Barns burn. It does not matter what materials are used to construct the barns because what is stored inside of them is combustible—spontaneously combustible sometimes. What virtually no one out in barn country ever really understands is, why some barns burn and others do not. Bad luck? Karma? Cheap wiring? I suppose that was the kind of question in everyone’s mind when Sam Combs’ barn burned up on the hill.
Our barn burned a year before. I was eleven.
“Musta been spontaneous combustion,“ my father had told the Fire Chief. If he could have, Dad would have winked at me. I could see the amusement on his face glowing through the sooty sweat and dancing in his eyes beneath the black smear across his forehead. The fire actually continued to smolder for almost two full days and nights but the smoky smells lasted even longer. It was in our hair, on our clothes, even in the air. It diminished with washing and time, but its unmistakable, persistent tinge remained on the edge of everything for days. I wondered if it hadn’t embedded itself right into our skin, tagging us with the crime of arson.
Earlier that day, even though I was probably supposed to overhear my father tell my mother that the barn might burn, I didn’t like the idea. Our barn, in a family that didn’t actually farm, was given over to children and to fantasy. There was no livestock, no expensive equipment, no feed to store, no harvest to tuck high up under its eaves. The barn belonged to fun and solitude and a few dozen sparrows and starlings. I had read my first real book in that barn—an old copy of The Wizard of Oz. And later, intending to read it again, I had lost it in the stale old hay in the loft. If the barn burned, so would that lost book.
A barn is a living community of itself, independent of what humans might place inside. Mice and rats, cats, thousands of insects, sometimes a coon, sparrows by the hundred visit and roost, grackles, starlings, swallows and barn owls. It was in that barn I had first taken life–a blue-gray pigeon struck neatly between the eyes by a BB from my Daisy. It had fallen from the rafters, dead before it struck the dusty, worn floorboards. It bounced a little when it landed, raising a little of that dust which rose in long streaks of sunlight slanting through holes in the roof.
It was in this barn I first felt the sulfurous presence of unanticipated death. While my BBs delivered death with stinging purpose, it was on a Sunday summer morning the realer truth was revealed. I had found five kittens in a nest attended by a cat I had never seen before. They were tucked deep in the granary, wrapped in old hay and straw. The next morning there were only four. I knew that newborns sometimes die and I reasoned that the mother cat had discovered her dead kitten and had removed it from the nest. But the next morning, when I pulled back the straw surrounding them, the four tiny bodies lay still. In the night, a weasel had chewed their heads off. The nest was nearly bloodless. I did not know until that moment that animals sometimes kill for sport as well.
A rope hung from the ridgepole of our barn. Once there had been a pulley mounted by hardware up there, but when my family had arrived and the barn had stopped functioning as a barn, the pulley was gone and the inch-thick manila rope had hung from a giant knot since we bought the property four years before. My younger sisters and I would swing out on the rope over the empty floor. At the far end of the arc, for that brief moment of motionlessness, we could look down at the old brown, wide floor boards, twist our bodies in mid-air with the trick of scissoring the lower legs, then rush back to the opposite side of the open bay and land with feet on top of the old chute used for feeding cattle in the lower level during some previous incarnation.
We held contests. Swing farthest? Swing longest? Climb highest? Swing one handed, no feet, upside down? I won most of the contests because I was the oldest and the strongest. Older brothers are not out-done by younger sisters in the world of swinging on ropes. The contests I lost, we argued about until I won the argument.
Only once did one of my sisters fall. Karla had tried to swing with one hand and even before she had reached the full arc of the swing, she had dropped off. It seemed as though the rope had shed itself of her annoying little weight in its struggle against gravity and angular momentum. She landed on the planked floor about the way the dead pigeon had landed. Not one of the three of us moved, but dust rose in the bars of sunlight. When she sat up, we all laughed.
I’m sure I did not recall these scenes when my father spoke of burning the barn. But, I’m also sure that somewhere within me I knew if the barn burned so would all of these things. It sounded even then like my dad had decided to render a large piece of my childhood to ash and memory.
Dad and I prepared for the burn. What would a man and a boy need to render an eighty year old barn to ash? We hauled a broom, two rakes and the garden hose over to the barn in a wheelbarrow at about mid-day. That was the extent of our fire suppression equipment and our entire plan. Dad leaned over and flicked the striker wheel of his Zippo and held the tiny yellow and blue flame in a moldering pile of straw. The fire caught but spread very slowly in the dampness. Thick, wet, yellow clots of smoke roped out of the pile and lay heavily on top, but very gradually the fire spread. The hapless mound of straw burned almost completely but failed to ignite any part of the old barn. It just stood there, like it had for decades, squatting indifferently on its cut rock foundation.
“Go get the wastepaper.”
We piled the paper trash next to an old weather beaten wall. The windows had been out of the milking parlor years before we arrived. We piled a few loose boards and an old wooden box on top and lit it again. This time it did not take long before flames began to creep up the dry barn wood, marking its trails sooty black.
Occasionally my father would wet down a wall or a beam with the garden hose, but only enough to control the fire to the point where we could stand nearby. Flames began to curl out of the basement door and a column of gray smoke wound its way into the cloudless sky. It became a silent signal visible for miles.
Hank Pruden, who rented the farm next to us from Sam Combs came running down the hill. He was an older man than my father, perhaps fifty-five with gray burr cut hair and a perpetual three-day stubble of white whiskers. He always wore the same aging cloth hat with a stained sweatband. He carried an old blanket in front of him. The corners flapped as he ran and I expected him to trip and fall in the dust with each lanky stride. He did not.
Hank loped up to us winded.
“I called the fire department, Harold.” But when he saw my father’s face, Hank’s expression changed from concern, near panic, to confusion. And then, as his face revealed the first scratch of understanding, he asked, “What the hell you doin’?”
“Burnin’ the barn.” Dad’s voice was calm. His gaze was level and expressionless as he looked through the blackening doorway into the fire. A fine mist of water drifted up into the air a few feet from a slightly defective repair of the old hose. By now rushing smoke was visible through the windows on the main floor of the barn. “Gonna get pretty hot,” he added.
“Ya gone crazy, man?” Hank stared back and forth between the fire, my father’s face, which he saw in profile, and the hose which my father held but did not apply to the fire. The blanket he had brought with him, presumably to help smother and beat out any small element, hung forgotten in Hank’s right hand.
The fire was very large now. We stepped back several yards from the heat. I still wanted to shade my eyes with my hand, but neither one of the men did, so I didn’t either. Flames rose out of the windows above. The barn was filled with a furious noise. Swallows flew wildly near the large open doors. A loud cracking, like the firing of a gun, came from somewhere in the basement and I thought I saw the barn settle into itself a little. My father squirted a few ineffectual gallons of water into the doorway which did nothing to the furious intensity of the flames. We stepped back a few more paces and Dad sent me back to the house to turn off the hose. It wouldn’t be needed for the rest of the way. From the greater distance I could see huge billows of white-gray smoke roll out of every opening and stretch out against the blue of the June sky. Two and a half miles away, in town, I heard the first sirens of the volunteer fire department begin to scream. The first pumper was on its way.
In less than five minutes that pumper and the volunteers on board came rolling into our driveway and across the open space toward the barn, stirring up a great brown cloud of dust which hung in the windless air and mixed with the light gray smoke. Hoses unrolled, connected to the high pressure pumps. White arcs of water joined the smoke and dust in the blue, June sky and landed on the old shake shingles. Almost simultaneously, the first wisps of flame peeked out from beneath them.
Everyone knew no amount of fireman effort would save the building. It was only a matter of controlling the blaze now so that it wouldn’t spread to the other out-buildings or our home. That’s what Fire Chief Ellis told my father. I had met him two months before on a trip to the fire station with the Boy Scouts.
“Let it spread,” my father said. “They’ll have to come down anyway. Save me some work.”
It must have been my father’s lucky day. When the barn’s walls and roof collapsed in on itself, one wall fell outward, so the corn crib and the chicken coop burned too. We had no corn and no chickens so it was no bigger loss than the barn. It took the firefighters until dusk to be sure the fire was under control.
The sun slipped slowly over the horizon in the west. As clear as the day had been, the sunset was a wash of gold and orange, probably from the smoke in the immediate area. But the sunset show wasn’t nearly as spectacular as it could have been after the day we had had. Darkness finally gained a footing and everything around the remains of the fire wavered in and out of a dull, red iron glow, almost as though seen from underwater. Faces seemed full of lines and wrinkles. The skin on my own face felt dry and tight and smooth. Apparent textures and patterns were not to be trusted.
That’s when my father suggested spontaneous combustion to the fire chief. I’m sure Chief Ellis didn’t believe him, but that’s what he wrote down on the fire report, without comment.
In fact, of course, spontaneous combustion was the most unlikely of causes. If Dad meant to imply that the hay had combusted, the Chief knew it was completely unlikely. The remnants of hay in the barn were pretty low. No one had stored hay in the barn for more than a decade. The hay was as dry as possible and only damp hay is likely to spontaneously combust. We had no wet hay and it hadn’t rained in days. It wasn’t oily paint rags either. No linseed oil in the barn, no paint, no stain. The barn itself hadn’t been painted or stained or oiled in at least forty years. An electrical arc? The barn was wired primitively, but the source of power had been severed before we took over the property. Chief knew. Dad knew the Chief knew. I knew they both knew. And that is what he wrote down.
In retrospect, it doesn’t really matter what caused the fire. It was the result my dad was after. Even as a child, I understood that it made good sense to spend a day burning the barn down rather than to use weeks in tearing it down; a simple matter of economy of labor. Risks were high both ways. But the barn was old and a hazard, an attractive one. We didn’t farm; we had no livestock or farm equipment to house. A barn is not the kind of structure that can be easily moved, so it had to burn. It was a marvelous show with all the elements necessary to be regarded as a success by an eleven year old boy. And sitting here, more than fifty years later, I can still see those glowing embers after sunset. Still sense the heat on my face.
But when Sam Comb’s barn burned, it wasn’t spontaneous combustion–planned or otherwise. I knew it and so did Jimmy Kirkland.
Jimmy was Hank Pruden’s nephew. He visited his uncle often enough that I had met him several times. We were tossed together because we were boys about the same age. Everyone was sure we would be best friends. I had formed an opinion of Jimmy. But living in the country, a boy doesn’t have much choice in playmates. Besides, other than my sisters, the only other kid within a mile was Estelle Rivers. And, at twelve, I didn’t want anything to do with her. At school there were stories. And I could still remember what Mrs. Blanchard did to Donny Murphy and me when she caught us watching Estelle climb the monkey bars in third grade. Donnie had bet her his milk money that she didn’t dare to take off her underwear and climb to the top while he and I sat on the ground and watched. Donny lost his milk money, and both of us nearly lost an ear to Mrs. Blanchard on the trip to the principal’s office.
Jimmy wasn’t much better than Donny though. He swore. It wasn’t the swearing that bothered me. I had heard plenty from my father. It was the fact that Jimmy was more than a year younger than me and I wouldn’t dare say the things he said. And he stole chewing tobacco and cigarettes from Hank. He offered me a chew once saying I was chicken if I didn’t try it. I was sick for a day. Jimmy never got sick. More important, Jimmy was a better athlete than me. He climbed around the rafters of the barn like an old barn rat. He could climb a rope hand-over-hand while I was still on the ground with the thought of going so high.
One crisp Saturday morning in late Spring, I saw Jimmy’s family car pull into Hank’s driveway and make the slow crawl in first gear up to the house. I was burning the papers. It was one of my twice a week family chores. My mother saw the car too.
“Why don’t you go up to Hank’s and play with Jimmy?” she asked when I returned to the house.
“I don’t really want to, Mom.” But I couldn’t think of an excuse to stay home.
“With your sisters at Grandma’s for the weekend, there’s nothing for you to do around here. You took out the trash?”
“Is your room picked up?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“Then off you go. Here’s your jacket.”
I was outdoors and trudging up the hill to Hank’s house before I could make an excuse. The strong April wind pushed me and, reluctantly, I let it carry me up the hill.
Jimmy met me in the doorway to the barn.
“C’mon. I’ll race you up to the loft.” He turned and disappeared inside the dusty interior.
Half-heartedly, I followed him inside. The wind slammed the door behind me. As my eyes adjusted to the relative dimness within, I could see Jimmy scrambling up the old wooden ladder nailed to the side of the granary. He vaulted the top rung and landed in the loft before I had reached the bottom of the ladder.
“C’mon,” he bellowed down to me. “Goddammit, you’re slow.”
When my eyes cleared the top of the ladder, I saw Jimmy rummaging through a pile of hay in the furthest corner of the loft. He dug like a dog, both hands throwing tufts of hay backward through his legs at me. The dust, which rose in sharp angular shafts of light, also permeated my nostrils and set up a little itch in the back of my throat.
I stood up uneasily. The floor of the loft felt spongy beneath my feet and I took a quick glance backward to the floor of the barn some fifteen feet below. The wind pushed against the side of the barn; old timbers complained a little at the strain.
“What’re you doing?” I asked.
“I got something for ya. Look!” Jimmy held up something concealed in a football-sized bundle of hay. I walked closer.
He was peeling off pieces of hay, revealing a little book and a long necked beer bottle. “What’s that?”
“Applejack.” Uncle Hank’s got about a hundred of ‘em in his fruit cellar.” He dug into his pocket and produced an old jack knife with a bottle opener. I heard a little hiss when he flipped the cap off. He tipped the bottle to his lips.
“Oooh…here.” He offered me the bottle.
“What is it?”
“I already told ya. It’s applejack.” I had nothing to say. The liquid looked dark with small pulpy specks through the brown glass. “It’s kinda like cider,” Jimmy offered.
I took a small swallow. It wasn’t cider. It was bitter like beer and it was warm. But it did taste like apples a little bit. At least it smelled a little like apples. After I swallowed, it tasted like apples might have tasted last fall, if you mixed that taste with the way Hank’s fruit cellar smelled. I handed the bottle back.
“Where’d you get it?”
“Man, you don’t even try to listen. I told you that too. In the fruit cellar. Goddammit, you’re dumb.”
“Well, I mean, did he just give it to you?”
“Nah, I just took it. It was easy. He won’t miss it. There’s a ton of bottles down there.” He took another drink and handed the bottle back to me. I made myself swallow some more and was surprised that it didn’t taste as bad the second time. It made my tongue a little warm and that warmth spread naturally and slowly down my throat into my stomach.
Jimmy sat down with the bottle of applejack between his legs. He opened the book. I stood, looking over his shoulder for a moment, then, I too sat, cross-legged. It looks like a comic book only the pictures had no color. It was old too. The leaves had yellowed and the edges of each page were dirty as though it had been paged through many times before.
“What’s the comic book for?”
“This ain’t a comic book, dummy.” He handed it to me. “It’s got pictures of people doin’ it.”
“Doing what?” I asked, even though, dimly, I thought I knew what he was talking about.
“Goddammit! Doing IT…IT!”
The book about doing IT was called, “Driving Her Home” and was the story of a young black chauffeur whose employer was a beautiful white woman who apparently loved doing IT. But they didn’t just do IT, they did all of IT in exaggerated detail, in line drawings suitable to offset printing. They even did it with a cop who caught them parking in the limousine. The cartoon balloons were filled with words but you didn’t need to read them to follow the plot. They said things like, “Oooh, Honey, don’t that feel goooood?” and “Give me all of it.” It wasn’t the dialogue that kept my interest though. Sometimes, I ran into a term or a picture I didn’t understand, but as we drank the applejack, Jimmy explained each one. He also reminded me of my ignorance each time. For about twenty minutes Jimmy’s favorite line was “I can’t believe you don’t know that; you’re older than me and you don’t know THAT?”
We read the book three times and each time we came to the end I was more amazed at what the three of them did to each other. Eventually, the applejack was gone and there didn’t seem to be any point to giving the story a fourth reading.
“Where’d you find that book?”
“In my dad’s dresser drawer.”
“What’ll he do if he catches you with it?”
“Ah, he won’t miss it. He’s got about a hundred of ‘em. There’s even one about a fat lady in the circus. You oughta see that one. An’ one about a teacher who keeps bending over in class with these really short skirts, and all the guys get hard-ons, an’ stuff.”
The image of Miss Swain bending over in a really short skirt brought new unanswerable questions to mind.
“Can I get one of these?” I asked.
“You can have this one if you got anything to trade.”
I knew I didn’t have anything even close in value. I rummaged through my pockets anyway. It was all junk: the applejack bottle cap, a book of matches left over from burning the papers, seven cents.
Jimmy took the book from me and started to place it back in the loose pile of hay in the corner of the loft. “Maybe next time you’ll have something. Besides, maybe I’ll go get Estelle and show her later on.”
I looked at my watch; it was nearly time for lunch. “I gotta go eat, but I’ll be back this afternoon with something for you.”
“How ‘bout your watch? All that other junk and your watch.”
The watch was a Christmas present from my grandmother. It was off my wrist in a second and added to the pile.
“And you gotta promise not to tell anyone where you got it if you get caught.”
“I still don’t know. You’re so goddam dumb, you’d prob’ly run home and ask yer mom to explain something you didn’t understand.”
“I would not! You know I wouldn’t. She’d kill me.” The deal still wasn’t done and I was out of bargaining chips.
“Awright. But say it again.”
“Say you won’t tell.”
“I won’t, I swear.”
Jimmy picked up his pile of trinkets and I slid the book inside my shirt next to my flesh. It felt cool and promising. Jimmy strapped his new watch to his wrist and looked at it. He put the money in his pocket and threw the bottle cap the length of the barn. “That’s just junk. Why’d you put that in your pocket?”
“I don’t know. I just did.”
He opened the book of matches and pulled out two. “Let’s play chicken.”
“How do you do that?”
“You’re so goddam dumb. Watch.”
He held two matches together as though they were only one match and struck them. They flared. The double strong cloud of blue-gray sulfur smoke lifted into my nose and made my eyes water. He handed one burning match to me.
“You gotta see who can hold onto the match the longest.”
The flames slowly ate their way down the shafts of the matches. We didn’t say anything. The wind made the rafters creak again as it squeezed flat against the outside of the old barn. We heard a strong gust and the flap of a pigeon’s wings in the very peak. I walked the tips of my finger and thumb down to the very end and away from the first taste of heat. I stole a quick glance at Jimmy’s match. I was sure it was shorter than mine. I had him. I could be better than him at something. Again I felt the heat begin to eat at my thumb. I moved my hand slowly back and forth, horizontally, to draft the heat away from my fingertips.
“That’s cheating!” shouted Jimmy. “Ahh!” and he flipped his match away. “You cheated. You tried to blow out the match.”
“Did not.” I showed him the still burning match and then blew it out, acting like my thumb didn’t hurt. I put the burnt match in my shirt pocket and then hid my thumb behind my back.
Jimmy’s match had fallen into the hay near the empty applejack bottle and we both saw the smoke at the same moment.
“Shit! Get it out!”
The fire was only as big around as a record album and we both began to stomp at it with out feet. As each foot fell, the ensuing puff of air scattered tiny sparks and bits of burning hay to surrounding areas.
“Hurry up! Hurry up! Somewhere, just on the other side of Jimmy’s voice, I could hear fear, clear and cold. I cannot now explain what happened but knowing that Jimmy was fearful had produced a new calm in me. I didn’t feel so “goddamn dumb” any more. Even though I could see the fire was larger now, I knew I could control the situation. I kicked hay away from the fire in a doughnut shaped circle until only about enough hay to fill a bushel basked remained afire in the middle of the firebreak.
“Piss,” I said. The word felt deliciously dirty coming out of my mouth as a command. Jimmy looked at me and then back at the fire.
“Piss!” I said louder.
We pissed. The hay hissed. Then quietened. The fire was out, leaving that distinctive odor in the air that only pissing on a fire can produce.
“You won’t tell anyone, will ya?” Jimmy looked at me with pleading eyes, for the first time ever.
“I can’t,” I said, showing him the blister on my thumb. “Evidence is against me.” The blister was not large; it arced just over the curve from my thumbnail.
We covered the bare spot on the floor with more hay and arranged it so that nothing appeared unusual. I led the way down the ladder from the loft, jumping from the third rung. Jimmy climbed each step carefully all the way to the floor.
“You coming back up after lunch?” he asked me as I started to walk down the hill toward my home.
“Nah. I’ve got some reading to do,” I said, patting the book beneath my shirt.
Later that afternoon, after lunch, I pulled the book from beneath my mattress where I had hidden it. I read it again and once more, wishing I had asked more questions. I fell asleep with the book and dreamed about barn swallows catching mosquitoes at dusk.
Sirens woke me. In a move, I hid the book beneath my mattress again. The sirens were the first fire trucks coming for Sam Comb’s barn. It was a total loss as well as several pieces of stored equipment. The April winds worked the fire like a blast furnace, blowing bits of burning debris and showers of sparks toward Hank’s house. It was a difficult fire to contain. The barn was very near the driveway and the house sat directly across from it. At one point the firemen told Hank to start hauling furniture and personal belongings out of the house through the parlor door on the front of the house. A small pile of old furniture and clothing began to accumulate a hundred yards down the hill. As it turned out, the house didn’t burn but the asphalt shingles on the barn side of the roof melted. My father and I helped Hank re-shingle later that Spring.
Darkness made it way up the hill while we stood around the last dying parts of the barn fire, shifting our weight silently from one foot to the other. Chief Ellis had already started questioning everyone at the beginning of his investigation. This investigation was all business. There would be a big insurance claim, there could be criminal charges. His entire body approached these questions differently, more stern, less likely to take foolishness. It didn’t take the Chief long to get around to my father.
“‘Another fire out here, Harold.” Not exactly a question.
“Know anything about it?”
“Got pretty hot…most of the afternoon.”
“What do you s’pose caused it?”
“Well, if I knew that they’d make me fire chief.”
“No green hay stored in this one, was there?”
“Couldn’t say. Better ask Hank.”
“Wasn’t any green hay stored in your barn last year, was there?”
“Hard to recall so long ago. What’s that got to do with this fire?”
Ellis asked others about what they knew. Did anyone see anything suspicious? Any strangers around the barn? What about kids? That’s when Ellis began to focus his questioning on Jimmy Kirkland and me.
Ellis asked, “Were you boys in the barn today?”
It was futile to lie about that. Everyone knew we had been. Our silence was an admission.
“Where ‘bouts in the barn were you?”
“Up in the loft,” Jimmy answered. I heard the same fear in his voice that I had heard earlier in the day.
Ellis pressed. “What were you doing up there?”
“Just messing around,” Jimmy’s body literally squirmed as he said this.
“‘Just messing around’ with what?” Ellis had made his voice sound a little like a pathetic kid’s voice.
“Just talking and stuff.” Jimmy couldn’t make eye contact with the Chief.
“Were you supposed to be up there?”
“It’s OK. Uncle Hank says it’s OK.”
“Is that right, Hank? OK if these boys go up in the barn without anyone around?”
“Yup, these boys been up there a hundred times. Never been no trouble. “ Smoke streaked Hank’s face. He looked older.
Ellis came back at Jimmy. “Did you boys set fire to the barn?”
Jimmy started crying. I had never seen Jimmy cry. He was crying like a baby. The chief looked at me. I looked at Jimmy and promised myself I wouldn’t cry like that.
“No, sir,” I said. And that was true, I thought. We had put the fire out.
“What did you do in the barn this morning?”
I hesitated again and looked at Jimmy wiping the tears, leaving triangles of clean on his smoky face. “We drank a bottle of applejack,” I said in a quiet voice. Jimmy looked at his uncle.
“Where’d you get applejack?”
Hank interrupted. “Jimmy got it out of my cellar. I saw him take it out to the barn ‘bout as soon as he got here this morning.”
“Are you in the habit of providing alcoholic beverages for young boys. Why didn’t you stop him?”
“‘Cuz I remember stealing applejack off’n my granpaw when I was ’bout Jimmy’s age.”
My mother had stood through everything silently but now she gave me that raised eyebrow that in our family meant, “we’ll talk later.”
“So, you boys went up in the loft and drank the applejack, right? The chief was back on us.
Jimmy didn’t look up. He nodded.
“Did you boys set fire to the barn?”
“No,” I asserted again. I tried to sound strong.
The chief paused a moment, pushed his Chief’s hat further back on his head and asked, “When did you leave the barn?”
“Lunchtime,” I said.
“That’s true,” my mother vouched. “He was home in time for lunch. Then he went to his room and fell asleep.”
“Prob’ly the applejack,” offered Hank.
“I checked on him around two,” said my mother. A quick flare of fear and guilt rose up the back of my neck as I hoped she had not seen the book.
Ellis turned back to Jimmy. “What about you, Jimmy? What did you do this afternoon?
“And after lunch?”
“Went for a walk.”
“Anybody go with you?
“No,” Jimmy’s voice was small and high again.
“Where’d you go?”
“Over there.” Jimmy pointed east, past the smoldering ruins of the barn to an old worked out gravel pit which lay between Hank’s house and Estelle Rivers’.
The chief looked at Hank and Hank nodded.
“I seen him headed that way right after lunch.”
“When’d you come back?”
“When I heard the sirens.” Jimmy’s voice was starting to grow a little confidence again and I believed him.
I kept envisioning the fire we had had in the loft that morning. I saw us pissing on it until the fire was dead. But my mind’s eye, like a microscopic camera, wandered down into the hay on the floor, through the dust and dimness into a crack in the floorboards of the loft. Deep inside the space between the planks I saw a tiny red ember glowing in the gray-brown dust as Jimmy and I spread a layer of dry hay over the top to conceal signs of the fire. I saw us leaving the barn and, like a pull away shot in the movies, I watched how, from the ceiling of the barn, a thread thin wisp of smoke reached tentatively above the hay and dissipated in the still air of the barn. I saw the smallest of flames lick up out of the hay and spread across the floor of the loft and up the walls until the whole structure was enveloped in the conflagration while firetrucks roared heavily into the driveway.
“…else in the barn?” I wasn’t sure what the question was nor to whom it was addressed.
“Answer the man,” my father said to me.
“What?” I didn’t have anything else to say.
“Did you see anything else or anyone else in the barn today?”
“No, sir.” My voice was low. I looked at the ground.
“All right.” Ellis pulled his fire hat down over his forehead again. “I’m going to ask you boys one more time. And this time I want the truth. If you’re lying, I’ll find out sooner or later and there’s big trouble for anybody lying to the Fire Chief during the course of an official investigation.” I looked at my father.
“Did you boys set fire to this barn today?” He looked only at me and the look was hard.
Then the tears welled up. I blinked. I didn’t feel as guilty as I felt angry at myself for almost crying after I promised myself I wouldn’t. Ellis kept looking directly into my eyes. He didn’t blink or waver. I couldn’t force an answer.
“I said, did you boys set fire to this barn today?”
My father interrupted. “You asked that before, Ellis.”
The Chief’s eyes broke off mine and went to my father. “All right. I’m not trying to be too hard on them. It’s just that they’re the only ones we know were in that barn before the fire.” Then to us, “You boys go wait in the house while I ask some other people what’s going on around here.”
We both looked at the ground now as we walked toward Hank’s house, me in front, Jimmy right behind. We didn’t say a word until we were inside.
“Did you do it?” I asked.
Jimmy looked at me and his face seemed all stretched flat like a toad. His eyes bore no expression and his mouth was a straight line, just a slit in the bottom of his face.
“I didn’t mean to,” he whispered. “Goddammit I’m dumb sometimes.” He struck his thigh with his fist, hard.
“What’d you do?”
“I went down to the pond, just like I said, but when I got down there, I got bored, just throwing rocks and stuff, so I went down to Estelle’s.” And then he stopped. He was waiting for me to ask what happened next. I waited. Jimmy swallowed.
“So, anyways, she came back up here with me and we were messing’ around in the chicken coop.” He stopped again. I waited again. Jimmy’s eyes were avoiding me. He looked randomly at the door to the back porch instead.
His eyes returned to mine and expression flooded back into his face. “We were gonna DO it.” Jimmy’s voice still stayed very quiet.
“We were taking off our clothes and she just got her underpants off an’ she sees this big ol’ rat. I didn’t even see him at first, not till she said something and, Jesus, he was big. And so Estelle gets all scared and puts her pants back on and takes off an’ tells me to forget about it an’ everything.” Jimmy was still whispering. So I was kinda mad at the rat and I finally cornered him and he’s trying’ to bite me and so I kept hittin’ him and squeezin’ him an’ he keeps tryin to bite.” Jimmy stopped talking, as though this string of events was supposed to make it perfectly clear how all of this made the barn burn down. It didn’t at all.
“You gotta promise not to tell ‘em.“
“I didn’t tell anybody anything yet, did I?”
“The applejack. You told about the applejack.”
“I had to. They had to think we were up to something out there. It’s better to get in trouble of that than for burning the barn down, isn’t it?” I was sort of hissing at him.
“What about the rat?”
“Well, I put him under a bucket an’ put a rock on top and I got some gas outta the tractor and put it all over the bucket and lit it on fire with the matches you gave me. And pretty soon I could hear him screeching’ under the bucket and bouncing off the sides and everything and so I knocked it over. He was under there on fire! And that dumb bastard ran right into the barn, right inside the granary. I chased him in there but the fire got big fast. I tried to piss on it but I didn’t have none. So I took off out the back and then I saw the chicken coop was on fire too and I got scared and ran out to the pond and waited for the fire trucks to get here.”
We both waited.
“You can’t tell ‘em anything.”
“I told you, I won’t. Now quit saying’ it.”
Jimmy grabbed my arm. “You can’t tell ‘em.”
I answered louder. “I’m not gonna. I’m not gonna!”
“’Not gonna’ what, son?” Chief Ellis walked through the back door.
“I wanna know what you two were talking about.”
“Nothing, I’m going home now.”
“You’re not going anywhere until I say so. I think you know something and you’re gonna tell me.”
“Let go of me,” I said as I tried to jerk my elbow away from the man and the tears spilled over.
Hank walked in from outside and then Ellis let go of my elbow.
“I’m going home now, “ I said. “I told you what I know and I don’t have anything else to say.” I started to walk out into the smoky night. The Chief thought about stopping me again, but my parents stood on either side of me and we all turned and walked slowly down the driveway. The fire truck lights behind us threw long flashing shadows of ourselves before us. We walked past the furniture and clothes piled beside the driveway in the semi-darkness. Finally, even the shadows were swallowed up but the smell of smoke followed us strongly all the way home.
Just as we hit our porch, my father asked me, “ What did you do with the matches I gave you to burn the trash?”
“I gave them to Jimmy,” I said, reaching for the doorknob.
When Fire Chief Ellis’ investigation was complete it listed the fire as being “of unknown origin.” It contained the name of no suspects. No one ever asked me about it again.
After the barn burning, I often saw Jimmy’s family’s car pull into Hank’s driveway, but I didn’t go up to visit him any more. Neither Hank nor my father ever tried to push Jimmy and me together again. He waved to me once from up on the hill. Estelle was standing next to him. She waved too. I acted like I didn’t see them and went inside our house.
I kept the book I had gotten from Jimmy for about a month, stashing it first under the mattress, then in the bottom of a drawer, but finally, one time when I was taking the trash out to the burning barrel, I put the book into the pile; I couldn’t stand the idea of getting caught with it. I fed it, page by page, into the fire. That’s the way I read it for the last time. I was still amazed by the ending.