Storyglossia Issue 36, October 2009.

A Controlled Burn

G. L. Griffith


A Controlled Burn is:

Lead Guitar: Wes Grey, Gibson Les Paul

Drums/Percussion: C.K. Harley, Tama and L.P.

Bass & Vocals: Thom Thomas, Fender Precision


All songs written by G. L. Griffith



TRACK 1: I, Thomas


Me and Billy sat on the ninety-ninth floor. We sipped our gin and watched the dance floor. We were waiting for your arrival, but you were a no-show.

We had these songs continually going off in our heads. We had one for everything. They were there to help us. They were there to see us through.

At precisely 9:00 p.m., I caught the first whiff of smoke. So I said to Billy, "What's that smell? Can't you smell that smell?"

Billy adjusted his dark bluesman's shades. He stroked his long salt and pepper beard. He snugged down his colorful tribesman hat. Then he spun his red custom Les Paul round and round and gave me the sign.

Not to worry. It's a controlled burn.

But I saw the way the orange glow kissed up against the glass and the serrated flames along the hillside.

I had my doubts.


TRACK 2: You, Thelonius


Now-a-days Billy only spoke in signs. A few years back he'd read Thomas Merton's book about the Trappist Monks, who only used hand signs to avoid the superfluousness of language. But I think his band breaking up had a lot to do with it. I could tell by the way he kept looking at the stage, which was occupied by DJ, Thelonius, dressed all in white. Billy had become one of the many unemployed, a national statistic. "An unwillingness to keep up with the alternative, global, free market economy." That was what one of the little pinhead critics on MTV had called it, or maybe it came from Bloomberg.


TRACK 3: Global Warming


I was getting so tired, tired of waiting for you. "Hey Billy, I need a song." He hit an F chord and began. It was one of my favorites. We had it down to a science. He would lip-sync the words and I would hear the rest.

I finished off my drink and signaled Lola for another. It wasn't long before she came rolling up.

"Hey, Lola. Where you been?"

"I been with Ray."

"Is he still fighting with his brother?"

"I'm afraid so." She replaced my drink with a nice fresh one."

I took a sip.

"Are you sure there is gin in this?"

"Oh Thomas, put your finger here," came her reply.

She took my finger and plunged it into the cold opening, and stirred it round and round.

"There, I told you it was real."

But how could I take anyone on roller-skates seriously? And that sequined tank top and those martini glass breasts. The name of the club was written across her heart: LOVE BEAST.

I brought my finger to my nose.

"Smells like gin."

The clear liquid ran to me, pinched off neatly by a thin pair of lips. I sloshed it round and round like mouthwash before sending it down.

I closed my eyes.

The pine needles went straight to my head. A forest floor rose to my face. I huffed the scent like panties on the morning after. A thousand campfires spotted the dark trail of my memory, a string of pearls leading to my door.

Billy kept on playing, that song.

A sudden pull and a wall of ice collapsed. Sea levels rose. Manhattan disappeared, while the dummy's mouth fell open.

"Blessed are they who cannot taste, yet still believe."


Still, I had my doubts.


TRACK 4: Thanks A Lot Carly Simon


So I tried calling you. You know, it took real stones having Carly Simon on your ringback. I replayed your voicemail several times. Cryptic and cozy. Not I will be, you said, but rather "I am."

You always told me that nobody could see your face and live. But you got it wrong.

Nobody could live without your face.

There was a loud crash as my drink hit the floor. I clutched my chest and slumped over in my chair.

"You bitch. You always hurt my heart."


TRACK 5: The Final Word


I kept one eye on the mirror because you had been known to show up there on certain occasions, to make your smoky cameo and then disappear. I had plenty to choose from. Mirrors on the walls, the floors, the ceilings, not to mention behind the bar. This whole place was one big—and then Billy spotted you.

A lone couple on the dance floor.

A wild-eyed strobe spun overhead. A throbbing ambient beat covered you. You wore a dark evening dress cut low in the back and danced with a tall, lanky blonde haired kid. I had seen his face somewhere, too. You could have been his mother. He wore his baseball cap backwards. You wore silver spiked heals with straps running sensuously up you legs. He wore baggy pants and tennies.

It wasn't long before you stepped off the dance floor. Your face was flushed and you made rapid movements with you fingers to fan yourself.

The kid in the baggy pants walked you over to a table of friends. Everyone was doing Jager Bombs. They tried to convince you to do one. You tried to maintain the lady, but they continued to insist. Finally you did the bomb. The kid in the baggy pants modeled the behavior. He held up a glass with a shot glass inside of it and tossed it down and then handed one to you. You tried to sip it, but the crowd would have nothing of that. The kid in the baggy pants held it up to your mouth. You cupped the drink in yours. Your wrist was decorated with silver bangles.

Then I said to Billy. "Whatever happened to a sharp dressed man?" I really didn't mean to rub it in.

But as usual, it was Billy who would have the last word. He pulled out his slide and hit a D chord, then ran it up and down the neck of his guitar and gave me the sign.

She used to love you, but it's all over now.


TRACK 6: Hello Bobby Brown


My fingers itched. I made my way toward you. Two bouncers intervened. They were young bloods, and their dicks were hard. Their viselike grips held my arms apart and cleaved my heart.

I ranted. I raged. I longed for you. I threw one last look over my shoulder as we moved toward the door.

"This ain't over. There's no way this is fucking over. It's my prerogative. You hear? It's my prerogative."

I needed a total makeover, a new point of view.

Still I had my doubts.


TRACK 7: Sun and Moon and Pyramids


We stood outside. My head hung low. I clutched my chest. The Love Beast was behind me, for now. The hum and snap of its neon fell down upon me. The blue-green light fell across my Keds. Billy stood beside me. This time he strummed a C chord. No pill's gonna cure your ill.

"This whole thing is unbelievable, Billy. Nobody's gonna believe this is really happening."

He raised his head slowly toward the hills. Even from this distance, the heat pressed against our faces. A blanket of fire, dark in the center, but brightly serrated on the edges, had spread and slowly worked its way towards the summit, where the mansions stood with their alpine architecture, high beams, and vaulted windows. The last of the owners had come out to enjoy the view. They stood on expansive decks and drank champagnes from fluted crystal glasses. They laughed and chatted. They had withdrawn all of their money from banks and financial institutions. Invested in gold. The bars were neatly stacked against the windows, always within sight with armed guards on either side. Some of the bars had decorative designs: Sun and moon and pyramids.

Billy hit a D chord. "Please, Billy, no Johnny Cash."

Then he went to E. "And for god sakes, no Billy Joel." I hate Billy Joel. Well, that wasn't exactly true. "I didn't start the goddamn fire, okay?"

Then he went back to a C chord. "Look, I don't want to stand next to your fire. This isn't funny!' I didn't see what the fuck the big joke was.

"That looks pretty out of control. Are you sure it's a controlled burn?"

He spun his guitar. He gave me the sign.

All is a controlled burn.

Still, I had my doubts.


TRACK 8: Back to the Garden


Billy put his game face on. He took a few steps and then swatted at the air: Follow me! I want to show you something. I put one foot out, then another and another. Pretty soon we were moving, crunching the dry earth. Amazing! Things weren't so bad, once you started moving.

Billy took the lead, his Les Paul slung over his back and with me behind. First he took me through Johnny's Garden, a tangle of dead jasmine, forsythia, and mimosa. And then Down By The River, where the brooks still twaddled and the frogs crooned.

"I remember," I started to say, but Billy had set such a furious pace there was no time to finish. I was breathless.

Finally we stopped at the edge of an orchard that had foothills at its threshold. I could go no further. I pressed one hand to my side and stooped over, looking at the charred earth, where a thin coating of new grass also had formed.

He knelt down, and I did the same. He took my hand in his own and guided it over the earth where the stubble of new growth was. Then he snatched up a handful and stuffed it into his mouth and began to ruminate.

"You old goat."

Green juice ran down Billy's chin and mixed with his yellow beard. He gave another sign.

It was here that it started.

I felt a yawn coming on.

And from here it spread everywhere. It's a controlled burn, and with its destruction comes. . .

This time he pulled out his harp and make a long, low woofing sound, like a slow train.

"Oh for crissakes, Billy. No Bob Dylan, please! Don't kick me when I'm down."

He turned and spat a straight green line, and then wiped his chin with his shirt sleeve.

This is the way.

In the distant hills, thunder began to roll.

Still, I had my doubts.


TRACK 9: Move Me, Wes


I needed a new sound. Something dark and edgy. Something guttural and rapid. A roar, a large wave of sound. Something to push me along these streets. Something to move me out of here.

I began working my way back to you. Too bad if someone fell. I would walk over them.

I was on the poor side of town. I was down in the boondocks. I left Billy behind me. I was moving on. I threw one last look over my shoulder and saw him standing next to a hardware store. There was a circle of people around him, tossing money into his tribesman hat. He had found his voice. He just got paid.

From somewhere came the puddling, frothy sound of water. A briny smell. There were small, ramshackle dwellings with mullioned windows. Front doors stood ajar. One by one they came out to see the spectacle. They wore coveralls and blue jeans and swigged off open bottles of beer. The men were bearded and scraggily-toothed, and the women wore baggy sweat pants and gray tee shirts. They lit up cigarettes and talked among themselves. The fire was everywhere and around everything. The air was hot with it. It meant nothing that their own shacks could soon go up in flames. They yawned and stretched and looked toward the hills, where the first of the mansions had caught fire.

A man stood on the upper deck of a large, three story colonial. He wore a suite of flames and leaped over the railing. He fell like a meteor. A noise moved through the crowd when he hit the ground; and then much to everyone's amazement, he rose again and began running. Cheers and whistles erupted. The orange flames streamed behind him, a pocket of light, before he fell again, rolling over and over, until finally stopping on his back. His right arm continued to mechanically rise and fall, as if beating his chest. Then it too stopped and he lay still, the flames withering and then stopping altogether.


TRACK 10: I'll Drink to That Bob Marley


We moved along. We raged. But these hands. They were everywhere, on my forearms and calves. They were rough callused hands. Others were warm to the touch. Bodies shocked up against me. I could feel the blood behind their large rabbit eyes.

And when I shoved them away, they bumped back for more. And the hands kept at me. The more I pushed, the more they shoved. And there was this guitar, it was like a chainsaw going off.

We were a noisy bunch, moving up the street, yelling and pushing. Some had even taken to fist swinging and butting heads. I rode the front of the wave.

One man came up with his face close. He had terrible acne and pins stuck to his flesh. He drew back a fist, but I was ready and caught him with a short left hook. His face exploded red and white.

I rammed. I butted. I dodged. I worked his way along, gathering numbers as I went.

I had nearly forgotten why I was here, when we rounded the corner and drew to a sudden stop.

The spectacle stood before us. The two domes with the tower in the middle. The sign rotated at the top, like some sort of 1940s movie. LOVE BEAST.

"You can do it, bloke," someone said. It was the acne-scarred face, spitting teeth. He wore blue coveralls with large monkey wrench in the side pocket. "That was really something, that little bang you gave me back there." His lips were red with blood.

"I'm sorry," I muttered. "It was just that. . . "

He patted me on the back. "Don't worry about me. This is my lot in life. But you, my friend, have a greater destiny."

The others cheered. He put his mouth close to my ear. "Now's your chance to get even. To take care of that be-atch once and for all."

"Yeah!" everyone yelled. "Yeah!"

Someone gave me two champagne bottles. "There you are. Now you're a two-fisted drinker, mate."

I started to bring it to my lips, when I caught the whiff.

"I wouldn't do that, mate." He smiled a toothless smile. "This cocktail isn't for drinking, if you catch my drift." He popped a cork into each. "There you go. Now you're ready."

They shoved me forward, so I now stood before them.

"But I don't want to go back to that world."

"It'll only be for a little spell, nothing more. Just long enough to cleanse things. Just long enough to even the score."

"Everything is backward there and I hate it."

"That's what these are for, mate." He pinged the bottles with a long spike he was carrying. "These will make everything straight, now won't they. Here's your logic. You take this in there and break the glass. Get things straight."

The crowd began to chant: "Break the glass! Break the glass!"

He put the spike in my back pocket and gave me another violent shove toward the door. The crowd had grown.

"You can do it!"

This time it was Marley going off, the guitar and keyboards low and funky, with plenty of reverb.

"Burn your illusion tonight."

I stood up straight. I threw my shoulders back.

"You're damn right!"

Still, I had my doubts.


TRACK 11: You Again Mother


And so I entered. Madder-red carpets absorbed me. Textured walls with intricate floral designs surrounded me. Spike in hand, I hacked away. I sent the glass flying. I took command of the situation.

Windows stretched toward vaulted ceilings. Chandeliers looked down on me. I shook my fist at them. I strode beneath their mini-faux candles. My footsteps made brittle sounds on the marble floors. Suddenly, an elevator door pocketed open. A lifting motion moved me to the ninety-ninth.

I adjusted my collar. I threw back my shoulders. I took several deep breaths and imagined a quiet, sunlit meadow at midmorning, I listened for a peaceful easy feeling. I put on my best face. The bell sounded. The doors slid open to reveal the doorman, a dark gentleman, tall, narrow-faced, gray casquette hat, snug jacket pin-stripped, matching slacks, paten leather shoes. The champagne bottles went straight to his head. His lips peeled back in a horsy smile.

"What you got there? Are you a double-fisted drinker?"

I lifted the bottles and held them at arm's length. "I'm looking for someone."

"Well there ain't no wedding happening here."

"I am the bride."

"Figured as much."

We passed the dance floor. The same old music was sloshing long. French doors were thrown open. A thin gray filter saturated the air. A tableau of heads and arms began to move.

The horsy smile became a horsy laugh, loud, whinnying. "Sure ain't no wedding in there."

"I need to find her."

"I'll bet you do. But it's not her you're looking for."

"Show me the way."

His body bowed, low and deep. His cap came off in a sweeping motion with his hand. His long, dark fingers pointed toward a door, where the letter M began to approach me and eventually opened to receive me, but not before he called after me: "You must be looking for the blue room. To get to her, you must pass through The Blue Room."

"Call me mister blue."

"What does the letter 'M' mean?" my voice called back to him.

"What else?" came the reply. "It always get back to her, doesn't it? If in doubt blame it on her."

"This is the end."


TRACK 12: Those Shoes


My eyes were two black holes in the dim light. Marley was gone. I needed a song in the worst possible way. I closed my eyes. I tried to concentrate. One kept trying to enter, but the message was garbled. It kept breaking up.

The merest path presented itself. I followed. The blue cross beams were before me, pouring through random holes, a laser show it was, crossing, recrossing, and overlapping. In the blue light, several men faced the wall, one hand on hip, elbows protruding at 45 degrees, while with the other they took hold of themselves. Their looks came askance, tossed over one shoulder.

One wore a double-breasted brown blazer. His hair was thin and gray. He wore wire rim glasses. A voice came from a narrow face. "Hey you don't know what you're missing."

He moved his face toward one of he holes next to him. His voice was having difficulty and kept clearing itself.

"We always meet in the bathroom like this. Just give it a try. I'm sure you'll love it."

Next to him were a line of stalls. The doors were closed. Feet could be seen in pairs. Wing-tipped shoes, cuffed pants stacked on each ankle. The left shoe was touching the right shoe in the next stall, on and on it went all the way down.

"What's on the other side?"

His body rocked back and forth and the wall pressed itself up against him.

"The other side? I'll tell you what's on the other side." He cleared his throat several times.

"The Blue Room. That's what's on the other side. That's where your great expectations are. This is just, how shall I say, just a foretaste of what's to come. " Everyone laughed.

I set the bottles down and knelt for a closer look. Blue light poured through the hole. A pair of cherry red lips smiled and then formed a perfect O.

"No thanks. I've got bigger fish to fry."


TRACK 13: Thebes Again


Another room came. The door's smooth cherry surface marked the letters FA.

The entryway was guarded by a massive man, thick in the shoulders and neck. He was shirtless and wore black leather pants and hooded mask on top.

I felt my reserve flagging, my courage slipping. I needed a new song. I needed the juice. Some power chords with a techno-edge to push me through. And some words to make me rage.

He said to me, "To get pass through this door you had better be able to solve the riddle; and you had better answer the three questions correctly."

"No problem."

"First question: Whose my own worst enemy?"

"Tom Morello."

I saw his jawbone tense through the mask. He put a knife up to my throat.

"Second question: What has three legs, but walks on two, with the middle one ruling?"

"That's easy." My hand grabbed my crotch. "Man."

He took the knife away from throat and pointed to the door. If the "A" means attack, what is FA.? Now go figure."

"No, now go fuck," and under my breath, yourself.

The door swung open.


TRACK 14: Ghost of O.J.


The Blue Room entered with its new sound. I heard chainsaws buzzing and blast beats blasting and kick drums kicking at 220 bpm. I knew what I had to do.

The mirrors again. A California King began to laugh at me from all directions. They wanted me to believe that they held many couples, but all was the same, from Diego to Frisco. There was only one.

I pulled the spike from my back pocket.

"You laughing at me?" I shattered that one. Then I went to another. "What about you? You laughing at me?" And I shattered that one too. Then I shattered another and another. I wrecked them all, until at last there was only one of you.

"I found you."

"What are you doing here?" her voice managed to say.

Both arms had pushed herself up, until she was a lean-to. He was beneath her. His blonde hair was slicked back and his face caught her falling breasts, while his tongue lolled a national anthem.

I pressed my hands to my chest. I managed to say, "Your hour has come."

My thumb ran over the sharp point at the end.

"I'm telling you, it's not me you're looking for."

"Oh yes it is." I leaned over and forced myself to take deep breaths.

She said, "I'm sorry. I'm having trouble talking right now. Can you call back later?"

Her back was to me, the dark hair falling between the sweaty blades. Her spine ran down the narrow crease of her back. Each disk was tightly drawn against the pale flesh. Her head was thrown back. Her eyes rolled up in her head. Her hips working like a pump, bringing the wild water up and up.

"It's not me . . . It's not me you're looking for."

I reached out with my finger and ran it down her spine and brought it to my mouth for the salty taste. Both hands now clenched the spike and drew it back behind me. The flesh was making quick slapping noises. The sap was rising. It was running all over the place. I screamed with pleasure and slammed the spike forward, between the fourth and fifth vertebrae, at the base of her skull, driving it through bone and flesh. More glass fell to the ground floor, a million shards lay about me. I fell to my knees exhausted. I doubled up into a ball.


TRACK 15: A Toast to Arthur Brown


Light began to fill the room, exposing her every blemish, her folds of fat, the moles on his shoulders. Still it continued to grow until it filled everything. Then came the splattering of applause and that sound grew into a loud outpouring. I could see the dim outline of them, row upon row.

"Hey, mister, I can explain," the kid shouted. He still had this enormous erection, but it was wilting fast.

She took my hand in hers and said something. I looked at my hand, the cut over the knuckle with the swelling setting in.

The three of us stood before audience and took our final bows. The applause grew even louder.

Now Arthur Brown came into my head. I heard the cheesy synth and the solid back beat.

I popped the corks and began to pour a single line around them. There were shouts and whistles and everyone stood.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," I said. "How can I ever possibly thank you." I bowed to the audience one last time and then continued pouring.

I followed my trail, pouring a single line, shattering more glass as I went. I could hear the thunderous applause behind me, following me, as I retraced my every step, giddy and laughing all the way. I couldn't stop pouring. I kept pouring and pouring, long after the bottles were empty. It ran quite through me until I staggered through the glass doors to the outside and yet more applause.


TRACK 16: Finale (From a Distance)


The crowd awaited outside. The applause continued as a solitary man staggered out of the building, pouring a trail of champagne behind him. He managed to make a circle around the entire building before falling to the ground and clutching his chest. They could hear his laughter and see his head turning from side to side as he looked up at the sky. He laughed harder and harder. It was a joyous sound that made some of them smile and brought tears to the eyes of others.

"Hear I am!" he kept saying between the choking laughter and tears. "Here I am!"

The sky opened itself and the warm rain fell down. It bathed the earth and washed all the soot away. He stopped laughing and looked with amazement at his right hand, which was extended out in front of his face. Four white knuckles stood out, pale like the first light of dawn. Something turned his face upward and the rain ran down his neck and beneath his dirty shirt. Even his pants were cleaned. The warm water slithered over his groin and legs. A brown stream ran along the streets.

Then the torrent eased to a gentle, sustained fall, that would last throughout the night and onto the day. Everything was at rest.

Thunder rolled gently across the sky. The owners had stood out in the night air with faces turned skyward, right along with everyone else. Water ticked against their faces and raced along the gutter.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and heard an old familiar guitar lick.

"I'm a rough boy."

The heavy coat of slumber was upon him, too.

And the rain fell down.

The fires were put out.

And the last song stopped.

Copyright©2009 G. L. Griffith

G.L. Griffith is a writer and rock drummer. He lives in Northern Arizona with his wife and two cats. He has won several awards for his fiction, including most recently, a partial merit scholarship from SLS (Summer Literary Seminars) to study in Kenya, Africa in December of 2009—an award that he most reluctantly had to turn down. His current collection of short stories, entitled Two-Tracking, is under consideration by a publisher. He has completed two novels. His fiction has appeared in Storyglossia and Zinkzine.

Interview with G. L. Griffith