The acrid smell of smoke was alarming. It woke Jerry from a tormented dream. He was in a strange bed in an unfamiliar room. Orange colors danced across the ceiling and the walls. He thought it was the light coursing through the mottled, ginger colored curtains. He rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. He felt so utterly tired. But the taste of grit and ash on his tongue persuaded him otherwise. Get a drink of water, fool! He had always found berating himself to be an effective motivational force.
Jerry nearly stumbled when moving away from the bed. Near his feet sat a pair of large work boots covered in grime and blackened by dark tar of some kind. He worked his way around the boots toward a small sink with a chipped glass sitting near the faucet. The faucet handle was nearly as grimy as the boots. The sink was stained deeply with rust. Hoping that this was an older indication of bad water he suspiciously watched the water come from its source. Nothing fresh here, brother. What came out was brackish and thick. But Jerry’s mouth was so dry that he thought any liquid might cool his tongue. One good mouthful, buddy, then spit it out. His practiced self-talk did no good. The poisoned water nearly produced a vomit. He spat it out quickly and reached for the soiled towel hanging from a nail on the wall. It reeked of petroleum or something similar.
Jerry could feel his feet becoming strangely hot. He then realized that the floor was much warmer than a floor should be. Those boots are no good for anyone. I’ll just grab my shoes and get out of here. It was difficult for Jerry to see clearly and he thought it best to pull back the curtain enabling him to find his shoes. I must have left them near the door last night. Jerry was wrestling for normalcy. He did not remember coming to this room. He could not imagine why he would be here.
He pulled the curtain open with his left hand. What he saw immediately triggered a horrified gasp and his right hand covered his mouth. The sky was a deep rust color clogged with large plumes of black smoke. What the hell is this?! His eyes scanned the horizon. In the distance he could see the tiny silhouettes of men working furiously on a boat. They were battling a massive blaze that leapt and twisted ever upward from the surface of the water. Closer in, but obscured by roiling smoke, he could make out groups of people slogging over the blackened shoreline toward yet another blaze. Several people lay on the shore apparently exhausted. Everywhere he looked he could see people running and trying to put out fires. Good Lord, where am I?
He remembered the time he had come upon a large burn site high in the mountains. It was eerie then. Once he got out of his car he realized that there was no sound. There was no wind whistling through the branches primarily because there were no branches. There were no animals or insects rustling primarily because there were no animals or insects. He saw deep holes tapering down through the ash and he realized that the fire had raged so intensely that it had burned out even the roots of the trees. The ash clung to his clothes as he walked back to his car humbly mindful of the power and devastation of such a fire.
This was different, though. This was in the midst of fire and the roar of flame pressed against his eardrums even through the walls of the room. From the light searing through the window Jerry saw no shoes he recognized—only the boots by the bed. He jumped into them, leaving the laces untied, and bolted out the door in his undershirt and shorts.
“Get your overalls on, man!” The voice was sharp, fearful and commanding. “We don’t have time to treat your burns! Get back in there and get those on. Hurry!”
Jerry spun around feeling the tiny arrows of hot ash landing on his arms and neck. He quickly fumbled into a pair of overalls he now saw hanging on the other side of the sink. They were far too big for him, but time was of the essence. He had to help. Hanging over the door frame he discovered a beaten hard hat. This fit him perfectly and he fastened the chin strap as he ran out the door.
He couldn’t find the man who had yelled at him, but a sturdy woman was walking up from the lake toward him.
“Yes, I am.”
“We need you on the East shore. Follow the water around until you come to a small building with a porch. It will be the only one with a porch. Now get going!”
Jerry’s running was awkward and slow. He could feel the hardened leather of the boots chaffing at his ankles. That’s going to hurt. Jerry’s eyes grew wider as he galloped toward his goal. Large and small groups of people were working together to put out large and small fires. Some worked with shovels, furtively tossing sand onto the flames near the shore. Others were digging trenches trying to keep the flames from leaping to the trees further inland. But their efforts were pitiful and failing. Tree tops looked like giant fireworks crackling and popping ever upward. Faces gleamed with sweat and reflected the orange glow of the atmosphere. The whites of eyes were no longer white but bloodshot and full of defensive tears. Looking at these eyes Jerry remembered that he needed to blink—his astonishment had kept his eyes open far too long. The instant his lids descended sharp pain lanced through to his brain. He cried out suddenly and loudly, bending over to cover his face with his hands. Oh, God, help me! As he straightened up, tears poured into his eyes attempting to wash away the ash. The tears helped some but the wind from the fires quickly shot more ash into his nose, eyes and ears. He squinted trying to protect his eyes with his lashes.
Ahead and on his left Jerry spotted a small landing protruding from a cloud of smoke. As the pillar of smoke moved toward the trees he could see a building attached to the landing. This must be the building. His heavy boots clomped across the landing and Jerry felt the raw flesh of his ankles. A prune-faced man drew open the door and stared hard at him.
“So, you’re the new one.” The man’s voice was grotesquely pinched and deep. Jerry found it disturbing.
“I suppose I am. But, I don’t . . . “
“Stupid! Of course you’re new! Where was you yesterday?”
“I was in my apartment having a glass of milk before I went to bed. I woke up here.”
“Likely story, beast! You’re working here on this side—under my thumb. Here’s a shovel. See those three men in that hole over there?” Jerry looked in the direction the old man was pointing. “You work there. The water tap is on the other side of the porch. Too many trips to that, though, and I’ll take it out on your hide.”
Jerry had nothing to say under such brutal command. He loped off of the porch toward the men in the pit.
“Screw with me and you’ll pay, fool!” The voice followed him like a dark shadow. No screwing sir. No sir!
When Jerry got to the pit the men looked up at him—but slowly. Their faces were drawn and sad. Their backs were arched from years of hard labor and their shovels were twisted extensions of their hands.
“Hi. I’m Jerry,” he said lightly as he jumped in. “I’m here to help.”
The eldest of the men stopped and leaned heavily on his shovel.
“So, you’re Jerry, eh? Welcome to the club.” Knowing and cynical smiles passed between the men.
Jerry noticed that the largest of the men had boots far too small for him. The laces were gone and the tongues lolled out like spent dogs.
“You want to trade shoes?” Jerry asked almost cheerfully.
All the men suddenly stiffened and looks of sheer terror seized their faces. One of the men slowly raised a finger to his lips. A raspy whisper came from his left.
“You best not ask for such favors here, son.”
Jerry turned and a small man grabbed his elbow, pulling his torso down below the edge of the pit.
“Nobody gets but what he’s got.”
Suddenly Jerry felt very frightened. He moved slowly away from the small man and grasped the shovel handle horizontally with both his hands. He felt a primordial response course through his entire body. He was ready to defend himself.
“We ain’t the enemy here.”
“Then who is?”
“Oh, you’ll know soon enough.” The big man’s voice was deep, solemn and sad as he turned to the others. “We’ve been standing still too long. Let’s get to work.” Then, as if he had done it for years, a terrified Jerry began to dig. He dug as if his life depended on it.
They only stopped working when an ancient horn had sounded. Jerry did not know where it had come from. He felt an immense sense of relief when the other men had ceased their labor, shouldered there shovels and climbed out of the pit. Never in his life had Jerry felt such sheer exhaustion. He had no sense of how long they had worked, only that they had been released from the pit many hours after his shovel first hit the sand. He stumbled to the water faucet on the side of the porch. He gagged as the other men rounded the porch heading west.
It was difficult to recognize which tiny shack was his, until he saw the curtain drawn back from the window. Jerry lurched through the flimsy door. He dropped onto the edge of the bed—the only piece of furniture in the room. He wrestled the boots off of his swollen and bleeding feet. The boots hit the hot floor with a terrible, dark echo. He fell back onto the narrow, filthy bed he had awakened in just that morning. Is there morning here? He turned his head toward the window and saw the flames licking what he thought was the sky. He desperately needed to sleep and his stomach ached, horribly pinched from hunger. No one had offered food or even suggestions on how to get food. He rolled his head away from the window and began to sleep furtively.
The acrid smell of smoke awakened Jerry from a tormented dream. The scar tissue on his ankles rubbed roughly over the soiled mattress as he swung his feet over the edge of the bed. The boots lay near the door where he had thrown them in a rage.