By Wade Bradford
“You don’t know what it feels like to burn,” she said. “But I know. I know because you taught me.”
Those were the last words I heard from my ex-wife. It wasn’t some death bed confession, though she
is dead now. The booze got to her. Liver crapped out. Went slow. Took years.
Funny, the same thing would’ve happened to me by now, but thanks to being tossed in the stir, here
I am alive and well. Or, at least alive.
Sitting here talking to you, you merry band of fuck-ups.
“I know because you taught me.” She said those words over the phone. That was a nice way of saying
I was an abusive son-of-a-bitch. And I was. Maybe I still am, in some ways. Maybe my very existence
still hurts my kids, even though they are grown now. With kids of their own.
How old? My kids or the grand kids? I got two daughters in their late twenties. A son in his early
thirties. Good kids. Got fucked up teeth from meth, but that was in their younger days. We all do
that. They’re fine now. The grandkids are how old? I don’t know. They gotta still be babies. I
don’t see them. They don’t see me. I don’t see nobody. The only visitor I’ve had was my sister but
she… she passed. Bladder cancer. She was healthy all the way up to the day she died. Just about.
They gave her the news about cancer and she checked out less than a month later.
That’s the way to do it.
Sis said she saw it coming and was at peace with it. She was just like Mama. They both looked to
the stars for answers. Mama believed in astrology. The day before my wedding, Mama took me aside,
this was right before I was headed out to get shit faced with my groomsmen, bachelor party of
sorts, and she said to me, “I’m worried about you.” You know why she was worried? It wasn’t because
I was already a raging alcoholic at the age of 25. It wasn’t because the only work I knew how to do
was drive a back hoe, which they wouldn’t let me do any more because of the DUI. It was because she
believed in signs. She believed that because I was born a Leo thr last thing I should do was marry
a Virgo. And you know what I said to her? “Carrie is a lot of things but she ain’t no Virgo.”
Mama was a good lady. You gents might think I’m trailer trash, and you’re not far off. But my folks
was good people. My father was a lawyer. My mother was old school. Taking care of the kids,
cooking, cleaning, the whole she-bang. They had too many kids, though. Four sons. One daughter. We
got into whatever trouble we felt like, and Pops would get us out of any little legal
trouble we stumbled into. Back when we were juvies, at least.
But you don’t need my whole back story, right? I’m talking to you about signs. And not the
astrological kind. The Biblical kind. The fire and brimstone kind.
I was drinking one night. No surprise. I drank every night. And I had been by myself for a long
time. I was in the middle of all the divorce shit you would expect someone to go through. We had
been separated for years, no big deal, but Carrie was itching to get the papers signed, so she
could move onto Idiot #2. I had signed off on just about everything, but there was the question of
Garage-mahall. That was this monstrosity my brothers and I had built back in the 90s. On my
mother’s property, which was now my property. Mom gave it to me because I was the only one of her
sons who stuck to the construction project and finished the job. Well, sort of finished. We never
got permits for it. Not what we’d call “up to code.” But the Garage-mahall could hold three trucks
and a snowmobile. It had a kitchen and a second floor so we could work on a car all day and night
and then crash upstairs. Len would sometimes bring over a bimbo and play house for the weekend. It
was a glorified shed, really. But we had some good times, me and my brothers. This was back before
we hated each other. Or maybe we hated each other then, but not as much as we do now. Though two of
us are dead, and I don’t hate Len any more. Don’t know if he hates me. Sends me a Christmas card.
The sticking point is the garage. Or as the lawyers said, “The property upon which the structure
resides,” or some legal bullshit. I was prepared to hand over more than half. Way more. But there
was still the question of the value of the property. I once said to her, “You can have the
property, just let me keep the garage.” And she kept telling me, “It doesn’t work that way, Gord.”
It got to the point where I said, “Let the lawyers figure it out.” Which was funny, because I
didn’t have a lawyer. A couple weeks after that, I got some court order I didn’t bother opening.
That night, my phone rang. It was Carrie.
“Gordon –” her voice was all choked up. I thought it was because she was so pissed. “I’m not
giving you the garage!”
“This isn’t about that,” she snapped. That’s when I could tell she was more scared than angry.
Something was wrong. “It’s Amy. She’s in the hospital.”
Amy is my youngest girl. She was probably nineteen at the time. Already in all sorts of trouble.
“Overdose?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe. She’s going to be okay. But, Gordon… she lost the baby.”
Amy had been four months pregnant, knocked up by the neighborhood scumbag, the sort of guy that
seems more rat than man. So when I heard the baby was dead, the first words that came out of my
mouth were, “Thank God.”
Now, I could’ve claimed that I was saying, “Thank God, Amy is going to be okay.” But Carrie knew
better. She knew I was happy that my youngest daughter had a miscarriage, knew that I was relieved
that I was not going to be a grandpa, knew that I was relieved Amy could sever ties with that
dipshit excuse for a boyfriend.
That’s when Carrie said, “Gordon, I hope you burn in hell.” “Darling, I already live there,” I
said. “Thanks to you.”
That’s when she said, “You don’t know what it feels like to burn. But I know. I know because you
Carrie could be a bitch, but it wasn’t like her to be a drama queen, so I was just kind of stumped.
Not sure what to say, if I should take the bait. But eventually, I took it.
“You talking about the cigar? After all this time?” I asked. Six years earlier, when were married,
we had both passed out after a night of drinking. Sometimes I liked to smoke in bed.
What? I’m a dumbshit? For smoking in bed? Of course I’m a dumbshit. I’m stuck in here with you
assholes? Everyone one of us is a stupid-ass half-wit. Now if you want me to finish my story, shut
the fuck up.
So, this one night, years ago, Carrie and me fall are passed out. I fall asleep with a cigar in my
hand. Twelve hours later, she’s got this dime sized burn on her chest. Right where her cleavage
begins, you know? I felt bad. Awful, really. And I tried to play nurse and put some Aloe gunk on
it, but she said not to fret over it. And that was about it. Except she wore a bunch of sweaters
and button ups after that. And anytime I tried to look at it, she turned away. Gave me this look
like she was afraid she would get burned all over again. She would flinch sometimes when I touched
Now, I had slapped her around now and then. But it was never anything that left a mark. It was more
because, well, sometimes she wouldn’t shut up. Sometimes she wouldn’t let things go. A good slap
was a way of saying this conversation is over. I never needed to hit her twice. I never need to
even take a belt, or close my fist. This is just a back of the hand sort of thing. Look, I’m not
trying to justify it. I know it’s abuse. I’m just trying to explain that I didn’t think I was a
monster. I knew I had a temper. But didn’t let it run away from me. Or so I had thought.
“I said I was sorry,” I whispered into the phone, feeling ashamed about the whole “thank god” shit.
Followed it up with the old excuse, “I just fell asleep. You did too.”
“I wasn’t asleep,” she hissed. This was news to me, and didn’t make a bit of sense.
I was really taking the bait now. “Are you telling me, you just laid there in bed wide awake while
I passed out and let my cigar smolder there on your chest?”
“You weren’t asleep,” she said. “You weren’t all there, but you weren’t asleep. You were wide-eyed
awake. You just don’t remember. Blackout drunk. Fully on your feet. Yelling at me
about something that didn’t make a bit of sense. I was yelling right back. I was drunk too. Not as
gone as you. Not drunk enough to forget. And when I called you a cocksucker, you grabbed me by the
throat, you shoved me up against the fridge so I couldn’t move, and you crushed that cigar against
my chest until the ashes went dark. And when I screamed, you just smiled.”
“I don’t remember any of that,” I whispered. “But you know it happened.”
And she was right. I hung up the phone. I had a lot of thinking to do. Which also meant I had a lot
of drinking to do.
Why is that funny?
God damn, this is my hell. A fucking so-called honor farm with a platoon of numb-nuts. Why am I
even telling this to you? Well, the truth is, I’m not even talking to the lot of you. I’m just
telling this for the benefit of Carlos here. Carlos, who keeps nagging me to go to chapel on
Carlos, who won’t stop asking if I have accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. This story is
really for you, Carlos.
You see, that night, I woke up in my trailer. And this wave of self-hatred washed over me. I never
liked myself that much to begin with, but I had always assumed I was better than most assholes. But
now, I had these memories coming back to me. Or maybe they were just dreams, but they tasted like
memories, you know? These flashes of me holding the cigar. And more.
This memory of me holding onto Carrie’s throat, turning her face a couple shades of purple while
she was pulling on my beard.
Then there were thoughts of the present, Little Amy. In the hospital. Lost her bastard child and I
did a little mental tap dance over the baby’s grave.
I wanted to un-be. Just disappear. And like all good Americans, I had a 45 under the mattress that
would get the job done. That’s when, and not for the first time, I stared up at the ceiling and
talked to God. I told Him: “If you don’t want me to blow my brains out right now, talk to me. Don’t
be fucking subtle about it.”
There was silence of course, as there always is. I got up. It was late morning now. Pulled out the
45, just to see how it felt in my hands. My stomach got all flip-floppy, the way it does on a
roller coaster. Part of me really wanted to end it then and there. Another part of me wanted to
wait. Make it special. Don’t just put a bullet in your head in a trailer. If you’re gonna do
something, do it right.
I put on some coffee to think some more. That’s when I remembered the letter. I ripped it open.
Some lawyer mumbo jumbo. Letter of demand. Or intent. Can’t remember exactly, but the gist of it
meant that my mom’s property would be up for sale. Which meant Carrie was going to get her way. And
Garage-mahall would be torn down.
Was that a sign from God? Carlos? Cuz it sure as shit seemed to me that my Lord and Savior wanted
to rub salt in the wound. It also satisfied that other part of my mind. Something clicked. A sudden
sense. If Carrie wanted me to burn, I would burn.
My mom’s property is east of the mountains. That’s a two hour drive, if the truck doesn’t break
down. I filled up my tank at a station, with a couple gallons in the spare can that would take care
of the day’s work.
I have never loved a drive through the country more than that day. Going some place to kill
yourself makes everything seem so dramatic. So intense. So fucking final. I passed the North Bend
exit where my brothers and I would beg our folks to stop at this bakery we loved. Passed Snoquamie
Falls. Passed the old ski lodge. Used go rent a cabin up there when times were better. Passed the
Yakima River where I used to canoe with my kids.
It had been about three months since I had stepped foot on the Garage-mahall. It looked like crap.
Like it always did. But for the first time, I really saw what it was: unfinished business. My
brothers and I had meant to work on this together, but we could never agree on what it should be,
what purpose it should serve, so we tried to make it everything at once. It was painted
turd-brown and fifteen different shades of green. God awful. How else can I describe it? It was a
garage with two chimneys. The damn thing didn’t make any sense, but it was ours. I wished it had
been willed to Lenny. He got Dad’s old cabin. Exactly what he wanted. I got this place. A
carpenter’s nightmare. But I still loved the place. It felt right to end everything here. It felt
right to burn. But I wasn’t in a hurry. I had brought some things.
The gasoline, for one. But I had also brought along a bottle of our old friend Jack. He would help
get over those jitters. And I brought the 45. I knew I was going to set fire to the place. And I
could see myself sitting in the middle of the inferno — but I couldn’t see myself sitting there
letting my flesh burn off me. Carrie was the stronger one. She could take the heat. I saw myself
running outside as soon as the flames startled to tickle me. Unless I brought the 45. That made me
feel safe in a strange way. I could let myself cook for as long or as little as I wanted to, and
then when I couldn’t take the heat, I’d just pull the trigger and BAM — I’d get out of the
Carlos, why do you look so worried? I’m sitting right here. I didn’t die.
But I was planning to. I wasn’t in a hurry. I wanted to look around. First outside, drinking in the
shade of the trees. Sitting by Mama’s pond. Said hello to some ducks. Drank the Jack. Then I
puttered around in the garage. Swept things up. Even fixed a short fuse. Before my father passed,
he made sure he got his house in order. He was big on that. Gave him a sense of control before his
heart crapped out for good.
I headed upstairs because I was trying to scope out where I was going to do it. The loft in front
of the fireplace sounded good. Cozy place for a suicide. But the fourth step snapped. Almost broke
my ankle. Almost killed me, which I thought was pretty god-damn funny. Like I said, this place was
not up to code. I don’t know if it was Brian or Len who did the stairs, but it sure as shit wasn’t
me. Might not have been their fault. Might have been termites. In any case, I decided it would be
safer to kill myself on the first floor.
I finished off the Jack while I wrote letter after letter, trying to explain myself. Some of the
letters were apologies. Some of them laid blame. All of them were trash. In the end, I decided it
would be best to use them as kindling. It was after sunset now.
Almost time, I thought. Then I said out loud, “Unless you tell me not to do this.” I was talking to
God. But I was also talking to my folks. I had this nagging feeling that my mom was in the garage.
And my dad too. Or maybe it was just the part of my brain that wanted me to keep on living. It felt
like someone was there, until I heard my own voice. “You gonna talk to me? You gonna tell me not to
do this? Get on with my life? Change my ways? I’m listening.” That last bit, the “I’m listening”
made me feel like an idiot. I was alone. Fucking empty abyss alone. And I suddenly realized that I
wasn’t doing this because I hated myself. I wasn’t doing it because I was a monster, though both
those things were true. I was gonna do this because I wanted peace. And if death doesn’t give you
that, we’re all fucked, aren’t we? It did flicker across my mind that hell might be a real place
and I was about to find out first hand. But I willing to bet that death just meant a bunch of
nothingness. And being a betting man, I liked my odds.
I splashed around some gasoline. All over the walls. Not much on the floor. I knew how I wanted to
go. I didn’t want to burn. But this shed that me and my brothers built; I wanted to watch it burn,
for as long as I could stand it, and I hoped that I would fall asleep watching the flames, but I
was fully prepared to finish the job with a bullet.
I lit the suicide note, watched it burn, thinking, “Last chance, God,” like I was taunting the All
Mighty. Nothing, again. Which meant that nothing was waiting for me.
I touched the paper’s flames to the wall. The fire came to life. I sat in the middle of the floor
and watched the dance party. It really was beautiful. I sort of get why pyros fall for that kinda
The flames crawled up the walls. Started to tickle the ceiling. The smoke was thick, but wasn’t
that bad on my lungs yet. All those years of practicing on tobacco had led me to this main event. I
don’t know how much time passed, me sitting there watching the flames. A minute? An hour? I think I
was hypnotized. But when I came back to myself, the flames had really done a number on the
Garage-mahall. And the smoke still hadn’t sent me into a coma — though I was coughing pretty bad
now. Bad enough that I knew I had a few choices. I could still get up and run for the door. I was
surprised to find that I didn’t want to do that. Sort of proud of myself. I wasn’t a coward after
all. At least that’s how I looked at it then. I was man enough to stay there and die. But I still
didn’t want to burn. And I didn’t want to cough myself to death. It was time for my old friend. I
didn’t hold it to my head. Didn’t swallow it. I held the barrel to my chest. Placed it right in
front of my heart.
But before I pulled the trigger, I heard something. A baby was crying. Through the sound of the
flames cracking the rafters, I could hear it. A baby. Jesus Christ, someone had left a child on the
second floor of this god forsaken shed.
I ran up the stairs, praying that the step would not snap in two. The smoke was so much worse here.
My eyes burnt.
I remember now, Len complaining about bums crashing in the place last winter. They left sleeping
bags and needles. But a family? A kid? I knew meth heads. Runs in the family. Yeah, they’d do that.
They’d leave a baby by itself in a place like this. I’ve probably done worse without even knowing
The cries grew louder. So did the smoke. So did the darkness. So did the heat. There were no flames
up here to light my way. I was in the loft. “Where are you?” I yelled, like a baby’s gonna give me
directions. I kept feeling around the floor. Looking for furniture. A chair. A crib. A sleeping
bag. Something. I felt a blanket. I felt the warmth of a child underneath, still screaming his
little lungs out, somehow not dead from all of this smoke. I held the baby, and I had a flash of
what it was like to hold Amy in the hospital. She was choking on her mother’s milk, and I had no
idea how to fix her, so I just held her and patted her back; Carrie had screamed for a nurse to
come in and do something. That little thing, little Amy kicked and squirmed, two days old and
pissed off at the world already, and that’s how this child moved beneath that blanket.
I held it tight and tried to find the stairs. I bumped into the wall. Fumbled in the nothingness of
smoke. And then, suddenly, there was light. Fire light. The stairs. They were engulfed. The flames
were here. There was no way down. The baby had stopped struggling. It had gone limp as though it
had given up. I wasn’t going to, though.
I’m a fickle idiot, as you fuck-ups know. It had felt so right to kill myself and now it suddenly
felt so wrong. Not this way. Not with this kind of blood on my hands. I could see a window now. I
smashed it with my fist. Cut my arm like a motherfucker, and then a moment later we were on the
roof. The fresh air must have revived the baby because the blanket started to writhe again,
and that brat started to scream to high heaven. I thought we were going to fall through that roof.
Flames were eating through it, and like I said, it wasn’t up to code. I ran to the edge and I could
see a big old pile of gravel that had been sitting there for years. That was my fault. It should
have been dozed over and smoothed out a long time ago. That was supposed to be our driveway. But,
like I said, we never got around to finishing things. Thank God.
Jumped off the edge, rolled onto the gravel pile, and did my best not to crush that baby.
I made it. We made it. We were alive. At least I thought we were. I could hear the sirens in the
distance. The louder they grew, the more quiet that baby cried.
I looked down at the blanket. Blue. A little boy, maybe. I wanted to see this little guy. I wanted
to look at the face of the person who accidentally saved my life. I opened the blanket. There was
nothing there. Never was. The baby was gone. And I’m still fucking here and I don’t know why.