Well, here we go. The first of some of my short stories I would like to share with you. I hope you enjoy it.

My neighbor Jack.

Jack was cool, in his own way. Not cool as in hip, which he was not, though he had an ear for good jazz. He was cool because, well, he was just himself, which, for his time, was something. Jack was a product of the first quarter of the twentieth century, born in the early twenties, lived through the depression, served in World War Two, made a family in the fifties.
I really started to know him in the late fifties and these stories take place then, and on through the late sixties, where I lost track of him. Much my loss.
The first story I would like to tell you is of Jack and his burning can. I remember it like this...

Jack lived with his wife and children in a modest Cape style home, built just after the war, on a road carved through what was an ancient apple and pear orchard. It was not your typical post war development, just a collection of similar houses, randomly scattered through a meager patchwork of roads, all of which were named after types of apples. Baldwin, Ohio, Wealthy, Jackson, Salisbury, Duchess. There were only about ten houses on Jack’s street, and the properties were all backed by about a two hundred foot deep stretch of woods, which fronted on the street behind. He took advantage of the lack of tenants in the woods behind his house, and cleared out a swath about thirty feet deep across the back of his property, sort of an extension of his back yard. This gave him a place to drive a pair of stakes into the ground so he could play horseshoes with anyone game enough to challenge him. He was pretty good at the game, and when it was on you would hear a pretty regular “clink” as he hit his usually consistent ringers. The task of clearing the property, though, left a good pile of brush and tree parts that needed to be disposed of, so he found an old fifty five gallon drum and set it up behind his garage in the clearing. It sat on a trio of cinder blocks and he had taken a pick axe and knocked a row of holes around the bottom for draft. He set to burning the refuse and had it reduced to a pile of ash over a weekend. Now most people would have been satisfied to leave it at that, but the burning can became something of interest to him. I guess he figured the can just couldn’t sit there, unused and rusting away, so he began to clean out the underbrush of the woods behind his clearing and burned that. The clearing of the woods took him several months to accomplish and when it was done, there were a series of paths through and around the old apple and pear trees, and the few giant maples and sweetgums that had sprouted and grew, unworried for years unknown. It was like a little park, where you could walk and enjoy the woods, eventually circling back to the clearing. His kids and their friends loved it and the woods would ring with yells and laughter of the games of tag and hide and seek. Sometimes there were great games of “Army” with plastic helmeted kids touting plastic rifles and Tommy guns to route the evil Nazis. The hard, unripe apples and pears made fantastic hand grenades, and many a battle was halted to attend to a good knock in the face or head with one of the missiles, and resumed when the tears had stopped and the effect of a good parental finger wagging wore off. It was also a great place to chase and catch fireflies on a summer’s evening, the bounty collected in old mason jars, which made fairy like lanterns to light the way on the paths. It also gave Jack a great pile of fodder for the can, and he spent many an evening after work burning it away. Now, this is where it got a little strange. The nightly burning had become a ritual, and when the brush pile ran out, Jack started looking for other offerings to burn.

It was early one Friday evening, in late July, when Jack appeared in the open doorway of my garage, while I was fiddling with something or other on the workbench.
“Hey, what are you doing?”, he asked.
“Nothing much, just horsing around with this piece of crap”, I replied, though for the life of me, I can’t remember just what particular piece of crap it was.
I paused a moment and looked him over. He was wearing his usual after work clothes; green work pants, a moth eaten tee shirt and old brown shoes, speckled with years of paint. His jet black hair was combed in his usual style, long in front and swept back over his head, a stray strand hanging in his face just to remind him he was at leisure now, not at work. In his mouth was the usual unfiltered butt, the smoke curling up around his head.
“You want to come down and have a cup of coffee?”, he asked. “I got some wood I want to burn”.
“Yeah, sure, I could use some joe. Let me get my hat.”
I retrieved my old red work hat, it’s own collection of paint samples rivaled Jack’s shoes, and we headed up the street to his place.
“You been clearing out more of the woods?”
“Nah, I just have some old two by fours to get rid of.”
“Been doing some building?”
“No, I found them in the garbage on the way home and threw them in the trunk.”
In the mind of a more rational person, this should have set off some sort of alarm, but I was thinking about having some coffee and a cigarette and how to get out of having my ass kicked at horseshoes, just in case the challenge was offered. It never really registered.
As we hoofed around the hedges at the end of his driveway, there was his ‘52 Chevy coupe, the load of lumber sticking out of the trunk. Jack untied the rope that kept the lid down and said,
“Take some of this crap around back while I go make some coffee”, and he turned heels and went in the back door. So, I grabbed an armful of the stuff and carted it around the back of the garage and let if fall next to the burning can. I was back at the car getting a second load when he came out of the door, percolator and two cups in hand. He breezed right by me as I gathered up the rest of the wood, and I followed him around back. I dumped the second load on top of the first one, and turned around to have a cup of steaming black coffee thrust at me. It was straight from the pot and any normal person would have spent a few minutes blowing over the top of the cup in a futile effort to cool it down, but not him. He was the only guy I knew that could draw a cup from the pot, drink it down and pour a second to chase it with. A mere mortal would be nursing the scalded roof of his mouth with his tongue, but not Jack. I sometimes wonder if he had any nerve endings in his mouth or if they had been long since disabled by the constant attack of boiling coffee and harsh cigarette smoke.
At my own peril, I took a quick sip and put the cup down on one of the cinder blocks sticking out from under the can. I started to pick up some wood and he said,
“Sit down and relax and drink your coffee. I’ll take care of this”.
I took my cup, sat on the ground against the back wall of the garage, shook a butt from my pack and lit it. The master took to work.
He bent over, stuck his head down into the can, withdrew, put his hands on his hips and looked at the pile of lumber.
“Needs some kindling. Be right back”.
He repaired to the garage and came back with an arm full of thin scrap wood, and a few pieces of newspaper, which he crumpled up and lowered into the can while bending almost completely over into it, and arranged it just so. Returning to light, he selected a few short pieces of wood from the supply of kindling and placed them into the can as well. Then he selected a few short hunks of lumber, put them into the can with the same attention, then paused, stepped back and said,
“That should do it”.
They were the last words he spoke that evening.
It was getting on to full dark by now, as he stood there, hands on his hips, looking at the can. He picked up his cup, took a good swig of coffee, then put the cup back down. He fished his cigarettes out of his shirt pocket, shook one out, placed it between his lips and withdrew the pack back to his pocket. He fished around his pants for his matches, found them, pulled one out and struck it. He lit his cigarette, took a puff and walked over to the can holding the lit match. Peering into the can, he dropped it strategically in, turned around and came over and stood beside where I sat, leaning on the wall. Well, I stared at the can for a while and seeing no action, started to get up to throw another match in and he stopped me with a wave of the back of his hand. I sat back down, staring at the can. After a minute I saw a faint, orange flicker in one of the draft holes. It got a little brighter, and a thin curl of smoke crawled up over the rim. This was followed by a little lick of flame, then another, and another, until a modest little fire had announced itself, and it grew to a decent blaze. Jack pushed himself away from the wall and walked back over to the can. He fed in a few bigger pieces of wood, to which the fire showed it’s appreciation by growing up over the top of the can. He stepped back a few feet and stood there, hands in pockets, watching the flames. Once in a while there would be a loud crackle, and sparks would spiral up into the night sky. He would tilt his head back to watch them, as they flew away, giving the last of the summer’s fireflies some competition, then lower his attention back to the flames.
I sat there for a while watching him and his fire, and decided I should get along home. I stood up and said,
“I’ll see you later, Jack, thanks for the joe”, to which he responded with a wave of his hand. I knew that was all the conversation I was going to get, so I walked up to his back porch, put down my empty cup and turned for one more look.
There he stood, hands in pockets, cigarette in his mouth, communing with his fire. I smiled, turned around and walked home.

I had thought at one time that Jack was turning into a minor league pyromaniac, as he continued to hawk for wood and spend the odd evening at the burning can. It became somewhat satisfying to smell the wood smoke wafting down the street on a summer’s night, I knew he was at his glory. I came to realize, though, that he was just finding his peace. Men find their peace in many ways. Some find it in their heart, some find it in their mind. Others find it in their gods. Many travel far to find their peace. Jack just had to go out back and find his in the burning can.


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