Before my mother died and my father turned drunk, the two of them used to take my brother, Brian, and me to a battered little cabin along the banks of a meandering Minnesota creek. Above this creek was a string of extravagant homes, their panoramas looking down on our malnourished shack. Since my family had neither the means nor the reputation to rent a home on the hill, my father could only covet them from our muddy banks below. I, however, admired those banks, in spite of my father’s cries they felt like some distant memory of a concentration camp.
The other shacks along the creek housed many families just like us. “Us” being the Wallaces. We were an unremarkable family, content with meager means, a fact that seemed to perturb only my father. Next door to us were the Andersons, a six-member family with three girls and a boy. The father Anderson was a year or two ahead of my father in terms of experience with the bottle. He worked at the post office and swore up and down he’d been struck by lightning not once, but twice. The mother Anderson was a homemaker who didn’t make much of a home. She smoked cigarettes and drank sangria, and that was about it. Their girls were pleasant enough, casting stones in their ratty yellow sundresses, stomping in puddles when it rained, and playing tag across the brittle, yellow grass along the banks. The boy was much more an introvert. You could always find him sitting on a faded tire swing reading his comics and swatting at mosquitoes. He barely spoke, and when he did, was nearly inaudible, only the youngest of the three girls seemed to understand, translating for him whenever she deemed it necessary.
The Baker family was housed next to the Andersons. They seemed to be the most economically well off (as compared to the rest of us), but they were still poor saps, brutally overspending at every maladroit opportunity that wandered their way. They had two boys who were mean--exceptionally mean, bordering on sociopaths. The older of the two boys loved to whip stones at birds and the other liked to burn ants with his magnifying glass. They spoke mostly in grunts like true Neanderthals. And they always seemed to be leering, these little, evil smiles that could drain the color from my face in an instant.
When I was nine and Brian was an infant, we drove the three hours to our rented shack in a downpour I thought would carry our car right off the road. My father drove fast—much too fast—and it frightened me. Brian was crying as my mother held him in the front seat. The headlights reflected off the sheets of rain and fog as if we were stuck in some kind of portal, forever driving in the same place. My father’s neck was rigid, broken out in pulsating blood vessels. His ears twitched and the greys of his temples had adopted small droplets of sweat. He gripped the steering wheel so tight his knuckles had turned white and his elbows were cocked out to the sides like a strutting chicken. I had never seen my father look so frightened.
But then the storm broke and the road parted the black clouds. Brian’s cries slowly died off.
“About goddamn time that kid piped down,” my father growled.
“He’s a good boy,” my mother said, more to Brian than to my father.
Our shack appeared before us, a cheaply built four walled structure with a tin roof and a chimney that led down to a wood-burning stove (the shack’s only source of heat). There were two windows on each side, four total, the first two looking out at Highway 210 and the other two looking out on the creek bed. If I stood on my tiptoes and leaned to the right, I could see part of the lake and a large, expansive home perched on the hilltop. The home was awe-inspiring, massive white columns with windows too large to comprehend. It was painted a pale yellow that seemed to turn a dramatic gold just after sunset. I never saw the owners. I never saw children playing. I never saw housekeepers or landscapers or anybody for that matter. The pale yellow home seemed like an uninhabited museum. Look, don’t touch, it screamed.
My father parked in front of our shack and I saw the Bakers and Andersons cars parked in front of their own respective homes.
“Well, shit,” my father said. “The Huns are already in their hovels.”
“Be nice,” my mother scolded.
I thought I saw him smile, but years of tainted memories beg me to believe that that’s one of life’s true impossibilities.
We unloaded the car and carried our things inside. The interior of the shack was almost as unimpressive as the exterior. The wood burning stove and a cheap aluminum sink were in the far corner. Stacks of chopped pine rested precariously between them. A small square table my father had carved from a dead birch tree rested in front of the sink. My mother used it to chop her vegetables or roll her pastries, but we seldom ate there. There was a single bed under one of the windows that looked out on the creek and a double bed under the other window. There was a shabby maroon couch against the windowless wall and a ragged, leather-bound armchair next to that. My father always sat in the armchair, never the couch, smoking his cigarettes and reading his paper and drinking his drink.
The afternoon came and went like a wistful daydream and the Bakers, Andersons, and Wallaces gathered in the collective backyard and struck up a fire. The men gathered around the pit, choosing to exercise a piece of flint and knife rather than the modern marvel of matches. It took much longer than anticipated and by the time the fire raged through the dried twigs, wood, and newspaper, the sun barely hung above the horizon.
The adults formed a semi-circle around the fire with their flimsy plastic patio chairs. The men cracked a bottle of bourbon and the women uncorked a bottle of White Zinfindel. They drank from plastic cups that, even at my unripe age of ten, I thought looked terribly classless.
I watched the Baker boys wander off. They pushed each other until one of them fell and began to cry. Their parents paid them little attention, only pausing to tell them to wander off farther. The Anderson girls sat in a small clearing across the creek and sorted out the late summer flowers like poker chips. The Anderson boy sat on his trusty tire swing, his nose buried in one his many X-Men comics. Occasionally he would glance up at the adults as they hooted and hollered through long pulls of whiskey and wine. He looked at them with little adoration, more so annoyance.
I wandered to the edge of the creek bed, staring down at the slowly running water. I was close to my parents, but I was far enough down the embankment so that my father wouldn’t bark at me to get lost.
“Helluva summer we’ve had, huh?” the Anderson father asked mine.
My father mumbled something about how it had been fine and drank from his plastic cup as though somebody was watching him. Always suspicious was my father.
“We sure are lucky,” said the Baker patriarch.
“In what way?” my father groused.
“Look at us,” said Baker. “It’s the end of summer, the weather cleared up, we got these beautiful places on the lake--“
“--On the creek,” my father interrupted.
“Yes, of course, on the creek,” he said tentatively, and then went on, “We got these beautiful families and a fresh bottle of bourbon. Can’t get much better than that.”
“Amen,” said Anderson, and they toasted with their own plastic cups. My father, however, sat this cheers out. “You’re fools,” he told them.
“Don’t be like that, Wallace,” Anderson said.
“You’re both cheap, ignorant fools!” My father was getting drunk—much drunker than the others. The mothers Anderson and Baker regarded him with contemptible glances and my mother lowered her eyes with a submissiveness that made me sad.
“We got nothing!” my father declared. “We got nothing and all of us goddamn fools know it!”
I wandered away from them to where the creek’s mouth was. The mouth small, no more than six feet wide, and the water at the end of the creek was so clear I could see the suckers and minnows swim through its transparency before disappearing into the darkness of the lake. There was something about the lake that seemed so nasty, so arrogant. I hated the lake. Yet, I envied it.
The bottom half of the sun slipped away and the sky turned honey and gold. Dark blue clouds with sharp outlines drew into the background and the remaining moisture on the trees sparkled like a sea of diamonds. I looked up at the yellow home on top of the hill and felt a longing that, if my father knew had existed, he would have beaten me halfway to sunrise. The home was a towering monument. From my distance, if the structure collapsed and it was later determined it had been made of paper and glue, I wouldn’t have surprised in the least. There was an improbability to it, a wonder erected for show rather than application. The yellow home made no sense, but somehow it made all the sense in the world. I wanted it and I hated it, and as I pondered this thought, I stared deeply into the lake’s blackness wondering where all those suckers and all those minnows had gone. I was almost too transfixed by the lake’s darkness to miss the dusty wave of smoke floating behind the yellow house. Almost. At first the smoke didn’t seem real. It was like a cartoon drawn by a five year old on a priceless painting. It didn’t fit. But then the smoke grew, doubling in size as the purple and honey sky turned an ominous shade of navy. The windows of the yellow home morphed into a fiery orange, the flames licking the insides like some sort of demon.
“Pa!” I called. But nobody seemed to be listening. “Pa!” I called again. He finally looked up, eyes blazing with bourbon, and shouted, “Pipe down, boy!”
Smoke plumed around the pale yellow home, an aura of evil. The image was no longer cartoonish, but staggeringly authentic, and I felt fear well up in me from the depths of my bowels. “There’s something wrong!” I called.
My mother picked Brian up from his carrier, clutching her glass of wine in the other hand, and made her way over to me. My father followed her, his drink also in hand, stumbling a little. He had very little of a pokerface and even from across the yard I could see he was ready to wring my neck. How audacious it was for a young boy to interrupt a drunk’s drunk.
“What is it, Tommy?” my mother asked with the pleasantness she always had, drink or no drink.
“There!” I called. “Look! Up on the hill!”
My parents looked up at the yellow house and saw its wicked blaze. “Holy Christ!” my father muttered. He said it so quietly I could barely tell if the fire registered. My mother was much more frightened, but still stunningly diplomatic: “Oh, my.”
My father turned back to the others. “Call the fire department! Tell ‘em there’s something wrong with...” he tried to remember the road that led up the hill, but the bourbon was blocking it. “What’s the name of that road?” The mothers and fathers Anderson and Baker all shrugged. We were not the types of families to venture across the creek’s bridge and into the fairer part of town. The tributary’s mouth was as far as we went. “Just tell them it’s the home at the top of the hill,” my father shouted. “Tell them there’s a fire!”
The Bakers and Andersons exchanged quizzical looks, but nobody moved.
“For piss sake,” my father cried. “Go!” This time my mother didn’t scold him for his language. Anderson ran inside and the rest of the Bakers and Andersons ran to the edge of the creek, huddling nearby so they could get a view of the inferno. The fire intensified and the black smoke kidnapped whatever was left in the dusky sky’s remaining beauty. It was enthralling and terrifying and sickening all at once.
A minute later Anderson returned from his shack and informed us, “They’re on their way.”
My father assessed the damage, scratching at his thick stubble and rubbing the nape of his neck. Even from our distance he determined the fire department would be too long. “The whole place will be a tomb by the time they get there. They’ll be lucky if the structure’s still standing.”
A little ways down the road we watched three fire trucks tear across the bridge and up the hill. But my father was right. Even in his drunken stupor he knew they were too far away. The home was already lost.
My mother mentioned how terrible it was. My father remarked at what a painful loss it would be (financially, of course). I believe the Bakers and Andersons agreed with my mother’s sentiments, sharing them in their own special way. Their hearts had gone out to the anonymous owners of the multi-million dollar home. They gasped and they awed and they did everything a person does in a situation like that. Most of the children watched with eyes that weren’t quite captivated, as if the fire had interrupted their precious playtime. After a few minutes of tugging at their parents’ pants and skirts, they scurried off to splash around in the creek. The Anderson boy hadn’t moved from his tire swing. He had finished the first X-Men comic and had moved on to another. The fire hadn’t impacted him in the slightest.
I pulled away from my father and waded out into the creek’s mouth, feeling the cold water run along my calves. I think my father called after me, bellowing something about how a boy my age shouldn’t be mucking around, but I was no longer listening to him. A school of minnows swam between my legs and I looked up at the yellow shrine. I could hear the wail of the fire engines in the distance, full of desperation and void of hope. The fire grew and I found myself smiling. I watched as the fire raced across the rest of the home, consuming that pale yellow beast, my eyes burning with a paralyzing sense of ecstasy.
There came a low rumble from atop the hill and the home seemed to brace for the end. The trusses wavered and the windows rattled. The flames ran up the side of the house, tearing away at the yellow paint. The fire trucks pulled into the drive just as the home collapsed in on itself, the crumbling structure resonating across the lake like clattering bones. And then, without notice, a small giggle escaped from my lips as I savored the destruction.