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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Conflagration

by Brent Fisk

In what should have been my future, I’d have turned my small record shop into a giant retailer with a cadre of devoted customers seeking advice on what album to buy next: Which Big Star record is best? Where to turn once the grooves of Kinks Kronikles are too worn to play? Who else has a voice as pure as Sandy Denny’s? I envisioned a homely couch where like-minded fans could sit and talk music. A cooler in the backroom stocked with Nehi and Warsteiner. A pinball machine beckoning from one corner. Rack after rack of brilliant albums. Reclaimed bookshelves stuffed with tasteful erotica, foreign poetry, the odd Scandinavian police procedural.

Instead I’ve strolled down a quite different career path. I’m a staid librarian at the local university. The IRS no longer hounds me for financial records so they can discover every small equivocation and the fuzzy math of my desperate record shop self. Those papers turned to ash in the arson that followed the burglary. This current job is easy to leave at day’s end. I can forget it like a coat hung on the back of a door. I no longer reek of incense and patchouli. When I wake in the middle of the night it’s because I have to pee, not because of the sheer terror of a negative account balance. I know the true meaning of the hoary phrase, a smoldering ruin.

Little I wished for has taken place; not the stacks of pristine vinyl, not the sought after bootlegs of Bowie in Berlin. The closest thing to books I sold was a steady string of High Times magazine. There were few acolytes I turned on to Parliament and Funkadelic. To keep the doors open we sold metal one-hitters, water bongs with a markup that staggered the imagination. Every black dude with a neck tattoo wanted to talk about the joys of marijuana. Rednecks in manure-smeared boots wouldn’t say two words to get laid, but walked up to the paraphernalia counter and were positively chatty. There were a host of words customers could not say. As the signage said, the pipes were for “tobacco use.” Utter some joke about pot, and the customer was out the door. We carded everybody who looked under thirty.  It was part of the unwritten local ordinance. You want to run a head shop, you have to act like Wally Cleaver.

So I had to wonder what it meant that early morning in December when the phone rang in the dark. Some random wrong number, another smash and dash, or the police entering with a warrant? The dispatcher’s term for the building: Fully engulfed. My wife and I huddled across the street, feet in the gutter, fire hoses snaking across the blocked-off road. It poured rain though it did nothing to dampen the fire. The eaves of the roof belched clouds of thick black smoke and steam. Orange flames broke through the ridge of the roof. Among the flames, horrors were loosed both long term and short. The ATF agents were saying arson, the three investigators with side arms strapped to their waists noted every red flag as I answered their questions. My wife was a sound sleeper—could she vouch for my whereabouts? Sure I was there when the phone rang, but what about the hour before? The bald investigator asked if I’d raised the coverage on the building and contents. Would it matter that my insurance agent required it? Was I current on all my bills? They scribbled in notebooks as I looked at my feet. 

My life was a snarl of insurance claims, follow ups with the fire department, and desperate attempts to salvage business records and inventory. There were levies for unpaid taxes. Insurance payments were delayed “pending the investigation.” I let employees go one by one and tried to start over in a florist’s basement. The mice shit everywhere and silverfish nested in the posters. I grew to loathe the smell of incense but could not wash it from my clothes.

Then one day the police made an arrest. Some drunk at a bar knew details we’d never released, and after several hours of interrogation, he finally fingered the person responsible. Pretrial dragged on for half the year before the judge ultimately gave the guy probation. As part of the guy’s sentencing, I get a $400 money order once a month for twenty years, no interest. I closed my doors and filed for bankruptcy.

Maybe those years are a total loss. The thousand fears I was afraid to tell my wife. The thoughts I choked on like smoky air. That’s such an easy phrase to say, “a total loss.” But things are gained as well. You are forced to stand stock still and let things pass. You strip away a shallow film and lay things bare. I have settled up with the government. I love my wife, and miracle of miracles, she still loves me. I own a small house near the park. A student loan big enough, let’s say that it owns me. Still, I come home to a mess of cats that swerve between my legs. I pull an album off the shelf, listen to Linda Thompson, Nina Simone, the soundtrack to Grease. The afternoon light can be caught in a glass of wine.

An envelope with money inside is sent a few days late from Owensboro by that other person marked by my fire. There are days I can almost feel the kind of sweat that must have come when the investigators first knocked on his door. I wonder if he loves his job, if he struggles to make ends meet, if he’s come to loathe each stamp he sticks on payments he sends me. Does he own the door he unlocks? Does he have a wife to kiss, cats that mew behind a screen door hungry to move through the world? When he stares into the embers of a fire, does he also think of loss, all the choices we both have made, intermingled and reduced, how they drift away like ash?

Brent Fisk is a writer from Bowling Green, Kentucky. His work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Rattle, Fugue, Folio and other literary journals.

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