Followed by Fire
J. Alan Brown
Melody Burnside entered the back door into the house, her nose crinkled in distaste. "Sheeoo, I stink," she said.
"What's the matter?" asked Rick. He had just finished getting ready for their evening ahead.
"Oh, I smell like a fire now," said Melody with a small grimace.
"Ah," said Rick, nodding. "The Douglases."
Melody was returning from taking their seven-year old son, Matthew, to the Norton's home two houses down. Their teenage daughter was watching Matthew while Rick and Melody met some friends for dinner. Five minutes earlier, Melody and Matthew had headed out the back door into the cool November evening. Rick surmised that on the way back, Melody had felt obligated to stop and chat with the Douglases who lived in between. After all, she had cut through their back yard.
Doug and Yvonne Douglas often sat outside on their enormous yard swing. ("Doug Douglas?" Rick had remarked to himself when the neighbors first met. "What were his parents thinking?") They huddled near a black brazier, a squat, waist-high cauldron that looked like a weird probe from a fifties science fiction movie. Inside the barrel was room for a warm and homey fire.
"I tried to stay out of the smoke," said Melody brushing her fingers through her auburn hair to shake out the smell, "but the wind -- shifted." She smoothed the front of her blouse and pants quickly.
"The fire always seems to find me," Melody said with a sigh.
"Oh, you know him," Melody said with a smirk. "It was all I could do to get a kiss out of him before he was in their house feeling right at home. I don't think he'd mind if we disappeared off the face of the earth and he went to live with the Norton's."
Rick nodded. Wordlessly, they began the final act of their pre-Evening-Out dance. In their eleven years together, they had honed the ritual to a well-practiced routine. He patted his pockets for keys and wallet. She washed her hands. He jiggled doorknobs and turned off all lamps but one. She poked in a drawer and came up with sticks of gum. "Ready to go?" she said in conclusion.
It suddenly occurred to him that he was alone in the house with his wife. No television squawked for attention. No talkative seven-year-old was interrupting or peppering them with questions. He stepped up and slipped his arms around her, moved his face toward her. He wanted to kiss her, a long, passionate kiss in the romantic dimness.
He felt her stiffen with tension. She glanced at him impatiently. "We’re going to be late."
He moved in closer, and she puckered at him, her lips small and tight. To Rick, they looked like the asterisk of a computer password, or a man's anus before his first prostate exam. The message was clear: No admittance.
She pecked him quickly, then worked her way out of his embrace. Rick tried to smile an apology to her but she had turned away.
"Let’s go," she said. She grabbed her purse, and the two of them exited through the back door and garage.
Once out in the driveway where their cars were parked, Rick shucked off his wife's rejection. His senses absorbed the evening in full force. The last several days had been rainy and humid in the Dallas Metroplex, but that first Friday in November had turned out to be almost perfect. The temperature that day had reached 78 degrees, and the air held just enough of that lingering warmth to make for a pleasant evening. Autumn leaves whispered amongst themselves in the slight breeze, and the week's rain had sharpened the fall colors. Rick's eyes were too light-blinded to see any stars, but the moon showed a bright crescent like the hump of a capital 'D.' Rick inhaled the cool air and immediately smelled the wood smoke of the Douglases' fire. He turned toward them and could just make out their figures in the orange flicker a few yards away.
"Hi, folks," called Rick. "Nice evening, isn't it?" Melody was wordlessly climbing into the other side of Rick's Honda Civic; she had already said her piece to the neighbors.
"Beautiful," agreed Yvonne from her seat on the swing. The Burnsides, the Douglases, and the Nortons had all tacitly agreed not to fence their back yards. This made an almost uninterrupted greenbelt to serve as a safe playground for Matthew and other neighborhood kids. The Douglases' swing and fire brazier occupied the fifty-yard line. The elderly couple had said they enjoyed watching the kids play; their own grandchildren lived six states away.
"You kids have a nice time tonight," Doug called out.
"Thanks," said Rick. Again he inhaled deeply and opened his car door.
Suddenly, a pocket of air inside the burning wood exploded with a fierce pop, and Doug and Yvonne jerked as if goosed. Sparks showered into the air over Rick's head, but terrifyingly close, like municipal fireworks detonated too low. The breeze blew the sparks toward Rick, and he felt a stab of panic. He leaned back against the car, watching the pinpricks of fire weave their way toward him, leaving trails of glow in his vision. They looked like a cloud of burning snakes undulating across the dark sky.
But the breeze was light. The sparks guttered and plummeted to the earth like a meteor shower, extinguishing harmlessly in the damp grass a couple of yards from his feet. Rick waved weakly, as if to assure any spectators that he was all right, but it was too dark to tell if anyone had seen him stagger. He quickly got into his car and started it up.
"Did you see those sparks?" he asked, then realized he was almost shouting. His heart still pounded. "They were coming straight for me."
A small smile touched her lips. "Oh, pooh. You're exaggerating again."
He said nothing as be backed out and coasted down the alley.
"I'm just teasing," she said. "I'm sorry. The same thing happened to me once, when I was a little girl."
He warmed up to her apology. "What happened?"
"It was on Halloween. I was eight, maybe nine, and one of our neighbors had built a campfire in their backyard. All the kids were invited over for ghost stories and roasting marshmallows."
"A campfire? And you allergic to wood smoke? I'll bet you were sick as a dog afterward."
She shrugged. "Probably, but I practically lived in a fireplace all my life. Up in Minnesota we had to use our wood burning stove for six months a year, and oh, the smell. I was usually sick all winter." As if to complete the picture she fished a tissue out of her purse and blew her nose.
"Anyway, I remember being cold, and sitting close to the fire. The glowing embers were hypnotic, when all of a sudden I felt a sharp pain in the middle of my forehead. It felt like someone jabbed me with a hypodermic needle. I ran crying for my mom. She was standing nearby talking with the neighbors. I was screaming and crying, but she couldn't figure out what had happened."
Rick nodded. "You were burned by a spark, weren't you?"
"Mm-hmm. Some kid nearby said he saw the spark land right on my forehead. I remember his face got all big and serious, and he said it looked like I had a glowing eyeball there."
"I'll bet it hurt, didn't it."
"Naturally. Mom hugged me and kissed my forehead. From then on, I tended to stay away from campfires." She rubbed her forehead with a finger. "I've still got a tiny scar there."
Rick thought about what his wife had said. He had nearly wet his pants from those sparks, but really, what was the worst that could have happened? Did he imagine himself bursting into flames? Did he honestly think he would have ended up screaming, wailing on the ground as the fire swept over him, lighting his hair into a pyre? No, the worst would have been a few singes on his overcoat, that's all.
Still, the thought of that spark resting on Melody's forehead fascinated him. Kissed by fire. Her mother had kissed her in the same spot. Kissed by fire, kissed by love. He remembered what she had said earlier
(The fire always seems to find me)
And a chill ran down his spine.
"What's the matter?" asked Melody, and Rick jumped, startled, blinking at her. He was sitting at a stop sign, signal clicking to turn right, but he wasn't moving. Her forehead was creased in irritation.
"Nothing," he said with a sheepish grin. "Just zoned out. Sorry." He turned onto Ridge Road and accelerated away.
The maximum capacity seating for Roy's was only 75 people, and Rick liked it that way. So far the privately owned steakhouse had not been featured in the Dallas Morning News Restaurant Guide under the category of "Hidden Treasures." That meant Rockwall locals could still get a table on Friday night without a two-hour wait. Rick pulled into the white gravel lot and parked. He moved to step around and hold the door open for Melody, but she got out herself before he could make it.
They started for the restaurant, and for a wonder, Melody slipped her cool hand into Rick's and held it. Occasionally she gripped his hand tightly for support as she stepped on a shifting mound of gravel. Rick tried to remember the last time Melody had held his hand. Definitely not since Daylight Savings Time had kicked every clock back an hour. Probably not since their summer vacation to San Antonio, nearly four months earlier. Once upon a time, the young lovers could hardly be separated. Then Matthew was born.
At first it was only natural that their child came between them. For the first couple of years their hands were full of diaper bags, strollers, and twenty pounds of fidgety toddler. Then, when the boy's legs finally started their on-the-job training, Rick and Melody each held a chubby fist between them as Matthew manipulated the inline skates that seemed to be attached to his feet.
Once Matthew was walking on his own -- indeed, darting out ahead on strong, quick legs -- Rick expected that he and Melody would come together again to absorb the vacuum left behind by their son. Nothing doing. Something had clicked inside Melody once Matthew was born. Something hormonal, perhaps, and no amount of time had eased the "Physical Contact" switch back into its former position. Now, beyond a nanosecond peck on the lips when Rick left for work, they could easily go two weeks without touching each other. That fact came home to Rick just then as they entered Roy's, for Melody's simple gesture of holding his hand had given him an erection.
"There they are," Melody said brightly, and Eric and Shelley Thomlinson simultaneously turned and smiled. Rick put his left hand into his pocket to hide his bulge, then pumped Eric's hand in greeting.
"Our table will be ready in about five minutes, the guy said," said Shelley. She was a slender, dark-haired woman with narrow eyes and white, even teeth. Eric was equally slim, with short brown hair and wireless-frame glasses.
"I feel like I haven't seen you guys in over a year," said Rick. He felt his erection subsiding.
"Not since last Fourth of July," Melody agreed. "Shelley and I figured it out over the phone this afternoon."
"That's too long," said Rick. "You guys still like your new house?" he asked, then mentally kicked himself for the idiotic question. The Thomlinson's moved into it five years earlier.
"Oh, sure," said Eric. "Hey, this spring we're going to put in a pool."
"Really?" said Melody. "I'm jealous."
"You'll have to come over for a swim party," insisted Shelley. "Matthew will love it."
They continued to make small talk, while Rick added "swimming pool" to the growing list of items required to keep up with the Thomlinson's. I guarantee it, before the night's over, Melody will casually mention putting in our own pool.
Rick glanced around, trying to get his back wheel out of that well-worn rut before it grooved even deeper. The dark-paneled lobby had been decorated with white Christmas lights across the ceiling rafters, but mercifully they hadn't put up a Christmas tree yet. Roy's served the best steaks in Rockwall, but Rick had to admit it was cramped for space. He kept having to shift positions to dodge a waitress who was making her way back to the one table that sat by the bay window at the end of the bar. The four of them stood in a loose circle in front of the bar; had anyone been seated at the bar chairs they would have practically been pushed out the front door.
At the other end of the bar stood the entrance to the kitchen, and idly Rick watched the cooks slap red steaks on a massive grill. Rick had been there enough times to recognize the process. A steel-gray conveyor belt roughly fifteen feet long slowly rolled over gas-fired flames. The middle third of the conveyor belt was an enclosed broiler, and in there the steaks would receive their maximum heat. Meat rolled in the opening at one end, red and sizzling and covered with seasonings, and rolled out the other end, brown and juicy. The two cooks would set down the cuts of meat on various places on that conveyor belt depending on how the patron wanted the meat to be cooked. Rare steak lovers, those who like their meat at room temperature, would get their cuts slipped inside the covered oven, coming out three minutes later still wiggling. Whereas those who insisted that even shoe leather could be underdone would get their cuts set down at the very end of the conveyor belt, letting every drop of juice hiss out onto the lava coals beneath. Occasionally, one of the cooks would step aside to grab a foil-wrapped potato out of a heated drawer. As he did so, Rick could see directly into the broiler through the exit. The dozen cuts of beef glowed in the red fire, looking like the denizens of Hell.
"You folks ready?" Roy Brown, sole owner and proprietor of Roy's Steakhouse, approached the four of them with menus in his hands and a smile on his red face. He wore the bolo tie and boots that seemed so appropriate, but Rick admired his lean frame given that he worked with food all day. Roy gave Eric and Rick a firm handshake before he led the two couples away from the bar, past the kitchen, and toward their table, already gleaming with dual white tablecloths and soft candles.
That was another thing Rick liked so well about Roy's -- the personal touch. Roy seated patrons himself, as if he had invited them into his own home. He strongly doubted that the CEO of Outback Steakhouse would ever shake his hand, or any customer's hand. Rick's good humor swelled inside him as he let the others pass before him. He snatched one more quick glance into the kitchen doorway and down into that inferno of meat and heat.
Becky Patterson had been waiting tables for Roy for three years, and in all that time, she had never had such a lousy night.
Bad enough her car had puked what looked like a gallon of oil in her apartment parking lot. Somehow the old '91 Hyundai had sensed that she was late for work and had picked that very evening to run a high-grade fever of the crankcase. Reluctantly, Becky asked her unemployed neighbor into giving her a ride to the restaurant. He was a fortyish divorcee who drove a new Dodge Ram pickup. Not bad for someone who seems perpetually out of work, she thought. Welfare can be your friend. But as he drove her to Roy's she glanced at his face and didn't like the smirk she saw there. She suspected that while he may have been twice her age, he was expecting something in return for the ride, and he wouldn't mind getting it at two a.m. when Becky got back from work.
She arrived fifteen minutes late, and suffered the genuine concern of Roy, which made her feel worse. Then two of her first tables entirely stiffed her on the tip, and another couple had been even worse. The two men left her a quarter tip --twenty-five cents on a twenty-eight dollar tab -- along with a note suggesting that she could be a bit more ... 'peppy'.
I'll peppy you, you ignorant pricks, she thought as she smiled and helped them shrug on their expensive trench coats.
The party of five she had just finished waiting on hadn't been sweetness and light, either. The silver-haired woman had sent back her steak three times -- first, not done enough; second, too cold; third, too dry. Roy had shrugged and sent her a fresh cut of meat, but for some reason the fault lay entirely with Becky, according to the old bat's frosty stares. The grandkid in the high chair was oh, so special, too, dropping spoons like pennies down a wishing well. Naturally, the tip came to eight dollars and eight cents -- precisely ten percent of the bill, and Becky supposed Grandpa thought he was being more than generous given the 'uneven' services rendered.
She sighed and flexed her toes inside her shoes -- it was only eight-thirty and for some reason her feet were already threatening revolt. Hopefully the night would improve. In fact, the next group looked nice enough. Becky was in the kitchen preparing a couple of salads. Rico and Luis were behind her slapping steaks on and off the grill like mad conductors. Becky glanced into the 'waiting-area-slash-bar' at the two couples about to be seated in her section. Roy was just leading them in like a mother hen followed by her chicks. By the cut of their clothes, the couples weren't moneyed, but at least college graduates raised by middle-class parents who taught their kids how to calculate fifteen percent. They'll want separate checks, she mentally ticked off of a list. Two iced teas, maybe two beers, no appetizer, chocolatey desert with four spoons.
Just as the auburn-haired woman passed in front of the kitchen and into the dining room, a sequence of strange events occurred almost simultaneously.
Becky had just finished filling two chilled platters with lettuce mix when she reached for the bottle of Italian dressing. Behind her, Luis had removed a strip from the grill and stepped to his left to slide it on a plate, exposing the fiery maw of the covered oven.
Becky's hand slipped on the oily bottle of dressing and knocked it forward, threatening to dump the dressing into the croutons. She yanked the bottle backward, but over-reacted, splashing nearly a cup of dressing over her left shoulder.
The salad oil arced behind her in a neat spray, landing directly onto the steak that just emerged from the oven, dousing it completely. Bright flames broke out of the gas grills underneath the dripping steak like a wild mustang bursting out of a fiery barn.
Becky shrieked when she felt the intense heat of the wall of flame on her face. Her voice sounded like razor blades scraped across cold glass. Grease fires were not unusual, but this one was out of control!
She heard a harsh clang. Luis had dropped his metal spatula to the tile floor. His right arm was bathed in fire. His eyes were round orbs and his breath hitched painfully. Becky pried her white knuckles off the dressing bottle and nearly dropped it setting it down. She lunged for the fire extinguisher mounted on the wall.
Luis waved his arm uselessly, then reason seemed to take hold again. He smothered his burning arm in the tail of his apron. The fire from the conveyor belt still raged. It burned and groped and clawed at whatever it could find. Luis backed away quickly, and she managed to free the fire extinguisher from it stand. Her face tingled with heat, and she pointed the extinguisher at the fire --
Then it was out, as quickly as it had started.
Becky slowly set the extinguisher back in its place. She willed her hands to stop shaking, and her heart thudded in her chest. Luis gingerly inspected his arm, the skin red and shiny, the stiff curls crackling and falling off to the floor. Rico's mouth was set in an O, the pair of raw steaks in his hand forgotten.
Roy hustled into the kitchen as fast as decorum would allow. "What the hell is going on?" he growled in a low voice.
"Nada, Boss," said Luis, still fingering his arm. "Just a grease fire, s'all."
"Is anybody hurt? Becky, are you all right?"
She couldn't find the moisture to swallow, so she simply nodded, her eyes still very round.
"Rico, what's the matter with you. You look like you've seen a ghost. Wake up, man! We've had grease fires before. Luis, you take care of that arm with the first aid kit. Becky, you've got tables. Come on, people, let's remember where we're at. Rico, until he gets back, get these steaks off ..." The words died bonelessly on his lips. He was staring at a piece of meat on the conveyor belt, the one that had started the fire. What was supposed to be a twenty-one ounce T-bone steak, medium-rare, was now a fifteen-ounce piece of char. It could play the starring role in a barbecue briquette commercial.
Roy picked up a metal spatula and slid the black lump of coal off the grill, then dumped into a forty-gallon trash can beside Becky. "Rico, first get another T-bone on the grill." Then, with a strange look Roy stepped out of the kitchen. Luis followed him.
Rico still hadn't moved from his spot, even though another steak had about sixty seconds before slowly being conveyed onto the floor. He crossed himself, waving the raw meat in front of him as if trying to stir a pack of wild dogs to bloodlust. Then he looked at Becky with wide eyes.
"That fire," he croaked. "It looked like it wanted somebody."
Becky tore her gaze away from his sickly pale face, scooped up the salads into her arms, and bolted out of the kitchen.
By the time the waitress had cleared the table of dirty dishes, Rick had an empty feeling in his chest that not even a filet, potato, and honey-glazed pumpernickel bread could fill.
The conversation had centered on one particular feature film: The Wonderful World of Thomlinson. Random topics about sports and politics tried to get some screen time, but eventually they were all inundated by the record-breaking ticket sales of this season's blockbuster.
"And we're going to spend Christmas in Paris this year!" said Shelley with a little girl's enthusiasm.
"Really?" said Melody, just as enthusiastic, as if she were going as well, and would now have a friend to shop with.
"Eric surprised me with the plane tickets for our anniversary last month." Eric gave an "ain't-I-a-stinker" grin at Rick, and he smirked back.
The Burnsides and the Thomlinsons became friends nine years earlier, when they were next-door neighbors in their new Rockwall subdivision. After the obligatory feeling-each-other-out that neighbors do over lawnmowers and gardening implements, they learned that their wedding dates fell within a month of each other. At that something seemed to click, and the couples were spending two to three nights a week with each other. Cowboy's games on the big-screen, Day-After-Christmas shopping sprees, late-night Canasta tourneys. Even the idea of Matthew hadn't been conceived yet, and the two childless couples lived the active life that dual incomes could provide.
"So how's Matthew?" asked Shelley. "Is he in second grade now?"
"Yeah," said Rick. "He's good."
"Although I wonder sometimes," said Melody, and she shook her head a little. "He's starting to cop an attitude over little things, and it's driving me crazy!"
Eric and Shelley shook their heads, mimicking Melody's gesture as if in perfect sympathy. Like you would know, Rick thought.
Life had been coasting along fairly well for Rick and Melody back then. Not idyllic, but not struggling either. Rick had gotten a promotion at the insurance firm where he worked as an auditor, and every Christmas came with a four-figure bonus check. Then, one dark evening as they lay in bed after making love, Melody hugged her knees to her chest and announced that she wanted a baby and that was all there was to it.
"Just like that?" Rick had asked. "What happened to paying off the house first, like we talked about?"
Melody shrugged. "I can't explain it. I want to have a baby and I don't want to wait until I'm in my mid-thirties to start. What if we can't do it then?"
Rick had settled in with the idea of putting off kids for another decade. Live fast and free while you're young and healthy, pay off debt, get it all out of your system. Then, when the children arrive, you'll be better prepared for come-what-may. In fact, late at night after a couple of beers, Rick could picture himself not having kids at all, and the thought did not exactly terrify him. He could adjust, he supposed.
But Melody had stubbornly insisted. Some internal switch inside the female body had clicked, only this one was labeled "Mother," and she turned from a young successful woman with freedom and a phobia of episiotomies to someone who wanted to go through twelve hours of hard labor and an aching back. Might as well try to explain why women go to the public bathrooms in groups.
Less than a year later, Matthew was born. Rick and/or Melody apparently were very fertile, for after their first month of 'officially trying' the stick turned blue. After five weeks of changing diapers, nursing, and bathing a wiggly, blond-haired infant, Melody made another announcement.
"I want to quit work and stay at home with Matthew."
At that moment, Rick felt a gorilla plod across the room on his knuckles and settle himself on Rick's back, promptly falling asleep. Melody resigned her Admin Assistant's position and in truth, did seem very happy to be a stay-at-home mom. But Rick's income was not enough to cover the expenses. Within a year he had gotten a part-time job selling shoes in the mall on nights and weekends. He occasionally nodded off while driving home late at night. And after seven years, somehow his income was still not enough to keep up. Vacations became fewer and less extravagant. Used cars were purchased and financed, rather than new ones. Rooms in the house went undecorated.
And dinners out to my favorite restaurant are fewer and fewer.
The sixty-hour weeks and the occasional, "which utility bills get paid this month?" lottery were bad enough, but Eric and Shelley led a utopian existence by comparison. They had drifted off in another direction, buoyed along by rising incomes and no progeny. Shelley had confided to Melody that they had tried to get pregnant, but after a year, they gave up and 'resigned themselves' to being a childless couple. Resigned themselves? More likely they threw a celebration, Rick thought.
As time went by, the two couples saw less and less of each other. Like two lines beginning at the same point, but differing by only a degree, over time they grew wide apart.
"You guys should come over tomorrow," said Eric. "I'll take you out on the lake in our boat. It's supposed to be seventy degrees tomorrow. Still too cold for swimming, but we can go fishing. Matthew will love it!"
Rick sighed. "That sounds like fun, but I've got to work at the shoe store tomorrow. But Melody, you could take Matthew if you wanted."
Melody gave him that look again, the one that said that if Rick were suddenly widowed, Child Protection Services would find Matthew starved to death in his own room a week later because his father completely forgot to feed him. "We can't, honey. Matthew's has a soccer game tomorrow at ten, and Thomas Stensor's birthday party is at two o'clock. I told you that, remember?"
"Oh yeah. I remember now," he lied. As far as he was concerned, he had never heard of the party until that minute.
"Well, maybe next time, then," said Shelley, and she and her husband held the correct sympathetic smile. Poor Burnsides, their perfect smiles said. Soooo busy and soooo poor. Ain't that a shame?
"Well," said Melody, "we've got to get Matthew from the sitter." And so began the final act of the evening, that of paying the bill and saying how much fun they all had and how they won't wait another year to get together again. Within five minutes, they all stood and made their way, single file to the front door, past the lobby festooned with white Christmas lights, through the doorway leading toward the lobby and bar, and past the kitchen with it's conveyor belt through Hell. The four of them would never eat at Roy's again.
Becky Patterson agreed to herself that the evening was turning out better. Her feet adjusted themselves to their labor, the headache that blasted her after the incident with the fire had subsided, and the party of four she had just waited on were polite and generous. She took a moment to lean on the bar and chat while Evelyn mixed a Scotch-and-soda for one of Becky's tables.
She heard laughter, and turned her head to see the two couples make their way toward the front door. She hadn't quite pegged them; no appetizer, but no desert either, and all of them drank iced tea. But they were nice enough. Becky took another moment to admire the auburn-haired woman's shoes. The woman had just turned her back and walked out the door, followed by her husband, and Becky swiveled her head past Evelyn and back into the kitchen. Becky wanted to make sure that Roy wasn't giving her that disappointed father look.
I'm not taking a break, hon, I'm waiting for a drink order.
Luis, his right arm wrapped in gauze, was just reaching into the covered portion of the conveyor belt to grab a rib-eye ordered very rare when another stripe of flame burst out. Again the metal spatula fell to the floor with a clang. It took Becky three seconds to realize what the gibbering sound coming from the kitchen was.
Luis was on fire.
Rick parked his Honda in their driveway, and he and his wife walked across the Douglases' back yard to get Matthew. Doug and Yvonne had apparently gone inside to bed, and the fire in the black brazier had died down to a soft glow. There was no handholding this time. The wind had picked up, and Melody wrapped her arms around her elbows for warmth. Rick plunged his own hands into his pockets.
"How much would a swimming pool cost us?" she asked quietly.
Bingo. "Well, the way I see it, we could either have this house, or we could have a pool, but not both."
"That's what I figured," said Melody, and the weight in her voice settled into his chest like pneumonia.
Most men are able to provide for their families. Then there are those who work sixty hours a week to earn the princely sum of 'not enough'.
At the Nortons, Matthew was keyed up from being up late and playing in another family's house. Rick paid the sitter fifteen dollars, thanked her again, then the three of them walked back to their own home--Matthew between his parents, just like old times. Again, they crossed the Douglases' yard, and as they passed the brazier, Melody held out a low hand toward it as if to absorb however little warmth it may have still held. Rick ignored the brazier; he was mentally calculating the odds of him getting laid that evening.
Let's see, I took her out to dinner, so that's a point. But Melody and Shelley arranged the whole thing while the husbands were at work. His job tonight was to drive the car and pay for the meal, so it's not like he actually asked her out on a date. So call it a wash.
I shaved before we left, he countered, rubbing his cheeks experimentally. At least I don't have sixteen hours of stubble.
He had called her Good Lookin' twice, but hell, that never worked. Too much of that and she saw right through him. He dialed up a game show host's unctuous voice. Compliment or Foreplay? You make the call!
CHEAP FOREPLAY! shouted the studio audience.
Let's face facts, shall we? he asked himself. Is it after nine p.m.? Yes. That means she'll be "exhausted." Did she eat something beside cool toast dipped in warm milk? Sure, so that means her stomach hurts. And don't forget, despite the fact we sat in the non-smoking section, we were in a public place, so the likelihood of a single molecule of cigarette smoke drifting across the restaurant and entering either of her nostrils is a near certainty, which means she has a headache.
Besides, we already had sex, what, three weeks ago? What more do you want? You just be patient, tiger. In a week, ten days at the tops, about a couple days after her period is over, you'll get into bed with nothing but sleep on your mind. She'll come in and crawl on top of you and begin the lovemaking. You can bank on it.
And whether you feel like it or not, you'll do it, because you know this is your chance. If you don't get your pecker up and do your duty, soldier, your Honda will be due for an oil change before you get to see your wife naked again.
So then, once Matthew is safely tucked in bed, we can expect Melody to brush her teeth and change into her rattiest, oversized T-shirt that completely swallows her figure and turns her into a manatee. Then she'll brush her lips on ours and say good night. Despite being tired, she'll want to watch some TV, so she'll crawl under a blanket on the couch and sleep with David Letterman, just like always. Meanwhile, we'll read for a bit and wonder why a man married for eleven years should have to whack off twice a week like a pimple-faced virgin.
They entered their house, and thus began the amended "getting ready for bed" script. Rick double-checked the door locks. Melody hustled Matthew into his bathroom to make him brush his teeth for longer than ten seconds. Rick changed into pajamas, then he tucked Matthew into bed while Melody did her evening bathroom ritual. By the time he clicked off the night stand lamp and closed his son's bedroom door, Melody ghosted past him toward the kitchen with her hair down and in an XXL T-shirt. Faded red letters spilled across the front that said "Big Bend National Park." Rick followed her on the pretense of getting a drink of water out of a bottle in the refrigerator.
"How are you feeling tonight?" he asked, which was actually a coded message meaning, I'll be awake for another hour from the caffeine in the iced tea. Wanna have sex? His testicles started tingling in instinctive anticipation.
"Exhausted," said Melody, and she flopped down onto the couch and covered herself with a blanket, then hunted between the cushions for the TV remote. "I think I ate too much. I have a tummy ache." She said it in that cute, little-girl voice that had swept him away when they dated back in college. "Besides," she said, back in her normal voice, "all that cigarette smoke has given me a headache."
For it's one two three strikes you're out at the old ball game.
"Will you do me a favor and bring me some Advil and water?" She clicked the TV on and tabbed through the channels.
"Sure, Babe," Rick said. He walked back to the kitchen, got her three pills from a bottle in a cabinet, then pulled out a fresh bottle of water from the refrigerator. She took them from him with a muttered, "Thanks."
"Well, I guess I'll go to bed now," he said. This is it, folks. It's the bottom of the ninth and bases are loaded. If the governor's going to call it has to be now or it'll be too late. He's going to need a miracle if he's going to pull this one out. He felt the beginnings of another erection.
"Good night," she said without taking her eyes off the television screen.
He leaned his head down toward her. She dragged her eyes off of Letterman's tooth gap and pushed her face toward his, lips hugely puckered again. She tapped his lips than dropped her face back toward the TV.
Oh! So close! There's the buzzer, and it's all over for the challenger.
"Good night." He stood over her, looking down at the top of her head.
I love you, Melody Burnside, he thought. In spite of everything, I still love you. I'm sorry I'm not the man you thought I would be. I know I don't look like much, but you said you didn't care when I proposed to you. I suspect you thought I would be rich by now. You married me under false pretenses, I think, and now you're stuck. I'm sorry.
He turned, walked back to the master bedroom, closed the door behind him, and slipped into bed. He was asleep in less than five minutes.
But Rick was not the only one who loved Melody. Something else loved her, something bright and warm and appearing in a thousand places. Outside the walls of the only house that Matthew Burnside had ever known, a dampened force stirred. Had the blond-haired boy looked out his bedroom window, he would have seen the black cylindrical brazier next door slowly begin to glow.
It had grown up with her, and loved her from the start. Patiently, it waited for her to grow, to blossom into maturity. Then she had suddenly left, and it thought it had lost her forever. When she appeared again that evening, it had trembled with anxiety and joy.
First, it had wreathed her with smoke, like a lover waving fragrant flowers to perfume the air surrounding the beloved. It was seductive, playful, flirtatious, but she had played hard-to-get, and it had waned, biding its time.
Shortly afterwards it saw her again, and it exploded with a passion that could be seen. But it was too little, too late. It had not expected her to reappear so soon, and it did not have enough time to prepare something worthy.
Then it had quivered with excitement, for she had been near, she was so close! It called out to her, but she was too quick that time, and it retreated back into cautious patience.
Later, she had been leaving, perhaps forever, and it had raged with anguish at the thought of her walking away. This time it gambled everything. Just as she had turned her back, it burst out with a shout, and it had desperately sought her attention. It felt that it was not enough by itself, and it sought for more to make itself known. The material was plentiful, and it leaped from here to there, finding fuel to burn, to stoke itself into enormity. The walls that held it were no match for its love for her, and within minutes it shuddered with raw need as it shouted to the world. It was sure that its devotion to her could be seen for miles, and indeed, within minutes it sensed so many like her standing at a respectful distance. They were in awe from the brilliance of its love for her and the heat of its passion. The others had made piercing noises and flashed red and blue lights to help it signal her, and it looked down on them from what felt like a dizzying height.
But she did not see. Despite all its efforts, she had not seen. After what seemed an eternity, it felt its passion fall in a crushing weight of disappointment. She had not seen. It had not been enough. It collapsed within itself to contemplate its failure, to pick at its wounds with the sound of her voice.
It would have completely died that night, had it not been for a single gesture. A hand held toward it in passing, seeking only the slightest warmth. For a long time, it had misinterpreted the action, and it replayed the movement many times before even the faintest spark of hope began to stir. But stir it did. She had seen after all! She had seen, and she had been touched by its love. The thought of that caused it to pulse. It hesitated for fear of failure, but it was so close to the end now that another demonstration of its love would not be futile. Indeed, it would hold a poetic majesty if it burned itself out in one last fiery display of passion and devotion.
From the brazier, in a state long thought harmless by the Douglases when they went to bed, a single spark piffed into the air. Buoyed by heat from below, the spark rose and staggered up and over the top to be claimed by the wind. The freshening breeze carried the spark in a weaving line like a drunken bumblebee. It followed the crooked path that led to the object of its affection, but a last gust lifted it high and out of range.
Finally, the spark fell into a small knot of brown leaves caught in a gutter. These were not the damp, heavy leaves that lay on the cold ground. These were newly fallen from the red oak overhead, and were light and dry, like a picnic blanket spread on a grassy meadow. She was close--so close!--only a little bit down and ahead. The very nearness of her caused it to twinkle in lover's ecstasy. It shuddered in a spasm of release and was gone.
Slowly, a thin tendril of smoke rose, quickly shredded by the wind into scattered nothingness.
Minutes later, the smoke thickened, wavered, strengthened.
Then the leaves began to burn.
J. Alan Brown's work has also appeared in EOTU E-zine and Byline Magazine.
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Lettercol
Or Return to Aphelion's Index page.