Brooding, edgy, and sometimes violent, Controlled Burn's loosely linked stories are each in some way a distillation of hard time spent either in prison, the backwoods of Vermont, or the badlands of the American West. Peopled by boxers, drunks, truck drivers, murderers, bounty hunters, drifters traveling under assumed names, and men whose luck ran out a thousand miles ago, these stories feel hard-won from life, and if they are moody and stark, so too are they filled with human longing.
Controlled Burn is divided into two sections: "The Northeast Kingdom" and "The Fugitive West." In each, Scott Wolven reveals a broken world where there is no bottom left to hit. In the haunting "Outside Work Detail," convicts stoically dig graves for their fellow prisoners yet reserve their deepest grief for the senseless death of a deer. "Crank" introduces Red Green, a maniacally brilliant addict who brews his own crystal meth in a backwoods lab, and whose high-energy antics inspire both cautious admiration and mortal fear in his business associates. In "Ball Lightning Reported," Red Green's ultimate fate is revealed. In "Atomic Supernova," a revenge-obsessed sheriff deputizes a known cop-killer to help him hunt down a counterfeiter and drug lord. The unexpectedly tender and heartbreaking "The Copper Kings" concerns a father facing the dark truth behind his son's disappearance. And in "Vigilance," a hunted man struggles to escape his past, always yearning for an honorable yet perhaps unreachable future.
Powered by a spare, ruminative prose style that recalls the best of Denis Johnson and Thom Jones, Controlled Burn is an unforgettable debut.
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Ball Lightning Reported
Two days into a full-on ice storm, I drove the forty-five miles north and east from Burlington to Red Green's house in Newport, Vermont. All along the way, the woods were shattered. Trees splintered from the weight of the ice, scattering limbs and trunks on the frozen snow. Blue sparks arced out of severed high-tension wires, onto the icy blacktop. The temperature shifted by the minute, changing from rain to snow to ice, back to rain. My mind mirrored the storm, fierce addiction raging, beating my brain with baseball-size hailstones of chemical need. I thought about turning around, then thought about getting high at Red's and kept going. The drive, normally fifty-five minutes in good weather with a crystal meth tailwind, took six hours.
For four years I'd made the drive from Burlington to Newport twice a week. A friend of a friend, that worst of all bridges, had hooked me up with Red again. The friend of a friend mentioned the name and said I should go see Red, that he'd been asking about me.
The first time I saw him again I said, "How'd you find me?"
"I've never lost anything," Red said. "Not a penny, not a memory. Never lost anything. I've gotten rid of some crap, some people, but I don't allow myself to lose things."
I'd just started working at the medical waste facility in South Burlington. Red suggested he might be able to salvage some pharmaceutical-quality drugs from the plastic biohazard containers I stuffed into the industrial autoclave every night. Twice a week, I made sure two full waste containers found their way into the back of my truck.
Red was always happy and so was I -- four containers a week paid for all my drugs, mostly a lot of hash and a little hillbilly heroin, OxyContin, with the occasional jolt of some high-octane crank to make sure I functioned during the day. All with as much beer as I could swallow for a chaser. Red stuck to harder stuff than that. Angel dust and liquid cocaine, mixed with dental anesthesia. He was a tweak freak too, and then he'd apply the heroin brakes for a week. The containers I brought would sometimes yield a gold nugget -- a half-used bag of morphine, a Haldol drip, or a pound of brightly colored, professional-strength get-high Chiclets. Red had connections and customers for all of it. I never really knew where he got his other stuff. Anybody with crystal meth usually has biker friends, but I never saw any bikers at Red's. Twice weekly, I'd get high at his house, then take the rest of my new stash back to Burlington. Four years of this arrangement had bumped me up to angel dust and meth, until I needed heroin to dampen the evil hum that became my internal theme music.
The storm peaked as I reached the outskirts of Newport, ice pellets machine-gunning the truck's windshield under huge, irregular booms of thunder. Red Green's house sat on the edge of Lake Memphremagog. I followed the old shore road around the giant frozen lake until I was in front of his house, a one-level, white shack with a concrete block for a step and pink insulation stuffed inside the windows. As I got out of the truck, I pulled up the collar of my barn jacket against the ice pellets and made a dash for the back door, which faced the lake. I could smell woodsmoke. Thunder boomed and lightning struck the lake a hundred yards from the back porch. Right where the bolt hit, I saw three balls of glowing, crackling light. The balls rose slow off the ice and traveled about thirty feet, each one hissing and spitting and fading, until they dissipated into nothing. The sight-echo of three bright spots stayed on my eyes.
I opened the back porch door. Red was lying on the couch wearing a dirty flannel shirt and a pair of jeans, with logger's boots. The fireplace was going full blast, the flames providing the only light in the room. As close to the fire as he could get without being burned was a long, short-haired dog. He was pretty big, close to a hundred pounds. He had a blanket over his butt and he was shaking, his collar and tags jingling. The dog was a new addition since my last visit. I nodded at Red and he pointed to the table on my left. I pulled a chair out and sat down and smoked a fair amount of hash and angel dust before I turned to speak to him.
"What's wrong with your dog?" I asked.
"He can't stand the cold, and thunder makes him nervous," Red answered. We both looked at the dog, still shaking under the blanket close to the fire.
"What kind of dog is he?" I wondered.
"Rhodesian ridgeback," Red said.
I shook my head. "Never heard of that."
Red pointed to the floor and I noticed a stack of books, all with identical blue bindings. "Look it up. I got some encyclopedias the other day. A guy knocked on the front door and said he was selling them. I got him high and he gave me a set."
I looked at Red. "He was really selling encyclopedias door-to-door out here, in this weather?"
Red shook his head. "He wasn't selling encyclopedias door-to-door. He was selling these encyclopedias. He bought them for his wife and now she ran off to Florida, so he wanted to get rid of them. He's local, I've seen him before -- you'd know him if you saw him. He's got big bucked teeth. I think his name is Dixon."
I moved to the floor and looked at the encyclopedias. I pulled out the letter R and leafed through it. Under the entry "Rhodesian ridgeback," there was a picture of Red's dog.
"What does it say?" Red asked.
"Those dogs were bred to hunt lions. Some people call them The Lion Dog. They have a ridge of fur on their back."
I crawled over toward the fire and examined the dog's back. A sharp line of short fur, pointing up from the rest of his coat, rode directly along the dog's backbone. I read further in the encyclopedia. "It says that Rhodesia doesn't exist anymore. This calls it 'the former Rhodesia.'"
Red thought for a moment. "That's true about a lot of things," he said. He leaned forward and snorted some whitish powder off the coffee table in front of him.
I looked at the R volume closely. "Encyclopaedia Britannica" was engraved on the front cover, in cheap gold script. Stamped in the middle of the spine was the letter R. At the top of the spine, written in gold, was the year 1985. Some of the other books had different years stamped on them and slightly different covers. "These are old," I said. "These aren't new. They're no good. Some of them are from different years."
Red picked up a beer bottle from the coffee table, took a long drink, and set it back down among the other, empty bottles. He shook his head. "What difference does that make, as long as they're all there? The letters are all there. How can they be no good?"
"They aren't accurate. The information is old, and anything that happened after eighty-five is missing." I crawled over to the pile of encyclopedias and put R back on top.
"Stuff doesn't change that much," said Red. "Read me something that's changed. Start at the beginning, find A, and read me something that's changed a lot." He snorted more powder off the coffee table.
I found A and opened to the first page of text. "Okay. Here's something that's changed a lot."
"Read it to me."
Outside, the storm wailed.
I cleared my throat. "It's information about alcoholism, but they have this side story, about how this guy got sent to Eastern Oklahoma Hospital for the Insane and how they made him bite on a raw steak while they gave him electroshock therapy."
Red looked at me. "How has that changed? People still do that. I know people that have gone to the hospital for drinking."
"No. Alcoholism treatment has changed a lot."
Red shrugged. "They do the same thing today, but with different drugs." Then he nodded. "Okay, that's a change, they don't talk about modern drugs. But that's not a big change. They still put alkies in the bughouse." He stood and went to the kitchen. I heard him open the fridge. When he walked back into the living room, he had a raw steak in his mouth. The dog stared at him.
"What are you doing?" I said.
He talked around the steak, muffled. "In case I get shocked." Blood from the steak dripped on his chin and shirt. "Life is shocking." He took it out of his mouth and flipped it to the dog. It didn't seem to last three bites.
"Electroshock therapy," I said. "That can kill you." I nodded at the encyclopedias. "It's out-of-date."
"Okay. They're out-of-date." Red nodded. "Okay, that's pretty bad. But I'm telling you, even today, if they get you into one of those nuthouses, you're in for it." He took a drink of beer. "Those posh rehabs you see on TV are for movie stars. Don't kid yourself -- scum like us get sent to lockdown joints. The rich men get ice in the summer and the poor men get ice in the winter, but don't tell me that's an even break."
"But the electric shocks could be worse than the drinking," I said.
Red nodded. "Okay, that doesn't sound so good. When I'm high I'm high, but when I'm not, I'm not. The shit doesn't carry over from one day to the next unless I get high again. Therefore," he finished, "I do not battle demon addiction." He listened to the storm and pointed at the books. "At least I've got a full set." He looked over at me. "Find F, and look up faro."
I came up with F. "What's faro?"
"An old-time card game." He drank some beer.
I found faro. "Here it is. It says, 'Card game played with an ordinary fifty-two-card deck, by any number of persons, for the sole purpose of gambling.'" A brief set of rules followed.
"A new encyclopedia wouldn't have that. That's an old-time game." He nodded. "My mother used to talk about faro. See, that's worth something right there."
I shook my head. "But important stuff is missing." I leafed through F. The two Fords listed were Henry and Gerald. "It doesn't even have President Ford's wife getting sober. Or him getting shot at."
Red sniffed more powder off the coffee table. "What do I care about him? He's dead."
"No he isn't. See, that's what I mean, stuff is missing." We sat silent. I got up and snorted some more dust, all up my right nostril. The dog was still shaking.
"As long as I've got a full set, that's all I care about," Red said.
I decided to tell him about the ball lightning. "Hey, know what I saw coming in here?"
Red shook his head.
"Ball lightning," I said.
I crawled back over to the encyclopedias. "I'll look it up. My father used to talk to me about it, how lightning can travel in a ball if the weather is right." The B volume didn't have an entry for ball lightning.
"Try weather," Red suggested. "See, if you'd been struck, I could have helped you out with that steak."
"I'll try meteorology," I said. I started to go through M.
Red sipped a beer. "What day is it?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said. I could tell Red was headed for a weird altitude, either going up or coming down, I couldn't quite tell which.
"I think it's my mother's birthday."
I nodded. "You should call her."
"I tried before, but the phones are out," he responded.
"Where does your mom live?" I asked.
"She used to live in Reno. She likes to gamble," he
said. "But I think she moved to Toronto. I should go visit her."
"You could wish her happy birthday," I said.
"How much does a ticket to Toronto cost?" he asked.
"I'll look it up," I said and pawed through the encyclopedias. T was missing. "Red, T's missing."
"That guy was such an asshole. I fucking said to him, 'Are they all there?' and he said, 'Oh, yeah, all the letters.' What a bastard!" Red got off the couch and started to pace around. "You better go. Leave. Lately, when I start to come down, shit gets ugly. I'll catch you later."
"But the storm -- " I started.
"I don't give a fucking damnhell about the storm!" His face was inflamed and his eyes narrowed. His words slammed around. "You're leaving. Now!"
I got off the floor and walked out the back door. It was raining a little, thunder rumbling in the distance. Red followed me. I heard him mumble "fucking Dixon" as he reached the porch.
"Hey," he said. "Help me with the snowmobile. I can drive to see my mother."
Parked next to the house was a snowmobile. I took the scraper out of my truck and started smacking ice off the seat. Red came back with a kitchen knife and knocked most of the ice off the dashboard. He sat on the seat and turned the key. The engine sputtered and coughed, then stayed running. The headlight came on. Red whooped.
"Fucking shit works!" he said. He pointed straight ahead, over the icy lake. "That's Canada, right?"
I mouthed "yes" over the now-roaring engine.
"Here I go," he said. "The former Red Green." He put his hands on the steering handles and gunned the throttle. The snowmobile jumped forward, then gained speed toward the lake, leaving a choppy trail from its single belt track. Red flew -- out over the ice, faster, until he was eighty yards offshore. The snowmobile broke through the frozen surface and the machine disappeared into the water, taking Red down with it, under the ice. I stared at where he'd been, the hole. A faint glow from the snowmobile's taillights filtered up through the ice, then faded. I knelt on the frozen snow as my high started to really kick in. I saw the ridgeback standing on the back porch. The dog opened its mouth to bark, but what came out was my voice, screaming.
I woke up facedown in the snow, covered with a thick layer of ice. My face was raw and tight. The trail of the snowmobile led out onto the lake and abruptly stopped near a newly frozen patch. I shook myself off and climbed into my truck. The ridgeback came out of the house when the engine turned over. I opened the passenger's door and he hopped in, shaking from the cold.
I drove back to Burlington. The road was the same going in as it had been coming out, except that I was suddenly alive, with a desire to stay that way. I never actually saw ball lightning again, although I know it occurs from time to time.
Copyright © 2005 by Scott Wolven
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