Remainders

Jess Lacher

Three months after our house burned down, I bought Morgan a grocery store cake that said WELCOME HOME in green frosting. A candle was taped in the box lid and I slid that into my back pocket while I sliced him a corner piece. I was still living in a Red Cross trailer on cinder blocks at the bottom of the driveway, and the cake sat untouched while we stared at the lot where our house used to be. There was snow on the ground. Only the chimney remained, its shadow inching over the white yard. When it reached the stump of the maple tree, Morgan stood up and went to the bed. He sat on top of the covers and closed his eyes and the shadow swept towards the unshoveled driveway until the sun was swallowed up by the woods.

The maple was the last to go. The tree house caught a spark on the wind and it was still burning when the ambulances carried us away.

 

We fought the night of the fire. I left him in the living room, shouting, and I slammed the door and drove directly to the market to buy cigarettes. I smoked the first one in the car with the windows up, exhaling into the upholstery. I smoked three more on the highway and then sat at a motel bar halfway to Canton where I did not know a single person, lighting a new one off the end of the last. The man next to me was making jokes and drinking thick purple wine that stuck to the rim of his cup. I gave him a cigarette when he asked. The match lit the space between us—he cupped his hand around mine and pulled the flame close to his mouth. I tucked a cigarette behind one of his ears, then the other. He went outside to take a phone call from his wife and didn’t come back.

I kept my hands at ten and two the whole way back, driving four miles under the speed limit with an ache deep in my chest and the pack nearly empty on the passenger seat. From a mile away, the fire threw up an orange glow like the light of a far-off city, and before I knew what I was smelling I thought: campfire.

When I was in high school, we called the last cigarette the lucky. I smoked it in the glary morning, sitting on a curb in the hospital parking lot. I looked into the sun and let green circles burn themselves on the backs of my eyes. I smoked until my lips were hot and I could taste the filter. When I came back in, the crying social worker told me Morgan would probably live. She told me this like it was a consolation. I blinked and blinked but still I saw the green circles, which didn’t go away for a long time.

 

On therapy days, I took him back to the hospital so he could have the elastics rewrapped and practice using what was left of his hands. I waited in the car or sometimes paced around the weed-choked edges of the parking lot, kicking at faded chip bags. Every night, I rubbed the thick blue medicine into his chest and shoulders. We didn’t talk. My face wanted to go wrong when I touched him: jaw set, lips sneering back from my teeth. His skin was so smooth, folded in on itself like ribbon candy.

He took pills to put himself out and in their haze he would ask me the nonsense questions of a shallow sleep—“Who wants to have eggs?” he’d say, and his eyelids would flutter in the darkness. When I closed my eyes, I saw the wicked turned wires in the silver fuse box, the wine bottles breaking open on the rack, the little bicycle melted flat in the blackened side yard. I saw the face of the man in the bar, pulling the match tip closer to his mouth.

“Why didn’t you wake up?” I asked Morgan.

“I’ll have bacon,” he said, and rolled away from me in the darkness.

 

One afternoon that spring I came home from work and found a charred circle at the foot of the driveway, a thick block of ashes at its center. I kicked through it and the last of the yellow pages blew off into the yard. Morgan looked up from the newspaper when I came in and asked if I wanted a beer. He’d walked to the market while I was out and bought it himself, he said. I sat on the narrow bed and drank it, watching him read.

The next morning, he winked at me with the eye that still winked and slung a bag of kitchen trash over his good shoulder, wincing but standing up straighter than I’d seen in a while. Through the window, I watched him pass the blackened chimney and limp off into the woods. Smoke rose from the trees in thin dark points as I started the car. I bummed a cigarette from a girl at work to steady my hands and came home with three sticks of gum in my mouth. His face had color in it. I smiled at him and cooked us noodles on the hot plate.

He burned the leaf pile, he burned the junk mail. He hummed in the trailer and his clothes were streaked with ash. He spent the days picking through the woods, going through the neighbors’ trash, looking for something new to light up. These projects kept him busy while I worked and I found their remainders in the yard like the bird wings our cat used to leave on the doormat: blackened cans, a barrel burst outwards, a kid’s plastic playhouse with the windows melted away. Morgan came out of the woods dragging a smoke-wrecked armchair with the legs gone, the blistered door of an old car. I worked every day, two shifts when I could. I kept an extra pack of cigarettes under the counter and sprayed my hair with perfume on the drive home. He started driving again, and his truck pulled in with a stiff deer in the back. An hour later, he limped out of the woods with a blackened pair of antlers and a canister of kerosene. The window was open, and I could hear him singing.

 

One night, I dreamed his scars reached across the bed and crawled up my back. They rolled hot and smooth between my shoulder blades, stones heated at the edge of a fire. I woke up with him sleeping spoons behind me. His mouth came close to my ear and he started whispering. Saying, this is what our daughter was dreaming when the house caught fire. Cherry ice cream, swimming lessons, snowflakes in a cold glass dome.

“I’m running out of things to burn,” he said. His bad hand rested on my chest, and I put my fingers over the hard knobs of his knuckles.

“Take me,” I told him. He put his nose into the crook of my neck and breathed in. Both of us smelled like smoke.

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