By the time we got there, the house was full of flames. Furniture was scattered over the yard like scraps of trash, like the little groups of people gathered about motioning and muttering at one another and generally making a morning of it. Everybody was dressed in their Christmas Best, straight from church when they saw the smoke.
Daddy, William R. and me stuck out like dander on a navy coat. Half a dozen men stopped talking and stared at us until we were all settled in on the tailgate of our truck. Every so often, one of the old women would stretch her neck over in our direction to see what we were doing while she took another dip of snuff. We just sat on the tailgate caught between not wanting to be there and not wanting to be chased away.
Four people, faces full of nothing, eyes dry as beans and not a warm coat between them stood off to one side. One of the kids clung sheepishly to her mother’s skirt; her brother stood beside his daddy and scuffed his feet. All of them stared at the house.
Shot-gun houses, so old the paint had stripped away, go up like a match. In an hour she was nearly down. The fire cut the chimney clean like you’d bone a ham and the back of the house dissolved into bubbling wood sap. Yellow pine burned so hot the doorknobs melted. The walls fell and everything natural went silent: birds, wind blowing through the trees, dropping pecans all silent.
Somebody said, “That’s it, boys.” and the men stirred around, looking for trucks and cars and paths back to their own homes. Nobody looked at the group with kids.
Without a word, Daddy stepped up from the tailgate and walked over to the clump of men and everybody froze watching him approach. He pulled out his wallet and took out what dollars he had and stuffed them in his baseball cap. William R. stuffed some money in the cap, too. The men caught his eye and everyone waited for him to come by. He barely nodded as he went person to person, men first, then rounding back to the old women who motioned him over. It took a few minutes – a thing like that always seems to take longer than it does. Nobody asked why and nobody had much to put in.
He took the cap over to the group with kids and the man there put the money in his shirt pocket and mumbled “Merry Christmas.” Daddy nodded and immediately headed for our truck and the world took a breath and things got back natural again.
We didn’t have much to say for the longest time. When talking started again, nobody mentioned the collection and we didn’t talk about it at Christmas Dinner with everybody gathered around.