Heat by Nance Knauer
Chester poked the burning trash with a stick. The smoke shifted in a downdraft and he coughed away the thick smell of melted plastic. Every Sunday morning he set fire to a week’s worth of tin cans, milk jugs and the broken necks of Budweiser bottles in a rusty barrel. The neighbor’s horses, grazing in the pasture behind his house, raised their heads when the flames crackled. Chester lifted the smoking stick and they snorted and flagged their tails, kicked and trotted their way to a shed at the bottom of the hill. His new beagle yelped at them, staring through the chicken wire of his temporary kennel. He’d run off three times already. Chester hooked a beef bone out of the fire with his stick and lobbed it over the fence. The dog caught it and then dropped it in the dust. His tongue hung loosely out the side of his mouth. He barked a lot at night, sometimes breaking into a long howl near morning. Chester liked the noise. It called up some forgotten part of him.
The heat of the fire pushed Chester back. He walked across the yard to the small grove of peach trees he’d nursed through late frosts and a wet spring. With a practiced hand he checked the leaves for fungus, the bark for insects, his tremor quiet for now. What fruit had survived was still small and hard. The first bite felt impossibly far away, but his mouth watered and he swallowed automatically, tasting the bitter threads that he’d be sucking from the pits in another month.
His wife, Grace, waved from the open kitchen window, the flesh of her upper arm wobbling and her fat fingers wriggling. He pretended not to see her and she stopped waving. Although he couldn’t hear her over the noise of the fire, he knew she was singing the same song she sang every Sunday morning while washing the breakfast dishes—Ring of Fire, the Johnny Cash version. He wanted to tell her how much it hurt--he hated what she did to that song.
Sweeping the grass tips with the charred stick, he walked up the slight grade to the back door. He found Grace on her hands and knees, reaching under the kitchen table for a stray Kleenex. Pieces of tissue seemed to spring from her sleeves and pockets and even between her breasts at odd moments, like flower petals. But now, all he noticed were the soft, round cushions of her butt. Her jeans, faded along the outer edge of each sphere, favored her ample curves. Such rich ground, a place where his hands didn’t shake. He reached out as the words stumbled from his mouth. His thumbs poked tenderly into her thighs.
“I’ve been meaning to tell you,” he said, “that song...”
“Oh, good. You’re here. Can you get that for me, Jelly?” She refused to call him Chester. He’d never understood why.
He crawled in under the table with her, stretched forward and pulled the tissue from under a chair leg, tried to stay on course, but the light smoothed and blushed her skin in the shadows. Again, he felt the peach pit under his tongue.
“I don’t like...” He stopped, unsure of his approach.
“I knew that dog would be trouble. How can you stand that noise?”
“...that song. The way you sing that song.” He backed out and stood up, still holding the tissue. She shuffled back on her knees and he pulled her up, both of them grunting. They leaned against the sink to catch their breath and he held out the Kleenex which carried the imprint of her pink lips on the center fold. His ears felt too small for his head. She didn’t take the tissue.
“What song?” Her breath pummeled his face.
“Ring of Fire.”
“What are you saying?”
“Well, it’s criminal.” He focused on her mouth, the way the center point fit a little crookedly over her bottom lip. “Gracie, honey, you can’t sing.” There, it was out. He turned away from her and picked up a glass from the dish drainer, filled it from the faucet, and then held onto it because the only noise in the kitchen would be him swallowing.
Chester walked back to the fire, stood by the kennel and watched the beagle dig a hole. Little depressions, big enough for him to sleep in, peppered the kennel floor which used to be grass but now was mostly dirt and a few strands of creeping charlie.
“Dig me one, too,” he said, bending down to check the gate bolt. The dog stopped digging and pushed the bone around in the dust with his nose until he sneezed. His ears slapped his neck as he shook his head with each snort.
“Bless you.” They both looked up toward the house as Grace’s scratchy voice boomed out the open back door.
“And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire.”
Chester looked down at the tissue still clutched in his hand. He brought it up to his nose and sniffed at the lipstick marks, but all he could smell was the dog.