It began on the roof. I was up there with a flat shovel, tearing off the old felt. I had studied my neighbour repairing his roof. He’s in his eighties and has one leg. I bent over in the afternoon sun and rammed that shovel under the head of a nail, then I pried it up—prong. I was happy to have work gloves on and my old jeans and a shirt I must have bought twenty years ago. It still had some life in it. My girlfriend tossed me up a bottle of beer. I snagged a long strip of tarred felt and threw it over the side of the house, and the wind caught it and slapped it up against the shed. Then the felt slid to the bright grass. Took a swig. Boy was I enjoying myself. You don’t need skill at this, and yet you can call yourself a handyman.
I stood tall and crowed over the land and the cool northerly blowing in off the ocean. Then I got dizzy because of the drop in blood pressure. The tingle in the backs of my knees. I leaned against the new chimney we’d built out of second-hand bricks. We’d just bought this place. An old-timer in Conception Bay, Newfoundland. When you’re on your roof you own the view. You become kingly. My land, you say.
But bad weather was hauling in from Baccalieu, so I had to get to work. A leaky roof is miserable. I shovelled until there were bare planks and then ran down the ladder and threw the strips of shingle and tarpaper into the back of Edgar Bishop, our pickup. I weighed down the shingles in the truck bed with the old fridge and roped it all down. I had to get this load to the dump before it closed for the weekend.
There’s immense pleasure too in driving a truck with the radio on and your elbow out the open window. Lifting your finger imperceptibly from the top of the steering wheel when a vehicle passes, and you see their finger go up too. I was part of it all. I was living a rural life.
I drove down to Old Perlican—you can see the Bay de Verde incinerator spewing up grey tufts of smoke a full ten minutes before you get there. It looks primitive, Industrial Revolutionish. You lose sight of it as the trees take over, until you hit the gate and you pull in, and you’re faced with the maw of the ramp and the teepee incinerator belching out the fumes of Hades. From the gate, you can see flames licking up out of the open shaft near the top.
I paused at the little cinder-block gatehouse to show my garbage receipt. No one there. So I drove in a little more.
And there’s the old guy, furious at me.
I hauled Edgar into reverse and stuck the receipt out the window.
You were in a hurry, he said.
I know you have to close, so I wanted to get out of here on time.
He asked what I had aboard, but it was pretty easy to see. The fridge it goes down there—he pointed to a peninsula of old appliances. And the rest up to the incinerator.
I drove down. Hoisted off the fridge. There was a full-size pickup parked down by the appliances. Two men in it. Why on earth would you park here. I drove past them, backed up to the incinerator, and reversed up the ramp. I got as close as I could because it was windy. I didn’t want the felt bits blowing back at me. I opened the truck door and heard the licking. The furnace of flame down in the chute sounded wet with fire. I walked back to the tailgate and tossed a piece of felt in. Watched it waft down and blow itself into bright flame, mid-air. Threw in some more. I could only get so close to the opening because of the heat, so I fired them piece by piece. Slow going, and the smoke began billowing up at me. Particulate from any number of really bad things down there—they throw anything in that’s not a fridge or stove. I’ve seen car batteries and vats of cooking oil and lumber and bags of really disgusting garbage. I didn’t want to inhale it, so I worked faster.
But then this happened. The heat was lifting the small bits back up, little magic carpets, and they were aflame, and they were landing back in the truck. They could catch the whole truck on fire.
What to do here. Underneath all the bits was a longer piece of felt. I’ll go for that. The weight of it all will keep the small ones from floating up. I hauled on it. I put my body into it. And as I was leaning, this happened: the tarpaper tore and I fell backwards. I lost my footing and tumbled into the steep slant of the chute. I looked for something to grab ahold of, but they make those chutes so dump trucks can empty without a hitch.
I twisted around for the fall in, and I was terrified. There’s a vat of burning oil down there, or spraying hoses or blades that inject oil into the fire. It’s an incinerator. I looked down. I wanted to see where I was going. Face it head on. I plummeted about five metres. There was a hot roar of flame and I felt my feet land and then something in me, some survival instinct, made me bounce off like a pogo stick and I sprang to the bottom. I was alive. I was at the edge of a pyre of mad white flame. No machinery working to spray oil or blend garbage, thank God. These very fast, high flames, licking their chops, very hungry but preoccupied. They did not know I was there. And I felt no heat really. I felt I was inside isn’t this hilarious. I was in a place no one had ever been before. It was not like being in a church that was on fire. It was not an unusual event, this burning. I was the unusual event. I laughed at this, that I had survived this. I knew I had a good story to tell.
Black cinders underfoot. The ash of the fire. Earlier I had been on my roof, and now I was under my roof. The walls were dark, but around the floor were ventilation slits. I knelt down to breathe in the fresh air. I looked around. No opening. The only way out was the way in. Okay, so they’re going to have to put this fire out then lower a ladder. But the baking heat of the walls and the flame above, it would take a long time for this fire to cool enough to allow me to climb out. And then this: my shoulder felt hot. I wasn’t going to burn. I was cooking.
I surprised myself. I don’t think I’ve ever yelled for help.I kicked at the ventilation slits, but this was thick cast iron. Now my arm was definitely cooking. A sheet of stuff fell down on the fire. Roofing felt. Someone was emptying my truck! Or maybe it was the wind.
Then I heard this: Get to the back.
I glanced around but there was no back. My cheek and knee were hot, my earlobe, and I’d cut my ankle falling. The soles of my shoes were melting. Get to the back.
There was an old fish tub made of heavy red plastic lying against the ventilation slits. I hoisted it up and put in on my shoulder, a shield from the heat. Then a white space—a square of light—opened up in the wall across from me. The silhouettes of two heads. Men’s faces. I ran around the perimeter, over a hurdle of flame, and out the door. I kept running, another fifteen metres, almost into the woods. Then I stopped and turned around. It was the guys from the truck. The old man was still up by the ramp. He leaned on the guardrail and stared down at me, astonished.
You’re all right. It was one of the men from the truck, in a white T-shirt. He was shaking his head. We thought we were going to have to go in there and get you.
Then they went at closing up the doors I’d escaped from, which looked like they hadn’t been opened in a year. They were held together with large spikes bent square at the top and driven into three clasped hinges. Cast iron doors made of the same stuff as the incinerator. They were hammering in the spikes with a boulder. It took the two of them to do it. Then they checked me over. The guy in the T-shirt: I was watching you unload and saw you fall in. I said, Lord Jesus, he just fell into the incinerator.
They ran and got the old guy. The old guy has a cellphone half a metre long, some relic of the ’80s. He was trying to call an ambulance but couldn’t remember the number.
That’s when we went for the doors.
We walked back up to Edgar Bishop. The truck still needed to be unloaded, and I was in shock. They helped me unload. We fired in bits of felt. I was standing pretty much in the same spot I’d been before I fell in. Heard the licking. The old guy leaning into the bed of the truck with his hands dangling, watching us work. He was upset. He was going to have to fill in a report. Usually I’m up here with them when they unload, he said. I’ve been here ten years now, the old guy said, and you’re the first to fall in.
When we were done, they said, You need a drink of rum.
Where’s the bar? I said.
They had been sitting in the truck drinking Lamb’s out of polystyrene cups. I followed them down to their Ford, and they handed me the bottle. If they hadn’t been there. Drinking at the dump. From Old Perlican they were. I downed their rum and then felt heat on my arm. The wind had kept me from noticing. I should get to the hospital, I said.
So we shook hands and I thanked them. I half-hugged the man in the white T-shirt. He laughed like he understood the need. They wanted to know where I was from. Where to start the legend.
There’s a local hospital four minutes from the incinerator—I’ve often passed it in Edgar and wondered what a hospital was doing this far from humanity. I strolled in, cinders head to foot. Nurses in blue flannel pajamas. What happened to you, my love. They wrapped wet towels on my arm and face. Then a young doctor, Middle Eastern, checked my lungs. Prescribed a pill for infection and a topical cream. A nurse gave me a cup of milk and a pill. Milk. When they were done, I drove to Gas Land and bought a twenty-six-ouncer of rum and two cans of Pepsi. Then I stopped at Tricon Pharmacy and filled my prescription. What happened to you?
I drove home with both Pepsi cans open. I found an easy-rock station and cranked it. I opened the window and allowed the wind to massage my face and arm. I was delirious with life. I had decided not to call my girlfriend—how could you hear what had happened without imagining your boyfriend has melted? The word “incinerator” does not often appear next to “human body.” It was a gorgeous, sunny day.
Later that night, she said, When you arrived and got out of the truck, you looked different. My hair looked too shiny. Then she saw the bottle of rum in one hand and the prescription bag in the other.
That night I woke up and kept repeating the fall. Terrifying. I added the mulching equipment or a spray of oil to keep things burning. Sometimes I landed on a long spike or a bucket of boiling tar. The old guy said I was lucky. Half an hour earlier, a dump truck had come with a huge load of used lumber and carpet ends and old diesel oil. She was going pretty good then, he said.
A week later, it was my neighbour’s birthday. The man with one leg. He’d had most of his teeth pulled out, and he was a little pissed off, sitting at his kitchen table. His son had invited me, but my neighbour didn’t seem too pleased to have me. So I made a promise to finish my beer quick and leave.
Then his cousin arrived. And said, They still don’t know who the guy is who fell into the incinerator. All they know is he’s from the cove.
I’d love, my neighbour said, to meet that man. I pulled another beer out of the fridge. Well you’re looking at him, I said.
And my neighbour, for the first time that evening, gave me a grin.
Drag your chair over, he said, and tell me everything.
Michael Winter’s fourth novel, The Death of Donna Whalen, was published in 2010.
Eamon Mac Mahon is a frequent contributor to The Walrus.