"Where We Were Headed"
Honestly, it was kind of strange the way he came downstairs and stood next to the couch, watching the T.V. with me, with his hands on his hips the whole while, all along me waiting for him to tell me to go to bed, but he didn’t. He laughed at the T.V. and kept watching, and finally when there was a commercial he turned to me sitting there and asked if I wanted to go to Mr. Avery’s tomorrow to work on the barn with him. Last week I had asked if I could go along and help lay the foundation, but that was because the cement truck was coming, and it would have been cool to run through the ditch dug out into the ground where it all had to go, like a trench, and to use the sticks to guide the shoot where the cement came out, and then use the shovels and hoes to flatten it out, spread it out, and get it all even. It was nice to do it, and was not like work at all, pushing it around and pulling some out, and making it even, making it the way it needed to be. I had done it when Uncle Jack built his new garage with Anthony and Vincent, and Anthony and Vincent were older but not much older, so when I was there he let me help, and told them to mind me, but there wasn’t really any minding that needed to be done with us being so busy making sure to get it all straight before it started to set. It took us all day and Uncle Jack kept standing over us, and yelling at us for what to do, and correcting us with his flat shovel, showing where we were wrong, and yelling loud over the truck, the banging of the truck and the screeching of the hydraulic piston that moved the mixer around. I had to ask him three times what the word hydraulic meant until finally he explained it to me. It was funny because I kept saying hychrolic.
He asked me again if I wanted to go when the show came back on. I really didn’t want to. Kenny and I had planned to hike up to the reservoir to see if we could find Michael Connolly’s old fort, the one he built with railroad ties that we heard was off the trail from the back of his property deep in the woods. We were gonna take sandwiches and everything, and go all the way up there, past the reservoir if we had to, to the county line, to the edge of where the woods met Bear Mountain because we knew all those woods, and had been clear up there with Kevin. Then I was wondering why he was letting me go with him, and was thinking that maybe it had something to do with Darlene going to the mall, that mom took her to the mall and she got some stuff, some clothes and stuff, and that even though I said I wanted to go with them I didn’t, and just did it to make her crazy, and that maybe he was feeling it was unfair to me. Then I remembered Brook’s deli was on the way to Mr. Avery’s house. I knew that if I did a good job, and didn’t complain, and listened, and stayed out of the way, that I could probably talk my old man into buying me a chocolate milk on the way home. Michael Connolly’s fort wasn’t going anywhere, and maybe I could use the circular saw. All right, I said, yeah, that I would go.
He woke me up early. Way earlier than I thought he would wake me, but he said we were already late, and that we had to hurry. My father was already dressed in his jeans and flannel, and ready to go. It was still cold in the house, and I got out of bed, and tried to keep my blanket around me, around my shoulders, and when my feet hit the floor everything was ice. I pulled them up and just sort of sat there on the edge of the bed with my legs up hovering above the cold wood, and my shoulders hunched down trying to stay warm while he tossed my clothes from out of my closet to next to me, and without paying attention to me or what he was doing, told me I should take an extra sweatshirt just in case, then left.
The house was quiet. Darlene was still asleep, and my mother was still asleep, and the dogs, for the most part, weren’t doing anything or were out back. Everything was so much louder, every movement and sound that I tried not to put my feet down all the way as I came out of my room and went down the hall. When I came into the kitchen, my cereal was already on the table. I wanted something warm like eggs and sausage. He said we didn’t have time for eggs and sausage, and that I had to eat up. Even without moving the spoon or putting any in my mouth I could tell it was soggy. I lifted the spoon and pushed it around turning it over, and again he told me I had to eat up. After he left to load the truck I put down as much as I could and threw the rest away.
Now the house was really quiet. I could hear the things banging in the truck outside as my father threw them in the bed. Every time I stepped, the floor creaked and sent a wave of noise down the hall to the rooms where the doors were only half-closed. I went into the front room and lay down. I flopped down on the red couch by the door, the one we used for coats, where Dilinger slept. I could smell Dilinger. I didn’t care. I was too tired.
He came in to get me and saw me on the couch. “What are you doing?” he said and laughed. “We gotta go. Come on.” He picked up some of the coats I had knocked on the floor and threw them on me. Now I could really smell Dilinger. “You want me to get Darlene to help?” he said. “I’ll go get her instead.” He laughed at this too.
I was all covered in coats and couldn’t see anything.
“Yes,” I said. “Get Darlene.”
“Come on,” he said. Then he kicked the couch, or hit the couch, or did something to the couch.
Even though the sun was out and I knew it was going to be warm later, much too warm for a sweatshirt and, once we got working, even pants, the air now was cool, and the bottom parts of the windows of the truck were frosted over, and I thought for a moment I could see my breath. Outside was just as quiet and still as in the house. Maybe more so. There was no sound at all and nothing happening, nothing moving except for the truck running a low mumble in the driveway, a sound that drifted over all the grass of the yard from the house out toward the road, thick in the quiet like the creaks from the floor inside, filling the air, the yard, and the Murphy’s yard as it went.
The tools were all in the back. As we got in, he told me he packed a hammer just for me and a nail apron. I thanked him, and he leaned over and messed up my hair, and said that it wasn’t a matter of thanks, that I was gonna need them, that I’d be working today.
“What about a tape measure?” I said.
“I only got one of those,” he said, “so we’ll have to share.”
“What about a drill?” I said.
He laughed at this. “I doubt we’ll be needing a drill today.” And he looked at me out of the corner of his eye. “But even so,” he said, “I don’t know if it’s such a good idea.”
“I can handle it,” I said. “Jessie’s dad let us drill in woodscrews on their pool deck last summer.”
He smiled. “He did?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I told you.”
He always forgot what I told him.
“Well,” he said, “we’ll see.”
I had told him. I had told him Jessie and I were actually doing most of the work, laying down two by sixes that Jessie’s dad had cut, and that we were spacing them a half-inch apart like he said, and screwing them in. We did the whole area by the diving board.
The whole rest of the way over he kept talking about the framing they had done during the week, and kept telling little stories about some of the problems they had, about wasted beams cut incorrectly and smashed fingers, and kept telling me to take my time and be patient with what I’m doing. “Slow and steady wins the race,” he said. “The best thing you can be is careful,” he said.
He talked about the framing some more, and what we had to do with the roof, and that most of the work was just cover work, and that we’d be hauling plywood, but that again, he reminded me, for the first part of the day we’d be up in the air.
“You’re not afraid of heights, are you?” he said.
“No,” I said without thinking about it.
“You sure?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Ladders don’t bother you?”
I had never been up on the roof of anything.
“No,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “But if you get afraid let me know. All right? We’ll get you doing something else. It’s not good to be working up high if you’re afraid. It’s dangerous,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “And stay away from Mr. Mariano if he shows up,” he said. “He hits his thumb so much he’ll probably hit your thumb.” He sort of laughed at this.
I laughed at this with him. Even though he made a joke about the thumb I knew there was something else I had to look out for. There was something he really didn’t want me to be near. Like when he joked about how I shouldn’t hang out with the kids at Avenue Park because I was too short to be any good at basketball when really it was because they were black. Other times I heard him talk that way about other kids, like some of the older kids from Light House Court who drank beer and were one time caught breaking out the windows of the gym at Saint Mary’s, but as I thought about it I realized I’d never heard him talk that way about another adult.
We came onto Mr. Avery’s property, and drove out back behind the house at the bottom of the hill. We didn’t drive around the curve up to the top where the barn was.
“Why are we parking here?” I asked.
The sun was really up now and the mist was thick off the grass of the lower fields, a solid white line.
“Buzzy’s gonna come by with the wood,” he said getting out of the truck. “I wanna make sure we’re not in the way.”
I met him around back where he had the door down and was going through the tools and things.
He slid the belt over, and the box knife and tape measure fell out. He collected them up, and set up the belt making sure everything was in place and ready to go, but he didn’t put the belt on, and instead threw it over his shoulder, and told me to grab the hammers. I took them down off the door, and tried to figure a way of carrying them so my hands would be free. He handed me my nail apron all bunched up and empty.
The belt loop in my pants was the perfect size for me to get my hammer, the smaller one, through, but the bigger one wouldn’t fit. I pushed at it and yanked at the loop but it wouldn’t go. When he saw what I was doing he said, “Don’t force it. If it won’t go just carry it.” He took the jug of water and a dirty towel he sometimes cut strips off to make sweatbands, and walked out ahead of me, and we started up the hill.
I could smell it when we were about half way there. But really, when I thought about it, I had been smelling it all along even at the truck, but didn’t know what it was, and only thought that it smelled like winter. “What is that?” I said.
“What’s what?” my father said.
“That smell,” I said.
“I don’t smell anything,” he said.
“It smells like winter,” I said out loud.
He did not respond.
At the top of the hill we could see it. It was incredible. It was all black. The black ribs of some giant animal half buried in the earth. Some of it still smoldered.
“Holy shit,” my father said.
The earth and dirt had been burned too, and the lawn too, all burned and gone even far out away from where the barn was where the intense heat itself must have flamelessly torched the tops of the high grasses. The entire area was gone, gone as though it had been erased and that the places that had been erased met the places that had not in a blurred, gray line of ash where suddenly on the outside of the blur a very real and pronounced green began, carrying on full as it had always done, dumb and utterly ignorant of the destruction it rubbed up against. “Wow,” I said. Over top, it looked as though some kind of enormous, wild thing had taken bites out of the trees on the edge of the woods that made them look like half eaten apples.
My father started forward to get a better look. He walked slow, with his eyes fixed on the remains of the barn, and made a wide circle to the left just on the edge of the black, with his boots sinking into the ash. He stopped just where the gate for the corral was supposed to be, and stood frozen, now as an odd living thing in a dead landscape with no sound or color.
I followed after him. At first it felt like a mistake, that I shouldn’t follow, that I was trespassing in some way, and that I should run away, and go somewhere back down the hill, back where I couldn’t see it, back to the truck, maybe where my father couldn’t see me. But I didn’t want to be afraid on the ladder, so I made myself go over.
“Don’t get too close,” he said.
I didn’t say anything. I just kept my distance.
When I came up next to him we stood a moment looking at it, and not moving. Then he put his hand on my shoulder. Neither one of us knew what to do. I’d heard about things burning down, barns, houses, even a car, though mostly cars just exploded, and I’ve seen pictures of them in books and newspapers, or on the news, and always there were the flames, and the remnants after the flames, but now I could see with them, with the pictures, or the bits of video that there was a frame, and that that made these things somehow smaller or put them even in a box, where as there in the field, in front of me, the height of the destruction, of the burned timbers on the smoking cement, and the enormous ring of black, was all so much larger than what I had ever seen, or had ever heard described to me that, honestly, it was less real than the pictures.
“This is crazy,” my father said. And I was thinking the same thing.
Then we heard a scream. My father and I both spun to face the far end of the north field where it came from.
Nothing happened. That big pervasive soundlessness that had filled the house when I woke was around, and I could hear my father’s boots shift in the dirt. We waited a minute, but nothing happened. Then it came again. It was a woman’s scream. My father and I watched, and there seemed to be a commotion in the bushes where the green met the dark at the tree line. All at once, there it was. A white flash.
I couldn’t believe it.
She came through the brush not pink, not slow, not tan or anything, but a white flash full-on facing us as she ran like a maniac with her arms flailing, and her boobs flopping around. All at once I was very much standing next to my father. It was funny how much taller he was than me. She broke to the left, and her big white thighs moved her body quick and with the dexterity of a deer leaping a log, and she turned so that she was going away, and then her boobs were not flopping but her big bottom was flopping as she went around, off parallel to the line from where she had come, looking over her shoulder for something behind her.
“What in the hell?” my father said. Then he said to me, “Don’t look,” but did not move or do anything, did not try to cover my eyes to stop me, and stood there with his arms at his side as I did.
She cut back and made a tight circle, and I could see she had what looked like a gas can in her hand, then cut back again, looking over her shoulder and I knew that, yes, it was a small, red, gas can. Then a man, clothed, tore out of the shrubbery right behind her. He was thinner, but slower, and his movements were more precise as he would pause at times as he tried to cut down her direction and get to her. The woman made another tight circle, then struck out in a long sprint across the field, determined now to get away, with her head down and her legs pumping, just at an angle away from us so that I could only see one boob whipping wildly around like a forgotten flap on the side of a speeding car.
“Jesus Christ,” my father said, “it’s Avery.”
Mr. Avery dove at her but she made a fine, hard, cut and he missed, and went crashing to the ground. She ran faster, and started to circle back, but when she saw he was getting to his feet she made another cut, and took off again for the woods. She let out a final horrendous scream that sent birds scattering into the sky as she broke the tree line, and I watched her big, white, round bottom vanish through the thick of the green.
We stood there a long while, and I was not sure if we were waiting for a scream, or waiting for them to come back.
Down at the truck my father took his belt off his shoulder, and handed it to me as he undid the door. The belt was much heavier than it looked. I tried putting it over my shoulder, but it was too heavy and cumbersome, and I almost lost the pencil and the tape measure.
We drove for a while, and my father would not say anything. I knew he was not being quiet without anything to say, but was being, as my mother would say, a silent wall, when they had been fighting, and that now I knew what that meant, that a wall was both something that kept things out, and at the same time kept things in, and that there was a lot there, in there, but that he was not saying it, just as there was a lot out here in the truck with us that he was not, and that I was not, saying anything about either. A few times I thought about saying something, but as it came up I felt that bringing it out might make things worse, or somehow corrupt, not what we left behind, but where we were heading to, away from it. The engine rattled and there were cars now on the road around as it was not early anymore, and the day was up and going. Occasionally he would make a noise, a grunt or a guffaw. His mostly flat face flashed, at times, an annoyance. After a while of us not talking, I thought that maybe I had done something wrong.
“Don’t tell anyone about what you saw,” he said.
It startled me.
“I won’t,” I said.
It had not actually occurred to me to tell anyone.
Then I asked him if Mrs. Avery had burned the barn down.
“Ah, Jees . . .” my father said, then didn’t say anything. Then he said, “Yeah, I guess that’s the way it looks.”
“Why?” I said.
“I don’t know,” he said, then again didn’t say anything for a long while, then said, “Who knows why. Who knows what goes on in people’s houses? I guess . . . I guess maybe Mrs. Avery just lost control. Sometimes,” he said, “we lose control. But Mrs. Avery really lost control.”
“Why?” I said.
“Danny,” he said. And when he said my name it sounded like he was lifting something.
I didn’t want to say anything else.
After a while he said, “Sometimes,” then just repeated himself and said, “We lose control.”
Then I said, “I won’t lose control.”
“Oh no?” my father said.
“No,” I said.
We were coming up on Brook’s deli. I figured I’d tell him to stop so I could use the bathroom, and then once we were inside I’d start working on him for the chocolate milk.
Christopher Heffernan has had poetry and fiction published in magazines and journals including The Writer's Journal, Summerset Review, The Believer, Talking River and Cottonwood as well as the anthology You're A Horrible Person, But I like You. In 2015 his book of poetry and flash fiction, Rag Water, was published by Fly By Night Press