This story is also available for free upload for your ereader, phone, Apple device, Kindle or other electronic media. If you enjoy this your should read the novel version “The Attic Notebooks”. The link to both is on the right at smashmouth.com
It is a Pleasure to Burn
I sit at the back.
For the past week our class has watched the film To Kill a Mockingbird in a darkened classroom. The movie is a substitute for reading the actual book. For the sake of experiencing literature—this is an English course, after all—we are assigned to read the dramatic courtroom scene as actually written by Harper Lee.
No one does.
Class starts out with the dramatic courtroom scene. Before the bell even rings, Mr. Jones has turned off the lights.
“It is,” our teacher says as students shuffle into their desks and seats, “an Oscar winning performance.”
Did Mr. Jones believe that we have all read the scene we were about to see? He not only doesn’t ask, but avoids mentioning that it had been assigned.
I don’t think he wants an answer.
Looking around the darkened room, I can make out the familiar student-created posters that serve as assessments; near the end of each unit Mr. Jones pulls out paper, markers, magazines and glue sticks and has us make posters that represent the theme of the book we have not read. As with the trenchant student analysis of the videos of Shakespeare and Golding, Harper Lee’s classic will be represented by collages consisting of women in short skirts, a beefcake guy with no shirt, a fast car, a host of adjectives like “glamour” and “star,” and some sort of alcohol. Mr. Jones must use a method of grading that is unclear to me, because after close study I can’t tell the difference between works being interpreted. The creators of these collages seem unable to even use a pair of scissors with precision, much less express precise ideas.
Mr. Jones starts the movie.
Three students come in just as Atticus takes the floor, noisily knocking a couple of seats while they make their way in the dark to seats near their friends. The cuffs of their pants are worn from dragging under the heels of their shoes, and they begin whispering even before they sit down.
“We’ve seen this part,” a boy from the front-left side of the room shouts.
“Yes,” Jones replies, “I know. Wait.”
Experienced at showing movies, Mr. Jones backs up the video a minute or two from where the previous class had ended. Memories are jogged and the whisperers finish their narcissistically important comments. Three minutes into this Oscar winning performance, three kids leave to go to the bathroom, while two go for a drink of water down the hall. Classrooms at DU have become uncomfortable living rooms. At times I find myself grabbing for a remote that I do not have, but muscle memory insists that I do.
Being in school is like a long visit to my Grandmother’s house: there are rules about movement and touching things, remnants from an earlier time that are now arbitrary and irrelevant. We are forced to watch programs none of us would choose, sold as good for us. There is nothing good to eat. Like my grandmother, Mr. Jones seems to be waiting for me to leave.
Until sixth grade I read every day. More accurately, I read a book every day.
As a child my parents read to me every night, and when I was older I could be found on the couch in the winter and on the porch in the summer, reading. Every morning I read while eating breakfast. At school I gulped down a few scores of pages while saving the rest for bed. My circle of friends all read, and my best friend, Sophie MacDonald, and I passed books back and forth.
Then, I stopped.
I stopped for the same reason most protagonists change their youthful habits: Betrayal.
At the start of sixth grade my best friend stopped speaking to me. We were in our second week at Devon Union Middle School when Sophie MacDonald jumped social groups and refused to speak to me. Suddenly, our book exchanges, girl gossip, even eye contact ceased. Sophie would not even ask me to move out of the doorway. I remember standing in the doorway to English class and she just barreled into me, shoulder slightly down and eyes averted, so that I fell a few steps back into the hallway. I stopped reading because I figured that it made me uncool. My status did not change. At that point I became willfully illiterate and isolated, eventually moping around my neighborhood before landing on the living room couch for three years until high school began.
My mother does not know what to do with me.
She cries when she reads about the book burning.
The adaptations of the classic book I have not read projects on the screen. In an attempt to rebuild my image over the years I adopt the persona of a deep thinking loner. Ironically, casting myself as a loner brings me a number of casual friends.
But none like my old friendship with Sophie.
Equally ironic is that my thoughtful facade is decorated by a seemingly endless knowledge about literature. I speak knowingly about books I have not read, and write papers on the insights gleaned from the cover, back copy and a randomly selected page. I carry around a worn copy of The Razor’s Edge because it seems intellectually hep. It has become my brand; a possession I care deeply about but do not read. In this school of the blind, I am a one-eyed queen.
And that is the paradox of my life—to be cool in middle school, I stop reading. Then, in high school, I try to embrace reading, to wear it on my sleeve in a school that politely praises the act while doing all it can to gut its practice. Wanting to read, though, I find I cannot. I become physically ill. Carrying on in a land of pretenders, I am the best, but also the only one who seems to want to change.
The movie is paused. I break out of my deep thoughts.
In his comments, Mr. Jones keeps referring to Atticus as Gregory Peck, the actor who plays him in the film.
“Just play it,” the girl in front of me calls out from inside of her sweatshirt hood.
Mr. Jones does just that.
Now, every English class has several plays on their syllabus instead of novels. No one reads them, but we see them acted on video. That, we are told by Mr. Chips, our academic dean, is how they are intended to be seen. “Shakespeare didn’t write for a reader,” Mr. Chips explains, “he wrote for the stage, for the audience. That is how you should experience it.” Junior year is a lot easier than freshman year when we were expected to read.
When Mr. Jones collects the packets from To Kill a Mockingbird, I pick my copy off of the counter and hand it in. It is clear it has not been read, but Mr. Jones does not notice.
Mr. Jones has us do a project about books in lieu of actually reading any.
“I want to write a paper,” I say.
He says, “Write what you know.”
I write about burning books.
For this I get an “A” and trip to Mr. Chip’s office. He gives me the look he usually reserves for Sophie MacDonald. I get praise for my insights.
Then he tells me to knock it off.
And, I’m in the alternative program.
The school cleans out the book room at the end of the English Department’s hallway. Stacks of texts lay on the floor of the room and into the hallway, while empty shelves outline their former space in dust.
Mr. Chips has asked me to “find them a home” as part of my alternative education.
So as to not break the spines, I alternate the direction of the books as I stack them into the boxes. As I do so, I open covers and see the names of my friend’s parents, and in some cases their parents’ parents. I wipe dust off of them with my sleeve. On the inside of Homer’s The Odyssey is my mother’s name. It is written neatly, in cursive, below five other names that had read the book before her. After her name three other Devon Union High School students have read, or attempted to read, or been assigned this book before it went into the closet for twenty years.
I put the book aside.
Stamped haphazardly on that inside cover of my mother’s copy of The Odyssey is an oval, around it the words Devon Union High School. Along the tail edge of the book is stamped DEVON UNION HIGH SCHOOL. This stamp is straight across and written entirely in capital letters. They are brands against theft, and points of school pride. Devon reads the Odyssey! Looking at the book, I wonder where the stamps are now.
“Find them a good home,” Mr. Jones says to me as I haul the last load of boxes to my father’s pick up truck. And I do.
I suppose they think I will burn them.
The English department gives me over five thousand books. I find them a good home.
Books speak; no lie. Take a book and raise it to your ear.
In your hands, now, you feel something reaching up to the elbows; do not ask what or you will miss it.
Now smell it.
Close the book; listen.
As part of my independent study, I listen to the books as I take them out. Inside of their covers, I write the names of people they have asked for.
The books tell me; I am only the messenger.
Each day, with a backpack full of books (no one carries books in them anymore), I spend the time when everyone else is in class slipping books into lockers until the school year ends.
The burning is now an event.
No flyers go up and no invitations are sent. No one even asks. Around town, in the coffee shop or passing me while I mow the grass, no one says a word. The burnings are a tradition. Time and place of the burning is determined by the last day of summer school, which itself has disappeared as nearly all students—all the students that matter—pass to a degree acceptable to the school board and Mr. Chips. Tradition, though, finds a date. That it became so in only its third year scares me. In my head, I, too, know what Friday is the day, but I willfully ignore what my gut tells me.
On the day of the burning I get an iced coffee on the other side of town. When I see the smoke rising from the direction of the mill, as the sun starts to hide, I climb the stairs to my room and close the door.
The pallets stack nearly thirty feet.
I am told that people stood on cars to create the initial pile, but even then they could not explain how it had gotten so high. And it was not only pallets, but chairs and boxes, barrels and random boards. Things that did not burn, like mental beams and bed spring mattresses, are pushed against the pile.
I wonder where they came from.
Some people do not bother to open the boxes, but throw them on whole. Perfectly stacked and packed books cling together even after the cardboard container has burned away. Books fly, with each strike creating an imperceptible movement in the tower. Music plays. People have just shown up with instruments—guitars and trumpets and sticks and recorders and whatever—and they all play when the mood strikes. It is loud and wild. The police are right to be concerned, but this is nothing I can control.
A bugle sounds, and this is thrown on the fire.
And then I hear a guitar smash or break or something in the darkness.
The owner yells, but it makes its way onto the fire.
They are all looking for something to burn; something more than books. If it occurs to them they might rip a chunk of pavement from below their feet and hurl it onto the pile. They want to burn civilization. Some of the men are shirtless, and I wonder if their clothing has been thrown on the pile. I hear glass break in the darkness; then another pane. Everyone ignores me. People run around, yelling and screaming and laughing. Adults—teachers!—stand with students and point and laugh. On the edge of darkness, by the gate, the light of the fire bounces off the police cruiser that has driven me there. The two officers, one a man the other a woman, lean against the car, arms folded, but do nothing. We are inside the gate.
“You came,” says Sophie MacDonald as a greeting.
I am looking at the fire, on the light side of the edge of darkness, and do not see her slip beside me.
“I was called.”
Sophie MacDonald then takes a book and throws it onto the fire.
Our junior year had been a tense one. Both of us had been opted into Mr. Chip’s alternative program. We spent much of our day at school, coming and going from random classes as we saw fit. It was like having a carte blanche ticket at the cina-plex, wandering from history video to adapted novel to science documentary. At first, our paths had crossed once a week, and we enjoyed coffee near each other on Thursdays. As the year progressed, though, Sophie MacDonald seemed to be around more. She had always rebelled against what was in front of her. In the spring, with my locker crusade going underground, she rebelled against me.
The books being thrown on the fire were mine, I realized. Again, betrayal.
I did say, “I was called” and she did throw a book onto the fire. More happened in-between, though. I want to get it right, out of respect for Sophie and my feelings for her, as well as the events that follow.
“You came,” states Sophie MacDonald.
“I was called.”
“These are my books,” I say quietly.
“They’re just books,” she flatly states. “They would have gotten destroyed eventually.”
We stand in silence. In her rebellion—her opposition—she throws her lot in with the book burners. As our peers thrown on hats and shoes and some throw rocks—thwack—at the burning pallets, the rebellious novelty of burning books still holds with Sophie MacDonald.
For the first time, I turn my head from the flames and look at Sophie.
She is beautiful.
The fire makes her face a bright mix of yellow, orange and white, while the back of her head is darker than any black I have ever seen. It is a matter of contrasts, I know, but emotionally I am lost. Betraying no emotion, her face turns towards mine.
“I just don’t care.”
And then she tosses the book onto the fire.
Sophie MacDonald is not weak. Her throw of the book, though, is poorly aimed.
As other books, socks and random garbage flies to the top of the pile, Sophie’s sideways chuck barely makes the fire. It is from the hip, and out. The entire throw relies on the snap of her wrist. Opening like a lame duck, a few pages flutter. When it hit whatever is burning at the foundation of the fire, the book snaps shut. It lays propped up, the title upside down but clearly legible.
“People miss books.”
I say this out loud, months later. Sophie is sitting across from me.
They say that god punishes people by giving them exactly what they want. My middle school dream of being alone with Sophie on the desert island has come true—years later—as no one likes her increasingly nasty commentaries and my spending time alone in the cafeteria makes me a friend of whoever chooses to sit across from me. After hurling that book onto the fire the summer before, I hate her, but I am stuck with her. And we are oddly friends.
“People miss burning books,” Sophie MacDonald says to me.
I have scars on my arms, chest, and legs. The doctors say I was lucky, which seems to be the cliché in the case of any accident; even if someone dies, they tell you it was lucky because it was quick and painless. In fact, as Sophie and I speak, I am still healing, with bandages and compression wraps both visible and under clothing. When the pyre fell on me it broke no bones; only burns. Most of it is second degree burns, and easily covered by a long sleeve t-shirt and a scarf. If you are wondering how I could forgive Sophie enough to even sit with her after this tragedy, I will tell you one more bit from the fire that I left out of the original story.
When she held up the book, I leapt at her.
I did not even try for the book. I was so angry—furious—that I attacked her.
She was shocked. This gave way to pain when I ripped a chunk of hair from her scalp. Had I not gone after the book, I might have crushed her head into the pavement. Still, when she twisted in pain to get away our eyes met and she understood fully why I gave THAT book to her. I had put my book—THAT book—in her locker in the spring. Our friendship now rests on this connection, and her knowledge that I could kill her if I wanted to.
Slurping the milk carton dry, Sophie gets up and throws it away, leaving for class without saying goodbye.
I know I have to do something.
Destruction seems to be the solution in Devon, and fire the medium that works. Picking at my itchy bandages, I open a spiral notebook I have for the French class I never attend and begin mapping out my last course of action.
Over the next half an hour I drink my coffee. Much of the time my face is down, and I lose consciousness a few times. Without a word, not even small talk, I get up and go into the first classroom I can find that is showing a documentary (it is not hard). Slipping into the back, I slouch into my seat and fall asleep.
When I wake up hours later, the same documentary is playing.
It is in the same place.
Looking around, I note that these are different kids, and this is a different section. As I had entered, I slip out without a word, but knowing I have to act that night.
My solution makes itself known on the back shelf above my father’s workbench.
He has an electromagnet.
Every garage or basement in Devon is filled with castoffs from the factories. Basic tools such as hammers and screw drivers find themselves into coat pockets and make their way from factory floors to personal tool boxes. Stove parts and fuses leave the factories in lunch boxes. Scrap piles and dumpsters yield lumber for tree houses and garden sheds, electric motors for table saws, and chains from which to hang engines from. A perk of the job, the men and women of Devon take discards and make them into something new. From somewhere, my father had picked up a handheld electromagnet. About the size of a red brick with a handle, it sits on a shelf above his workbench, unused since I was six years old.
I want to see if it is still as destructive as the only time he had turned it on.
My father tells me later not to stay out too late before falling asleep on the couch.
Placing the magnet in the bed of the truck by my remaining boxes of English department castoffs, I turn over the engine and ease out of the garage. Then, I swing by Sophie MacDonald’s. With no friends or anyone close, I had called her. I need to share this experience; the solution.
Sophie comes out to the truck, and as she opens the door and climbs in I see that her eyes are looking at the boxes in the bed.
“A burning?” is the first thing she says to me.
I put the truck in gear and move ahead.
We pull into the back parking lot of the school.
From behind my seat I produce the aluminum baseball bat my mother has given me—she sensed a plan was afoot and told me to swing for the fences—and smash a small window on a door. Clearing the edges with the barrel of the bat, I reach in and push the panic bar.
Click, we are in.
Sophie stands apart, her hands dug deep into her fleece pockets.
“I thought they burned all of your books?”
“Some,” I say.
Finding a cart used by maintenance, I say, “Look, we are going to place a book in each locker. A book for each person.”
“You did that last year.”
“And it worked. Until Chips.”
I go down the hallway, kicking open each locker. Sophie takes books out of the boxes and places one in each. At times, she seems to overcome her fear of being involved and thinks about what book might be best for this or that student she actually knows. Most of the time, though, she robotically tosses in a book; punctuating her dismay by slamming the door shut. That echoes throughout the school, dying out when another slam shoots out. We go down the freshman, sophomore and half of the junior hallways when we ran out of books. Twenty cardboard boxes of books looks like a lot, but when you pass them out like Santa Claus it really doesn’t add up to much.
“Maybe we should break into our library to finish the job.”
“Good idea,” Sophie says. “I’ll go get your bat.”
I think she is kidding, but she turns and walks down the hallway in the direction of my truck. Ten minutes later I get nervous and look for her. On the front seat sits the bat where I had left it.
Sophie MacDonald has left me.
More betrayal. I know she is going to tell someone:
Reaching inside the open window of the truck, I pull the hood release lever. With a click, it pops. Pulling the battery out of the engine compartment, I slide it into my school backpack. From the bed of the truck I take the electromagnet. Threading its wires trough a small loop that is sewn into the top of the backpack, I clip the alligator clamps to the battery terminal inside. Pulling the straps of the backpack over each shoulder, the battery rests heavily on my lower back and some of the tender scar tissue. In my right hand I hold the magnet. With my pointer finger, I pull a trigger; the magnet sticks to the side of the truck.
With my free left hand I pull the bat out of the driver’s seat and enter the school.
Phase Two of my plan is to provide the students of Devon Union High School with a piece of literature to feed their soul. Sophie MacDonald has helped me through most of the night with that part of the plan. Every freshman, sophomore and most of the juniors are ready to be fed.
Portable electromagnet in hand, I am ready for Phase One: I need to create the vacuum that will be filled with literature. From room to room I wander executing Phase One until after the sun comes up. It surprises me that the police have not come. Perhaps Sophie MacDonald is struggling with a change of heart.
My plan is simple.
From computers to cameras to projectors, Devon Union High School is a dumping ground of technology. Each piece of machine is loaded with processors, chips and various storage devices that allow it to hold data, adjust volumes, illuminate bulbs, and send ones and zeroes down this wire and up that one. No brain and the equipment is just a collection of wires that do not know what to do. Destroy the machine and I kill the beast. Unlike a book, modern technology is vulnerable to concentrated magnetic fields applied directly to their hard drives. So, if someone takes a large, really powerful magnet and puts it against the electronic guts it will scramble the information stored there. A few seconds with an electromagnet of considerable size will kill a machine.
Wandering the halls, going from room to room, I place the brick-sized magnet on every electronic device I can find, hold the trigger for ten seconds, and move to the next device.
By dawn, tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment are made useless. I am creating the vacuum.
Then the cops come.
Hearing the sirens I slip off the backpack and put the magnet down. Bat still in hand, I transfer it to my dominant right hand and head towards the exit. In the hallway, I pull the first fire alarm I come to. If the burnings have taught me anything, it is the more chaos is not always a bad thing.
There is one last part of this story.
When I run for the side entrance, figuring it is the least likely to be covered by the police, and closest to the woods, I encounter Chips. Sophie MacDonald had actually called Chips that night. It is Chips who called the police. Taking his keys out of his office door, he looks up to see me holding a bat.
Swing for the fences, my mother had told me.
“Ms. Jackson,” he says.
He does not seem surprised to see me.
Then he looks at the bat.
“Did you ever read ‘Casey at the Bat’?” I ask him. “I know literature is not your forte, but Casey is not the highest form so I thought you might have read it.”
“I think I saw the movie,” he quips. Then he looks at the bat again.
I need to leave.
Running towards the side entrance, I swing it wide to clear the way, but Chips does not flinch. Just missing a blow to his head, he comes up from a low position and tackles me. I am on my back, screaming, when two police officers come around the corner and hold my arms and legs. My head is bleeding from the takedown.
The alarms are still screaming.
No one seems to care that large parts of my body are covered with healing burns under the bandages. At that point, I am wrong.
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville— mighty Casey has struck out
Rolling me over, they cuff me and take me to the hospital for my head.
In the emergency room, nurses change my bandages and clean up my face.
“He was a wrestler,” the one of the officers tells me.
It’s morning, and the one police officer trades watch while the other goes for breakfast. Both officers—the one at the nurses’ station talking to an older woman from his church, and the woman who goes to the cafeteria for an egg and sausage breakfast sandwich—know my father. The nurse does, too. Our community is small; they trust each other, and, by extension from my father, me. I am not watched very closely. Some guy in the waiting room is sharing some disgusting facts about early medicine. Then I walk out of the waiting room and into the night.