Fiction by Evan Morgan Williams

BURN BARREL / COLFAX AVENUE

            you / who have never lived cold / you need to know cold as I knew cold/ just picture an alley in Denver / picture dogshit frozen in the ruts of the alley / forget every Coors billboard you have ever seen / I never saw blue sky / never saw white slopes / never / you kept your head down / the dogshit crunched underfoot / you almost wondered what luckless creature had to be out in that cold

            you

            it was cold so bad your nylon jacket froze stiff to your body / your jacket crinkled when you moved / you didn't move / you stood by the burn barrel in the alleyway / you and your dad were living out of his car / it was only for a while / he promised / last summer / when it was warm / now it was cold / the burn barrel was all you had / the sides glowed from the fire / the sparks flooded the black sky / your dad wandered down the alley to warm himself at a place where you needed twenty one years to get in the door / you didn't know where your mom was / up north somewhere / you hadn't seen her since she mashed out a cigarette on your cheek / your dad took you away / you didn’t know Denver from Dubai / you / hell yes / stayed out in the cold

            I stood at the burn barrel every night / staring at those flames / I came as close as ever to thinking about life / here is what I decided / life was about keeping warm / I found no deeper answers / I wasn't asking deeper questions / a fire burns until it doesn't / as long as there was paper to keep the fire alive / I stayed

            I saw the dog who made the shit / I was walking up the alleyway / the dog came up to the barrel / the dog eyed the glowing metal like it was a steak on a kitchen counter / the dog was a blue heeler / a cattle dog / we saw them up north all the time / back when we lived with my mom / patchy blue-grey fur / just enough smarts to be unhappy / a serious lone streak / my dad said if a heeler went wild it never came in / the dog heard my footsteps crunching / my jacket crinkling / it ran from the heat / ran from me / it wasn't coming in

            turned out I wasn't the only one using the barrel / whenever I came up the fire was already going / sometimes just a wisp of smoke / that’s all they left / that's all I needed / a few twists of the Denver Post / a few breaths like a whisper on your cheek / the cheek without the cigarette burns / I could raise a flame from an ember so cold you could roll it around in your palm / I always found something to burn / nice folks on the alley set out wastepaper next to their garbage bins / they pinned the paper under a brick because of the wind / I found paper to keep a fire going all night / a week's worth of the Post / cereal boxes / schoolwork with teacher's marks / milk cartons / catalogs / I lifted them bricks / took that paper / put it in the fire / I stoked it up good before I left / I even tossed in a few extra sections of the Post / that's what someone had done for me / with the flames so grand it was always hard to leave / but I did leave / I didn't want any questions / let someone else find the wisp of smoke that I had left for them

            the Katrina people on the alley put out the most paper / government paper / FEMA paper/ crazy how much government paper / in triplicate / they put out letters too / so many letters / letters and cards from children across the country / love letters from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan / letters with water stains from the storm / lipstick on the letters / somebody loved somebody / stopped loving them long enough to throw the letters away / the Katrina people didn't sort their paper from their garbage / like they didn't know the rules on the alley / being new to Denver / new to cold / if you wanted to burn that government paper in triplicate and all them letters you had to dig through garbage to get them / if you dug through the Katrina bins you also found cigarette butts and roaches / these were gold / these were fire you inhaled down to your lips / once I found cosmetics in a compact case with a tiny mirror / I wasn't looking in there / told you I wasn't asking questions / I scooped out the cosmetic with my fingernail / pure whale oil / that's what my dad said it was / I smeared the oil into the newspaper because the oil burned so hot / such rainbow colored flame / I gazed into a rainbow fire

            a police cruiser rolled down the alley every night / nice and slow / Mutt and Jeff / never did learn their names / they never did learn mine / they aimed their spotlight wherever they chose / I turned my face so they didn't see my scar / they always saw my scar / Mutt and Jeff got out / stood with me at the fire / threw in whatever paper they had / once they threw in raw lumps of coal / who the hell keeps coal in their trunk / who cares / the coal burned so hot so long it could have kept anyone alive / Mutt and Jeff said you're alright kid / you know you’re an alright kid / I said I know no such thing / they leaned closer / said what's your name / I said I didn't know that either / the police came down the alley a lot because the Katrina people were outsiders / because they were a little loud / okay they were really loud / when they fought / when they laughed / there wasn't anything to their noise that made any difference / a sparkler and a candle burn down to identical nothings / the police came anyway / asked me questions about them Katrina people / swung their beams around / they went away

            so the Katrina people found out about the barrel / maybe they were running short like everyone was / I saw them out there / I didn't go at such times / I stood back and watched / I stood back because the Katrina people were laughing / they could find the joke in anything / I'm not saying they were happy / hell no / the Katrina people were in fact very unhappy / unhappy with the cold / it was only December / wait till February / would they still be laughing / no / anyway the joke they were telling was a frozen dogshit joke / I was standing away from the fire because those loud Katrina voices were laughing about dogshit / I figured you're in god-damn Hurricane Katrina / your house is underwater / you're on the roof waiting for help that does not come / garbage is floating by / mattresses / dead bodies / dogs are swimming by / desperate dogs / I got all this from the newspaper / now you're in god damn Denver / you got nothing / the wind down Colfax Avenue picks up anything that isn't frozen in place or pinned under a brick / plastic lawn chairs the government gave you / brittle with cold / shatter in shards / what else can you do but crack a joke / why not start with the dogshit crumbling under the heel of your government-voucher shoes / I didn't go / I saw the barrel / the glow of coal / the government papers whipping into the sky / shedding government sparks / I saw people warming their hands / their silhouettes rippling / their Katrina voices laughing / the cops were there too / tossing in their stinky lumps of coal / pretending to laugh along with the Katrina faces in the flashlight glare / that's when somebody cracks a joke about dogshit / they're talking about dogshit oozing frozen out of a dog's ass / the dog is yowling / another Katrina says that's some real shitting bricks for you / the laughter told me to stay away / here is what happens after a joke like that / the laughter dies down / there’s just enough space in that silence for one Katrina to look over and say hey / Geronimo / where'd you get that scar / I didn't go

            the Katrinas left it smoking like they should / I stoked it up like I told you I could / nothing better than a heartbreaking cold and you being warm in it / the ground was hard ice up to the edges of the barrel / the snowflakes plunged through the rippling heat like it wasn't there / I stood in the cold as long as I could take it / longer than the Katrina people / fuck yes / burning whatever I had / I burned a book from the library / not a total waste / I read it first / tore out the pages as I read them / by chapter five I saw my dad's car wobbling up the alley / one headlight skewed like a lazy eye / I stoked the fire for the next person / walked to where my dad parked the car / picking my steps among the frozen dogshit to get there

            my dad had the sleeping bags laid out for us / him in front / me in back / I did not go to bed straight away / let my dad settle in / I ate what he had brought from the twenty one place / chicken fried steaks / I sat up in my sleeping bag and ate and stared out at the barrel / it glowed from the fire I had left in there / chapters six through twelve were sacrificed / swear I could feel their heat / a pretty Katrina girl wearing a Navy pea coat came to the barrel / the glow lit her face / the dog came up the alley / right up close it came / the Katrina girl reached down to pet the dog   / it ran / she didn't know better

the girl was still there / I fell asleep in my bag / not knowing how long she stayed / how long the fire burned

my dad and I went to the community college three days per week / my dad was taking a class on history of the west / keeping tabs on the dominant paradigm he said / I sat in the back with my hood pulled over my face / listened to the words / after class we showered in the fitness center / we ate samples in the cafeteria / we went to the library for books and a snooze in the reading room / I guess I doubt my dad had paid for that class / on the way home we employed the trick where my dad boards the bus first / hands the bus pass out a window in the back / it wasn't easy for me / sometimes the Colfax wind snatched the pass from my fingers / I had to chase it down / I had to wait in the cold for the next bus / when I got home with the bus pass my dad was already gone / staying warm / twenty one / he wasn't drinking / truth is he was doing dishes for money / he brought home food / chicken-fried steaks / I ate in the back seat / stared out the window / nothing stuck to this glass / if anything stuck it would have been my reflection / I would have punched my fist through / but a punch would have required me to feel / my job was to feel nothing / that's what scars were for / numb as putty / I stared right through that glass and watched the Katrina people laughing at the barrel / nothing of myself

my dad watched me / watched my nothing / he said don't worry /we'll go someday soon / he meant go on / my dad knew it was hard for me / he warned me it was worse up north / the scar on my face told me he was right about that / he said at the end of the term we were heading south / got a cousin in Albuquerque / you betcha

I stared out the window / I carefully remembered my nothing until I was all right again / as long as there was fire I was right / remembering / nothing / I hear my dad's voice burst from his sleeping bag / they take Indian children away / god damn it / they come at the crack of dawn / I could have mouthed the words of this speech / if the window had reflected my face / if I dared to look / I would have seen that I was mouthing the words every time

            I / remembering nothing / saying nothing / feeling nothing / I did not say well you're the one who took me away

            the pretty Katrina girl with the pea coat was alone at the barrel / she was tearing pages from a book / floating them into the fire / I said to myself this is the opposite of telling a story / this is silencing a story forever / I wrapped in my coat / my hat / my scarf / I went out and stood with the Katrina girl / she didn't laugh / she didn't ask me anything / she tore one page after another / crumpled them in her fist / tossed them in / the pages were from a journal / her ink was her dark thoughts / but not so dark / light as watercolor / I didn't inquire / I didn't need to read the words to know everything / every simple thing / am I pretty enough / are my tits nice enough / who's that boy / those thoughts went into the journal / into that fire / easy to think up that stuff / easy to toss it / when the pages were gone she walked away / maybe she went to write more nothings to burn / don't look for symbolism here / she wasn't dumping the past / she burned her journal because she needed to be warm / a fire didn't worry about the past or the future / just feed me now

            she started coming every night / burning pages / I kept her on my left side / away from the scar / we didn't talk / the things we did not say began to describe a truth easy to see / that she didn't have anything going / didn't have anyone / you could see from her spare white pages how alone she was / she used a pencil / barely pressed / you needed light to see her words / but I wasn't looking / I told you / one night she kissed me / feather light and soft / she kissed like the flavor of water / I turned / her lips touched my scar / I didn't flinch / didn't feel it / feeling had got me in trouble before / she stepped back / she tugged her curly black hair over one shoulder / when she let go it sprang back / we watched the burning pages / she said I can write them all over again / she said I know everything / I said there is nothing to know right now / we felt the warmth from the burning pages / the girl forced up some words / she said am I pretty enough / I said don't ever ask that again / she tore another page and threw it in

            one night the Katrina girl said she loved me / I said I loved her too / I liked how it felt to say it / it spooked me to feel love too long / I held her tighter to make it go away / that night we fucked / in the sleeping bags / so cold you couldn't even thrash around / when you moved a little you felt such chill / she was on top of me / riding close / bodies already close as they could be / we kept our socks on / kept our wool caps on / in the dark I couldn't see her face / she couldn't see my scar / good / a lover's face was like a mirror / you knew you were feeling love if she was feeling it too / you didn't want that reflected back at you / hell no / when we were done I hoped she would not talk / lying in the cold and quiet / just the wind against the car / that was enough / we got dressed quick / we went outside / always better out there / the fire only existed in the moment / such was love / you felt like you were in love / you said you were in love / the love was not a lie / she stood in front of me / poked at the fire with a stick / I turned my face from the swirls of sparks the wind whipped up / we stood like that for hours / saying nothing / knowing everything / I dared to tell her how beautiful she was / that was the only thing either of us said all night / so many hours in the dry and cold / her hair had become straight and thick / when she tugged on it / the way she did / her hair did not pull back anymore

            the wind sucked ashes into the sky

            so someone shot holes into the barrel with a gun / Mutt and Jeff came around a lot after that / I never heard who it was / wouldn't tell if I knew / the holes made for great airflow / a hissing noise / a moan when the wind was right / me and the Katrina girl stood at the fire every night / she never asked about my scar / about anything / she burned her pages as fast as she could write them / all that air / what was there to say / I wasn't asking / I wasn't telling either / I did not say that my ancestors carried their fire with them / just as her ancestors carried theirs / I did not say that up north the winter sun hobbled through the southern sky / that / fuck yes / fire was something you held in your hands / like a broken bird / that the same breath that started a fire was the same breath that whispered your name / sang to you in a gravelly cigarette voice / cried / said nothing at all / the same breath that sucked on a cigarette / let it out slow /  knowing what had to be done / my mom took my hard edges / did not smooth them / just knew where they were / that was enough / she took that pain for me / she had burns on her arm to prove it / she sucked on her cigarette hard / bright orange / then dragged that orange color down her arm / I knew it was something she had to do / did I tell the Katrina girl about any of this / I told her nothing / I held my Katrina girl in my arms / nothing

            next time a gun went off / was a night like any other / why did despair need a special night / the silence after the blast meant the person got what he wanted / Mutt and Jeff came / a lot of colored lights came / they took one of the Katrina people away in a bag / told you they were unhappy / the guy's letters kept coming / we found them unopened in the garbage / letters and cards and government forms / he had not told anyone where he was going / we brought the letters to the barrel /  the air whistled through the bullet holes / we opened his letters and read his stories / sometimes there was money in the letters / photos / a crayon drawing of a rainbow after a storm / black folks and white folks holding hands beneath a smiling sun / everything would get better / everyone would be happy again / we read the letters and burned them / the whistling fire grew louder

            the man got a care package and we opened it / Hickory Farms / hard sausage and dried fruit / crackers and jam / Mission figs / Rio Grande pecans / a canned ham that you pried open with a key / we ate the food / we read the letters / it was easy to believe there would always be more letters and more food / more than enough / I guess a person can be loved and despairing at the same time / the flames said feed me now /  we opened a box of chocolates / a little dried / we ate them / the girl leaned against me / tippedback her head / eyes closed / her hair all wavy again / in the heat / I dropped chocolates in her mouth / we laughed

            a letter came for my dad / we had never got a letter before / it was waiting at the post office / general delivery / the state of Montana was looking for him / looking for me actually / child protection services was looking for me / my dad says let's get ready for school / which means let's put on every warm god damn thing we have / and go / forget about the letter / that's what we did / forgetting was something we knew how to do

            we were sitting in the middle of a lecture on the Progressive politics in territorial Colorado / my dad shifted in his chair / his body restless / in that little wobbly lecture-hall chair / drumming his fingers on that small desktop / where you write small thoughts / my dad bolts up / the chair falls around his ankles like unbelted jeans / he yells / fucking loses it / he calls out the dominant paradigm / you betcha / he says what about Sand Creek / Washita / Wounded Knee / Acoma Pueblo / what about the Navajo girls basketball team made to strip and show their genitals / to prove to the white referee they were really girls / before they could play the game

the silence in Metro Community College Room 254 told me we were just two stupid Indians in Salvation Army coats / freeloading off the system / a man bigger than my dad stands / he turns / says I think you'd better go now / my dad says don't tell me to go / I'm leaving on my own / please do / don't tell me please / going wasn't your idea / the man says who are you anyway / this is a question my dad runs away from / grabs my sleeve and runs / yanks me along / I told you / no questions

            in the alleyway we drove past those Katrina people / telling their jokes / my dad says fucking niggers / always coming in and taking over a place / he headed out to his twenty one / I waited shifting in the dark and cold / I was halfway between the Katrina's fire and nowhere / my dad came back with no chicken fried steaks / I knew his job was over / he said where the fuck is that letter / I said I did not know / but I did know / it was in my pocket / I was going to burn it to keep warm

            one night the Katrina girl at the fire began to cry / I said what's wrong / she said you can't possibly understand / she said don't even pretend that you understand / I wrapped my arms around her / she wriggled away / I'm late she said / we didn't talk more / silent like we always were / only more so / the silence / the whistling fire / she poked hard at the flames / jab / jab / with a stick / sending sparks into the sky / she said it again / I'm late / aren't you going to say anything

            I said there was this time / this one time / I paused because the girl came back to lean against me / I said I was living with my mom / pain inhabited her / as blackbirds inhabit a cottonwood tree / I didn't know how to scare stubborn blackbirds away / I went to my mom’s bed / we had mattresses on the floor / rafts in a flood / I asked my mom what's wrong / I should not have asked about wrong because we both knew everything was wrong / her smoky voice said I won't let this happen to you / what did she mean by this / maybe it was pain that she wouldn’t let happen to me / she looks at me a long time / she gathers me close / closer / she pokes my face with a cigarette / says this is how you put out pain / this is how you do it again / the second hurt less than the first / the third hurt less than the second / I knew in this one moment that she loved me / so you see what happens to one who feels / I am pointing to my scar / maybe even touching it /  I can't tell / I can't feel / I say to the girl / this is why I have nothing to say

            the Katrina girl stared hard at the fire / it's okay / she was crying / she jabbed the fire / I felt her back press against me with every jab / I said you don't know what it's like to be me / she said yeah I know / I said no you don't / I snapped / you weren't there / she sobbed and tugged her hair / she said you won't stick it out / I said I'm here right now / she said that's not enough / I told her I didn’t have anything else / here and now was all I could offer anymore

            that fire burned down to a cold nothing / the girl said do you know what I say to folks about how you and I met / I asked her what folks she would tell such a story too / she said I tell them we just knew / like we don't even need to talk sometimes / she said I thought we had something / what / a fucking barrel in the snow / that's what we had  / I did not say what's wrong with that / my arms loosened / she was still there / hard and stiff against me / she wouldn't let me let her go / the fire was ashes now / I had never seen that before / cold black ashes lifted into the air / the girl said I was pregnant once before / I mean I thought I was pregnant / we went to get it taken care of / he was a sweet boy just like you / but I changed my mind / ha / then nothing came of it / you know what/ he never asked about the thing / maybe there was nothing there to ask for

            the Katrina girl fell silent / I told a story about my mom and me / we were at a picnic table outside a church hall / my mom said you think it's so cold but it's hot / there was a thermometer in the window / she held her lighter under the thermometer until the mercury rose / until the mercury popped / the mercury spilled on the table / with our fingers we chased the beads of mercury around / we laughed / waiting for our church meal

            the girl tried writing in her journal again / nothing came / you could see right there on the sheet / she had nothing / her old pages had looked kind of like nothing / these new pages / she really came up with absolutely nothing / she stopped showing up at the barrel / she was gone / all the Katrina people found new places or disappeared like the newspapers promised they would / the people who had sent cards and Hickory Farms found something new to care about / the snowstorms became rains / you could depend on them / orange ash settled on grey snow / melted its way in / tender slushy spots / empty Coors cans began coming up from beneath the snow / the alley became mud every day / dogshit soup / most days the air was so still you could smell your breath stuck around your face / I burned the Denver Post / cereal boxes / drifting smoke / no whistling breeze / I began to forget her face / god damn I hoped she forgot about mine

            my dad found another twenty one place / now he brought home Mexican food / plastic spoons / little packs of hot sauce

            you never live / you abide or you move on / if you're lucky you stay in one place a longer time / it feels like you're living / you're just staying on

            there was another shot / I don't know who / wouldn't say if I knew / I saw the dog in the mud / limping / bleeding / dragging its leg / feeling pain I could not feel / I went for a brick to finish it off/ the dog limped away before I could test the limits of feeling nothing / the cops came of course / to my surprise it wasn't the gunfire that brought them / Mutt and Jeff climbed out of their car / came up to the barrel / came up to me / they carried a sheet with my photograph / an old photograph / before the scar / they put the picture in my hands

that wasn't me / not anymore / one of them said are you Daniel Fast Horse / I said that depends / they said your mom is worried sick about you / I said my mom is worried sick about the whole world / they showed me another sheet / a photograph of her / she is sitting on a rug in a hallway / wherever they take a messed up Indian to get better / she is sitting there / wrapped in a large sweater / tucked in knees / her hands are twisting her straight black hair the way she does when she is dying for a cig / I had to imagine her shape inside that sweater / it hurt to see her and know so much about her / stuff no one else knew / like her thin smile before she remembered everything wrong / swear I could have kissed her cheek and known the heat / bet she was wearing my old NAYA t-shirt under that sweater / that’s the sort of stuff I knew about her / there was a telephone on the wall in the photo / like I was supposed to call her / its cord was extra short so you couldn't / do anything / bad / to yourself / herself

I didn't ask questions but I had to ask myself / was I happier in those days / had I ever been happy / did I remember once being happy in one little moment when I didn't t think about anything bad that had been / anything bad that would be / I used to ask questions / I used to ask was I happy / I used to wait for the answer / I used to wait for yes

            Mutt / or was it Jeff / said here is what will happen / we will come tomorrow / cuff your dad / take you away / I said will this be at the crack of dawn / actually yes / they said / the butt crack of dawn / I said I won't be here / my dad has a cousin in Albuquerque / I was already thinking how warm it must be / the cops said your dad's junker won't make it past Castle Rock / I said what happened to all the Katrina people / if you can find me you can also find them / cops said we don't worry about them anymore / I said but you do worry about me / they said maybe we have a soft spot / I said I don't have any of those / I point to my scar / said I have one of these

            the cops and I parlayed / the fire burned down / the barrel's glow was gone / Mutt and Jeff looked at each other / a long moment / they dug into their soft spot / their soft black wallets / gave me fifty bucks / ones and fives and tens / enough for a Trailways ticket to Billings / up north / they said we like you kid / we hope we don't see you tomorrow / the crack of dawn / they drove away

            I put my photo in the burn barrel / I put my mom's photo in there too / I gave the fire my whispery breath / the flames burst back to life / to heat / but not for long / the ash from those photos began to float / I put in the bills / ones and fives and tens / I put them in /I burned them up / told you all I had was here and now / told you a fire burns until it doesn’t / told you as long as there was fire I stayed


Evan Morgan Williams' stories have appeared in such magazines as Witness, Kenyon Review, ZYZZYVA, and Antioch Review. A collection of his stories won the Chandra Prize at BkMk Press (University of Missouri-Kansas City) and is published as a book. The book later won the gold medal in the IPPY award series. Williams has held a Writers in the Schools fellowship and an AWP Writer to Writer mentorship. He teaches in a high-poverty school in a section of Portland that is simply called "The Numbers."