Gods of Jackson

by Maureen Aitken

That summer, when the lawns burst into flames, I packed some clothes and my Irish mythology books and rented a room from a farmer’s daughter in Jackson, Michigan. I was hired as an intern at a newspaper, where I wrote stories about a drought that scalded crops and ravaged family farms. A week after I moved in, Eunice and I ate dessert in front of the picture window, and Eunice told me how she had left her husband.

“He beat me,” she said. Eunice wore whipped hair, gray and high, styled once a week. She sewed all of her own A-line dresses. “So I squirreled away a dollar here, a dollar there.”

As the night came on, a ball of fire ignited in front of the corner house and then smoldered dead.

“Didn’t it take forever?” I asked.

“Seven years.” Eunice scooped up the rest of her cobbler, licking her spoon and smiled, comforted by the sweetness. Two maples shaded the front of the house, and in the day’s broiling heat, she’d keep the windows closed and curtains drawn to hold in the cool air.

The drought forced a water shortage. The government banned lawn watering, so residents in town abandoned their yards, and the blades turned tan as wheat. Three days ago a man walked by, flicked a cigarette butt, and whoosh, the lawn down the road rolled away in a wave of flames. At night Eunice opened the shades and windows. It was too dark to see people, but when we heard a snap, then a burst, we looked out to a quick ball of fire that seemed to come from the blades themselves, as if they were monks protesting the war.

“Kids,” Eunice said. “It’s a game now. They’re sneaking out into the night with their matches.”

I didn’t tell Eunice my own story. I was ashamed of it. My boyfriend, John, had just gotten out of rehab for heroin and alcohol addiction. I didn’t want her to know. But I needed her story. I thought something there might save me.

Her bulbous lip perked up. “I wrote a note: ‘I’ve saved my money and now I’m gone. You’ll never hit me again. No hard feelings. Good-bye.’”

I wanted to know which part made her smile, and if he drank, but my nerve failed me.

It was John’s second rehab. The first one didn’t take. I spent my weekends driving to Detroit, stealing looks at him. I wondered if he shot up, in the basement, in cars, in the bars on the way home. I would never know, like I didn’t know the first times. He didn’t beat me. I didn’t save up money. But day after day, I felt a withering dryness in my heart.

Even though I never told her, Eunice must have smelled it around me, not the blaze, but the sulfuric whiffs of a match just struck, the shadow of a man lurking in the dark, eyeing his chances.

“You have to be strong,” she said. “That’s what I learned.”

I didn’t know what strong meant, exactly.

“I wish I were mean,” I said. “I’ve been reading about the Celtic pagan gods. Did you know there is no god of rain? It’s Boann for rivers, Manannán mac Lir for sea and storms, Bel for crops. The Dagda is god of the Earth.”

She sucked her teeth.

“But if you want a mean god, a get-even Celtic ballbuster, I’d go with Arawn, god of the underworld and revenge. Arawn would make sure your ex-husband never bothered you again.”

“I’m not worried. He scared me at first. That’s what he wanted. He was the rock, but my faith was the river.”

She nodded once, and smiled in a funny way: Not arrogant. Like a hen.

A few kids passed slowly, eyeing her house. They were 15 at the most, smoking, glancing behind them. For a second, the kids looked as jaded as inmates. But those looks were just false bravery, like the farmers who told me that any day now rains would come.

“Eunice, I think your place is next.”

So we snuck out into the night. Eunice grabbed the garden hose, and when I turned the spigot, it ached with delight. Eunice smiled and said, “Jackson Prison here we come.” When we watered the tinder patch at our feet, the grass melted below us, limped into the mud, as if to say, “Oh, that feels good … yeah, right there.” Step after step, we bequeathed them to the glorious earth until they quivered with delight. We watered the entire postage stamp lawn this way until we felt our heels sink.

A dastardly smile erupted on Eunice’s face. I should have known. She lifted the hose and sprayed me right in the face. I grabbed the hose back, but she dodged my watery revenge. I managed to squirt part of her head, though, and the meringue swirls went limp on the left side as if her hair had had a stroke. We, giggling like girls, dousing one another, feeling the moist, prickly grass wriggle to life under our wet toes. And who would stop us now? When the cops passed, we hid behind the trees. When the kids came ’round again, they walked faster, as if they feared our wild power, as if we were fierce gods, the Arawns of Jackson, dancing in the summer of pyres.

Category: Fiction, Short Story