Clean For Him the Ashes

Featured art: The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October 1834 by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Winner, New Ohio Review Fiction Contest 
selected by Colm Tóibín

By David E. Yee

I remember watching the Cotton family’s kitchen burn, felt only a ripple of urgency. Knew it was the kitchen because the houses on this stretch are all the same split-levels built north of Ellicott City, the semi-rural bit just past 70—two main avenues laced together by branches of side streets, neighborhoods pock- eted along them. I kept waiting for the flames to reach out like arms through the windows, but there were just these little tips of orange licking the gutter. Our plots were far enough apart that the heat didn’t warp my siding, but the pungent smell of that old wood burning, the paint peeling, felt toxic, jarred me from an otherwise peaceful Monday night.

Firefighters got it out in five. I had my face in the blinds, shifted to see the Cottons—father, mother, two boys—standing shoeless in the grass. It was warm for a September evening, but they huddled, heads tipped skyward as the tail of the smoke crept up past the alder trees lining our backyards. The Chief handed Mr. Cotton a phone, and he just stared at it like he was waiting for a call, didn’t dial, gave it back to the Chief when he was done talking to his crew. The crowd of neighbors gathered on the opposite curb began to thin as the trucks pulled away, and I went back to dusting my living room.

My things were neatly organized, every object with a place. I’ve got a work- shop in my garage where I refurbish the beat-up antiques I find in thrift stores, selling some, keeping the ones with good wood that’s still breathing—two wal- nut end tables around my couch, oak shelves now full of DVDs, a secretary in the corner with a bottle of Lagavulin on it. This time of day, the amber fluid catches the last bit of sun reflected from the mirror in my foyer, bending it into a blade on the carpet. The crickets started up, their whine carrying under it a slow, choked pulse—Mrs. Cotton’s sobs—and I suddenly couldn’t see my pos- sessions without also seeing them on fire, so I grabbed some TV dinners and my microwave and walked them over. Told myself it wasn’t sympathy. When I was twenty-three, I fell into some life insurance and quit the engineering program at Hopkins to open my shop. I figured they’d come to me for the repair eventually, might as well make my way to the money.

From the front door, there was no damage to see, could just feel the thick air as it moved out the open windows. Mr. Cotton hung bed sheets to contain the soot in the kitchen. I stood in the crux of their home, the bottom of the stairs where the living room, the dining room, the burnt kitchen all met, pretending like I didn’t hear Mrs. Cotton as she repeated things like “Just our luck” and “I can’t do this. I’m too tired for this,” digging her thumb into the palm of her other hand. Their boys were still in elementary school, acted like the fire was just another one of those things that happens—Christmas, summer vacation, a snow day—couldn’t get their attention from the TV as they lay on their bellies scraping their forks in the plastic trays. I nudged the older one with my boot, told him to get his mother a plate. Mr. Cotton held the sheet so I could pass.

It’d been a small electrical fire. Didn’t burn long enough to damage the frame, just ate up everything leading to it—the drywall, the wiring, insulation, and on the outside, visible through a small hole between the windows across from the sink, the siding. The smoke left gapped black lines like jail bars up and down the paint. I took the circular from their breakfast table and doubled it over, began listing materials for the repair, said I’d be by after I closed the shop tomorrow, would help him get it settled. He could pay me back in installments. Mrs. Cotton stood beside him in the doorway. She muttered, “What’s another loan, right?”

He said, “You know it’s going to take me a while to pay you back.”

I said it was fine, as long as he stayed intending to repay it. Asked him if he had tools, and he said a hammer and some screwdrivers—told him I’d just bring mine over.

*

My hardware shop was just off the main stretch of town where the Baptist church punctuated two strip malls and a Safeway. Business had been steady, but I’d learned early on that if I sold a hammer for seventeen, I only got to pocket four, and I wasn’t willing to split that, so the shop was only open if I was in it. Nights, I did repairs for people around town. It’d gotten to the point where I didn’t have a conversation with someone unless it was about the work. In their eyes, I’m sure the shop and me were inseparable, and I was fine with that, didn’t mind being known for what I could do with my hands, didn’t mind making money off of that. I thought a lot of a person’s real worth came through sweat, the knowledge of a sore back, a history of callouses. Maybe not all the value of a man, but the only part that I wanted to be familiar with, so that Tuesday  I said, “Get the lead out” to the Cotton boys as they dawdled with my tool boxes, told them just to lug them over and set them down while I got to helping Mr. Cotton unload my pickup.

Out front, I drank a glass of water while the older Cotton boy rode his bike in circles on the driveway. The seat was a little low for him. Younger one poked around the tools with a look on his face like someone had lied to him. He said, “You don’t have a monkey wrench?”

I took one of the red tools from the case, a smaller size, hefted it in my  hand once, the metal catch rattling. He said it was a funny name for that, and what’s it do? So I went to his older brother who was watching now, adjusted the wrench to the bolt under the seat, loosened, raised it, tightened it back. The younger boy was struck, a little teary, asked why I would go and do something like that. He disappeared into the house as Mrs. Cotton came out. Older boy told me they shared the bike and I had made the seat too tall for his brother, wanted me to lower it again. I handed him the tool, asked him if he saw how I did it. I told him to keep it, if it was okay with his mother.

“Jude, that’s too kind of you,” Mrs. Cotton said. She looked more collected than yesterday, still in her work clothes, a blouse and slacks. She was the secre- tary at a law office, told me that a couple years prior when they moved in. Back then, I ran over one of the boy’s action figures with my lawnmower. Those kids were always sprawled out in the yard, throwing their toys in a sort of plastic warfare. She had come to my door, crying boy two steps back, said, “Could you at least replace it?” Before I shut the door on them, I asked if she would’ve replaced the blade on my mower. Told her if they stayed off my grass, it never would’ve happened. We hadn’t spoken since.

Standing in their yard now, I wanted to say something clever or blunt, some- thing like It’s not really kindness if it’s needed or Well  it’s  just honest work  on credit—don’t thank me too much, but I couldn’t look her in the face long enough to make a comment like that stick. She was a pretty woman, brown eyes that caught shine, but it wasn’t her appearance, it was something about her exhaustion that made me fall silent. I just smiled, and I hated smiling, always felt a bit crooked on my face. My mother used to say a smile like mine could make the world take a knee. I didn’t want that power. And it wasn’t entirely a selfless thing either—local owner of the hardware store patching up a family’s home—might drum up business for me. Goodwill sells. Every dollar spent was two coming back.

A couple in their Sunday best got out of a car just parked by the mailbox, produced a bag of dry goods from their trunk. They looked confused as they in- spected the front of the house, said, “We heard what happened. We just wanted to help.” Mrs. Cotton invited them in behind us.

Went over the order of repairs with Mr. Cotton. He was starting to show his age—slim in the appendages, the neck, but with a little weight in the stomach, clothes a bit too big for him, a spot on the scalp where the hair was thin. I just turned thirty-four, figured he must be a decade older. He, too, had good eyes, and a boyish grin that underlined them, made truth something Mr. Cotton had no problem showing, hell of a time hiding—not a bad quality for a real estate agent.

“But the market,” he said to me while we got set up, “just isn’t like it was.” The man in the tie shot glances past the curtain now pulled to one side so we could get the supplies from the dining room. Mr. Cotton and I tied rags over our mouths, put on goggles, hefted hammers. The other man leaned his head past the threshold before I lowered the sheet. He said it didn’t look too bad. I showed Mr. Cotton the spots in the drywall we needed to remove. As the couple left, they kept reassuring, “We’ll keep you in our prayers.”

Ash spilled to the floor as we beat on the burnt wall, ripping out loose panels and tossing them out the backdoor into a trashcan. I double-checked the frame, removed the faulty hub that sprang the fire, ran my hands along the panels. As I pinned down new wiring, more and more visitors knocked on the door, spoke to Mrs. Cotton, glanced around the bed sheet, Mr. Cotton raising a gloved hand in an exhausted wave.

Late, we swept out the kitchen and hung a tarp over the opening. I offered Mr. Cotton a beer, but he said he needed to shower and get to bed, so I stood between our two homes, watched the wind tickle the blue plastic on the back of their house. The light in their bathroom came on, and Mrs. Cotton washed her face in the sink, ran her hands under the water, pinched her tear ducts, then, looking at herself in the mirror, she shook her head and flashed a smile before she got to soaping her hands. And I went inside, picked the dirt from under my nails, fell asleep in the center of the bed, telling myself that I was her relief.

*

Wednesday, I taught Mr. Cotton how to get the insulation into the wall without making a mess of the pink fibers. Outside, we placed new panels, hung and bolted the siding, worked long past dusk fixing the gutter. I narrated each step, unsure if he was absorbing them. But there was concentration in his expression, bags deepening, brow pulling in confirmation, nods and mhms. The visitors became less frequent, but the phone kept ringing. Mrs. Cotton gave thanks and repeated the story about the toaster outlet sparking, catching their wall on fire, kept reassuring the caller that they were okay, that they didn’t need anything else, just had to pay for the repair. I was perched on the top of the ladder, tight- ening the new length of gutter, the lantern on the roof casting my shadow across the backyard. Mr. Cotton stood below holding screws, and I said he sure had  a lot of friends. He seemed to misunderstand, but then nodded, said, “They’re from our church.”

Mrs. Cotton made a dinner of ham and cheese sandwiches, sliced apples. We sat on the living room floor, careful not to dirty their couch, and the phone rang again. Mrs. Cotton exhaled heavily, put her glass of soda down. When she came back, I commented that it must be nice to have a congregation that cared, and the Cottons’ eyes became fixed on a spot on their plates. I asked how long they had been going. They said since their first was born, Mrs. Cotton’s mother had insisted on a baptism, didn’t go that regularly, but they had been lately, needed the help. Things had been thin. Mr. Cotton said it was a responsibility, a trade- off, couldn’t take without giving back, and I figured he was talking about God, so I gave a firm nod before I realized he’d meant money. I finished my sandwich, rarely ate pork but I didn’t want to be rude. Mrs. Cotton took the kids upstairs to help with their homework. I carried the ladder back to my garage.

Slept shaky that night, always did when there was work to finish. My body ached from armpits to hips, but I could find no peace, no dreams, just fits of rest between moments of dozing, half awake, listening to the cicadas and the crick- ets, watching the streetlights resting beams against my curtains. Lying  there,    I couldn’t unsee how Mrs. Cotton turned her head away when her husband spoke about the help their church gave them. Her downturned lips and a flare in her nostrils—the slightest edge of her shame.

*

Thursday, we fitted the drywall, sanded and sealed it. I measured the portion of damaged counter, and then Mrs. Cotton came into the kitchen, said that  the monthly seminary meeting was that night, that one of them should go. He raised his hands, dirty white from the work, “Honey, you know I would.”

“I know, I just—” she put her hands on her hips. “It’s okay. I’ll go.”

Mr. Cotton got the boys fed and settled in their rooms, came down in time to help me finish the sealing. Then we couldn’t continue while it dried, so we carried the garbage to the curb for collection. I was on the last beer, offered him one, and he said sure, came to my house and stood in my living room as I grabbed two from the fridge. He had his hands in his pockets, leaning toward the bottle of scotch on the secretary, its plastic-sealed lip. “Nice bottle,” he said. “Saving it for something?”

Said that I wasn’t saving it, just had no cause to crack the label yet. It was too big a purchase to use on just anything. I’d bought it when I opened the store and intended it for the next milestone. Hadn’t figured out what that could be. He said I was young for all this—the house, the shop. Against the backdrop of my organized possessions, he looked untidy and raw from work. The condensation from the beer can wet the pale sealant on my palms. Told him I’d had some help with insurance money when my mother passed away. He said he was sorry to hear it.

*

Friday, the boys played outside, and we stripped the drywall, got it ready for paint. Mrs. Cotton stirred the primer dressed in sweatpants and one of her husband’s old button down shirts, sleeves rolled to her elbows. She brought a boombox out of the family room, put on the Beach Boys’ Greatest Hits, poured the white paint into a tray and began strumming it with a roller while we taped down the catches. For the topcoat, they picked a soft, matte green called Winter Grass. Mrs. Cotton shoved a bag of popcorn into my hands, said, “Jude, we can do this part.” They were good at painting. When they’d gotten together, before the kids came, they used to repaint their apartment every year.

“We always needed some change,” she said. “And it was cheaper than buying new furniture.” She placed a hand on her husband’s shoulder as she passed behind him. I chewed the kernels, sat on a bucket, resting my back. They bopped to the music, and I laughed when Mr. Cotton slipped into falsetto for “God Only Knows.” Told me stories about their life together, one of them starting it, the other, brush still, listening until they recollected it and broke in to finish. They’d met as sophomores at McDaniel. Mr. Cotton almost dropped out before he met her, planned to return to Virginia for cheaper tuition. She said he should’ve gotten out while he had the chance. It was funny how they shared memories of the years they dated, each carrying a portion, and together, hoisting them to the surface. I couldn’t recall a time when I experienced such unrehearsed balance.

While the primer dried, the boys left for a sleepover at their friend’s house. We sat around on the floor in the living room drinking the last of my cheap beer, the CD restarting. Mrs. Cotton asked me about my family, and there wasn’t much to it, not an interesting story—mother raised me by herself, was a nurse, worked a lot. My father was never around, but that wasn’t so unusual back then, lot of my friends were in the same situation. I didn’t feel wounded by it. Besides, I worshipped my mother, was alive because of her effort, even if that meant I grew up alone.

Told them a story about how I used to jump on my bed after a bath. Don’t remember why I did it, but it was fun, and when my mom was on call, when she actually had to go in to cover a night shift, this is what I’d do when there was nothing but the news on. So, I was jumping, probably shouting some song, and I landed weird in the middle of the bed, heard this crack—flicked my can when I told this part—and the middle of my bed sunk in. I’d broken one of the support boards. Mrs. Cotton said her boys did that once. I smiled my crooked smile, said I was petrified my mom would find out. She did enough, didn’t need to be worrying about fixing my bed, so I shoved toys under it, held it up, made it look normal until I figured out how to mend it.

Mrs. Cotton said, “You must have had a ton of toys.”

I hadn’t expected her to break into the story there. It took a moment to de- congest the rest of it from where it got hooked in my throat. I said, “I, uh, guess I never really thought about that. Suppose I did.” I ended up taking a piece of fence post that broke off the neighbor’s a while before, hammered about thirty nails between it and the beam. It still made me laugh, how little I knew about wood back then, how little I understood sturdiness. I described how mangled the repaired beam looked, like a weapon, nail heads all uneven and jutting out.

Mrs. Cotton said, “It must have been tough on her, raising you alone.” “We have a hard enough time between the two of us,” Mr. Cotton finished.

I said, “We got by.” Mrs. Cotton asked if my mom ever found out about the bed, and I said, “I don’t think she ever knew the truth, no.”

Mrs. Cotton nodded. I felt a little off, didn’t mean the story to be somber. Mr. Cotton grinned, said, “Bet you never jumped on the bed again.”

I said, “No sir.” He was still smiling, but his eyes were vacant. They stood up and started on the first coat. I went home and tried to sleep, but I kept wondering if I really had it in me back then to mend that support post, if I actually could have done it, instead of blaming it on the cheap bed, instead of demanding a new one. Ten years old, all fists and high-pitched yelling. Had to have what the other kids had, always demanding more and more. I wish it had been in her to say no.

*

Saturday, I stopped by on my way to work. They’d done two coats, then the trim. It looked good. Only the counter and the floor were left, said we would get to it, and I closed the shop early, arrived as Mrs. Cotton was coming back from Bible study with the boys. Older one whined, didn’t understand why they had to start going again, plucking his clip-on tie from his collar. Mr. Cotton pulled up the ruined tiles while I adjusted the cut on the new counter, went to the backyard, trimmed it to size. I held it to the old one. The color didn’t match perfectly, but Mr. Cotton wiped his brow on his forearm, said, “It’s fine. It’s good. Really.”

After dinner, I got to scrubbing the floor with a steel brush, Mr. Cotton tak- ing a break, the sheet in the doorway gone. The house had almost healed. A knock at the front door, and Mrs. Cotton answered while Mr. Cotton sipped his beer. When he heard the voice, he stiffened and placed it on the new coun- ter on his way to the living room. I didn’t pay much attention to the conver- sation, was just getting to the last bit of ash hidden in the corner under the cupboards. I saw, first, black oxfords, glaring bright under the work lamps, almost like patent leather, but just shined up recently. Then slacks, gray sweater, clergy collar like a baby tooth in the middle of an empty mouth. I pushed myself up to my knees, dried my face on my T-shirt, could feel the air touch the sweat on my stomach. He had pockmarks on his cheeks that reminded me of old corkboard with the staples ripped out, thin eyes, a tuft of white hair. He raised his hands to his sides. “This is good work. This is good work.”

Mrs. Cotton introduced him as Pastor Mills. Didn’t make it to my feet as he came over to shake my hand, felt a little odd kneeling in front of him, so I spoke little, just said I was giving my neighbor a good rate, not much else to it. I’ve never been good at carrying on, not with work underfoot. I asked if he would excuse me to get back to it, needed to finish up so I could get some rest, wasn’t really true though, I just felt a little imposed upon, this presence suddenly over-head, watching my hands.

In the living room, seated in a circle, the Cotton family and their pastor talked about faith and healing. The Pastor said there was no healing without faith and no faith without prayer. I scrubbed, the shins of my pants wet, my hands rubbed raw, my lower back hot and sore—I wanted to grind my callouses to the bone. Kept saying the word in my head again and again. Prayer. Prayer. And I had prayed when she was gone, I had, but it could never give her back all those hours of overtime I’d shamed her into, always wanting, couldn’t erase the days I ignored her as a teenager, out marauding at parties with my friends.

Prayer wouldn’t tell her what I now understood. It would never get me even. I excused myself for the night, shook no hands.

*

Sunday, my shop was closed. When I first took it over, I was open seven days  a week, but no one came in on the Sabbath. I’d stand at the counter watching families cross from the parking lot to the church, white shirts and khaki pants, red ties and sundresses. At nine this morning, Mr. Cotton was knotting his tie when he opened the door, said, “Jude, we didn’t expect to see you so early.”

I wanted to finish up the floor, finish the repair, be done by lunch.

“It’s just that we can’t miss services.” His collar was uneven. “But you should come with us.”

It was odd suddenly, him in the doorway, standing between me and the work. Said it wasn’t for me—no peace in sitting idly—but if he didn’t mind, I’d like to see it through. He said, “Uh, sure,” and, “We’ll be back early in the afternoon,” then they filed through the front door to their sedan, engine turned over twice before it caught. Through the curtain on their front window, I watched them head down the street, a right at the avenue. I was alone with the new tiles, the adhesive, the grout. And I got to laying them, working at my own pace, free of narrating the instructions. I sipped a beer while placing the tiles together, care- fully, using all of my shoulders, all of my weight to set them faster. I applied the grout, smoothed it over,  stepped lightly on them, bent at the waist to see  if any of the ends had come up. When I finished, I checked the paint, sanded down some imperfections. I was alone in their home, all the lamps off, tall sun pitching through the window, and there were no signs of the fire. The history of that short burn had been erased. I walked the rest of the materials back to my garage, then my tools, locked their door behind me.

I’d appreciated so little of my home that week. Standing in my living room,

I ran my hand along the edge of the bookshelf, rubbed the dust between the pads of my fingers. This was a good thing. I did this good thing. My legs ached, and I was about to sit down when there was a knock—Mrs. Cotton—and she smiled, relief flowing in the wrinkles around her eyes. She said, “Jude it’s just so beautiful. We can’t thank you enough.”

Over her right shoulder, Mr. Cotton ushered the boys into their house and they waved from across the yard, disappearing past their threshold. When I turned back to her, she was holding a piece of paper to me. “The congregation got together and passed the plate, so to speak. They wanted to take the burden off of you. Off of us.”

The check was signed by Pastor Mills. It didn’t feel right. Not the church paying it, but the debt itself, didn’t sit well with me anymore. Told her it was fine, I didn’t want it. And her face changed, lit up with blood, pulled down at the seams. I said, “It’s no burden.”

She shook the check, the ends flapping. “Jude, we owe you this.”

I didn’t need them to pay it, didn’t need the compensation. Said, “That’s not why I did it. I don’t want you to owe me anything.”

She exhaled, the check pinched between her nails. I could tell that slip had, for her, a weight, and she just wanted to be free of it. I raised my hands up like surrender, and she started to put the check in my palm, but I made a fist, so she crumpled it, pushed the watermarked page into the gap between my thumb and curled fingers, my skin still white from the grout. She said, “We’re always going to be owing. Please just take it.”

It stuck to my dirty palm, and she turned back to her home, and I couldn’t watch her leave. But when I knew she was gone, I went inside and shut my door, sat in my chair, looked at the amount, just as I quoted it, matched my ledger to the penny. I couldn’t hear any of the street noise—no kids playing, no bugs in the woods, no cars in the street, just an autumn breeze brushing past. I went to the front window, and the neighborhood was still, sky gray, the leaves on the trees not bending but swaying just so, a blur, stroked by the wind, looked to me like a painting. I put the check down and took up the bottle, twisted out the cork and sipped it. The scotch tasted of smoke and cedar, and I pulled from it longer, swallowed twice, three times. The liquor slid down my throat, dragging a burn as it went. The char, the wood, the cinnamon made a furnace of my stomach. I set the bottle back and closed my eyes, focused on that peat flavor hot in me until it, too, boiled up and was gone. In its place, I felt a quickening—something quiet, patient, small and akin to grief, growing in the shadow of this good deed. I had no name for it just then, but in the order of my home, in the stillness of its embrace, I came to know it as reverence.


David E. Yee‘s work has appeared in American Short Fiction, AGNI Online, Seneca Review, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. In 2017, he won the New Ohio Review Fiction Contest, judged by Colm Tóibín, as well as the Press 53 Flash Contest judged by Jeffrey Condran. He’s a bartender in Columbus, Ohio.

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