The Burned-out House

Michael Jeffrey Lee


I was about 35 when I moved into the burned-out house. The room was affordable, and I didn't even mind the smell. I spread out my things, and it quickly felt like home.


I got a job as a hamburger vendor, and started pushing a cart downtown. I'd purchase all the patties and buns in the morning, at the company warehouse, and then it was my job to sell them. After a good shift, I'd push the empty cart back home, a little damp cash in my pants.


Actually, I did all my shopping up the road, at this blasted convenience store. They had everything I needed, and sometimes they even carried green things. They carried my brand of liquor, too, and the toilet paper they sold smelled like wet flowers. I used to blow my nose a lot in the burned-out house—that's how I knew.


Freight trains used to pass nearby, and their horns were pretty damn loud. Some nights I'd wake up and think I'd fallen asleep on the tracks. I'd cry out, like a bleating baby, but then I'd remember where I really was—on the floor in the burned-out house—and I'd let out a chuckle. And soon I'd be on my side again, snoring.


On my days off, I'd walk to the river to swim. If I was alone, I'd take off my clothes and swim naked, but if there were people around, I'd just dunk my head. The char would slide right off me, and make a weird shadow in the water.


I had a good buddy during that time, a fellow about my age. He called himself The Doctor, and he lived in a normal house up the road. We'd walk downtown together on my days off, and he'd tell me about his girl troubles. Occasionally he'd buy me a cup of liquor, or take me to a strip club, but mostly it was just us walking and him talking. I always thought The Doctor was a fag, but he denied it every time.


There was a dentist around, too, although I wouldn't have called him a friend. But he made house calls and sometimes treated me for free in the yard. I'd sit in an old, broken chair, and he'd tilt my head back and make me say, "Ah." He helped with this massive abscess I had one summer, which was lucky, but his drill was only working at a quarter speed when he did it. 


For a while I had a bike—I found it abandoned by the river one night. I rode it for several weeks, cruising through the different parts of town. Then one night—just for shits—I decided to sell it, but that was a big mistake. Some of my happiest times were spent on that bike, goddamn it.


Sometimes, when I was bored, I used to count the blue tiles in the bathroom of the burned-out house. I spent hours and hours in there, sometimes, just counting those tiles. There was no door, but if I heard someone coming I would cough as a courtesy, or fart extra hard.


I did keep my drug abuse to a minimum when I lived in the burned-out house. Sure, once in a while, on the blackened table, I'd find traces of something my roommates had enjoyed, and I'd help myself, but otherwise I kept it pretty clean. I took a nasal decongestant every morning with my coffee, just to get my brain going, but that was about it.


I did get a lot of reading done, especially on weekends. Old newspapers, cereal boxes, whatever was around. That honey-colored sunlight, streaming in through the chinks, always put me in a pleasant mood. If I'd had a television, I know I wouldn't have read as much. And if I'd had a computer? I would've become addicted to hardcore porn.  


I had a music collection during those years as well, a real luxury. A previous tenant had left a pile of tapes behind, experimental tapes, and I inherited them. Some mornings, after a really long night, it'd bring me a lot of pleasure to permeate that burned-out house with experimental sound.


Birds flew in and out of the house quite frequently, and sometimes they'd get harmed. One pigeon in particular, his wing got caught in the wire under the roof, and he died dangling. For months I would see him up there, swaying in the breeze and out of reach, and I used to wonder what it meant—that dead pigeon just dangling there in the burned-out house.


Also, there was this skinny white dog that used to follow me in the streets, whenever I was working. No matter where I was with the cart, he'd always be a block or two back, sitting on his haunches and watching me. One day I threw a patty down in the road, just to see if he'd come closer, but he stayed put. Then one day I saw that he'd been run over, the dumb mutt.


I made sure to shave regularly when I lived in the burned-out house, and I always tried to keep my nails and fingers neat. It would have been pretty shitty if a customer wound up with a curly beard hair on their bun, or a dirty fingernail in their beef, and it also would have been my ass.


There was one romantic thing that happened to me. I bumped into a cute dairy vendor one day and we made a date. We got drunk by the river that night, then I walked her all the way home and had sex with her in her own house before heading back. Some time later I ran into her again, and she told me that I'd made her pregnant, but she decided not to keep it. I asked her how come, and she said it was because she couldn't bear the thought of raising a child inside a burned-out house. "That makes two of us," I said, laughing so hard I almost choked.


I actually managed to quit smoking when I lived in the burned-out house, on The Doctor's recommendation. He told me if I wanted to keep drinking and living in a burned-out house, the smoking would have to go. I did what he said. I imagined myself living a nice long life in those days, ha ha.


There was a joke I carried around in my head when I lived in the burned-out house, something along the lines of, "It smells so bad in this burned-out house that I'm starting to think that it's a burned outhouse." No one was home whenever it cropped up in my mind, so I kept that gem to myself, until now.


But things didn't always go so smoothly in the burned-out house. It was real close quarters in there, especially when everyone was home. One night I found a note on my yellow pillow from one of my roommates. He said he was going through a tough time, and didn't appreciate me walking in on him when he needed to be alone. I wrote him back, telling him to stop using my notebook pages as toilet paper, but in the end I gave him his space.


I thought about carrying a gun on me when I lived in the burned-out house, but ultimately decided against it. Clumsy me, I worried I would shoot my foot or my dick off, so I settled for a simple blade. I carried it at all times; I even slept with it on my chest.


One of my roommates was just determined to move out—that's all he talked about. He was a vendor same as me, but he wasn't blessed with the same sense of humor. One morning I saw that all of his stuff was gone, and I thought he'd accomplished his goal. But a few days later he was back in the burned-out house again, spreading out his rags on the floor.


Some nights I thought that the burned-out house was just a state of mind, that, in fact, I wasn't really living in a burned-out house. I tended to think these thoughts on nights that were freezing, or when the wind was whipping the ashes into my eyes.


I did lose a roommate for good, and that's a sad story. He wasn't a vendor, and frankly I don't know how he spent his days. He slipped on his way in one night and a big nail went right through his head. We buried him out back, near the previous tenants, and I marked it so no one would piss on his grave.


There was a very small church down the road, and sometimes I'd go to a Sunday service there. I wasn't a believer at all, but I didn't mind doing the rituals. The people there were a different race than me, but they still let me sing and participate, which was generous. I think they could tell I was coming from a burned-out house, but they were always cool enough not to ask me about it.


I only spent one night away from the burned-out house. It was my birthday, and I'd booked myself a hotel room downtown. I drank several bottles of liquor, and ordered some pizza delivery instead of eating the burgers I brought. Then I tried to sleep, but couldn't. I tossed and turned all night. Then, just as dawn broke, I had a brilliant idea: I left the room and crept back to the burned-out house. Within minutes, after jacking off, I was asleep.


Can a burned-out house catch fire again? I used to imagine that it could, usually at the end of my shift. I'd be pushing the cart around the final turn in the road, almost home, and then I'd pretend I saw smoke, then fire, and then I'd hear myself say, "Oh, shit! She's on fire!" But it would always be standing there, charred and cold, just as before.


When I was 39, I finally moved out of the burned-out house—I just gathered up all my things one day without warning and left. No one was around to see me off, and as you might expect, this made me crack a big, fat smile.