The fire started the afternoon before the first day of deer season in the back field of the Whitlock property. It began as a modest bonfire set ablaze to celebrate the upcoming hunting season, and also to burn some garbage. By the end of the day it would leave an ashen swath marring the golden autumn fields that were already a dwindling feature of Cherry Ridge Township.
The Whitlock’s started this fire, and they’re the ones who put it out.
The trash had piled up inside the Whitlock place, discarded boxes and loose newspaper. It wasn’t that they were a dirty people, just messy ones. They thought every piece of scrap had a place in the pile, and when the piles were too big they were simply burnt, making room for new piles. The Whitlock’s spent more time reading nowadays, on account of the new neighbors across the street.
Cherry Ridge was traditionally home for the farmers and the hunters, an isolated rural community where neighbors respected privacy and practiced congeniality. People waved to each other, it didn’t matter if they knew who they were waving at or who was waving back, they just waved. It was polite, it was friendly, and it was simple. If modesty wasn’t the rule, pretending to be was. Except for a fresh coat of paint on the barn or a new used truck in the driveway, nobody made shows of wealth. And nobody complained when Cow Pete Machesky kept piles of scrap in his yard, or nobody complained when the Banko’s down Hilltop Drive let their dogs loose, and nobody complained when the Whitlock’s did donuts in their front yard.
That’s the kind of town Cherry Ridge was.
Time moved on and people died, and their children and grandchildren didn’t feel the same pull of the land that their ancestors did. Chalk it up to a lack of working the land, or the appeal of a cleaner and easier life in town, but Cherry Ridge was fading. As plots of lands opened up, new folks began to move in. They built enormous houses where corn and tomatoes once stood, houses visible all the way from the top of Newton Mountain.
They didn’t wave, and they always complained.
That’s what kept the Whitlock’s locked away in their messy house. It was family tradition to celebrate with a round of mud-flingin’ donuts in the front yard. When Jane and Lynn graduated high school, they hopped in the backseat of the old Mustang while Loren and Rob manned the wheel. They hooted and they hollered and they cheered. It was a spectacular event, but it coincided with the graduation party the new neighbors across the street were having.
“You can’t do that, you fucking maniacs,” barked Jim Pileggi, owner of Pileggi Motors and proud new transplant to Cherry Ridge. He had marched over and up the Whitlock driveway, waving his hands frantically.
“We can’t do what? Can’t celebrate?” Loren asked, his mustache twitching like it was trying to jump loose from his lip. The Mustang was idling and exhaust was spewing.
“You can’t drive around in your yard like this, it’s unacceptable!”
Loren looked left then looked right, “Well, it’s my yard, so I think I can do whatever the fuck I want.”
He gunned the gas and dug a rut eight inches deep before he released the clutch. The Mustang bucked and hopped like the bronco it was named for. Rob was hanging out the passenger window now, his fist pumping in the air as he hollered in celebration. Loren was a reserved fellow, more inclined to broker a deal when a deal was to be had. Rob took the less methodical approach.
Jim Pileggi stepped back and avoided getting all but a speck of mud on his vest, but that was enough to fuel the rage he felt inside. He marched back the way he came, and within an hour sheriff Reese was knocking on the Whitlock door.
There wasn’t much of an argument to be had, because the Whitlock’s respected sheriff Reese. Sheriff Reese was a member of the old-school of Cherry Ridge, but he was a servant of the law. He told the Whitlock’s that there was nothing illegal about doing donuts on your lawn, but Jim Pileggi was threatening to sue the Whitlock’s for disturbing the peace. “Stop doing donuts on your front lawn, boys,” was what he offered with a disappointed and knowing frown.
The Whitlock’s bit their collective tongue, and they stopped celebrating. For an entire summer, they were hushed. When the Whitlock’s passed the Pileggi’s, the Whitlock’s waved. The Pileggi’s did not. The nights began to cool down, and the Whitlock’s began to develop cabin fever. They were a wild people, not overly so, but they needed to howl at the moon with abandon every now and then. They decided that a few cases of cheap beer and a bonfire were the way to go, so they hauled the beer and the newspaper and the boxes to the back field. They brought a football too.
A flick of a lighter, then the flame brought close to the twisted newspaper, and within moments the blaze was set. Jane and Lynn were making dirt piles and making grass crowns for their dolls. Loren and Rob tossed the football back and forth, somehow negotiating every throw and catch while holding a beer in their left hand. They kept a passing eye on the fire.
When it began to spread to the dry grasses outside the burn pit, they shrugged it off. Fires did this.
When the grasses stayed lit and began to spread, the brothers decided that maybe they ought to get to work to putting it out.
By the time they stomped one flame out, another had spread, higher than the first. Their stomping quickened and so did the spreading flames. Loren and Rob realized they had just fucked up.
“Jane, get some water, go!” yelled Rob. The girls had been unaware of what was happening, but their attention was suddenly glued to the flames. Jane ran towards the house, she would unravel the hose and realize it didn’t reach halfway to the flames. Lynn panicked for a moment, but ran to the house too. She almost ripped the door off the hinges as she returned with a sloshing sauce pot full of water, the water spilled halfway by the time she reached the field.
Loren and Rob were working as fast as they could. The matriarch of the Whitlock clan, a spaced-out woman who excelled at crosswords and named Virginia, watched the growing flames with horror. She was frozen with panic, and while her daughters rushed to the house and returned with pots full of water she stood on the porch in fear.
The flames were growing stronger, and the smoke began to choke Loren and Rob out. They were fighting a battle against a stronger adversary, but that didn’t matter. The Whitlock’s didn’t give up. It was simple, like waving to your neighbor.
Virginia eventually came to her senses and grabbed a handful of towels from the bathroom, she threw them on Lynn and Jane’s shoulders as they ran. “For the fire!” she would impart, waving her arm in some attempt at demonstrating her intent. “Wet the towels, then…” she waved frantically again, swatting an imaginary fly, “Hit the fire, I don’t know!”
The girls didn’t fully understand and they ran with half-cocked eyebrows. By the time they reached the spreading flames, they realized Virginia was telling them to soak the towels with water, then use them to blot out the flames. Loren and Rob took the advice and they went to work, swatting the flames out with renewed vigor and determination.
Not once did they consider spilling even a single beer to extinguish the flames.
The Whitlock family fought the fire, until the Pileggi’s called the volunteer fire department when they saw the smoke. “Those fucking Whitlock’s started a fire,” Jim roared into the telephone receiver, “Get out here.”
The volunteer on the other end was silent, “The Whitlock’s? I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”
Pileggi fumed. “They’re animals! Get your asses over here!”
The volunteer shrugged, but Jim didn’t know that, “Alright, but I don’t see the point.”
Indeed, by the time the volunteer fire department arrived, the Whitlock family had beat the fire. It took about an acre of effort to do it, but the flames were extinguished. They had won the day. The fire department told Virginia, “There’s no burn ban in effect, ma’am, but keep an eye out next time you’re burning.”
Virginia nodded and threaded her fingers together anxiously, “Of course, of course, thank you so much,” polite as always. She knew her children had started the fire and put it out. But the fire department came to help, and that deserved a thank you.
Jane and Lynn, Loren and Rob stood in the still-smoking field. They coughed and they choked on smoke. The edges of Rob’s pants were burnt and Loren had lost his favorite flannel to the fire. Jane and Lynn were utterly exhausted from their non-stop trips delivering pots of water and wet towels to their brothers. Loren chuckled first.
Rob laughed next, and he looked over at the Pileggi place. Jim was watching, hands on his hips. “I think we should celebrate, brother,” he said to Loren.
Loren’s eyes lit up, stoked with the flames of Satan himself. “I’ll get the Mustang,” he said.
Sheriff never said they couldn’t in the back field.
And wouldn’t you know it, the Whitlock’s celebrated that afternoon, the way they always did. They piled into that old Mustang with the leaking exhaust, they revved the engine until it screamed in excitement, and they drove that thing through the burnt and ashen remains of the back field. They hooted and they hollered and donuts were made.
And that was alright.