Life in the Black Cloud
by David J Ballenger
he first fire happened in 1990, on Martin Lane, in our home. I was fourteen years old and looking forward to my freshman year at Jackson High School. 1990 was the year my parents bought a brand new Ford Tempo that they promised would be mine when I got my license. And 1990, in case you don’t remember, was a great year to be a Cincinnati Reds fan. Marty and Joe were calling the games, Chris Sabo was wearing the Rec Specs, and the Nasty Boys were throwing heat. The Reds were never out of first place that season, and they swept the A’s in the World Series. It’s hard to believe something so good happened that summer.
One muggy June night that summer, I was in the living room shuffling through a deck of baseball cards and listening to the Reds on the radio, and in my sister’s bedroom, directly above where I sat and where Mom and Julie were sleeping on the couch, the blue light of the TV flickering on their faces, Dad built a fire. He poured kerosene on the carpet, lit the fire, closed the door to keep it concentrated above us, and casually walked downstairs.
I heard him coming—I knew the rhythm of my family’s footsteps on those stairs, how the different feet made them pop and moan—so I lay down on the floor next to the stereo. He stood in the kitchen and looked at us, and I pretended to sleep and looked up at him through one squinted eye. The light in the kitchen was at his back and cast a shadow over his face, but I could see that his mouth was slightly open. He pulled his tongue along the strip of exposed, yellowed, uneven teeth and sucked in his cheeks; it was the face he would always make before he hit me.
The game was in the fourth, no score, and it was Joe Nuxhall’s turn to call the inning. The middle innings carry the beauty of baseball on the radio. It’s a meditation, everything slows down, you hear the subtle noises of the ballpark—the vendors, the PA, the hum of conversation, the crisp leather on wood snap of a base hit—and the announcers have settled into the game. Between pitches, Joe Nuxhall said, “The Reds are off Tuesday, and if you like baseball, the Dodgers are playing in Pittsburgh.”
“Dumbass baseball,” Dad said. He had a soft, round, generous voice that must have been given to him by mistake.
On the radio, Marty Brennaman said, “You won’t be able to count me as one of the folks there.”
Dad tripped on the rug when he turned around to leave. He caught himself against the doorframe and stood there, and I want to believe he still had to think, had to make a decision about leaving his family in a burning house. His hands hung clinched at his side, thumbs grinding away at the insides of his index fingers.
Nuxhall said, “I think we oughta go because that’s who’s trying to catch us”
Mart Brennaman thought about this for a long radio minute and said, “Heck, I’ll go if you go.”
The door closed behind Dad. His truck started up, the headlights flashed in the windows when he drove past. He was on his way to Osco, a foundry in Jackson, Ohio, where he made parts for transmissions and compressors. Smoke wafted out of every hole of that place, day and night, and the molten iron glowed orange through its open doors.
When I was sure he was gone, I went to get a drink. I smelled the fire. Dense, slate-colored smoke filled the hallway and curled onto the kitchen ceiling. I hurled my glass of water and watched it disappear into the cloud.
I couldn’t go to my room, but I looked up the stairs and thought about what was in there—a picture of Darlene Fulton, my new shoes, the Barry Larkin poster, my old socks, everything. I waited to see if anything would make me risk life in the black cloud. Nothing would.
I ran to the living room and bent down on one knee next to Mom and shook her arm till she woke. Her head jerked up from the couch and, after a moment, she sighed. Her hair was flattened in the back. She was a waitress at Shake Shoppe and still wore her blue and white striped shirt with a patch on the sleeve of a man and a woman riding a tandem bike and drinking milkshakes; they held the handlebars with their left hands and with their right hands held their cups; they sipped their shakes through smiling lips.
Before I could say anything, Mom rolled off the couch and fell to the carpet on all fours.
“That son of a bitch,” she said. I’d never heard her swear.
Julie was still sitting on the couch. She was twelve then, her bony shoulders were brown and freckled. She sat up and said, “Is it over?”
Mom got off the floor and ran to the kitchen and started screaming.
“Get out, Tommy,” she said.
She ran back to the living room, pushed Julie toward the door, and grabbed a Bible off the shelf. I knew then that Dad had done this, and I knew something else in that moment. I’ve forgotten exactly what that something was, but it struck me as an understanding of the world, and for that I am grateful that Dad gave me a glimpse of clarity, of Heaven in the fire.
Marty Brennaman’s voice pulled me out of my trance. “Here’s the one-O to Davis. It’s a bouncer to Wallach. Could be two. On to DeShields, to Gallaraga, and Davis beats the throw. One on, two out.”
Waves of fire rippled over striped wallpaper and exposed the drywall. A picture frame cracked. A portrait of our family—Dad smiling and standing, his hands on Mom’s shoulder, Mom’s arms wrapped around Julie and me, our clothes bright and unwrinkled—curled at the edges.
Mom grabbed the front of my shirt and pulled me close. “Get out,” she said.
I grabbed a handful of baseball cards. Joe Nuxhall said, “A weak chopper to short. Owen scoops, throws, and gets Benzinger by three steps. End of six, no score.”
Outside, we watched our house burn with some neighbors who joined us. The fire engine and volunteer firefighters started work on the blaze. They hacked at it and doused it with water and watched for embers that would set the fields burning, but they couldn’t save they house.
“I don’t want to watch this,” Mom said. She’d turned away from the fire and walked down the road.
We turned on Fairgreens Road, and the asphalt seemed to be giving off its own blue light. A tunnel of trees and blackberry bushes along the road led us to Brenda Howser’s driveway where Dad had parked his truck. Mom banged on the door till Brenda answered; a calico cat stood next to her twisting its body around her legs.
“Tell’m his house is burning to the ground,” Mom said.
Brenda wore blue slippers, and she shuffled forward and grabbed the front of her pale green nightgown and pulled it tight against her chest. Her face wilted, and she looked like she would be sick.
“Chuck Phillips, you son of a bitch, your house is burning!” Mom yelled and kept her finger pointed into the house, her eyes on Brenda.
“Your home,” Brenda said and began to cry.
“Don’t be an idiot, woman,” Mom said. “Tell him to get his filthy ass out here.”
Dad appeared from the shadows behind Brenda. He pushed her aside and shut the door behind him. He was wearing brown boots and blue jeans and held his work shirt from Osco in his hand and on his wrist was the watch that his father gave him, the watch he said he’d give me someday.
“Where the hell you going?” Mom shouted.
Dad fumbled with his shirt, and his heels dragged in the gravel with each step. He didn’t say a word, just got in his truck and drove off.
Brenda was Mom’s third cousin and Dad’s mistress. She ran away from an alcoholic husband in Neon, Kentucky the year before and stayed at our house for a couple weeks before she started renting the house on Fairgreens. On occasion, her husband would show up in town and make trouble, and one time the sheriff had to drag him off to the county lockup. Dad gave her a snub nosed thirty-eight special for Christmas the year she moved here and not long after that, he started dropping by to make sure she was safe. Mom stopped mentioning her and inviting her over for dinner.
The light was still on in the kitchen, and Mom thumped on Brenda’s door again. “You gonna let these kids have a bed?”
Brenda opened the door and stepped back to let us in. She’d put on a housecoat, and she smelled like the perfume at the Revco pharmacy. Her face was splotchy, and she had a black bruise in the crook of her elbow.
“Give’em something to eat in the morning,” Mom said. “It’s the least you can do for stealing him.”
Brenda blinked a reply that Mom accepted, and Mom walked off into the night.
The house smelled musty and was stuffy from humidity. Brenda put Julie and me in a bedroom with a twin bed. I heard her move through the house and felt the weight of darkness with each light she turned off, leaving me with Julie’s deep breathing, and the sound of something moving around the room. I sat in bed straining to see everything and expecting to see Dad skulk into the room and give me a good thrashing for fouling up his plan.
When I woke the next morning, the calico’s tail was draped over my forehead. I went to the kitchen where Brenda was standing over the stove moving food around in a pan with a spatula.
“Where’s Mom?” I said.
“Up to the house.” Brenda set plates of fried eggs and sausage patties in front of Julie and me.
“Your damn cat put its butt in my face when I was sleeping,” I said.
Her eyes brightened for a moment. “That’s his bed.”
“Why you got a cat in the house, Ms. Howser?” I said. “Should just let’m roam.”
“I’ll consider that,” she said. She kneaded the back of her neck with her hand.
I had a list of other things for her to consider—air conditioners in the windows, carpet in the hallway, a dishwasher—and she listened and said things like, “Good idea,” and, “I think you’re right.” I thought she was strange talking to me like that.
She took the plates and washed them in the sink and brought the rag over and set it on the table for us to wash our faces and hands.
“Wash up?” she said.
“I’m good.” I reached out my hand for her to shake, and she did.
A while later, Julie and I left Brenda’s and walked up the road to our house. I looked at everything still going on around our tragedy, cows tearing grass out of the ground, a circle of crows in the distance ready to descend on rotting flesh, and people going about their business around their homes or in their cars.
Our home was now little more than piles of ash mounded around a blackened and smoking frame. Mom, still in her waitressing outfit, sifted through the debris.
Julie ran to her. “Is anything left?” she said. Mom pushed her back and scolded her for going so close.
I kicked around the edges of the rubble, inspecting the charcoal that used to be our walls and ceilings. Mom pulled her cast iron skillet out of the pile. She tried to wipe off the ashes with her hand and then threw it in the grass. She looked at me, her eye sockets hollow, streaks of black on her cheeks like the players on the baseball cards.
“Get on,” she said.
“What’m I supposed do?” I said.
“Just get your face away from me.” She went back to sifting through the pile.
I walked to the other side of the house and sat under an elm and watched Mom and thought about my face. People told me I looked like Dad, who was someone I didn’t want to look like. I wasn’t concerned with my face or being handsome, but I didn’t think his face was one I would have picked. I liked Eric Davis’s face on his baseball card, but Dad wouldn’t have liked it if I’d picked a black face.
I saw something in the grass about ten feet in front of me, toward the house. There lay Boba Fett, without a scratch, just like I’d left him on my dresser. I clenched him my hand and ran to Mom. As I ran, a school bus pulled onto Martin Lane. It came closer, and I saw that Dad was driving. The brakes howled, and the bus shuttered, hissed, squealed, and finally came to a stop in the driveway. The door folded open, and he jumped out, and I went to him.
“Some fire,” I said.
“Bullshit,” he said. He spit in the grass and scratched his forearm. “It was a bullshit fire.”
I walked beside him and tried to match his stride. “Where you been?”
“Been about doing God’s business. Don’t you know I’m a man of God, boyo?”
I held the toy up and said, “Hey, look. Boba Fett made it out. Not a scratch.”
“Don’t be a stupid,” he said.
“Good thing you didn’t leave your watch here, right,” I said, and he walked away.
Mom was still digging through the pile. Dad moved toward her, and she finally let Julie join her to escape Dad’s expected violence.
Mom scowled at him and kept her eyes locked on his. Our kitchen sink lay overturned next to her. “Everyone can see you, Chuck,” she said. “Go ahead.”
He stomped over and pushed her down. She guided Julie away from where she was falling and when she hit, a cloud of ash surrounded her.
“You been purified by fire, woman. Now, go get in,” he said.
He went and started the bus. Mom stood and told Julie and me to go with Dad. She went over and picked up the skillet and stood looking at what was left of our home, which was not much. The chimney had fallen over the driveway and crushed the Tempo. Some of Julie’s and my school art projects, recognized only by their color, lay melted on what was left of the mantel. For the last time, Mom stood among her things, her wrecked, broken, splintered, crushed, burned home, the skillet dangled in her right hand, and her body listed as if it wanted to settle into the rubble. Dad honked the horn until she finally turned and ambled to the bus. She climbed on board and went to the back row, set the skillet on the seat on one side of the aisle, and curled up into a ball in the seat on the other side. I didn’t go back to see her, but I could hear her crying.
We went down Martin Lane, the bus jangling under us, and turned left on Fairgreens Road away from our home and the lives we’d known. A wad of tobacco bulged in Dad’s cheek, and he spit the juice into an empty bottle of Ski he held in his hand. He called the bus the Jehovah Express and said we were looking for the Promised Land. I moved to the front seat so we could talk.
“God favors these hills, boyo,” he said. “We can do some right living now. Fine living. I’ll be a free man. I can be good, like my dad.” He glanced at the watch. “Ten-thirty. Right on time.”
“Did you burn it down?” I said.
“God burned it down. I was the spark,” he said. “I don’t lift a finger He don’t tell me to.”
I stood up and held on to the pole next to him and looked down at the deep creases in his neck. “Where’d you get the bus?”
“God provides, boyo.”
He got the bus at a junkyard and had it parked at a friend’s house while he was fixing it up to take to NASCAR races. There was a big yellow number two outlined in red on the side and a Miller Genuine Draft sticker on the hood. Dad was a fan of Rusty Wallace and Fords.
He slowed the bus at each side road, craned his neck looking for something, only he knew what. Finally, we turned down Salem Road. The tires sprayed gravel, and a cloud of dust swirled outside the windows. He pulled into a patch of weeds beside the road under a walnut tree, parked, and then wandered into the woods. The three of us sat there, waiting. Julie stood in the aisle next to Mom, rubbing Mom’s leg and humming “We Are Marching to Pretoria,” which was Julie’s song for the Eisteddfod that year in school.
On the other side of the road was a house with flowerbeds and a garden in the back. I imagined what they were doing in there, what shows would be on, and since it was a Saturday, I figured they must have been watching the Reds.
After an hour in the woods, Dad came back holding a bottle of whiskey, and I don’t know if he got it rambling through the woods or if he had it with him when he left the bus, but there was only about a half-inch sloshing around at the bottom.
He waved his hand at me. “Get out here, boy.”
I stepped down the aisle, slapping my hands on the back of every seat like I’d just returned to the dugout after a homerun. When my foot hit the ground, Dad hit me. I landed on my ass, and my head whipped back and knocked against the wheel. One of the lug nuts tore a hole in my scalp. Blood trickled down the back of my head and on my neck. Dad stood over me glaring; he seemed to get excited when I pulled my hand away from my scalp, the tips of my fingers coated with blood.
“It was bullshit,” he said.
I crabwalked up against the wheel, feeling panicky. “I didn’t do nothing.”
He ran his hand through his hair, which was the color of the dead grass. “This ain’t what the Lord told me.”
“Shut the hell up, fool.” Mom came out of the bus and marched toward him.
He hit her too, in the mouth. When he pulled his hand away I could see two small shards of her teeth embedded in his knuckle, and a long piece of white skin dangled between his fingers. Mom fell to her knees, and blood dripped from her mouth to the ground. Her top lip was shredded, and she was holding pieces of teeth in her hand.
“Every time,” she said through the blood and strips of flesh and gums.
He took one last pull on the bottle of whiskey.
“Sweet Franny. I love you,” he said. “You’ll never leave me. You love me too much.”
Dad threw the bottle near where she was kneeling and disappeared into the woods, again.
* * *
The second fire happened four months later, on Salem Road. Summer had advanced, and the weeds around the bus disappeared, replaced by hard packed dirt. We removed the seats and made beds out of blankets on the floor. I would lay there at night and think about waking up in the house on Martin Lane, my bare feet hitting the carpet, and running downstairs to watch Saturday morning cartoons and Johnny Bench on The Baseball Bunch. I don’t really remember the carpet—its color, paprika maybe, its nap, short shag, Berber?—but I do remember a time when my feet weren’t cold, and I didn’t sleep with my shoes on. And it was safer there; Dad’s anger couldn’t take up all that space. He could only ruin a room or a level at a time. In the bus, his wrath filled every corner, every little hole left by missing screws, or torn piece of fabric, every corner brimming with rage and meanness. Osco fired him, so he spent his time passed out on the floor of the bus from too much drink or sitting in a lawn chair under the awning he’d made from a blue tarp, or roaming, God knows where, in the hills and forests around us. After a month, I knew the bus would stay where he’d parked it, under the walnut tree, our new home.
Mom didn’t talk much after he knocked her teeth out. When we lived in the house we told her our stories at the dinner table, and she would ask questions and smile, she used to smile. When she wasn’t eating—that’s the thing, she started eating everything once her teeth were out— she found a place to sit and suck air through the spaces where her teeth used to be. She became an ugly woman; when she closed her mouth her chin went up about an inch too far and made her face look like it was caving in, imploding.
Julie had always been a quiet kid, but she stopped talking all together. She’d disappear into the little nest she’d made at the front of the bus, and at night I could hear her singing her songs from school and praying. She asked God to make her a new house and give this bus to the Devil.
We started attending Salem Chapel, a little church just down the road. They were kind to us; the ladies treated Mom like she was one of them and complimented the dingy dresses she wore every week. I sat through the services and learned the Bible from the pastor: he couldn’t bend it to his will like Dad did, rather seemed to think he should adjust to it. When the revival preachers came through I made sure I was down at the altar getting my soul saved all I could.
That summer, I became friends with Walt Carlisle. He lived in the nice house with the flowerbeds and a TV that I could see flashing in the window at night. He was an indoor, airconditioned kid that liked to think he knew about the woods and the hills that loomed over us. He liked to go out for walks, and sometimes I would follow him, watch from behind a tree or rock when he would run from shadows and the noise of small animals. He told me that he heard bears, pumas, and other creatures stalking him but never showing themselves, and I told him he was probably right, that I’d also seen and heard the wild things, that they were large and capable of anything. He would look away, full of fear and curiosity, head nodding slightly.
I began to treat him like Dad treated me. He wanted things too much, showed his feelings too quickly, was too eager to run out of the woods, was too in love with his home. He had the face of a child, round and emotional. I showed him a strip mine about a mile north of his house. We climbed on the earthmovers and slid down piles of rock and sand. He wouldn’t stand close enough to the edge of the slurry pond, so I pushed him closer, watched his eyes bulge, felt his muscles tense in my hands, and I learned the power of cultivating fear.
One day, Walt and I went to the strip mine. After a while I decided to throw rocks at the fire boss’s trailer and ended up breaking a window.
“Why’d you do that?” Walt said. He went to the trailer and looked at the shattered pieces of window on the ground. “What if it rains?”
“They’ll be back Monday.” I picked up a shard of glass and threw it into the trailer. “Give me a boost, I’ll look in and see what they got in there.”
He said, “No.” He was getting nervous and thought he heard someone coming. I knew there was no one around.
He followed me to the slurry pond, and we stood on an eroded ledge a few feet above the gray-green water. He leaned out, and I inched closer to the edge. Just below where we stood some of the slurry had hardened into a thick, crusty paste. I pulled Walt even with me and told him to look at the sludge, and then I pushed him over the edge. He tried to duck under my arms, but the ground he’d used for leverage gave way, and he tumbled backward into the slurry. In a final, desperate spasm of self-preservation he grabbed my leg, and I lost my balance and fell with him.
The water was warm, and as I sank, my mind went back to the ledge, and I saw myself, but I was not me, I was my father, and Walt was me, and he was my mother, and he was my sister, and he was Walt. I sank to the bottom and felt around in the silt and mud for a way to push myself back to the surface. My hands and feet flailed, searching, clawing, all the while my nose filled with the mixture of the thick, muddy, coal dust and sand. My left foot found something solid, and I pushed myself up into the air and gasped and choked and cried.
I made it to shore, and the thick, black slurry hung on my clothes and skin; it was so heavy I fell to my knees. And it stunk. I kneeled on a pile of peat gravel and puked until my stomach began to spasm. When the sickness passed, I saw Walt sitting in the gravel next to me with his knees pulled up to his chest. His head was cocked to one side, his eyes were closed, and the sun shined bright on his face. A thin film of slime coated the left side of his body and his legs, but his feet were clean except where some of the muck was dripping off the hem of his jeans onto his ankles. I kept looking at his feet, pristine and motionless on the smooth rocks. Next to him, his socks were stuffed into his Reebok Pumps, the orange ball on the tongue still visible through the filth.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He nodded and after a few minutes ran off into the woods.
“I won’t be like him,” I yelled at Walt. “That’s it.”
I wouldn’t be like Dad, wouldn’t believe what he believed or drink what he drank. I looked into the trees where Walt had disappeared, and I knew that we needed the Jesus that cleansed the Temple of God. Not the curious, young Jesus who got separated from his parents. That’s my father’s Jesus. Absentee and absentminded. Too full of himself to know the suffering he causes his family. No, we needed the Jesus that turned over the money changers’ tables. The one with fire in his eyes and muscles in his arms, the one who was furious.
I made my way through the woods, down Salem Road, to the abandoned Bangert place, grabbed a Rawlings baseball bat from the shed, held it in my right hand, the barrel resting on my shoulder, and walked home.
Mom and Julie sat in lawn chairs under the blue tarp awning. Dad was in the bus on the floor, passed out from whiskey, lying in his white underwear and an unbuttoned shirt revealing the spotted and scarred skin on his chest and belly. I found the keys to the car and went back outside and tossed them to Mom.
“Go to town,” I said.
She looked at the slime and mud drying and forming a black crust over my body but didn’t question. They got in the rusted Oldsmobile, and Mom let Julie ride in the front seat, and they waved at me and pulled away down Salem Road, and I watched them until they passed a coal truck and disappeared behind a cloud of dust.
After they left, I gathered dry branches from the woods and piled them under the back end of the bus. When I was done, the stack went up to the rear axle. It took two matches to light the fire. I backed away about twenty feet from the door, spun the handle of the bat in my hand, listened for movement, and watched the fire grow. Dad coughed and banged around inside for a minute, and then the door opened, and when his foot hit the ground I swung at his knees and felt his kneecaps crunch through the handle of the bat. He hit the ground screaming and coughing and curled up on the ground, his hands holding his knees, touching and assessing the pain.
“Are you ready?” I said.
“Goddammit, boy,” he said. “Shit. Shit. Shit.”
“That’s right. Look at me,” I said. “You know about this business.” I pointed to the filth covering my body.
The bus was full of smoke, but there were no flames.
He reached out his hand and scooted toward me. “Pull me away, boy. Pull me away.”
I crouched in front of him. “Stop,” I said. “You had your turn. Give me the watch.”
He looked up at me, and behind those petulant gray eyes I saw fear. “I sold it.”
The barrel of the bat slid down into my hand, and I hurled it like a javelin into his mouth. His face puckered, his eyes shut, tears welled up near the bridge of his nose, his mouth opened slightly, and I could see that his front teeth were cracked.
“Look at it.” I pointed at the bus. “Do you see anything?”
He tried to speak or couldn’t control his jaw; either way, he looked like he was chewing something horribly bitter, and he flailed in the dirt in the shadow of the smoke above us. And then the fire ignited the back end of the bus. I flung the bat through the door and walked to the tree line and watched Dad drag himself, mouth agape, dripping thick drops of blood onto the dirt, and behind him the bus burned.
David J Ballenger lives in Newark, Ohio, with his wife and three children. He received his MFA in Writing from Pacific University. This is his first publication.