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The Fire on Poteau Mountain
Andy Monroe felt guiltier than any person I ever knew. And there wasn’t much that either of us could do to about it. He couldn’t make it better. I couldn’t make it better. He just felt guilty. I remember sitting with him in my living room, listening to him painfully tell me his story, wishing I could fix his problem, but knowing that I couldn’t. When he finished, he stared silently, almost peacefully (if that wasn’t impossible given the circumstances), out of my living room window onto the tops of trees and houses and a nice view of the valley and town down below us, and he was broken and lifeless with the weight he was carrying.
That was all a long time ago now, though I’m grateful I can still remember it so clearly. It was back when he should have been worrying about Richard Nixon, or integration, or the war, or bell bottoms. That’s what the rest of the people his age would have been thinking about in those days. My age too, actually, for I wasn’t that much older than he was. But Andy Monroe had other things on his mind. After months of worrying and running, all he could think about by the time he came to see me and to tell me his story, was his guilt. And he had plenty of it.
I fumbled for things to say to him, but I was new in the ministry in those days, and there wasn’t a thing that I could think of to tell him. There are times when platitudes are good, and times when they are not. This was a not-good-time. For over an hour he had yelled, and cried, and even pleaded to God for some kind of divine resolution to the whole mess, and now he was just quiet—definitely a not-good-time for platitudes.
“What are you going to do now?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said, his eyes still looking out my window. The trees were beginning to turn, and the bright greens were slowly changing to gold and red.
Actually, if he hadn’t been so miserable, he would have enjoyed looking through my window that day. The mountain could be dazzling that time of the year. The leaves were turning red and they gave the impression that the whole side of the mountain was on fire. Soon winter would come, and the scene would be stripped bare and harsh. The mountain would begin to look as cold and gray as I’m sure his soul felt.
“I kind of thought I would ask you what I should do next,” he said. “What should I do?”
Andy lived just down the street from me—he and Donna and little Alice, who would be about thirty something today, but was only a year or so old back then. I knew his parents too, and they were good people. His daddy worked for the fire department up in Poteau, and his mother was a nurse in the clinic. They were one of the first families I met when I moved to town. Andy had grown up in the youth group, and later was a counselor himself at the camp down at
They got married as soon as they finished college. I did the wedding, and I was proud to do it. Then they moved back here into a little rent house up on Morris Creek Road, and just about everyone wished the best for them. We all figured they’d just settle down and raise kids and be pillars of Heavener.
But life started getting complicated on them about then. The thing was, there wasn’t much work in Heavener in those days. Andy had gotten a teaching certificate in math, and he’d hoped he could get on at the high school someday, or maybe up at the junior college. But that could take a long time, and meanwhile there wasn’t much else he could do around town with that kind of degree. There wasn’t any real industry, and the railroad offices had closed and moved out of town. Finally he did get a job taking care of the accounts for one of the Blanchard’s Feed and Seed stores which was out on the highway next to the Wood-n-Rail Restaurant. I know he didn’t like it much, but it was about all he could find back then, and the Blanchard’s folks thought he was wonderful. They weren’t used to someone just walking in off the streets who was good with math and knew how to keep books. He worked there pretty steady for about a year, just about enough for him and Donna to start getting on their feet, and then the Blanchard’s people decided to shut down the store. It just wasn’t cost effective, they said, to keep a bunch of these little stores open all across southern
So in April of that year, 1972, Andy packed up his ‘65 VW Beetle, with not much more than his clothes and a shaving kit, and drove himself for half a day’s ride down through the Kiamichi Mountains to spend the summer and the better part of the fall in Durant, Oklahoma.
Durant is a much bigger town than Heavener, and it had a busier downtown than we did. Their Blanchard’s was right in the center of town, next to the bank and the post office, in an old dime store that had gone under. Andy was lucky, in that he was able to find a fairly nice sleeping room up over the bank, so he didn’t have to walk very far, and it was pretty cheap. There was also a little diner, named “Barry’s,” across the street from Blanchard’s that most everybody at the store ate in, so Andy kind of adopted the place and ate most all of his meals there.
At first he tried to come home every weekend, but it was a brutal drive, and he was sure his Beetle couldn’t keep it up. So it wasn’t long before he and Donna decided that he would try to get home only around once every month, or on times when there was a special occasion. It wasn’t a good arrangement, but it was all he could handle, and they needed the money.
His work load wasn’t so much hard as boring. Pretty much every day was the same. Get up. Shower and dress. Eat breakfast at the little diner across the street. Fiddle with the books until noon. Eat at the diner for lunch. In the evening, he’d leave work, make the deposit at the bank, eat supper at the diner again, and then go back up to his room over the bank and watch TV until he fell asleep. In the beginning it was very bad, but after a while some of the badness began to wear off and it became just interminably boring and something he had to endure.
Because his visits to “Barry’s” were such a part of his routine, he eventually got to know all of the staff by name, and they all knew him. Actually, they were about the only social life he had during those months he worked in Durant. In the mornings the entire staff was Barry himself, the owner. He was tall and bony, about forty to forty-five years old. He was a Korean War vet and had a long shiny scar from a shrapnel wound on his right forearm that itched when the summer heat made him sweat. He would arrive there before anyone else to get the deep-fry turned on and the grills hot, and about then Andy would come in, often the first customer. During lunch the waitress was Opal, a wobbly but venerable antique, who had been wanting to retire for years, but Barry wouldn’t let her because she was the only person on staff who could command respect from all of his customers. She had gotten into a fight once, some years earlier, with a drunk over his bill, which he claimed he had paid but she knew he hadn’t. He pulled a knife on her and demanded she empty the cash register, so she grabbed a sugar shaker and cold cocked the guy and dragged his body into the alley. After that Barry never had any trouble with any other customer again. At supper time Barry’s son, David, came on. He was home for the summer from his sixth or seventh year at SMU, and was working at the family diner while he decided what his third major in the fall would be. He was pleasant enough, but his hair was too long, and he liked to unbutton his shirt to his navel, so some of the customers didn’t like him.
Eventually, out of a combination of boredom and an inability to sleep well, Andy started dropping by Barry’s place later on at night to read a book and drink coffee, and that’s when he got to know the night staff too.
The late-shift waitress came on at 10 p.m.. She was a woman in her early-twenties named Sylvia. She was a simple person with plain features and pale skin, and straight brown hair. She wasn’t as colorful as some of the other work crew, but she was endearing in her earnestness, and Andy enjoyed kidding around with her. She took it well. Sylvia had been married once before, but her husband had run off and left her with a little boy named Aaron. The two of them were now back living with her parents who took care of Aaron while she worked nights at Barry’s.
Usually the place was empty when he got there, and it never filled up again until about eleven or twelve when the movies let out. Often, outside of Sylvia and a guy in the back who he never saw, Andy had the place to himself while he was there.
After Andy had been a regular for a couple of weeks, Sylvia started sitting at Andy’s booth during her breaks, and they would talk for a while. It felt a little funny for him to be doing that, talking with a woman so far away from his wife and daughter. But it was just talk, he thought, and he felt comfortable talking with her, so he didn’t feel like he was doing anything wrong. He really loved Donna, and really missed her. So, just talking with someone while he was away and lonely didn’t mean anything and she wouldn’t mind, he thought, if she knew about it. However, when he talked with Donna on the phone, he never mentioned it.
Several weeks and several harmless conversations later, sitting in Andy’s booth during Sylvia’s breaks, Sylvia asked Andy if he would walk her home after she got off work because she was nervous with all the things going on in the streets these days. He said yes, of course, because after all it was the decent thing to do. It was not that far away, but it was dark, and he supposed it could have been dangerous. So it happened that about 2:15 in the morning, on a Saturday night in mid-July in 1972, after everybody was gone from Barry’s diner, and she had gotten the place all cleaned up, Andy Monroe walked Sylvia home. Up Route 78 where the diner was, over to
The next time he talked to Donna he again didn’t say anything about Sylvia, but this time he had more not to not say anything about. And so with the next phone call also. And on and on for the next few months: visiting Barry’s, walking Sylvia home, and then staying the night. In one way he was lucky. Her parents had fixed up a garage apartment for Sylvia and Aaron when they moved back home, so that they could have some privacy of their own. And that meant that Andy could come in late and leave early, and her parents wouldn’t even know that he had been there. It was a terrible thing to be doing, and he knew it, and he felt awful guilty about it too, but it also felt very easy and very comfortable, and for a long while he didn’t do anything about it. He just continued walking Sylvia home and staying the night just like they weren’t doing anything wrong, and then feeling terrible about it later. He did feel terrible, and also ashamed, but each night it seemed so very easy and very comfortable.
Eventually, however, after too many months of their weekly schedule, the shame began to override the comfort. He decided he couldn’t do it anymore. He had to stop. In spite of what he was doing, at heart he was s good man, and after a while he began to be aware of the overwhelming wrongness of what he was doing. He truly cared for Sylvia, but more importantly he deeply loved Donna, and if he didn’t do something about it soon, that wrongness would begin hurt all of them. Donna, he was sure, could also feel that something wasn’t right, though she probably wasn’t sure what it was she was feeling. So one night when Sylvia sat down in his booth at Barry’s diner during one of her breaks, he took a deep breath and told her that their going home together was going to have to stop.
Sylvia cried, and he nearly cried, and it was very hard on both of them, but when he went back to his own room that night he knew that he had done the right thing. They talked about it twice more after that, and she begged him to reconsider, but he couldn’t. Breaking it off now was the only thing that would be fair to all of them in the long run. He had been honest with her about his feelings for Donna and honest with himself, and true—well, relatively true—to Donna. He felt better about himself than he had felt in years, because he really did stop seeing her. He never went back to the diner at night again, even though he often wanted to.
He went home that weekend more jubilant than he had felt in a long time. It was really good to see Donna. To Andy she looked radiant. He was so much in love. He had allowed himself to slide into a terrible pit, but pulled back before any long term damage was done. The relationship was not worth losing the love of a wonderful woman for. When he arrived late Friday night he looked in on little Alice, and he cried. He loved her so much, and to think he had almost risked losing her and all of their future together.
Come December after that, Andy got word from the school system in Heavener that Elizabeth Tarbell was going to be retiring earlier than she had planned, due to a couple of mild strokes which had slowed her down more than she had expected. They wanted to know if he would be willing to start teaching math in the high school in January. Was he willing? he said. He was elated! It was the best news they could have ever heard. The pay wouldn’t be all that great in the beginning, but it was steady, and it was doing what he loved, and finally he and Donna could begin to really start their lives together. He immediately turned in his resignation to Blanchard’s and moved back to Heavener to get ready to teach school.
I remember when he got that good news. One Sunday morning during announcement time at church I asked if anyone had anything they wanted to share with the rest of us, and he and Donna stood up together and said that Andy had finally gotten the teaching job he’d wanted and he was moving home for good. We were so glad for him that the whole congregation stood up and applauded. It was a glorious time for all of us. They were such sweet kids. We all loved them and wanted the best for them, and we thought that finally they were going to be able to have it.
I reminded Andy of that time when he was sitting in my living room looking out of my window at the leaves turning red, and the mountain across the valley, and he smiled grimly. “Things didn’t turn out to be so wonderful after all, did they?” he said.
“No,” I said, returning his humorless smile, hurting for him, but feeling inadequate to his needs. “They sometimes don’t.”
A few months later—as I recall it was when we were rehearsing for the Easter cantata at the church and the Dogwoods and Red Buds were beginning to open up and make all of Heavener look really fabulous—Andy got his first call from Durant. It was Sylvia. She said she was pregnant. When she told him that, he felt an odd sense that his heart was no longer beating, and he felt faint. He said, I thought you were protected. I thought you were taking a pill or something. No, she said, I said I would eventually be protected. I said if we were going to continue doing this, I’d have to start taking a pill or something.
She wanted to know what he was going to do about their situation. He told her he couldn’t do anything about it, that he was married, and he couldn’t leave his wife. She said, but we’re going to have a baby. He said, but I can’t do anything, I haven’t got anything. I can’t do anything. She said, but we’re going to have a baby.
He hung up the phone and went quietly out to his car and drove out of town and up
He spent the next two months living in the darkest terror he had ever experienced. Each day he allowed only the peripheral parts of his life to be taken up with being a teacher and father and husband, while the important portions were consumed by waiting. Waiting for the inevitable second call from Durant, the one that would tell him what she had decided, or what the ultimatum would be, or what the threat would be. Or what further unimaginable horror would fall down upon him because of his senseless transgression. He knew that eventually the call would come and that he should be prepared for it, but he knew he wouldn’t be. He didn’t know how to be prepared for it. All he could do was to live in fear of it. Day after day, he imagined the sound of a phone ringing, and when it did he would lunge for it like a teenager.
Finally the call came. It came about two o’clock on a Saturday afternoon.
Donna was upstairs napping with
He wasn’t sure why he was lying to them. He wasn’t sure what they were wanting, but he didn’t think that right now was the best time to tell them the truth. He asked why they wanted to know. They said only that they were checking all of her acquaintances because of something that happened, but if he was not the one, then they wouldn’t bother him any further. But what, he said, was the thing that happened? They said they would rather not go into it. If he was not the young man they were looking for, then they didn’t want to talk about it. And they hung up.
Andy felt a cool chill running through his body. It was a warm day and it was warm in the house, but he was chilled all over. He called back to Durant to the diner. He got Opal on the phone. Did anyone there know what happened? No, she said, she didn’t know anything. But she did know that Sylvia’s parents had been talking to Barry that morning, and that he was over at their house right then, so he probably knew something. He would be back soon and could return the call if Andy wanted him to. Andy said no, that he was going to be hard to reach for the rest of the day, but that he’d try to call Barry again later.
He drove over to the Wood-n-Rail restaurant and waited in agony with a cup of coffee next to the phone for over an hour while his body chills grew worse and his hands began to shake. The waitress noticed it, and asked him if he was alright, but he told her he had a cold. When he finally made the call back to the diner again, Barry was there. Yes, he said, he had been over to the house. Yes, he did know what happened. But why was Andy interested? No reason, Andy said. The family had just called him and he was curious. They hadn’t said why. Barry sounded suspicious. While he had been at their house, they had mentioned their phone call to Andy and how he had said that he didn’t even know Sylvia. So why, Barry wanted to know now, was Andy calling him and asking what had happened to her? Andy held his mouth with his free hand to keep his quivering teeth steady while he talked. He repeated again that he was just curious. He just wanted to know what happened. That’s all. Just curious. Just curious. Then Barry—still sounding unconvinced—told him what he knew.
It had been a mess, Barry said. A real mess. About three months ago she must have found out that she was pregnant. Barry was pretty sure he could see it at the diner, but she wasn’t telling anybody, so Barry didn’t say anything. He guessed she was trying to keep it from her folks. Then about a week ago she took some time off. Said she was going on a vacation. But what she did was, she and a couple of her friends went into
Andy doesn’t remember hanging up the phone, though he must have. He doesn’t remember leaving the restaurant either, though he must have done that as well. He only remembers being cold. Unbearably cold. And very, very tired. He remembers going home somehow and carefully taking off his clothes and going to bed. But he didn’t sleep. He was tired with a deep emotional tiredness, but the constant waves of freezing winds, blowing in through the open summer windows kept him awake. He was still there, shaking and exhausted, hours later when Donna came up to check on him. She thought he was sick and took his temperature to see if he had a fever. But he didn’t. He was just very cold and very tired and couldn’t speak. He lay there all that evening and that night and through the next morning into the afternoon before he was able to get up again. And even then he didn’t walk well. He couldn’t think of any real reason why he would ever want to walk well again. What was the point? Only living people needed to walk, he thought, and there was nothing in his body that was still living, or deserved to be.
Twice in the next week he got calls from Sylvia’s parents, asking more questions, and suggesting ever more firmly that he might have been the young man they had never met, but who they knew had been seeing their daughter. No, he said, his voice never sounding steady, never sounding convincing, I barely knew your daughter. And please stop calling me about it. But they did call. Week after week they called, each time with more questions. Two times they called while he was at school and Donna answered the phone, but they did not tell her why they called, they simply left their names and said they would call again. Were they taunting him, he thought? Were they intentionally torturing him? When they got Andy, they said Barry tells us you were in the diner every night and you knew her well. Andy said, Barry doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I was in there seldom, and he was never there when I was, so how could he know? In another call they said the night cook thinks the person he saw sitting with Sylvia fits Barry’s description of what you look like. That’s crazy, Andy said, screaming into the phone, and please stop calling me. You are causing me to be very upset. But, they said in this phone call and the next and in all the ones that followed, if you are in fact the person we are looking for, then you have caused a lot more harm to us than just making someone upset.
They called back again and again for over a month, each call with a different accusation or question, or a different plea for him to come forward with the truth. And to each he gave the same plea of innocence. Answering the phone before Donna became the only subject he could focus his mind on. Terror became the only companion he could confide in. The calls came like tolls of a death bell, marking off the pieces of his life that no longer functioned. He grew more and more frantic with each call, finally praying that they would somehow prove that he was lying and force him to end the charade. Please, he said to himself and not to Sylvia’s parents, stop me from lying so that I can be punished and finally rest from the hell that this has become.
And then one week the calls stopped. He didn’t notice at first. He thought maybe they had paused to find another technique to get at him, but then a second week passed with no calls also. Perhaps, he thought, they were trying to gather more evidence. Perhaps they were getting more witnesses. Maybe they had gone to the police and the police were gathering their own evidence. Maybe, he thought with rising anxiety, that the next contact would be from the police station, or worse yet, a knock on the door, asking him to come down to the station.
But the calls simply stopped. Sylvia’s parents simply stopped trying to find out if Andy had been the person in their daughter’s life who had played a role in her horrible death. He never found out why. They didn’t tell him why they stopped. They just stopped.
In the silence of no calls, in the painful waiting, and fearful fantasizing of what might happen next, Andy grew sick again. He went to bed and stayed there most of the time. He missed classes for more than three weeks, which was not a good precedent to set for his first semester on the job. He couldn’t say exactly what he had, but he was sure that he was sick with something that was very bad. They found a substitute for him, but everybody at school who knew him and liked him was worried. I remember his long sick spell. It reminded me of the way binge drinkers would look fine for weeks and then tie one on and never be seen for a month. But Andy didn’t seem like the type. I wished at the time that I had had the wisdom to see into his despair and do something to help him, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t able to figure what it was that was destroying him.
Even after he was able to get himself up out of bed and sort of back at the school again, he was never totally well, just somewhat less ill. He taught his classes and graded some papers. He could converse a bit with Donna and go through some of the gestures of playing with
His sickness continued for weeks, maybe months, he couldn’t remember exactly. It was a sickness unto death, though not as much like death as he would have liked. He prayed to God with a conviction he never had before that somehow he could make amends for the steps that had ruined so much of his life and all of Sylvia’s. He prayed for punishment or blood atonement or anything else in all of God’s creation that would balance his crime, so that he could at last rest. He even tried to will himself to die but he couldn’t do it. He stood one day for over an hour at the peak of a rock outcropping at the peak of the hang glider’s launch, up on
He prayed every day that God would take his life, so that he wouldn’t have to bear such grief and remorse and fear of phone calls and letters and ghosts of Sylvia’s bloody baby dripping into his sink each morning when he shaved. But God didn’t do it. Instead Andy survived. His body went on with life as though it had not sinned, as though it wasn’t guilty. He prayed for death, but instead got life.
I remember watching him one Sunday morning during those horrible days, and wondering what on earth could have happened to him. While all the rest of us were joyously standing and singing sweet Gospel hymns of the glory of God and the love of Jesus, Andy was looking solitary and cadaverous under an unbelievable pall of sorrow. I remember being startled by how gray and old his face looked. Like a man in the last throws of life who pined for death but did not know how to find his way into a cemetery.
I tried to catch him after church that day to see about getting together during the week to talk, but he rushed past me in a daze, barely noticing his family in tow in back of him. I also called his house a couple of times after that, but each time Donna told me that he had taken ill—he seemed always ill—and couldn’t come to the phone. At the time I had no real idea just how deep his illness really was.
Finally he came to see me, and now he was in my living room telling me his story. When he finished at last we both sat silent for several moments and I felt exhausted by his insurmountable pain. I noticed again how lined and ashen his face had become in the few short months since his misery began. After a moment I looked away from his face to the window and saw that the mountain on the other side of the valley was burning.
While Andy had been sitting in front of my window telling me his story, the sun had gone down. We both sat in silence for some time watching the fire overcome the lives of the insects and underbrush on the top of
“I’ve prayed a lot these past months,” Andy finally said, as the fire crept steadily across the mountain’s arch before us.
“I’m not surprised,” I said. “What did you pray for?”
“I prayed that I would get caught, that God would punish me, and that I would have to pay for what I had done. That I would go to jail and get it resolved somehow, and it would be over with. But that never happened. Her family finally quit calling me and nothing else happened. I’ve gotten away with it, and now it looks like nothing else is going to happen. So I suppose that sets me free, right?”
He looked at me and I looked at him with his embattled, mournful face, raw from months of wiping tears. He didn’t look free.
“Then I prayed that God would take me,” he said, looking back at the burning mountain across the valley. “Just kill me and get it over with. That’s what I deserve, isn’t it? Isn’t that fair? But that didn’t happen either. Does God mean to just let me go?
I thought for a long time about his question while we sat in my darkening living room, lit only by fire from the burning mountain and I’ve thought about it many times since, never with any peace or certainty. I was so very young then, and so very new to ministry. What seemed to me then as a question impossible to answer, I now view as a part of the vastness of the inscrutability of God. Sometimes the good die young, but sometimes they die old. Sometimes evil is victorious, but sometimes it is heroically vanquished. And sometimes young men whose guilt overwhelms them and drives them to long for punishment into death are instead set free, condemned to liberty, sentenced to suffer with memories and ghosts and even with life itself. Who can put their hand in those events and know for certain that God is truly present or truly absent?
“Is that the punishment?” Andy was saying again. God just lets me go?”
I watched the light flicker against his face, making it appear to be on fire like the mountain. “I expect so,” I said at last, and in spite of its inadequacy, I would probably say the same thing today.
I don’t hear too much about Heavener these days, the place I once knew and loved when I was young. I have heard that little