Fiction · 07/29/2009

When a Furnace Is All That Remains

From the bus stop I walk up the gravel service road. All of the puddles are frozen over with thin windowpane ice and I amuse myself by stomping through the sheets of crystal. They break with a sharp crunch and a whoosh as the air escapes around my boot. No puddles in the potholes beneath the ice. It’s as if all the liquid has drawn upward out of the hole to create the icy lid. I crunch eighty-three before reaching the parking lot. No vehicles. The fairways and greens are bleached with frost. I unlock the clubhouse door and enter. The chill in the room, nearly as frigid as outside, means the furnace has shut down, means for the third time in a week I’ve turned down the thermostat too low.



Fifth sign of trouble: The head professional at the club, my boss, after the last time I caused the furnace go out, said: “Three strikes and you’re out, kid. I don’t mind giving you a chance, but when you screw up like that and it costs me a service call—that’s a couple hundred bucks. Don’t let it happen again.”



Must relight the furnace before the boss arrives so I go into the storeroom, pull back the rug, and lift the trap door out of the floor. I climb down the four rungs of the ladder, crouch and duck walk under the joists until I reach the furnace. The pilot light is out. A box of wooden matches is on top of the beam. I sit cross-legged in front of the furnace with my back against a support pillar. I flip open the safety shut-off, strike the match, let it burn a second or two, then turn on the gas. I thrust the match into the pilot light and avert my face waiting for ignition. Nothing. I blow out the match and turn off the nozzle. Sniff. No gas. That’s never happened before. I’m hoping the tank is empty because that wouldn’t be my fault.



Fourth sign of trouble: After sixty days in juvie and eight weeks of weekend community service at the food bank, I still have a year of probation ahead of me—provided I stay employed.



The propane tank is out on the edge of the driving range, thirty yards or so from the clubhouse. When I get there, the light blue paint of the 500-gallon tank is glazed with a sheen of frost. A pipe exits one end of the tank and connects to the regulator. Another pipe leaves the regulator and goes into the ground and feeds the furnace. The fuel gauge, also coated with ice, is on the pipe between the tank and the regulator. I brush away the ice. Three-quarters full. The regulator must have frozen shut, cutting off the gas flow. An ice-crusted sticker on the side of the tank says: “Flammable, keep open flames fifty feet away.” I consider my options. Hot water is the obvious solution but then I remember that the hot water heater is gas, too.



Third sign of trouble: The public defender said: “The DA has a hard-on for you now. You’ve gotten thirty days twice. Car prowl. House break-in. Now busted in a pharmacy. You’re progressing down a path and he aims to stop you before you go any further.”



Hot piss seems the answer. I unzip and start peeing on the regulator. Steam rises and frost melts off the galvanized metal as the urine runs down the pipe to the frozen grass. A strong whiff of urea stings my nostrils as my bladder empties. I lean close and shake the last drops onto the regulator. I return to the furnace, light the match and turn on the gas. Nothing.



Second sign of trouble: The burglar alarm didn’t sound. Why? Two police officers waited inside the pharmacy with guns drawn.



I’m thinking fire. Head to the propane tank with the box of matches. I’m not totally sure this is a smart thing to do. There’s that flammable sign. But I figure a fire isn’t going to burn through the tank, or the pipe, or the regulator, is it? No way. And if the tank had a leak I’d smell it, right? I scrounge twigs and sticks, build up a pile beneath the regulator, then push the stack flat. Better to keep the fire small, never allow the flames to reach the regulator—which is two feet off the ground—just let the rising heat do the work. I strike a match, watch it burn a few seconds above the twigs, then shake the match out. I squat there, look over at the clubhouse, the frost on the roof and windows. I light another and hold the match under a branchlet, which curls with flame. I add twigs, make a six-inch high fire. I touch the bottom of the regulator. Chilly. I build the fire higher, until the flames are licking within a few inches of the regulator. Keep adding twigs, careful to not let the fire get out of control. Melting ice drips from the metal into the fire, where it hisses and spits. I let the fire burn for a couple of minutes and then feel the regulator. Toasty.



First sign of trouble: The pharmacy door Sonia was supposed to leave open was locked. I sliced an eight-inch gash in my arm reaching through the broken glass to unlatch the door.



I stomp the fire out and return to the clubhouse, sit cross-legged in front of the pilot light and the six tubes of the burner. I light the match, turn the valve, hear the gas, let it flow for a few seconds, then insert the match. The tubes ignite one after the other, whump whump whump whump whump whump. I snap my head back, bumping against the pillar as the blue flame flashes, gushes towards my face, then sucks back into the tubes, where it flickers, glows. My nostrils twitch with the smell of burnt hair and I twist the singed ends between my fingers. The pilot light burns steady. I wait for the furnace’s fan to switch on and then I scramble out from under the floorboards.


Steven J. McDermott is the author of the story collection Winter of Different Directions. His short fiction has appeared in journals such as Aethlon: The Journal of Sports Literature, Carve, Passages North, Word Riot, Mud Luscious, SmokeLong Quarterly, Keyhole Magazine, Night Train Magazine, and many others. He’s the editor of Storyglossia.