“The Fire Down Below”

“I hate you,” said Letitia, rubbing her bruised eye with one hand while with the other holding aloft a chair to ward him. The chair was heavy, and it wobbled toward her injured eye, making her wince.

“I made that chair do that,” insisted Bruce from beyond the kitchen island. “That chair does my bidding. I could make that chair spontaneously combust.”

“This chair’s metal, stupid,” said Letitia. But she looked at it with a measure of suspicion. It had been his before they married. Its vinyl seat-cover had mysterious stains from his bachelor days.

“Either way,” said Bruce. “You underestimate my powers.” He had no powers, he knew that, no powers except idiot strength, which he’d just proved he didn’t deserve. But he couldn’t apologize, not yet. Sure, it was the right thing to do . . . but what power did right have over him? “I could make it melt in your hands,” he insisted.

 

In the driveway, having zinced his nose in the mirror, Bruce blew his whistle hard a couple of times, the sound deafening in the closed car. It was the long, fierce blast that signified a violation of pool rules. He did this instead of crying. Crying was weak, and Bruce was not; it was as simple as that. The white paste he had daubed on meticulously, so as not to look—Letitia’s phrase—like an extra in a voodoo flick. He could see her now, peering around the curtain in the front window, grinning in a way that seemed scornful. So he began to back out, working to keep his rage, which might at least have the possibility of righteousness in it, from guttering out. But couldn’t help either the glimpse he got of death’s head in the rearview or the instinctive shrinking away from it before he recognized himself. She was never wrong. And how, after this, would he ever be anything but?

 

Half an hour later, as Bruce sat atop his throne at the community pool, nose prickling under mirrored shades, he could still see Letitia laughing. He wished he really could make that chair flame up and singe her ass. Slightly–in a way that wouldn’t injure her, but that would just make her acknowledge his . . . you know, formidableness. A man needed some formidableness, if formidableness was a word. Even if it wasn’t. Bruce idly flexed his bronzed forearm. Singe her ass, yes: It would take either a measure of mindpower that he didn’t have or a measure of gasoline that he did.

At that moment he smelled smoke, felt the tickle of heat at his bare feet. “Hey, mister!” shouted a kid running toward him and sloshing pool water from a sandpile pail. “Mister!”

Bruce looked around, saw no sign of Letitia. She’d done this, he knew . . . and done it without need of science and its lamenesses: fuel, ignition, accelerants. She’d done it while sitting in that metal chair in the kitchen, using her bare, bruised cheek to burn through two cubes of ice knotted into a washcloth. I didn’t mean to, he thought–it was like a test bubble he thought worth trying, and he found he meant it, or at least might mean it. He jumped off his throne and pyre, helped a troop of sandpail tykes put out the tiny blaze. It only took about thirty seconds, but the doing felt good—doing was the part of this job he loved, though the lifeguard’s job had turned out, over the years, to require a lot less doing than simply languorous, stone-faced being. You were mostly a talisman.

Now he flung down his pail, rubbed his itchy nose and found his hand smeared white as if shat upon by a passing gull. Then he blew the whistle loud and long, three times, to clear the water. “Out! Out! Out!” he shouted. “The pool is closed!”

One has no choice but to love those who command the elements, and to propitiate them. Their marks are upon us; we have no choice.

So Bruce ran to her. He ran like a house afire.

Michael Griffith

About Michael Griffith

Michael Griffiths’ books are Bibliophilia: A Novella and Stories(2003) and Spikes: A Novel(2001), both from Arcade. His second novel,Trophy, from which “Possum Agonistes” is taken, is forthcoming from Arcade in 2009. His fiction and nonfiction appear in Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, Southwest Review, Salmagundi, Oxford American, Golf World, The Southern Review, Five Points, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. Griffiths has received fellowships from the Charles Phelps Taft Memorial Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Louisiana Division of the Arts, among other places. In 2004 he became founding editor of Yellow Shoe Fiction, an original-fiction series from Louisiana State University Press. Griffith is Associate Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati.