“Regrets” by Bart Scagnelli

02Mar09

After the first snowfall of autumn you’re allowed to burn leaves in Crivits.When I was a boy, Grandpa saved up leaves and pine needles from the yard and put them in big burlap sacks underneath his front porch. On Christmas Eve, the whole family came to his house to swap gifts, eat pot roast, and sip on Irish coffee. When the sun sank below the tree-line he took the sacks from underneath the porch and made a huge bonfire. Once it was kindled and blazing everyone gathered around to throw in their regrets from the past year.

For Dad it was bank statements or husks from a bad crop. He kept them in an oak box under the seat of his truck and wouldn’t let anybody see what was in it until he threw them into the fire. It was always cold that time of year in Crivits, and we kept close. I would stand next to Dad when he threw in his regrets and I could feel the warmth of the fire flaring up when they dropped into the flames. If I was standing too close I would feel my cheeks get hot, and when it died down again I would feel the cold more than I had before.

Mom clipped articles from the newspaper and saved them in a green glass jar in the spice cabinet. When it was time, she removed them from the jar and clenched them in her fist. She would step forward from Dad’s arms and toss them all in at once. Murders, rapes, and foreclosures turned the flames bright new colors in an instant and then disappeared forever. She stood still for a minute, the light of the fire reflecting off her thick glasses, then walked backward into Dad’s embrace.

Mom usually helped me pick things to throw in. One year it was an especially bad report card. Another it was the cast I had worn for four months when I broke my leg building G.B. Archur’s tree house. When I was nine, my mom made me throw in my baseball glove because I quit the team in the middle of the season. I remember the smell of the burning leather as the breeze blew it in my face. The laces curled up like two little fingers closing into a fist, and I curled my fingers inside my pockets, promising myself never to forget how it felt to quit.

Ever since I can remember, Grandpa stood by himself, feeding the flames with more leaves. I always figured he didn’t have any regrets, or none that could be summed up by a piece of paper. Dad told me it wasn’t always that way. When Dad was a boy, Grandpa fed the fire with everything from corks to almanacs. He even threw in a homemade Packers hat one year in the late forties. Then one year he just stopped, and from then on it was only leaves.

When I was twelve years old I asked him what happened to the leaves after they fell in the fire.  That was the year he’d broken his arm chopping wood two weeks earlier.  He turned to me, expressionless.  Then he smiled gently and patted me on the head with his good arm, saying nothing. 

Something else broke in him when he broke his arm. It was early in the morning. He always chopped wood early because Grandma liked to wake up to the steady beat of the ax.   

“It’s loud enough so you hear it, but not loud enough to make you quit the dream right away,” she explained one afternoon a couple years after. “You spend a few minutes somewhere between asleep and awake, like walking from the garden back into the house. Sometimes I would be dreaming and there would be your Grandpa, right there chopping wood. He looked younger of course, like when we were first married. I liked having him nudge me awake every morning. Sometimes he did it even when we already had plenty of wood chopped, just to be sweet, ‘cause he knew I liked it.”

   He didn’t do anything special to break his arm; he just chopped the wood the same way he always had for God knows how many years. Then he felt the pain and decided to take a break. A couple days later when they needed wood he went out again early in the morning. Grandma woke up to “God damn it!” Rusty from lack of use. When he came inside she was waiting for him, worried of course. He pretended it wasn’t that bad and refused to go to the hospital. But the next day when Dad stopped by he convinced him to see Dr. Lombardo. Dad brought me along.

“Looks like you’ve had a stress fracture here for quite a while and it got worse until it finally just snapped the whole bone,” Dr. Lombardo said. I imagined a split piece of pine, but when he pointed with his pencil to some X-rays it was just a little faint line like a flaw in a piece of glass. “You shouldn’t be chopping wood at your age, Herb. I’m surprised this didn’t happen earlier, to be frank. Just have your wood delivered or pick it up at the gas station. Or maybe this strapping fellow can do it for you,” he said, pointing to me, sizing me up.

“I’m not as crippled as you think I am, Lombardo. I could still give you a nice left hook. My father chopped wood ‘til the day he died. I’ll tell you when I’m ready to have someone do my work for me. If everybody sat on their rumps like you want, then we’d all freeze to death.”

Grandpa was a stubborn man. He’d never be ready to be cared for. I was the designated wood chopper for the days before Christmas. I could barely lift the ax by the end of the first day. Grandpa sat in a lawn chair watching me chop each piece, instructing me like a baseball coach with a pitcher.

“Don’t stop at the top now, just make it one motion.”

Chop.

“Good, good, only this time make sure you follow through so the wood splits all the way down. See how it’s stopping half way and your blade is getting stuck?”

Chop.

“That’s right, but you don’t need to sweat so much. Let the ax do the work for you, see? It doesn’t need to wring too much sweat out of you. This is just pine, son. Chop some oak, then you’re gonna sweat, but this pine splits real easy.”

Chop.

The next day I had calluses on my hands. Grandpa handed me his good work gloves. They were suede, but years of sweat and frost had hardened them so that bending the fingers was work in itself. 

“You can give them back once I don’t need you any more,” he told me.    

That year Dad gave him a light chainsaw and a new set of gloves for Christmas. The saw worked all right, but Grandma didn’t much enjoy waking up to the buzzing of a two stroke engine like she enjoyed the smooth steady chopping of an ax. After that, Grandpa didn’t quite see the point anymore. He still woke up early, but he spent most of his time in the shed making birdhouses and trying to hold on to the last thorny twigs of physical usefulness he could find. Grandma slept in later.

I kept chopping wood with the ax though, and it wasn’t long before my shoulders bulged and I was throwing pictures of girls into the fire. It’s strange how we find ourselves grown up, and how when we are young we never quite believe it’s going to happen. I imagine this is what Grandpa was thinking when he watched me chop wood through the window of the shed. 

The first snow seems to come later and later these days, but we still make the fire. We will never run out of kindling. Grandpa died of cancer years ago, and Grandma followed not long after, like many couples who are close. Now Dad feeds the fire with leaves. Last night, my son Sam asked him what happens to the leaves that are thrown into the fire. Dad just smiled and patted him on the head. Sam looked up at me. His eyes remind me of Grandpa. I know now what happens to the leaves. When a leaf flutters into the flames, it will never be a leaf again. It turns into the smoke that spreads itself evenly throughout the night sky, and the ash that dances on the coattails of the wind.

 

Bart Scagnelli lives and works in Chicago, where he was born and raised. He studied creative writing at the University of Iowa. When he is not writing, Bart works for The Man.

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Notes from April Galarza, Associate Editor
“Regrets” is a quiet story filed with crisp imagery and a swaying rhythm of language. It is about growing old, about what changes over time and what remains universal for all ages. It was the emotional investment of each object burned by the characters that drew me in.  I loved how each object revealed insights into the characters. I liked the secret motivations and how so much was passed through the generations.

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Comments on this story by Ilan Herman, author of “Chan Kim”
“Regrets” is a melancholy tale delicately written. Bart captures how time waits for no one; seasons come and go, children grow up, and old people die, much like the leaves that burn in the fire, turn to smoke, and then disappear into thin air. The bonfire of regrets reminded me of a ritual in Judaism, when, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the faithful go to the ocean shoreline and cast stones into the water, each stone representing a sin they wish to discard.



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