Let the Field Burn

“Can I have this? It’s in the Goodwill pile.” Micah was pointing to a large frame with a cardboard back, the picture facing him. I knew what it was. It was the man in the field. I hated that one.

The picture was propped against an enormous stack of Guinness Books of World Records. I loved my mother very much, but if there were a record for the World’s Tackiest Woman, her name would have been in every one of these books. Her cupboards, which we were now emptying, were full of novelty glasses from tourist traps and cheap dishware with cloying flower decals that flaked off year by year. She had favorite TV commercial jingles that she would sing around the house like Christmas carols. She was tacky as hell, and I missed her terribly.

But now these mountains of bric-a-brac were all that were left of her. I would’ve been happy to take a few cookie-cutters and torch the rest. Lord, have mercy. But she loved this stuff—she really did—and I had promised myself to sort through it, to handle every stupid bit of it. For her sake.

So there I was, up to my elbows in collectable keychains, and this kid—some teenager Mom hired to mow her lawn and who was helping me carry boxes of her crap out to the dumpster or the car—was asking for the man in the field.

“You don’t want that,” I said. I held the keychain with the little cutout diver before my face and turned it over. The diver, a pale man in an old-timey bathing costume, drifted down the plastic tube towards a blue pool.

“Yeah, I do,” Micah said, tilting the frame back to regard the picture with his approximation of a discerning gaze.

Micah was a good-looking kid. And he knew it. He was constantly sweeping his curly dark hair to the side to uncover his shapely eyebrows. That’s probably why Mom hired him. I told her I could mow for her, but she liked having Micah do it.

“What do you like about it?” If he wanted the picture, he would have to work for it.

He eyed the picture tentatively. “I like the scenery. It looks really quiet.” Not a bad start. I tossed the keychain onto the counter and came around to look over his shoulder, though I didn’t need to look at it to see it. Every detail was firm in my memory.

It was a print, a painting-as-poster behind plexiglass. The style was fairly on the nose realism, but he wasn’t wrong. It was a quiet landscape. No buildings. No roads. Just a man (we see him from the back) in the middle of a green-turning-yellow field, a haze of purple grass seed hovering over everything. In the distance, a mound of trees. The sky soft with clouds.

“And the light,” Micah added. Some art teacher had told him that people talk about light when they talk about paintings. But it was a misfire. There was nothing good about the light in this painting. It was flat and graceless.

“What about the light?” I asked, feeling increasingly edgy.

Micah shrugged. “It’s bright.”

I bit my tongue. The kid’s allowed to like bright, boring, unforgiving light if he wants to. “How about the man?” This was a loaded question. In the picture, the man’s shoulders were hard and tense. His right arm was bent, hand up by his face. He seemed always on the verge of dropping a lit cigarette onto the ground—as I had seen my father do a million times—and half-heartedly grinding it out with his toe. I knew—I had always known—that when the man did this, the ember would catch the grass on fire, and the whole field would burn, and the trees and the sky, too.

Mom saw the man as my father, too. That’s why she bought it in the first place. She showed it to him proudly:

“Look, honey, it’s you!”

“Don’t be dumb. That looks nothing like me.” He had barely even glanced at it.

“No, it does! Look at his shoulders—so strong.” And she had reached to touch my father flirtatiously.

“Stop it, Trina. I don’t like that.” She did as she was told and pulled her hand back, but she hung the print in the living room. Even later, broke and heartbroken, she kept the picture. I begged her to get rid of it, but she wouldn’t. It made me nervous. I would wake in the night to the smell of smoke.

“I like that he’s texting,” Micah answered.

I stared at him, at the picture. “Texting?” No. It was a cigarette in his bent hand—dangerous and rank. I knew it. I could smell it. Even now.

“Totally.” Micah pulled his phone out of his pocket to demonstrate. “Like this.” He laughed awkwardly as I edged around behind him to look.

My stomach lurched to see his wide, athletic shoulders, head dipped down, doubled by the man in the field. This boy. This damned beautiful boy.

“You know what, Micah? I think I’m going to keep this after all.” He turned, disappointment in his face. “Sentimental reasons.”

“Okay.” He glanced back at the man. “Whatever.”

I carried the picture out to the driveway and shoved it face down into the steel dumpster, cracking its plastic spine. You’ve done enough. You’re done. As if in response, a burl of smoke bulged out around the side of the frame, elongating as it rose. I watched until I saw the yellow tongue of flame in the smoke, then stepped back. Let it burn. Let it turn the man and all this junk to ash. Let the grass grow again from the dark, bare earth. The boy could have that field instead. I heard the fire’s sharp voice snapping, accusing.

I turned and went back inside to sift the tinsel of my mother’s life.


FFO: What piece of writing advice would you give to people interested in learning to write flash fiction?

MCBD: I pace my flash fiction like a poem, but my sentences are those of a novelist. Both forms know how to move and how to take their time. In prose, movement happens like a little electrical spark of an idea being handed off from one sentence to the next. Poetry creates movement in all directions, with language, image, and meaning simultaneously. Neither form can afford to stagnate. That said, they don’t rush, either. The novel, obviously, has the advantage of thousands of words to spread out into. But through economy, a poem gives the reader time to appreciate the significance of each little turn, until—bam—it’s over, and you’re plunged into ruminations that extend the piece well beyond its conclusion.

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