They were hard people, in a hard place –
on the road to the cemetery, out past
the sewage plant. No grass in the yard.
It was all beaten down by cars coming
and going in the night, by dogs chained up
and pacing back and forth.
It was the kind
of family where all the girls got knocked up,
all the boys ran off to work on the pipeline
or join the Marine Corps. The old woman
was dead. The old man hung on for a while
and then he died too. The house stood empty.
When it finally caught fire late one night
everybody came to watch – to see Chief Stevens
smash through the front door with his fire-axe,
like he always did, and go inside ostensibly
to rescue the weak and the elderly, but really
to scoop up whatever loose change or jewelry
he could find.
Smokey Stevens, everybody
called him, the sort of man who had sown
his share of wild oats, and compromised
more than a few young women in the town,
and left them all to fend for themselves,
including one girl who lived on this place –
Smokey, the crowd-pleaser, the ladies’ man,
now in his fifth year as chief, heroically
charging out of each burning building,
axe in hand, urging his men on, screaming
for more pressure, more ladders, thrilling
on-lookers by leaping off the porch, landing
next to his command post –
it was Smokey
indeed who emerged from this tinderbox
only seconds ahead of the flames, clutching
the only valuable he could find in a quick tour
of the downstairs rooms – which looked to be
a good six ounces of expensive perfume
in a cut-glass bottle, but which turned out
to be something else entirely, that had been
left on a dresser by the youngest brother,
back from a summer spent in the oil fields,
and still extremely disturbed about the way
his favorite sister had come close to dying
on the table of some back-alley abortionist
up in the big city.
It was this same brother
who torched the house only minutes before,
and it was this same cut-glass bottle which
could never be introduced as legal evidence –
since it had ceased to exist the instant Smokey
hit the ground, filled, as it most certainly was,
with half a pint of pure, undiluted nitroglycerin.
First published in Polyphony.