blackbirdonline journalSpring 2009  Vol. 8  No. 1
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Controlled Burn

Captain Carlson was drawn to the fires and he’d almost come to rely on them these early mornings as if for inspiration. Before daybreak he would drive to the outskirts of the county and torch the brushfires around Sam Orcutt’s truck farm hectare, then afterward sit in his beater Dodge pickup on the fenced shoulder of the access road, watching the flames rear against the brambly, almost moonless dark. Drinking cup after cup of black coffee spiked with cut-rate rye, smoking cheroots, he composed love letters in an old-fashioned marble composition tablet to the Reverend’s daughter: Dear Miss Abernathy, I know I am a married man and a reformed criminal at that, but there are some things you got to know. Or, My Dearest Beautiful Miss Abernathy, please for the love of sweet baby Jesus just hear me out. I’m no monster!

Then, after the fires, it was off to the Abernathys’ for another of his odd jobs. The Reverend Abernathy’s church and Victorian-style house sat facing one another on the same half-acre of land which Captain had spent the last two months landscaping. Several weeks ago, he tilled the mangy, weed-infested land and seeded it with grass. Then he laid brick, kidney-shaped planting beds around the wax myrtles, filled them with begonias and goldenrods and impatiens. After that, something the Abernathys never asked for, he staked holly saplings on both sides of the wending tarmac drive. Now it was halfway into June, and Captain had started two new projects: a flagstone path curling from the side door of the house to the plywood beginnings of a small gazebo.

Today Captain started work early enough that the night’s mineral-smelling cool still lingered in the shade of the backyard pecan trees. He lifted flagstones out of his truck and hauled them in a wheelbarrow to the pile near the half-finished gazebo. As he worked, Captain saw a new message on the church billboard by the street. Connor Dunn, of “My Heart’s Your Wishing Well (Baby)” fame, in person, July 4th. Captain’s eyes stayed fixed on the sign as he hoisted a rock from the wheelbarrow and threw it to the ground. “Good for nothing cocksucker,” he said as he threw down another, making such a sharp crack that little explosions of light like Christmas bulbs went off inside his head.

From the rounded tower of the house, inside Reverend Abernathy’s study, Kathleen Abernathy and her father watched Captain through the window. Captain was wearing a long-billed fishing cap and a black T-shirt that said Danzig in Stone Age lettering on the back above a horned demon skull. From this angle, he seemed to be grinning maniacally as he strode across the lawn with his torso canted forward. Once at his truck, he picked up a red five-gallon gasoline canister from the bed and swigged until his cheeks pouched.

“Tell me you saw that,” the Reverend Abernathy said.

Water, Dad,” Kathleen said.

“Who would wear a shirt like that?” His face was pinched with chagrin. “And I bet he stole those flagstones, just like he stole those hollies out there.”

“You never had any proof of that. And the poor man’s wife is in the hospital. Why not give him the benefit of the doubt, for once?”

“Well, I don’t remember asking him to turn it into Disney World out there,” he said, scratching his fingers through his Van Dyke beard. “What’s next, a miniature golf course?”

Since Kathleen’s mother’s death, her father’s temperament had soured. With his parishioners, toward supermarket clerks and telemarketers, even toward herself. Not that she and her father ever saw eye to eye about many matters before, but now he seemed to seize every given opportunity to point out that maybe her stay in Oregon had softened her head, that all that liberal malarkey had made her too naïve. Kathleen was visiting from law school for the summer. To study for the bar examination, she said, but both she and her father know that it was really to look after him.

“And I know I didn’t ask him to make any flagstone path,” her father continued. “All I know is I’m not paying for it. Even if I had the money I wouldn’t. On principle.”

“Okay, all right,” Kathleen sighed. “Then tell him that, Dad.”

“I tried. A week ago. Looked like he was about to gore me like an ox.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

“That man’s been trouble since the day he was born. People change, but they don’t change that much.”

Kathleen told her father that she’d take care of it, and then the Reverend took her hand and patted it, smiling wanly. “You really do take after your mother, don’t you?” he said. “So nice it sometimes makes me wonder about myself.”

At first Kathleen had been just as wary of Captain as her father. She’d heard so many disturbing stories throughout town over the years that she didn’t know what to think. Did you hear that he poisoned his neighbor’s rottweiler? That he shoved a dead pigeon in the tax collector’s mailbox? That he was arrested for driving his motorcycle onto an airport runway? All of these rumors sounded so farfetched that she chalked them up to parochial apocrypha, mean spirited gossip.

Besides, she’d never seen Captain act less than politely. In the beginning of May, when Captain had first started his work, Kathleen had invited him inside for some ice water. After that day, Captain often knocked on the front door, cap in hand, asking her if she wouldn’t mind if he sat down in the air conditioning for a while, maybe get a glass of lemonade if it wasn’t too much trouble. She always let him in. At first he said little, sitting quietly at the table with his head hung low, surveying the fine cabinets and filigreed light fixtures and glass vases filled with freshly cut flowers with something like wonderment on his face.

Kathleen tried not to stare at him. He was a funny looking man, almost grotesque. His face jutted out, convex from the middle, like a hyena’s. He had small protuberant eyes set so close together that it suggested something ignoble. Sometimes Kathleen forced herself to look at him squarely.

Mostly she talked about herself, little things, because the silence was so awkward. She was thirty-five and down for the summer from up north, where she was a law-school student in Portland. She’d gone to the same high school as Captain, but started four or five years after he left. She’d been engaged once, to a Manhattan stockbroker, but that didn’t work out because she’d wanted kids and he didn’t. Captain sat and listened, nodding but saying nothing. Why she was being so kind and forthcoming he wasn’t sure. He was used to being kept at a distance, like a poisonous snake.

“Pretty quiet person, aren’t you?” she asked him once, during his third or fourth visit.

“Just wondering why you’re being so nice,” Captain said.

Kathleen looked a little taken aback, chin tucked into her chest. “Well, why on earth would I treat you any differently?” She rested her hand on his shoulder, gave him a friendly jostle. Captain felt the warmth of her hand through his T-shirt.

Captain started opening up after that, little by little. “You can tell just walking into this place that you’re dealing with good people,” he’d say. Or, “Did you make this bread from scratch? That’s talent right there.” He hoped he wasn’t swelling her head up with so many compliments.

By June, Captain started to look, really look, at Miss Abernathy, and wondered if he was in love. This feeling took him by surprise because he had a sweet tooth for leggy California blondes, and Miss Abernathy wasn’t his type. About as far from his type as he could imagine, really. Stringy, pale red hair. Androgynous, thick-fingered hands with the nails gnawed down to the cuticle. A face sprayed with lentil-sized freckles that turned dark and blotched together when she was out in the sun.

Like clockwork Captain came knocking on the door today after Kathleen’s talk with her father. For a while he sat at the kitchen table across from her, sipping his Arnold Palmer with a sheepish grin. “Lookin’ beautiful as usual, Miss Abernathy,” he said finally. Then, as if catching himself making a mistake, he made an exaggerated “o” with his mouth. “Hope you don’t mind me saying that.”

“Captain, quick question?” Kathleen said. “Did my father ask you to build that flagstone path?”

Captain halted his glass an inch from his lips, then shook his head slowly, almost sadly.

“Oh, it looks like a fine job so far,” Kathleen said. “Wonderful. But we don’t want to short change you. I think we’ve mentioned that before. Maybe a few times.”

Captain’s shoulders lifted a little, and a close-mouthed smile returned to his face. “If it’s the bill you’re worried about, don’t you worry. I’m going to give your father the deal of the century.” He nodded, as if agreeing with himself. “The deal of the century,”he said, “and that’s a promise.”

“We’ll probably have to start wrapping things up soon is what I’m saying, Captain.”

“I’m just thankful to get my mind off everything, if you know what I mean.”

Poor soul, Kathleen thought. “How is your wife? Any better?”

“Oh yeah, much better. Going to be out of the hospital in a matter of days, I’m sure. Probably running marathons. Giving me hell.” He laughed his rusty wheezing laugh.

“Tell her I send my best and if there’s anything she needs . . .”

“What is your favorite color, Miss Abernathy? Red? Purple? I bet it’s pink, isn’t it?”

“I’m not sure if I have a favorite color.”

He stared at the perspiration above her lip, glittering pinpricks. “Reason I ask is because I’m going to put some peonies around that gazebo once I’m finished. Might as well plant every color just to be on the safe side. You’re bound to like something.”

“I wish you wouldn’t go through the trouble, Captain.”

Captain winked and picked up his glass and sipped, though there was nothing left but air. He saw his fingernails, the dark grit underneath, and hid his hands in his lap under the table. “Saw that Connor Dunn on television the other day,” he said. A bald-faced lie, since he’d thrown a fireplace poker through his television more than two months ago. “One of those gossip shows? Said he was dating that teenage what’s-her-name. That actress? Said they were loaded to the gills on cocaine.”

Kathleen’s face shaded red. She said, “I never trust those nasty shows for a second. And I happen to like his music.”

“Never cared for him too much,” Captain said. “It sounds like wiener opera to me. Go make pancakes in France is my philosophy, you know what I mean?”

Kathleen shook her head. “No, I don’t. Not at all.”

Certain that he had overstepped his boundaries, Captain rose from the table and held his cap over his groin, thanking Kathleen for the Arnold Palmer. Then he gimped quickly back outside, the picture of her dewy lip still burning in his head. You asshole, he thought. You better not do a goddamn thing to that woman.


Captain’s summer nights were quiet ever since his wife was admitted to the hospital and his sons went to stay at their grandparents’. When his twin boys Death Row One and Death Row Two called about their mother he said yes and no until they shut up. In the past three weeks, he hadn’t visited Annie once, hadn’t even made a phone call, and he intended on keeping it that way. For one thing, this was only diabetes the doctors were talking about, nothing life endangering. For another thing, say for argument’s sake his wife really was in danger—well, what problem was it of his? Three times already this year he’d asked Annie for a divorce, and now he was done asking. The paperwork would be waiting for her to sign on the kitchen table just as soon as she returned home, even if they wheeled the woman in on a gurney. Even if she was in such a condition that he had to hold the goddamn pen himself.

Not that he didn’t get lonely sometimes. But he kept himself occupied during the day with the controlled burns at Orcutt’s farm and the landscaping job at the Abernathys’. Nights and weekends were a different story, when he wiled away the hours in the dive bars around the county. One night near the end of June, he got so reeling drunk on rye that he called Kathleen from a pay phone at a gas station along the interstate. It was three in the morning, a moonless, star-strewn night, and he stood with his cheek against the cold glass wall of the booth, ready to confess his love. “Hello?” Kathleen kept saying and he stood there listening for a few more seconds before hanging up.

Maybe it was his imagination, but after that Kathleen kept her distance. The next day when he knocked on the Abernathys’ door, she told him she was in the middle of a private phone call, and would he mind it a lot if they talked later? She gave him a weird smile, the kind of jury-rigged smile someone would give the lawn man or butcher or electrician. You are nothing like me, the smile said, but you should be thankful that I’m being this polite. Not like the Kathleen he was used to at all.

On the last day of June, Captain was painting the gazebo under the backyard pecan trees when the Reverend came scowling across the lawn, hands shoved deep in his pockets. The strident whine of cicadas filled the afternoon air as Captain muttered curses under his breath.

“You told me one week, then two, and now here we are a month later,” the Reverend said, standing a few cautious paces away from Captain.

Captain rose slowly from his knees and grinned. “Come on, Reverend, we’re old pals, right? No reason to talk to me like that.”

“But who authorized this?” the Reverend asked. “I didn’t.”

Captain considered this for a moment, chewing air. Then he said, “Jesus Christ did.” The Reverend said nothing, only stared. “I’m serious, Sir. He came to me in my sleep last night. Said he wanted a gazebo in the backyard for ice cream socials.”

“You think that’s funny? That’s sacrilege.”

Captain continued laughing, a pleurisied laugh that went on for some time until he hawked phlegm in the grass. Then the Reverend could have sworn Captain said, “Suck shit to a point and stab yourself with it.”

The Reverend backed off, went back inside the house.

“Call the police,” he told his daughter. She sat at the kitchen table drinking iced tea, face hung over a book about constitutional law. Across from her sat Connor Dunn in his embroidered cowboy shirt, legs propped up on a ladder-back chair and crossed at the ankle, tips of his ostrich-skin boots pointed jauntily upward. Kathleen and Connor had been watching the exchange through the bay window, the Reverend talking for a few minutes while every so often Captain nodded respectfully.

“What now?” Kathleen asked.

The Reverend joined them at the table, chin twitching with indignation. “Why not just let the man build a wing on the house for himself? Because he’s apparently never going away.”

“I agree,” Connor said. “The man is dangerous.”

“You’re ingratiating yourself with my father,” Kathleen said. “Stop. It’s annoying.”

“Boy sounds pretty sensible to me, Kathleen,” said the Reverend.

“He knows nothing about Captain. Neither of you do.”

“Bull I don’t,” said Connor. “And who needs to know anything anyway? Always looking through the window like that. Giving you little Captains with his eyes.”

“Son?” the Reverend said. “I’m sitting right here. In front of you.”

“Pardon,” said Connor.

“I won’t repeat what he said, but you should have heard. You’d be terrified.”

Kathleen inspected one side of her father’s head, then the other. “Where’s your hearing aid?”

The Reverend huffed through his nose. “The man was standing five feet away from me. I know what I heard.”

“Like that time with the butcher? Remember that? Five fresh Chinamen for sale or whatever you thought you heard?”

“Story?” Connor said. “Perfectly true? Once I was at this homecoming party and Captain was there. He put on this Waylon Jennings cassette and told everyone in the room that it was him. He was so adamant about it, strutting around like a king, that even I believed him. Then this football player comes in and says, ‘That’s Waylon Jennings.’ Well, that football player never played football again. And Captain just drove his big truck into the yard doing donuts in the rosebushes for half an hour. Never mind that the house belonged to someone else’s parents.”

Kathleen rolled her eyes. “You both sound just alike.”

“Great minds,” said the Reverend.

Later that afternoon Connor unfolded a portable beach chair in the grass beside the gazebo. He sucked on a toothpick while staring at Captain from behind mirrored sunglasses. Captain couldn’t help but grudgingly marvel that Connor had hardly aged since he saw him last almost twenty years ago. He had the blandly handsome, almost embryonic appearance of someone who’d never suffered a moment in his life. Even his boots, expensive and elaborately tooled ostrich skin, looked as if they’d just been taken out of the box.

Finally Connor said, “Kathleen tells me it hasn’t rained for a month and still it’s like walking through motherfucking chicken broth out here. Florida weather.”

Unperturbed, with a perfectly steady hand, Captain painted one of the gazebo columns, the brush whispering swiftly up and down.

“I remember your wife,” Connor said, still jabbing with the toothpick. “Awful sorry. I hear she’s going to pull through, though.”

Captain cleared his throat, hawked in the grass close to Connor’s boots.

“She was one of those heavy metal girls, right? I remember the Ratt and Poison shirts all the time. Coked up at all those parties. Kind of wild in her day, wasn’t she?

“We all were,” said Captain.

“We all were,” said Connor, nodding. “That’s good. We all were.” He scratched his chin in mock thought, gazed up at the high fleecy clouds. Captain saw the hazy sun reflected in duplicate in Connor’s sunglass lenses. “Say, I remember something really wild. Remember that time you kicked the ever-living shit out of me at the homecoming party? I even remember what song was playing on the stereo. ‘Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,’ remember that one? That was wild.”

“Don’t remember it,” Captain said, kneeling down to dip his brush and hearing the gristly crack of his knees. “Lifetime ago.”

“Now that we’re on the subject, you spook the fuck out of Kathleen.”

Captain stopped painting. “Mind?” he said. “Tying to work here.” He gave Connor a rancid look, staring until the man stood, toothpick switching from one side of his mouth to the other like a scorpion tail.


Throughout the tail end of June, Captain continued setting the fires every weekday morning before dawn at Orcutt’s farm. He sat in his truck and drank spiked coffee while smoking cheroots, watching the wraith-like flames gyre up from the brush piles. During these hours of eerie quiet, before the morning birds called, he wrote letters to Miss Abernathy, filling the black-and-white marble tablet with his blocky handwriting. You don’t know what it’s been like, he wrote. What all I’ve been through. I’m no Einstein but I’m no retard either. Tell you what, though, my philosophy? A guaranteed fact!!! I got a true heart, more than most. I want the past to be the past.

One morning the Reverend’s new Dodge barreled up the dirt access road, a slipstream of roiling red dust in its wake. It was Kathleen, asking him if he wanted company. She’d brought a few hardboiled eggs in a paper bag and black coffee in a thermos. They spoke little at first, mostly watching the fire tumbling skyward as they sat on the hood of Captain’s pickup. Then Kathleen asked him about his wife.

“She’s fine,” Captain said. “Better than ever, the doctors say.” As he peeled his egg, he wondered if she noticed his shaking fingers. It had been several days since they’d spoken.

“I visited her the other afternoon,” Kathleen said. “She said you hadn’t been there to visit her. Said you weren’t even returning her calls.”

Embarrassment seared his face. He barely had the nerve to glance her way. Her damp hair was pinned back with silver barrettes and the smell of some sweet soap floated off her fresh-cream face. Something with jasmine and mint and honey. A lump as palpable as a ball bearing formed in his throat. “That’s not true,” he said. “That woman is losing her mind.”

“She’s not in good shape, but her mind seems completely fine.”

The way he saw it, Captain had no other choice but to let out the truth. “I can’t be with that woman no longer,” he said. He didn’t know whether his shoulders shook from anger or from being so close to Kathleen. Maybe both. “She’s holding me back. All my life, she’s been on my back for one thing or another, and I’m sick of it.”

They sat on the leeward side of the brush piles, so the molasses-thick smoke blew away from them in tilted columns. In the tremulous orange light, Kathleen looked taken aback, mouth hanging partway open. This was the most impassioned he’d ever let her see him.

“My heart is someplace else,” Captain said. He surprised himself by talking this way. Like he was listening to another person, or like he was a ventriloquist’s dummy sitting in some trickster’s lap.

“You’re having a hard time right now,” Kathleen said. “Both of you are.”

“There’s a lot of bad in me, I know it,” Captain went on. “No use hiding it at this late stage. But I’m right this time. First time I’ve ever been right maybe.”

“You need to stop coming around my father’s house, Captain,” said Kathleen. “I wanted to tell you in person. He’ll call the police. We know you mean well, but you’ve done enough. More than enough.”

Captain sat silently for a full minute, pulling at his face. Finally he said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself.”

“You’re more than welcome at my father’s church. Anytime. Everybody needs some kind of support.”

Captain wheezed out breath, a bitter sound almost like laughter. Sometimes he gave the sky the finger, grabbing and jostling his pecker, but that was the full extent of his communication with God. He had given up the possibility of salvation long ago. He knew the day, the exact minute, he stopped believing. It was when the energy company cut off the power to his home because of an overdue bill. His mother, carved away to almost nothing by lung cancer, needed an electrical oxygen pump to breathe in the last days of her life. She died before he could have the power switched back on.

Surprising himself again, Captain told Miss Abernathy some of this now. There was something about this woman that made him want to tell the truth. As much of it as she’d let him, at least.

“That’s crazy,” Miss Abernathy said. “Walking around with a cloud the size of Alaska over your head. Of course you’re going to think you’re a king-sized piece of crud. Who wouldn’t?”

“I love you,” said Captain.

Panic rippled across Miss Abernathy’s face. She coughed three quick artificial coughs into her fist. Then she told Captain she’d better leave and hurried into her truck without as much as a look back. Afterward he sat in his truck with his heart fiercely beating, studying his sun-ravaged face in the rearview mirror, wondering if any woman could still find him handsome. When that stupid Connor Dunn song about wild stallions and wishing wells came on the radio, he shot out his hand and snapped the dial.


For the next few days Captain tried to stay away from the Abernathys’. He finished the controlled burn at Farmer Orcutt’s and scavenged around the county for some minor landscaping and pool-cleaning jobs. Meanwhile the hospital kept calling, but he never answered. Then, on a Wednesday afternoon, one of the nurses left a message about an emergency. They would tell him nothing specific on the phone, so he drove right away to the hospital. It had been weeks since he’d last seen Annie.

A nurse sat him down in a waiting room, and soon a middle-aged doctor in a white coat and scrunching thick-soled shoes came out. His eyes kept falling down to his clipboard, as if a script were there. He said, “When your wife arrived, Mr. Carlson, her condition was already grave.”

“Just so you know right off the bat, I won’t be paying a red cent.”

“I understand you’re upset, Mr. Carlson.”

“If you brought a TV to a repair shop and they handed it over still broken, you wouldn’t pay, would you?”

“I don’t handle billing, Mr. Carlson,” said the doctor. Then, with cool detachment, the doctor continued with some mumbo jumbo that seemed aimed deliberately over his head. Blood lipids, triglycerides, microvascular complications. The words might as well have been coming from the far end of an echo chamber, a scrambled message he’d later have to decode.

The doctor led him to a chilly white room in the basement where a cloth-covered body waited on a gurney. The man drew a corner of the white cloth aside and there she was, Annie. Amazing how far she’d let herself go in the last few years. The flesh under her chin had turned gelatinous, accordioned with folds. Her eyes were closed, but still her face seemed turned in his direction, something rebuking about the drawn set of her mouth. It was an expression someone might have made after saying, Happy now, asshole?

“Stupid bitch,” Captain said.

Out of his coat pocket the doctor produced a gilt-edged stationery envelope. “She wanted you to have this,” he said.

At home that evening Captain sat and drank rye in his Barcalounger, unable to fall asleep. He kept thinking about Annie, about how different things were when they were young. They laughed and joked all the time as newlyweds, pawed constantly at one another like animals, imitating even the most improbable of positions from their porno tapes. After the boys were born, though, their passions swiftly cooled. Then came the resigned expectation that things would get much worse before better, one discarded hope after another until days started to bleed together. Annie always told him he expected too much. His problem, he thought, was not that he wanted too much. It was that he had trained himself by slow, almost immeasurable degrees to expect too little, until finally he expected almost nothing.

He eyed Annie’s envelope, unopened on the coffee table.

The last time he saw her alive was a Thursday morning before dawn. He was getting ready to go to Orcutt’s farm before a day of working at the Abernathys’. Just to piss him off, it seemed, Annie started harping about how much time he was spending at the Abernathys’, and how little he was getting paid for a job that seemed to be taking forever. At the kitchen table, she lit a cigarette, jetting smoke from her nose. “Don’t think you have anyone fooled,” she said. “I’ve seen that woman at the market. Who do you think you are? Oh Kathleen, oh Kathleen all night in your sleep. Like some one-man porno show.” She laughed her ratcheting boozer’s laugh.

Sometimes the sight of her startled him, so big she’d become. It was as though her old self was hidden in there somewhere, like one of those Russian nesting dolls.

“Please, Annie?” Captain said. “Just for the love of Christ, please?” He raked his hand through his hair and stabbed his breakfast burrito with a cheroot.

“Oh Kathleen, oh Kathleen. It’s obvious you’re having some kind of crisis.”

“No shit. Might as well be my middle name. Crisis.”

“Think you deserve better?”

“Most everybody does.”

“What’s gotten into you, talking like this? This is not you.”

“More me than I’ve ever been.”

“Listen to him. Just as much a fool as ever. Falling in love with women that would sooner mace him in the face than say hello.”

He rose from the kitchen table and shoved her right in the chest as she sat, almost like sinking his hand into a pillow. Hardly budging, she puffed her cigarette and laughed. There’d been plenty of roughhousing like this over the years. In the beginning of their marriage in particular, after Annie slept with a couple of losers, both rank felons and drunks. Not that that excused anything, he knew.

Now, sipping rye, he looked around at the dirty carpet and the cigarette-yellowed cobwebs in the corners. He imagined a new life, maybe even one with Miss Abernathy if he played his cards right. No more smoking indoors. No more meth or coke in the dive bar bathrooms. A new hardwood floor and clean curtains on the windows. The kind of life through which a man could glide serenely and stand to be sober more often than not. Maybe even get ahead of the other dreaming fools out there.

At half-past nine, his boys Death Row One and Death Row Two called from their grandparents’.

“Grandma’s really worried,” Death Row One, Darrel, said. “It’s been a week since she’s heard anything. She thinks you killed mom.”

“Tell that crazy witch that her freakin’ daughter is at the freakin’ dentist, Darrel,” Captain said.

“For a fucking week?” said Duke, also known as Death Row Two.

“Yeah, they’re taking out all her teeth. It’s a horror show in there, Duke.”

“What the fuck, Dad? You just called me Duke.”

“And you just called me Darrel.”

“That’s fucked,” said Duke.

“Yeah,” said Darrel.

The Death Row thing started years ago when the boys started getting into their boy trouble, mischief like lighting fires in the middle-school bathroom and putting a condom full of tapioca pudding at the bottom of their geography teacher’s coffee mug. As a joke Captain started telling the boys, “Death row bound, if you don’t watch it.” After a couple of months he started with the nicknames and kept at it with a vengeance when he noticed how much it appalled Annie and her parents. 

In retrospect, maybe the nicknames weren’t such a good idea, like creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Look at what had happened to him, with his mother’s second husband calling him Shitheel McGee and slapping him upside the head all the time. And look how much trouble Duke and Darrel had been in recently, so much that they had to stay the summer at their grandparents to straighten out. As if those poor boys had any chance.

“You boys on two lines or something?” asked Captain.

“He’s just figuring this out, Darrel. Sherlock Fuckin’ Holmes.”

“My Dad, the fucking detective,” said Darrel. “You drunk, Dad?”

“Maybe a little bit, yeah.”

“Stoned?” asked Duke.

“Not tonight.”

“You sound weird,” Darrel said.

“I am weird.”

He then told the boys that their mother was fine, that she’d call in the next day or two and left it at that. Later would still be too soon to hear the news about their mother, so why not give them a few more days of peace?

Later he awoke in the recliner with a drillbit headache between his eyes, not knowing whether he’d slept a day or an hour. The letter lay open in his lap, a few lines of Annie’s cursive. I’m sorry for everything, it read. You are the love of my life, Cappy. That was all.

It was dark and through the living room window Captain saw a glowing orange pile smoking in the backyard. Dressed only in boxers, he went outside, the cool grass licking his feet, but the radiant heat from the dying bonfire warming his arms and face. On top of the small pile were mementos he and Annie had gathered in their years of marriage—a rosewood grandfather wall clock, a fake Christmas tree, an old plastic globe terrarium. Some of it charred black, some of it almost unrecognizably melted and warped.

“Nice to see that you’re still among the land of the living,” a voice said.

He looked up. It was Mr. Purdy, his neighbor, peering over the backyard fence. A nosy old sonofabitch if ever there was one. In the dim orange light, his face appeared oddly pumpkinlike, the big gaps in his teeth showing black.

Captain said nothing, only stared.

“You really don’t remember, do you?” Purdy said. “I had to haul your ass inside your house. They would have thrown you into some padded cell for sure. Wailing and hot-stepping around like some kind of voodoo priest out here, covering everything with gasoline.” Captain must have looked skeptical, because Purdy held up his hand and nodded, as if to preempt argument. “Oh, you best believe it,” he said. “Goddamn boy, you were gone. Real gone.


Captain arrived at the Abernathys’ before daybreak, easing shut his truck door so he wouldn’t wake Miss Abernathy or her father. A koi pond, that’s what the lawn needed, a miniature koi pond right in the middle of the front yard as a symbolic apology to Miss Abernathy for whatever had transpired between them the other day. Stealthily, his head still reeling from all the night’s rye, he flung aside the green truckbed tarp and arranged his tools on the lawn. Muck fork. Digging bar. Sod cutter. Soon the porch light came on and the front door swung open, revealing Reverend Abernathy in his cranberry-colored pajamas. Barefoot, he creaked slowly down the porch steps, shotgun aimed at Captain’s head.

“Just let me do my work,” Captain said. His own voice sounded strange to him, almost like crying. He stumbled forward so he stood only several yards from the Reverend. A cheroot smoked between his lips. “Just let me finish my goddamn job and leave me in peace.”

“I’ll give you five seconds to get off my property.”

Captain spat out his cheroot. “Didn’t know reverends kept shotguns.”

“Four seconds.”

“What did I do to you, Reverend?”

“Three seconds.”

“I’m finishing my job. It’s important to me.”

“Your job is finished here. It’s been finished for a month now. And I’ll use this gun if you step one foot closer to this house.”

At this point Kathleen came through the front door in her quilted pink bathrobe, stepping up behind her father. Captain was close enough to see that she looked frightened, her face without makeup and swollen red with sleep. Her jaw muscles twitched.

He took off his baseball cap and held it over his chest. “Miss Abernathy?” he said. “Do you hear this? Please talk some sense into your father.”

“Are you drunk?” Kathleen said. “You better leave before the police get here.”

One look around at all his labor, most of it done for free, ignited fury in his chest. “This is how you treat a man whose wife just died? You ought to take a good long look at yourselves before you start calling people names.”

For a second the Reverend fell silent, breath rasping hard through his nose. “We’re sorry about your wife,” he said. “We are. But that doesn’t change the fact that we don’t want you around here anymore. We’ve been charitable. More than charitable.”

“Tell me what I goddamn did and then I’ll leave.”

Without a word Kathleen turned around and went back into the house. The Reverend glared from beneath his wily eyebrows, shotgun still aimed. In a moment Kathleen returned and tossed a large manila envelope in the grass at Captain’s feet. He stooped and picked it up.

Kathleen said, “That’s what you did.”

Anger once again welled into his chest. “You people are crazy. You think you’re so good? Treating a man like this the day his wife dies? Like some kind of criminal?”

“Are you out of your mind?” Kathleen asked. Her voice was stiff and icy, as if they were strangers who’d never exchanged a word. Worse, as if he were some pestilence to her. “What’s in that envelope is vile. Vile. You really need to get some help.”

Captain winced. “What about my money?”

“You’ll get your money,” the Reverend said.

“Seven thousand dollars,” Captain said.

“It’ll be two thousand, the only number we ever agreed on. The check will be in the mail today, if you leave now.”

Captain yanked his cap down over his burning ears. Kathleen and her father stared at him so wrathfully that what little conviction he had left started to waver. He said, “Well, I guess I better leave then.”

“Yes, leave,” Kathleen said, quick as a falling guillotine blade. “And stay away.”


For most of Fourth of July day Captain stayed in bed, trying to wrangle his emotions the same way he used to put his boys in a headlock when they were little. Every time he tried to rouse some memory of the night before it skittered stubbornly away. He thought of the look on Miss Abernathy’s face, her eyes half furious and half frightened like a spooked cat’s, without one scintilla of warmth.

Under the bedcovers in the murky half-light of the room, he read over and over again the letter inside the manila envelope. All twenty-five pages. The letter was definitely his, all right, written in his cramped and clumsy penciled script on wide-ruled paper. “I love you girl,” the first line read. “I’ve never wanted anything so pure, and I mean it!” He scanned the rest of the pages and saw cock, fuck, love, pussy, children, forever. God, he’d say every minute or two, sitting up and banging the headboard with his fist. The last thing he remembered from the night before was the call from his boys. How he could have made it to the Abernathys’ and back was beyond guessing.

Early evening he forced himself out of bed and dressed in his old corduroy suit. In front of the bureau mirror he raked a comb through his hair as somewhere far off in the neighborhood bottle rockets hissed and popped. He hadn’t even held a comb in who knows how long but he wanted to be presentable for the Abernathys’ Fourth of July charity party. After all the work he’d done, most of it gratis, he figured he deserved at least the opportunity to apologize.

Around nine o’clock, Captain pulled his truck in front of the Abernathys’ house. There were dozens of other cars and trucks parked alongside the road and in the driveway. For a moment he paused on the edge of the lawn, bouquet of daisies in one hand and cheroot in the other, surveying the panoply of his work and feeling a swell of pride. The grass was already growing green and shrubbery stood lush in lagoons of mulch. The gazebo stood out pretty and white as a wedding cake in the violet dusk. All of this work, all of it his.

When Captain reached the middle of the yard he halted again, standing behind a bank of waist-high shrubbery just beyond the skirt of golden light that shined out the front windows and surrounded the house. He heard the mingled roar of voices and laughter, some scrap of electric slide guitar music muffled underneath. Behind each of the front windows men and women in Bermuda shorts and T-shirts stood thronged around chairs and sofas and card tables with their drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Captain felt the back of his neck burn. Suddenly he felt stupid standing there in ninety-degree weather in his cheap corduroy suit.

Then he spotted Kathleen leaning against the fireplace mantel, looking pretty in her tight jeans and halter top with her hair pinned up. He felt a pang in his gut and braced himself. Smoked and stared, shallow breaths stinging. Within moments Connor Dunn sidled up to Kathleen and clasped his hand behind her back, bending down to say something close to her ear. He rested his hand over her stomach and kept it there. She smiled up and he smiled down and then they kissed on the lips. Captain felt something like a jackknife darting open in his chest. Not knowing whether to step backward or forward, not even knowing how people began to make such decisions in times like these, he stayed put and watched them in thoughtless fury. Then, carelessly, he flicked his cheroot into the dry cedar mulch at his feet, mesmerized as the beautiful spark spread slowly like bright blue lace, as he raised his boot and kept it poised as if about to put out the flame.  end

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