An Excerpt from The Burning
The hard coal country of Eastern Pennsylvania, 1975
“So, when Mr. Kessler broke up the fight in the cafeteria today, he asked Jeff Haskins why he kicked Richie Nash in the stomach. Jeff said it wasn’t his fault. Richie turned around suddenly.” Jimmy’s narrative made George Ferris laugh. George was proud of the way his thirteen-year-old son could tell vivid stories. No question about it, Jimmy was a lively kid, using hand gestures and changing voice inflections when he spoke. George didn’t fail to notice that his son was dressed like him in plaid flannel shirt and jeans. He took it as a sign of respect.
“That sounds just like what a Haskins would say.” George turned to his brother, Larry. “Remember when Tim Haskins nailed you from behind?”
Larry frowned. “How could I forget?”
Jimmy’s expression was animated. “What happened? Was it a big fight?”
“Your dad told Tim he’d have to battle him first. That ended it.”
“Bet you were pretty tough in those days,” Jimmy said, looking up at George.
“I’ve still got a few moves left in me.” He began to wrestle jokingly with his son. “Jimmy thinks I’m over the hill,” George told Larry as he let his son up from the living room floor.
“Were you in a lot of fights when you were a kid, Dad?” Jimmy raised his brows.
“I never started any, but I ended a few.”
“Your dad never was beaten,” Larry said.
“Except by your Uncle Larry, but he didn’t do it with his fists.” George glanced over at Larry and thought how his brother looked every inch the successful attorney that he was. Larry wore gold-framed glasses, expensive designer suit, shirt and tie. His haircut was professionally styled. He projected a well-groomed image that George realized looked out of place in his homey, blue-collar living room.
“So the Haskins kid got in trouble for fighting?” George shook his head.
Larry’s wife, Suzanne, entered the living room, glanced at George, frowned, and began pacing while puffing on a cigarette.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Seemed as though he never saw Suzanne without a cancer stick in her hand.
Suzanne turned to him. “What an original thought. Maybe you missed your calling, George. You could have been a maharishi.”
“Did you say something, Suzanne?”
She ignored his question and took a long drag on her cigarette. Typical Suzanne tactic.
“Honey, why don’t you join us?” Larry patted the couch seat next to him.
“I’d rather not.” Suzanne lifted her chin and pursed her lips as if she’d been sucking on a lemon.
Larry turned to George. “Let’s discuss something Suzanne is interested in.”
“Sure.” George called out to his sister-in-law. “Didn’t they open some new stores at the shopping mall recently?” He couldn’t seem to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
“I wouldn’t know.”
“I thought shopping was your calling.”
Suzanne absently flicked ashes at a drinking glass. “I have no idea what you are talking about.” She then approached George and blew smoke in his face.
“So what are you doing with yourself these days?” George asked.
“I manage to keep busy.”
“Well, that’s good. It could get boring with so little to do and so much time on your hands.”
Why did Suzanne have to make it so obvious that she hated being in his house? It was hard to believe that his brother had married such a snob. He and Suzanne had disliked each other from the first time they’d met, and George was certain that was never going to change. He remembered how she’d looked down her long nose at his parents, as if she was honoring them with her presence. Yet still they’d welcomed her with warmth and had tried to make her feel at home. People like Suzanne were never satisfied. They always wanted and expected more material things, never appreciated humble kindness. George would never accept Suzanne’s attitude. He supposed it was a failing of his nature not to be as accepting as his parents had been. He probably should have been more like them and his wife, a woman who always saw the best in other people.
Larry loosened his tie as if it were a noose and cleared his throat. “Suzanne’s been very involved in physical fitness lately.”
“No kidding. That’s very big, isn’t it?”
“Suz joined a health club where she can swim year round, get massages, work out on machines, take aerobics and dance classes. She’s even got a terrific trainer who provides her with individual attention.”
“That so? Do you go with her, Lar?”
“No, it’s strictly for women. Suz goes during the day while I’m working.”
George turned to Suzanne, who was doing her best to ignore the conversation. “Say, maybe you could take Liz with you sometime. She’d love a place like that.”
“Oh, I hardly think so. Besides, it’s rather far from here.”
George refused to be daunted. “Still, Liz could go with you once in a while.”
Suzanne scrunched her nose in annoyance. “It’s really not her sort of place. She wouldn’t fit in.”
Larry’s face reddened in embarrassment. “What Suzanne means is that Liz likes to be here when the kids get home from school. She couldn’t do that if she went off with Suzanne.”
Suzanne turned on her husband. “Dearest, don’t tell me what I mean.”
Liz entered the room carrying a coffee tray. He found himself comparing his wife to his sister-in-law. Liz was more attractive, even dressed in plain, casual clothes unlike Suzanne. Her hair was her own natural dark brown color with auburn highlights that caught the lamplight. In sharp contrast, Suzanne’s short hair was bleached blond and stiffly sprayed. She was wearing heavy make-up and expensive gold jewelry. George couldn’t help observing that Suzanne in her fancy dress seemed clearly out of place in their house, even more so than his brother.
Amy followed behind her mother carrying a plate of cookies. Liz and Amy set their offerings down on the scarred coffee table. His heart filled with love for both of them.
“Amy, you look like you’ve grown taller since the last time I saw you,” Larry said. “Let’s see. You’re almost eleven, aren’t you?”
“I’ll be eleven in two months, but Jimmy says I’m a shrimp.” She threw her brother an accusing look.
“Hey, I only said that when you were being annoying.”
“That’s enough, you two,” Liz admonished. “I hope we’re all ready for some dessert.”
“I’m already full,” Larry said, patting his stomach. “That was a terrific meal. No one cooks pot roast the way you do, Liz.”
George smiled, pleased by his brother’s comment. “She said it was your favorite. That’s why she made it.”
Liz cast her eyes downward, as if embarrassed by the compliment.
Larry turned a warm smile on Liz. “Thank you.”
“I got a joke for you, Uncle Larry,” Jimmy said. The freckles on his nose appeared to dance.
Liz narrowed her eyes. “Jimmy!”
“Mom, it’s a clean one. Honor bright.” Jimmy raised his right hand.
Liz placed her hands on her hips. “Isn’t it time for you to finish your homework?”
Jimmy lifted his chin. “Come on, I got very little left.”
George inclined his head. “Seems to me that’s what you say every night, kiddo.”
Larry intervened. “Let him stay a while. I rarely get to spend time with my niece and nephew these days.”
“Got too many clients,” George said.
Larry smiled. “You can never have too many.”
Suzanne placed her hand on Larry’s shoulder. “You know what Wally Simpson said? ‘You can never be too rich or too thin.’ Larry’s doing fabulously, thanks to all the contacts he made through Daddy.”
Larry shrugged off his wife’s hands. He seemed irritated by Suzanne’s snotty comment. Who wouldn’t?
“Right, haven’t had to chase an ambulance in years.” Larry turned his attention to Amy. “So how have you been?”
Amy sat down beside her uncle on the couch. “Oh fine, Uncle Larry.”
“Your dad tells me that you were elected president of your class and that you have straight A’s.”
George swelled with pride. “My little girl’s really something special.” He bent over and kissed her forehead.
Amy’s cheeks flushed. “Dad, you shouldn’t brag about me. It’s no big deal making the honor roll. Lots of kids do it.”
Amy started to cough and had difficulty stopping. Liz placed her arms around their daughter and looked over at Suzanne meaningfully.
Suzanne glanced down at her cigarette. “Is she allergic to smoke?”
Liz’s mouth tightened. “Amy has asthma. I thought you knew that.”
Suzanne offered an uncomfortable shrug.
Liz exited the living room with her arm still around Amy while Suzanne quickly stubbed out her cigarette.
Guiltily, George realized he should have told Suzanne to put out her cigarette the moment he saw her smoking in his house. “It’s a little close in here. Suppose I open a window.” He got up and went to open the window
Suzanne threw him a hard look. “Good idea, nothing like getting frostbite.”
Larry frowned at her. “Suz, the room was getting stuffy.”
Suzanne glanced around. “Old houses like this are always musty and moldy.” She ran her fingers along the edge of the coffee table as if to brush away some imagined dust.
“Old houses have more character.” George appreciated his brother’s comment. Larry must still feel the same close family connection with their family home.
Suzanne patted her unmoving bleached blond hair. “I don’t know about that.”
“I bet you don’t,” George said.
Suzanne tossed him a killing look.
“George, remember when Mom and Dad first took us to see this place?”
“Yeah, I loved it right away. I still remember the day they put the down payment together, every cent they could scrimp.”
Larry let out a sigh. “This house meant so much to them.”
“To all of us. I’m grateful the kids could grow up here, just the way we did.”
“That’s why Mom left you the house. She knew.”
This is an excerpt from The Burning, a novella by J.P. Seewald.