He comes home smelling of cold coffee, smoke, and ash. I roll over, and through slitted eyes, study the exaltation sparking through him. There is no sign of exhaustion as he sheds his heavy coat and pants. His reflective gear patches glint in a ladder of moonlight, his beat-the-chest bearing signaling the pride he feels in being a volunteer fireman, his need for heat and pressure and chaos.
He paces, stopping only to stare out the window at the town’s water tower for the briefest of minutes, his muscles ticking with excitement, then resumes his strut.
I think back, the two of us on a beach in Florida, a huge bon fire keeping us warm, how he danced around it like a cowpoke in some old Western, kicking up sand, chortling war cries. We made love and fell asleep until the incoming tide doused the flickering embers and the cold crept in.
When we first met, I asked him why he volunteered. He told me he grew up in a small town near the Minnesota border surrounded by corn and soybean fields. In June, most of the 220 citizens gathered down by the creek where a bit of flat land served as the town park to celebrate the summer solstice, bringing with them paper lanterns the lady missionary brought back from China. The third year, a dry-drought year, a lantern landed in a weedy ditch, near a dead burr oak. The fire swept through cornfields and burned three farm buildings, two houses, and an old man before the beleaguered town folk could put it out.
Finally, exhausted, my husband lowers himself onto the mattress. I touch his naked waist. I want to tell him about our son, but he turns, a grin of triumph on his face, and grabs my shoulders, pressing me back, climbing on top, his lips hot and blistered.
When we finish, tangled in dank sheets, I turn my back, weary and ashamed. I lay awake, remembering yesterday’s autumn air on my cheek, the drift of soil and hay and sweet cut grass in my nose, calling out for our son. I strode around to the front of the house and saw him near the porch, our big rake wobbling above his head, doing what he’s seen his father do a thousand times, piling up the fallen leaves.
I smiled, proud of his industry, and was about to tell him so when he dropped the rake and squatted down. I wondered what creature he might have spied, a worm, a pill bug, a cricket, but stepping closer, I saw him drop a flaming match over the mound of leaves. I saw him jump and dance.