Creosote

Looking back, María Constanza Lomax de Juarez didn’t think anybody knew she was gone, or at least that she had left the city. That was fine with her – all she wanted to do was get away. Well, maybe more than that in the beginning, but at least she got away. Her boyfriend, Joaquin, was out of town. He had taken their kid back to General Güemes in northern Argentina to see some family. Even though she didn’t have a lot of cash then, she had told him it was okay if he left. She needed to have some time to herself. Some peace and quiet.

She got out of Buenos Aires and out to the old estancia late that afternoon. It was usually three hours away, but she drove like hell and made it there in one-hour forty-five. She knew the route like the back of her hand – Ruta 41 south, turn off at Castelli. Left on Lago Bernal Road. Third side-road, third lot.

She parked the car by the lake near where the canoe and boat stood covered in a blue tarp. As she got out of the car, she noticed that the canoe, which she had put in the boat belly-side up last fall, had split even protected as it was underneath the tarp. A heavy branch with brown rot in its center had fallen on it and broke the fiberglass right down the middle. There were no trees around where the boats were kept so María Constanza figured it had occurred during a windstorm that past summer. She wasn’t that upset when she saw it. She should have been — it would likely cost a couple thousand pesos to repair. A voice in her head said “¡Que puta madre!” but instead of cursing out loud, she calmly walked towards the house, took the long brass key out of her pocket, and rushed it into the lock. The door opened with a grunt, and then the silence inside returned. The voice in her head went away.

The estancia house was big. Twenty by twenty, concrete walls with a brick roof, with only one wall dividing the sleeping rooms from the living space. Her son Christian used to call it el establo or “the barn” when he was smaller — because it was so open and felt bigger than it was.  María Constanza could feel the damp left over from the winter, and a lingering chill. Some dust had fallen on the coffee table, in the fireplace, on the dinner table, and over the old broad-axe and deer antlers mounted on the wall. No one had been there for so long and she wanted to get it lived in again while she was there. Clean it up, grill up a big asado outside, read some of the yellowed romance and Western paperbacks on the bookcase, go fishing. Everything and anything one could do in a place like that. Or do nothing. Even that sounded good to her.

Her dad’s old checkered red-and-black hunting jacket hung by the door. She stripped off her coat and put the jacket on, too quickly — as she pulled on one of the arms, a pain rushed down her leg. It jangled her nerves like electrified heat and after slowly dying off, continued to throb. Sitting in the car had numbed her out so she hadn’t felt too much pain on the drive. But now it was back. She slowed down and pulled the hunting coat on gently. It was tighter than before, cool on the inside, but still felt familiar and comfortable.

What was going to feel even better was the fire. Nothing in the world feels like heat from a wood-burning fireplace. Absolutely nothing. Once, years ago, at one of her office Christmas parties in Olivos, some Chilean guy said that coal-burning fires felt better. He was from a copper-and-coal town near the Atacama and said it was the best thing he grew up with. For María Constanza this was a borderline myth if not an outright lie. Coal was cheap, dirty, and didn’t burn worth a damn. Get two good sticks of nicely dried, deep-red pampa wood with no bark and you’d have the finest fire in the world that’d burn all night. Joaquin and she had split two fallen trees from out on the estancia field the year before and let them dry outside under an awning. She knew they would be the best.

María Constanza went over to the wood fireplace and pulled the damper. As she did, her leg flared up again, inducing a pump-like pain, phasing in and out of harshness. Her injury was somewhere on her spine and on a bad day she could point to exactly where the pain originated. Most days though she just felt it in her leg. More than once she yelled “¡Mierda!” out loud on the street when it flared up. She had all the medications one could possibly imagine. Percocet, codeine, everything. Her doctor in Montserrat had been pretty good about getting that stuff.

“Conchita, do you think you’ll need that?”

Whenever he asked, she would just shrug and play dumb.

“If you think they’ll help…” she’d demur.

He did, and she always got them. At first they took a lot of the pain away and got her very high to boot. Now they were just aloe cream — there was relief but just enough to walk or sit down or sit on the toilet without much hassle. That was it. In addition, she’d lost her appetite and often lived on coffee and Rocklets. The pain was always there in some shape or another. She wanted to keep off the pills at the estancia and thought that once she got there and moved around, it would be different. She’d forget about the pain. She wanted that to be true, anyway. She hadn’t had a pill since the morning.

The ash box under the clay fireplace was black and almost full. She took it out and went outside to dump the ashes behind the woodpile. It was warmer outside than in the house and the breeze flew in her face. Up in the sky some grey clouds rolled in from the West, across Lago Bernal. She wasn’t sure but she wondered if it was going to rain. Still, the wind felt good. That kind of feeling was why she was there.

The day had started out all right. She hadn’t expected anything to go bad. She had gotten up early, drank her coffee and took her pills, and then got to the center bright and early for class. Only the manager, Mauricio, had been there. She had been the only one that had showed up that day. Those other two students, Faozi, a Lebanese factory worker from Baracas, and, what was it…Amal, Anal…whatever, that Sri Lankan woman married to the Quilmes man, they didn’t come in. Lots of foreigners in the Republica and they never showed up. Hmm. She guessed she could have made a joke of that if she were a bit funnier.

Not even Martín, her teacher, had come in. He was working at the learning center while completing his master’s or Ph.D. or whatever at UADE and was probably out screwing around with that as he had done before. She normally wouldn’t have minded, but her caseworker, Ilha, was coming in that day and she wanted him to be there to put the good word in.

“Ilha.” Portuguese for “island.”

For Constanza, this was another bit of nonsense. A lot of people named their kids with stupid tags in Argentina. “Justicio,” “Radiata,”… Jesus. They were all going to grow up to be assholes anyway. Just like Ilha. She should have known things were going to go south right then and there. Well, if Martín had been there it might have been different. She had been a good girl that month at the center. Martín even said so. Did well in math, English grammar, and all of her tests. All she wanted was to get a co-op placement. Any student at the center who was in the worker’s safety program could get a co-op if they did well.

Ilha was always late getting in, pulling that black carrying case on wheels behind her. She’d sit in the empty classroom with the door shut. Ten minutes later she’d open the door and call you in. She never said “Hello” or “¿Que tal?” or “You’re doing well.” She didn’t smile and just looked at her papers, checking everything. She might call for Martín, ask him about what has to be done for next month, but that was it. That was the end of the monthly session.

That day was almost the same until she looked over María Constanza’s attendance sheet.

“Oh, well. Guess that’s out.”

What was out?

“You missed a day this month.”

That was true. María Constanza had been in pain and laid up in bed. For one day.

“Well, sorry, María Constanza. You can’t get a co-op now. That’s policy.”

That was the policy. Didn’t matter how good your grades were. Even if you missed just one day, you couldn’t get a co-op. She tried arguing with her.

“I understand that you had pain. But I can’t change the rules.”

Ilha had no idea how close María Constanza came to jumping over the table and strangling her.

“Just keep working. You’re doing well. There might be another opportunity someplace. Something might come up.”

María Constanza bit her lip, watched Ilha pack up and leave, and then went back to her classroom.

Most people’s problems don’t come in singles, they come in groups of two and three and four. When she sat back down in class, a slight pain slowly came down again. She could hear a honking horn outside and a motorcycle passed. It was too quiet in there. María Constanza was mad. She got up and left. She walked right past Mauricio who didn’t bat an eyelash at her, out the door, and got into her car. It was then and there she decided to drive to the estancia on Lago Bernal.

María Constanza used to think that after her injury she might never get back up to the estancia. Her grandfather, Kent Lomax, had bought it when he was working in Capital Federal for the Welsh consulate back in the 50s. The family had scraped by for some years to pay the taxes on the land and had somehow managed to keep it in the family.

While she was working in a construction office on-site in Quilmes, a gas generator, mounted on a scaffold above the office trailer, had fallen after one of its support poles collapsed. It had crashed through the roof and caught María Constanza underneath it. She was nearly crushed to death and was kept overnight in the hospital. In the morning, she woke up and couldn’t get out of bed. That’s when she cried. Nobody saw her, but she cried. The pain was paralyzing and her back was swollen enough to keep her immobile for days. She thought about her job and her family and what was going to happen.

María Constanza thought she was going to be a cripple.

But her doctor was, as always, optimistic. He got her good care from specialists and helped her with rehab. He was a pro. It was her boss that had screwed her to the wall. He advised María Constanza to take the  worker’s compensation course for career rehab, where she wound up at the learning center, relearning her grammar and keyboarding skills so she could get a job working in a warehouse or with computers. Looking back, she should have sued the boss to the highest court in Buenos Aires, especially now that she wasn’t even going to get a co-op placement.

But she wanted to forget all of that. She was at the estanica now.

Dumping out the ashes, María Constanza grabbed a stick of wood off the woodpile. She went back into the house and stood the stick by the fireplace. She worked to open the damper and load the firebox with kindling and newspaper. She then took a match out of the box above the fireplace flue, struck it hard on the box’s red edge, and dropped it on the paper. It caught right away. Once the wood burned, she took a hefty inhale of the smoke coming up. It made her cough but, for her, that was a good thing.

After closing the damper a quarter of the way, she looked around the house again. She saw the bed. It was stripped to the mattress and María Constanza kicked herself in the brain for forgetting that she had taken all the bedding home to be washed the last time she and Joaquin were there. They used to fool around on the bed a lot when they were first together but less so when Christian was born and even less after she was injured. She figured that once she got the fire going and the heat filled up the space, she could take a nap on the mattress without the sheets. There was the sound of droplets on the skylight above the kitchen table. It was starting to rain. María Constanza couldn’t go outside now but the sound of the rain coming down would help put her to sleep, she thought.

It was about that time that things went haywire. The estancia house was warming up and she could see the heat waves coming right off the top of the fireplace. She adjusted the damper to halfway shut and was about to go poking through the cupboards to see what food there was. María Constanza was getting really hungry, something she hadn’t felt since before she got on painkillers.

Then there was the sound of a crash — a big loud smash coming from the back of the fireplace. Never known for his carpentry skills in the family but an ardent trial-by-error fix-it man anyway, Kent Lomax had probably done the job himself and built the fireplace on a stone island two feet from the wall to put wood behind it to dry. The pipe went from the stone island over the gap and into the wall to the chimney.

María Constanza moved over and stuck her head around to look. A big, heavy, condensed piece of creosote had broken off from somewhere up in the chimney and had come falling down right through the pipe joint. The creosote was all over the tiled floor, black and hot, and already the embers were turning into tiny red coals.

There weren’t any flammables close to the fireplace but there was no water in the estancia house, either. María Constanza panicked, running to the cupboard to see if there was baking soda. Nothing. She then looked around and finally her eyes fell back on the bed. She went over and pulled the mattress off, dragging it over to cover the burning floor. A sizzling sound and a toxic smell of burning plastic wafted up.

María Constanza looked down and could still see burning embers. She thought that if they kept going the place would burn to the ground, even with the concrete walls. That’s when she did something she regretted later. Being so scared that the mattress was going to catch fire like the floor, to give it some help, she belly-flopped on top of it, hoping to finally smolder the flames.

Once she hit the mattress, María Constanza thought the fire would go out. But the force of hitting the floor bounced back and into her lumbar and leg. She yelped and fell over onto her back, almost rolling off the mattress. That was a pain she’d never been through before. Later, she thought: A hot rod on a tooth cavity would be as close as she could think to describe it. That feeling, that hurt, wiped her out. She was immobile and couldn’t get up. She just wanted to lie  there with her leg thumping away. She realized then her hunger had vanished. Again.

She didn’t know how long she had lain there. The smell of burnt mattress fibers drifted away and the heat of the fire inside the fireplace had died down. The broken end of the pipe was caked with layers of creosote, but now only white ashes blew out of the hole.

María Constaza honestly never thought creosote could do something like that, no matter how much there was. It was always that awful fine black powder that stained everything it touched but nothing more. Those pipes were older than her and rusty in some places. They should have been fixed years ago, either by her or Joaquin. Had her father been alive to see this and she was a few years younger, he wouldn’t have wasted two seconds in paddling her backside three shades of red. If he was still around and she was the age she was, using the camp at her leisure and others finding out about the pipes breaking before he did, it might have been different. Like if Uncle Juan had found out about it. She could just imagine the telephone conversation her father might have had, had he been alive and still a good ol’ gaucho-gossip king like he was, too.

JUAN: How’s the floor?

DAD: What?

JUAN: Should clean your pipes more.

DAD: What the Hell are you talking about?

JUAN: Conchita was up at the camp and the pipe busted.

DAD: While the fire was on?!

JUAN: Por supesto.

DAD: Well, did she burn the son of a bitch down?

JUAN: No. Should clean your pipes more.

DAD: ¡Por favor!

Mierda, she said out loud. She was inside the house now and so said it louder than she had out on the street. She tried to forget that conversation but the curse-word did make her feel better.

She lay on the floor a while longer and could see the fireplace sideways. If she had been in less pain, she’d have kicked the thing. What was she going to do? She had just gotten there but she knew she couldn’t stay. What else? Chop more wood? Put suet out for the birds? Build more cabinets? She’d come out here to relax, but now she wasn’t in any condition to do even that.

Que puta madre.

Finally the throbbing subsided enough so she could stand. María Constanza was in no state to try and do anything else. She left the mattress exactly where it was and let what was left of the fire in the fireplace die out before she closed the damper tight. She stomped out, locked the door, got in the car, and drove home. She would go up some other time with Joaquin and Christian. They could help her.

The road going home is always less exciting than the one that leads away. It was a sluggish three hours and after dark before she reached the apartment. There were two messages on her answering machine. One was from Mauricio wondering where she was and to call him at the center. The other was from Ilha. She was apologizing for what had happened earlier. Martín had told her later that she had been very good in class lately and that Ilha would push for a co-op placement. She said to call whenever she got back. María Constanza thought about meeting her and not putting up any fight. In her mind and looking at her leg, she decided no one else needed anymore stress, there and then anyway.

Got back…the tone of her voice on the message made it sound like she’d been on a trip. María Constanza guessed someone knew she’d been gone after all.

fin

Photo by Sentrawoods. Creative Commons License.

Photo by Sentrawoods. Creative Commons License.

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2 responses to “Creosote

  1. James, I look forward to reading more of your stories. This one moved right along. I was very much with Conchita until the last six lines which I had to work to untangle.

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