what to burn

Jess objected to the conformity of Paradise Colony like any slightly disaffected suburban teen. But when he probed this view more deeply, he realized the sameness of the houses were illusory, a thin skin behind which lay a multitude of things, things as different, or even more different than the various car types that were parked in the driveways….”


by hunter stern


“But what if it were attached to a giant blimp?”

Jess was trying to address Gregg’s concern about the billboard. The billboard would render the psyche of Paradise Colony’s teenage population in bright bold letters, but Gregg was worried that a static display was too limited. The collective mood of everyone between the ages of 11 and 19 would be available for viewing, but what good would that do when a hundred other billboards competed for attention, most of them designed to stand out amidst the chaff of advertisements, which is what the emotion billboard would become – unnoticed chaff – if it existed as a sign by the freeway offramp. Jess had suggested multiple billboards, placed strategically throughout the community, but Gregg was still unpersuaded.

“Let’s say your dad is out mowing the lawn. Suddenly he’s taken by the fact that you said ‘ok’ when he asked how you felt the other day. He would need immediate reassurance that ‘ok’ didn’t really mean, ‘I’m going to hang myself’, or ‘I’m going to sabotage the backbone of the community-wide sprinkler system, thus killing everyones lawn, except for the mysterious Farnsworth’s, whose lawn we suspect to be astro-turf, in violation of the rules and covenants set forth by the home owner’s association.’ We would want him to know, instantaneously, and from his backyard, what your ‘ok’ really meant.”

Thus Jess’s idea for a blimp.

Gregg placed a finger against the side of his temple, a sign that he was thinking. Jess could imagine Gregg’s thoughts. He was thinking of Paradise Colony being orbited by a giant dirigible. Night and day, across the intersections of Fig Leaf and Oak Tree; or Farm Ridge and Daffodil; or on any of the bucolicly-named streets hemming in the duplicates of the original Paradise Colony model home – square, brown, and as bucolic as an filthy outhouse in a meadow – the glowing words would be visible, written on the sky’s parchment: “We are happy.” As accessible as the sun during the day and the moon at night, just by looking up. The adult residents of Paradise Colony could heed these messages the way indigenous tribes had once read the cycle of the moon for portents. They would no longer need to disrupt the lives of their children to find out if their children’s lives had been disrupted.

“A giant blimp. Brilliant.”

Everything had been worked out. Each teenage resident of Paradise Colony would be implanted with a “mood detection device.” These devices would gather vital signs from their hosts and translate the results into a summarized mood: happy, sad, or melancholy. The results would then be beamed wirelessly to the blimp, which would display the most frequently occurring mood.

“What about the Columbine problem?” said Gregg.

Jess was silent, defeated.

“Could you imagine,” he said, growing angry, “how stupid it would look. Columbine, one minute before the attack: all the parent’s check the status on the emotion blimp. What do they get? ‘We are happy.’ Parent’s return to whatever they were doing, reassured, complacent, happy, and most importantly, uninterested in asking us, on a minute by minute basis, how we feel. Then, an hour later, they’re being asked to supply dental records. We must be idiots to keep thinking up ideas that will never work.”

“What do we do now,” Gregg said.

It was Saturday at 10:00am and the weekend had already turned boring. The electronic diversions – DVDs, video games – that usually kept Jess and Gregg entertained seemed to be used up – every possible permutation of fun leeched out of them by years of constant play.

“What I should be doing,” said Gregg “is studying for the SAT.”

At the mention of the SAT Gregg remembered Aliya. She had sat next to him the week before when he had taken the test. She was a girl with a dark complexion wearing a Yale sweatshirt who smelled of strawberries. Instead of furiously burrowing into the folder of questions like everyone else, he had spent precious minutes musing on her scent. Even as time slipped by in minute increments of appalling significance to someone who had yet to mark a single answer, he let the strawberry smell block out the fluorescent lights and dingy paneling of the test room. For the first fifteen minutes of the test, he imagined himself walking with Aliya through a strawberry patch as shreds of paper floated down like falling snow, the shredded remains of the SAT’s math section. His reverie was cut short when the proctor’s sharp voice called out “45 minutes!” He had wasted a quarter of an hour thinking about Aliya and the shock of it made his heart throb with fear. When the test was over, and the ashen-faced test takers departed, he was struck anew by the scent with which she had sweetened the fetid, vaguely bureaucratic air of the test room. He told Gregg about Aliya, expecting him to appreciate, like fine art, this dab of intense color amidst the dull gray fearfulness that marked that day. Gregg just laughed and said, “She probably dropped the test scores of all the guys within range of her by 10%. Smart girl. You should have talked to her!” Jess had come to the same conclusion – that he should have engaged her in conversation – but not for the same reason – that she was a striving competitive beauty-queen made sexier by her deviousness. He simply thought she was beautiful. Gregg was probably right about her intentions, and slowly the implication dawned on him that her beauty was just another hurdle thrown in his path, a path leading to – what? College, life, a job, the real meaning of beauty? He was suddenly very angry. Something would have to be sacrificed to atone for the bleaching out of the one color he thought true.

“Why don’t we play ‘Dig-Dug’?” Gregg said.

“I don’t want to play ‘Dig-Dug'”

“Why don’t we make crank calls?”

“Because my parents are here”

“Why don’t we get your parents to leave?

“And how would we do that?”

“I don’t know, they’re your parents. You tell me.”

“We could set the house on fire.”

“Then the phone wouldn’t work.”

“Maybe we’re mistaking means and ends” said Jess. “Setting something – not necessarily this house – but something on fire sounds like a good idea. Are you in the mood to burn something?”

“How long have you known me?” said Gregg

“Ok then, we have a basic plan of action for today. Let’s roll.”

They stood on the driveway of Jess’s house. Jess’s house resembled two giant boxes, one slightly larger than the other, placed side by side. The house’s color was essentially that of masking tape, so that it appeared the entire structure was held together by giant strips of bland, sticky, adhesive. Jess had often imagined, for reasons he was unable to fully grasp, that the neighborhood was rearranged into a single street many miles long, and that the address numbers on the curb were painted over. Walking down the street, seeking his own home, he was forced to ring every door bell. All the neighborhood children were doing the same thing, ringing doorbells, trying to remember which house they came from until suddenly the rows of houses lost a dimension and becomes a movie facade, and then the wind blew the facades down, revealing a vast desert.

“So what are we going to burn?” asked Gregg.

“That always seemed to me like a question that should have a definitive answer. We shouldn’t have to wonder what to burn, it should just be obvious to us.”

“Well, you know, we don’t have to answer it.”

“How do you mean?”

“Let’s just walk around and ask.”

“Good idea. We’ll make it a poll. We’ll find the final definitive answer to the question. This is going to be a good day.”

Jess and Gregg set off down the sidewalk. Jess noticed how the lawns differed from house to house. Some were perfectly green, others, green only in patches, and some looked almost dead, brown and dried out. He wondered about the people with the dead lawns. Did they just not care or was lawn care such a difficult task that only say, seven out of ten people could successfully pull it off. They came to a lawn that was so beautifully realized it looked like a softer version of astro-turf. From the garage came a rhythmic clackety sound. Shawn Mason and Andrew Feren, classmates from Paradise Colony High School, were playing ping-pong.

Shawn was tall and round, with a halo of red curly hair and the puffy, smooth face of a martyred but well-fed saint: mouth perpetually open, as if to receive communion, eyes dulled to a putrid brown, as if dead, and nose squashed flat against his face, as though rearing back from the sordid smells of a profane world.

Andrew was a small boy with a habit of scrunching himself even smaller when he moved. His face had a wise look, as if all that scrunching was the product of a brilliantly conceived plan to win at ping-pong. Gel was worked into his hair to give it a modern style. It was combed forward and just above his forehead it exploded into a spiky crown.

They were in the middle of a long rally so Jess and Gregg stood by the table, their heads pivoting back and forth to keep the speeding ball in sight. Finally, Andrew scrunched down low and unwound himself to deliver a shot that hit the table on Shawn’s side then spun laterally off the board, giving him the point.

“Andrew, you’re the ping-pong master.” said Jess.

“I’m not, it’s just the Shawn really sucks at ping-pong”

Shawn set his racket on the table with intense care, as though he was afraid it might fly from his hand and injure someone, “I don’t suck. It’s just that I don’t have the time that Andrew has to practice a game designed for people who can’t play tennis. I consider ping-pong as it should be considered: a hobby.”

“You still lost and I still won. I think that what’s relevant here.”

“Well, why don’t we arm-wrestle? Than we’ll see who the loser is.”

“Arm-wrestling? It’s not even an Olympic sport. You can’t compare it to ping-pong.”

“Guys” said Jess interrupting the mini-debate “we’re on a sort of mission and we need your help. If you could burn one thing, what would it be?”

“For Shawn that would have to be calories,” joked Andrew, scrunching and smiling at the same time.

“Why don’t you burn Andrew,” Shawn replied, squinting at the sun, “I can help you.”

“It’s a serious question guys. Are there any things that you want to burn?”

“Is this a theoretical question?” asked Andrew. “If we ask you to burn something, like, say, our school, are you going to do it?”

“Yeah, do the school. Do it before Wednesday. That’s when I have my math test.” said Shawn.
“We’re just conducting a poll. It doesn’t mean were going to actually burn the things that people vote for.” This clarification seemed to sadden Shawn. He sat on a lounge chair in the garage and put his face in his hands.

“Why don’t you burn yourselves,” Shawn mumbled “as a protest against the SAT test.”

“You know,” said Andrew, “thats not a bad idea. Go to a public place, douse yourselves with gasoline, and light a match. Be sure you have a sign that says something about the SAT being unfair. I bet they would cancel the test, at least for a year.”

“Mind-crushing, mind-crushing…” repeated Shawn, who seemed to be drawing from some deep repository in his psyche where terrible memories were stored. He looked like someone who had asked rhetorically if his dreams would ever come true, and had unexpectedly gotten back a negative answer.

“Ok then, your vote has been registered,” said Jess.

As they walked away the clacking of the ping-pong ball started up again. They went down Fig street and turned right on Nightingale.

There were different kinds of cars parked in the driveway of each house they passed. Some were expensive foreign cars, others, boxy family cars, and some were rusting hulks leaking fluid down the driveway and into the gutter. Jess wondered how cars could differ so completely between houses that looked, for the most part, exactly the same. The permanence of a house compared to a car gave Jess the impression that the cars were merely a patina; a little trick that people used to further the illusion that their neighborhood was not arranged to maximize conformity.

They came to a house that was exactly like Jess’s. A girl wearing a sun dress, high heels and carrying a bag was walking up the driveway. She clacked up the concrete slope in her heels, swinging the oversize bag to the rhythm, while Jess and Gregg stood watching, trying to gather the courage to poll her. She was Heather Sanders, another student of Paradise Colony High School. She was beautiful almost beyond the measure set forth by the high definition pornography Jess and Gregg consumed. In that world, a different set of physical laws prevailed, allowing women to have perfectly sculpted breasts and exactly symmetrical vaginas while the men swung penises as large as ripe cucumbers.

“Hi Heather,” ventured Jess, his voice quavering.

She stopped and turned toward him. She seemed to be formed from surfaces that reflected his awe at her beauty in the same way sunlight is concentrated through a magnifying glass. A super-condensed image of perfection welled up before his eyes and he was left nearly mute.

“What’s up?” said Heather, in an impatient tone.

“We wanted to ask. You see there’s this poll…we thought you might be interested…”

“What would you like us to burn?” said Gregg, coming to the rescue.


“Burn. We’re looking for things to burn and we thought you might have something to contribute to the bonfire.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Gregg and this is Jess. We go to your high school. We’re taking a poll. What item do you want to burn?”

She made a face like everything that had been said to her was in a foreign language.

Then she pivoted away on a sharp heel, unlocked the front door, and went inside. The sound of deadbolts clanking shut left little doubt whether she would be participating in the survey.

“Should we ring the doorbell?” asked Jess.

“No, I don’t think that would be a good idea. I think she voted with her feet.”

“Another vote for us huh”

“Yeah, we’ve never been so popular.”

The continued down Nightengale, past rows of identical houses. Jess objected to the conformity of Paradise Colony like any slightly disaffected suburban teen. But when he probed this view more deeply, he realized the sameness of the houses were illusory, a thin skin behind which lay a multitude of things, things as different, or even more different than the various car types that were parked in the driveways. Could it be that Paradise Colony was really a diverse and vibrant community? Couldn’t diversity be hidden behind each cookie-cutter house in the cardboard boxes of stored family artifacts, or in the unique rituals each family maintained, that however simplistic, even mundane, helped them stand on their own, unlike their neighbors, and in a permanent way that went beyond the faux conformity of each home. Jess felt new possibilities emerge. Here, perhaps, was an untapped diversity he had never considered. It could be had just by peeling back the layers of stucco and wood that wrapped the infinitely arrangeable output of human life.

“I think I’m done with the poll,” said Jess

“Really? We’ve only polled three people and all of them said we should burn ourselves. Shouldn’t we get more feedback.”

“I don’t think I want to burn anything. If the emotion blimp was flying right now, what would it say? I bet it would say, ‘We are trying to be happy. We are doing our best. We are grateful for what we have.'”

Gregg looked over at Jess with uncomprehending eyes, as if he was seeing his friend for the first time.

A humming filled Jess’s ears. There was something flying overhead. Jess looked up and saw a blimp moving slowly above the neighborhood. On each side was an advertisement: “Princeton Review 50% off SAT, AP, ACT, GMAT, LSAT, TOEFL, USMLE. Beat the test and get into your top college choice!” The shadow of the blimp moved down the street like a giant black snake coiling and uncoiling to propel its body over the houses, the streets, the great variety of things from which Jess had constructed his epiphany. The blimp made a slow circle overhead so that anyone, anywhere, from Nightingale Lane to Forrest Hills Street to Little Creek Avenue, to the scrub brush surrounding Paradise Colony, could see and understand.

“You still don’t want to burn anything?” said Gregg, not even bothering with irony.

“That scrub brush looks pretty flammable. Look how it grows right up to the edge of the housing tracts. Do you have your lighter?”

“We aren’t done with our poll yet.”

“Sure we are. Like I said, the answer to our question should be obvious and definitive. And now it is.”

Originally published:
Issue Fifty-Five
June 2009


Hunter Stern is a technical writer living in San Francisco. His focus is short fiction and poetry. He is slowly relearning how to write after spending ten years communicating through misspelled emails while employed as a software engineer.

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