I saved Sam after the park ranger's third warning. A tornado was imminent, the ranger said, and we should seek shelter immediately. The Iowa state park where Sam was camping offered only a small brick outhouse, which I joked seemed the worst possible way to die, surrounded by daddy longlegs and cinder block walls on which teenagers had scribbled "Weed Rules!" in black Sharpie.
We had met an hour earlier when my friend and I arrived not to swim or camp but to burn the many boxes of paperwork she wanted to get rid of: tax documents, love letters from former boyfriends, ticket stubs, trip itineraries. For years these boxes of papers had taken up space in her apartment closet. Now, with graduate school behind us, she was moving across the country and wanted "a cleanse."
The park seemed the safest place to burn them, and we picked Sam's loop of the campground because, except for him and his tent, clothesline, cooler and a pile of wood, it was empty. There were no R.V.s or nosy people who would ask what were we burning, why we were here and if we had paid our site fee.
At first I worried Sam posed a threat and suggested we come back tomorrow. He was a stranger (single, shirtless, blond hair to his waist) and it was nearly dark. Our sacrificial burning could wait a day. But my friend wanted to see it through.
Within 20 minutes of our hauling eight enormous cardboard boxes to the fire pit of a vacant spot, Sam was standing at our fire, asking what we were doing. "Nothing illegal," I said, although I had no idea if it was or wasn't.
He laughed and rubbed his hands above the flames, which — liquid in their movement and coupled with the July heat — made the earth and horizon hazy.
It was Sam's good-natured attitude I liked most, his conviction that we could keep the fire going despite the threat of rain. He was a carpenter, working for a few months on a job in town. For the workweek he lived at this campsite, preferring it to a cheap motel, because he said he liked to return home from a long day and peel off his T-shirt and jeans and float in the Iowa River, catching catfish he would later cook over an open fire.
On weekends he drove two hours north to his hometown, where he crashed on the couch at his mother's house. While I had the inkling there was more to his story than that, he was kind and his lips were big and I liked his all-encompassing smile.
I remember thinking, "This is not how it happens."