Bones in the Bucket
Most women standing on their front lawns look upset, and this one was no exception. It’s not a natural place for a girl there in the middle of the grass, not mowing or raking or weeding or tanning or passing out beers but just there, awkward, like it’s someone else’s house and she hasn’t been invited. This one was standing alone, bundled up, answering the Chief’s questions as we buzzed around her property like snow bees. The Chief, as usual, was calm as shit, but this woman kept talking way too loud, agitated. He was standing right there, it’s not like he couldn’t hear her.
“I said I don’t know, I went to the pile to get more logs and I seen the fire coming out of the chimney.”
I’d seen this a ton of times. This was just another boring call for me and the rest of the guys. The same old stupid fire that could have been prevented with a cheap cleaning that took literally ten minutes, and the right sort of wood, hard and seasoned, not this cheap shitty green pine stuff cut down yesterday that builds up creosote until it ignites.
For four years, ever since I was old enough, I’d gotten in my dad’s car as soon as I heard the sirens to go see what neighborhood knucklehead almost burned their house down this time. My mom thought that was funny and started asking me, when I came home, for Wolfy’s Knucklehead Report. We laughed about it unless someone’s house got really damaged or someone was hurt, which didn’t seem to happen that much. When it did, there’d be a collection at the Four Corners pretty much the next day, with everyone stopping by to throw dollar bills in a jar. Printed flyers would go up at the grocery store advertising a chicken dinner fundraiser at the town hall next week.
This was a regular day for us, but this lady was freaking out. I could tell she was shaking over there, asking the Chief if her house was going to be okay. She was in her thirties, maybe her forties. I’m not good at guessing people’s ages, but I do have kind of a thing for older women, not that I’d ever tell anyone, but I think they’re sexy. Experienced, or something. It was hard to tell exactly how old she was with her white fluffy hat pulled down over the top half of her face and her dingy puffy coat zipped up over the bottom half. Her eyes were really light blue. She wasn’t wearing gloves and I could see that her hands were getting red and she wasn’t wearing a ring. I got the feeling she lived here alone.
“It looks like everything’s fine now, I’m sorry to bring you guys out here. You can go if you want.”
The Chief shook his head no, not yet. The boys had already checked the attic and the roof, no signs of spread, which was good news. But we still had to drop a couple of chimney bombs to make sure the flame was all the way out. Scrape out the rest of the residue. I kind of hung back at the truck and waited for someone to give me the signal that I could go in and do my thing. They stuck me with cleaning out the woodstoves and fireplaces when I first started, because it’s grunt work and no one else wanted to do it, but I didn’t mind it and then it became “Wolfy’s Job.” Brady shouted over that I could get started, so I grabbed my metal buckets and the shovel and the brush and headed in.
The house, inside, was kind of cool. Like there were bright colors on the walls, which I wasn’t expecting, this pumpkiny orange color and a goldy yellow. Almost too hip for this place, where people seemed to have all decorated their houses about twenty or thirty years ago and just left it at that. It made me wonder, like, what she did for a living or why she was out in the middle of nowhere. Why had I never seen her out somewhere, at Grant’s or the Valley Inn? Did she work weird hours? Was she in the house all day alone? Maybe she was an artist or a house decorator, or she had some disability and couldn’t work, like my dad with his back. Maybe she had that thing where you’re scared to go outside. Maybe she had a shitty divorce and liked bright colors because they cheered her up.
I scraped out all the wood and ash and embers, fast enough so that I wasn’t holding up anybody else’s job, but careful enough that I didn’t make a mess. Usually I’m less careful, because there’s already ash on the floor or you can tell they aren’t people who care about a clean floor, but this house was nice and I already felt bad enough that I was wearing my slushy boots inside. I filled up one and a half buckets and lugged them to the front door, brought them outside and got to work making sure nothing was hot anymore. I shouted up to Brady that he could get started with the chains.
As I put a little bit of water in the bucket, mixing it around, I noticed something I don’t usually see, something whitish mixed in with the charred logs and coals. A smooth twig. It took me a second to realize it was a bone, maybe a rib. This happens sometimes – a squirrel or a chipmunk falls down the chimney. That’s country living, my mom will say. Or maybe what had happened was, she had found a dead mouse in the basement that stunk to high heaven and she didn’t want to wait until the garbage dump opened on Saturday to get rid of it. So she dropped it in the fire and let the thing burn to a crisp.
I saw her looking over at me, maybe twelve feet away, still shivering and worried on the lawn. Maybe why she was nervous because there was a bone in the bucket. Maybe she thought I would judge her for burning up a rodent. I wasn’t judging, though. I thought it was kind of bad ass. She shouted over at me.
“Is that the ashes? You can just dump them over by the garage. It’s wet. It’s fine.”
That was nice of her to offer, but I knew better. She’d be calling us in an hour when her garage was burning down, and then I’d be in big trouble for being a knucklehead. I didn’t want to disagree with her since this was her house and these were her ashes, technically, but I had a job to do. I nodded, kind of acknowledged “I heard you,” then went back to mixing in the water.
There was another bone, very bone-ish looking. It was a teeny arm, upper and lower, with fingers on one end. Like the human skeleton in the biology classroom but about a billion times smaller. It was cool, I would have shown it to the Chief, but he was up on the roof with Brady, dropping the chain down the chimney and getting ready to spin it around and shake down whatever creosote was left. I hoped whoever was inside working the bottom of the chain would keep things clean. So much crazy shit comes falling down out of an old chimney, it’s disgusting.
Then she was right up next to me.
“Please be careful,” she said.
I could see in between her hat and her coat that she was actually really pretty, a few crinkles next to her eyes, and I thought that if this lady lived here by herself only about ten minutes from my house, and she would be interested in a younger guy, even for something casual, I should try to make this happen. Maybe she’d give me her number and we could get together sometime.
She started crying before I could make my move.
This happened a lot on fire calls, always someone really freaked out because we’re all taught that fire is such a scary thing. Even though people used to live in houses with open flame, heating up the place and boiling water and cooking food. Most fires we deal with are small, nobody dies and there’s only a little damage, but people are yelling and sobbing like it’s the end of the world. Maybe if kids had to learn in school how to start a fire, and how to put it out again, everyone could calm down and handle it with dignity like the pioneers or the cowboys or the cavemen.
“I know there’s bones in there. It’s my gerbil.”
Okay, honest to God, I didn’t know whether to laugh or back away slowly.
“He died a couple of nights ago. It was my fault. I had the cage near the window and it got too cold. I guess he froze to death.”
That was a weird as hell explanation, but I kind of understood. She was having a moment for the gerbil, doing a cremation thing to honor the dead. Then her chimney lit on fire and she got interrupted in the middle of it. Maybe she was having a ceremony with candles and stuff. No wonder she was emotional.
But still. A gerbil. That was weird. Not weird enough to stop me from wanting to masturbate about her later that night, quiet under the covers, assuming my mom can’t hear anything since she’s downstairs on the couch because of dad’s back. Imagining her light blue eyes, looking right into mine as she touches me and whispers what she wants me to do to her inside her pumpkin house.
But still. Weird.
I wanted to reach out and touch her, stroke her arm or wipe away a tear, which sounds so ridiculous, because I had on my big thick gloves and they were covered with ash, so I stood there like an idiot while this poor woman cried. The guys pulled up the chain and came down the ladder, and I didn’t want her to look like a mess in front of the entire department on top of accidentally killing her own pet, remembering every time she passed one of us at the post office that we had seen her sobbing on her own front lawn. So I grabbed both bucket handles in one hand and her bare hand with the other and led her through the snow to the garage.
I dumped the bones and ash onto the ground, first one bucket and then the other. Then I kind of pulled her by the waist right up next to me, both of us facing the pile. The guys were loading stuff back into the truck and couldn’t see us. I felt like I had to say something to shut her up.
“Say a prayer,” I said.
At first she leaned her head over onto my shoulder, or at least right up against it, since I was taller than she was. Then, after a second, she just dropped to her knees, right there in the drift. She was really feeling for this gerbil. This gerbil she wasn’t even careful enough to keep away from the window in the middle of winter. What sort of a grown person has a gerbil, anyway, I thought to myself as tears dripped off her cheeks, making stinging sounds as they hit the ice. Where would you even get one in this town when we don’t even have a pharmacy or a movie theater.
The truck started up. I didn’t want to interrupt her but I wanted her to know that it would be okay and that I wasn’t going to judge her. I couldn’t hug her while she was on the ground so I patted her on top of the head like she was a kid, leaving soot on her fluffy white hat. She still looked cute with her face all red. I jogged back over to the truck, buckets clanking.
Bizzy Coy used to be a writer in Brooklyn and is now a writer in the wilderness of upstate New York. This is her first published fiction.