U of T Magazine

Autumn 2017 / Short Story and Poetry Contest


Quick-fire

Finalist in the U of T Magazine Short Story Contest

Anna had been early, had been waiting ten minutes, a loner at a table for two in the Starbucks at 51st and Broadway. “Never trust a reporter,” her Da had said after they had come and written, blaming him for the barn. Not that he had been one to trust.

Jamie, though, had said to meet the journalist. “Go on with you,” he’d said, “Tamara Weiss is one of the good ones. You deserve a little of the limelight’s glow.” Stupid idea, Anna thought now. She could make her own limelight with oxygen, hydrogen, a match, and a little calcium oxide. Maybe it was not too late to leave.

“Anna?”

Anna looked up. The journalist. Tamara Weiss. Tall and lean in leggings, boots, a leather jacket. All-American. Younger than Anna had expected. Hair dyed hipster grey. Anna didn’t understand it, this paying for age when in just a few years – barely more than fifty in Anna’s case – time would turn you grey for free.

“Anna Molloy?” the journalist asked again, hesitant.

Yes, she was Anna Molloy. FX Director. Special Tony winner. Firestarter. Why was it that they all – directors, actors, journeymen – expected something else? Biceps, burn marks, some kind of manly-burl. Fire belonged to men, not to women. Certainly not to birdlike women like Anna, with her dark pixie-cut, her hair shot with real grey, her eyes sapphire blue. The assumption irritated her.

“Aye. And you’ll be Tamara Weiss.” Know the other; prove your own identity.

The journalist laughed a little, maybe at herself.

“Sorry, you just don’t look….”

 “…Irish?” Anna interrupted. “I know, I hear that a lot. It’s the black-Irish. Not supposed to use that word – black – in America, but that’s what it is.  From when the Spanish Armada wrecked on Ireland’s shores and added a gene or two…”

Tamara Weiss raised one eyebrow.

“…oh. Oh, not the Irish part. You mean a fire-starter, don’t you? I don’t look like I set things on fire to earn a living, you mean? I get that reaction a lot, too. I’m a tiny little woman and all. Not really the kind you’d think could burn up a bed with a man in it on stage every night. ”

Now the journalist smiled, sat down in the other chair, at ease despite Anna’s effort to take the mickey out of her. A beautiful girl.

“No, not the Irish part,” Weiss agreed, shrugging her jacket onto the back of the chair. “I should’ve known better. I’ve just never met a pyrotechnician before.”

 “Special Effects Technician, actually,” Anna corrected tartly, her ire slow to cool.  “Harder exams than to be a pyrotechnician.”

“No offense intended,” Weiss said, voice soft as if soothing a skittish horse. “Can I get you a coffee before we start?”

 

***

 

A writer for The New Yorker, Tamara Weiss was doing a piece on The Burning Bed. Now into its sixth month, it looked like it would be one of those lucky productions that had the right director, the right cast, and, if the reviewers were to be believed, the right technology, to pack a wallop greater than the original. Anna’s pyrotechnology.

Weiss put a tape recorder on the table once she’d doctored her coffee, once Anna had settled with her tea.

“That okay?”

Anna nodded.

Weiss pressed play. “The Burning Bed is a dark story:  after years of domestic abuse, Francine Hughes sets her drunken husband alight in his bed, killing him. And old, too. It happened in the late 70s and was made into a movie-of-the-week with Farah Fawcett in the 80s. Why did you chose to do it?”

Stupid question, Anna thought. She’d blame Jamie for putting her up to this later.

“Well, really just because Jamie asked me.”

“James O’Brien, the director.”

No, James O’Brien the circus elephant. Anna thought. “Yes, James O’Brien, the director.”

“You and O’Brien – Jamie – went to the London School of Arts together but you go much farther back than that, right? To County Antrim?”

“Yes. Near Glendun. Our families had farms side-by-each.”

Beautiful green Antrim. Lonely sad Antrim. Anna tried not to think about it. She had visited last for her mother’s funeral a dozen years ago. Her brothers had sold the farm to a group that had also bought Jamie’s family’s acreage. Word was they wanted to build a spiritual healing centre on the lands. Bad joojoo, Anna thought.

The reporter was talking again, was mercifully yanking Anna from her reverie.

“Jamie said this production would be nothing without your work.”

Good old farty Jamie, her biggest booster since forever. Jamie who laughed like a hyena and helped himself, one night, to her father’s car for a long drive down a short pier. Jamie with whom she’d gotten stupid and drunk and sexed that first time. Before they’d discovered they both preferred women. Jamie whose wrists she’d wrapped and for whom she’d called the ambulance when he’d tried to kill himself, all blood on the checkered bathroom tiles of the Excelsior Hotel. Through thick and thin together, drinking whiskey and looking back at time, always wondering how they’d gotten as old as their parents, how they’d fooled so many people into believing they were responsible adults with their going to work every day and winning theatre awards. God love him.

“He’s being kind. The production is all him. He’s wanted to do it for a long time. I got lucky that proximate pyrotechnics – ones you can set off five metres from an audience – have gotten good enough that we could finally go ahead.”

“Why’s that?”

“It’s mostly that we understand chemistry better than ever before, can be more precise. It has let us make gorgeous living effects. For instance, the flame that shadows Francine ‘round and across the stage like a lover before she sets the bed alight…”

“Sorry, I meant “why has Jamie wanted to do it for a long time?”

Anna’s stomach sank. Of course the chemistry was a bore. The how of coaxing a guttering flame into a rearing monster and then back to nothing. The how of blushing a white fall of sparks into pink blossoms, fluttering upward on an invisible breeze. The girl was looking for something else. Human interest. Jamie would not have given it.

He had decided to stage the story the night his mother died when they were barely in their twenties. Anna had been there, had watched with him as Morag, his Ma, had taken her last small breath. They had watched the priest close Morag’s eyes and give the benediction. They had left and gotten shite-faced and stared at the peeling poster on the pub wall, one of them a be-nippled Farrah Fawcett in her famous bikini. They had agreed that Farah, god rest her, was hotter than any of today’s models, feathered hair notwithstanding. They had thrown themselves down the hyper-linked rabbit hole that was Wikipedia, blue-lit phones bright in the gloom of the pub, looking for Fawcett, and wife-beaters, and all the different meanings for fire. Trial by it, the innocent surviving. What they were really doing was trying to remodel the past. Rewrite those moments, regular as Sunday, that Jamie’s Da had beaten the shite out of Morag and all the boys. All those moments that Jamie had run to Anna’s barn to hide and cry. She could still see him, all freckles and green eyes, tears and snot mixing with the threshing dust, the welts from the belt coming up angry on his skinny back. The production, Anna knew, was a secret penance played out pretty on stage, which was always what art was, anyway, wasn’t it? Scraping the pus out of wounds so that maybe they’d heal clean one day? Jamie wasn’t punishing Fergus O’Brien as they burned Mickey Hughes in his bed each night, he was apologizing, again and again, to his Ma, to himself, for being too small to do anything about it back then. A balm for the boy still stuck back there in the haymow, guilty for being just seven years old.

“Fire’s a fascinating thing, Miss Weiss. Prometheus stole it for humanity, the myth says. More likely we stole it from a forest fire. But however we got it, the moment we got it – thought arrogantly that we could control it – was the moment we were changed completely. That’s what Jamie wanted to explore: control. The illusion of it.”

“Control – illusion of control – over what?”

Anna looked at the young woman. Her fierce gold eyes. Her breath held. Anna recognized that look, knew that question. Tamara Weiss’ hair made grey, a child grasping to buy age, buy years to outrun her own pain. Who hurt you, child? she wanted to ask.

“Scandinavian kings,” Anna said, at last, “used arson to build kingdoms. They called it quick-fire, and it was legal by the Gragas – the Grey Goose Laws – a code that predated the Magna Carta. The word ‘fever’ comes from an Old English root meaning ‘burn.’ We speak of trial by fire, where the innocent pass through the flames uninjured. We anneal metal, using heat to change it, to remove impurities, to make it unbreakable. Fire made us, Miss Weiss. Francine Hughes used fire to escape her abuser, but the production isn’t about the end, about the murder. It is not trying to adjudicate, to judge whether what she did was right, much as we’d like it to. It’s about the beginning. The life that shaped her. The crucible that shapes all of us. The decisions we make every step of the way that burn us up or transform us utterly.”

The journalist seemed suddenly tired. Her brokenness coming through. No sinecure here.

“And you?”

“Me?”

“Why pyrotechnics? There aren’t a lot of women in the field.”

“Why do we do anything? Why are you a journalist?”

“Your barn burned down in Antrim when you were seven years old.”

“Well that’s a piece of research, isn’t it?” Anna marvelled. “You’d have to look at microfiche to pull that one from history’s teeth.”

“Jamie told me. It burned to its foundations. Lightning, they said. A dozen sheep caught inside…”

The memory, now bidden, would not be denied: the panicked lambs wailing loud in her ears, even these forty-five years later. Anna could feel the heat on her face, the ash rising on whorls of hot air, the skinny little lambkins silenced by the smoke, one by one. The ones she had birthed with her brother and Jamie when her father had been stumbling drunk in the pub. The ones she had washed clean and led to suckle at their mothers’ teats. The ones she had counted and named and tucked into their straw in the light of dusk instead of playing with her dollies.

Tamara Weiss said nothing, a waiting sphynx.

“You’re asking if that fire made me who I am today?”

“I was only wondering if that tragedy was, as you said, your crucible. Had made you who you are today.”

“Just like you’re a journalist,” Anna said to herself, “so that you can put the truth on paper where it can no longer be denied? Where did he touch you, then? How did he threaten you into silence?” Out loud she said, “No, that’s just Jamie, being dramatic. I saw the lightning. Terrible accidents happen on farms.”

“So what made you decide to do what you do?” Weiss was not giving up. “To stick to it and get so good?”

Anna sipped her tea and thought hard. The barn fire had not changed her. But could it have been what had happened later that night? As she lay in bed, her cheeks still dried tight by the flames that had licked the rafters and brought them down, her own snot still crusted on her face? The new thing she had done with her mind when her father had come into her room again, not even giving her a night off, to put his hands on her the way he always did when no one could see. The thing she did as she lay on her stomach with her arms to her sides, her knees locked, her eyes tight shut, pretending to sleep. His rough hands over her back and over her bum and between her legs, as he groaned and threatened to kill Flossie the dog if Anna said a word and then left her room wiping his hands. She had been so scared that she’d only told James about it after Morag died, she and Jamie crying so hard they laughed at the shite life threw in everyone’s way, long after Flossie was safe and dead of ripe old age.

That night, the smell of burnt flesh and wool still strong in her hair, when her father had pulled back the covers once more, she set him ablaze. That night, and every night he came in after, she plucked the memory of a spark from the blazing barn and put it in his beard. She sat outside herself on the tiny windowsill above her bed and watched as the ember kindled in his hair, bright like the hay catching down its length, first white then red then blackening to ash, like tiny threads of detonation cord. She watched as his thick lips dried back over his too-tiny teeth, like a mummy or a dog snarling. His fat hands left her body to claw at the flames and his nails, stained tobacco orange, began to melt from his fingers and drop off, like the horny brown catkin covers that drop from pussy willows in spring. She made his whole body liquefy like cheese left in the sun, dribbly, gobby, oily, formless. She watched him dwindle to nothing, the wicked-witch-puddle from Wizard of Oz, now harmless, the acrid smell of melting lamb becoming the acrid smell of burning father until it blew past her formless self and out the open window into to the midnight air. She wondered why he did not holler in pain; the only sound that came with his nightly burning was the hiss of a gas lamp, aerosol under pressure, escaping the confines of its pipeline prison, narrow as a single bed.

She fell in love with fire, her deliverance, starting that night. She felt robbed when her father died choking on a piece of mutton – a just end in itself – before she could set him alight and kill him for real. But once he was cold she convinced her mother to send him to the crematorium, which maybe was burning enough. She had outwaited him, out lived him, been changed by him.

Anna found herself laughing at the answer to the question. She, Anna Siobhan Molloy, a phoenix. Her Da. The irony. Jamie would laugh until tears streamed from his face. The pyrotechnician, tempered by her own fire. The world-shattering things that never made the news.

Anna’s long fury guttered to nothing and was gone.

 


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