“When the impartial historian records his preservation of Fort Meigs the reader will find a monument which no time can decay.”
— Celebratory toast given July, 4 1813
Before I was old and wise enough to bury the feeling, I helped a man start a fire. I was driving home from the grocery store, two blocks past the fire station, headed toward an open stretch of road, when I saw him.
He was a sorry sight. An old man walking alone in a fierce summer. Even with the late sun, merciless as ever, he wore a flannel, tucked in and buttoned all the way to his neck. And that made him an even sadder thing, it seemed to me. The man labored on with a tiny gas can. He swung his arm wild to keep his balance. He shuffled along, right to where the sidewalk ended and it was only the road and the weeds.
I wasn't the type of person to stop something in motion. I didn’t know why he was out here, so far from the fill up, struggling with that little can. But there was something in the way he fought against his frailty, haunted by god knows what, that made me pull over.
I watched him in the rearview as he set down the gas can. He jabbed his thumb into the palm of his other hand. He had to force his hand open, massaging each finger. And I could tell there was a great pain he was working through. He shook out his arm, picked up the canister, and pushed on. When he came near I leaned over. I opened the passenger door.
“Need a lift?” I said.
He bent down and looked in. Me up front. The bag of groceries in back.
“I can take you as far as Waterville,” I said. I waved him in.
He stood there rubbing his back a moment. “Up to Fort Meigs will do,” he said. “Best put this in the trunk on account of the fumes.” He filled the car with a smell of gasoline and stale tobacco. As the air conditioning recycled the scent it stung my nose like a cheap cowboy cologne. He kept a close eye on the old trees and the bones of the older houses on the roadside. He looked at the signs with a strange reverence.
“You run out of fuel?”
“No sir,” he said. “Don’t drive no more.” He stabbed a finger against the window. “Big battle fought over there, year of our Lord 1813.” He squinted at an empty field. A Doritos bag spun a lazy circle in the weeds. “Ground drank up a lot of fire and blood there.”
“You picked a hell of a day for an errand,” I said. “Radio said it was the hottest of the year. Muggy too.” He kept staring out the window. His silence made me feel strange. And I began to resent taking him on. “What’re you looking for?” I said.
“Used to be a service station up there.” He pointed to another empty patch leveled to the concrete slab. “But that’s long past. Back to the way it ought to be I guess.”
My nostrils widened. The fumes were beginning to make my head ache but I didn’t want to let the cold air out. “What’s with the gas then?”
“Like I told you” he said. “I’m taking it to Fort Meigs.”
“They sent you all the way back there for gas?”
“No,” he said. “I’m on my way there.” He reached over and touched my hand, which surprised me more than a simple thing like that should. “I’m a burn that thing down,” he said. He looked out the window and chuckled. “About time somebody did it again.” I watched him laugh. Even that was sad. On him.
I wasn’t sure how to respond. He had that sorry little gas can and he seemed determined enough. But I ignored it. I began to worry the heatwave might have gotten him. Or that he’d gone AWOL from a home or something and some men in white would come looking for him. “Fort’s closed today,” I said. I explained in a tone I reserved for talking to children. “They’re only open on the weekdays. For kids and field trips about the war.”
“Think I don’t know that?” He laughed again. “I’m not trying to hurt anyone. I’m setting her back right. Besides,” he shook his head, “you’re talking about the museum part of it, the gift shop. It’s a damned fort, son. Anybody can walk around it when they please.”
We came around a curve and the fort rose before us. Perched on a small bluff, against the bend of the river, the wooden blockhouse and bleached palisades pierced the sky. How many times I’d ignored it I couldn’t say. But he made it seem like a strange thing to me, a creature resurrected.
“Look, I can drop you off but you’re not setting anything on fire.”
“Like hell I won’t.” He touched my arm again before pointing at the fort. “Look at that monster. You tell me it belongs here.”
We pulled into the lot. On weekends, a lap around the fort served as a quarter mile track for joggers. And when the sprinklers came on at dusk, the dogs would run through the lawn. But the heat hadn’t quit. We were alone.
The palisades cast a jagged shadow on the parking lot. I followed him as he staggered around to the back of the car. He knocked his knuckle on the trunk. “I’m a be needing this.” I could have told him no. What could a frail man do to me? But I knew I wouldn’t. It wasn’t worth fighting over. And part of me still wanted to know.
I kicked at the gravel. The cicadas paused their awful pulsing for a moment. But were back at it before there was a silence to enjoy.
“What’d this place ever do to you?”
“Watch your step.” He was looking off across the river, out toward Fallen Timbers. “Right here we were conquerors.” As he took in the view, the heat flushed his eyes. It looked like he might cry.
I didn’t like seeing him like that. This time I touched him. A small nudge on his elbow.
“You want a drink or something?” I said. “I got beer at the store.” I took it from the back seat and met him at the front of the car. We sat on the hood with our feet on the bumper. I was afraid to look at him so I looked at the fort. The staves looked like rotten teeth pushing up from the ground.
“Warm beer on a hot day,” he said. “That’s realer than any of those reenactors who muster here.” He started to chuckle but ended up coughing instead. I thought to pat his back but he seemed to have a handle on his condition. “You know what they did with this place after the siege sputtered out?” He tilted his beer toward a rusted cannon that guarded the river.
“Abandoned it,” I said. “Let nature take a turn at it.”
“People slept in it for a while, inside the walls.” He drew a square with his finger. “Kept them safe, I guess, from animals, other people. Tecumseh’s ghost maybe.”
“They ended up destroying it,” I said.
“Something burned her down. But who knows?” He thought a moment and winced at the fort. “Not like it mattered much, old thing like that, its purpose all spent.” As he looked on, his face soured. I couldn’t tell if he was saying goodbye or good riddance.
“You want another?” I said.
He swirled his beer can. He took a long drink and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
“That’s enough sentiment.” He slapped the hood and held out his hand. I didn’t see much reason in arguing with him. I wasn’t his orderly. And he was a man. He knew well enough.
I gave him the keys but stayed where I was. I watched him splash gas on a corner of the fort. “Let’s see them build it back this time,” he said. “She’ll be burning bright by dusk.” He looked over his shoulder at me. A sweet and toothless grin had captured his face.
I didn’t have it in me to tell him there was hardly enough gas in that little canister to make a difference. He had little to give. And even if, for some reason, a part of the palisades caught, the fire department down the road would surely snuff it out if the sprinklers on the knoll didn’t. Fort Meigs wasn’t going anywhere.
The old man poured his righteous anger against the fence and it seemed to me as good a time as any to offer a toast. I turned my hand and let the beer spill. It fizzed as the ground drank it under. “To future fires,” I said. But by the time I opened another the flames he started were already whimpering, that sad pulse of a fire dying.
About the Author: Brian Wood lives in Rochester, New York and teaches Creative Writing at Writers & Books. His first story collection will be published in 2019 (BOA Editions).