A shaving curls from the edge of the birch log, long and even. Jesse keeps his buck knife sharp.
"Doesn't the commute drive you nuts, though?" asks Professor Fedyna. "It took me nearly an hour to get out here." Professor Fedyna is a friend of Jesse's father, from the university.
"Worth it, though," says Mr. Jamster, a local booster who owns a burger franchise on the main street of the town. He and Jesse's father went to school together.
Jesse pushes aside the small chain-mail curtain. Black spirals of ash smudge his fingertips. He builds a small nest of shavings in the middle of the grate. He has always liked Mr. Jamster.
"Always wanted a nice stretch of land," says Jesse's father, a professor of zoology. "Spread out a bit. Give the dog some room to run."
Jesse hears a car pass by outside, maybe the third in the last hour, as he stacks slim sticks of kindling around the shavings. "Jesus, there he goes," laughs Mr. Jamster. Jesse hears Baldrick, their border collie, yapping gleefully across the yard at high speed, tracking the car.
Jesse's father cranes his neck to look. "Funktionslust," he says.
Professor Fedyna theatrically cocks an ear toward his host. "What was that?" Jesse adjusts the pieces of kindling, visualizing the draw of the air between them, how that draw will shift once the shavings burn away.
"Funktionslust," repeats his father. "The sheer joy of doing what one does well. Chasing, if you're a dog.”
"Pontificating, apparently, if you're a professor," sys Professor Fedyna with a smile. "So, Jesse, I don't seem to run into you on campus. Classes going all right?"
Jesse silently chooses four pieces of split birch from a galvanized tub. His father softly clears his throat. "Jesse decided to take a breather this term," he says evenly. "We thought we'd work out a little tutoring, give him a leg up to take another whack at it in the new year."
Jesse begins stacking the birch. "I worked hard," he says.
"I know, I know," reassures his father. "Doesn't always translate into grades, though. But you're on it, you've got a plan."
"Hmm," says Mr. Jamster. "Listen, Jesse, if you're after some work in the meantime, come see me. I could probably get you back into a few shifts. Not much above minimum, but it'd be something, anyhow."
Jesse eases the last stick of birch into place. "Thanks, Mr. Jamster," he says, and means it. It is a nice offer. Jesse was useless when he worked there this summer. Dropping patties on the floor. Mixing up orders.
Just like with everything else, he thinks.
Jesse lights the shavings with a single paper match. Orange flame pops into life at the centre of Jesse's construct, then spreads quickly and evenly. The four men sit in the bonhomie of the fireplace. “Nicely done, Jesse,” says Professor Fedyna.
"Worth the commute, wouldn't you say?" says Jesse's father with a satisfied smile.
A creature built from jagged blue rocks leaps into the air and swings its foot in a lethal arc. A small samurai figure ducks just under the foot and pivots sideways. "So, you hear about that guy's barn that burned down?" says Chad, tapping coloured buttons with his thumbs, eyes locked on the TV. His samurai's sword connects with a blue ankle, sending a blast of orange sparks up the rock creature's leg. "Lucky no animals were killed."
Jesse taps frantically, but his warrior drops to one knee. A flurry of blue punches misses the samurai by a mile. "It was a hay barn," he says. "They didn't keep animals in there. That's what I heard, anyhow."
"Yeah, well," says Chad, "I guess people are still pretty worried, what with that other guy's shed burning down a couple of weeks ago. You know, in case there's some nutbar out there." His samurai stands nobly and sweeps his sword down through the rock creature's forehead. Sprightly music plays as the numbers in Chad's corner of the screen rocket up into five figures. "You want to go again?"
"Nah." They have played six games. Chad has won six times.
Jesse disconnects the machine from the TV.
"Chess, then?" asks Chad.
Jesse flips silently through the channels and settles on the hockey game.
Chad usually beats him at chess, too.
Jesse sits in his car on a side road, on a small rise overlooking the main street of the town. This late at night the shops are all dark, the streetlamps lighting empty sidewalks.
Mr. Jamster's burger place sits alone on its small asphalt parking lot.
A spot of orange quivers in its side window, and Jesse's breath catches. He imagines the whoosh as the flames reach the stacks of waxed paper cups, pictures rivulets of burning grease spreading from the deep fryers, past the counter, between the empty seats. Backlit by flickering orange the cartoon characters in the front window seem to dance.
"Nicely done," says Jesse to himself.