We had missed Burt's birthday. My wife and I were out of town, and now that we were back in town we were no longer together.
I went to Burt's belated celebration without her. There was Burt and his wife Lucille and Lucille's friend, a woman named Marsha.
"We're so glad you could make it!"
Burt and Lucille gave us a tour of their new house. It had four bedrooms and an office and a chandelier, which Marsha and I paused beneath and admired. The backyard had freshly cut grass, a pool, an outdoor barbecue area. Hills surrounded the house on three sides, and the hills were on fire.
We ended up in the backyard, seated on stools around a circular table. Speakers played mariachi music.
Burt was saying, "Heat-forged carbon blade, full tang triple riveted handle. Industrial grade. I could butcher dinosaurs with this thing and it wouldn’t dull."
He was holding up a cleaver, which he'd received as a gift. It gleamed in the sun. Burt kissed it.
"Handcrafted in Germany. A work of fucking art."
"He hasn't used it yet," Lucille said.
"I have used it," Burt said. "And I'm about to use it again."
"Don't lose a finger," Marsha said.
Burt had the carcass of something laid out on the counter. He hacked at it.
"So," Lucille said, facing me. "Not to pry, but."
"Get him drunk first," Burt said.
"Not everyone needs to be drunk to talk," Lucille said. "If he wants to talk about it he'll talk about it.” She said to me, “Do you want to talk about it?"
"The trip was a disaster,” I said. “We learned things about each other, discovered that we were incompatible, I guess. That's all it was."
"Where did you go?" Marsha said.
"New York always divides people," Lucille said. "It's like entering hell. I've always wanted to live there."
"New York would swallow you whole," Burt said.
"I think I'd like it there."
"Then go, honey," Burt said. "Send me a postcard.” He danced to the mariachi music and poured me a tall glass of beer from the tap. "Anyone else need a refill?"
“We’re fine," Lucille said.
Burt winked at me. "Marsha," he said. "Can I get you some wine?"
Marsha was wearing a loose sweater that hung off one shoulder. Her hair was in a tight ponytail, and her neck and teeth were extremely white.
She'd met Lucille at school. She was twenty-nine and had an ex-boyfriend named Al, who Lucille kept talking about. The mention of his name made Marsha's face twitch. When Marsha went to the bathroom, Lucille whispered to me, "He used to punch her and rip her hair out in fistfuls," followed by, "What do you think of her? She's pretty, right?" When Marsha returned the conversation circled back to me.
"Anyways," I said. "I probably won't go back to New York for a long time."
"It's better you found out now than ten years down the line," Marsha said.
"When you have kids," Burt said.
"Don't have kids," Lucille said.
"She always says that," Burt said. "It's like a punchline. What is it with you and telling people not to have kids." Burt's shirt had tiny specks of blood on it. "If people want kids let them have kids, honey. After all, that is what we were put on earth to do."
He and Lucille had a two-year-old daughter who was sleeping inside the house. We could see her on a little monitor Lucille kept near her on the table.
We drank watermelon margaritas. Marsha asked me what I did for a living. I lied. Then, for no reason, I told her about my wife.
"I wish her the best," I said.
"She's a bitch," Burt said. "Tell it like it is, Lou. A psycho bitch. No offense."
Earlier in the day a fire had started. It was visible from the freeway on the drive over, great plumes of black smoke pouring from the hills. It was spreading west.
"Brushfires," Lucille said. "Or so they say. But I like to think there's a secret group of arsons who meet only in the summer, hell-bent on destroying the world."
"She's drunk," Burt said.
"Takes one to know one."
Several helicopters circled in the near distance. They poured fire retardant on the flames, but the flames kept on.
Lucille sipped her drink and examined her wedding ring.
“Burt proposed to me on a day just like this. Twelve years ago? Do you remember that, babe? When brushfires had spread to the houses across the street and the police came and evacuated us?”
“We shared a sleeping bag that night,” Burt said.
“Down at park. Way at the bottom of that massive storm drain, surrounded by those great big oak trees. There were coyotes and owls and tarantulas.”
“And stars,” Lucille said. “And as we were falling asleep Burt asked me, just whispered in my ear. And I said yes. What else could I say?”
“Beautiful,” Marsha said.
Burt farted by the barbecue. He pointed to me and said, “That one’s for you, big guy.”
Burt asked for my assistance. Whatever carcass he’d had was crudely separated into sections—ribs and squarish chunks of flesh and bones as thick as tennis racket handles.
"Give it a go," Burt said.
He handed me the cleaver. I saw my face reflected in the blade. I saw a great swatch of blue sky and a helicopter, and in the west was the brushfire, a red diamond in black smoke.
"The key is to hit where the bones meet,” Burt said. “Right at the joints. You can knock the tops off em' and eat the marrow."
When I raised concerns about dulling the blade, he said a cleaver is not a knife. Its closest relative is the meat tenderizer.
"Feel the weight of it," Burt said. "Like holding a baby by the leg. That's the key, the weight. Cleavers don't have sharp blades. Instead they forge the iron into a square. That way it won't dull out. It uses the brute force of its own weight. You just pound away."
I hacked at something I assumed was once a leg.
Burt glanced over his shoulder. Lucille and Marsha were talking and drinking watermelon margaritas.
"What really happened?" Burt said.
"New York. Or was it even in New York? Something happened beforehand didn't it?"
"Yeah," I said. "We never made it to New York."
"Something fucked up?"
One swift blow of the cleaver, a loud crack, and a fissure drew up the long side of the bone.
"She cheated on you, didn't she?"
"Burt!" Lucille said.
"Tell me quick. Blink once if yes, twice no."
"Burt! What was the name of that place where—"
“Paradise, this place was,” Lucille said to Marsha. "Oc-ho Ri-os. Thank you, Burt…"
Burt moved in closer.
"It's true. Isn't it?" he said. “She cheated.”
"Fuck, I knew it. Lucille thought so too. That bitch. Not Lucille. Well her too. But I mean she was such a bitch, man. You can just tell she was going to tear your heart out with her fucking teeth. Damn." He drank. "I'm sorry."
Burt said bitch like someone with that name had murdered his parents.
"It’ll pass,” I said.
"Marsha's hot," Burt said, pouring another beer. He forgot he already had one. When he recognized his mishap, he offered me the beer and tried to make it seem like that was his plan all along. "What a rebound. Huge."
I didn’t know this was a setup.
I wanted to leave.
I wanted to kiss Marsha on the lips.
"God," Burt said. "Dating's exciting man. It's fun when you're older, like we are. No one knows what the fuck is going on in their twenties. When you're like twenty-five, twenty-six, your only responsibility is to be horny and confused."
"I'm twenty-eight," I said.
"Well,” Burt said. “There’s nothing good about twenty-eight. Twenty-eight’s like standing in a long line, waiting to be executed.”
He clinked my glass.
"Fuck," Burt said. "I wish Marsha was here for me." Then he took a shot of tequila. It shook him. He said, "No, no, I'm just joking around. I love Lucille. I couldn't live without her, really."
Lucille and Marsha were still talking about Ocho Rios. One of the neighbor’s horses neighed. Sunlight filtered through the sycamore trees, and up in the hills the fire was spreading. Its thin red line crested the ridge. We smelled it and watched its smoke stain half the sky. It was a part of us, another member of the group listening in.
"We're in therapy," Burt said, out of the clear blue. "We've been going like twice a week for a few months."
The song on the radio changed.
"It's been helpful. It's been nice. We'll probably stop going soon."
And that's all he said about it. For the rest of our lives he never mentioned it again.
Burt preheated the grill. Then he went inside to get more wine.
I joined Lucille and Marsha at the table.
The baby monitor vibrated and a small ring around its power button flashed colors.
"She's awake," Lucille said.
She looked around. She stared into the screen for answers. "Goddammit," she said. "She's awake and I know Burt won't get her." Lucille left us, muttering under her breath goddammit, goddamn shit…
Marsha and I were alone.
Marsha said, "This is what she wanted anyway, what her plan was all along."
“Are we being set up?”
"She told me you're cute and that you paint and play music."
"I don't paint," I said. "And I told everyone I was learning the piano, but I really wasn't and never did."
We drank whatever was in front of us.
Two helicopters circled the sky above our heads, cascading milky liquid on the inflamed hills, and a mariachi man wailed heartbreak through the radio.
"This is new for me," I said. “Honesty. That's my new thing. I'm trying to be honest. I'm unemployed."
"How do you like being employed?”
We talked on and off, nothing clean, just chunks of personal information. It was horrible. I kept thinking how much easier this was in college when alcohol made us dishonest and more likable. Now, talking was like wading through waist-deep shit.
After a while, Marsha said, "What would you think of me if you didn't know me?"
"I don't know you."
"No, but I mean if you met me like right now, right this second."
"Well, I didn't know you a few hours ago. Want me to tell you what I thought of you then?"
"That you were pretty. That you had big, nice teeth. That your laugh wasn't annoying."
"How sweet," Marsha said. She looked like she wanted to hit me.
"I also thought about kissing you. After Burt told me this thing was a set-up, I thought about kissing you."
"You don't like me at all, huh?”
"You're just…annoying. Maybe not like objectively, or whatever. But to me you're just boring. Not the type of guy I'm into."
"What type of guy are you into?"
"Someone with the same interests as me."
"Do you ever think that's a bad thing? That maybe it's better to open yourself up to people who are different than you?"
"Well that's probably why you're single."
"You're single too."
"I'm still technically married."
"Yeah," she said. "And fantasizing about kissing me."
"Once. I thought about it once. And just because you're married doesn't mean you can't think about kissing other people. In fact, that’s all marriage is.”
"Let me ask you something," I said. "Do you think people have started not liking me recently? Or have I always been unlikable?"
"It probably started recently."
Wind jostled the sycamore branches above us. The air was smoky and peaceful. You could hear the fire crackling on the ridgetops and the chatter of helicopters, which were now farther away.
But noises from the house pierced our silence. The baby was crying. Burt and Lucille were yelling at each other. We could see them through the kitchen window.
"They’re miserable," Marsha said. "Did you know that?"
“That child’s going to be miserable too.”
“I used to be miserable.”
“Did you know my ex-boyfriend used to hit me?"
"Lucille tell you?"
“It's true, mostly. But sometimes I make stuff up. Because a part of me misses that type of misery. Isn't that twisted?"
"I don't think so."
"It is twisted," she said.
"Maybe it is."
It was good to talk this openly and not care. Like standing alone in an empty prairie, saying words into the wind. And Marsha's face was something to respect, an advertisement of wisdom through pain. I was amazed at the endurance for bullshit her life required. I did not have that strength. It felt good witnessing it in someone else.
"Do you think you're going to leave your wife?" she said.
"No," I said. "She could cut off my legs. I'd still crawl back to her. What about you?"
"Same," she said. "I'm going to call him tonight. I know I am."
The yelling died down. Burt came outside with two bottles of wine and some barbecue sauce and an enormous set of tongs.
"That fire’s really going,” Burt said. The side of his face was red. "Kid woke up. Lucille's putting her back to bed. She'll be out soon."
He stood near the barbecue and drank an entire glass of wine.
The sun was going down. Fire was eating up the sky. Wind brought down ash from the hilltops, and every time we breathed a part of that fire got stuck inside of us.
Lucille came out twenty minutes later.
"Is she down?" Burt said.
"What do you care?" Lucille said. "Where are the margaritas?"
"Finished," Marsha said.
"God," Lucille said. "I need something. I need a break."
"What was that, Burt?"
"I said, Yeah, Because your life's so fucking tough."
"Keep drinking, buddy."
"She complains about her day," Burt said. He was seasoning the meat. "Let me break it down for you guys."
"No, hold on, honey. This is fun. Let me break down our days. And you guys tell me who’s got the tougher life. It's just a game."
"You're drunk,” Lucille said.
"I wake up at five-thirty every morning—"
"So do I."
"Now wait a minute, honey.” Burt talked into the pepper grinder like a microphone. “I wake up every morning at five-thirty and drive an hour to a factory. Already that's worse than anything you do, but I'll keep going."
"What I do?" Lucille said. "What I do? I'm raising your daughter."
"Yeah, I'm raising her too."
"Bullshit," Lucille said. "Bullshit. He doesn't do anything. Ask him. Ask him who wakes up with her and cooks for her and does her laundry and puts her to sleep. Ask him."
"Because you're home all day,” Burt said. “That’s like saying the majority of shark attacks happen in the water."
“I’m a single mother."
Burt threw the meat on the grill and shut the lid. “Let’s talk about something else, honey. No one wants to hear this.”
"It's worse than that actually because I get the bullshit of being married too. Having to deal with your mood swings and your tremendous alcoholism, which is fucking tremendous."
“How do you guys like your meat cooked?” Burt said. “I suggest medium-rare, but it’s up to you.”
"I think I'm going to leave," Marsha said.
"No no no," Burt said. "We're talking about something else. Lucille, please. We're talking about something else. It's been a long week. Sit, Lou. Here. Sit."
He poured me a glass of wine.
He poured Lucille a glass of wine, “Here honey,” and kissed her on the forehead. “Here baby, I’m sorry.”
Things went quiet. Smoke drifted. Our faces burned.
"You've got some fucking balls,” Lucille said.
"I'm not talking to you. I'm talking to myself." She swirled the liquid in her wine glass. "You're absent," she said.
"Your daughter doesn't even know who you are."
"Oh sure," said Burt. "You sit all day by the pool drinking watermelon margaritas and reading your trash magazines, while I'm in a fucking factory with a broken AC unit. I sweat for a living. I labor to pay for your privilege."
"And when you're not working what do you do?"
"Here she goes."
"What do you do?"
"I spend time with my family."
"I have a glass of wine."
"Oh Christ, Burt."
"This is my second glass, right here."
"What about those tequila shots. What about that fucking beer tap to your left."
“So you're keeping a tally of what I drink. Okay, we'll see.”
"We'll see what?"
"We'll just see."
"The doctor told him," Lucille said. "Literally told him, that if he doesn't quit drinking and smoking cigarettes like a retard, he'll die. The doctor used that word. Die. Yeah, as a matter fact, why don't you keep working, Burt. I'll need something to live off of when you have a stroke in thirty seconds."
"Switch places with me for one day. You couldn't."
"Neither could you."
"Of course I could."
"You've never even put her down for a nap. You don't even know what she likes eating, or what cartoons she watches in the morning."
"I've put her down for a nap," Burt said, looking at us. "I've put her down for naps."
"I sometimes wish instead of giving birth to a human that a magnum of wine would have come out of my vagina," Lucille said. "Then at least you'd show it some attention."
"I'm not doing anything."
"Just leave it."
"And he gets mad when I call him an absentee father. What else am I supposed to call him?"
"I am not," Burt said.
"You're an absentee father."
"No…you know what you are," she smiled at us and said, "a sperm donor."
In one elegant motion Burt raised the cleaver above his head and drove it into the center of Lucille’s skull.
There was something magnificent in the enormity of the act. Burt got this look on his face, like a child who’d just soiled his pants. He poked at the steaks with an 18-inch fork.
Up over the ridge we could see the orange pulse of the fire spreading from house to house among the hills. Our nostrils filled with the smell of burning wood, and bits of ash floated on the breeze past our faces. Lucille’s expression was fixed in a phantom scream, jaw unhinged, tongue loose, eyes vibrant against the contrast of red rivulets spilling over the bridge of her forehead.
"Lou, you like medium, right?" Burt said.
Lucille's fingers on her left hand twitched.
"Lou? Medium-rare? Marsha, medium? Yes?"
Burt refilled his wine glass to the brim. "Oh, Jesus," he said, sighing. "She just doesn't. She just won't shut up. All fucking day, yap yap yap yap yap." Burt sucked air through his teeth. "Ah, jeeze. Look at this. Look. At. This."
Marsha was trembling, pale. She had something running down her chin. Mariachi music blared from the radio.
"We've got an extra steak now, though," Burt said. He put his arm around me. "We'll split it, Lou. Yes we will. Here." He filled my glass with wine, even though I was drinking beer and still had about an inch left at the bottom.
Burt attended once more to the grill. Marsha and I remained at the table. A thin layer of ash was slowly staining Marsha's pale skin charcoal.
In a breeze, Lucille tilted to her left until she fell clean off the stool. "I'll get that," Burt said. "I'll get it." But he didn't move. Nobody moved. We remained just as we were, unchanged, unchanging, as the heat from the hills pressed in on us and a great dark billow of smoke formed like a levitating mountain in the western sky.
The radio sang Guadalajara, Guadalajara!
The baby cried again.
"I'll get that," Burt said. "I'll get it."
He limped off toward the house, cleaning his hands with a towel.
Marsha left. She walked as if she'd forgotten how to walk and was just learning again. Lucille's vacant stool swiveled next to me. The radio cut in …Y ahora, información de última hora del fuego…
Navid grew up in West Hills, CA. Everything he writes comes from that place in one way or another.