David Webb was awarded the Fielding Dawson Prize in Fiction in the 2019 Prison Writing Program. 

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 18, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, BREAK OUT: A 2019 PEN America Prison Writing Awards Celebration.

Fireside: or Immaterial Burns

“He consecrated a period of time (which in the end encompassed two full years) to revealing to the youth the arcana of the universe and the secrets of the cult of Fire.” —Jorge Luis Borges


It was a warm and breezy, sunny day near the end of summer. The wind was strong but there was no chill with it. It was what some considered perfect weather. Tyrone, a man in his mid 30s, he was thinking: So far so good. As he had had only one drink, and it was well after noon. He didn’t even feel like he needed another one—not even a little bit.

Tyrone was standing near the corner of Lafayette and Division, in front of the painted yellow brick tenement—blanketed with autographs—across from the old sooty-bricked, windowless Roanoke warehouse, watching the big-headed boy Joe D, his lor main man, steadily approach, and he liked how it felt feeling the distance continuing to close between them. He wore a cloudy gray silk shirt that billowed each time the wind had blown, Jordache jeans, and lizard skinned lace-ups.

Tyrone stayed sharp; he always made sure of it. Even last month, when he was drinking like a fish—boozing like an undisputed alcoholic. And, the funny thing about that is, he thought then that he was about to get better. He recognized afterward that it had been not exactly hopeless, but a complete failure, exactly the opposite of what he had intended. It wouldn’t stop him from trying again and again and again, though. It couldn’t.

Nevertheless, he wasn’t thinking about any of that stuff right now. It was thinking about it that made it bad, made him do himself wrong.

He was watching the boy step up on the curb—smiling, like he couldn’t comprehend the boy’s pitiful expression. The boy’s right hand was bandaged with gauze and tape. He was only eight years old, but healthy enough to appear several years older, in cut off shorts, suede Puma basket tennis shoes, and a white t-shirt. He was walking with his head down, about to pass by, when Tyrone stopped him.

Joe D, he said. What’s going on, lor man? Hinh? You wasn’t going to stop and holler at me?

The boy turned and looked over his shoulder, up Lafayette, to see if he would find his mother leaning out of the window, looking after him.

I gotta go the store for my mother, the boy, Joe D said.

R-ight man, said Tyrone, still smiling, and noticing the boy’s bandaged hand. You still playing ball? Hinh?

He squeezed the boy’s shoulder. Not sure if he was aware that something was wrong, and having yet to receive a response, Tyrone continued to question him.

You work on the low post move I showed you? Hinh? Hinh?

Yeah. Yeah . . . The boy said, unable to remain unaffected by the man’s excitement about him and the game.

They can’t stop me, he concluded.

He had been about to walk off again, when Tyrone held him in place with the hand on his shoulder.

Hold on, Tyrone told him.

A small gray Mazda pulled up, along the outside of the car between it and Tyrone and the boy, Joe D. It was Tyrone’s friend. A nice looking woman, despite harsh looking eyes and heavy brows, with freshly permed big-hair and a lot of jewelry.

He didn’t know, he responded to what she had asked him. Then he turned his back on her; and she frowned, mumbled something distastefully, and pouted for a while before pulling off. And the boy, Joe D, he watched her car until it turned off at Pennsylvania Avenue, wondering if he’d have girls driving around looking for him when he was bigger.

Hey . . . Tyrone was saying to the boy, who was looking back over his shoulder again. Where you been? I aint seen you in a good lor while.

The boy looked up at Tyrone; he knew what a “good lor while” meant. He had only been punished the day before; and the day before that, Tyrone had given him a pocket full of change to play video games. He’d known what it was to see someone drunk, too. Now he had a better idea of what it was to be drunk. Still, he wasn’t going to let Tyrone’s being sober stop him from believing he wouldn’t be as generous now.

He lowered his big head, and in a childish voice intended to provoke pity, Joe D told Tyrone, I been punished.

Again, Tyrone replied, disbelievingly. Who your mother think she is . . . the warden?

And afterward, he dug into Joe D’s ribs, trying to make him laugh. But it didn’t work.

Look, he said, holding up his bandaged hand for inspection. What happened? Tyrone asked, genuinely concerned. I got caught playing with matches again, the boy told him. Matches, Tyrone repeated. Again. Boy . . .

A sharp, bitter taste filled Tyrone’s sinuses, cutting off his speech, causing his nose to run, and his eyes to glaze over. He swallowed hard, feeling the thing inside that caused his pain to grow.

Oh shit, Tyrone said. Again.

He removed some coins from his pocket and gave them to the boy; before patting him on the head, and telling him, Go the store for your mother.

Tyrone stood still for some time—seeing nothing; feeling faint and helpless; angry and cursed; like some undesirable force was keeping him from going crazy, and freeing him from the madness. And he couldn’t take it anymore.

So he made his way around the corner, on Division, where he leaned against the passenger’s side door of his car, and, with his elbows on the hood, he stared at the shiny pieces embedded in the street reflecting the sunlight; while he continued to try and gather some strength, before getting in.

Inside his car, a money green Seville, not yet a year old, the smell of the cream colored leather interior replaced the pissy stench of the phone booth he passed when he turned off Lafayette. Of the four or five trees all on the one side of Division, Tyrone had always parked his car under the biggest, whose branches hung well enough over the car so that those people—in front of whose house his car was parked—couldn’t come to their front window and look down and see what he was doing.

Tyrone reached under the seat and pulled out a half pint. He broke the seal and he hit it hard. He tightened the cap back, unpursed, and quickly licked his wet lips. The liquor warmed his body, and it felt good; so good, that he moved his toes in his shoes; and, for a minute, he forgot about the boy, and what he himself had done. It was all pushed back a little.

Just a little. Then it was back again.

The leather strained as Tyrone leaned forward to push in the cigarette lighter, and again, when he sat back in the seat. He shook a cigarette up from the pack, removed it with his mouth, and dropped the pack on the seat beside him. Then he waited patiently for the lighter to pop out.

Tyrone lit his cigarette. He drew hard, inhaled, and exhaled; and before the fumes had finished leaving his nose, he was drawing on the cigarette again; while looking for the boy, Joe D, to show up in his rearview.

Tyrone continued smoking. The smoke scattered, like powder, as it filtered out of the open window and into the wind. He rubbed his temple while contemplating the boy’s hand, and he took another sip.

Did she? Tyrone wondered. Did the goody two shoes up in the window do that?

Tyrone took a long last draw on his cigarette and plucked the butt out of the window. He tried to picture the wise and righteous look on her face as she held her boy’s hand over a flame, and he took another sip. The boy was bad, Tyrone thought, looking at what was left in the bottle. Just a few weeks before, he had found the boy in the alley with a 13-year-old girl; the lie ready on his lips: We wasn’t doing nothing. He smiled as he recalled it. But now the boy was playing with fire. And with that old, blind man in the house, who, from age alone, would have plenty of trouble getting around. And, thinking he understood something of the woman’s intuition, he considered: If you weighed the blind old man and the lives of the boy’s entire family against his fingers; then, you could see . . .

But how did she know? And where did she gain the wisdom? Tyrone wondered.

Tyrone began thinking about the past 25 years of his life. He thought about how his father would materialize out of nowhere; and how he would see him before all of his friends, and run away from where they were playing, with his friends calling after him, wondering what was wrong. Why was he running from his father? And no matter how far or fast he ran, wherever he stopped, his father would always be right there; sometimes feigning panting, but always smelling like liquor. Always with the same speech about how much he loved him, his brother, and his mother; and about him being the only one that would talk to him, the only one that believed him, when he said that he didn’t burn that house down.

Tyrone finished the bottle.

Not long afterward, he saw the big-headed boy, Joe D, in his rearview, walking with head down and his mother’s bag in his hand.

He thought about his own mother—about how much he wanted to tell her, last month, after visiting his father’s grave. But he couldn’t—knew he never would. Because he’d thought about telling her before; a lot earlier, when he had first taken on some responsibility. When his father’s pitiful, drunken face and restrainedly imploring tone affected him the most.

Now, and not for the first time, he reflected on the possibility that maybe his mother had been happier without his father. A drunk, who came home every evening after work, and drank until he fell asleep on the living room floor; before going to work the next day, and doing the same thing all over again and again and again. There was no big change in her behavior, he reasoned.

Maybe she knew already, and was as wise as lor Joe D’s mother had been.

Tyrone got out his keys. He started his car. The plan to talk to the boy’s mother was off because, he said to himself, I’m drunk. But he would, he thought—pulling out of the space and turning the Cadillac back toward Lafayette—buy himself another half pint, and go somewhere where the woman in the Mazda couldn’t find him; and there, he would sit and sip and wonder, how the boy’s mother knew that it would be best for him to be the only victim. When he could figure something out—something that didn’t conflict with what his mother was teaching him, he would tell the boy, Joe D, his lor main man, what he knew about fire, and about immaterial burns.