by J. Robert Lennon, recommended by Electric Literature
EDITOR’S NOTE by Halimah Marcus
If you’ve ever spent time in a house heated by a wood-burning stove, you know that you structure your day around the “the acquisition, management, and burning of firewood.” The desire to be warm is so basic, the need for firewood so endless, one might, given the right circumstances, become obsessed with these activities. In “Firewood,” J. Robert Lennon takes it further. An unruly woodpile and a deteriorating marriage propel a swift and thorough psychological delusion, aided by grief, pot, and vodka.
When the narrator’s wife (expectedly) leaves him, too devastated to admit the obvious, he concocts an impossible explanation for her disappearance. All I’ll say is that it involves the woodpile. The invented story is more horrible than the truth, but somehow easier to manage. With remarkable efficiency Lennon exposes the masochistic part of us that takes twisted comfort in worst-case scenarios.
If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that logic is the sworn enemy of grief. But to leave it there would do the story a disservice. Because the addendum to that conclusion is that grief, in all its snot, flailing, and irrational behavior, is also hilarious.
I first heard this story when Lennon read a version of it at Electric Literature’s night at the Franklin Park Reading Series. After the reading, he lamented that the following passage caused him to scream “fuck” over and over again at the audience, which that night, included his parents: “He entered the forest thinking, fuck, all this wood, it’s fucking everywhere, everything’s made of wood, the house, the forest, fucking everything, it just fucking grows here. You can’t stop it. Yet he paid a guy to bring it to his house.” I can’t speak for Mr. and Mrs. Lennon, but in my opinion, the fucks were well worth it. Because with them comes insight into the basic illogic of even our menial behaviors, the abundance our miscalculations and backwards assumptions, the endless supply of shit we both do and do not need. And most importantly, the realization that, at a certain point, you just have to laugh.
Co-Editor, Electric Literature
J. Robert Lennon
THEY WERE EITHER GOING TO BREAK UP, or they were going to buy this enormous house in the country. That was the choice. They did not admit this to each other, nor did either of them confide in their friends about it, but privately, each was trying to decide whether to break up or buy the house. On balance, he preferred buying the house, and she preferred breaking up. Or, more specifically, he did not want to break up and also didn’t want to buy the house, but believed that agreeing to buy the house would prevent the breakup that he really quite avidly opposed. Whereas she was ambivalent about every possibility: buying the house and staying together, staying in their apartment and breaking up, buying and breaking, staying and staying. What she really wanted was another version of her life in which she hadn’t made the choices she did, but this would have been difficult to admit. And so in the end he won the debate. They stayed together and bought the house.
He was right, actually — buying the house did prevent the breakup. It kept them very busy. She had a job in town, as an attorney representing recent immigrants to the area, and he didn’t need to work, at least for the time being, thanks to an inheritance that seemed very large by their usual standard of living. His job, as he saw it, would be to learn carpentry and other manual skills while making the house habitable, and to devise ways of making her happy. He was not good at either, but he got by for a while — he replaced floorboards, killed a lot of mice, painted, repaired broken windows. And he bought her flowers and cooked the food that she liked, and massaged her feet and legs, and did the sexual things she liked, although he didn’t like them as much as she did, and privately, she didn’t like them as much with him as she had with other men before him.
This state of affairs lasted a long time — nearly two years. During this time the house became not only habitable but quite nice, and they hosted several parties, to which they invited people she knew. They didn’t invite people he knew because he didn’t know anybody. His only encounters with other people happened at the supermarket, the hardware store, and the jazz club that was really a health food restaurant where he liked to listen to mediocre local music. The last of these was the only place where he was likely to make any friends, but he didn’t. He was shy. (She had liked that about him, at least at first, but now, she regarded it as a demerit.) He didn’t really need friends, he thought. He just needed her. He loved her — was obsessed with her, in fact. They were both thirty years old when the following series of events occurred.
At the beginning of autumn, the furnace went on the fritz; and, rather than pay to have it repaired, he bought and installed an enormous wood stove. She had approved, tentatively, after hearing his promise to handle, in all particulars, the acquisition, management, and burning of firewood. As long as she was warm in their house, she was game. He then ordered five cords, that is, an entire truckload, of firewood, which would be delivered to the house at some point in the next few weeks.
But before it arrived, she threw a party — a massive barbeque to which all her co-workers, friends, and clients were invited. This group was quite lively and diverse in age, education, race, and nationality, and he had a good time with these people, at his own house, and thought maybe some of them might become his friends. As the evening wore on, however, he noticed that his wife was spending most of her time with a man a bit older than she — a thin man, maybe Vietnamese, with an easy laugh and a sharp, assessing gaze. The man was handsome, and several times throughout the party he familiarly placed a hand on his wife’s shoulder or back, or brought her a drink.
Ten days later, he was trapped in town all day while the mechanic worked on his pickup truck, and two things happened during these hours: his wife left him, and the firewood arrived. She didn’t leave a note, but her closet and drawers were empty, and her cosmetics, phone, purse, and umbrella were gone. The firewood pile was enormous — roughly circular, taller than he was, and more than twenty-five feet in circumference. It blocked the entrance to the garage, so he had had to leave the truck in the driveway. His wife, surely, had run off with the handsome Vietnamese man. The way he touched her, the way he glanced across the party at him, as if in challenge — there was no doubt. He had no idea how he would manage to stack this firewood. He had to do it, though, if he was going to stay here. It would soon be cold, his money was running low, and his furnace didn’t work.
Instead of stacking the wood that night, he got completely drunk on leftover barbecue booze and smoked the entire contents of his plastic baggie of weed. Historically this had not been a wise combination, and tonight was no exception. He became confused, paranoid, and nauseated. Before he vomited on the kitchen floor and went to bed, he became convinced that his wife had not, in fact, left him, but had been buried underneath the pile of firewood when the firewood man came to drop it off. She was under there, and she needed him to save her. He wanted to do this right then, in the night, but his body was too weak and he was too sick. He fell asleep.
In the morning, sober, he cleaned the kitchen floor and administered aspirin for his head. But his conviction about his wife remained. She was under the woodpile. When he called her office, he was told she wasn’t in, and couldn’t get any more information out of the place. This only lent credence to his theory. He was aware that the theory must be wrong; nevertheless he knew it to be correct.
He went out in the yard in his jeans and work boots. It was raining. He stared at the pile of firewood. She was under there. He could almost sort of hear her crying. He was not drunk or high now, but he was certain.
He set to work. He stacked the firewood in the lee of the barn, crosshatching as he went. In his conception of events, the only way to save his wife, to rescue her alive from the bottom of the firewood pile, was to carefully stack the wood as he removed it. He could not fling firewood off the pile willy-nilly; he had to be careful and organized. He was still not physically well; his headache came back and he got sick again, this time in the grass. When he later passed by the spot where he’d been sick, he found a horrifying swarm of black beetles crawling over the vomit. This made him sick again. Somehow the beetles seemed akin to the firewood, he couldn’t put his finger on how. He was starting to cry now. The firewood pile was down to about four feet tall and every muscle in his body ached. He went inside and called his dealer and then drove into town for more weed, which he brought home and smoked. Then he ate some tortilla chips and a granola bar and some carrots and some cookies drank a glass of milk and a glass of vodka, then he went back outside, where it was dark, but where a spotlight affixed to the barn was trained on the firewood pile. His wife was crying more loudly now — or perhaps she was just easier to hear, due to the decreasing size of the woodpile.
He worked through the night. He felt terrible. Somehow he lost his work gloves and so his hands were soon lacerated and filled with splinters.
Eventually the ground showed through in spots, and then all that was left was kindling. His wife was wailing now — her cries were all he could hear. He carefully stacked the kindling, and then there was just one piece left, a thin strip of wood, mostly bark, about nine inches long and half an inch thick. His wife was underneath it. All he had to do was reach down and pick it up, and she would be restored to him.
Instead he went inside, collapsed, weeping, into bed, and eventually fell asleep. He must have kept crying during the night, because when he woke up the pillow was wet. The man from the party was standing in the bedroom doorway. He had just knocked on the open door. He said, “She send me for her other things.”
“I come get her things.”
“She make a list.” There it was, in the man’s hand: a medium-sized piece of yellow paper, torn from a reporter’s spiral notebook. The opposite hand was inside the man’s jacket pocket, possibly clutching something, possibly a weapon.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he told the Vietnamese man, starting to cry again, “I tried to save her. I worked all night. She was — she was just — I couldn’t pick it up. I couldn’t…”
The man said, “Maybe you go for a while, maybe couple hour. Not take me too long.”
He lay there in bed, getting control of himself, while the man stood there waiting for him. The man looked very patient. In the end, he managed to get up, fill a bottle with water, and walk off the property. He left the front door wide open. The Vietnamese man’s car was parked where the pile of firewood used to be; the piece his wife was under lay just ahead of the left front tire. He felt like a fool. He was a fool — that’s why she’d wanted to break up two years ago. He wished now that they had. He entered the forest thinking, fuck, all this wood, it’s fucking everywhere, everything’s made of wood, the house, the forest, fucking everything, it just fucking grows here. You can’t stop it. Yet he paid a guy to bring it to his house. The guy brought the fucking wood, killed his wife, and drove away. And now his wife was dead and another guy was robbing him. What the fuck. What the fuck!
A wind came blowing through the trees and he realized that he was cold. He wasn’t wearing a shirt! Jesus, how could he not have noticed that? He actually laughed as he scanned the ground around him for a good heavy branch, and when he found one, he hefted it in his hands. He couldn’t hold both the branch and the water bottle, so he dropped the bottle on the ground. Then he took a deep breath, and sprinted as fast as he could — not very fast, really — back towards the house.
When he arrived, he saw that the man was there, still there, standing in front of his car, hands on hips, facing the woods as though waiting. He stopped about thirty feet from the man, panting, shivering, clutching the branch in his hands. It truly was heavy — too heavy to swing. As if reading his mind, the Vietnamese man said, “Go ahead! Go ahead, buddy!”
“Get off my property!”
The man just shook his head. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a key ring.
The branch was hurting his arms, so he hefted it, trying to get a better grip. “Go back to where you belong!” he shouted, still unsure of what to do next. “Leave us alone!”
The man appeared surprised, then angry. “Fuck you, loony!” he shouted. “I’m from Binghamton! I’m a lawyer!”
There was a silence.
“How about you go back where you belong, huh?” the man continued, jingling the keys in his hand. “Where you supposed to be, huh? You standing in the cold with a stick, huh? Get a job!”
The man’s face was red and shining. He bent over and picked something up. It was a piece of firewood — the last one. The man flung it, ineffectually, so that it landed with a thunk on the frozen ground between them. Lying there, it didn’t look like anything special.
“Get a job, asshole!” the Vietnamese man repeated, and at last climbed into his car and, slowly and carefully, backed out of the driveway. Soon the car was gone, and silence descended over the yard.
He didn’t know how long he stood out there, shivering — probably not very long, actually. Everything in the world felt very real and very small. It occurred to him that maybe there was something wrong with him. He turned and walked back into the woods, to put the branch back where he found it and to find his water bottle.
No one disturbed the yard for a long time, then. There was only the pickup truck in the driveway, the neatly stacked firewood pile, and the silent, empty house. Eventually darkness fell and nothing was visible at all.