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 the dampness.

“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 the restaurant.

“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 breath. “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 fence.

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’ plastic protectors.

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 his knees.

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 not breathe.

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 Eberheart’s house.

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 those cards.

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.