Seen But Not Heard
Casey Cep | Spring 2006
Not even the pouring-down rain could stop the blazing
furnace. Bent over, heaving heavy breaths into the crisp autumn
air, Daniel wished for a swell of water to come down
and extinguish it. He had run too far away to see the actual
flames, but he could smell the smoke, twisting and rising,
spreading and darkening against the fading sky. Rotting
leaves were all around him, but he knew it was the smoke
above him that he could smell.
Taking the cards out of his pocket, he began to arrange
the dozen or so he had managed to salvage: at the door, the
folded hands, only his face, situated with lambs, a patient
garden, a pair of doves, and the nativity. There had been
more of the mourning cards than anything else in the room,
the largest one downstairs, what probably had been a living
room or parlor before it was filled to the ceiling. Spreading
them into a circle, he realized after placing the last one that
the ground was damp, that their paper folds were taking in
“At least I’ll able to give him these.” It was reassuring to
say it aloud, all alone there in the woods, like he was just
going to march back to Bobby Eberheart’s house and return
these few things after the man’s entire home would
have burned to the ground. Picking up the cards and putting
them back into a stack, he knew he could never return
them, could never endanger himself with such evidence.
How quickly it had happened. The fire racing across the
room, spreading along the walls, forcing itself between the
floorboards and into the floor beneath. Kerosene heaters
ought not to be kept open like that. Placed there in the center
of a room full of papers. Stacks of newspapers set like
watchtowers. How could anyone keep a house like that?
Tucking them back into the in-between space of his pocket,
the seam having come unstitched and left a convenient,
unexpected pouch on the left side, he coughed a few times
to catch his breath. Then thought he ought to leave now if
he didn’t want them to know where he’d been.
By the time Daniel arrived at the Marina Market his
friends were already there, two of them laying out along the
benches of a corner booth, the other with his heels latched
on either side of the table’s stand and leaning back on the
red-cushioned stool stolen from the bar across the restaurant.
The Market was not a proper market, though it did
stock a few baked goods and in the summer allowed the
Farmer’s Market to set up in the parking lot. It was the largest
lot in the area and even when a dozen vendors set up
their stalls, there was still enough room for the few cars from
“You have to run here?” Adam was the first to notice
Daniel’s sweat-soaked short-sleeved shirt, despite having
been the last to level his sight at the table.
When he came in, Daniel had kicked the stool out from
under Steven and pushed with both hands at Michael’s
head, forcing him up from his slouching position along the
length of the booth. Adam stayed lounging on the other
bench and they remained that way, unbalanced until Steven
got up, returned the stool to the bar, and, less gently
than Daniel had done with Michael, began shoving Adam
toward the window.
Smirking as he finished sitting up, Adam said, “I always
wondered when your Dad would take that pickup back.”
Two of them had their own cars. Daniel’s had been a
hand-me-down from his father, Steven’s had been a present
from his parents, neither Adam nor Michael had a car of
their own and only Michael had been able to use his parents
on the weekends.
“Just, ah, got finished helping Dad with some stuff,” a
diversion enough to earn him a few minutes to catch his
“Like shit you did, we just saw your dad coming up here.”
Adam had noticed the shirt, but Michael was calling him on
it. He knew they wouldn’t leave it alone until he told them,
so he just waited a few minutes, still catching his breath, and
then started telling it.
It had only been a few hours since he parked his truck
along the park a few miles away from Marina. Only a few
hours since he caught a splinter dragging his hand along the
weathered wood of the park’s playground beams.
Hissing under his breath and pulling at the fleck of wood
in his left hand with two fingers of his right hand, he reached
the edge of the park faster than he expected. There were three houses that shared a drive, so he couldn’t have walked
up from the road. It had to be this way.
There was the metal fence the county had forced Bobby
Eberheart to put up a few years ago. Small triumphs they
had enjoyed in the decade or so that the old man had insisted
on his right to collect, small tortures they had inflicted on
the grounds that rats and mice from his property would enter
the adjacent public park, that the stacked papers were a
fire hazard, that unseemly yards were a danger to the value
of all the properties in the area. Everybody knew why they
couldn’t leave Bobby alone and everybody knew what was
said about him.
Hitching himself over the fence, Daniel cussed himself
when he saw the downed links a few posts down. Still, he
had made it over and was fixing his jacket. He pulled the
collar tighter and shoved his hands into his pockets.
It was cold, but not too cold. The jean jacket was enough
and he had always liked the way it looked. He only had one
pair of jeans that matched it properly and sometimes he’d
wear them a few days in a row so long as nobody noticed
he’d worn them again. Running around the back of the
house before anyone else entered the park and saw him, he
hadn’t remembered it being this big.
Once, when his friend Steven’s father had been on the
county council, he had brought the boys along for an inspection
of the house. They had all been in the park and he
called them over.
“Nope, don’t worry. Bobby won’t be back till tomorrow,
so come on in with us,” Steven’s father had been there in
his suit, unknowingly standing in a puddle of motor oil or
something like it in the driveway, hollering at them over the
By the time they all four had come over, the other council
members had already been ushered into the house and
Stephen’s dad realized they wouldn’t be allowed in.
“Ah, well let’s have a look at his car.” Even that tiny
thing had been loaded up with newspapers and rags, cans
and plastic bottles. It was like Bobby Eberheart had never
thrown away any of his trash or had even bundled everyone
else’s trash with it into his little sedan.
They must have been about ten when Steven’s dad explained
what was wrong with the man: “He can’t get rid of
a single thing boys. Hoarding they call it. Some kind of tick.
Like when Steven won’t take a swing until he’s tapped each
of his cleats twice. Or the way his mother won’t let me turn
on the television till I’ve taken off my shoes. Everybody’s got
one, but Bobby’s is just a menace.”
Looking in through the three windows along the side
of the house closest to the park, Daniel could see now that
they were covered with plastic, the insulating kind his father
put up on their windows every winter and took down in the
spring, only these sheets were smudged and torn, flapping a
little on all of the sides.
Making his way around, he could see more puddles of
what he remembered splashing onto Steven’s dad’s suit that
last time he had been here. It wasn’t until they left that Mr.
Johnson had looked down at his pant cuffs and pitched a
fit at the filthy man who’d left all this shit in his yard. He
had yelled for almost ten minutes before the other councilmen
came out of the house, then he’d stopped complaining
about the condition of his pant legs and starting lecturing
them all on Bobby’s property.
It must not have been motor oil, though, because these
wells of it now were too far away from the driveway. He
wondered if maybe Bobby had spread something around
the house, something to keep people away from it or something
to keep rats from coming around the house.
There was the door and his hand was already pushing
in on it before he could think about not doing it. Bobby
wouldn’t be let out of jail at least until the afternoon. The
police always held him for a day or two when they brought
him in. He wouldn’t be there, so it wouldn’t matter if he
were inside the house for awhile to see what it was like.
He had covered trials for some magazine, had been some
kind of reporter, a successful one they had all decided after
Steven’s dad took them for the tour. How else had he avoided
all of those complaints? The paper ran its own feature
on him a few years after it all started, organizing a petition
and calling for action. Still Bobby had been arrested every
couple of months and after a day or two he had been allowed
to go home. Cluttered and claustrophobic, this was
the house where he had hidden from the world for the fifteen
years since he had lost his job as a reporter. Hoarding
was a condition for Bobby, but a chronic disturbance to the
town of Marina.
He was sure Bobby couldn’t be home, so he walked in
through the back door. Nobody ever wondered much about
the man anymore except to wonder about what all the junk
was he kept piled up in that house. Everybody knew that
Bobby had been banned from the recycling bins by the post
office, he had been caught a few years ago loading the newspapers
into his car and putting bags of glass bottles and
plastic containers into his trunk.
But here it all was, sorted by size and sometimes by color
around the house. None of the doors to the rooms could
close for their contents, none of the tables had visible tops
because of their covers of unfolded, outspread newspapers.
He turned left just after going through the door. There had been tables covered with bags and bottles in the hall,
along with the stairs at the end of the hallway, each step
burdened with a tiny mound, but further into the rooms he
could see lights and better stacked bundles.
In that living room he had looked for a long time at the
newsprint and then at the books stacked there by the door.
Each was a cover without its pages, shells placed carefully
on one another, alternating openings, with the top one set
upright so that the title could be seen but not the empty casing.
He had sensed a chill of it then, the harshness of their
influence on the old man. Patience had stacked them, but
torment had removed their pages.
Pasted on all the walls were what he thought must have
been the pages from the books. Reading along the walls he
could tell how carefully they had been arranged, was able to
read whole books by walking slowly enough down the length
of the room. Taped overtop a lot of the pages were cartoons
and comics and bolded front-page headlines. It was haunting
wallpaper for the darkened room, which had no proper
lights and could not catch the sunlight through the windows’
And there, between the headlines and the hidden cartoons
were the mourning cards. Taped along the walls, scattered
around the floor, tucked in between the remaining
pages of all the books. Innumerable bookmarks marking
random pages and filling up the tabletops of every table in
the room. There were so many of them around the room it
was hard to tell them apart and hard to keep from looking
at all of the names.
Daniel couldn’t have known very many of them because
right around the time Bobby Eberheart had been banned
from the recycling bins and the landfill he had been barred
from every funeral home in town for stealing these cards.
It was inappropriate, they all thought, the way he’d come
in and steal a dozen or so from every room and then leave
without even paying his respects to the families. All of these
cards were more than ten years old, but still the same poems
and prayers were being printed in them, and Daniel thought
how similar they looked to the one or two he had seen.
Picking some up off the ground he started to turn out of
the room. He stopped counting the number of scenes he
could find on the fronts of them and stuffed a few into his
pocket thinking how he could show Michael, Steven, and
Adam a few of them to prove he had been in the house.
It had taken him about forty-five minutes just to make his
way around this one room. He hadn’t stayed very long in
the hallway, turning left into the largest room as soon as he’d
decided it would be okay to look around. It was so warm in
the sealed house that he had already taken off his jacket and
was about to come out of his other shirt when he slipped on
a few sheets of newsprint scattered along the floor.
Two or three soda bottles had been kicked between the
heaps by his foot when it came out from under him, and
reaching for his balance he had dragged over a bag of empty
aluminum cans that crashed into cymbals when they spilled
out from the black bag filled with trash.
The damned heater along the long wall had tipped over
when a second stack of paper had been leveled by his other
hand; the kerosene was already leaking out into a long,
curved puddle. Pulling the tail of his shirt from his jeans,
he finished taking it off and threw it at the puddle to sop it
up before the burning wick unraveled into it. Dragging it
through the white lake with his foot, he pulled it back when
he realized it was too late to isolate the wick. The flannel rag
was already flaming into a bundle of fire and for a second
threatened to take his pant leg before it folded back down
and collapsed into thin, wispy ashes in the puddle of kerosene.
The shirt flicked across the puddle faster than he thought
it would. Now startled, he lost his balance again and knocked
over another stack of papers. The loose sheets sank
directly into the fire running along the floorboards and in
a few seconds were burned into wafting flecks of material.
Taking one look back into the room, he realized he could
not stop it.
He ran toward the end of the hall opposite the back
door and started closing all of the doors—to the stairs, to
the kitchen, to some kind of spare room opposite the living
room. They were all filled; some with trash bags and some
with plastics bins and totes, but all pilled with fuel for what
he knew had started. He could hear the fire now, things tumbling
into it, the crackle growing into a kind of roar. Already
it was coming from under the door of that one room and
Daniel was slipping out of the front door before he realized
he’d left his jacket somewhere inside.
He was hopping back over the fence, trying to see behind
the plastic in the windows before the first one erupted.
Punching out from behind the covered window, the fire had
broken out of third window from the corner of the house
just as he crossed over into the park.
He couldn’t go back to his truck right away. There was a
family with two children moving along the worn playground
equipment. A husband and wife looking forward toward
the road while their children reached between the bars and
helped one another along the hanging course.
His legs had once been short enough to find the same
challenge in making it across. Watching them now he remembered
dragging his knees along the ground only a few months ago when he and his friends had come back here.
Some kind of dream was returning to him. He couldn’t remember
how, but one of them had teased the others away
from the picnic table and beers and they had all tried to
make it across without standing or extending their legs. Now
he was sure that family would see him running towards the
woods; he hoped they would keep looking away and keep to
their obstacle instead of his.
Bobby’s iron fence ran all the way down to the woods
and Daniel had followed the length of it before falling onto
He had made it out of sight, too far away now to be seen
but also too far away to see the flames any longer. There
was the smoke, though, rising between the tops of the trees
and spreading across the sky. He hated the late autumn,
the cold that came down from the sky and fought against
the warmth still held within the ground. He heaved deeply
and let his head sink between his legs, not because of the
smoke, but because he was out of breath, because he could
Lifting his head from its unsteady bow, he stared at the
pile of mourning cards arranged in a circle. He wondered
what he would do with them, wondered how long before he
could get back to his truck. The leaves were falling atop one
another in unpredictable stacks like sheets of paper.
It was Bobby’s fault. Why had he left it all there with the
heaters going. Why hadn’t the police had him put out all of
the kerosene heaters. Why hadn’t the heater already run out
of fuel by the time he got there. The treetops were blurring
the light like the plastic window covers.
Slipping over to his truck, he ducked his head when another
car rolled past. The tires of his truck squealed a little
as he pulled away from the shoulder along the parking strip
for the park. The car that had passed him was already moving
out of sight and he figured it hadn’t seen him or the
flames that were already moving to the second story of Bobby
He couldn’t stay any longer, he had stalled for too long
in front of the driveway that Bobby’s house shared with
two other houses. Going forward, he turned back to look
through the stickers on the back window of his pickup and
slid the view window between the seats open so he could see
how the dark smoke was still coming from the house. He
could smell it again. The same as in the woods, now spilling
into the truck.
Anxious, he was starting to smell it again there in the
Market. The other three had just laughed at him when he
pulled the cards out of his jacket. Asked how much money
he had to pay that old nutcase because they all knew he’d
sue Daniel, asked what the hell he thought he’d do with all
Before he could turn around, before he could pick all of
the mourning cards up off the table, she was coming over
towards them, the woman who owned the place. But she was
not stopping at their table. They already had their drinks;
they were waiting for their food.
Walking one booth past them, she was handing someone
else a mug and starting to pour his coffee from a pot
when that someone said loudly, “You hear about Bobby Eberheart?”
“No, what’d he do now?” She was always on her tiptoes,
a would-be-dancer whose balance was as sure as the uncertainty
with which her fearful customers treated her as they
worried first for their order and then for themselves when
she walked with her arms full or with a tray stacked high.
“Well, the sheriff sent him home before, early yesterday,
and. . .,” he was steadying the cup, still worried about her
balance. When she finished pouring, he leaned his arms on
the table, stretched his back straight so that the volunteer
fire company shirt was unwrinkled and legible, and let his
head fall as he said, “. . .poor bastard was burned to death.
Set his own house on fire.”
Casey Cep ‘06 is an English and American Literature
and Language concentrator in Pforzheimer House.