My friend Mike committed suicide a couple of years ago. Well, not exactly suicide but it might as well have been. He had a stubbornness that exceeded all recommended tolerances for human beings. He had also decided at some point that he would only accept medical treatment that was not invasive in any manner. I’m sure there was a strict and polished logic that resulted in this policy but I was not privy to it. Just to the results.
Mike and I were acquaintances from before high school but it was in high school that we became close. Even at that early age he had a sense he would die young. I recall his surprise at having reached thirty-five. By that age though his health had started to deteriorate and the self-destructive rules that governed his life allowed his premonition to become self-fulling.
His edict regarding the limits of treatment were just one set of many regulating policies that he had decreed over the years. Perhaps they were his way of trying controlling the world. They often seemed to be the consequence of some low point that life-in-general put in his way. Some people have the ability to bounce back and go on; Mike just withdrew from society a little more with each set-back. By the time he was forty he was living in cars, funding a hermetic life-style by frugally manipulating the cash-advances of a dozen credit cards. This was the last years of the last century and credit was easy and cheap. By his calculations he had 7 to 8 years before everything maxed out and he had to face the consequences.
I could do little for him. He was fiercely independent. I didn’t have the resources to support him outright but I did have property in upstate New York, twenty acres of undeveloped land that bordered on hundreds of acres of state forest. I let him live on that land.
The situation of how I came to own the property, which we referred to as The Land, is a whole story in of itself. But the result is that by 1996 there were two bare cabins and Mike’s was tucked in a dense stand of trees a good three hundred feet from the road.
It was beautiful land. A large swath of soggy field, roughly the size of a football field abutted the road. Behind that was forest. Not real old growth forest, that was in the state land past my boundaries and was practically enchanted by it’s centuries old tree denizens. No, my land was just good old hardwood forest – the kind that grows over old dairy farms after they’ve been abandoned for four or five decades.
It was in these woods that Mike tried to find solitude and escape. Of course he never found that solitude as it takes more than a few hundred feet of trees to block out society. More so, you can never block yourself out. So there he existed in self-imposed exile being miserable at the barking dogs, chainsaws, ATV engines and the other sounds that echo through modern rural communities.
He lived there in a 16′ x 8′ shed. No heat except for candles. No running water. No electricity. The spring and fall was pleasant. The summers hot and the winter brutal. So much so that after two winters he rented a small apartment in nearby Rome.
It was in this apartment he was found by the landlord, dead of a stroke from the lethally high blood pressure he refused to treat.
Mike’s effects in the apartment were taken care of but the cabin on The Land was another matter. I had let it sit undisturbed for for years. My own life had changed and I no longer wanted the property. When a realtor sent a letter seeking property for sale I readily took him up on the offer. Shortly, it was sold and I was obliged to empty the cabins.
My cabin was manageable. I was aware of the contents and had driven up in a van to take the few tools and odd pieces camping equipment I had left. Mike’s cabin was another story altogether.
He had partitioned it into two distinct interior spaces. One was open and set-up for cooking and storage. The other space was designed for warmth. A false ceiling was suspended from the rafters. Blankets were strung to a light wooden framework creating a air-lock of sorts that you had to pass through to enter the insulated zone. In this zone a foam mattress was tucked under a low loft. A card table and shelves constructed of planks over milk crates completed the furniture. There was storage above the bed niche and above the low, false ceiling. He had insulated the walls with dozens of blankets. Makeshift candle holders were everywhere.
I had no specific plan to deal with the contents of the cabin when I arrived as I wasn’t cognizant of it’s inventory. I had a vague idea that I’d use a wheelbarrow to ferry whatever was there along the path to the road and then to either the Salvation Army in Utica or to trash bins.
The path was overgrown. It was barely visible and the swampy section was particularly soft and muddy. It became apparent the wheelbarrow was useless long before I got to Mike’s cabin.
I opened the door and was surprised at my own lack of panic. The floor wasn’t visible for the bags of unidentifiable stuff. Much of it was clothing. With no means to do laundry Mike had let accumulate sacks of clothing that filled the entire spectrum of cleanliness from fresh to soiled. Books, boxes of candles, jigsaw puzzles, dozens of empty gallon sized, plastic water bottles, Coleman stove fuel canisters, cartons, cans, screens, hats, coats, shoes – pretty much an entire, small life’s worth of essential material goods.
I was fucked.
Despite this obvious truth I had to empty the place. Cursing Mike’s memory I began to stuff the items that were unambiguously garbage into the 55 gallon trash can liners I had brought with me. I filled two in a matter of minutes and now started to lug the bags back to the road and the van. I abandoned the trail immediately as that took an indirect, curved route. I bee-lined it through the brush and after a bad fifteen minutes arrived at the road, scratched, bruised, out of breath and laden with less than one percent of what had to be brought down.
Thankfully there was cell phone reception and I was able to call Dan, the real estate agent. I explained the situation and he said he’d come up and meet me.
While waiting for Dan to arrive I concocted a plan where he, a resident of the area, could put me in contact with a squad of high-school boys for hire. I needed muscle and a lot of it to transport the mess in the cabin out of the woods.
Dan was a huge bear of a man. He was tall, over six two easily with a dense, trim, black beard. He looked more like a lumber jack than a realtor. He patiently listened to my plan and squashed it by reminding me that school was still in session.
“Damn”, I said. But he was quick to reassure me that it wasn’t really a problem. “Was there a fire pit?”, he asked.
“Oh yes, a nice one.” Mike had a cord or two of chopped wood stacked under a blue tarp by a stone rimmed pit. He hadn’t been a fan of fires as a source of recreation but they had their purposes. Burning trash was a apparently a primary one. Dan explained at length how it was a fact of rural life that you just burned trash. My suburban, eco-friendly mind reeled. But what about all the smoke and fumes? In a kind manner that held no condescending tone yet still conveyed an authoritative factual-ness he related that his family had dealt with trash this way for generations.
I described the industrial nature of the cabin’s contents. This wasn’t a stack of old newspapers – there was a landfill worth of junk yard class debris. Plastic. Clothing. Surely that couldn’t be burnt?
Dan gave me the same facial expression you’d make to a slow and naive child. I trotted along quietly.
We reached the cabin and he assessed the situation with a cheerful yet commanding presence. “No problem here.” I yielded to his obvious wisdom in these matters and we chatted while we dragged a ton or two of trash out of the cabin. I suggested that he keep any object that caught his eye and he was grateful. The books would go to his church’s library. There was a ladder and the stove. I gave him the quick, sanitized version of Mike’s story and why I was selling the land. By the time I had summed up a complex life cut short we had the fire pit filled and piles of trash safely stacked at a handy distance ready to be thrown on.
The fire started easily and soon I was a zealous convert to the system. The fire pit’s four foot diameter held a reasonable volume of material and it did seem that you could in fact burn just about anything. There was no question about wax candles. Their fuel helped consume the slightly more reluctant items. Plastic jugs simply crumpled to a dark blob and sizzled away to nothing. There hardly seemed to be any smoke let alone sooty poisonous fumes.
The flames were a modest 2 or 3 feet high when the bullets started going off. I knew Mike had a gun. It was .22 caliber rifle that was not on site. I knew that for a fact. I also knew the story of how Mike had went to a K-Mart to purchase ammunition for it. He had paid for a box and instead had been handed an entire case. We had once, years ago, spent an afternoon plinking at distant targets and didn’t dent the stash of ammo. The remaining rounds must have been in one of the countless bags I had thrown onto the fire.
I dived for cover in full Hollywood fashion and crawled as I’d seen in the movies towards a log. Dan ducked into the cabin. It was very much like a Fourth of July – tremendous popping accompanied by the acrid smell of gunpowder. Something stung my arm. Apparently, without a gun barrel to contain and focus the energy, bullets have no real force. After it sank in that I wasn’t wounded I began to laugh at the comic nature of our situation. We were pinned down by our own stupidity.
While the flying bullets had no force they were still very hot. The sting I felt was where it burnt a hole through my shirt. Propelled all over the site the hot projectiles were starting small fires among the dry leaves.
“Dan, we have a problem,” I shouted, getting up and starting to stomp out the flames nearest me. Dan poked his head out to see what I was yelling about and to his credit, while still under fire, instantly joined my efforts.
The situation had turned ugly fast. The fire in the pit was huge. Clear flames shot up about 6 or 7 feet. Perhaps the explosions had somehow supercharged the fire but whatever the explanation, it was raging. So much so that the definition of what a “safe distance” was had radically changed. The tarp covering the wood pile had melted. The smaller branches stored there were igniting. If they caught fully the situation would go from serious to catastrophic. I switched focus from putting out the leaf fires to the dealing with the stacked wood.
I raked out the wood that was already in flames with a shovel I had been using to tend the fire with and kicked them towards the fire pit. More wood in the stack was starting to smolder. I needed water. Around back of the cabin were sun-cracked, plastic water bottles. Green rain water had collected in some of them. I ran and got a couple. Despite this small piece of luck Dan and I were scared. It looked bad. A surreal sense of awfulness overwhelmed my thinking. The horrible reality of the fire’s seriousness and that it was so obviously out of control made it very unreal. There was a unnatural, dream-like quality to the whole scene as we desperately struggled with containing the little fires that were still popping up around us. I was out of breath by this point and my limbs ached from stomping flames and swatting at it with the shovel.
A lot of events were occurring at the same time. The main fire was lofting glowing ash in its updraft. Some of that was landing on the roof of the cabin. The bases of trees closest to the fire were starting to char. The bullets had stopped exploding but I hardly noticed. The piles of trash that were once a safe distance from the fire were now igniting. The foam bed mattress on one such pile simply disappeared in flame.
After a five second discussion Dan and I decided to call the fire department. He did so as I ran back for more water bottles. It is at this point in the narrative that my recollection becomes unsure. The sense of imminent danger that not only was our lives and The Land was at risk but that the entire forest was about to go up in flames had an effect on my sense of perception. Our trash disposal stunt had put thousands of acres and homes in serious peril. The inescapable fact that lives could be lost because of my actions was something I could feel as a physical presence around me.
I can not say with certainty what it was I did for the next few minutes. I assume I focused completely on fighting the fire. When I heard the sirens in the distance, the fire was mostly under control. When the chief walked into camp to assess the seriousness of the call the fire was basically out. All the outlaying fires were extinguished. To this day I do not recall what set of actions on either Dan or my part could be attributed to putting out the fire. Yet when the firefighters arrived there was little for them to do. Of course we were happy to see them and they followed protocol, proceeding to transport up a tank of water on a special ATV. They had to cut a path with chainsaws but within twenty minutes they were done and packing up.
Dan being a local, knew the chief and I was grateful for that as this seemed to cut us some slack. We still had to offer up something of an explanation. Being in a mild state of shock and ecstatic with relief that the only casualty was our dignity, I described, with as little detail as I felt was permitted, the recent events. The chief’s eyebrows rose a little at the part concerning bullets and he felt obliged to comment that “grown men ought to know better”. I agreed and changed the topic by asking if there was any sort of fund that I could make a contribution to? It turned out there was and I was immediately pressing the $80 I had in my wallet into the chief’s hand.
Dan walked the chief back to the road. I stayed, staring at the smoldering fire pit. It still smoked, even after the firefighters had soaked it. I pissed into it for good measure. I tried to make sense of what had happened. Had Mike played a practical joke on me from the beyond? He owed me one for the time I set off fire crackers by his feet while we crossed a wooden bridge in Wyoming. Even without taking the Wyoming event into account I felt us even. There was little doubt that he had watched over me here, when the flames were at their highest.