by Simon Jacobs
Gary won't turn on the heat in the house. He says it's too expensive.
He says when the cold really comes, we'll just wrap ourselves in blankets.
Sometimes Gary tells us to "feed" the fireplace. That's the only word he uses to say it. But we never burn anything because last summer he stopped the chimney with wool blankets. We bring the wood in from the pile under the tarp outside. It spills out of the hearth and into the den. It just sits. He says we're saving it.
He makes us kids duct tape the cracks in the walls and the doors. There are a lot of them. In the summer everything swells to fill the gaps. In the winter, everything shrinks. (In the summer, the whole house sweats. In the winter only Gary sweats.)
One morning Gary takes to the blue carpet in our living room with a pair of kitchen scissors. When we come back from school he's hanging it in wet strips from a line he's strung across the den. When we ask why, Gary laughs and says he's "cutting a rug." When Jeffrey asks why again (Jeffrey is the only one who ever asks twice), Gary narrows his eyes and says it's insulation. When Jeffrey asks insulation for what, Gary tells him to stop being nosy. Then he goes to the kitchen to put the kettle on.
The kitchen is always the hottest room in the house. When I ask why, Gary says it's because steam always wants to go north, and the kitchen is the northernmost part of our house. I ask if it's because we always make the tea there. Gary smiles and pats me on the head, reminds me to always keep the kitchen door closed.
When Jeffrey asks, Gary says that sub-zero is only relatively cold.
We stop eating in the kitchen because it's too hot; there's water boiling on the stove all the time, multiple pots just steaming and fogging over everything. Sometimes Gary's in there when we get home from school. He comes out all shiny with sweat, his shirt unbuttoned. We're bundled up from the cold outside, we can see our breath. Gary sees us, smiles, and says there's plenty of warmth by the logs.
We sit and rub our hands together over the dry wood scattered across the living room, shivering, trying to pretend.
Gary says, "I'll go get the kettle." When he pushes open the kitchen door, a burst of steam escapes. Jeffrey runs up to catch it but Gary closes the door behind him. A few minutes later Gary comes out with the kettle and a tray. He hands a cup to Jeffrey and I. His shirt is soaked through.
Gary says, "We're being British, drinking tea. Pinkies up." He says that a lot.
The color is right, but when I drink, there's no tea taste. It's just hot water.
Gary lays the strips of the carpet over the back of the couch and leaves them there. We don't know why, so we don't touch them. We stop sitting on the couch because the strips are there, bristly and purposeless and evil. They lie there for weeks like dead things.
I ask Gary if we're ever going to go north, to follow the steam. Gary says, "Why, Mary Jane, are you worried?"
I shake my head, but Gary pulls me into his chest for a hug. Pressed to him my cheek feels hot. His skin is so red now. I pull away so we don't stick together.
My face burns for hours after, but I'm still cold.
When I ask, Gary says that when it comes to human beings, we're always warmer inside than outside.
One day when we come home from school Gary's waiting for us on the couch, red and sweaty. As we unwind our scarves and take off our caps and mittens and winter coats and boots, Gary says, "Hurry up, I have something I want to show you." He points Jeffrey and I to the easy chairs, where we'd sit anyway.
Gary takes one of the logs from the fireplace and sets it upright in the center of the living room. He spreads a strip of carpet across his lap. He takes out a lighter and sets the log on fire. It takes a minute to catch, but once it does, the fire eats the wood from the top down. Gary watches the log burn from up close, his skin glowing. I turn my face away, and Jeffrey stares.
When the fire starts to tickle the floor, Gary makes his move. He wraps the burning log around with the strip of carpet in his lap, then picks it up in both of his arms. It's still burning from the top. He holds it away from his face. Standing up, Gary yells to Jeffrey, "Get the door!"
But Jeffrey's scared, and doesn't move. Gary lurches across the house and throws open the front door with one hand and heaves the log as hard as he can into the snow. It arcs through the air, twirling, then rolls a few feet on the ground until it hits a drift.
Gary slams the door to keep the cold out and goes to the window. We watch the log through the glass and the falling snow. Flames are erupting out of one side, but the carpet wrapped snug around the log contains the rest. We watch until the snow puts it out.
Gary turns to me and whispers in my ear. He says that during the thaw, they'll drill into our house and saw through our frozen blanket layers and we'll burst out warm and wet, like newborns.