Cormac McShane: Ruin (short fiction)
Southern Legitimacy Statement: My Southern-ness is complex, and split between pride and shame. My mother is from Virginia, and a descendant of the Prestons who came over in the early eighteenth-century. Smithfield Plantation near Blacksburg is an ancestral home of mine, along with what was the White House of the Confederacy in Richmond. Knowing all this however is at odds with who I grew up as, outside of the US, in South Africa, Australia and the UK. And from that perspective I have seen the South be viewed as a series of stereotypes that get blamed for the woes of a fundamentally more complex nation. Spending summers in Gloucester, Virginia has, however, exposed me to some of these stereotypes embodied. My sister and I were introduced to vivid racism by our second cousin who couldn’t stop shouting at the ‘help’ for reasons neither of us could understand. The car ride back to our hotel was the strange moment that my mother had to fumble through the concept of racism to us. And yet as a southerner by blood, I feel compelled to defend the South against those who describe it with a lack of nuance. The ‘South’ as a catchall phrase is extremely misleading to my mind, and fails to capture the different experiences I have had in different cities, let alone states. My four years in Davidson have only served to make me more certain about how little I know about my own torn identity.
The fire started in the broken house. The blood sun melted into the fields, giving way to the night. It spread slowly, marshaling the wood of the furniture to the cause. Patches of flame appeared on the floorboards. The growing heat built to spite the night’s cold. The once dark building illuminated the empty fields surrounding it. Its beams bowed to the weight of the growing warmth. Books were first. Then pictures and clothes. With them memories of people long dead were burned from memory. Metal twisted and groaned with the flames, turning blackened steel into orange plasma. Plumes of smoke rose into the air, though it merely clouded the already dark night. Cracks broke the near silence and the roof caved inwards. Walls buckled and tumbled, and a place that had been host to both births and deaths became shelter no more. Memories unconsidered disappeared as evidence of their existence fueled the night’s light.
The sun rose as the fire whimpered out. A blackened husk of beams and floor boards sat between empty fields. A black and white 1963 Ford Custom turned onto the road. The sun framed the ruins, making it almost beautiful but for the smoke that hung where the roof had once been. The loose steel of the cruiser rattled as it rolled down the gravel lane and over the bridge and into the field in front of the house.They parked, and stared at the rubble. The two men sat silently, observing an unspoken moment of remembrance, though neither had much to remember. The place had always just been there.
“I doubt much is left. I’m gonna call it in.”
He hawked and spat. “No point. It’s finished. Let them sleep til we check.”
The other officer turned and looked at his parter and nodded.“Imma take a look.”
The younger man stepped out of truck and slammed the door shut and the sound spread over the land around the house. He reached into the top pocket of his shirt and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one. His partner stepped out of the car, who in turn slammed the door shut and pulled out his own cigarette. The younger man wandered around the edge of the foundation and he felt the warmth leftover from the night before.
“Careful of the settling beams there, Preston.”
Officer Preston nodded and kept strolling, eyeing the way the doorway had held until collapsing under the weight of rafters and floors.
“Who lived here, Connor?” he shouted as he rounded the far side of the house.
“They used to be rich. Now they’re not. Dead most likely.” Connor stubbed out his cigarette on the ground and leaned through the window of his car and placed the butt in the cup holder. He grabbed the canteen of coffee from the other holder and drank deeply from it. Preston joined him after completing his survey.
“I think there’s a way in round back. The lintel by the back door has held up pretty good. Think we can shimmy through there If you wanna take a look inside while we wait? These folks must have been pretty rich.”
Connor smirked but did not look at his partner. He handed the canteen over and Preston brought it to his lips. He grimaced and spat out the liquid, and glared at his partner.
“It’s gone cold,” said Connor.
“You prick.” Preston spat again to clear his mouth and brought his sleeve up to wipe his lips. “Well? Shall we?”
Connor nodded and followed his partner around the edge of the house. Dark patches of soil littered the grounds beside the house. Most lay barren, with a handful of weeds and twigs sprouting in the more fertile parts. Or so he assumed.
“Flowerbeds? Must’ve been nice before.”
“I would guess so,” replied Connor. He was not guessing. He knew it had been nice.
Around the back the porch stood relatively intact, a testament to how little wood had been used in its construction. The officers climbed the concrete steps and crossed into the charcoaled ruins. They walked along what was clearly once a hallway, and turned into a largish room, melted metal lining sections of the floor.
“I reckon,” said Connor. Commotion had once been here, with men dressed as chefs shouting at one another thinking that the food trumped the person next to them. There was a clear hierarchy here that was based in a tangible merit, unlike in the rooms further on. In place of this energy now sat pools of iron and steel lining scorched floorboards. He had only been back here a few times.
There was nothing of worth left intact there. Signs of stoves and vents were clear, though not in any salvageable state. They quickly moved on. The dining room came next. It had once had high walls adorned with the paintings of the original patriarch’s and their descendants and heirlooms from the ‘war of Northern Aggression’. Once again nothing that of worth was to be found here.
Next was the living room, though this had once and often been referred to as the parlour. It was a harder room to enter, as the floor of the second story had collapsed inward on the room as if it were burying evidence. This did not deter the officers. Connor held the beam that barred the doorway as his partner entered and Preston did the same in turn. They traversed the room slowly, wary of the wood crisscrossing the room for fear of it falling and crushing them. In the rubble Preston glimpsed metal, and beyond it a charred white of bone.
“Fuck me. That’s an arm Connor.”
Connor stared at the lighter and the hand gripped around it and its knuckles were bone white save for the scorch marks on the ossified calcium. He had last seen the lighter surrounded by the same bones, though they were enfleshed and attached to the body of his friend. It had lit his cigarette as the two men chatted outside the bar in town. The early hours of the morning were always the venue for thoughts not spoken. They had talked of the evening first, how the people in the town were all the same and that they all shared the silent fear of the outside and that their world was clearly the best possible world, and it was likely because they were God fearing people who failed to understand faith. And then they discussed faith and God and life. Twelve drinks in the skeleton mentioned Ivan and the bar, but Connor had not understood what he was talking about. And as the bone lay under spent wood and metal Connor thought back to this night.
“It’s just kind of ridiculous, isn’t it?”
Drunk, Connor grinned. “Which bit are you talking about now?”
The now skeleton paused, drawing on his cigarette deeply. The embers on its end glowed, showing his pursed lips and furrowed brows in the mid month dark. And when he exhaled he spoke again.
“All of it.”
“All of what?”
“Everything. They all just take it a little bit too seriously.”
Connor’s face tightened and his lips fell over the whites of his teeth. “You’re an asshole.”
Jack smiled and the edges of his mouth grew just shy of his ears and Connor couldn’t help but copy at the ridiculousness of his friend’s face. “Is it the money?”
“No it’s the fucking drink.”
Jack laughed and the noise pierced the the barren Main Street. “Fair enough. You’re wrong, but, fair enough.”
“Well shit it’s easy to think life is a joke if you’ve never worked a day in your life, Jack. I mean, you’ve never struggled or fought or lived for anything. I don’t even think you believe. So you’re just wrong.”
“Maybe. I don’t think so.” He stood and ambled off the porch and out onto the stone of the street beyond. He brought his glass up and drained it and smashed the glass on the ground. An old man on the road snapped his head at the noise and his eyes widened and his body leapt back into the brick behind him. And then he saw Jack and the source of the noise, and his eyes burnt at the young man.
“Your father would be ashamed of you.” The voice rattled in keeping with the brittle bone and melting flesh hanging from it.
“My father is dead.” Jack glared at the old man. And Connor thought that he saw dread fall onto the man’s face before he quickly turned and ambled off into the unlit part of the street. Connor came alongside Jack.
“I was ashamed of him too.”
Boots crunched on the floor behind Connor.
“Well, shit I didn’t know anyone lived here.”
Connor ripped his eyes from the past to look at Preston. “Not anymore. Bag the lighter and let’s keep looking.”Connor didn’t mean what he had said. He found what he half-expected to see. Preston wrenched the lighter from its tomb and dropped it in an evidence bag.
“You think we need to call Arson over in Richmond?”
“No. This was it. It was him.”
“How can you be sure?”
“I just know. Lets keep going, see if there was anyone else here.”
Preston nodded and walked through the threshold into the next room. Connor waited for a moment and stared at Jack. He crossed himself and followed officer Preston.
“They owned a tobacco company.”
“The people who lived here. They had a tobacco company. But it went under a few years ago.” Connor chuckled. “Rumor was it was Batista’s favorite. Made sense that the company went out after the communists took over.”
“The Cuban fella?”
“Yeah. Jack hated him. Said that he ‘lacked legitimate authority’ or something.” Connor looked back through the doorway. “Asshole. Shoulda run for office.”
“What? Who’s Jack?”
“Skeleton back there.”
“Huh. Guess you knew ‘em?”
Connor nodded. The officers split to look more through the rubble but could not find anything. The fire had devastated the rest of the house. The officers made their way back out past the living room and the skeleton and out through the kitchen. The men each lit up another cigarette as they made their way around the other side of the ruin and back to their cruiser. Small building dotted the property, untouched by the fire.
“Slave houses?” said Preston.
“Sure they used to be. Others were grain stores or workshops or just general utility buildings. Think some belonged to the people they hired to farm the fields, but there haven’t been any left near ten years ago now.” Connor looked at the building where his uncle had once lived, and then died. Winters were harsh for a man in his mid-sixties working another man’s fields.They walked to the car and leaned on the hood while they finished their cigarettes.
“Think I should call it in now?”
Connor nodded as his cigarette glowed with an in-breath. “Imma walk around one more time.”
He stubbed the cigarette on the ground and left it there. What did one butt matter now. Connor walked again though the barren patches and around to the back of the house. On the far side behind the house sat a building identical to the other outhouses dotting the land. It was small and square, made of brick and topped with a steel roof that had once been green but now gleamed silver through in holes so large that one would think it was a silver roof with green spots. He opened the door and went through under the lintel. The room was small and simply adorned; a twin bed lay in one corner with a cast iron frame, and a table and chair in the other. Connor pulled back the chair and sat in it. And as he sat he thought of the night Jack had smashed a glass and burnt his hand. Jack had been playing with the lighter, trying to flick the cap and the flint with the same motion. The flint caught this time and the lighter burst into flame, igniting the welled gas in the cap. Jack reeled his hand back in and flapped it. He could not stop laughing. Connor grabbed the lighter from the ground, replacing the cap and placing it in his friends top shirt pocket. Jack nursed his hand as his laughter died down.
“It’s not the money. I couldn’t care about it. Well. Maybe it afforded me the time to realise what I did. It’s just, meaningless.”
“How can you say that? Look at how happy people are in there. Some work ten hour days to get by, and none of them are upset with their lot in life. And you, you rich prick, have the stones to say that you think life is meaningless because you don’t value anything? Of course you don’t. You haven’t worked for a damn thing.”
Jack picked up Connor’s drink as if it were his own. “It’s possible. Maybe probable. Maybe what I think is a rational justification of how I feel. But. Maybe how I feel is because of how I think, and I think that life is meaningless. Not just for me. Objectively.”
“You don’t believe in God? So what. Life can still be meaningful if you don’t. Look at love or beauty or happiness, or the feeling you get with other people.” Connor snatched his drink back and drained the whiskey.
“I think you’re wrong.” Jack turned and marched back into the bar. Connor thought of following. He couldn’t tell if Jack was drunk or sincere. Or both. But this was not the first time Jack had acted like this, nor would it be the last. Connor left the bar, and walked the three blocks home. The next week the tobacco company announced it was going under. And Connor did not see Jack.
Connor rose from the chair as he heard wheels rolling down the gravel. He pushed it in and closed the door behind him. He walked back to the car and stood with officer Preston as the firefighters arrived to clear the rubble. The chief climbed from the cab of the truck and crossed the circle to the two officers.
Connor spoke before his partner.“Accident I think. Nothing left, just some metal and a skeleton. Had a lighter in his hand. Maybe a pipe came loose and ignited when he was smoking?”
“Good enough for me.” He walked off and signaled to his men to get to work. Connor and Preston got back in their cruiser. The engine turned and they drove back down the lane.