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Smoke

 

     Estelle had never burned down a house before. Never even thought about it. Eighty-two years old and her worst sin, until she took to cussing in her old age, had been shoplifting a bottle of nail polish from a Richmond department store when she was twelve.

     Her first notion something bad was about to happen came when she was sitting on her front porch enjoying her regular morning smoke, a pack of Camels on the rocking chair arm, butt can on the floor. Sunlight shimmered off the Millers’ big white farmhouse and their twin red barns a half-mile away across the road. The farm was pretty against the blue hills in the distance. Spoiling the scene came an over-sized SUV rolling through the soybean field, mashing down the plants and coming to a stop across the road from Estelle’s place. Estelle leaned on the rocker’s arms and pushed herself up for a better look. “KDS Associates, Land Surveyor, Maysville, VA” it said on the door. Three men in orange vests climbed out hauling tripods, poles, and thermoses.

     Soybean plants fluttered, undulating in the fields across the road, reminding Estelle of the rise and fall of the ocean swells she’d seen once as a child. Estelle had been bothered when the Millers put in the soybeans. She missed the tobacco plants, if only for the tradition they held. But now, she liked the soybeans, dark green like the rose leaves on the bushes around her porch.

     Rich for generations, the Millers owned all the land across the road from Estelle’s place, where the surveyors were now setting up their equipment. That afternoon, when they drove off, about five acres had been marked off and stakes set. “Well, Henry, you were right,” Estelle said to no one visible. “Just a matter of time ‘till they got the idea.”

***

     Through the months it took to build the house, foundation poured, framing up, Estelle smiled and waved to the crew. She sat on her front porch smoking and rocking in her chair, like the old lady she’d somehow become, watching the house go up -- and up and up, three goddamn floors. Day by day the hills and the soybean plants disappeared behind the framing, insulation and two stone chimneys.

     One day, during a stubborn hot spell, Estelle stood inside the bungalow’s front bedroom, which she kept tidy for guests who never came, stared out the window and watched the men laying the roof. Some were bent over nail guns, others crossed the gables like mountain goats, stacks of asphalt shingles slung over their shoulders. Shirts had been abandoned early in the morning and wrapped like bandanas around their heads. The breeze from the window unit blew past Estelle making her forget how hot it was outside. To her left was the framed photo of Henry on the dresser, smug in his fireman’s turnout gear, helmet and boots. Always the big shot, she thought. “Hell, I know the damn house ain’t their fault. No need to remind me.” The photo, relegated to that remote spot, was the single memory Estelle saved when she’d tossed her husband’s fireman scrapbook in the trash bin the day of the funeral. Now she wondered if the photo should go, too. “Stop nagging. I know what to do.”

     Estelle went into the kitchen and made a big pitcher of sweet tea with lots of ice. She tucked a stack of paper cups tucked under her arm she carried the treat across the road. No small task for an old lady. She asked the foreman to give the crew a break.

     “Tea’s always a pleasure, Ma’am,” he said.

     “Pleasure’s mine,” she said. “I’m Estelle Johnson, or just Estelle, if you please. Live across the road, but I guess you know that.”

     “Yes, Ma’am, Miss Estelle, I do. I’m Lester Butler, crew chief for this team. Nice house you got,” he said, tipping his paper cup toward the bungalow.

     “You’re lying, Mr. Butler, but I appreciate the gesture. Built back in ’56. My husband, Henry and I moved in when we married. He passed two years ago, but I still see him sometimes. We talk.” Estelle pulled out a pack of Camels. “Smoke?” she asked.

     “Thanks.” Lester Butler pulled out a cigarette and Estelle flicked her lighter for him. “Look, I’m sorry about this house,” he said. “I mean where it is an all. Boss told me the Millers picked this spot out special for their daughter and son-in-law. Putting the house up for them, too. Not sure why they had to put it right here, right on top of this hill, except that the view out the back is so pretty. None better for miles.”

Estelle blew smoke over her shoulder. “I know.”

***

     It was fall before the house was down to its last ten percent, plumbing and electrical in,  the crew was just working on the interior trim, and waiting on countertops to be delivered. One Friday afternoon, Estelle watched as Lester let the crew knock off early. The lot and house were empty and Estelle figured this may be her last good chance.

     “Shut up, I know what I’m doing,” she said out loud, though she had meant to keep it to herself. She pulled on a jacket and squared her shoulders. She grabbed her Camels and a box of kitchen matches, walked through her front gate and across the blacktop road.

     After watching him for months, Estelle knew Lester Butler could be forgetful. For instance, she knew that from time to time, particularly on Fridays, he would drive off without giving that huge front door a good tug, making sure it was locked tight.  

     Under the front portico, Estelle pressed on the big brass door handles and heard a soft click. “Ha. Thank you, Lester, you ol’ dog.” Inside, the late afternoon sun streamed through the foyer windows and bounced off a hundred crystals in the chandelier and across granite surfaces. Construction dust sparkled in the air. 

     “Focus!” Henry’s voice scolded in her head.

     “Oh, shut up. This is my job.”

     Estelle scurried through the kitchen and down the three steps to the garage, fragrant with fresh lumber and damp cement. The space, big enough for a ballroom, was left unfinished, intended as some future do-it-yourself project she knew would never happen. She found the electrical box attached to a pair of two-by-fours next to the steps to the kitchen. Wire bundles ran up the exposed wall into the plywood ceiling.

     Estelle reached behind the electrical box and felt exactly where the wire bundles converged, next to one of the two-by-fours. She held lit matches, one by one, against the wood and wires until she figured the pine was going to take, then stepped back. No gasoline, no kerosene, no kindling, and only one point of origin. She knew that much.

     Estelle watched the small, yellow flame emerge from the top of the electrical box and creep up the beam leaving a black, smoky stain in its wake. She leaned in close and inhaled, taking in the scent. The lumber was not fully cured, so the fire would take a while to catch good. Captivated, she lingered, pulling a Camel out of the pack, lit it and took a deep draw.

     Before she finished her cigarette the flames were running up the framing and across the plywood ceiling, an inch or two below what those people thought was going to be their master bedroom. Estelle smiled. The plywood took quicker, hissing and popping, loud as rifle shots.

     Estelle snuffed the Camel out on the bottom of her boot. She tucked the butt and the cold matchsticks into her pocket, strode back across the blacktop road to her bungalow. The sun was setting behind the house, its dark silhouette set against a crown of pink and white clouds. Tomorrow she’d get to watch that sunset. She watched for a while, until she caught the first whiff of smoke, then Estelle called 911.

     It was getting dark by the time she heard the firehouse alarm bell calling the volunteers. The big house was going good when the tanker truck rolled in, right up onto the new landscaping and sod set in the day before. Then an ambulance, two Virginia State Troopers and the County Sheriff nearly crashed like dominoes behind the tanker. It was quite a sight on a moonless, country night, pulsing blue and red emergency lights in front of amber yellow arrows warning drivers to go around.

     Orange sparks swirled through the air like tiny stars falling out of the black sky. Estelle would remember it as the most beautiful night of her life.

     Out in her front yard, in the porch light, Estelle doused her roof and rose bushes with the garden hose, a precaution Henry had taught her. Spectators from Maysville began to gather, drawn by the red glow visible over the hills and pine trees south of town. They parked helter-skelter on the gravel shoulders, at least a quarter-mile down the road. Some carried small children in their arms, everyone staring at the burning house, mouths gaping, eyes wide. A fireman tried to shoo the crowd back.

     Estelle opened her gate and told the people with little ones to come on in and watch from the porch. “Y’all want some tea?” she asked. “Won’t take but a minute.”

***

     The next morning Estelle was rocking on her front porch. The sun was rising and light was falling across the hills to the west, over the Miller’s farmhouse, down across the soybean fields and over what was left of the big house, now mostly burned rubble. What little traffic there was on the blacktop road slowed to gawk at the blackened framing and scorched chimneys still standing. Estelle was sitting, pack of Camels on one side, butt can on the other when a white pickup she knew well pulled into her gravel driveway.

     “Morning, Miss Estelle,” Lester Butler called out. “You alright?”

     “Come on up here and sit. Take a look at this view.”

     Lester pulled off his ball cap, sprawled out in the rocker next to Estelle’s and set a box of donuts from the Maysville bakery on the TV tray between them. “Insurance man was here at dawn this morning. Fool must’ve started driving from Richmond when he got the call. Says it looks electrical, but he’s not a hundred percent. You know anything?”

     “No, sir.”

     Lester Butler smiled. “I expect the Sherriff will follow up, ask some questions, make a report.”

     “I’m an old woman, Lester. I was watching Jeopardy when I smelled the smoke and called the Fire Department. They should give me a goddamn medal.”

     “The house is ashes, I wouldn’t hold my breath for a thank you.” Lester reached for the donuts.

     “You think the Millers will rebuild?”

     “Not likely.” Lester licked powdered sugar off his fingers. “Boss said he heard the kids are lookin’ to build out in Duck. I’m guessing this place was too close to the old man. Outer Banks puts some distance between them.”

     The morning air was still and the smoke from Lester’s and Estelle’s cigarettes rose straight up in flat, blue ribbons spilling into a single puddle at the porch ceiling.

     “You know they’ll take those chimneys down, eventually. Salvage the bricks.”

     “You’ll fetch me one before they do?”

     “Souvenir?” Lester grinned.

     “I never said that. Don’t start with me.”

     Lester cleared his throat, twice. “Seen Henry lately?”

     Estelle stiffened. “Should never have told you about that. Makes me sound like a crazy old woman.”

     “I’ve heard stranger things. Just concerned is all.”

     “If you must know, he got mad about the house burning. Selfish old coot.” She stubbed out her cigarette and blew a stream of smoke. “Wouldn’t be surprised if he’s took off from here. Gone for good.”

     “Big house and Henry both gone in one day?”

     “Sometimes a body gets lucky.” Estelle released a sigh so deep it sounded like she’d been holding her breath for years. “Well, mind my manners, I got coffee on in the kitchen. You want a cup?”

     “I’ll get it,” Lester said, standing. “You stay here and enjoy the view.”

 

-- End --

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