Wheel of fire

This is an excerpt from my novel “Gloryville.” The narrator is the novel’s protagonist, who spends his time attending the funerals of strangers.

WHEEL OF FIRE

By Nicholas DiGiovanni

An obituary appeared in the Knickerbocker News in upstate New York. All it said was “Mr. Jacob Potter of Bedford Falls died yesterday. There will be no calling hours and no services, and burial will be private. Arrangements are by the Knickerbocker Home for Funerals, Amsterdam.” But the next day, another tiny notice was tucked into the obituary column: “Calling hours for Mr. Potter of Bedford Falls, who died two days ago, will held tonight from 7 to 8 p.m. at the Knickerbocker Home for Funerals, Amsterdam.”

I arrived at the funeral home right at 7 o’clock, and already there was a long line of people — every one of them smiling — waiting to get into the viewing. I got in line. While I waited, I heard laughing and shouting and what sounded like firecrackers exploding inside the funeral parlor. I did not know at the time what Jacob Potter had done to make so many people hate him. All I knew was that it most have been something terrible. Never had I ever heard so many words drenched with such venom and soaked in such bile. Never before had I heard so many oaths and obscenities uttered, and uttered with such pleasure and passion. Never had I seen so many spiteful sneers and devilish grins, so many men rubbing their hands together with glee, so many chortles and whispers and curses and oaths. Such happiness and enthusiasm at a funeral!

Potter lay there in a cardboard box. I donï”t mean a cheap pine coffin; I mean it was a cardboard box. There were flowers all around, with cards and notes attached, but the flowers were all wilted and rotting, mostly roses with shriveled petals and pin-sharp thorns. A photo of Potter had been placed on a small table — but someone had drawn a funny mustache on his face and someone else had drawn a big black X over the picture.

I discretely checked some of the cards and notes attached to the flower baskets. One of them said, `Rot in hell, Potter.” Another one said,”Good riddance, you bastard.” The third one said,”Rest in peace, you son of a bitch.” And the fourth one said,”Bon voyage, asshole.”

There had to be three hundred people — old and young, men and women — jammed into the funeral home. They were all laughing and pointing at Potter, shaking hands, patting each other on the back, clicking their heels, congratulating each other. A little boy with a water pistol kept squirting Potter’s head right between the eyes. Two men who worked for the Knickerbocker Home for Funerals were handing out noisemakers and wearing party hats. Women were blowing him kisses with mock affection and stopping in front of his coffin to curtsey with exaggerated elegance.

Then someone — a tall, lanky fellow with a slight stutter — got up and said: “Now it’s time for us to say our final farewell to Mr. Potter.”

This announcement was greeted with boos and groans.

“No, really, fellas, we’ve got to end this. I’ve got my car parked at a meter and, gee whiz, it’s gonna cost me another nickel if we don’t get this over quick. Besides, I know you’ve got more important things to do — like me,I’ve got to go down to the garage and get my oil changed!”

“Yeah, that’s right!” someone shouted. “Yeah, I’ve got to go return a movie at the video store!” Someone else shouted, “Yeah, me too, I’ve got an important appointment – with a tall cold beer down at the KnickerbockerBar!”

This last was greeted with gleeful shouts of “Here’s mud in your eye!” and “Cheers!” and “Bottom’s up!” and “Hey, Potter, wanna beer?”

“Okay fellows. Repeat after me on the count of three, ready? One…two…three…BURN IN HELL, POTTER!”

Everyone shouted in response: “BURN IN HELL, POTTER!”

One of the funeral-home attendants then stepped forward and said: “That concludes our service. Thank you all for coming and we wish you peace and comfort in your time of grief.”

This was greeted with wild applause and shouts of “Well done!” and “Good job!” and “This was worth waiting for!” and one last “Burn in hell, Potter!”

Then everyone rushed out of the funeral home and headed to the corner tavern referred to previously by one of the mirthful mourners.

I approached the casket and looked carefully at Jacob Potter. I donï’t know what I was looking for or what I expected to see. The numbers 666 tattooed on his forehead? Maybe that Potter’s face wasn’t really his face and that I’d tear off a rubber mask and find beneath the face of Adolph Hitler, who didn’t die in the bunker and didn’t flee secretly to Argentina but who instead had fled to the Greater Albany area? Maybe it was all just one big practical joke, and Potter wasn’t really dead and would spring up in his cardboard coffin and shout “Gotcha!” when I leaned over to listen for signs of life?

The funeral home attendants returned to the room and closed the lid on Potter’s flimsy coffin.

“Where are you taking him?” I asked.

“Who wants to know?” one of them replied. “What’s it to you?”

“I’m just curious. Where’s he being buried?”

“Potter’s Field, of course,” the other replied with a giggle.

“Either that, or the town dump,” the first attendant chimed in.

“What did he do wrong?” I asked. “Why did everybody hate him?”

This is what they told me:
Thirty years before his death, Jacob Potter, wealthy owner of an Amsterdam
carpet mill, had been looking for places to invest his money so he could avoid paying taxes and accumulate even more money.

One thing he did was invest money in a stock-car team that raced at the Fonda Speedway. Potter paid for a new car — a red 1969 Oldsmobile Cutlass with a powerful V-8 engine, which was emblazoned with decals that said POTTER’S CARPET MILLS and TEAM POTTER. He hired a top driver. He hired top mechanics. But the powerful car and highly-paid driver and well-compensated mechanics could not win a race — iin fact, Team Potter didn’t win a single race for two entire racing seasons. A headline in the racing circuit’s weekly newspaper blared: “LAUGHINGSTOCK OF THE STOCKS: TEAM POTTER”

Potter, reacted, of course, like a typical money-hungry businessman. He cut his losses. He replaced the top-rated, highly-paid driver with a mediocre and very stupid and inbred farm boy who was happy to get even a crappy salary as long as he could go vroom around the track in something faster than a tractor. Potter fired the mechanics and had the farm boy do the repair work himself. And he scrimped on maintenance and parts — including replacing the car’s expensive top-of-the-line tires with retreads purchased from an auto junkyard in Esperance.

One Saturday night, in front of a full house, Team Potter’s car was speeding around the final turn. The engine exploded — and just at that moment, the left front wheel broke off from the axle. The flames shooting from the engine set the rubber tire on fire.

The tire bounced down the track, hit the grandstand railing, went airborne, and rolled into a crowd of Cub Scouts who were on a day trip with their pack.

The wheel of fire, flames shooting out as it bounced and spun up through the grandstand, careened into the pack of Scouts — there’s a baker’s dozen in a Cub Scout pack, apparently, or at least there were in this pack. Six of them caught fire and were incinerated on the spot; six of them had their hair catch on fire but were otherwise unharmed, except that their hair never grew back and Fonda became famous — and even something of a tourist destination — for being the home of the famous Six Bald Cub Scouts; and one of the Scouts, the thirteenth, somehow avoided being scorched by the flames of the burning wheel but was left with treadmarks branded on his forehead.

The flaming wheel continued up the bleachers, bounced over the edge of the grandstand — and landed on a farm wagon filled to overflowing with bales of dry hay, which instantly burst into an inferno. The wagon had been left there by a farmer who had come to Fonda to sell his hay but had decided, just on a whim, to hitch his horse and wagon for an hour to watch the dirt-track races before selling the bales and then heading back to his farm.

The hay farmerï’s horse, of course, panicked, taking off at a fast trot down the main street of Fonda, trying in vain to run away from the roaring flames right behind it and panicking even more as the flames stayed right at its rump, occasionally sending out a finger of fire that singed the horse’s tail.

The faster the horse ran, the faster the wind fanned the flames and blew chunks of burning hay off the wagon — setting fire to a small wooden shed outside the racetrack, and also igniting a row of small wooden houses occupied, as it happened, by the last remaining members of the Mohawk nation.

The fire spread through the town, destroying the race track along with 153 cars in the parking lot, twenty-three homes, the Agway store, the John Deere dealership, and the offices of the Fonda Free Press newspaper, which that week managed to put out a special edition of the paper on the printing press at its rival across the Mohawk River, the Fultonville Gazette. The newspaper had extensive coverage — stories and photos — of the devastation, and also ran a front-page editorial suggesting that maybe it was “time for the cheaskate, penny-pinching taxpayers of the incorporated village of Fonda to fork out the money to pay for operation of a community fire company” and also urging the governor of New York and the president of the United States himself and “maybe even the United Nations, if possible” to “declare Fonda a disaster area” so funds could be made available to rebuild the devastated town and especially to reconstruct the racetrack, “hopefully in time for the opening of the next racing season.”

This was not to be, unfortunately. The Agway and John Deere stores neve reopened. Twenty-two residential taxpayers were killed in the fires ignited by Jacob’s wheel. While one bit of good fortune somehow steered the fire away from the adjacent fairgrounds, the loss of those other tax revenue left the good people of Fonda with nothing but survivor’s guilt; with the satisfaction of knowing that they had found it within themselves to tar and feather Jacob Potter and carry him out of town on a rail; and with the burned hulk of the Fonda Speedway, which was left standing as a sobering reminder that, as the Fonda newspaper editorialized in the next week’s edition, “life was unsafe at any speed,” that “you never know when your brakes might fail so enjoy the scenery as you drive along the highway of life,” and that “you should always make sure that you change the oil in your car’s engine every three thousand miles and also make sure that your tires have sufficient tread and are inflated to the weight recommended by the manufacturer.”

What became of the wheel of fire? When the burning hay wagon reached the Mohawk River, the horse stopped abruptly — some speculated that this was because the horse did not know how to swim; others suggested that the horse was simply thirsty after doing all that running; others, horse lovers, insisted that the horse was intelligent and had figured out that running was accomplishing nothing — and the resulting momentum sent the wheel of fire sailing and spinning into that dark and murky river, where it momentarily lit up the water and briefly sizzled in an oil slick, then sank with a hiss into the depths.

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