Burning Leaves

by Michael Ramberg

Every fall, my father would complain about the leaves. About raking them, bagging them, and dragging them out to the curb for pickup. Because when he was the age I was at the time all this happened, you were still allowed to burn your leaves. There was nothing like it, he said. Nothing like the sound and smell of gasoline being tossed over crisp brown leaves under a darkening autumn sky. Some evenings on the old farmland of western New York State where he grew up there would be six or seven leaf fires burning. And all the fathers at all the leaf piles would pause and lean on their rakes to watch columns of smoke twist up toward reddening clouds. Dad would go on and on telling me about this, and how his father was proud to be a part of it all. But that wasn't going to be his life, dad told me. He just knew it.

In the early seventies dad spent a lot of time wandering around the country. He was imitating his hero, this guy named Kerouac, a crazy bastard who spent months driving around the country with a pack of equally crazy friends. Then he wrote all about it, and got famous. Maybe dad thought the same would happen to him, but it didn't. So most of his life was spent getting where he was going and plugged himself into a thin network of friends and acquaintances. There would be drinking and club-hopping and all night bull sessions, and afterwards he would end up on the sofas of friends of friends who eyed him warily in the cold sobriety of the next morning and checked their wallets. And after a few days of that, he'd start going someplace else.

Then he got married. He settled down in a Midwestern suburb, and I was born. He found a steady factory job assembling table fans and floor lamps. You can probably guess how that went. He'd take a few weeks off without warning once or twice a year, vanishing into the fields and cities of America, just like the old days. Except that the old days kept aging, and eventually died off: after a few years his list of road friends had new addresses or new wives where he wasn't welcome anymore.

So he worked some, and stayed around the house some. He tried to write his own road stories, but he couldn't concentrate long enough without a drink, and when he drank he couldn't think straight. So he ended up in the local bars, where his stories could roam freely and he had a ready if not entirely willing listenership of like-minded drinkers, hard-boiled romantics, and exiles cast adrift in the suburbs.

Late in the summer after I turned fifteen, I started stealing. Mostly little things, things I could use or unload quickly, things that didn't feel like theft. I'd shoplift condoms and sell them cheap around school, and for a while some friends and I picked up calling card numbers over the shoulders of people dialing phones and sold them on the streets of Minneapolis. I also got a girlfriend, a thin blond girl from the new-money part of town who treated me like I was a hypothetical branch of physics. I didn't even pretend to be in love with her. She didn't seem to mind.

This was in the fall of 1990, the same time dad got laid off and wasn't sure he'd be rehired. He was pushing fifty. He didn't have a job and didn't want one. He got angry and made fists. My mother, who'd been watching her husband rise and sink for years, decided not to wait for rock bottom and one Friday she didn't come home at the usual time from her job at the drug store.

The next night, a Saturday, dad and I sat around and watched television. There was a game on, but neither of us paid much attention. Dad drank half a quart of whiskey, but I wasn't afraid. Around nine, he started talking. Drunk or sober, he could talk for hours. Sometimes it was worth listening to and sometimes it was just noise, but I listened to all of it. He said, "Looks like I got rid of her. Damn if I didn't. Guess I should say I drove her away but that's to say it's like I wanted to, which I didn't. I wanted to keep her around. But she's been reading these books. About self-improvement and self-actualization. Everyone saying co-dysfunctional this, re-enabler that. And maybe I take a drink once in a while. And maybe there was that time, years ago, when I did that, you know, that unspeakable thing she can't ever forgive... But there's also such a thing as getting along, and then there's getting worked up over nothing. Truth is, if the two of us could have just rode through this thing, it would have all worked out. That's truth. Just give things time." He kept his voice even, never raising it to a shout, and gestured from his wrists. "You're thinking she doesn't love me or I don't love her. Well, I don't know why you'd even think that. You don't know a thing about love, maybe some day you'll see it's not a constant thing like ... hell, what is a constant thing? Your little girlfriend, I've seen her slumming around here. You'll learn. She'll teach you a thing or two."

He paused his outpouring long enough to light a cigarette. He pushed the heel of his hand into a bloodshot eye and exhaled smoke. I waited for more, but he was silent. He let his head fall down to his chest and didn't raise it again. After a few minutes I shut off the television. When he showed no signs of waking up I went outside to the car.

At my girlfriend's there were lights in the front window and the spastic blue flicker of a television set. I got out of the car and stood on the curb, watching the house. It was her parents, I knew, watching t.v. while she sulked her way through basic algebra. A hard easterly wind blew leaves from the trees into my face. Eventually I discovered that I didn't feel like waiting for the parents to go to bed. I didn't feel like climbing up to her window. So I left.

I went driving around the cities, following around the northern freeway until it hit the southern bypass, then following the bypass until it hooked up with the northern route, and when I came to my exit, I went around again. when I got home dad was still in the same chair, breathing evenly and slouching down low, chin to chest. I shook his shoulder until he woke up.

"What happened?" he said. He rubbed at his face and hair. His eyes were black in the darkness. He reached for his cigarettes.

"We fell asleep," I said. "Both of us."

He looked at me through squinted eyes and struck a match.

When I awoke the next morning the air was chilly, even cold. The furnace, I thought. It hadn't been turned on yet. On a trip through the living room I spotted dad out on the porch in a wicker chair, leaning back with a booted foot on the railing. When I got out there, zipping up a jacket, he was eyeing the pale blue sky and testing the wind with a moistened finger.

"Hey, kid," he said. "I been watching them leaves. A scaly blanket smothering the earth. Where you suppose all those godforsaken leaves came from?" His eyes were brown in daylight and rimmed in red, but they were oddly alert above his crooked, once-broken nose. I said I figured the leaves came from our trees, and maybe the neighbor's. Dad said we'd better find some rakes and get to it.

As we started raking, my mother's car pulled up. She rolled down the window and calmly watched us for a minute.

My father looked up at her and said in a loud cheery voice, "Where you been, Sugar Pie?"

Mom smiled patiently. "Hello," she said.

"You're fixing me up to write a fine blues song, Sug."

Mom got out of the car and cautiously shut the door. She was dressed in a church-going outfit, a dark dress and her good fall overcoat, and dad was dressed the way he always did on the weekends: worn lumberjack's jacket, torn jeans, a battered ball cap. They faced each other, then dad went back to raking.

"You know what I have to do," mom said.

"Same as me. Breathe, eat, sleep."

"I talked to a lawyer." Dad stopped raking. "I just wanted to tell you in person." She was looking at me, and when I met her eyes she smiled. "I want you to live with me," she said. Dad walked up the sidewalk to the house.

"Sure you do," I said.

"Oh, honey, please. You know what he's like. You know what he did. To make a ... perversion of our family."

I didn't say anything to that. I watched him as he mounted the steps and walked into the house.

"Are you thinking that he'll change if you take his side?" she said.

I started to say something, but stopped. I was going to tell her that what was important was the feeling that my actions were having real consequences for the first time. But I couldn't, because I didn't know that yet.

And that was when dad reappeared on the porch, a whiskey bottle in his hands. After twisting off the cap he poured a finger of whiskey into a tumbler and drank.

"I got me a woman," he sang. "She don't come back for days."

"Okay," mom said to me. "I think you'd better come with me."

Dad sang again as he walked across the lawn toward us, "I got me a woman. Said, `she don't come back for days.'" Mom shook her head in silence before his final verse: "Gotta find me a woman, stays put while I'm away."

"Papers will be coming," Mom shouted to him.

"Well that's fine. Papers burn good, too. After we take care of these leaves I'll be looking for something else nice and flammable. So send them on by and I'll write you a thank you note." He checked his watch, then went back to the porch and took another shot, again pouring it into the glass before drinking.

We worked at the leaves for a few minutes, raking them toward the road like we had every year before. Mom lit a cigarette and smoked it as she watched. When she finished she dropped the butt to the driveway, crushing it out with the toe of her shoe. Keeping her eyes on the trampled butt she said, "You know, I'm not sure why I came. I don't know what I could say that you would actually hear. So I'll just say that the papers are divorce papers. We're getting a divorce. Good-bye." After getting into the car she asked if I was sure I wanted to stay. I told her I was raking. She nodded, her lips set in a grim line. Then she drove away.

When we had worked the leaves into a pile by the road, dad stood at the base and looked up, checking to make sure the leaves had been stacked under open sky far from overhanging limbs and power lines. "You put the rakes away," he said. "I gotta find a few things." I put the rakes into the utility shed while dad went into the garage. A few minutes later he came out with an old red gas can and went to the leaves.

I stood next to him as he poured the gas over the leaves, listening to the thin splashing, and when he was done he told me to stand back. I turned around, took a couple of steps and turned back as he pulled out a book of matches, struck one, lit a cigarette, and tossed the match onto the pile. Eventually the flames were several feet high and black smoke began billowing up into the sky. Dad went to the porch and came back with the whiskey. We watched the leaves burn and the smoke rise. Dad poured out a shot and offered me the glass.

2001 Michael Ramberg. All rights reserved.