A steel mill scabbed the pasture. Its stacks jabbed the low-slung sky, pointer fingers, or middle fingers spiking from the raw-knuckled factory roof, goddamning the locked gates and rotting lots and whatever had cut its hands from production. The compound looked like a castle when I loosened my eyes and thought of Transylvania. The women I was staying with had told me that junkies and scavengers scoured the site for copper and nickel. Live wires still veined the place and made their work uncertain. A welder had sculpted a twelve-point buck from the less perilous salvage. The trophy head arched three stories high, its neck sprouting from a boiler, the tips of its antlers visible from the porch where I squatted, swilling gin and waiting for the women to return.
Wood smoke cracked the air. Imitation brick hung in strips from the house across the street. A car with bumper stickers stopped in front of the house. Kids got out and looked up and down the street, trying not to see me. They creaked up the porch and reached for the screen door. A shout met them and they skittered back into the car. It pulled up to the next block and the kids got out and entered a demolished doorframe. “Get off my goddamn porch,” the homeowner shouted. He cracked the screen door and looked around and went back inside. The women had told me to stay on their porch. I took a hit and whistled at a bird through numb lips. Another car drove by. The driver seemed to see the first car and squeaked to a stop behind it. The car idled. A man got out of the back seat and stood by the first car. He leaned back on the passenger side and tried the handles. He scoped the street and scooped something from the curb. I slouched out of sight. He straightened and bricked out the passenger window. The kids shouted from the condemned house. The man got in their car and got it started and squawked away with the other vehicle. The kids unspooled from the stoop and chased the caravan around the block, spilling plunder.
Wood smoke clotted the gusts. I took a hit, mingling the coniferous gin with the smoldering smell tingeing my palate. The screen across the street slapped open and the homeowner stepped out, “Hey, man,” he said, “you got a phone?” I looked around the porch and shook my head. A car thick with chrome and tint coursed the street and wheeled around the barricaded middle school. I tried to whistle. I caught an acrid flavor in the air, like someone was burning trash. The homeowner burst out the screen door, lugging a footlocker and a suitcase. Smoke wisped around him, trellised against the doorframe like dark vines. We stared at each other. I took a hit. He dumped his luggage and plunged back in. Flames slithered between the shingles and the roof sloughed smoke. Cinders popped from the chimney. He kicked the screen from its hinges and dropped a mini-fridge and a stack of LPs on the lawn. He dredged out a TV, a bicycle, folding chairs and a folding table, handfuls of silverware, a hotplate, a baseball bat draped with clothes, a single mattress streaked with smoke, a sewing machine, and toy trucks and dolls. He dropped each haul a little further from the blaze. I could hear fire gnashing the structure. He stumbled out of the gaping inferno, trailing flame and soot like some demon shit from a nightmare. He smacked out the flames and added a coat tree and welcome mat to the rescued articles in the street, righting the kitchenware and furniture, stacking a yard sale. “You want any of this shit?” he said. “I’ll sell it cheap.” Fire engorged the house, spilling from windows and finding new exits. I had to shade my face from the heat. A section of the roof collapsed, splintering into the sky. “Well, fuck you,” he said. “You drunk motherfucker.” I inclined the bottle at him. He left his heap of things and leaned on the stoop. “You don’t have no phone?” he said. I pointed the bottle. He took a hit, “Fuck it, then.” I waved him on and he swilled a long one and wiped his mouth. We sat passing the bottle until flames started to stand out against the dusk. Sirens coming. A husk cradled the embers. A hoop of burnt grass girdled the wreck and smaller fires had sprung up on the next-door roofs. The sirens swelled. He shoved off to stand by his salvage. Lights swirled down the corridor of darkening homes like a fireball, paling as they pulled up in front of the real thing. Firemen swung from their rig, hooking up hoses and cinching gear. I saw the homeowner talking with the chief. He pointed to the smoldering hulk and then at his scraps. The chief marked a pad and nodded along. Jets of forced water hit the flames like a pit of snakes. The chief took out a wallet and picked a couple LPs. She bought the fridge and a lieutenant hefted it into the rig. The homeowner circulated among the firemen. The TV went and the hotplate and the folding table and chairs and most of the rest and when I loosened my eyes the fire truck looked like a moving van for hell. The homeowner mounted his bike. He caromed the length of the empty street and hooted like a surfacing miner.