Fire Road

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2001-10-01
  • Publisher: Univ of Iowa Pr
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Stephen Mann-- loyal son, war veteran, divorced father--is the subject of Donald Anderson's contemporary short-story cycle,Fire Road.In this award-winning collection, Mann negotiates life's punches through gain and loss, love and death, and the all too random dangers of being human. Woven between each personal story are poetic vignettes of isolated moments-- the headlines in a morning paper, a political murder--and the century's most violent tragedies--the bombing of Hiroshima, the firestorm at Dresden. Each vingette is a constant, powerful reminder of the human capacity to love and, ultimately, to destroy. A bruising view of one man's tumultuous journey through life,Fire Roadexplores the small and large crimes we all commit in the name of love and fear, despair and longing.

Author Biography

A former U.S. Air Force officer, Donald Anderson teaches creative writing at the U.S. Air Force Academy.  He is the editor of aftermath: an anthology of post-vietnam fiction, Andre Dubus: Tributes, and War, Literature and the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities.  Anderson is also the recipient of a Creative Writer's Fellowship Grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. He lives in Colorado Springs.

Table of Contents

My Name Is Stephen Mann
Wonder Bread
The Art of Fiction
Scaling Ice
Would You Feel Better?
Barrie Hooper's Dead
Twenty Ways to Look at Fire
Fire Road
The Peacock Throne
The End of Times
Barrie (cont.)
Baby Teeth
Barrie (cont.)
Endnotes 185(2)
Epilogue 187(4)
Appendix 191(5)
Epilogue (cont.) 196


Chapter One






Aboard a troopship from Calais to New York, after the Great War, my grandfather Arthur said he'd made up his mind to get rich. "Got it stuck in my nut to get rich. Alaska ."

In the lunar landscape of Mormon Utah, Arthur hailed his father, but Johann refused to stake a northern search for mere gold-- earthly gold --though he offered Arthur, his youngest, a son's share of the farm in exchange for work. "Godly toil," Bishop Mann pronounced. "Fruitful labor."

"Shook my father's hand," Arthur said, "then I turned to tramp east. I turned to track down Jack Dempsey. I unloaded on him; he unloaded on me. A piece of action costs. I should know." Arthur meant the browned teeth on the night table in the saucer. These teeth he'd saved did look as if they'd been snapped at the gum line, just as Arthur explained, not loosened. The dried teeth had no weight, but when I cupped the six in my palm, I'd pretend they made my hand sink.

"Spoiled my smiler," Arthur said, "but he staked me."

Arthur had told me his stories. I knew about the futile search for gold, knew about the Dempsey stake--the cherished snapped teeth--the hard trudge to Alaska (the harder trudge home), the two-year moose diet, the amazing weather.

Arthur pointed at the teeth. "Three months with the champ, but he staked me."

In 1919, Jack Dempsey was training to fight Jess Willard. My grandfather claimed Jack fought that fight--the World's Heavyweight Championship Fight--with cracked ribs. "Jack hired me to harden his body," Arthur said. "What I did was crack his ribs. The ribs was cracked when he went in to fight Jess. I cracked 'em."

I believed my grandfather had been a better fighter than he said. "You cracked Jack's ribs," I said whenever he told the story. A singer in his church, I sang: "You cracked 'em."

"Outweighed, one ," Arthur said, "outreached, there's two , busted up with his own broke ribs," he said, fanning the fingers of a hand, keeping count, "that's three --Jack almost murdered Jess."

Years after when I checked the facts, I found Arthur had reported the truth. The Jess Willard Jack Dempsey destroyed had been a giant: the tallest boxing champion of all time. The writers wrote no boxing king had ever been so dethroned.

Jack clubbed Jess to the canvas seven times in the first round, then clubbed him for two rounds more. When the bell rang for round four, Willard couldn't respond. His jaw was broken, his left cheek was smashed, his right ear pulped and permanently deafened. The ribs housing Willard's lungs sagged like belts. In the end, Willard couldn't see the blows. Jack'd punched Willard's eyes shut. Jack Dempsey. The champion my grandfather slugged for three months. Jack--fifty-eight pounds lighter, five inches shorter, outreached by six--had all but murdered Jess.

Willard couldn't answer the bell. The nerve lines from his brain to his legs and to his arms were down. Under a hellish sun--120 degrees ringside--Willard's fists hung like sacked flour. Willard couldn't see, breathe, hear, spit. He couldn't stand. He couldn't lift his fists.

I looked up pictures of the match. Jack's sunburned arms look machined, bolted on: the arms of a man who could wreck you. Willard lasted three rounds with Jack. My grandfather lasted three months. Every day, Arthur and Jack punched each other.

"Jack bombed on me," Arthur said.

"You bombed him."

"I bombed him."

Arthur claimed he'd watched Dempsey straighten a horseshoe with his hands. Arthur swung his bare feet from the bed, over the side of his bed to the floor, then thrust his clenched fists toward me, then pulled, straightening the imaginary U to a bar.

"You saw it," I said.

Arthur placed his hands again into the empty air before him. He grunted, then pulled on the U.

"You saw it."

"I threw terrible rights," confided Arthur. "I was terrible to the body." But Arthur meant terrible as in TERRIBLE rights. Heart-breaking rights. Bone-breaking.

* * *

"Drank my own hooch," my grandfather said, "knew where it was made and who made it." Arthur raised his half glass of Jim Beam to better catch the light from his window. Arthur studied the commercial booze, sighting through. "Not this. No chemical. Just the natural pure growth of corn." Arthur lowered his glass without drinking. With his bridges out, my grandfather looked as I believed Willard looked after Dempsey smashed him.

"How old?"

My grandfather knew, but I said it: "Fourteen."

"You had a cooker and a cooler," my grandfather said, "a condenser . If you ever saw a still, what you'd see is two parts. You'd see the cooker, here," he said--the whiskey hopped from his glass--"then you'd see your worm run from the cooker to the condenser, here. The condenser condenses the steam. It has to be cooled as it goes. Liquid," Arthur said. " Hooch . You boil it off and you make it. My still was good copper. No bad buckets--no zinc, no lead. No adulteration. I never used sugar even if it was cheaper to do it. Shouldn't tell you."

"Tell me."

"I could tell you things," he said.

"Tell me."

"Drink enough of something, you get sick of it."

* * *

The summer I turned fourteen was the summer my father, Harry, and I grubbed out our basement, from beneath our house that already stood. My grandfather had moved in with us, and we needed the room. Before winter, we'd finished my basement bedroom and a storeroom for food. We'd hauled down a freezer to that room and stocked shelves with canned food as though my father had been warned of war or famine. We had rinsed-out Clorox bottles of water I switched out fresh every month. We had blankets and towels and matches, flashlights, batteries, coats, sweaters, a whetstone. We had bullets. We had bottles of aspirin. We had Vitamin C.

We had two rooms to go. When we were done with the basement, the plan was to extend the kitchen and construct indoor stairs. Meantime, I had to go outside to get to my room. I'd lift the cellar door to climb down the rungs of a ladder. Before I'd lower the door on my head for the night, I'd cut the outside light and sort among the stars for motion. I was looking for Sputnik.

Snow on the cellar door made it weigh. I'd lower the door, then climb on a stool. I pumped that door. I wanted bludgeon arms, bull shoulders.

* * *

I played trumpet in my school's summer band, and one of our songs, "Melody of Love," was my grandfather's favorite. I'd raise my Conn to my lips--sunstruck and windy brass through Arthur's opened windows, dishes of half-eaten custard on the sills, half bottles of booze, morning sun gilding through.

Beyond the window ran a field of cheat grass and untended iris. And beyond the field, one of Butte's old smelter dumps. Anaconda had long since closed its Butte smelters, but the slag stuck. All my life, I heard how Pittsburgh Glass was transferring workers from its eastern plants to Montana to take a crack at Butte's slag, to remelt it for windows.

My grandfather squinted to look beyond the field of iris and grass. He said that the slag looked like black wax, melted candles. Then he moved a hand towards the sill, jabbed a bottle. Arthur Mann was a drunk. His bottles were out. He didn't hide them.

Pittsburgh never got around to sending workers or hiring ours after our smelters shut down, or even later when the mines closed. Outside my grandfather's window was always the slag, piled high on itself and unflowing, black as tires, guarding glass.

Arthur said he was a one-handed fighter. "No left," he said. "You can't beat a champ with one hand, just chumps." When he said no left , my grandfather balled his right hand to a fist, then raised it. The arm was unmuscled--the TERRIBLE right--bone and draped skin.

"When you're old enough to drink with me," Arthur said, "I'll be gone. Play that melody," he said. " That song."

I'd play the song for him. My grandfather's song. I'd play it.

* * *

In the basement Harry and I dug, I lay in my bed in the dark beneath my grandfather's room and envisioned him boiling hooch . I didn't then know that his nineteen-year-old partner, Ezra Young, had been caught at the still and had taken bullets in the chest and what seemed a stray one through the eye. The hole where the slug left Ezra's head was not the size of a surprised blue eye, but a shoe. It was a hole you could have slipped your foot through. That's what my father, Harry, said when he produced a picture postcard he said had been made up at the time to be sold to tourists. In the old card's dark tints, Ezra Young is roped to a board and the board is propped up for the photo. Two revenuers and a Mormon sheriff pose in hats in the shot. The two Feds had signed their names in legible script, black ink: Vaughn Koch and Robert Morgan. Between them, Ezra Young looks plattered, a prize trout.

* * *

My name is Stephen Mann. I was born in 1946, one consequence of Armistice. My father, Harry, would have served had he not caught a wood chip in an eye in his father's wood yard, blinding him enough to disqualify him for war. He was touched by the loss of battle anyhow: his best friend, Lovell, sinking with the Utah .

Harry married after the attack on Pearl Harbor and Lovell's memorial service--in photos: an empty, flagged casket--but refused to sire children until treaties had been signed, and what must have seemed the final drop of atomic bombs.

My father, who would have planted his feet and tracked a bomb from high skies to his shoes, was afraid of water and horses. Arthur had owned the wood yard that had one-eyed his son, and Harry remembered the horses harnessed to snake out timber. My father had been bitten and thrown. He'd been stepped on. If we were together and saw a horse, my father wouldn't let me get near it. He enrolled me, though, in Red Cross swimming. In 1940, his dead best friend had signed with the Navy without learning a stroke.

My father went through the business about the attack on Pearl Harbor. "Water burned. Johnny Weismuller couldn't've swum it." Harry still missed Lovell. "If you don't thank me now, you will," Harry said. "You can learn to swim," he said. "You have to."

I said I wanted to learn to swim.

"That's fine," he said. "You have to."

What I know now is that whatever would have happened to my father in World War II would have happened to him five years before my birth. He'd wanted to sign up with Lovell. In 1940, in Butte, Montana, recruiters were teaming up pals for sea duty, shipmates.

* * *

The things my father did best made noise. When a tree crashed, he'd praise himself aloud, his ax work proud and safe as music. When my father's ax struck, it launched chunks that skied heavy as ore, then thudded like nuggets.

The first summer I was allowed to use an ax was the same summer I learned to swim. I learned that summer, too, to stretch barbed wire, to slaughter and dress pigs, to countersink nails, to jump-start a car, to solder.

All the summers I hadn't been allowed to swing an ax in my father's inherited wood yard, my father had me help him saw. I established myself on my side of things to grasp the saw's tall handle. Harry would have filed and set the teeth just as his father, Arthur, had taught him. Harry oiled the wood handles of his saw as Mother oiled wood in the parlor.

I see him still--my father on his side of things--sawdust plastering his arms. Sawdust smacking his teeth. I see him spit and grin. My father had his father's fighter arms--his saw pushed through wood like a song.

Harry's birthday was this week. He said he felt well. " Fit ," is how he put it. Then: " Chipper , except for the cancer. Liver , but stomach sounds better. I call it stomach for your mother." Then he told me what I knew: liver cancer had killed his father. "That, and hooch. Oh, Arthur," he said.

I sat at the phone with my eyes shut. My father went on. He never swallowed liquor in his life, which accounted, he said, for the years. He addressed the five-year death difference between him now and his father at the time of that death as if it were a won race. Then he said I should have seen Arthur. "You knew him," he said, "as a drunk. My pals would tag home with me just to see him, to watch him saw wood or to load it. My father was a god," Harry said. "You don't know."

Thirty years ago I asked my grandfather if I was more like him or like my father. I asked after I'd donned my grandfather's boxing gloves and had just floored my shadow. I was boxing for Arthur in his room just before he left our house for the County Home. I was sixteen, my grandfather sixty-seven. My grandfather was, in fact, dying, but what did I know of that?--I was wearing his boxing gloves with his permission. I'd never before stuffed my fists into his mitts in his presence.

"I'm like you," I said, then swung up my gloved dukes to prove it. I'd just stepped back from my shadow on the wall to a neutral corner. "I'm more like you than I'm like my father."

"What you live is your life," Arthur said.

After my father hung up, I started to call back. Instead, I sat by the phone, gulped bourbon.

* * *

Arthur Mann professed no middle name, as though the act made him mysterious and essential. To explain: Babe Ruth. Abe Lincoln. Joe Louis. Jesus Christ , he pointed out. Jack Dempsey .

Before he was twenty-five, Arthur Mann had staked gold claims in Alaska where he discovered no gold but lucked through two winters on moose meat. The summer he turned twenty-five, my grandfather hiked home from the Yukon. He had a world war under his belt. He'd stepped in and out of boxing rings. He'd fought the record cold of two Yukon winters and had had the strength to hump home.

There's a photo of Arthur on his arrival home that summer. In the photo, Arthur looks strong and as unknowing as anyone must be to create a life, to move toward devils and decision and loss. In the photo, my grandfather is a picture of prospect and goal. He doesn't look fooled. The photo, snapped in 1921, shows Arthur beside his father. Great-Grandfather Johann Wallisch Mann wears a tar black suit. His high white collar looks stiff as fear or faith.

When I studied the photo, I'd look at my grandfather's face, then at mine in a mirror, then compare both to his fabled Mormon father, Bishop Mann. In the year of the photo, Johann, aged one hundred, stands erect. His tall posture seems a trick, like the stick wrists that poke beyond his sleeves. It is as though, even at his age, Johann could have outboxed his son by merely lifting his fists.

In the photo, Arthur sports a steam-creased black hat. When I study the image now, I see that Arthur looks bemused and at ease. And why not? A man who has survived head-deep snow and temperatures fully ninety degrees below freezing, Arthur basks in the sun in Utah. His hat is cocked.

My grandfather has unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled his sleeves. His arms, next to his father's unending stick wrists, look godly, proportioned. Forty years before his death, my grandfather's arms look perfect. Even when I was young, I sensed my grandfather-- this grandfather in the photo--had surely considered the world not only as large and wide, but as conspicuously fit for plunder.

It's a day's drive from where Arthur slouches in the photo to the foothills, to the claims where in place of drill and pick work he and Ezra cooked the hooch they then sold to pale, failed Saints, tall Ute warriors, and squaws I pictured with buckskinned hips as willing as saddles.

In my father's version of his father's whiskey business success, Harry and his sister, Ramona, are the only children in Vernal, Utah, with new shoes. The story isn't true because Arthur had yet to marry. My father, Harry, hadn't been born. When I was old enough to apply the math of time against Harry's story, he ignored me.

* * *

Arthur lived in our house. He was the man who told me stories and who guarded a pair of old boxing gloves he hung on the wall by his bed. The gloves were thin as winter mittens. They would have hardly cushioned a blow. Time had cracked the leather. Twisted right, I thought, either glove could have split flesh. They could have opened a face. Though I never saw him with them on, my grandfather kept the gloves within reach, as though ready for business.

On the day Arthur died, I ran to his room in our house for the teeth, the collection of six that had been snapped with punches. In all my life I'd never seen the saucer on the night table empty. I ran to my father to report this, but as soon as I started, I knew. I said I wanted the teeth. I demanded the teeth. My father, Harry, said no.

* * *

Into the grave I dropped the armload of iris I'd torn from the field across the road from Arthur's window--the window where he piled his dirty spoons and cups, the window where he'd stored his bottles, the window from where he looked beyond the purple iris he called flags at the slag that the men from Pittsburgh never came for.

Through the springs and summers Arthur lived with us, the number of flags between his window and the slag multiplied as though someone had been faithfully sowing, but the slag still governed the field like a dark glacier that had ceased its motion. I came to see the slag as an ice-numbed foul mound that in time, under sun, might reveal its treasure. I imagined gold that had been planed from the earth and transported from my grandfather's Yukon to his own back door. But whatever precious earth the black slag had borne had been stripped: fired then frozen for metal: copper, lead, zinc. But always the taste and the hope for gold. Destruction for gold. Slag piled on slag. Enduring and abandoned. Vain and inane and sterile.

The year Arthur died, the iris appeared unusually profuse and bright. Arthur had proposed that rain rinsing off the slag had been spreading a welcomed erosion of dust--lava dust--magma tonic for growth.

Arthur said, "I could tell you things."

I probably wanted to tell him I loved him, but I was sixteen. What I said was, "That crap's not dissolvable dust, it's glass rock." I said that the slag was useless, that it couldn't even be crushed for fill or for roads. I said it would puncture tires.

* * *

The sky for the funeral had cleared of clouds and looked domed. The color above was a paled violet, as though it were the hour for sunrise or new snow.

I cradled Arthur's flags. In the day's light wind the petals flapped like gills. In my pocket were the teeth I'd scooped from a drawer in my father's dresser.

Soil clung to the uprooted flags, the dried bulbs and the tubers. The dirty roots looked as haggard as the leaves and the blooms looked new. I dropped Arthur's flags in the hole, then stepped to the edge. The purple blooms of the flags looked vague and frail and showy, but the hard green leaves shone like swords.

"Kill the body, the head dies," Arthur informed me on the day he left our house for the County Home. He was quoting Joe Louis. This conversation was the last we would start in his room. From the side of his bed, on this last day in his room, Arthur Mann attempted to stand. He caught his breath, then still sitting, raised his arms. He threw unballed fists in my direction, like slow ghost fish at my ribs. I raised my elbows, then dropped them in to be guards. I warded off his phony blows. I worked in slow motion too. Elbows in place, I moved a fake hook toward Arthur's left side. I had to bend to do it--Arthur's head was below my chin--but my ducking move to the ribs seemed to make my grandfather happy, though he dropped his hands and grimaced. "Can the head," he said. "It moves," he said. "Bomb the gut."

In two weeks, Arthur would die. "You can change your luck," he said, "if you hard bang the body. Bomb the gut." Arthur drew a breath, then placed a hand on my hip to steady. I hadn't guessed at my grandfather's pain. In the privacy of his own company, Arthur Mann had been falling apart.

"I was beautiful to the body," he said. "You too." But he said it too loud. He lifted his hand from my hip to reach to the wall for the gloves. "Be beautiful," he said. "You, too."

I gingered my hands into my grandfather's gloves. I didn't look up to confirm the permission. Mitts on, I stared at my fists. I felt dangerous. Along the cracks in the gloves ran slivers of a color like rust, as if it were blood and not time that had broken the leather.

Turned toward the wall--toward my shadow--menacingly crouched, elbows tucked, rolling my shoulders, I fired thunderous hooks belly high. But with the gloves on my hands, the temptation proved too much, and I delivered a sneak right, then unloaded a crusher--a left to the exact, exposed point of the imaginary jaw above me, a jaw just as tall and as open as Willard's. Like Dempsey's tall man, mine crumpled. With Arthur's gloves on my hands, I'd floored him. I'd probably opened his face.

I straightened, glowered at my phantom man on the floor. My footwork had felt to me smooth by instinct, a blind man skirting ice. I believed I'd discovered Dempsey's rhythm.

My grandfather said Jack Dempsey lost his chance to regain his title for failing to retreat to the farthest neutral corner after flooring Gene Tunney: "And Tunney was floored , no mistake. Sixteen seconds. Jack stands over Gene for ten. Goddamnit ."

I stepped back from the wall.

Arthur said by the time Dempsey stopped hovering over Tunney and got to the neutral corner, Tunney'd gathered and hauled himself up. He stayed clear of the champ for the next three rounds, won on points. "Hell," Arthur said, "Jack was too old." In 1927, in an outdoor ring in Philadelphia, in a driving rain, King Jack was too old.

"Even the day before," Arthur said, "Goddamnit. Tunney wouldn't've lasted--not with Jack. Age'll catch you." In 1927, when age caught him, Jack Dempsey turned thirty-two.

* * *

It would not be surprising for anyone to think the split mitts I pulled on my fists two weeks before my grandfather died form my lasting image of him, but what I see are his feet: yellow nails that smelled of something like cigarette ash when I clipped them, or scorched fish, or what I thought would be the smell of a burning circus. Yellow nails. Yellow, crippled toes. As if Arthur's ravaged feet, after more than sixty years, could still bend to his mouth like a baby's. As if, in that position and ambifooted, he'd smoked all his life. Cigarettes between toes, toe flesh callusing to flake like mica. Or gold. Discolored gold. Finally, gold. Dirty canary stains. Veins. Lucky Strikes. He loved me.

Excerpted from Fire Road by Donald Anderson. Copyright 2001 by Donald Anderson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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