Can’t help but see a thing like that, even from miles out. Nothing between us, and the growing light from the fire, nothing at all but shoving wind, and hard pack, ground down into low folds of pale ocher sediment like a dust-caked floor mat shoved up behind an open door.
Strongland looked at me. I knew he was wondering what I was going to do. I pulled over. In a situation like this, you cover ground, try not to make mistakes, watch for things that will catch you up, make damn sure your intentions aren’t something you have to backtrack on your way out of some trouble you didn’t see layin right there in front of you, some issue that only gets in your way when you get careless. If it was just me, maybe I could afford to be just a hair careless. But, I felt Strongland, all brown eyes, looking across at me. Can’t be careless. Even if you don’t have the answer for what might need to get answered when you come up on it.
Another car loomed and wavered and disappeared altogether behind us. I hadn’t seen another car in either direction, hell, maybe in the last two hours. When we came to a spot that wouldn’t get us any closer I flicked on the hazards, eased off the gas, and pulled off the highway, just as far as I could from the outside of the white line. A fence ran along the road, parallel to it, as far as I could see towards the horizon. It just disappeared way out somewhere in front of me. Just ended like a phone call, a line going dead at the end of some long conversation. How much longer would a man try and catch the end of that thing? Or a long ago ended phone call. I don’t know. Perhaps a great distance.
We got out. Strongland stepped to my hip. Not a word passed between us. I taught him to approach most things like a fly-fisher would a creek. You come up quiet, no use in just barreling in. Wait, and see what the shadows and the rocks, tucked in beneath the surface tension, tell you about the things you cannot see at first. Then if you get to a place you believe you have learned a way to approach what’s in front of you, without ruining it, then you make your move.
Wasn’t much we could say about what we saw. Maybe a mile out, add another half-mile and you’d be on it. I wasn’t sure if it was a barn, or a house, but it was sure as hell not surviving the fire that swallowed it. No way.
Strongland took my hand. I saw his feet dig against the dust that piled up along the fence line. He had been like that since he was born. You could always tell that boy’s brain was working away in direct correlation to his feet digging in. He was nervous about it. Scared even. “There’s nothing to be done. It’s gone. Or, will be if we tried to get there.”
That car pulled up. An old timer got out. Dressed in a suit. Polyester? I really didn’t know. But it was well looked after. “That your boy?”
He looked Strongland over. “He’s got the same eyes.”
His hands, paper thin skin, gold wedding ring, dingy yellow fingernails, wrapped easily around the barbwire fence. Wind rocked us. Strongland leaned into me. His head at my belt.
“You from around here, sir?”
The old man’s eyes lit up like the fires. Then a shadow swept through them just as real as submerging your body into a bathtub full of ice.
“I used to be… hell, yes. I used to be. I don’t belong to no place now.”
All three of us watched that thing burn. Smoke curled away from it, long drags twisted like a dragon kite bucking to break off its string.
Tears welled in the old man’s eyes. I watched two versions of the world emerge on the skin of the tears as they slid and broke down the man’s face, the man’s skin that was exactly like the hard pack laid out from our feet into all directions. He wiped them away with his shirtsleeve. “That place is mine.” Nodding toward the fire. “Was mine anyways.”
I was going to ask the man what happened. Maybe he knew it. His eyes betrayed that he had slipped past reasoning. I didn’t ask him. I knew what happened and could imagine his ancient thumb rolling the spark on a forty-nine cent Bic.
Strongland reached out, put his tiny hand on the old man’s hand, clasped around the barbwire. I didn’t stop him. “Do you need help mister?”
The old man smiled. “Only if you are God.”
Strongland looked up at me. How’s a young boy supposed to answer a question like that?
The old man patted Strongland’s hand. “Oh hell, I’m an old fool.” His eyes shifted, he stared at me. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean anything by it.”
I nodded. Grit wedged between my boots, Strongland’s were covered. It was the first time I realized the old man wasn’t wearing shoes. Just crow-black socks. There were questions I wanted to ask the old man. But Strongland wasn’t ready for questions like that. Not yet. There would be nothing to prove by asking them. Nothing to gain. Whatever brought that old man to the spot he was in to decide to burn his house down was a long time in the making. A long time I guessed. “You have any place to go?”
“Well…” the old man laughed, dry and harsh, like splintering wood, “I don’t think so. Not anymore… Like I said, some things, too many things, just don’t make sense to me anymore. They just goddamned don’t.”
I reached out my hand. His own clamped around mine like it was the only blessed thing holding him to the earth. “There’s a lot of the world feels like that these days, sir.”
He nodded. Got back in his car. Pulled back onto the highway and drove away.
Strongland and I stood, together. Wind pushing hard. Already the fire lost its anger. We waited until there were no flames. Who knows where that old man was going. Who knows why the ways of the world were shifting into some unmanageable course. I couldn’t. I stared into Strongland’s brown eyes. Yes, they were like mine. I prayed he would be smarter than I am. ”Are you ready?”
Strongland looked out at the highway, then back across to the scorched ruin. “There’s nothing to be done here.” He took my hand in his, and led me from the barbwire fence towards the car.
I knelt down onto the hard pack and wrapped my arms tight around the boy. By god I hate to ever release him from them, not now, not in forever. But there was no sense in waiting anything out, no use wasting the time that wasn’t even ours. Strongland studied me again. He has his mom’s eyelashes. I swear he nodded.
Alright, I thought. “Let’s get home.”
We buckled in. I turned the hazards off, reached across to him, put my hand on his chest then wheeled onto the highway. Strongland never looked back at that fire. He never asked why. He had already come to some conclusion that squared it up in his mind. I knew he was already smarter than I ever was. Someday, down the line, I’ll ask him what conclusion it was he came to. Maybe then, I might understand.