used to be a fire barrel out behind the Clifton Hotel. And, everything got burned up in it. Newspapers, magazines, letters with blood on them letters about nothing but blood, old photographs, bills both paid and unpaid, the cries of the anguished written directly on skin peeled away from the bone. Entire histories of human suffering went into the fire. Along with outlines for stories I couldn’t write, hundreds maybe thousands of poems that died before they were born, names all the aliases of the drifters who floated in and out of that hotel, gambling IOU’s, death threats, secret account books, pages from both Genesis and The Book of Revelations the kid who threw them in said Revelations burned the best. The names of the lost, the names of the dead. Garbage. Everything that could be incinerated was torched in that barrel.
was standing there watching the fire crawl up the side of an old shoebox when Jerry ran up and dropped some red sticks into the flames. Then he ran off about twenty feet before he turned and yelled, get the fuck out of there. I said, what were those red sticks. He said, you stupid bastard. Those weren’t red sticks. They were twelve gauge shotgun shells. I ducked behind a wall just as something blew a hole in the side of the fire barrel and all kinds of shit flew out. I said, Jesus Christ, Jerry, are you trying to kill me. He danced like a chicken going bicaw bicaw with his big arms going up and down when the second and third shells went off, some of the pellets peppering the side of the hotel. Goddam, he yelled. Did you see that? I love it when everything blows.
watched a guy burn a wanted poster with his picture on it in the fire barrel. I was able to read the name under his photo. I said, is your name really Jack North. He looked at me, took a switchblade out of his pocket, clicked it open, ran the blade up and down his bare arm like he was sharpening the steel on his skin and said, no, from now on it’s Jack West.
the old woman who owned the hotel would come out. She reminded me of a cinder wearing a soiled white dress. She never talked very much. Somebody once told me that she was really into heroin and maybe my old man was her connection, or at the very least her connection’s connection. Once she asked me if I was the one who liked to start fires. I said no. I could have told her it was Dickie Boy Johnson who lived down the street but instead I just kept quiet. I could tell by the way she looked she didn’t believe me. She said if I burned the hotel down I wouldn’t have anywhere to live. Did I really want that? I thought about telling her that living in the hotel was like living nowhere, nowhere at all. But I kept my mouth shut because my old man was the night clerk but I gave her a look. She said you know you are an outlaw, a fucking little firebug outlaw. I said, you better watch out. You’re standing too close to the fire. She put her right hand directly over the flames for a few quick seconds, then took it away and said, you can never be too close to a fire like this. She reached into her purse for a kleenex. I thought she was going for the little 25 auto she was supposed to be carrying and I stepped back. She gave me a bone smile and floated off in the smoke.
liked to tell about the switchman who murdered a hooker, cut her to pieces, and burned them up in the fire barrel. Lonny said he wasn’t living in the hotel at the time but would come by nights and toss big chunks of meat into the fire. I couldn’t tell by looking at Lonny’s face if he was telling the truth or just bullshitting me because he always walked around with a stupid smirk on his face. But, when I called him on it, he would start to bite his arm and make the blood come. Once he even flicked some of his blood on me. Sometimes I would see the switchman walking down the street and I would start looking at him. He had a funny shaped face. It was long and angular and almost bent in places. One day he stopped me and said if you keep staring at me that way I am going to have to do something. And, you won’t like it. My old man once told me that he had cold cocked a guy with a ball peen hammer and it left a soft spot in the back of the guy’s skull. The switchman was standing up close when he said it and I had my hand in my pocket on my switchblade knife. I didn’t know if I could cut anyone but I wasn’t going to let him do something either.
in the winter while I was burning some old papers just to watch the fire go, my old man came out of the hotel and walked over. He was holding a pint of Jim Beam which had maybe one or two swallows left in it. He said, did you know that death is in there. I said, no, I didn’t. How can you tell? He took a hit of Beam and said, death smells like old rags burning. Old rags all covered with blood. He’s in there all right. I can smell him the way I can smell a hooker from a block away. Then he touched me on the shoulder and said, if death came to the door looking for me, would you ever let him in? I swallowed hard and said, I never heard of death doing anything like that. But, he does, my old man said. He does it every single day. And, when he isn’t knocking on doors, he’s waiting in there. He used his whiskey hand to point at the fire barrel. He waited a few seconds and said again, would you ever let him in? I swallowed hard again and said, no. And, if he does get in. Death is a sneaky motherfucker. My old man was standing so close to me that some of his whiskey spit was hitting me in the face. What if he gets in? Why, then, I’ll take a butcher knife to his eyes. A smile cracked my old man’s face in two and he said, Christ, that’s one to remember. Even if this is the last day of my life, that’s one to remember.
thing that I noticed about Smitty was he was holding a bottle of whiskey except that it wasn’t filled with whiskey. It was filled with gasoline and Smitty had corked it with a ripped shirt tail for a rag but it wasn’t lit yet and he was standing close to the fire barrel and all kinds of flames were pouring out. Smitty glanced over at me and said, you dare me. I waited a couple of seconds and said, why don’t we blow it up down at the river. He said, I wanna feel the fire get on me, I wanna feel the fire get all over me. You wanna die, I asked. I just wanna feel the fire get on me. Lets take it down to the river and blow up some hobo shack. Smitty said, can we shoot guns. I smiled and said, sure, lets go shoot guns. The second Smitty gave me the molotov cocktail and I stepped back, some sparks went up and missed us by inches.
old man’s novel went into that fire barrel. And, maybe all of my poetry comes out of it. I remember burning a short story I wrote after reading Hemingway’s The Killers, I stood close and watched the manuscript slide in. I remember burning a long poem I wrote after reading Whitman’s Song of Myself. I remember burning a novel I wrote after reading Jack London’s Call Of The Wild. My old man was standing in a black rain of scorched paper when he burned the only story he ever knew in that goddam barrel. Some of those ashes got caught in my clothes. And, no matter how hard I tried to shake them out, I couldn’t get them all. Some of them are still in there, even now. They heat me with their unbearable, their unforgiving darkness.