Burn

He is an old man, and on first inspection he seems like the kind of old man who would eat dog food out of a can because he can afford nothing better. His clothes are not synthetic. He wears a brown blazer with missing buttons. His shirt was white once-upon-a-time. His tie was in fashion maybe thirty years ago? His coat and pants (are they plaid pants?) are worn shiny in some spots and in others threads splinter out roughly.

He seems neither happy nor sad. He is neutral in expression. He seems more nimble than he should. Look at those shoes on his feet—poor sad shoes! If we could see the soles, we would see them worn through on the bottom, the only thing between his socks and the ground being a thin layering of newspaper. His socks sag around his ankles. He smells of Ben Gay and something else. Is it barbecue?

He walks so quickly for such an old coot! It’s hard to keep up, but he is not panting. He rubs at his face, his day-old shave. He coughs drily into a liver-spotted fist. His eyes are pale blue and the whites glow like phosphorus. Poverty seemingly agrees with him.

Or maybe he’s not poor. Maybe he’s cheap.

Let’s follow him into the grocery store, through the automatic doors, past the hand baskets and shopping carts. He grabs a shopping cart and there he goes, pushing. One of the wheels is dodgy. Let’s walk through this grocery store with him, side-by-side. Let’s see if we can keep up.

Oh, he picks up various items: A long lighter, a bag of charcoal, a newspaper, a pint of whole milk, and a box of donuts. He goes to the checkout line and waits behind the woman with more than 15 items in her shopping cart. No one, no one, no one cares. The child sitting in the cart looks back at the old man. The old man sticks his tongue out at her and she smiles. A snot bubble pops in her nostril.

It is the old man’s turn now. The clerk runs all the items through the electric eye and bags them. He pays in cash. She has chipped fingernails, once painted violet, her fingers thin and boney. The rest of her is thin and boney as well. Her face glows like a full moon in hung in a perfect night sky. So white and almost featureless. Her hair is brown, limp and shoulder-length. Some of it curves behind her left ear. The rest just hangs there. She has thin lips, unfresh red lipstick, and minimal make-up, enough to make her cheeks appear to be slightly pink and her eyelids to be powder blue.

She bags up the old man’s goods and hands them to him.

The clerk notices that he left behind the lighter. She picks it up and runs outside to catch the old man. “Sir! Sir!” She hands him the lighter. He smiles and shakes her hand and in the clerk’s hand he leaves behind a coin.

Let’s watch the old man go. There he goes, striding purposefully down the street. Wave goodbye to the old man. Goodbye for now!

Back inside, there’s the clerk. She continues her day. The sun moves across the sky, it is the afternoon, and suddenly, but not actually suddenly, it lights her face through the big glass store windows and her face seems to glow even more brightly. An “N” from the window (backwards) is projected onto her smock, like she’s a superhero that we have never heard about. Near the end of her shift, she pulls the coin out of her pocket and examines it. The head of the coin is a burning tree. The tail is an address.

She gets off work and decides to go to the address. Let’s walk beside her. She strides so very quickly, her longish legs swinging like metronomes. She stops. Looks around her. She takes off her smock. Underneath is a plain, gray t-shirt, like something you wear to the gym. Her shoes are nurse white. Her pants are too tight in the bottom and don’t come all the way down to her ankles, only part way. Everything she wears is well-cared-for, neatly creased or, in the case of her shoes, dabbed back to white with liquid shoe polish. She folds up the smock and sticks it in her oversized purse. Is the purse made of burlap? She peers around like someone on a secret mission. She continues.

At the address, she finds a burned down home, its insides a gooey glob of water and blackness with occasional blackened beams thrusting unevenly skyward. Surrounding the home, like busy, busy bees, are arson investigators, firefighters, police, and a crowd of citizens milling around a barricade. There is radio chatter and shouting and sirens and heated gossip from the crowd. Yellow tape. It’s chaos, but not really.

We look at her face. It is so passive that it is almost serene. There is nothing in her eyes to indicate that what she is seeing is something horrifying, or unexpected.

The smell of the smoldering ruins of the house is delicious. As she stands there, peering over a woman’s shoulder, a man bumps into her. It’s the old man from the store. His lips are coated in what appears to be powdered sugar. He looks into her eyes, smiles and continues on. She watches him walk away, and then reaches into her pocket for the coin. It is gone. She rifles through her pockets. No coin.

Fade to black. Let’s open our eyes. Where are we?

We’re in the clerk’s apartment. We see her living her ordinary life inside her ordinary apartment. She’s wearing pale pink pajamas sitting on her comfy couch with her legs curled up. We see the glow of the TV on her moon face as she eats popcorn, taking each popped kernel out of the bowl beside her and crunching on it individually, methodically. If we counted the times she chewed each individual morsel, it would add up to between seven and fifteen. The show on TV is hilarious according to the howls of laughter pounding out of the TV’s speakers. None of this registers on her face. The bowl of popcorn empties. She turns off the set mid-laugh and as she makes her way toward the bedroom, she spots an manila envelope that has been shoved under her door. She picks it up and flips it over, and then flips it back. There is a date and time on the envelope. She pops open the brass clasp holding it shut. Inside is yet another coin, with another address. She studies the coin. We watch her as she peers over at her cell phone, plugged into a wall socket rejuicing its battery in her kitchen next to the microwave oven. The battery is at 99 percent, claims the glass face. She walks over to the phone, unplugs it. It chirps happily. All of the sounds it emits are happy by default. She studies the phone in her right hand and studies the coin in her left. She sets both down on the counter. Everything in her kitchen, her whole apartment, is clean and generic. It’s like no one lives here really. No one at all. The only thing indicating life in the kitchen is her work schedule affixed to the refrigerator with a pair of magnets shaped like bananas.

She goes into her bedroom, turns out the bed. The lamp shorts out. She flicks the wall switch and on pops the overhead light, a single bulb trapped inside a punch bowl bolted  to her ceiling. Beige appears to be her favorite color. On the mirror attached to the top of her bureau is the only photograph in the entire apartment. In the photo, a man gleefully clings to her from behind. She is smiling as well, but her eyes betray her. Is this her boyfriend? If so, there is not another trace of him here. She’s in the bathroom brushing her teeth. She spits into the sink, holding her hair with one hand. She rinses out her toothbrush and taps the water off it and places it in the glass on the bathroom counter. She fills her cupped hands with water and slurps and spits. She fills her cupped hands again and splashes her face. She looks up into the mirror and gazes into her own eyes. Are her eyes gray or brown? She grabs a hand towel and dries off her face and turns off the bathroom light. She looks at her bed and sighs, tussling her limp hair with her thin fingers. She flicks off the overhead. This is good night.

Let’s tiptoe out to the kitchen and take a look in her phone. Under “Photos” there are many of the man from the photo in the bedroom. Many of them include her as well. They are in a restaurant in one, in a hotel room in another. There are mountains. There is a beach.

Under “Messages” we find a long, continuous exchange between the two that goes back many months. Near the end of the exchange, we find this:

—I feel like I don’t know u. :(
—What’s to know?
—Where are u from?
—Here.
—Where did you go to school?
—Does it matter?
—Tell me something!

And that’s where it ends. Let’s set the phone down now. Fade to black.

We open our eyes. Jump! Don’t get hit by that late model Ford! Honk, honk! Screech! There she goes, down the sidewalk. She is very quick about it, very purposeful. Where is she going? She is going to the address on the coin.

A man, not too old, not too young, not too tall, not too short, asks to see her coin at the door. She hands it to him and goes inside. A dozen shabby but ordinary-looking people are crowded into a small living room—including the old man. There are no photos on the walls. The furniture is made out of particle board and glue. The sofa, which no one is sitting on, no one is sitting at all, is a futon made of recovered material, mostly compressed wood shavings. The savory scent of barbecue pervades the space. All of the people in the room, or none of them, could ever be picked out of a police line-up. They are all so ordinary, like generic versions of generic persons. All wear well-worn clothes with no obvious designer label. All look like they’d slept very little recently.

“My replacement is here,” says the old man pointing at the clerk.

Another man, equally old, says, “You are dismissed.” And the old man leaves. This is the last time we shall see him. He is no longer our concern.

The second old man, the obvious leader, peers over the top of his cheaters at her. “So,” he says. The others in the room, who had been quietly talking, stop and look over at her. “You must burn something down,” the leader tells her. “You have no choice.”

Her face, we quickly notice, does not change with this news. Was she expecting it? Was she not? It is as if this demand for arson has no effect on her. It is as if what he said was not relevant.

For a moment, we wonder… what will she do? Will she flee? Will she say something? Will she pull her phone from her pocket and attempt to call someone?

She does none of these things. Instead, she holds out her hand, palm up, fingers extended.

The leader reaches into the pocket of his worn blazer and pulls out a coin. He places it flaming tree side up into her hand. Her fingers wrap around the coin and without a word, she places it into the front pocket of her too-short, too-tight pants. We look at her face. Is that a smile? It’s hard to tell.

John Sheppard served four years in the United States Army as an Illustrator (MOS 81E). He was honorably discharged after Gulf War I. He went on to receive an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Florida, where he studied under Padgett Powell, Marjorie Sandor and Harry Crews. He has worked as a grill cook, web site designer, junk mail writer, small town newspaper editor and civil servant. He lives in Chicago.

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