.”
I watched him turn and go back inside. I considered pleading again, but knew it would be of no use.
I walked past the house fast. When I was a good block away I started to trot before breaking into a full sprint.
* * * * *
“It’s a big one,” my partner yells.
He’s the one flying our helicopter, a Bell 205, fully loaded with water. Half a mile in front of us, the canyons roil and flicker and smolder. Plumes of black float away in the breeze, erasing much of the landscape.
“Looks like Armageddon,” my partner says.
It does. Most of the fires we fight do.
After we dump our load, four of us in the chopper will drop down and start working the eastern rim where the spread is expected. We have our chutes, shovels, picks and other gear.
“You doing okay? You seem a little more out of it than usual.”
“Hell you are.”
I look down at the inferno engulfing acres by the minute. It’s nothing I haven’t seen dozens of times, though each battle has its different nuances, nature often outwitting man.
“I knew a kid once,” I say, “thought he could beat a wildfire by himself.”
I think about Benny that day, how I’d run for help, not getting there fast enough. Benny must have come down from the fort after I’d left, and walked straight toward the hills. That’s the only explanation I could think of, because smokejumpers eventually managed to contain the blaze before it hit any homes. As far I know, that tree fort might still be standing today.
“Hey, you awake?”
“Sorry,” I say.
“So what happened, to that kid?”
I picture Benny leaning out over the opening, asking for his beer. I picture him leaping into a smoke-filled heaven.
“You’ll never believe it,” I say.