October 8, 2011 by wcobserver
Back when his neighbor Cotton was still alive, my dad would call out to him on the morning of a fire. “Come on over,” he’d wave his arm. And Cotton would bring over a few limbs he’d been saving or anything wooden he wanted to get rid of, set up his lawn chair next to Dad’s, and they’d tend the fire together.
Dad would stick his cigarette lighter down to the bits of paper and cardboard he had crumpled at the base of the heap, and then light a fresh Winston and draw on the cigarette strong and deep while the blaze flared into the brush and started working its way up the near side of the pile.
The fire merited their full attention. Orange-red flames would tear through the heap of wood, picking up speed. They listened to the snapping and popping of it, smelled the scent of wood smoke. Dad would take another drag off the Winston and then launch into one or another of his stories, like when he and three high school friends raced the milefreight train to the crossing between Cane Hill and Prairie Grove, passing through the turn in front of the engine on the Model T’s two left wheels and a cloud of dust seconds before the steam engines barreled across the road, whistles blaring and the engineer shaking his fist at them. Or when he forded the White River at Goshen to teach singing school, fell off the mule, and wore wet clothes the rest of the day. Or when his folks had moved to West Memphis looking for work and his mother got sick, and he had to hitchhike there with nothing but an apple in his pocket. He didn’t have to look at Cotton to know he was paying attention. Cotton came from the same times.
The flames would leap high in the air, twice as high as the shimmering cone of wood, twisting into the air like a curling orange hand, with only a faint grey vapor of smoke rushing from the top of it. Periodically Dad, or Cotton would walk around to the side or back of the pile and pick up ends of logs or still-burning sticks that had fallen out of the path of the flame and throw them back onto the fire. Each thrown piece caused a great cavalcade of sparks to explode into the air, a celebration of new fuel, of longer life to the fire.
Cotton would stay with my dad while the fire burned down, sometimes for the rest of the afternoon, poking at it, throwing on newly discovered fallen twigs or dead weeds to keep it alive. By that time, there was little talking. Dad would use the shovel to drag the last few little unburned pieces over to the center of the ash circle where the coals ate them up in quick yellow blazes. Finally Cotton’s wife would call him to dinner and he would take his chair and leave. Mom could have called Dad too, but he wouldn’t have come. He would lean on the shovel, watching the red embers swell and throb in the slight breeze of dusk, until the last bit of fire had died.
(To be continued)