Some people swore that the house was haunted. They said this in the same conversational tone they used to proclaim the merits of Burly tobacco over the Dark-fired variety. It obscured the deeper truth that the owner, Birch, was not only the most infamous man in town, but also the least known. Birch fired the imaginations of his neighbors like kerosene, but they would deny this with a level of wide eyed vehemence reserved for those questioning the certainty of the Rapture.
The Birch clan were among the towns first settlers, motivated less by opportunity than flight. Their predatory instincts made them wealthy. But as the years went by their holdings were steadily parceled off like Scrabble tiles being turned over. In the end only a B tile remained face up, the gateway to an old house from which all the paint had peeled and whose clapboards curled like pork rinds.
It was remarkable that a man who occupied the thoughts of so many in a town so small was such an enigma. His past had been swept as clean as the shiny concrete car ports of the new houses that surrounded the old Birch place. Fighting in Europe and the Pacific took many of the boys Birch ran with in high school and the ones who survived and held on to their wits had long ago left for work in Akron or Gary or Detroit. Birch’s fight had been closer to home, having been declared unfit for duty. Rumors flared for a while, ebbed, then smoldered for years like a deep seam of burning coal running underneath the town. Time passed and former teachers were taken by the cancer or sugar, kin erased by gruesome farm mishaps or late night wrecks. But Birch endured and was slowly transformed by the towns’ imagination, fueled by tent revivals and Hollywood movies, into evil pure and simple.
Birch was the gravedigger at Shiloh Chapel. He could be seen dozing on the excavator during burial services, a Lucky burning between his fingers. He never went into the chapel, not even on Easter Sunday or Decoration Day. Some said it was Holy Ghost power that kept him away. Others said it was Preacher Bobby Lark who had promised Birch a double-barrel helping of rock salt should he ever dare to enter that sanctified place. If it’s true that angels ring the grave to sing hosanna and bear the departed over the threshold to the city of gold, then Birch, smoking in the shade on the yellow excavator was there as the Devils’ grinning witness.
The conflagration that consumed the Birch place and everything in it happened late in July, the summer “they landed them boys on the moon”, as the men down at the courthouse would remember it. Birch's property had become a gathering place for local kids and ones from out of town. Sheriff Bill Atchley was up there every weekend and likened them to rail yard hobos or communists. There’d been a few smaller fires, a tulip tree, the roof of an old tanning shed, before the big one that ended it all.
By morning all that was left were two blackened chimneys. The kids had fled forsaking bedrolls and clothing. Searchers found part of a jaw and a long leg bone. Within a week they’d dozed the hill clean. By spring city water and sewer lines were laid in. Men went back to the moon and fought in faraway places. Birch had been taken up in a pillar of fire. Nothing was the same again after that.