one dead, sets fire
BY ALEX HIGLEY
A tornado had ripped through town followed shortly by volunteers. Students who were putting off college for a year or forever, idle believers, repentant businessmen, past and future rivals from the next town over, all showed for varying periods and intensities of work. Though “service” was the preferred term.
Will’s house had gone untouched. It was summer break and he volunteered. He would not be going to college in the fall, but still regarded the summer as his “break.” He’d never been outside of town for any significant amount of time, and to meet girls his own age from cities he’d never been to– from cities– renewed his interest in his own life. He’d been having regular sex with Erin Tackert, bony and slack, and increasingly Will felt she was a person to be escaped. Will had said nothing of her to his friends, sexual or damning or otherwise; their sex was known about and mentioned to him, and he would shrug in reply. What was there to be said? But he was still capable of cruelty in the usual ways. This was in Halesville, Illinois, two hours straight west of Chicago. In the fields.
National news coverage of the storm’s aftermath lasted a single day. One elderly man had been killed. He’d been the only inhabitant of the town to not evacuate. 1 out of 570. He’d refused on some privately held principle. He’d started a fire inside his house shortly before he died using a squeeze can of lighter fluid and a large pile of his own clothes; this was observed live on television by a camera trained on the man through his back sliding glass door. The fence that would have prevented the view had already been knocked down. Once the flames were taller than the man, he took several steps back and stood very still. He stayed that way, rocking onto his heels, until the tornado reached his house. Most of the coverage speculated about the dead man’s cause for starting the fire. A few townspeople very publicly respected his death for reasons difficult to explain or understand.
The news repeatedly played a clip of a defiant woman who looked like Estelle Getty from Golden Girls. She was sitting on the bottom of the two cement steps in front of her yellow clapboard house, the sky pooled dark above her, “You saw it?” she said. She was squinting up at a reporter, singling out the one who’d asked what she thought of the dead man’s fire. “You saw it. Now what exactly would you say?”
Black haired, blue-eyed, freckled with a boy’s name, the volunteer Will was consumed by was named Ryan. She was wealthy, round faced, had just finished her freshman year as a Literature major at the University of Chicago, and was fixated on the man who had died in the storm, Don Dryden. The first question Ryan had asked Will was if he had known Dryden, and the first lie he had told her was, “Sure, I knew Don.”
No one in town knew Don in the way Ryan was asking about. From one day of tedious coverage a viewer could cull the following: Don Dryden had taken over the house on Porter Street with the brick chimney after his brother died and left it to him. Retired from a financial advising firm in Cleveland and moved to Halesville. The brothers had previously been estranged. Don was a harmless old bachelor recluse. He bought his groceries midweek early in the morning, did not get a paper delivered, attended no church, and kept a clean yard. He wore an Indians hat when he did his grocery shopping. The toothy grocery clerk had got a lot of airtime. And with that, any viewer would know as much as anyone in Halesville knew about Don Dryden. The viewer may or may not have realized Don’s habits, or the lack thereof, had never been summarized and spoken and certainly not portrayed as dignified, until after his death.
Ryan got it in her head that it would be a good idea to reenact Dryden’s final moments on a large scale. Her idea was to have fifty piles of clothing and fifty people holding squeeze cans of lighter fluid in a parking lot as the sun was setting. The people’s movements would be coordinated like dance, the fires lit in unison, the slow retreat from the flames done together, the watchful stillness of the flames, en masse. Will started laughing, and then seeing Ryan’s face, said, “I didn’t realize–” He became serious about the piece instantly, and told her the only parking lot large enough would be in Morton Lake, at the Wal-Mart.
The Morton Lake Wal-Mart sat off the highway next to a deep swampy acreage of trees. Within this bog was the lake described in the town’s name. It was not swimmable, boatable, constant, a lake, or easily reachable. Through the muck and dense undergrowth, it would be a clawing twenty-minute hike to the standing water. Lanky, bored Erin Tackert worked at the Wal-Mart. At the outer edges of its parking lot, backed into a space facing the miry forest was where she and Will had often had sex. On a Friday, weekend, or summer night shift, Erin would call home and say that her boss was offering overtime, it would be another hour, hour and a half, and Will would meet her near the trees, parking near the store’s entrance and walking across the lot to her car, all alone and humming with the black woods rising behind.
Daytime, thick and buggy. Will took Ryan to scout the parking lot for her reenactment. He expected to see Erin in her blue vest and nametag, walking to her car for cigarettes, or eating a candy bar on the molded plastic bench provided for employees. She wasn’t outside. Her car was. A ten-year-old white Subaru wagon in an alert stance.
“This will work,” said Ryan. “Will it be obvious what we’re doing, since we aren’t going to be in Halesville?”
Will thought about how to answer. He was conscious of trying to flatten his initial emotional reaction. “I think it will be obvious that we are recreating Don’s last moments. I don’t think it will be obvious what we’re doing.”
Before Ryan could enter into what he’d said, Will asked, “Should we have the store behind us or the highway or the forest or the road in? Behind the reenactors, I mean. Behind all the fires, I mean.”
“The forest. Most neutral solid background.”
Since Will wasn’t going to be caught by Erin Tackert in the parking lot, he decided to initiate contact. He asked Ryan, “Do you want something to drink?” She said she’d wait.
He didn’t see her at any of the checkout lines, and didn’t see her restocking any of the children’s clothing near the front. The store smelled like stale microwave popcorn. He walked to the right and towards the back past the toys and bikes and nearer the sporting goods. He found her in a dim aisle with tennis rackets and junior golf sets, on a short ladder. She smiled when she saw him and he smiled back, forgetting his purpose. He thought about how she’d never made fun of him when he’d come quickly. Or when he’d been weak with tenderness in a way outside of how he wanted to be understood. How within the chances she’d had to cut him down or even take note of when he was exposed, she’d pretended there was no such opportunity. This moment in the feebly lit aspirational sport aisle was about sex, Will knew it. This girl, he thought, patient, but also without hope; this was his own construction. Will imagined she’d foreseen some end similar to the one about to happen. He was attempting to diminish his callousness. Erin had three older sisters still in town and had witnessed much worse, Will thought. She’d smiled when she saw him, but her smile had disappeared as soon as Will had returned it.
She came down off the ladder and walked up to Will, but didn’t touch him. Erin crossed her arms and looked over Will’s shoulder before looking him in the eye.
Will was mumbling quietly, realizing she already knew everything. “I didn’t want to not tell you. I’m sorry.”
Erin sighed. “It’s been texts nonstop. Telling me they saw you with her. Since a week ago. So don’t feel big here now. My sisters took my phone until I promised not to call you. I don’t have your number anymore,” she looked past him again. “She’ll be gone soon too, you know.”
“I’m going to be gone soon,” said Will, fully sunk into the movie he was watching of his life. He was thinking about how Ryan had tied his hands behind his back with her socks. He’d snuck into her host family’s house, an upper window tree reach, and she’d asked him to pretend his hands were still tied once her knot came loose. How she’d bit his earlobe hard, failing to draw blood, and said if he made any fucking noise she’d leave him bound. Leave him period. How she’d told him he was not and would never be in charge. He did not dispute this. He wished he could tell Erin about this girl’s soft domineering. About how Ryan slept in socks. If for no other reason, because he knew Erin would laugh if these were events removed from her life and shown to her. If it were in a movie they’d watched mistakenly. Erin would have laughed at how hard Ryan was trying.
When Will walked back out to the car, Ryan was taking pictures of the parking lot and the forest beyond with her phone. She was struggling with the angle. She looked at Will, and before she could say anything he said, “When are we going to do this?”
Ryan’s volunteer group’s leadership found out and forbade its members to participate in her reenactment of Don Dryden’s last moments. If any of their volunteers were discovered to have participated in such a reenactment, or any similar event, their college credit would be revoked entirely for the duration of their time in Halesville.
And so: it was six fires at sunrise. Ryan at the head of the pyramid, Will behind her, and the remaining mounds of burning sheets purchased from Goodwill occupied by two other strident U of C volunteers and the boys who wanted to bed them. There was no crowd, but Erin was there and her co-workers willing to walk outside, trailed by the assistant manager delegated to put an end to whatever was happening in the parking lot.
Ryan stepped back from her burning pile of sheets, and the two girls and their boys did the same, all watching her movements. Will watched Erin watching Ryan. He looked like a spaced out kid in a school play. Erin was smiling at all this effort. Will set down his can of lighter fluid and stepped completely away from the fire, dropped his Indians hat to the ground. He stood next to Erin. He watched the rest of the awful slow dancers, standers, as they stood post at half attention to their fires, saw them as Erin did. Will came up with something to say.
“When I die, I’m going to make sure to be alone. Out of view.”
Erin, still enjoying the whole scene, reached out and took Will by the elbow, “We don’t know any better than she does.” She leveled her gaze at Will and then turned back to the show. The reenactment was deteriorating. None of the hats fit and the fires had grown threatening. Followed by no storm and no loss of life.