di-ver-sion-ary: intended to distract attention from something more important.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
And where there’s fire, there’s Tara Atwater, the character at the center of Diversionary Fires, the new novel by Rodney Ross.
Left in her grandparents’ care while her reckless mother worked the Ohio carnival circuit, Tara learned the strange art of the diversionary fire in 1970 from grandmother Beryl, her mentor in flame. She grows too quickly into a mother who never knew her own, raising a son who will never know his father, along Ohio’s Fuego River, where everyone is disparaged as “water bugs.” She mows yards, empties bedpans and presses shirts and, when she dreams, it’s for her son, Dare.
So, when Tara comes to hold the right combination of numbers to a record-breaking lottery, she has one problem before she can claim the winnings: What to do about the dead boyfriend, stabbed by her teenage son, on the kitchen floor?
It was, after all, his ticket.
Author Rodney Ross lives, writes and sweats in Rancho Mirage. His previous novel, The Cool Part of His Pillow, is now in its second edition from JMS Books (first published by Dreamspinner Press), won the LGBT Fiction category from both the Indie Excellence Awards and the Next Generation Indie Book Awards; was a silver medalist in the 2013 Global EBook Awards; and earned an honorable mention in the 2012 Rainbow Book Awards. Learn more at www.rodneytross.com.
Here are portions of the first chapter of Diversionary Fires.
Teryl hated the Sturdivant man from the get-go, even before he moved in across the street.
That’s my house.
She’d had the run of the vacant property since she came to live with her grandparents. It was her playground. Hopscotch was still faintly chalked on the driveway. Hidden somewhere was a box of Lemonheads. She’d even buried a pair of her drawers after accidentally soiling them.
It was the nicest house on the block, although repairs were needed. The door of the attached garage had been only nine-tenths closed for over a year; a lush poison-something cloaked the chimney; and the front steps had chipped into little slate piles. Because it also featured a large barn-like shed independent of the house, it always commanded a higher rent.
Her ownership came to its end when a bundle of Mr. Sturdivant’s redirected mail to Hobart, Ohio, had been inadvertently left by the postman with her grandmother. With her lower lip tucked under, Beryl announced, “Boyohboy-ohboyohboy, how can you trust a man with a turd in his name?”
From the change-of-address affixed to the bundled envelopes, he was moving from a town called Niles in Kentucky.
“And what attracts all these Kentuckians here?”
To Beryl, the only thing worse than dealing with a Kentuckian was being one. Teryl remembered a little about Kentucky. Kentucky was goldfish in plastic baggies, rolling over railroad tracks into the next town and a Ferris Wheel in a parking lot. Those were the days when she, her mother Cheryl and a man named Grover worked the fairs, living in a trailer with Monticello Attractions painted on both sides, one of a caravan that quickly set up carnivals, monster truck rallies and demolition derbies. Then Monticello Attractions said they couldn’t live in the trailer anymore. She was brought to Hobart to her grandmother Beryl, who she called Grandma Ber like bear, and Grandpa Merrill, who she called DewDad.
“Quit your spying out the screen door, Teryl Lyn.”
With her teeth out, Grandma Ber was almost unintelligible. In the three years that Teryl had resided at 912 O’Leary, she had watched Ber lose teeth to a dinner roll and corn on the cob (two on the same ear). When she broke one of her canines while eating cantaloupe, she had them all pulled. DewDad had dentures too. A can of Mountain Dew was always at-hand and the high sugar content had dissolved DewDad’s tooth enamel, then every tooth, which was why the nickname and the dentures. He wore the same black sunglasses as his singing hero, Roy Orbison, and the same dyed black hair, the color of a new tire. Most interpreted his nickname as DoDad, like he made things happen, but he was really a Don’tDad. Even what he did for a wage was a throwaway; he worked for a firm that manufactured paint stirsticks. Mostly, he sat outside their back door in a folding chair with his Mountain Dew, eating tablespoons of A1 Steak Sauce or watching UFOs seen only by him.
Mr. Sturdivant climbed out his Chevrolet C10 pickup and disappeared into the mouth of the moving truck.
Her grandmother put in her teeth. “He lives there now. Keep away.”
The biggest worry for Teryl was what already lived there. Ber had forgotten about the family in the garage.
Teryl had been skating on the driveway after supper, scissor-turning to dodge the cracks, when something colorless lumbered by. Its sagging belly barely managed to squeeze under the garage door. Teryl peered under. Pink eyes on a sooty pointed face stared back.
Teryl started transporting over remainders from supper, whatever Ber couldn’t repurpose. Tapping the plate forward to the far right side of the garage door was best. She knew when it neared from its very bad breath. Fingernails that looked like long, sharp grains of rice, the color of pencil lead, would snatch the paper plate inside.
One evening, after watching from afar, Ber wanted an explanation. When told, she suggested, “Let’s look up your pet.”
They went to a ragged animal book bought for a quarter at a rummage sale. Teryl flipped through pages the color of a used teabag until she recognized what Ber called a possum. Without a raccoon’s bandit mask to redeem them, they “sure are butt-ugly.” Ber tried to pronounce marsupial. “Just don’t get close to it. It’s got ticks and maybe rabies.”
“It’s as fat as Mrs. Zimmer’s Himalayan.”
“Your possum might be knocked up, then.”
“Knocked up” was a term Teryl understood to mean baby, like when DewDad had men over for cards and they’d laugh about the horse-faced woman at Star Cafeteria “left in a predicament.”
When the babies came, Teryl knew, the boys were jacks, the girls jills, and that they would attach to a teat within mama’s pouch. The possum hid her new passel behind a wheelbarrel in the corner. Once, she saw the rubbery tail of a baby clinging to its mother’s back. Teryl would lay very still to watch the mother measure out bites from the paper plate with the same efficiency that Ber doled out a frugal dinner the night before DewDad picked up his salary check.
“Sometimes she squawks at me,” Teryl reported.
“Fear turns to rage, especially if she’s protecting her babies. Mamas are unpredictable,” Beryl replied.
Like mine, thought Teryl. They drop you off with the vow to retrieve you, then they don’t.
Teryl pushed open the screen door for a better look.
“Don’t go no farther than your yardball.”
Ber was referring to the red gazing ball in their front yard. Teryl was fond of staring into the mirrored world, curved and crimson. Sometimes she pretended she had a lookalike, trapped within.
Mr. Sturdivant’s thickly muscled arms strained his shirt and sleeves. The long sideburns that bent like an L toward the corners of his mouth made him especially unapproachable. The two movers were transporting a rolling cart with several filled aquariums. Water sloshed out.
Teryl dashed across O’Leary behind the truck as a pool table clattered down the ramp. She peered in the back. A lawnmower and a stepladder had been brought forward. They were next off, bound for the garage.
Nothing would dislodge the possums during daylight hours, Teryl knew, but she hurried to skim white rock from the foundation plantings under the garage door into its dark recesses. She listened for stirring.
Mr. Sturdivant signed forms and waivers. The empty moving truck rumbled away. He pushed the lawn mower toward the garage.
By the time Mr. Sturdivant took the garage door above his broad shoulders, he was shouting, “Holy smokes, what a stink!”
Teryl heard the gnashing sounds of distress that intuited imminent death.
“Goddamn tree rats!” he howled.
“He beat and cut up the pasel and the mom didn’t protect them!”
Ber gritted her teeth. “That doesn’t make her bad, just scared.”
“One got away. How will it live?!”
“Jack or jill went on a great adventure, and it will grow up to have babies who won’t trust human beings.”
“It’s an orphan, like me,” she cried.
Ber rose from crouching. “Your mama is saving up money with your daddy out there somewhere, plus you got us. You are a long road away from being an orphan.” It was already too late to shield Teryl from the hurt Cheryl had infected her with. But she could equip her with the skills to break, if not a heart, something else in retribution. “Dry your tears, sweet potato. You said Mr. Sturdivant had fish tanks? Let’s go kill something he loves” was her dark suggestion. “It’ll be our secret.”
Ber had secrets, too. A summer camp accident was her first diversionary fire. She would never have coined such a phrase, nor comprehended it, but the result was the same.
The three days of recreation had been a Red Cross initiative to benefit World War II and to free parents for weekend volunteerism. Four girls were assigned to a tent, two older to watch over two younger. Supervised co-mingling between boys and girls occurred once in an afternoon of outdoor games, nothing too roughhouse.
Beryl was hopeful that after the hayride she would be the girl chosen to perform a round of Frere Jacques with a boy. She had every expectation, since she knew the lyrics. When Nils was selected, her heart leapt. He was sixteen and had walked her home several times. When Evangeline was chosen to sing with him, Beryl’s heart fell. Why the girl, breasts already mounding and cheekbones emerging from baby fat, who shared her tent? Evangeline sounded like the beginning of a poem. Beryl was something that was rolled out for a polka.
Afterward, their chaperone turned the kerosene lamp to a soft glow so the younger ones wouldn’t be scared by shadows on the tent. Beryl plotted. How to humiliate Evangeline? Ants in her pants? Give her a hot foot? Beryl had heard about this in a W.C. Fields movie but didn’t know what it involved except someone hopping.
She decided on a sleepover fallback: the warm rag. Evangeline would hold it as she slept and release her bladder’s contents. She’d awaken with her nightgown soaked.
A kettle had been left outside for the leaders’ coffee. Beryl quietly tilted the spout, holding the cloth under the water until it was saturated. She enclosed it in Evangeline’s hand. But she didn’t sigh, relax and pee. Her hand spasmed and knocked over the kerosene lamp, alighting the tent in flames.
Beryl bleated “Fire!” then rushed out the two terrified little girls and helped her nemesis to her feet. She grabbed the washcloth before the tent collapsed in flames while other campers screamed.
At breakfast assembly, Beryl was scared she’d be uncovered as the instigator, but she was publicly praised for her quick thinking and got a roll of Lifesavers. She also learned that confusion can make bad look good through the power of a diversionary fire.
In the storm shelter, Teryl reached around half-empty paint cans DewDad refused to discard and returned to Ber shaking the lighter fluid. “It’s almost empty.”
“We only need a dab. Take this Clorox.”
Teryl watched Ber grab their rattan picnic basket, lay in the bleach, lighter fluid and matches, then clap it shut. Like everyone, they occasionally spent a sunny afternoon with the basket on land just beyond town known as The Manor. Most of its fences were easily scaled and the No Trespassing signs easily ignored. The Manor was owned by a wealthy Catholic family Ber called The Richeys, the name pinned to anyone of affluence who knew the difference between French dressing and Catalina.
Teryl and her grandmother took a walk to the end of O’Leary, then around the block. They passed Mrs. Mechem, pulling a wagon of glass bottles.
“Where y’all picnicking?” she inquired.
“We’re taking a casserole to a sick friend over on Kyger,” Ber said.
They strolled down an alley, onto Mr. Sturdivant’s property, to what Ber called the outbuilding. Several windows had been smashed by kids. The door had a latch for a padlock, but no padlock. Inside, the contents looked a lot like DewDad’s workshop: vises, a table saw, scraps of latticework and wood pegboard.
Ber placed a single drop of lighter fluid, no bigger than a thumbtack, on piled wood scraps. The young fire, a pale orange, was impregnated by piles of sawdust and birthed by a sudden breeze that tucked under the door.
They walked swiftly to the corner of the block. In a disguised voice that sounded a little like Tony the Tiger, Grandma Ber yelled, “Mister! Mister! It’s on fire! Fire!”
Mr. Sturdivant came running out of the house and saw the smoke and that some spots of dry grass had ignited, too. “Someone call the fire department!” He didn’t know that the hub was across town and that the battle would be his alone for several minutes. He soared across yards. “Do any of you hillbillies own a goddamn hose?!”
This was clandestine, thrill and trepidation. They flattened themselves against houses, then raced, suddenly over the threshold and into Mr. Sturdivant’s house. They scuttled through a maze of boxes. Her grandmother peered around the corner into what had clearly been designated the game room.
Teryl stared, transfixed, at a deer head on the wall. “He prob’ly killed it, too, right, Ber?”
“And what we’re standing on.”
Teryl realized it was a bearskin rug and jumped off.
Ber was standing at the aquariums, bubbling and active. Ber unscrewed the cap from the bleach. Mesmerized by a group that looked like Skittles skimming languidly on the bottom among plastic coral, Teryl suggested, “These down here are a family. I think they’re babies. Maybe we don’t need to hurt his fishies.”
“He has to pay, Teryl Lyn.”
“Please, Ber, not the fishies,” Teryl asked.
Ber heard the fire sirens and quickly recalibrated today’s lesson. She flung the bleach on the deer head. A section of its neck dissolved onto the floor. They worked quickly, until their eyes teared. The green pool table felt turned pink, then white. Ber sloshed bleach into the pockets, onto the rich mahogany finish.
Teryl popped up the flaps of an opened box. “What’s this?”
She withdrew a cardigan bearing the letter of scholastic sports. Beneath were ribbons, blue green and red, touchstones of sports superiority.
“We’ll soak his glory days, too!”
Quickly, they were all the color of band-aids.
Parachute silk with military patches was draped over a small round table. Ber hit that. The color of Mr. Turd’s proud memorabilia was now a runny orange/pink.
Ber pushed the back of Teryl’s head. “Out we go!”
They patted their way along converging angles of the house. Neighbors emerged from the smoke to watch the firemen redirect hoses toward an untamed thicket. Briefly separated, Teryl and her grandmother reunited at the red gazing ball to watch Mr. Sturdivant go into his house then, eyes bulging out, race back out.
“Who did it?! You set a fire then break into my house??!!! Is this your fucking idea of hospitality?!” he raged.
“Let’s wash up real good,” Ber suggested. “Don’t look back. Hearing Mr. Turd’s screams are enough.”
DewDad appeared to be napping in his chair. “Merrill Atwater can sleep through anything. Sirens … yelling … his own life,” Ber said. The pink jelly of tomatoes and seeds lay in his chest hair. A strand of spittle stretched from his mouth to his sternum, catching the twilight, bouncing with his intake of breath. “He’s probably dreaming up his own movie. Roy Orbison Versus The Martians.”
Teryl reminded her grandmother, “We still have Mr. Sturdivant’s mail.”
“We’ll pop over tomorrow and say howdy-do,” Ber answered, “and tell him how clean his house smells.”
Excerpted from Diversionary Fires by Rodney Ross, copyright 2021 Rodney Ross, used with permission of the author.