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Product Description

short stories by

Nathan Leslie

300 pages, $14 cover price

($10 if ordered from the MSR Online Bookstore)

ISBN: 978-1-59948-079-4

Released: 2007

This book was selected for publication after the author entered the MSR Short Fiction Contest in 2005.

About The Author

Nathan Leslie was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota and raised in Ellicott City, Maryland. His five previous collections of short fiction include Believers (Pocol Press, 2006), Reverse Negative (Ravenna Press, 2006), and Drivers (Hamilton Stone Editions, 2005). Nathan’s short stories, essays, and poems have appeared in over 100 literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, South Carolina Review, North American Review, and Cimarron Review. He is fiction editor for The Pedestal Magazine and editor for The Potomac. Nathan’s book reviews and articles have been published in newspapers such as The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, and The Orlando Sentinel. He teaches at Northern Virginia Community College in Sterling, Virginia and lives in Fairfax, Virginia. Nathan’s website is www.nathanleslie.com.

Comments

Deft and sly and subtle with woe, these are stories about a world gone loose and runny at the edge, a world as much of high hope as of low life, a world inhabited by the aggrieved, the mystified, and the needy. Mr. Leslie has the sensibility of a poet, keen to note the large in the slight, mindful of the power of the right word at the right time. Here’s a collection that gets under the skin quickly and works its way inexorably toward the cockles of your heart. Read ’em, as the man says, and weep.

Lee K. Abbott
Author of All Things, All at Once

Nathan brings us many intriguing people in his quick and deep stories. Through layers of concrete and uniformity of small town America, old histories of immigrant ancestors lurk, and irrepressible eros springs up to create a breathtaking view of various alienated characters. I have thoroughly enjoyed these exciting stories.

Josip Novakovich
Author of April Fool’s Day

Nathan Leslie is a most gifted writer, and his work is original, inventive, and rich in tales that amuse, delight, and move.

Jay Neugeboren
Author of Imagining Robert

Above all, I admire Leslie’s ability to portray larger social, psychological, political and economic issues by way of very keenly particular slices of these characters’ lives and voices. Speakers of all types, black and white and Hispanic mostly, young and old, men and women, marginalized, intellectual, urban, rural, and wealthy, parade through Nathan Leslie’s wide-ranging fiction.

Chad Prevost
Author of Snapshots of the Perishing World

Samples

The Fire Pit

Through the crosshairs of my kitchen windowpane I can see the pit and everything he does. He lays the newsprint flat and smoothes it with his hands, then rips more paper into thin noodles and lays them overtop. He dumps the bucket of twigs and cones and bark and pine needles and leaves overtop that, then rips more noodles onto the pile. His hair furls around his shoulders as he bends over the box of sticks, and he drags it over the patchy grass and moss to the edge of the ring of scorched rocks surrounding the pit. Then he stabs branches into the pile so the whole thing begins to seem like a gigantic nest. He steps on larger branches, breaking them into splinters, and stabs these in. Then he throws three large curling sections of bark which resemble sections of PVC tubing on top of the nest, and he rips more newspaper noodles over that.

Then the logs. He takes two under each arm from the trapezoid pile next to the lean-to, and props them up against the ring, and then glides them askew on each side of the nest, and then does it again so the nest is bracketed symmetrically by four of them. Then he garnishes the whole deal with more noodles, and some leaves and pine needles and bits of bark from the bottom of the stick box.

Then he lights a match. I can hear the crack of it from inside, and the spark illuminates his hands and his chin, and I pull back behind the wall so he can’t see me watching. I wait a moment then peer back, just an eye.

Bending over, he touches the match all over, like he’s anointing the pile. He touches the strips of newspaper, the leaves, the needles, and the bark. I can see the flames pulsate and rip through the nest in a burst of color, and then suddenly erupt from the edges of it to the center and shoot skyward with a blast of orange and red and yellow and blue. Smoke rolls up and out. His back is to me, and then he sits parallel to the house so I can see his profile. As the flames rage in their initial burst, it is almost as if his entire body is immersed in fire: his hair, his stooped shoulders, flames radiating from his stomach.

But then he snaps his head back towards the window, and I can see the flames behind him, but also the cinders rising from around him, and his eyes wide open, dark and shadowed, and he doesn’t blink. Then with two fingers he points at me, and crooks them toward himself, and then he does it again.

For a moment I just stare in disbelief, but then I realize what I should do, and what I should say, and I straighten up and walk out the back door, and down the porch, and across the space that divides me from him.

At first nobody knew anything about Floyd and his mother. This was seven or eight years ago we’re talking about. I remember when they pulled in with the truck I was surprised at how empty it was. I was sitting on my porch, just mending an old cane chair when Mama Floyd stepped down from the truck and reached up to help bring her son down. He was twelve then, but shrimpy and skeletal, as if he’d been starving for years. Like one of those pictures of Ethiopians you’d see on the television twenty years ago. Just from the body, he looked a whole lot younger than twelve, that’s for sure. At the time he had a little crew cut and glasses that slid down his nose, and he was wearing a striped red and blue shirt that made him look like some kind of dandy French sailor boy from the 1920’s. He probably weighed eighty some pounds. Wimpy. But his mother was the opposite: thick sinewy shoulders with a square jaw, and hair pulled back in a tight bun. Her face was utter concentration, set on its task. She clomped around to the back of the truck in boots, and flung the back open like it was a lace curtain blocking the full wash of sun.

But that’s when I could see they hardly had anything in there-a few chairs, a table, a couple of mattresses, and maybe nine or ten boxes, and a suitcase or two. I went out to offer my assistance.

I stuck out my hand to both of them, telling them who I was and that I’d been living here for twenty two years, and that I was just now able to call it quits on the paper mill and focus my energies back on enjoying what was around me for the first time in my life-the woods and mountains, sitting in a comfortable chair and catching up on my stack of hard boiled mysteries. All of it.
Mama Floyd nodded but seemed bored by the whole discussion, which I thought was funny since she was just moving in herself. Despite the focus, I noticed her eyes were also far away, as if they were focused on some distant horizon, imperceptible to all but her. She did introduce Floyd, but then forgot to say who she was. There was a pause, but I didn’t press. Floyd tilted his head and pounded on it like he had water in his ears, but before I could ask if that was the problem, his mother tugged at his sleeve and the boy stopped. It was like they had some sort of secret language that nobody else but them were privy to. Couldn’t help myself on that curiosity part.

“Well, nice meeting you folks,” I said. Then I told them if they did need any help with the move not to hesitate knocking on my door.

“Yeah,” Mama Floyd said with a wince, staring into the truck. This was a woman who likes things on her own terms, I thought. Accommodation wasn’t a priority to her.

“Where’re you moving from?” I asked.

“Baltimore area,” she said, as flat as she could. She didn’t look up from the truck, as if she was trying to bore holes into it with her eyes.

“Quite a trek. What’d you move out here for?”

This is when she gave a great sigh, and bit her lip, and her fingers dug into her hands.

“Peace of mind,” she said, then stepped into the shadows of the truck. Floyd tilted his head again and hopped up and down. Okay, I said to myself. I can take a hint. I waved to the kid, and went back inside to get myself a sandwich or something, but mostly to leave these poor people alone with their ghosts and forlorn memories or demons or whatever it was that drove them away from the city. When I got inside and looked back out through my living room window, Floyd was still hopping. His mother turned toward him and he froze in place, and a look slipped across his face like he knew he should be doing something else but was opting out on his own despite her.

The next few months I kept my tabs on them the best I could, but at the same time I tried to establish my distance. I didn’t want to leave them stranded, but I didn’t want to pester. I’d drop by occasionally to see how they were adjusting and all. To my surprise, Mama Floyd invited me in early on and I was shocked to see how empty it was in there. When Carl and Heddy lived in the house they had it stuffed to the rafters with all sorts of odds and ends. But when I walked into Mama Floyd’s living room it was empty with the exception of two ladder-back chairs lined up along the west wall. The dining room was just a table and two more chairs. Floyd was sitting there and coloring with a box of crayons, which I thought was a bit juvenile for someone his age. But so-be-it. When Mama Floyd offered me a seat I could see the coloring book picture was a turtle, but that Floyd was scribbling a picture of a dragon overtop of it, flames shooting out of the dragon’s gaping mouth, wings where the shell was. Floyd didn’t look up.

“Do you want some water or something, Mr. Mead?”

“Go ahead and call me Bo,” I said. “But yeah, I’ll take some water.”

She brought me a plastic McDonald’s cup half filled with tepid water. A thin ring of scum circled the top of the cup. It didn’t matter: I downed the water in one gulp. I don’t know if it was the water or the scum, but I couldn’t help thinking that Mama Floyd’s lack of social graces alone might have driven them up into the mountains. Normally I’m not timid about asking questions; I decided to broach the subject later.

“Bo?” Mama Floyd asked.

“Yeah.”

“What is there for a kid to do around here?”

I saw this as my entry. Though I still didn’t know at that point what drove Mama Floyd and her son out to the sticks, I had some educated guesses. People are people, I thought. At this moment I saw that I could actually serve some potential good here-for this kid if nothing else. At this moment I decided to try and take him under my wing.

Why I had a desire to do this is another question, something I couldn’t put my finger on myself. Maybe I was interested in Floyd since my own wife passed a year before. Though I felt settled with my own place in the world, I felt a void. I needed filling. The house was too quiet. My time was too unstructured. Part of me was happy to be where I was, but part of me was thinking about finally leaving the hills myself if nothing cropped up soon. Maybe helping Floyd was a testament to my eternal restlessness, a hunger for something new and exciting-though new and exciting were, at that time, both in short supply. Mama Floyd reminded me of somebody. Who can tell?

One of the reasons it took awhile to get to know my new neighbors was, at first, Mama Floyd was hesitant for me to get involved. It was just the way she was. But the more insistent I became, the more Mama Floyd shrugged and let me get my feet wet. Eventually she sighed, leaned back against her kitchen counter and asked me, “Can you take him to meet some friends his age? I mean he needs to have that end of things. Girls even.” This was a breakthrough.

Before this I had both of them over for dinner. This was two months after the initial move.

When they walked in the door they both smiled immediately, and brushed the snowflakes out of their hair. It was November at this point and the snow was pretty regular. They wiped their feet on my welcome mat, and left their boots by the door. Floyd was shivering though, and when I saw his thin tube socks I knew why.

“It smells good,” Floyd said, rubbing his feet. “Sweet.” I grabbed him an extra pair of wool socks I had in the hall closet, and he pulled them on over his jeans up to his knees. He looked like one of those pictures of the old time German guys in Lederhosen, knocking steins of beer together and dancing.

“That’s the venison with maple syrup. Local favorite.” Mama Floyd said she was impressed I could do my own cooking, and I told her if I didn’t I’d starve. She wrinkled her forehead at her son, as if to say, “See you can do this, too.” Maybe this is when she decided I was a good influence.

I took their thin coats, hung them up in the hall.

“You look cold,” I said.

“I guess we’re not completely prepared for the weather change,” she said, biting her lower lip and twisting it into a crinkle of disappointment. I wondered if she regretted her decision to come up here, and I almost asked her but held off again.

“You’ll be fine,” I said. “And socks are cheap.”

“That’s true,” she said, shaking her head.

I offered both of them hot tea and they accepted. I poured milk and sugar in both mugs and then handed them over. They sat at the table and I put the plate of biscuits and the peach cobbler on the table, and Floyd hovered over his mug, letting the steam cloud his glasses. I brought the venison out, sat down with them.

That’s when something changed in the room. I could almost feel it coming before it happened, though I could only see the smallest winces in Mama Floyd’s face. It started with a long string of sighs, and I tried to offer consoling words to her, but she said she had to say something to me, and then she did.

“It was the worst. I mean, Floyd’s father is a bookkeeper. This is only important because it helps explain some keys to this mess. He’s studious. He’s organized. But he can also be very persnickety. Difficult. About three years ago he was doing what he does-the books for a law firm in the city which he said was very stressful, and which also kept him away from home eleven to twelve hours a day sometimes. This is when he began criticizing everything he saw. He would come home and say my bread was too dry, and the house was too cold, and I was getting out of shape, and so on. The next day it would be a bunch of other issues, then the next day it would be different ones still. I was overwhelmed. I mean, I know he was stressed, but I felt like a punching bag, and I didn’t see an end in sight.”

Floyd just ate. He didn’t look up or seemingly listen at all. In fact, he stared at the reflection of the candles in his plate and mouthed something to himself silently. I don’t know if he was too bored by the story, too scarred, or what. But he shifted into some other dimension, that’s for sure. As for Mama Floyd, she didn’t touch her food until she was done talking. Didn’t even lift a fork. Both of them were funny this way: They had a way of freezing up.

“So I tried talking to him, of course. I told him he was drawing a line between us, and I said I’d go to a shrink with him if that’s what he wanted. He just said ‘with what time?’ I’m just worn to the bone right now. So I stopped pressing. But then it got worse. He did things like take a week’s worth of groceries and throw them in the trashcan because a plum he ate was too mealy. Once he burned all of my diaries because I told him that my journals were my only refuge. Aside from the moral betrayal, it was an absolute statement of hostility. So I confronted him on it, and asked how I was supposed to respect him? How I was supposed to love him after something like that? You know what he did then? He shrugged. ‘Well, you might as well take it or leave it,’ he said. This was the moment it snapped in me. This was no longer the man I fell in love with. He was eaten up like something from the outside spread through him and devoured what was good in him to start with. We had to explore other options.”

“I started doing some research about rentals up here, and one day when he was at work I got a truck, picked up Floyd from school, and we took what we could in the time we had.”

At this she took a long gulp of water, as if she hadn’t had a thing to drink in days. A thin rivulet dribbled down her chin, and Floyd looked up at the ceiling and seemed to inspect minute flakes on it, or the thin strands of cobwebs up there. I bit into a piece of bread and downed some wine to chase it.

“Do you think he’s going to ever find you? Do you think he’ll track you down?”

She smacked her lips at this and crossed her arms.

“No. There’s nobody up here that knows but you, and you don’t know anybody who I know. And we don’t know a soul up here.”

At this Floyd seemed to focus back on planet Earth. He patted his mother on the arm, and asked if she wanted his father to find her. Then he rested his chin in his hands, and for a moment he seemed older than he actually was.

“I mean, do you ever dream about talking to him again?”

Mama Floyd brushed his face with the back of her hand with two quick strokes; I felt as if I was intruding upon an intimacy that I shouldn’t be privy to. There was something about the way she talked. Floyd seemed like he needed help, but I just wasn’t sure if she had it all together herself to give it to him. Her voice slowed at this point, and her face twisted into a knot:

“Yes. Sometimes. Most of me can’t bear the thought of seeing him. Ever. But about ten percent of me wants to tie the loose ends. I just don’t know if the other ninety percent would shoot him dead first.”

So I started taking Floyd out for drives in my car. At the time I had this clunky old orange Ford Pickup with rust spots spreading along the bed like melanoma. I’d bring him up front and he’d smile at the trees thrumming by, and he’d tell me he liked it up here. The first time we went out like this I asked him why, and he just frowned and looked at me as if I’d just asked him if he was an alien. “Just look around. We don’t have any of this down in Baltimore. Look.”

“Yeah, it is pretty isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” he said.

For about three years I was on Floyd detail. I’d take him to my friend’s houses to meet their sons or daughters if they’d let me, and I’d try to get Floyd out of his skin and into a more social view of things. It was a difficult venture to say the least. The boys his age, for instance, didn’t match up with Floyd well. As Floyd grew older he ditched the coloring books and started drawing freehand in those large sketching pads. By the time he was fifteen he had a stack of twenty of those pads stacked up like miniature mattresses in the corner by his bed. This is what Floyd wanted to talk about, capturing what he sees and trying to understand it. He was a real loner kid, still bony even when puberty hit, not to mention gawky and sensitive. Most of the mountain boys wanted to ride their four wheelers and talked about cars and stories about bow hunting with their uncles and cousins. I guess it wasn’t exactly the Algonquin Hotel set.

I could relate to Floyd though, since among the folks I knew I was considered “Einstein.” If anybody in the paper mill needed to spell “ambitious,” or “pinnacle,” or “loquacious,” they’d come to me. I read a thing or two. So I wasn’t surprised when Floyd’s eyes glassed over when his peers went into their low-key reveries about tearing up sod, or about that deer they snagged last November, or when their eyes glassed over when Floyd whipped out his drawing pad. The whole thing felt forced and strained, and my buddies would tell me so afterward and ask where I met the kid, and I’d tell them. Then they would nod slowly and narrow their eyes. I could see what they thought.

“What are you taking him all over the place for?”

“I don’t know. Just to be a good neighbor,” I’d say. “I like the kid. What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing. It’s just he’s a weird bird all right,” they’d say. I didn’t have much to say to that at all.

Floyd did become casual friends with a kid named Brad Asher, and this lasted for about a year. The Asher’s lived down by the river and Floyd liked fishing enough that Brad could convince him to walk down the path to the falls and fish for trout. They seemed to tolerate each other fine (like they were cousins that had to spend time together). But they never caught anything and Brad said something about “piss-poor luck.”

The problem was that Floyd showed Brad a picture that he drew of him, and Brad got offended. I was talking to Helen Asher in the kitchen when it erupted.

“That’s not me,” Brad said. “That thing’s supposed to be me?”

“Why not? That looks something like you,” Floyd said in his shaky, nervous voice.

“You make me look like a fag. I look like a girl here, man. Look at my shoulders. My shoulders don’t look like that, all curved in and shit. Give me that picture.”

“No way,” Floyd said. “It’s a picture. It’s not supposed to be exactly like you. It’s art.”

At this I ran out to the living room where they were, and Brad had two hands on the picture, already crumpling it, and Floyd was pulling the pad back while simultaneously trying to wrench the picture out of Brad’s hands. For a moment I felt a bit protective and mothering myself. This was the end of Brad and Floyd.

As far as girls were concerned, I didn’t have a whole lot more luck. I started with the ones we considered “the goodies.” These were the daughters of the policemen from Smithston, or the teachers from the high school, or the kids of the potters who lived up in loose colony up by the ridge. But most of these girls were either disinterested in boys period, or rebellious and borderline skanky-wearing lots of eye shadow and cheap bracelets and neon pink cleaved shirts with tight acid-washed jeans.

One girl was up Floyd’s alley in terms of brains and her general makeup (she actually liked looking at Floyd’s drawings, for instance), but she was chunky with large raspberry-like zits all over her face, and Floyd said he didn’t like the way she smelled. Crystal Kanter smiled at Floyd a lot and had a sweet personality. She liked Floyd’s drawings and even did a few of her own, but the problem was Ms. Kanter didn’t care for Floyd. She told me she wanted Crystal to be with a “real man.” I told her Floyd’s still a boy.

“He’s not even done growing up yet. How do you know what he’s going to turn out to be?”

“I just don’t see it,” she said. It didn’t hurt my relationship with the Kanters, or really any of them. They thought I was being too nice, but I still got together with the guys for cards and for some grouse hunting, and I still saw my neighbors Sundays down at the firehouse pancake brunch, and for our usual Monday Night Football night. But nobody seemed to take to Floyd. I hoped Floyd wouldn’t take any of this personally, and he would shrug and say that we could just hang out and go for a drive instead, and finally that’s what we ended up settling on.

Before I completely gave up I introduced him to Carrie Shaw. This was a week before Floyd was fifteen, and though things were about to change with him, this was also the closest to success I ever reached with the whole enterprise.

Carrie Shaw was the daughter of Cliff Hamilton and Jane Shaw. Cliff was a British inventor who made his fortune and moved to the states to retire. Jane was a waitress at his favorite restaurant in Boston, before they moved out here. She just happened to be at the right place at the right time; they got hitched and she turned to her pottery and they had Carrie. Carrie was a harpist with a face like an angel. It sounds improbable, but it’s the God’s honest truth. You took one look at her and it was as if you were looking at a winged creature that just stepped out of one of those wall-sized paintings at the Louvre or something.

Floyd and Carrie hit it off right away. She took to his drawings, and would tell him how much talent she thought he had regular as rain. He even seemed to like her harp solos: He made an effort to meet her halfway. Though in the beginning I didn’t know Cliff and Jane well with the exception of the town meetings they’d attend regularly, they seemed to approve of Floyd and even let me drive them to the movies on several occasions. Everything was clicking. Floyd actually had a girlfriend, and during this period he was at his happiest. I was almost jealous, in a sense. It had been years since Emily passed, and I guess I still felt adrift at times. Lost.

Then she decided to go away to school. One day Floyd was over at Carrie’s house (which Cliff had custom-built to teeter on the edge of the ridge overlooking the wide Huntington Valley), and I was in the kitchen with Jane playing cards. She seemed a little nervous, but nothing out of the ordinary. All of a sudden Floyd burst into the room, with tears welling in his eyes, shaking like a leaf in a hurricane.

“I’m ready to go,” he said to me, but he was looking at the wall and biting his lip.

“Why, what’s the matter? We just got here.

“I’m ready.”

At that Jane turned to me and said that Carrie had decided to go to school out west to pursue her harp studies with more vigor. Then Carrie walked into the kitchen. She looked angelic as ever, undisturbed by Floyd’s bubbling sorrow.

“Do we have any more iced tea?”

Floyd just turned out of the room and walked through the foyer and out the front door.

During the drive home Floyd was silent most of the way. It was the height of summer at this point, and the trees blew gently in the breeze, and the mountain flowers sprouted everywhere. It was a beautiful day to be alive. I patted Floyd’s shoulder and told him that it would all work out, that Carrie would be back and they could spend time together then.

“It’ll be too late then,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Too late for what?”

“It just will. She’s the closest I’ve ever found to me,” he said, gazing into the pine groves rushing by.

“That’s what I want.”

“But why do you want to find yourself. You know, girls don’t have to be just like you. They can just be compatible. You know what a soul-”

“No!” He said, snapping his head toward me. “No! They need to be like me.”

For the rest of the drive we didn’t speak a word. I just didn’t know what to do or say anymore. I realized at this point that Floyd’s life was going to be more difficult than I initially thought and that those who came into contact with him would be left disappointed. I was almost ready to throw up my hands, and I think Floyd could sense that.

When I pulled up into my drive, he stepped out of the truck and crossed the line of spruce that divided my property from their house in the front. He didn’t wave, and he didn’t look back. I watched him, thinking he was heading inside to tell his mother what happened, but he walked right by his house too and made a beeline for the woods. I watched him walk up the incline, and into the path that headed through the foothills and up to the highest peaks in these parts. I cut the ignition and walked inside.

Floyd didn’t stay up in the woods indefinitely of course, but he hiked around the mountains for the rest of that day, and didn’t return until dark. I had to tell Mama Floyd what happened, and she nodded and patted my knee, and she told me I’m doing a good job with that kid and that he’s always been a little off anyway.

“Bo, honestly I don’t know what I’d do without you here. You’ve tried hard to take care of us. And I don’t know why you’ve been so nice to me. I don’t know why you go to the trouble, but you do, and I appreciate it.”

“Just trying to help. That’s all.”

When Floyd turned fifteen the next week his mother decided to get another job. I helped her find a part time secretarial gig at the paper mill, but it was a small company and she didn’t feel completely welcome there. She’d always say that everybody knew each other, except for her. “When they ask me questions, I can’t help but think they’re using me for gossip,” she’d say. Plus it seemed as if they might cut back her hours since the Scanlen’s daughter was about to finish college, and needed some extra money. So she got another part time job telemarketing from home for a home maintenance company. She’d spend five hours down at the mill and then come home and make demeaning phone calls for five more hours, and would be lucky to make eighty bucks in the bargain. I would come over and help her out at times, but she always said she could do it herself. Then she would close her eyes and make another call. She kept her eyes close a whole lot.

Meanwhile Floyd stopped talking to me except for a simple hello here and there. He just clammed right up. After a few days of this I asked him what was going on, and he just shook his head. He was out in his back yard, carrying rocks from the edge of the woods to a pile near the edge of the property.

“So are you blaming me for Carrie?”

Floyd shook his head again, and then stopped in his tracks.

“I’m building a fire pit,” he said.

“Okay, I’ll help you,” I said. “Have you ever built a fire pit before?”

“No,” he said. His face was decked out with a deep scowl.

“I’ll help you make a good one,” I said. He waved me to the woods, and we spent the next hour digging the hole about two feet deep and three wide, and then lining and surrounding the hole with rocks we found back in the woods. Finding them was the hard part.

By the end of this job, Floyd still didn’t apologize for blowing me off, but he did thank me (once) for introducing me to all those people, and he shook my hand and I looked him in the eye. He seemed put together, but I could tell he was lost inside.

All that year Floyd was out at the fire pit. For starters, he began cooking all their meals out there. Every night he’d bring out a plate of hamburgers, or chicken, or potatoes, and he’d start a fire and lay a metal grill over the fire, and cook whatever they had and bring it inside to his mother.

But he also seemed transfixed by the fire itself. I’d look out my kitchen window and I’d see Floyd staring into the flames as if he were trying to search for something in them, as if movies or dreams lurked beneath the surface heat. Then I’d watch him toss pine needles or scraps of paper into the flames and watch them burn, and then throw matches or leaves into the flames and watch them burn. Sometimes I would smell the meat or vegetables charring and know that in his fire mania Floyd had forgotten all about the food altogether.

Usually I let Floyd be, but many times I would walk over to see how he’s doing. He always seemed startled to see me, as if he didn’t hear me coming, as if I just appeared out of thin air. Something had shifted in him.

“Why do you like the fire pit so much?” I asked him once.

“It’s the fire I like, not the pit.”

“Why do you like the fire then?”

“I don’t know,” he said, staring right into it. “The flames are never the same. It’s a different fire every time. The paper ignites differently. Each stick burns in its own way. I love watching everything burn. The pine needles curl into themselves and light up like neon signs.”

“That’s true,” I said. I didn’t know whether to encourage his observations or ask him about school (which, according to his mother, he was barely passing). I decided to do neither.

“I think my favorite things to watch are the logs. I love how they burn from the outside in. The cinders glow, and I can see things in them.”

“Like what?”

“People. Places. Animals. There are all kinds of shapes and figures in the fire. You just have to look closely. You have to take the time.” I nodded dumbly.

I thought once the bitter mountain winter hit, Floyd would lose interest in the fire pit, but if anything it seemed to consume him more and more. In January Floyd would be out in the ice and snow, dragging a box of wood and sticks from the house and cooking food for his mother and him. And then he stopped with the food altogether, and he would just sit there tossing sticks, and leaves, and the wood itself into the flames.

Then Floyd got his license, and a dirt brown 70’s Impala to go with it. He told me that during his first day out in the car, he just wanted to blend in. Driving that car was one way to do it, I told him.

Once I caught Mama Floyd sitting on her front porch in a birch rocker she got down from Umbert’s Furniture. Floyd was out driving around the county. He never went far, but you still didn’t know where he was. “Ideally Floyd would be like a stream,” she said. “He would be constant and ever flowing. But he isn’t that way, is he? I mean he’s all jumbled up.”

“It’s not your fault. And he’s not exactly jumbled. He’s more in a haze really.”

“A haze,” she said, tossing five or six puzzle pieces in her left hand like dice. At the time Mama Floyd was just entering her “puzzle period.” She was fixated on those one thousand bit puzzles you see for a buck fifty at the tourist shops. Later she’d have about five of them strategically placed around the house to keep her occupied. By this point the plant had cut her off entirely, and she was living off the fumes of her savings and what she could sell on the phone. She had to rig up a fax machine in the kitchen because the central office wanted to be able to send her a list of numbers twenty-four hours a day. So whenever she wasn’t on the phone the fax machine was whining and whirring.

“It makes sleeping really tricky,” she said. This is why she was out on the porch-to escape the reminder of work for five minutes. Later Mama Floyd said she loved puzzles because it was something to do to take her mind off her scattered home life. That was only the tip of it as far as I could see.

“A haze.”

“He’s got himself into some things that I just can’t relate to, Bo.”

“Yeah, he’s a mislaid kid. That’s the best way I can put it.” She stared down her driveway, like she was expecting something to come rolling up it.

“Well, he makes himself that way, doesn’t he? I mean he’s always out there in the woods doing God-knows-what.” She rolled her eyes and blew a strand of hair from her eyes. Crossing her stomach with her arms, Mama Floyd seemed bent on not crying, but the harder she fought it the worse she looked. I patted her on the head, and then she leaned into me. It was what I would call a “dry cry.” No tears. No bawling. Mama Floyd just loosened things a bit, just for a moment. Then she snapped her neck back and rolled it and asked me why I never made a move on her.

“Why? I don’t know. I guess I just think it’s not in the cards.” I shrugged, and I supposed I came across as dismissive, but I was trying to toe the line between not stepping on her feelings and not stepping on my own. Tough to do.

“You’re a good man,” she said. At this she set to rocking, as if she was just getting comfortable with the issue. You never knew with Mama Floyd. She didn’t rush matters of high importance

“Well, not good enough for your son right now.”

She pinched up her mouth but kept on rocking.

“Don’t give that another thought. Don’t take that personally at all.”

“Well, I’m not sure if I-”

“You tried.”

“Yeah, I tried,” I said. She nodded and told me she had to get back to work, but that I was welcome to the rocking chair and the porch if I wanted either, and I pointed at her as she closed the door and told her she had a deal. It was a comfortable chair.

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