Eat Fire

Eat Fire

We’ve always hated Christmas and the mountains of trash that trail it. But this year is a special kind of hell. Hottest ever and the trees are bursting into pine-scented fire pillars. I ask Bossman Duckworth if we’ll be getting hazard pay. He says fuck no. I ask if we can maybe get some gear like the firefighters. He says to give him a fucking break, says he wonders why now we suddenly want to play dress-up when we never even wear the gloves and goggles sanitation engineers are supposed to wear anyway. How about fire extinguishers? He budgets a rusty garbage can we hook to the outside of the truck and fill with water.

On this worst day of our year, this first trash day after Christmas, it’s a record-high 119 in New Mexico, no rain for three weeks, and the rich bastards in Whistling Cactus subdivision are all hiding in their houses after dragging their Douglas firs to the curb. The trees still look greenish, and it’s rare to see green anymore. But if you have the bucks, you can still get yourself a live one. For us, for me and Cherry and baby Zart, we strung rainbow lights around the same emaciated plastic thing we’ve been using for twenty-two years, inherited from my parents, a droopy white tragedy that sheds plastic needles and has turned a yellowish tint from Dad’s lifetime of smoking and then ours, until we quit twenty-seven months and fourteen days ago. We couldn’t toss Dad’s tree even if we wanted. The law holds even for us trash men—four-hundred-dollar fine for discarding plastic, about the price of one of those green Douglas firs. We’d already heaved forty-five live ones into the hopper today. I tried to do the math in my head, but settled on: a fuck ton more money than I want to think about not having.

I’m riding the step outside the truck, and Enrique’s driving, same as usual, when we pull up to our fifth burner of the day.

“How about you get this one, buddy?” Enrique says, because I always get all of them.

“Sure, sure. Don’t strain yourself behind the wheel.” I waltz up to his window and pat his hairy arm. “Gotta baby those hemorrhoids.”

“Merry Christmas on fire, my friend,” he says to my back and revs the engine.

Everyone always wants to hear about the weirdest things we find, about body parts and such, and, yeah, sure, seen some of those. Plenty weirder: a trash can brimming with curdled milk, a can full of mannequin hands, scores of living pets and one living baby once, AK-47s and AR-15s and handguns galore stuffed into mattresses and rotted-black pumpkins and recliners and broken TVs, once a grown man playing hide and seek from the night before who got stuck in his can. But spontaneously combusting Christmas trees I’ve never seen. I’m not a scientist, but it’s hotter than balls, and so fire seems logical. Tack on the water rationing, even though Albuquerque played nice for Christmas and said folks could have 1.75 gallons total for Christmas-tree watering. Maybe the sun refracting off these giant windows is igniting them. Maybe a burning Christmas is our new tradition.

I douse this burner with the last slosh of water we brought, and it makes little difference. The tree sizzles mockingly. I notice the homeowner standing in the shade of his garage, wearing tighty whities and a sapphire kimono. A dragon’s head tangles through the silk’s wrinkles and against the dude’s bare protruding belly. He’s sipping coffee, and when he sees me seeing him, he shrugs his hands up like: What the fuck? As if I’m the one who should mind my own business. As if I haven’t seen his Twinkie binge boxes and his Chubby Nubiles porn mags. I know 208 Cholla Lane like I know every house number’s trashcan. So I holler to him: “Mind me using your spigot to cool off your tree, Herman?”

Me using his name spasms a jiggly jolt through his body that gets him to pull that kimono over the orbit of his belly. I watch him watching me some more, a standoff he finally breaks by scratching his ass, dumping his coffee on the driveway, and turning to go inside his air-conditioned cave, where he resumes watching me from his giant front window, as if the glass is one-way, as if I’m not still forced to suffer a stare down with that black-eyed belly button.

“Fuck it,” Enrique yells from the truck. “Just go use his hose. What’s he gonna do?”

“No, man.” I try to spit on his driveway to match his coffee tantrum, but I’m all dried out from sweating, and a foamy dribble clings to my lip. “He can deal with it on his own.” I give it a weak kick with my steel toe, and the flames blaze higher. Letting it burn won’t do any real damage, of course. There’s nothing to burn. New Mexico outlawed watering grass three years ago, and the whole country followed this year. Law-abiding lawns are dirt and sand. The fancy ones, like Herman here, sprinkle pea stones or quartz crumbles. As artificial as Bossman Duckworth’s toupee. This tree will merely stain an ugly char across his driveway.

Onward we go, swiping up trashcan’s full of toilet-paper-thin biodegradable wrapping paper. Used to be so thick and shiny when I was a kid—bows big as my head wrapped around paper wrapped around boxes full of the plastic Walmart wonders we’d break and toss into the garbage within the year. Most of that nostalgia would mean misdemeanor now. Zart and Cherry and me had a perfectly legal Christmas since we couldn’t afford nothing, since I convinced Cherry to quit her gig, since I figured my job would be enough but turns out I’m shit at math, and baby Zart ended up getting two sock puppets fashioned out of my holey wool socks. Thank Christ Enrique gag-gifted me a stuffed Santa that pulls down his pants and poops brown plastic when you squeeze it. Cherry was able to superglue up his pants, and Zart hugs it all day long.

Duckworth radios in, blares through the radio about how he just got a call from some Herman Hancock who said we skipped his trash. I tell Duckworth about the stingy water situation, and what are we supposed to do? Piss on it? He says we can pick up all the goddamn trash, which he says is our exact goddamn job, or we can go the heck home. He asks if we want that? Do we like the prospect of unemployment? I think about how it would be nice to tickle baby Zart’s belly in the morning, and then I think about having less money than we do now. I tell Bossman Duckworth sorry. He says swell, and to hurry up about it so we don’t milk the city’s tit completely dry. Enrique revs the engine again, and I latch onto the grab handle as he lurches pointlessly, peeling rubber for the next fifty yards. Cherry’s breasts flash into my head, how they were last Christmas, torn to hell, scabbed in black clumps, bruised purple by that devilish baby that we love more than anything. Zart tore her up breastfeeding. I wonder if the mothers in these houses have such war-torn tits, or if they’ve found a way to pay to avoid that pain. My guess is on yes. No scabbed nipples on this block.

Enrique pumps the brakes and slaps the outside of his door in a way that means we must be coming up on another burner. He pulls me up so close flames nip at my boats and I have to jump for it. Jackoff thinks it’s funny. I trudge to the side of the house with my empty watering trashcan to tap their spigot. Enrique’s hooting an impression of firetruck sirens from the cab. But when I go to fill my can, the spigot handle is padlocked. Water bills are high, but they’re not murderous. Nothing compared to what it costs to get a couple hearts of romaine these days, a bag of oranges, a single banana. I haven’t had a jalapeño in two and a half years. Sometimes I’ll buy three McDonald’s dollar burgers just for the pickles, but lately they’re sliced thin as paper.

Cherry and me don’t lock up our spigot, even though we have nothing to spare. If someone needed to steal some water—dying of thirst or putting out a trash fire—we’d sure as shit allow them that. The penny-pinched-tight butt holes of these rich fuckers gets my neck burning, and I really don’t need any more heat when I’m already drenched in sweat.

I slip on my heavy gloves, reach through the flames for the tree trunk, and I hammer-throw that flaming mother up into their driveway. Screw Duckworth.

“Gooooooo-aaaaaaaaal,” Enrique draws out.

I strike a pectoral flex at him before I dump their trash into the hopper and jump back onto the truck. I’m still dumb-headed and full of adrenaline, and I’m already regretting my insubordination. I watch the driveway blaze as I ride the step for the next five houses. Eventually, it’ll smolder into coals and seep a soot pool into the driveway, and then we can circle back, and technically I’ll still be doing my job all the way. That’s the beauty of hindsight that comes from riding the step. I get to contemplate the world in reverse while I propel forward. I wish I would’ve been planning smarter when I told Cherry to quit her stripping job at Ogley Pete’s, when I told her a sanitation engineer would bring home enough money. From the current vantage of my rear-facing view, I see how obvious it was, us getting evicted from the house last month, and the playmat with the purple tiger and the yellow giraffe spread across the lawn, all dew soaked and tromped over by little trails of ants. Turned out Cherry needed to keep flashing her baby-battered tits. Turned out we all needed those crinkly dollar bills stinking of cologne and penned up with phone numbers and squirting dicks.

Enrique whoops at what must be another burner. I swipe sweat from my stinging eyes. Every day is the hottest day these days. Cherry and I watch the news in the morning and we used to laugh when they brought up record temps. Those tan-faced, besuited news anchors always act surprised, act like it’s earth-shattering news every time they mention breaking a record that got broke just last year and the year before that. I wish they could’ve done their jobs, been a smidgen useful, and told me to prepare for this.

This next one’s tree, like the last two, is blazing like God’s blowing commandments through it, and, at this house, the spigots turn but the water’s off. They must’ve seen us coming and tossed the shutoff. We can’t keep doing nothing or Duckworth will get more calls, will preach about how people line up at his office every morning to apply for jobs that don’t exist. They’re crossing fingers that we’ll fuck up and be fired, and they’d work for half my wage. But these homeowners get to hide in vinyl-sided air-conditioning streaming world news, shaking heads at some foreign famine and then clicking over some charitable Paypal write-off. Cherry would’ve kept her job and I guess she should’ve. She was good at it. But after baby Zart, it became a cycle of feeding and flashing and feeding and bleeding and patching up to flash some more. She was embarrassed of customers seeing the baby bites, and I was embarrassed of her being embarrassed. I never minded her showing tits, but I minded those drooling assholes seeing inside our home from those scabs. I minded them making her feel something realer than her fake eyelashes and red vinyl knee-high boots. I told her to just quit. Just say fuck it. We’ll get by. But we didn’t. We didn’t. And the only constant is more trash.

It’s the way we’re barely surviving.

So, fine, I’ll be the one to fix this. I slip on the heavy gloves again and hurl that sparking, spitting, burning motherfucker into the hopper, followed by a garbage can full of thin wrappings that stoke the flames, and now the back of our truck is a flaming mouth, nice and angry. I slap the side, shout, “Hit it,” to Enrique, who’s squinting into the mirror, and maybe he winks, but he’s no longer hooting.

This is how we’ll do our job. We’ll eat fire like nothing’s wrong, like it’s nothing special, like everyone has decided to normalize these hellfire-scorching days besides the wide-eyed weatherman. Every few houses we find a burner and I hurl it into the hopper, pound the packer panel button, and all the flaming trash huffs into black smoke. Our truck is a door-to-door smokestack. We’re a five-mile-per-hour pollution felony. Good thing we work for the city, and it’ll fall on Duckworth’s lazy lap before ours. I hope. Or maybe everyone will just pretend not to notice.

Before the end of the block, I can hardly keep hold of the grab handle for the heat surging through the metal. Enrique’s hairy arm is silent in the rearview, so I guess we’re not so funny now. I laughed the first time Cherry screamed, “Ouch, little asshole slut fucker,” into the face of our suckling babe, who just smirked up at her, doe-eyed and pleased with his new teeth’s trick. I laughed until she tried pumping and suddenly the tubes were sucking blood, red spattering the translucent cups, red clouding into the milk like a horror-movie version of creamer in coffee.

I start singing “Oh Christmas Tree” while I sling trees and cans, and when I realize I barely know the words, it’s on to “Grandma Got Ran over by a Reindeer.” I make sure to hurl a bag right as I answer the gravesite quandary of whether we should keep her gifts. “Send them back,” I shout and slam another burner into the hopper. Enrique drives away before I’m back on the truck. He must be thinking I’ve gone bonkers. At least I can find it funny that I’m running after this city job I was sure could take care of a family so my wife wouldn’t have to sling her scabbed tits and could stay home and raise our baby who could then grow up and be better than me, mayor, public works director, dethrone Duckworth as sanitation manager. Hell, at least let him drive the truck, I pray, while I’m laughing at how goddamn unfunny I surely must be chasing after this burning wreck of a living.

Enrique finally stops. I’m pouring sweat, my lungs squeezed. An old woman is hunched over a crackling log of fire. She’s showering it on a mist setting through a fancy hose attachment. The mist casts rainbows over the fire, just over where the molecular spritz of water is evaporating into nothing. The urge to crush her in a hug pulses through my gloves. Her futility is sweet. Enrique whistles a quiet version of his sirens. I cross my arms over my chest. The old woman keeps sprinkling the flames as if they were petunias. Watering flowers is a misdemeanor, but that doesn’t keep Cherry from nursing an orchid. Such needy assholes, those orchids, but she’s kept it alive since eviction.

“That thing got a jet setting?” I say, but she doesn’t hear me. Enrique’s sirens louden. She drags a pink-painted fingernail across rivulets of wrinkles, but doesn’t look up.

“Any other setting?” I say, and she is, I see, getting somewhere. The fire sputters, weakening, though it’s still burning enough to roast marshmallows. That’s me—a roasting marshmallow puff of flesh, holding off combustion as long as I can.

I lean forward, duck into her field of vision. I wave the heavy glove, which has taken on a tarry sheen of soot. She startles, hops back, and I envision heart attack or stroke, her body stiffening, Enrique and I one-two-three-heaving her into the hopper to hide the evidence and keep our jobs. She’s spraying me instead of the tree now, coating me in a mist so fine it might as well be nothing. I wonder if she’s dousing me out of mercy or defense or dementia.

I smile at the droplets tangled into the black hairs on my forearms, even if I can’t feel them. Her jaw clenches. She nods at me, flashes a few teeth. I take off my shirt. Slow and sexy. There’s some relief, one less layer. Enrique might be whistling at me or in warning of the heat emanating off this body of mine. And yes, yes, there it is. I feel it. The infinitesimal sprinkling of water is reaching my skin. It’s not quite enough to be cooling. It’s so thin, like the Presbyterian baptism we took Zart to get, and after I wondered how God could possibly notice a tiny water flick. I didn’t put the twenty I’d planned to give in the offering plate.

The old woman’s tree is still burning, and something booms back at the truck, a steel-bending belch loud enough that Enrique flails out the door and shuffles down the street. Flames spit out the back of the truck. Flames wink up all along the street. Every last tree burns for me, the backdrop as I strut and spin for this old woman misting numb rainbows at my chest. Maybe she’ll go full blast with the hose if I dance well enough and God or Duckworth will notice. Maybe the skies will split apart and drench another record-breaking December heat wave. But probably I will dance my ass off, through the heat, through the record books, until baby Zart replaces me, until we’ve burned it all down.


About the Author

Dustin M. Hoffman is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He painted houses for ten years in Michigan and now is an associate professor of creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. His stories have recently appeared in The Masters Review, The Adroit Journal, Washington Square Review, The Journal, and Isthmus. You can visit his site here:

Photo by Axisworks on Flickr. No changes made to photo.