The Grief School
Nov 15 ● BY Kabi Hartman
Near the end of August my father drove me to the Amtrak station in White River Junction. He bought me a yogurt, egg salad sandwich, and granola bar at the co-op, counting his change before putting it in the pocket of his jean shorts. The store-bought lunch made me feel guilty and sad. So did the week’s supply of new clothes in my duffel. Everything we owned had been destroyed in the fire.
“Say hello to Aunt Joan and Uncle Alec for me,” my father said, making a snort-and-guffaw combination to show what he thought of my mother’s relatives. He was not thrilled that I was going to live with them in what he called the demented city, where everyone used too much electricity, ate too much take-out, and flushed their toilets every time they went.
“And don’t let Barcleigh corrupt you,” he continued. My first day in 11th grade at the private girls’ school on the Upper East Side, where both my mother and Aunt Joan had served time, was looming.
“It’s going to be a different life,” he said.
I wasn’t exactly thrilled about attending Barcleigh, either, but my father refused to let me stay while he rebuilt the house. He explained that the conditions would be too rugged for me to continue camping with him on our land when the cold arrived. I understood that he had not forgiven me for the fire. If he wanted me to live with him, he would go to any length, building me a straw hut or procuring another cold-weather tent. Nothing was too rugged for anyone, in his opinion.
I would have to get used to life in New York City, at least for a while. I had been there a few times before, and I couldn’t bear Aunt Joan and Uncle Alec’s sweltering apartment on the ninth floor of their Riverside Drive building. The elevator rattled and shook, and the guest room was a large closet with a window overlooking an air shaft. Aunt Joan and Uncle Alec were nice enough, but I figured they weren’t overjoyed about having me. They were busy professionals: Aunt Joan was a therapist. Uncle Alec was a professor of Biology at Columbia. According to my father, they were both neurotic hamsters huffing on a wheel of ambition.
Your mother was different, he always said. I don’t know how she emerged from that polluted pressure-cooker of a city. His blue eyes would paralyze with shock, as if he had just heard the news of my mother’s death (in a car crash in summer—on a cloudless sunny day—not on an icy road in winter, as people always assumed). But then my father’s eyes would glint back to life, and he would conclude with his usual elegy: your mother was a free spirit, and she’s with the angels now.
All of the Barcleigh girls in my 11th grade homeroom had glossy long hair and wore dainty flat sandals that showed off their pedicures. They were mostly White and tanned, and they hailed each other in confident voices suggestive of winners on the lacrosse field.
I was assuring myself that I would survive the social ostracism that was sure to be my fate, when one of the girls rushed up to me and grabbed my arm.
“Hey, New Girl,” she greeted me in her raspy voice. “Are you Cam Beacon?”
I gave her a half-hearted nod. She was hefty and moon-faced, and her pudgy hand gripped me surprisingly hard.
“Know what?” she said. “There’s already a rumor about you.”
“No way,” I managed to say.
“Want to hear it?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” I said, but my heart was pounding.
She let go of my arm and slid even closer. A rich, manure-like humidity steamed off her. “You burned down a house,” she said. “That’s the rumor.”
“Really?” It seemed incredible that she knew this.
“C’est vrai, New Girl?”
I barked—a short laugh that didn’t sound familiar. I hadn’t laughed since before the house burned down. It seemed entirely possible that my laugh had changed to this bray in the intervening months.
“I guess,” I finally said. The Arson Investigator had ruled it an accident, but I didn’t know how to tell her this without sounding defensive.
“Ha!” she said. “I knew it.”
“How did you hear?”
“Who knows?” she said, waving away my question. “Someone knew someone who knew someone. Someone said, oh, is that the Cam Beacon who burned down her house? In Vermont? And I said, how many Cam Beacons from Vermont are there? It was when we got our new class list. Then we googled you and read the articles in that dinky Vermont paper. Anyway, no one judges. It makes you interesting.”
I considered this, trying to think of all the girls who might have spread the news. I didn’t have many friends. There was a girl from New York City, though, who came to Vermont every summer and was crazy about Morgan horses. I had met her at the stables in Vershire but had cared so little for her that I couldn’t remember her name.
“Give me your number and I’ll text you,” the girl was saying. “We’ll have some fun.”
I pulled out my cell phone. It was new, and only Aunt Joan had texted me on it. Whenever I looked at it, I imagined my father’s narrowing eyes. Cell phones junked up the world, causing brain cancer and distracting us from nature—the perfect toys for neurotics.
“What’s your name?” I said.
“Corrina,” she said. “You know the Dylan song?”
“Baby, please come home,” I sang. I was having an out-of-body experience, becoming someone who sang to strangers and made chit-chat in a sarcastic mode. “My father’s a Dylan aficionado,” I added.
“You’re cool, New Girl,” Corrina said, slapping me on the arm, leaving a sting that vibrated as she rushed back to her knot of friends.
Not that my father didn’t sometimes use a telephone. His unexpected calls were a big deal since he had to walk a mile down the road to the neighbors to use their phone.
“How was school?” he asked. I could tell that he had smoked before dialing my number. His voice had that misty sound which signaled the arrival of his gentler self.
“Fine,” I said, wondering if I should tell him what Corrina—and probably everybody—knew about me.
“What are the kids like?” he asked. “Tell me they’re not all rich spoiled brats like your mother’s family.”
“The only girl I talked to was named Corrina, and she seemed OK. Maybe a little weird.”
“Corrina, Corrina,” my father sang. “I’m a-thinkin’ ‘bout you, baby…”
“She seemed to know me already,” I said. I couldn’t bring myself to say more.
“What do you mean, know you?” My father’s voice was tight.
“She knew I was from Vermont,” I said, stalling.
“Did she know—about?”
“It seemed she might have.”
“Now how the hell—?” he began. But the weed had made him slow. He struggled for words.
“People can search the internet,” I said. “Anyone can put in my name and read those articles.”
“Right—these days anyone can pry into our business,” he said. “And they call that progress.” I could imagine the wormy vein on his forehead. “Take my advice: don’t say anything more about it, and stay away from that Corrina. She sounds like a pack of hounds.”
He had strong opinions about keeping family matters private. When my mother died, he told me not to tell anyone that she had been returning from an ayahuasca retreat when she drove her car off the side of the curvy dirt road near our house, flying down a steep bank and into a tree. Years later, when I asked him whether my mom had been tripping that evening, he shrugged and said he was sure she had been happy at the time. I had also heard my father explaining to my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Tyler, when she suggested I might benefit from a counselor, that my mother’s death was too painful a subject for me to talk about. He would never mention the fire again if I did not. And if anyone else brought it up, I knew from past experience that his face would go stony and he would clench himself against the words, turning his head slightly to the side and gazing into space, as if he were bored and profoundly disturbed at the same time.
“Just keep it to yourself, Cam,” he said.
The next day at school, Corrina hustled over to me as I walked into the eleventh-grade homeroom. “It’s the pyromaniac,” she said, gripping my arm again.
I twisted out of her grasp. We looked at each other, smirking. Then one of her friends walked over.
“How do you like Barf-leigh?” she said. Her name was Tatum. I could tell from the way she looked at me that she knew about the fire, too.
“Fantastic,” I said. “I loved all the homework last night.”
“You transferred from Vermont?”
“And you chose to come here?” Tatum asked.
“My mother did,” I said.
“I can’t believe they accepted an arsonist,” Corrina said. “Barcleigh stoops so low…”
“I’m a legacy.” I barked the strange braying sound, thinking of the pile of money we’d had to withdraw from the trust fund my mother left me.
“Oh, Cam, we’re going to have so much fun,” Corrina said. “We do all sorts of crazy things. Some might even be as thrilling as torching houses.”
I looked at her pale round face. “I wish you’d shut up about that,” I said. “The thrill was fleeting.”
She looked at me conspiratorially. “Believe me, even if I didn’t know about your pyrotechnic proclivities, I would have pegged you for a delinquent right away. You have that look.”
“What look?” I asked. But I was playing dumb. The fire had brought something about me to the surface, and I knew that Corrina could see it.
The first time I started a fire, I was nine. It was a Saturday afternoon in summer, the day like a peach, undulating and buzzing and juicy with a poisonous pit of silence. Walking up the road from my friend Annie’s house, I saw a dead mouse. It was covered with caramel-colored maggots and shiny green bottle flies. Whenever I moved, the flies lifted and hovered about the mouse and maggots until I was still again and they could rest and return to their banquet.
I stared at the mouse for a long time. At home, I thought about it. If I did not do something, the mouse would be devoured. Dread and frenzy swelled in me as I considered the problem. Plans shaped themselves in my mind.
My father had read me a children’s version of The Iliad; he had explained how the Greeks and Trojans burned their dead. I spent the rest of the afternoon gathering dry wood and constructing a funeral pyre in a clearing on the back path in the woods. The pyre was decorated with dried cattails and wildflowers. When it was finished, I returned to the house for matches and a spatula. I scooped the mouse off the dirt road with the spatula, maggots and all. The flies dispersed and did not return.
The wood was good, and the cattail ornamentation abetted the fire. It was a spectacular funeral. The maggots burned alive. The little mouse was finally reduced to ashes. The fire wore itself down, slowly, leaving a pile of charred debris on the packed dirt path. Looking at the remains, I got a religious feeling—a centered calm.
After that afternoon, I built many fires. There were always carcasses in our part of Vermont, and they deserved proper rites. I burned the bodies of birds, chipmunks, squirrels, mice, rabbits, newts, frogs, toads, rats, voles, moles, and bats.
When there weren’t dead animals, I burnt other things: photographs of our family before my mother died, a small wooden box that held my baby teeth (the teeth did not burn), and some paper snowflakes my mother and I made once during a snowstorm when I was four. Building fires and conducting rites—formal farewells to things that were already lost—was fulfilling. I imagined I would become a priest when I was an adult, presiding over funerals, chanting comforting words to those in grief.
New York scorched into September. I was having trouble sleeping, and sometimes in the middle of the night I crept into the kitchen, where Aunt Joan hung a calendar from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a small nail hammered into the wall next to the larder. I counted the weeks till Thanksgiving, running my finger down the vertical line of Thursdays till I got to the fourth one in November. I hoped to go to Vermont for the holiday to see how the new house was coming along.
On a Saturday evening at the end of September, Corrina texted. She wanted to meet me in front of Barcleigh. It was still hot and muggy when I got there, but dusk was settling. Corrina was hunched on the steps leading from 83rd Street onto the promenade by the East River. She patted the spot next to her. “I was going to have a party tonight and get everyone hammered, but then I realized everyone in our class is a nimrod.”
I sat down next to her. There was a little breeze. It felt like we were doing something wrong to be so near school on a Saturday evening, but of course we weren’t.
“Do you want to play Truth or Dare?” she said.
“What are we, twelve?”
“C’mon, Cam,” she said. “It’ll be fun!”
“Just ask me,” I said. “I know you want to hear about the fire.”
“What did you do? I mean, what happened?” She leaned into me, hard. It was like being butted by a goat.
“My father wants me to keep it a secret,” I said.
“Well, it’s your story, isn’t it?” Corrina said.
“It happened in March,” I said. “It was still very cold.”
Corrina nodded. “As cold as the grave?”
“Colder. Anyway, my father had gone to a permaculture conference for the night, so I invited some friends from down the road, and we decided to build a fire in the fireplace. It was still burning in the morning when we were supposed to leave for school, so we doused it with buckets of water from the sink. We even took the logs down to the brook to be extra careful. We wore these special gloves my father hung from the fireplace to carry the logs with. And here’s the awful part: the firefighters thought the fire started in the mudroom—that an ember fell there as we carried the logs through. If we hadn’t been so careful, the house would probably still be standing.”
“So, if it was just an accident, why does your father want to keep it a secret?” Corrina said.
“I don’t know.” I couldn’t put it into words. I was sure that my father’s desire to keep it a secret had to do with all the stuff I hadn’t told Corrina: how he had warned me about the fireplace before he left and how he hadn’t wanted me to invite friends over. How I stoked the fire until it made a huffing noise, like a vacuum sucking itself up. How the fire spit and hissed. How my friend Annie was scared, how she begged me to let the fire die. How I privately exulted over its ferocity. How the fire had been mammoth and gargantuan—my secret words for it. How there was a freedom in the house that night without my father—how I didn’t have to count the strips of toilet paper I used, the volume of water, the amount of butter and salt and sugar, the electricity. How I stood, puffing the bellows and picturing my father’s measuring eyes while the thought hatched, clear and imperious: I am going to burn this fucking house down.
How the words rang in me, and how I let them settle down, not believing them, soon forgetting I had ever thought them—until afterwards.
“I’ll bet there’s something more,” Corrina said in her raspy voice. “Try telling it again.”
“The fire was mammoth,” I began. “Gargantuan.”
“Mythical,” Corrina added.
“Mythical—bigger than any of the fires I had set before.”
When I finished telling the story again, we sat for a moment staring at the black, shimmering river, and, beyond it, the lights of Roosevelt Island.
“OK, now I get it,” she said. It was finally dark, and her voice floated disembodied in the cone of orange light cast by the streetlamps. “You can’t be sure you’re not a criminal because you had that thought about burning down the fucking house. And you set all those fires before.”
“But still,” she finally said. “Thoughts are just thoughts. You think this will haunt you forever. But it won’t. In a few years it simply won’t.”
“How do you know?”
“I guess I don’t,” she said. “But wouldn’t it be too crappy if something that happened when you were sixteen—I mean, if everything was spoiled for you this soon?”
“That’s exactly how I feel,” I said. “Like everything has been spoiled forever.”
“Do you want to tell the story again?” she asked. “I learned that if you’re traumatized, telling it again helps. I—” She stopped, and I had the feeling she was about to confess something about herself.
“Where did you learn about telling stories over and over?” I asked. “Grief school?”
Corrina’s mouth pulled down, and her face suddenly looked stricken, as if she had tasted an awful future.
“Did something happen to you, too?” I asked.
But then her mood changed, her mouth rearranging and lifting. “Forget it!” she said. She stood up and stretched.
“Grief school?” she said, looking at me with shocked and happy amusement. “I love you, Cam Beacon.”
A month later, the weather changed. I pulled on my lime-green fleece jacket. It was one of the few things I still had from before the fire. I had been wearing it that day. If I sniffed the cuffs, I could smell the old house—the odors of the musty closets with their winter boots barely contained, and the wood-burning stove, and somewhere deep down in the fibers the steely iron smell of winter and of the gargantuan fire itself.
The radiators came on in the apartment. They clanked at odd times, hammering in the middle of the night, nearly causing me a heart attack with every clang. The apartment was like a sauna and I wore a tank top, shorts, and flip-flops whenever I was inside. Aunt Joan finally turned off the radiator and put a screen in the soot-covered window in my room so I could open it when I wanted. I felt more like myself sleeping under a quilt again.
My father called on a Saturday morning in early November to tell me he was staying at his sometimes-girlfriend Linda’s house; it had snowed for the first time. “What a snow!” he said. “I borrowed Linda’s toboggan and took a few runs just for the heck of it. It beats all, racing down that hill as the sun tops the mountain.”
I wondered if he missed our old Flexible Flyer. But he wasn’t like that—he had probably hollered into the crystal morning, thinking only of the speed of the sled on the snow.
“Things are coming along,” he continued. “We’ll have something to work with by the summer.” His voice, hoarse with wind and silence, was deeply familiar.
“How about Thanksgiving?” I asked.
“That’s right, turkey season.” My father liked bringing them down with his bow and arrow. He didn’t believe in guns. “I already got myself two plump Toms.”
“I’ll be there to eat them,” I said.
“I don’t know,” he said, quietly. “Let’s hold off on that. There’s not much space at Linda’s.”
“I want to come home,” I said.
“Baby, I would love for you to come home,” he said. His voice had turned frosty. “But there is no home right now.”
That same night at eight, as I was doing my eternal homework, Barcleigh sent our class an unexpected email. Corrina’s mother had died early that morning after months of hospice care following a skiing accident the previous spring. The funeral would take place in Connecticut, at a church near Corrina’s family’s country house. The school expressed support for her, her father, and two brothers, and provided information about the funeral and where we could send flowers and cards.
I sat at my desk, staring at my computer. My heart was pounding so hard that I thought I might faint, and there was a feeling in my veins like splinters of ice. Where had I gone wrong that I didn’t know any of this? I hadn’t seen Corrina out of school since our time by the promenade, but we had talked about getting together again. Now I knew I’d been right that evening when I sensed Corrina wanted to tell me something.
The image of Aunt Joan appeared in my computer screen; she was standing in the doorway, wearing a white t-shirt and black sweatpants. “I just got the email from Barcleigh,” she said. “How sad! Wasn’t that the girl you went out to meet in the evening a few weeks ago?”
“Yes,” I said, turning around.
“Did you know about her mother?” Aunt Joan was next to me, her hand on the back of my chair. I looked at it, wondering if my mother’s hands had been similarly strong and little.
“No,” I said. “Corrina never said anything.”
There was a silence and I thought Aunt Joan was making a judgment. How could I have spent time with Corrina and not known such an important fact?
“You two are friends?” she asked.
“I don’t really know,” I said. “I like talking with her. That night I met her she asked me about myself.”
“You should go to the funeral,” Aunt Joan said. “I’ll take you.”
“I never asked her about her story,” I said. “I mean, not the way she did with me.”
Aunt Joan nodded. “Well, it’s got to be hard for you, your first year here.”
I wondered what Aunt Joan meant by your first year here. Up until that moment, it had not occurred to me that I might be at Barcleigh for more than one year. I had thought that my father didn’t want me in New York—that he would try to save me from the demented city as soon as possible. But now it occurred to me that I might not be going back to Vermont, even when my father finished the house.
I texted Corrina that night but got no response. A few days later, Aunt Joan and I drove to Connecticut for the funeral. It was one of the first cold days. As we drove up the Merritt Parkway, the sight of the stark winter trees against the opalescent sky made every cell in my body yearn to keep travelling north.
After the funeral, Corrina grasped my hand and squeezed. She looked like a matron in her sleeveless black sheath dress and pearls. “I’m sorry I didn’t answer your text,” she said. “But, as you know, cataclysmic events just aren’t textable.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s impossible to text from grief school.” What a moronic thing to say!—especially when there were so many other things I wanted to talk about: her mother, my mother, everything. But she had to greet other guests. Anyway, she would be back at school soon.
After another week passed, though, we were informed that Corrina was going to transfer to a boarding school in Connecticut near her family’s country house. Her brothers went there. I guessed that she wanted to be with family, or make a fresh start, or both.
I thought about Corrina a lot during those late November days. Tatum had filled me in about Corrina’s mother’s accident—a head-on collision with a tree during an ordinary run on an easy course. The weird thing was that it had happened the past March, around the time of the fire—and it had happened in Killington, Vermont. I knew that Corrina would have told me about it if I had been more curious and tuned in. She had chosen me as a friend, even if only because we had both experienced a disaster during the same month in the same state. But then a few weeks went by and neither of us communicated. I assured myself that I hadn’t known her long enough to miss her.
Still, I looked for a relic I could burn for her. The problem was, I had nothing from her. Although I longed to strike a match, make her a special pyre, and bid her a ritual farewell, I finally concluded that there would be no burning for Corrina.
In December, Aunt Joan took me to see The Nutcracker at The New York State Theater. It was a big deal for her because she was a balletomane (a word she had just taught me), but I was having trouble getting in the spirit. It still had not snowed in New York. In fact, it was almost balmy again. My father was holding out on me about Christmas. I was worried that I’d be staying in New York for that holiday, too.
At the end of the first act, Clara fell asleep and dreamed about going to the Land of Snow with the handsome Nutcracker Prince, and tons of fake snow began to fall on the stage. Aunt Joan had told me that the fake snow was slippery and that over the years she had seen more than one ballerina go down during the Dance of the Snowflakes. It was stupid, but I didn’t care whether the snow was fake or a ballerina fell on her ass. At least, for a few moments, I could be transported to a place where snow fell. It wasn’t my home, the real Land of Snow, where one could walk for miles and miles on a hard crust glittering with diamonds of ice–but it would have to do. I could put up with the ridiculous Mouse King dancer with his bobbling mouse head, just to be reminded of the miraculous trails left in the snow by the real mice in Vermont as they burrowed home. I could deal with the flat scenery on stage, the huge one-dimensional evergreens made of wood or plasterboard, just to remember the evergreens that kept guard over our road when it was slick with black ice. For a few moments, this artificial Land of Snow almost made me happy.
Sure enough, my father had an excuse about Christmas: he had worked so hard all fall that he and Linda were going to take a few days at a friend’s dairy farm in the Berkshires over the holiday. “Next year will be different,” he promised me. “We’ll have a house and a big Christmas tree.” But as soon as he heard the sob in my voice he tightened up.
“Cam, it’s just one day,” he said.
Maybe it was just one day, but if I was really staying in New York for Christmas, I’d make it a special one: I promised myself a fire. It would be the final fire, but it would be the best: a fire for Corrina. A fire for the Land of Snow. A fire for the house. A fire for the fire. And it would be easy to build.
In Vermont in December, you had to be ingenious to get any sort of blaze going. You had to know where the dry leaves were—blown into the holes in trees and banked in the culverts. You had to start the flame in the protective cover of a grotto or a hole in a tree or a fire pit, tending it carefully, often starting over several times before achieving an inferno. But here in New York City, there was still an abundance of crackling autumn leaves; they littered the sidewalks, crunching underfoot.
The fire would be mythical. It would burn and burn, but when it was finally quenched and nothing remained but a scorched place, no one would guess that it was mine. The little match girl trudging away from the smoke, her heavy backpack shouldered, her wispy hair tied back, would not attract attention. She looked pretty much like any other schoolgirl in the city now.
It was a gray morning, somewhat chill, with a slight breeze blowing off the Hudson River. I had matches in the pocket of my lime-green fleece as I snuck out of the apartment. Aunt Joan and Uncle Alec were reading The New York Times on the couch in front of the Christmas tree, mugs of coffee at hand. Corrina was still asleep under her thick eiderdown in Westport, Connecticut. Farther north up interstate 95, my father and Linda were exchanging small homemade gifts. My mother was with Corrina’s mother, two angels so high on ayahuasca that they couldn’t see straight. And where was I? Who had me in their sights? I was in the demented city, the grief school, walking west towards the park.