After Chris left, Matt went inside the trailer, snacked on the McDonald’s feast, cleaned up, and changed into some new clothes. He was going to burn the old tattered ones in the fire.
He walked outside carrying the rags and tossed them into the flames. The heat became intense, overwhelming, and Matt quickly stepped away. He looked around for the pitchfork, saw it, and went to work circling the pile, picking up smaller charred, glowing wood that had escaped to the edges. Matt pitchforked them into the air and they fell into the center of the burn.
He’d stick to this one pile tonight and touch off a few more tomorrow. Matt worked the burn, circling, circling. He wanted to see some wildlife but the small woodland creatures of the forest were either pulverized or refugees. Slugs were smashed. Mushrooms were obliterated.
Matt found a rusted folding chair riddled with bullet holes and set it up just outside the singe zone. The pile was burning higher, twirling, sparking, spitting, popping and launching churning smoke straight up into the sky.
The fire lit the night so brightly that Matt could read a book, and that’s what he decided to do. He jogged back to the trailer and checked out the library. He chose the thinnest one, a Western, Shalako, by Louis L’Amour. He returned to the fire, sat down, opened the book, and read the first sentence:”For seven days in the spring of 1882 the man called Shalako heard no sound but the wind.”
He kept going. A few paragraphs later he read: “He was a lone riding (meth) man in a lonesome (meth) country, riding toward a destiny (premature death by meth) of which he knew nothing (not true), a man who for ten long (meth) years had known no other life than this (meth)…
Matt stopped reading and closed the book. He had meth on the mind. His body had muscle memory for meth. He scratched what was left of his his original face. It was a mini-mountain range of scars.
His latest stint in jail had flushed meth out of his system, but the craving remained. It did for every incarcerated addict. They always used once they got out. Then they went back in. Then they got out. Then they went back in. When was the criminal justice system ever going to admit its obvious failure and treat drug and alcohol addiction as a medical problem rather than as failure of the human condition? Wouldn’t that be a big, fat, jolly Christmas present to taxpayers!
It might even change the course of American history.
A crashing sound snapped Matt out of his craving. The pile had collapsed precisely the way Chris had predicted. Someone had done their job well, piling the slash. Someone had done their job well, setting and tending the fire.
That was Matt. That was a start.
He wondered if he could make it a week or even three days when Chris returned. He wondered if he could reanimate as a human being surrounded by the willful destruction of nature that now he was tidying up for $200 a week. His job was like burning a pile of twisted bodies of soldiers killed by chainsaw after a battle. There were a lot of realities and metaphors unfolding and colliding in this clearcut, at this slash burn, on Christmas Eve.
Matt was thirsty and went to the trailer for a drink of water. He drank deeply from a plastic jug of Oregon rainwater. It was the greatest liquid he’d ever poured in his body and knew it right then.
He noticed the guitar. He picked it up and walked slowly to the fire. He sat down and held the guitar in the playing position, resting it on his knees. It was way too small for him, but what the hell. It was partially in tune and sturdy, not a toy. He fingered the frets. He made a G chord and strummed. Okay. He tried a C chord. Again, okay. He remembered a progression, a song the whole junior high class had performed at an assembly and butchered pretty badly.
He strummed the G chord with gusto and began singing.
You better watch out
Then he hit the C chord.
You better not cry
Back to G.
Better not pout
Back to C.
I’m telling you why.
The fire blasted out some sparks. Several flew by Matt’s head. Matt laughed but didn’t stop playing. He wouldn’t stop playing for hours. And after a dozen renditions of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” Matt remembered another Christmas song from that class and the kid who played only the opening riff of “Smoke on the Water,” by Deep Purple—all semester long. That was it. Not even something by AC-DC. He flunked the class but became a local rock legend.
Matt started strumming “Walking in a Winterland.” The lyrics materialized a few seconds later. He crooned it like Charley.
Later on we’ll conspire
As we dream by the fire
To face unafraid the plans that we made.