A Burning Need by Jim Gray

pile of wood with axe in one of the pieces

Photo courtesy of Jim Gray.

“This here, this is ash—the Cadillac of firewood.” The delivery guy extends his arm, displaying a stout log in his palm, upright, like a trophy. He’s delivering my yearly two cords of firewood, and he’s picked up on my interest as I eye the mountain of logs just dumped in my driveway. He turns his neck and jerks his chin up, pointing with his forehead to the stack of logs I’d split earlier that day. “What’s with the poplar?” he asks. His look suggests he’s about to inform me that, in terms of firewood, poplar is the Yugo.

“Yeah, I know,” I concede. “I’ll burn anything. I pick it up around the neighborhood after storms knock down trees. Besides, it seasons really fast and it’s free.” He smirks, and I read that he accepts my explanation. After all, he is delivering nearly $600 worth of his own wood.

The deliveryman, Keith, is short but thick-limbed, and his weathered face and scabbed fingers form a matching set. The tattoos displayed on his arms have the softened edges that come from a long life of aging, though I place him at 40 years old, tops. With his oversized, unlaced boots and a flannel shirt roughly divorced from its sleeves, he’s a perfect caricature. The one exception is a ring of tattooed chicks, resembling Easter Peeps, around his right upper arm, the place where a band of barbed wire is more commonly inked. He catches me staring at it, but I don’t say anything. I like this guy.

Because he sells firewood for a living, I assume he shares my enthrallment with fireplaces and the visceral charge from burning wood. I want to bond with him. I want to talk shop and explore the common ground of something inexplicably dear to me, yet I realize that fireplaces are little more than common household amenities, even to diehard wood burners. For me though, they help define a home. They make me feel at home and they bring me peace.

More than any yoga class, meditation session, breathing exercise or benzodiazepine, a fire helps clear my mind. Not for great lengths of time like some Yogi master lost in trance, but staring into the glowing coals and rolling flames of a fireplace is the one activity that will silence my thoughts. It distracts me from myself and allows me to simply be.

Keith, along with his silent, unintroduced helper, grabs logs from the edge of the head-high pile and tosses them through the open gate: phase one of stacking. I join in and test the waters of our common interest.

“I met a woman this summer in Maine who hasn’t once used her fireplace. Northern Maine,” I tell him. “She says she doesn’t want to clean up the mess afterwards and is having the fireplace converted to gas.”

“Useless fucking things,” he responds, shaking his head in disdain and signaling I’ve hit conversational pay dirt. His analogies continue: “A gas fireplace is like non-alcoholic beer or decaffeinated coffee—what’s the point?” He’s had this discussion before.

“It’s like a toupee,” I add. “No matter how realistic it looks, it’s still fundamentally fake.” He smirks again. It’s clear we stand on the same brand of soapbox regarding alternative fuel fireplaces.

The gas versus wood-burning fireplace debate runs the gamut of opinions, including camps firmly on either side as well as those who couldn’t care less. This Maine woman and I defined the former. Addressing her case against the messiness of wood-burning fireplaces, I asked if she didn’t use her kitchen either, not wanting to clean it up afterwards. But there was really no point to my sarcasm. We may as well have been discussing politics or religion, neither able to make a dent in the other’s stance. Despite my passion for authentic wood fires, I grudgingly accept that it’s not a matter of right or wrong. It simply doesn’t work for her, and clearly she’s not alone. Gas, gel-fuel, ethanol biofuel, electricity—nearly anything that burns or simulates fire now stands in for wood in contemporary fireplaces. Hearths and chimneys? They needn’t function beyond ornamentation, if installed at all. Just put the wrought-iron tongs under the wall-mounted fire display and you’re all set.

But what about the rapid-fire snaps and pops of kindling over the whoosh of aggressive flames from a young fire? What about the pockets of radiant coals that develop and evolve, sustaining the flames as the fire matures? What about the satisfaction derived from a single, rejuvenating poke of a fire iron? What about the tumble of burned-through wood, settling into a bed of glowing embers and calling for fresh logs? What about the intense flush of heat on the skin while stoking the fire? And what about the scent? Oh, the scent. The heady, lingering musk of wood smoke actually breeds warmth.

Each fall, while walking through the neighborhood, I become intoxicated by that first whiff of smoke from a fireplace—even if it comes from my own chimney. I bask in it, and from the first chill of autumn to the last cool night in spring, the smell of burning wood permeates my home. My 10-year-old daughter once grumbled about this, repeating a comment she’d received at school: “You always smell like barbeque.” But behind her supposed complaint hid a thinly masked boastfulness. She loves having fires—both my kids do—and they continually ask to make them. Their complaints about the ants in the car from my wood scavenging are sincere, but they know that fires carry the potential for indoor S’mores and sleeping with Dad on the family room floor atop layers of blankets and pillows. It’s camping, minus the mosquitoes.

I decide not to share the marshmallow roasting and family slumber parties with my new man-friend. Instead, I share trivia.

“When I learned that Richard Nixon sometimes made fires in the middle of summer, I decided he wasn’t such a bad guy.”

Silence.

My non sequitur falls flat. Not even a change in facial expression, though I wonder if the one guy speaks English. I reconsider bringing up the S’mores.

“You want this stacked two-deep?” Keith asks, changing the subject and pointing to where I’d piled my previously collected wood. “This is gonna take up some space.”

“That’d be great.” I reply. “I go through a lot of wood.”

He and his partner are here to stack my wood this year, not just dump and leave as in past years, but I feel a discomfort about going inside and leaving them to the work. It’s a familiar, awkward feeling I used to get when paying to have my house cleaned, back when I was married. Hiring someone to do work I’m fully capable of doing—to clean up the messes that result from nothing more than living—implies that my time is too valuable to spend on such chores, and the implication makes me uneasy, regardless of the truth. Also, stacking wood is a purely physical activity, and going inside feels unexpectedly emasculating. Besides, I’m bonding and feeling like a bit of a team with Keith and his mute assistant. I throw another log from the pile. A big one.

“Do you heat your place with wood?” I ask Keith.

“Nah, at least not intentionally,” he chuckles, looking down. “Some days I have to open the windows it gets so damn hot inside from the fires I burn. My wife always shakes her head, but nothing wrong with a little fresh air in winter, right?” I agree, being guilty of the same thing and comforted to know I’m not alone in doing so.

“You got two fireplaces in there?” he asks, gesturing toward the asymmetrical chimney on the side of the house.

“Yup, and I use both of them. They’re what sold me on the place,” I tell him.

It seems so long ago now. I purchased the house a couple years ago after a hurried and disorienting search—I was getting a divorce. My wife had reached the conclusion that her happiness would thrive if I lived elsewhere, and as uncertainties hijacked my life, I ached for some stability, a new place to call home for me and my kids. I had just two criteria for a new house: 1) it had to be close enough to my ex to share custody, and 2) it had to be cheap enough for even the sketchiest of lenders to write me a mortgage. Beyond that, what I hoped for was separate rooms for my two kids, a yard of any size I could garden in and, of course, a fireplace.

All of this came together in a little box of a house—a soulless, mid-fifties model home, euphemistically described as “quaint” by the real estate company and disparagingly as “the least popular model in the neighborhood” by my own agent. Regardless, the place met all my basic needs and I was quick to point out its distinguishing feature, the one curiosity separating it from the otherwise identical models on the block: two fireplaces. My agent reversed his lack of endorsement and mimicked the interest I displayed—the way you must when you’re in sales—and ultimately managed to seem genuinely happy for me. Or perhaps I just misread his relief. The emotional mess that was my house search had ended.

Though I’d secured a place to live, my own relief was slight. I felt disjointed. I’d accepted that I would not grow old with my wife, but it finally sunk in that I would not grow old there, in the house we had shared, where I’d buried the string of goldfish and jumped till dark on the trampoline and begun my life as a Dad. “I’m leaving this house in a casket,” I used to say. Instead, I was leaving in cardboard boxes with U-Haul and Gallo printed on them. I couldn’t visualize myself in this new, foreign home, and trying to only made my heart race.

I moved in during a sweltering weekend in late July. The anticipations that come with a new space, such as how to arrange the furniture I had to repurchase, were squelched by the dread of spending that first night alone, away from my kids. I knew there’d be tears. I feared there’d be a panic attack. I’d ceased feeling at ease in my old home, but it was the devil I knew, and the ties to the life I’d lived and memories I’d created there with my children had not yet been cut. I clung to this. I feared change. Yes, I’d been unhappy in my marriage, and I saw this with increasing clarity. But when I so chose, when I needed solace, I could still wedge myself at the foot of my son’s bunk bed, contorted like a Gumby around the sprawled wee limbs of his five-year-old frame. But not this night. I was in exile, and what I’d relied upon for comfort would now be metered out on Tuesdays and every other weekend.

Surrounded by bare walls and my boxed life, I knew I had to stay busy. Rather than unpack, I abandoned the boxes and headed outside to scavenge for wood. Silver maples overhung the property and littered the lawn with cast-off twigs. Kindling. Along the side of the house lay a row of forsaken firewood. The logs were old, the color of coffee and punky from too many seasons of exposure, but they would do. I searched the top layer for dry pieces and banged them against the pile, trying to knock off the rot infesting the undersides. I gathered as much as I could carry and lugged it to the family room.

I assembled the twigs on top of the grate, followed by the firewood dregs, cross-stacking logs to just below the flue handle. A box I’d labeled “kitchen” provided newspaper to start the fire. I unwrapped some dishes and stuffed the better part of a Sunday Post under the grate. I lit the match and brought it to the edges of the crumpled Style section. As the flames spread upward, I took off my sweat-drenched clothes and inched back, away from the increasing heat. The wood burned. I sat. I stared as the fire ran its course, the logs eventually crumbling into coals and lighting the room now dark from nightfall. The fire was familiar.

I can’t say this first night had me singing Kumbaya, but neither did it warrant the dread I’d attached to it. The tears were few. The panic attack never materialized. And despite holing up inside, I met my first pair of neighbors. Rather, I waived hello through the big, curtainless picture window. They had looked up from the sidewalk, and I questioned making eye contact and acknowledging them. But they waved back, welcoming me, the new guy, sitting in his underwear on the floor of his empty family room, air conditioning pushed to its limit, and the smell of fall wafting from his chimney.

I begin to share the last part of the story with Keith, my amusing anecdote, but all of it comes out—the first night I spent in the house, the fireplace I christened to keep me company, the moments of peace I felt staring into the flames and, finally, the underpants “Howdy” I gave to my new neighbors. I thought to share only the wave, but I realize it’s incomplete by itself. There’s more to the story. It’s personal.

To my relief, Keith smiles. He says nothing, however, and I sense that he’s still chewing on the tale I unfurled. I didn’t know what kind of response to expect, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of his silence, but somehow, in some way, I think he gets it.

jim gray Jim Gray lives in Kensington, Maryland, where he runs a one-man graphic design business from home, and enjoys both his 10-foot commute and the freedom to work 15 hours a day. He spends his spare time over-thinking his life and has recently begun to translate this indulgence into the written word. Jim’s other work can be found on the bottom tray of his Canon desktop printer.

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  • Mary Mo

    Love. You had me at fireplace…

    Great writing style, vivid descriptions, moves along nicely for this reader. Refreshingly open with your emotions and process of a difficult time. Hard to believe a woman from Maine doesn’t appreciate a fire!?! This one sure does.

    Thanks Jim….

  • Tina Frank (mom,s friend)

    Great story and a wonderful story teller. I really enjoyed it very much.
    Looking forward to future stories.

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  • Tony Phong Senser

    Good stuff, Jim. Really enjoyed this one.