When I was sixteen years old, I lived in Georgia, a rural community called Hillsboro. There was no rural garbage service there and then, so we burned our trash in the backyard. Everyone had a spot in the backyard where trash was burned. A bare, bald spot in the yard. It was normal.
I was the oldest child and so burning the trash was my job, although my mother fretted constantly about it. Also about my football injuries, my schoolwork, my driving, my part time jobs, and my future. I didn’t mind it. I had been burning the family trash since I was ten, the year we moved to Hillsboro from a larger town. I liked doing it. Most everything turned to ash in the flames: paper towels, cardboard tissue rolls, dried corn cobs, threadbare cotton socks too holed to mend. Whatever didn’t burn – like spam cans – I gathered up from the ashes and put into a bin to carry to the county dump.
My favorite things to burn were plastics. Especially milk jugs. I would run a stick through the handle of an empty jug and hold it over the flames, watching it soften and catch fire in colors, watching it drip like heavy candle wax into the fire below, until there was nothing left but the burned end of a wooden tree branch. Other plastics didn’t burn so well. Some didn’t burn at all, not with the low temperatures of my fires. The intent was never to create a bonfire; just to turn the garbage to ash.
One November day, breezy and brisk, I tended the fire in the backyard, wearing my new coat. I had outgrown the old one, and my mother had splurged on a new one. A good winter coat is never cheap. In those days, when Mom saved her S&H green stamps religiously, and we read the S&H catalog like it was the bible, a good coat was only affordable when we had enough green stamps to buy a necessity. This coat was sky blue on the outside and fleece lined on the inside, and it was easy to forget the chilly breeze. I dangled a milk jug at the end of a stick over the flames, my back to the wind.
On that particular day, Mom was working nine miles away at the sewing room in Monticello, the county seat. (The “c” in Georgia’s Monticello is pronounced as an “s.”) My father was not living with us in those days. I did not know why. I still don’t. They divorced a few years later, and never talked much about it. “Couldn’t get along, son,” was about the best answer I ever got. I was never very smart about relationships.
I wasn’t very smart about wind and fire, either. I was watching the Sealtest milk jug soften and flow down into the flames when my little sister screamed from the back porch. “The fire!”
I looked up, and saw the fire had spread out beyond the bare patch into the dry winter grass. It was advancing on all fronts, especially towards the hay field beyond the pine trees to the west. I dropped the stick and ran to find a garden hose, but the grass was already burning farther than the hose would reach.
“Run for help!” I shouted. I pointed northward to the nearest occupied house a few hundred yards away. My sister took off running.
I don’t remember much about the hours that followed. My garden hose kept the fire from the house. Neighbors came running up from all directions, grabbing pine branches and swatting down at the flames. At some point, dizzy and drenched in sweat, I shed the jacket and joined the flame swatters. There was not much talk. Everyone was busy.
Suddenly, there came a moment when I was sitting on the back steps with my mother and some of our neighbors.
“Are you okay, son?” she kept asking me. Again and again.
“I’m fine, Mom.” The sun had set, and I hugged myself to stay warm. Suddenly, she drew back and looked at me with her piercing dark eyes.
“Good Lord. Where is your jacket?” I didn’t know. The neighbors went out to search the yard and returned carrying a smoldering fleece-lined blue jacket.
Mom sighed. “This is all my fault.”
“I’m sorry, Mom..” I remembered my sister. “Where’s Laura? Is she okay?”
“I sent her to take a bath. Poor thing was freezing. The neighbors you sent her to weren’t home. Or they didn’t hear her knock. She kept running up the road until she found someone. Without her jacket.”
Without her jacket? My little slip of a sister out in the chilly day without a jacket? I had failed Mom in another way that day.
My face must have shown what I felt. Mom put her arm around me. “It’s okay, son. She’s okay. No great harm has been done. The house is okay. You learned a lesson about fire today, didn’t you?”
I could only nod my head, numb.
The lesson I learned was to always keep a hose pipe turned on nearby when I burned the trash. You probably call a hose pipe a garden hose. If the day was breezy, if the grass was dry, or if I was just a little more worried than usual, I watered down the yard before I started the fire. A few years later, I was in college getting a physics degree while my parents were getting their divorce. A few years after that I was in North Carolina, doing engineering work for a big manufacturer. A few years after that, I came to Oklahoma, where I did engineering work for a bigger manufacturer. I bought a house on a small acreage and planted trees along the fence line out back, so I didn’t have to see the hay field of my neighbors.
Fence lines are still new to me. We didn’t have fences in Georgia. If the wind came up and blew the leaves, they kept blowing until they landed in a quiet spot in the woods. Here, fence lines catch leaves, and keep them there until you do something about them. On a hot August day not too long ago, I drove my lawn tractor into a pile of dried leaves in the corner of my fence line nearest the hay pasture. I didn’t think anything of it. I did my slow circuit of the yard, and returned to that corner to find a little fire burning among the dry leaves. It took me a moment to compute that. A fire?
Of course. My muffler guard. I had removed it. And I had driven that hot iron muffler straight into a deep pile of dry leaves. I killed the motor and ran to the house to get a garden hose. And to get my phone. I called 911.
“Slow down, sir, and tell us what’s happening. Are you in danger?” I couldn’t slow down. I was putting hoses together to reach that far corner of my dry August yard.
“I’m fine. My yard is burning. Grass fire. Send a fire truck.”
I don’t remember much about the few minutes that followed. Neighbors showed up. The local fire department drove a small truck out into my back yard. My garden hose almost had the fire out, but it was burning through the hay field. The fire crew got that extinguished pretty quickly. They were methodical and efficient, something that I wasn’t.
“Sorry about this,” I said. “I didn’t mean to screw up so bad.”
“Happens all the time,” they said. “More than you can imagine. Your mower okay?”
I looked up and saw my lawn tractor sitting in the middle of charred grass, its rubber tires smoking. I was shaking with adrenaline too much to answer, so I just walked over to it and turned the key. It started up. I put it in gear and drove it to green grass. The fire crew sprayed down the smoldering grass that had been under the tires. The mower was fine.
The fire crew was bored by that time. The hay field was extinguished. No trees were smoldering. The leaves were pretty well taken care of. Along with a good portion of the dry grass of my back yard. They chatted with me a few more minutes, then saw themselves through the gate and back to their other calls of the day.
Back inside, I started looking up phone numbers. My neighbor, Dennis. “Don’t worry about it. Didn’t hurt nothing.” My hay field neighbor, Darlene. “You know you coulda let it burn a little longer, haha.”
Finally, I called my mother. “Oh, son. You and fire. And that wind.” She paused a moment, and I could feel the memories coming back to her eyes. “I found a picture of you and that blue jacket a few days ago. The one that got burned. You were so proud of that jacket. When you and Sarah and the kids going to come to Georgia and see me again?”
Soon, I told her. And we did.
“Clover” is Hawk’s first short story publication. He left engineering in 2005 to pursue his teaching and creative writing interests. His poems have appeared in small literary presses over the years, including The Davidson Miscellany, Wind: A Literary Magazine, Cold Mountain Review, Word River, and New Plains Review.
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