We have quite the Saturday haul right here. I know it and Jamie does too, and I’m grinning like a fox and Jamie, he’s standing straight as a Marine, his shoulders not wilting for once, and when we leave the customer I have four hundred in my pocket, enough for a top-of-the-line mattress for my brother Tim, maybe one of those water ones he’s always crowing about.
I’m driving away, tires kicking gravel. The sun is oppressive in the open space, burning the fields of weed and iris and magnolia a dark orange. Jamie’s next to me, his cheeks flushed, sweet-smelling sweat dripping from his brow, and he starts talking his usual fast way about the haul we’ve collected and how we’re Kings of the Junk, Princes of the Disposal, and how we’ll burn it all tonight, and then he’s shouting four hundred dollars, four hundred dollars. To be honest though I’m not really listening, the main reason being that it’s too much effort to hear over the din of tires and metal and televisions and furniture scraping against the ratchet straps.
We’re making good time, about twenty miles out, when I notice Jamie stopped talking. I look over and his face is the color of an overripe berry and he’s breathing in short, uneven clips. I pull to the side of the dirt road and snatch his inhaler from the center console, and we sit in the knee-high grass, mosquitoes hawking our blood, and I rub his back and whisper into his ear: in through your nose, out through your month, in through your nose, out through your mouth, feel the warm grass, breathe in deeply, son, smell the sweet flowers.
His breathing is better now, more controlled. I pass him his inhaler and he takes a long drag and exhales, his hazel eyes no longer demanding, no longer pleading. I think it’s a goddamn shame for my boy, just twelve years old, to suffer like this, but deep down I also enjoy a part of it—not his suffering, no, not his skinny chest desperately heaving, not his wet cough piercing through the humid night. I myself often wake drenched, shirt suction-cupped to my back, having dreamt of a crowd, a thousand strong, closing in on my son, stealing his air with their aggressive mouthy gulps—the part I like is where I comfort him, my knuckles kneading his back, my voice turning soft, his looking at me with supreme confidence like I can be his savior, like I matter.
We sit there silent, a hot breeze ripples through the grass, a warbler, bright as the sun, cuts through the sky and does not tumble to the ground, and he is fine now. My son is fine. He smiles with his eyes closed, as if he’s waking from a bad dream, and he looks at me looking at him and it’s like he knows what I’m thinking—cherish these moments, cherish these moments—and he says, “Hey Pop, it’s nice out here, let’s take a selfie.”
When we arrive home the sun is low, bathing our cracked vinyl siding in a purple light. We find Tim sleeping in his wheelchair, bald head on his hairless chest, unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth, t-shirt dwarfing his body. We still have the same flat forehead, the same thin, disapproving lips, and when I look at him, I see my future and it leaves me cold.
Tim wakes as we finish dinner and Jamie starts rambling about the haul and how we’re going to burn it tonight. He says that the wind is just right and that Tim should join, it’ll be fun, but Tim says not this time. When Jamie leaves to use the bathroom, Tim wheels up to me and slaps me hard across the face with all the strength he can muster and says in a hoarse whisper: how many times, how many more goddamn times do I need to tell you the smoke is bad for his lungs and he needs to stay inside. His slap surprises me, but its sting makes me happy. It brings me back to our childhood, reminds me of our playful roughhousing on the playground and the court, our father lightly chiding us but not-so-secretly pleased with our competitive spirit. I want to explain to Tim that Jamie loves the fires, he lives for them, and I live to see him live for them, and if neither of us can do what we live for then why live, and anyway he wears a mask and really is it even possible to mess his lungs up more. But instead I just say, “Fuck off, Tim,” and he does.
We drive the haul to our open burn pit, half a mile from our house, the headlights and the quarter moon and the burning constellations paving our way. We start with the four tires and cover them with sand and we light. We watch the flames spread and consume and we listen to the fire’s roar and inhale the tang of burning rubber, and it feels sacred. I look at Jamie, his masked face awash in flames, and he is silent but I can tell from his eyes studying the blaze and the thick plumes of black smoke spiraling into the hot night that he’s wondering just how long the tires will burn.
Mike Riess lives in New Jersey with his wife, Jen, and his daughter, Madeline. He works as an attorney and started writing short fiction a couple of years ago. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from SmokeLong Quarterly, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, and Bird’s Thumb.
Artwork by: Brittney Fishman
Brittney is a 29-year-old, pursuing her love of art through writing and photography. Brittney‘s loves for art, started at a young age but her love of photography, started the summer after she turned 16. She picked up her first camera, a Pentax K1000, not knowing anything about photography and fell in love. If you wish to see more of her work, her website is www.toomuchbeautytoquit.