The second time she set the mangy tangled tract on fire the sheriff showed up, and she became sure it was the case that you could not burn your own swamp. The sheriff, whom she had not met before, confirmed her anxiety with his opening remark.
“Your swamp is on fire,” he said, standing about fifteen feet off her right shoulder and slightly behind her.
She turned to him and said, not knowing what in hell else she might, “Yes it is.”
The sheriff stood there regarding first her and then the swamp and the fire, which gave his face a jack-o’-lantern-orange sheen, and said again, “The swamp is on fire.” The emphasis was meant to confirm his sympathies with having fires, and upon establishing that bond he walked briskly to Mrs. Schuping’s side and planted his feet and crossed his arms and cocked back to watch the fire with her in an attitude that suggested he would be content to watch for a good long while. When he breathed, his belt and holster creaked.
Mrs. Schuping could not tell if his affection for the fire was genuine or a trap of the infamous misdirectional-innocuous-talk type of country police.
So she said two things. “Sheriff, I set my opera-collection boxes on fire; I confess they were in the swamp.” Then, “Sheriff, I do not need a man.”
The sheriff looked at the fire, followed it up into the high parts, where it licked at the grapevines climbing on the tupelo gums. It was a hot yellow heat in the slack black-ass muddy gloom of a nothing swamp that needed it. He had been taking pure aesthetic enjoyment from the thing until Mrs. Schuping said what she said, which reminded him that they were not free to enjoy this mayhem and that he had to undo her concern with his presence. Concern with his presence was — more than his actual presence—his job ordinarily; it was how he made his living. This was the hardest thing about being sheriff: you could not go off duty. A city cop could. They even provided locker rooms and showers for them; and he imagined laundry and dry-cleaning takeout services for the uniforms. But a sheriff was the sheriff, and he was always, always up to something. That is why he had had to talk like a fool to this woman to get her to let him watch her fire with her. How else excuse standing in front of five burning acres and saying “on fire”? But it had not worked. And this man thing.
“Mizz Shoop, I just—”
“It’s Schuping,” Mrs. Schuping said.
“Yes’m. I know. I just like to call you Shoop, though.”
With this the sheriff again squared off, with a sigh, to watch the fire, whatever he had been about to say cut off by Mrs. Schuping’s correcting him. He hoped he had begun the dismantling of her concerns with his presence, both legal and sexual. He was aware that he had not done much toward either end, but he did not want to babble while watching a good fire. Unless she asked him off the property, he’d hold his ground.
Mrs. Schuping was content, having posted her nolo contendere on the fire and her no desire on the man, to let him stand there and breathe and creak if he wanted to. She had been a little hard on the sheriff, she thought. It was the legal part that worried her into overstating the sexual part. Not overstating, misstating: she did not need a man, but wanting was another question. And if all you had to do to get a big creaking booger like this one was set your back yard on fire, she was all for it.
Four months later the sheriff and Mrs. Schuping had their second date. He saw the smoke from the interstate, where he was parked behind the Starvin’ Marvin billboard at such a ridiculous pitch that takeoff was nearly vertical and he resisted blasting off for speeders unless provoked entirely. What had been provoking him entirely lately was college kids with their feet out the windows of BMWs, headed for Dade County, Florida, with their socks on. That was making him strike, lift-off or no liftoff. He wondered what it was like for a bass. How some lures got by and some did not. For him it was pink socks. In the absence of pink socks, there was smoke over the Fork Swamp.
Mrs. Schuping looked even more fire-lovely than she had at the first fire. This time she saw him before he spoke.
“There won’t be a problem with the permit,” the sheriff said, instead of the idiocies of last time. There was no problem with the permit because there was no permit, but he thought this was a good way to address those concerns of hers.
The sheriff had lost a little weight. Mrs. Schuping had been on intellectual winnowing excursions, and she saw as a matter of vector analogy the trajectory of the sheriff toward her and the swale of her sexual self. He had a swag or a sway — something — of gut that suggested, even if a bit cartoonishly, a lion. This big fat tub could get on top of her, she thought, with no identifiable emotion, looking at the crisp, shrieking, blistering fire she had set with no more ado than a Bic lighter jammed opened and a pot she didn’t want anymore full of gasoline.
The sheriff took a slow survey of the fire, which was magnificent, and loyal — her little swamp was neatly set on a fork of creeks so that the fire could not get away — and turning back he caught a glance of Mrs. Schuping’s profile as she watched the fire and, he thought, him a little, and down a bit he saw her breasts, rather sticking out and firm-looking in the dusky, motley, scrabbled light. Bound up in a sweater and what looked like a salmon-colored bra, through the swamp smoke stinging your eyes, on a forty-year-old woman they could take your breath away. He made to go.
“Good cool fire, Mizz Shoop,” the sheriff said. “I’ve got to go.”
“You’re leaving, Sheriff?”
“It’s business, purely business.”
To the sheriff she seemed relaxed, legally, and there is nothing like a big Ford pawhoooorn exit — a little air, a little air and a little time.
Mrs. Schuping had been through every consciousness and semiconsciousness and unconsciousness and raised-and lowered-consciousness program contributing to every good conscience and bad conscience and middle struggling conscience there is. But now she was a woman in a house so falling apart the children had taken it off the haunted register, and she was boiling an egg on a low blue flame. Outside were the large, dark, low-armed oaks.
Also outside, beyond the oaks, were the smoldering ignoble trees. The white, acrid, thin smoke drifting up their charred trunks was ugly. The swamp had powers of recovery that were astounding, though. It was this magical resilience that confirmed Mrs. Schuping as an avid swamp burner. When the swamp came back hairier than it had been before the burning, thicker and nastier, she found the argument for necessary periodic burning, which was of course a principle in good forestry. She was not a pyromaniac, she was a land steward. The trees stood out there fuming and hissing and steaming. Her life continued to winnow.
Beyond the disassembly of her opera holdings, Mrs. Schuping had gradually let go of her once prodigious reading. She had read in all topical lay matters. She had taught herself calculus, and could read Scientific American without skipping the math. She taught herself to weld and briefly tried to sculpt in metal. She gave this up after discovering that all she wanted to sculpt, ever, was a metal sphere, and she could not do it.
She had dallied similarly in hydroponics, artificial intelligence, military science, and dress designing. She had read along Great Book lines and found them mostly a yawn, except for the Great Pornography Books, for which there seemed to be no modern equivalent. She had stopped going out to concerts and movies, etc., which she had done specifically to improve herself, because it got to where after every trip on the long drive back to the ruined estate she wondered what was so damned given about improving oneself. The opposite idea seemed at least as tenable. As her tires got worse, it seemed even more tenable, and she began to embrace the idea of winnowing: travel less, do less, it is more. She found a grocery that still delivered, and she picked up her box of groceries on the front porch — as far as the boys would go.