31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 24: “Burn Man on a Texas Porch” by Mark Anthony Jarman

May 24, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From 19 Knives

What does it feel like to be engulfed in flames, to feel the skin of your face shift and melt into runnels and the flesh of your body char like burnt meat? Like this, perhaps:

I’m okay, okay, will be fine except I’m hoovering all the oxygen around me, and I’m burning like a circus poster, flames taking more and more of my shape – am I moving or are they? I am hooked into fire, I am hysterical light issuing beast noises in a world of smoke. … My face feels like a million hot rivets. I am yelling and writhing. One of my shoes burns happily by itself on the road.

The image of the lone shoe burning “happily” on the road is in stark contrast to the horrific violence of the unnamed narrator who has fallen victim to an exploding propane tank in his camper and now finds himself alight, running blindly without direction, “hoovering all the oxygen” in the air and unable to discern whether it is him moving or the flames that have overtaken him.

Mark Anthony Jarman wisely eschews any kind of naturalistic presentation in this story, preferring instead a more expressionistic approach to his chosen subject matter. From the story’s bravura opening sentence, which finds the unnamed narrator staggering through his campsite “with flames living on [his] calves and flames gathering and glittering on [his] shoulders,” readers are presented with a portrait of a ravaged, ruined man in short, impressionistic scenes that privilege language over plot, sense impressions over character development or setting.

Indeed, the setting for Jarman’s story is kept deliberately obscure. After undergoing a series of largely ineffective skin grafts, the protagonist, known only as Burn Man, retreats to the basement of his home, where he recruits an escort named Cindi to give him blow jobs by the murky light of the engine on his toy train. Even this is presented obliquely: “a slight woman in a parody of a nurse’s uniform does something for Burn Man, for Burn Man is not burnt everywhere, still has some desires, and the woman doesn’t have to touch anything else, doesn’t have to see me, has almost no contact, has a verbal contract, an oral contract, say.”

Burn Man discovered Cindi in an ad for escorts at the back of a local tabloid; he avoided the ad that read, “FIRE & DESIRE, Sensuous Centrefold Girls, HOT Fall Specials.” He rationalizes this by saying, “I don’t live in the metro area,” but the real cause of his avoidance is plain. Burn Man’s experience has become the central fact of his life, to the extent that everything is now associated with his disfigurement. To make money, Burn Man takes a series of part-time jobs that require him to dress up in head-to-toe costumes: a clown hocking flowers on the street outside the Bed of Roses flower shop, an ape delivering singing telegrams door to door, the Easter Bunny. He “can’t do Santa,” however. “I could definitely use the do-re-mi but the beard isn’t enough cover for my droopy right eye and melted cheek, the beard isn’t enough to save face, and also I confess to trouble with the constant Ho Ho Ho.”

The bad pun about saving face is indicative of Jarman’s willingness to engage in levels of dark humour in his story. One of Burn Man’s jobs is playing the Mighty Moose mascot for the local hockey team; he thinks it would make sense to get into a brawl with Raving Raven, the opposing team’s mascot:

All the skaters were scrapping, Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll Part One” booming on the sound system, and then both goalies started throwing haymakers. I thought the mascots should also duke it out – a sense of symmetry and loyalty. I banged at the Old World armour of that raven’s narrow, serious face, snapped his head back. Hoofs were my advantage.

At the bar afterward, Raven and Moose engage in “shop talk,” comparing abrasions and laughing about their fight. Jarman immediately shifts gears, however, returning to the more serious existential question of the universe’s apparent indifference, and the resultant lack of agency that human beings can ultimately exert over their fate:

Don’t fuck with me, rummy beard-jammers and balls-up bean-counters snarl at every bar on the island, as if they alone decide when they get fucked over. I could advise them on that. I didn’t decide to have the camper blow to shrapnel with me curled inside like a ball-turret gunner.

Jarman’s insistence on language as the driving force in his story allows him to negotiate such breakneck turns in tone and focus without once losing control; his brief, elliptical character study dances and flickers, like the flames that lick at Burn Man’s flesh. Burn Man rails against the injustice of his situation, and succumbs to his righteous anger by picturing himself attacking the doctor who advises him to imagine his ruined face as “a convenience, not an ornament”: “Thanks for that, Doc. Maybe I could take a razor to him, see if he still debates function versus ornament after I’ve cut him a new face.” And yet Burn Man is able to find a kind of solace in the memory of an unexpected kiss on a Texas porch years before; “I am a product of light, of hope,” he thinks, and longs for “the right fire” that will reverse his disfiguring scars and return him to wholeness. “Perhaps God will have mercy on me in my new exile,” Burn Man thinks. And after exploring the depths of anger, fear, and loneliness, his final epiphany is an optimistic one: “Ours really is an amazing world.”

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