Fire in a Barrel
Written by Kate Burkhardt
We had everything we needed that night and it wasn’t the quarter oz. of weed in a small jar in Mike’s older brother’s backpack or the 24 pack of Coors Mike’s older brother got us from the Quikmart – we had all these quarters and nickels and pennies for the last two bucks of it – “pennies, really?”– Elias said, shaking his head and ducking into the store. He came back with a paper bag with a distinctive square shape defining the edges and a liter of coke and Mike said “awesome, I’m thirsty, give me a swig” and Elias said “No way, little bro – this is for me,” and I almost said “Coke doesn’t even hydrate you, dude.”
But this was all just a sort of preamble. This would have been just regular run of the mill kid stuff if we weren’t so keen on following Elias to this fence at his heels like fawns and he was the momma deer but he’d have socked you in the face if you ever said something like that, if you ever compared him to anything female.
He was an alright guy besides that, when it came down to it. Mike and especially Tim worshipped him because behind that fence was an abandoned warehouse, three miles away, and through the fence it was about a half a mile out, so that’s three and a half miles total, which was perfect because no one could ever find us and we were making it a place to kind of live on some nights.
I didn’t wanna be like Mike when I grew up, but we’d hate our lives and be bored stiff if he wasn’t around. Bored stiff is a phrase borrowed from my momma – she would always say that ‘cause she stayed home and cooked and cleaned and she would say “god, Evan, I am just bored stiff every day, will you do the laundry, I didn’t have time and I am just so beat – you know I gotta get to frying this chicken and put the grits on the stove, oh you know how they’re your daddy’s favorite and you know how tired he gets at work, slaving his ass off every day.”
I always did the laundry but I didn’t mind.
Elias wore basketball shorts and T-shirts in the winter and he never shivered and we wore puffy coats our moms bought us, and we still shivered hard. Tim didn’t have a puffy coat ‘cause his momma was dead.
Cleaning with ammonia and bleach in a plastic bottle labeled BLEACH. Tim found her in the shower, while his dad was on the couch drinking a Coors. I think the fan was probably on so he couldn’t hear her fall.
“Suicide” is what they all said.
He doesn’t talk about it so we don’t ask.
So he wore his older sister’s Kim’s hand-me-down sweaters she left in her pink closet – it had little rabbits hopping around on the door, and when we took the acid we got from Kim, they really did hop, just for us. She left almost all of her clothes before moving to Oakland; he got letters sometimes at Mike’s house and said she’d see him in three years hopefully. She sent him her love, always. That’s what she would say at the bottom of each letter. “Sending you my love, always.” When we were smashed in Mike’s basement once, Tim told us that he didn’t blame her for never coming around and Elias said something about how she wasn’t hot anymore. Tim’s fists clenched and he said “Don’t say that about my sister, dude. Not cool.”
Tim wore about 6 or 7 of those sweaters and they fit alright, were kinda big actually. Kim went out to eat a lot after their mom passed– she made the rounds between Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King and the Drive-In, Big Burger Bliss, which was everyone’s favorite.
The sweaters didn’t do much in the winter and he shivered harder than anyone else.
“Now, you’re gonna have to take off your gloves when you use the spray paint,” Tim said as he watched us all clutch at the metal of the fence through our mittens.
“I don’t want none of your parents seeing you with all that on your gloves ‘cause that shit don’t wash out and you don’t want them asking any questions, you got it?”
Tim always looked out for us.
At the top of the fence, Mike and I always fucked up and we would look at each other and I’d get this pit of dread in my stomach that I know Mike got too ‘cause we talked about it sometimes. With my legs swung over the top, trying not to let the horizontal pole dig into my junk, I hung there for a second, a deer in headlights, frozen stiff, yeah, fuck, this is scary I tried not to say and then, through the mittens, I gripped so hard to make up for the fabric. I climbed down a ways; I tried to do it fast but not too fast and maybe six or seven feet off the ground, I jumped and tried to land sort of upright in the brush.
Tim and Alex, they were always done way before us, which is, they were bigger than us, but still we should have made up for being small, because if we stayed small and slow for too long, people might start calling us faggots.
In the warehouse, Elias took out this jug of lighter fluid and leapt to the stack of telephone books we’d collected in bulk and he shoved a couple in the barrel which was already filled with broken planks and he dumped the fluid all over. The flashlights were useless as soon as the match lit and we were all glowing, half shadows, half ablaze and we sat on the airplane seats we hauled in, except Elias who sat on the plank of wood facing us. Elias tossed us our beers.
I dropped mine – I’ll blame it on those thick gloves I hated needing – and the stupid flimsy can got a hole in it and did this thing where it spun like a top and spayed beer all over us. Elias spit and cursed but he turned his mouth into this lopsided wild thing and my tense ribcage returned to its regular dimensions.
There was an armrest between Mike and I and we both tried to put our elbows on at the same time and I moved mine quick as soon as I felt his and didn’t even look at him. Two inches to the left was too close. Mike’s green eyes would look unreal in the power of flames and I didn’t want to get caught up on useless things like that when the fire itself was the thing that was interesting.
“So little bro, did you nail Ali yet? I saw you two at Ben’s party. Man I would love to nail that pussy.”
And this time, I turned to Mike but wasn’t really paying attention to his eyes; I was paying attention to his mouth and he said “No, but I ate it,” and he was so triumphant right then; I could tell he’d been waiting too hard to tell his brother that. Because he was sick of Elias calling him a faggot.
And everyone whoop whooped and Elias gave this low kind of whistle and Tim said “Did she suck your dick, man?” and Mike said “Duh, that’s why I ate her pussy. I’m a fucking gentleman,” and we all laughed and Elias opened his third beer – I saw two empties to his left – and Elias shook his head and said “Goddamn, I would fuck Ali, hell.”
Mike’s face deepened to scarlet, the kind of scarlet that turned the shadows on his face blacker, the rest red, bouncing off the flames – I was still looking at it.
“That’s fucking gross, you would go to jail for that.”
“I could, but I wouldn’t, but don’t worry, I’m not gonna fuck that, it’s your game.”
And Elias turned to me and he said “So Evan, you still a virgin like my shithead little brother? You’re awfully quiet about everything, you know that?” and I said “yup, it sucks,” and that’s kind of how the rest of the night went, when it came down to it until Tim said “Thanks for doing this for me guys, it really means a lot,” when we were all very quiet and reflective, looking into the fire. The spray paint cans were still stowed away in Elias’ backpack, untouched. We decorated another night; we’d had all the time in the world.
“Don’t worry, we’ll cut a hole in the fence and get some couches in here or something,” Elias said. “I’ll rummage around in the tool shed.”
“Is it starting to feel like home?” I asked him, biting my lip because nothing could be enough, especially not me or momma – “we’re just too poor and your daddy’s too mean”- and the look of heartbroken inadequacy on her face. All of this was much less than enough and even though it was the next best thing, not all the couches in the world or spray paint on the walls to stare at, or airplane seats, or even a fire in a barrel could make anything enough.
“It’s more than enough. Really. I must be the luckiest guy in the world,” and there was no sarcasm there, no I don’t know exactly what ingredients compose a grateful smile but just then, Tim’s was the clearest I’d ever seen, so blatant on his raw face.
We had everything we needed that night and it wasn’t the quarter oz. of weed in the small jar in Elias’ backpack that turned to an eighth or the 24 pack Elias got us from the Quikmart that turned into a graveyard of empty cans and a tipped over box. No, it was he fire contained in a barrel we found there that kept us warm all night when we would have frozen to death if it weren’t for Elias’ lighter fluid and some phone books and planks of wood.
“I’ll pick you up at Evan’s 8 Monday evening,” Elias said to Tim in the morning as we parted ways at the fork in the road.