The day my neighbor’s car caught fire, I found him on the back steps of the apartment building laughing like he’d just seen God drop a steam locomotive on a bus full of nuns. It was about ten A.M. and it was already too hot for anyone to function, but I was anyway; I was heading out to work when I found him. He was shaking uncontrollably, gripping the rusted handrail with white knuckles, laughter pouring out of him like red wine out of a punctured box. At first I couldn’t think what he was laughing about and was about to join him in his mirth until I looked up and saw the ancient Oldsmobile covered in ten-foot high flames. “Oh… Oh my God…” I muttered. It was all I could think to say. We could hear fire engines screaming down the road as I tried to get my friend to tell me what had happened, but he couldn’t stop laughing. It occurred to me that he would keep laughing as long as he was looking at the car so I took him inside by the shoulders and up a small staircase and past his door to my apartment.
His name was Oliver, but everyone called him Tom. I’m not entirely sure why. We met the day I moved in; He came over to borrow my can opener, and we hit it off right away. Ever since, we’d been the best of friends, practically living in each others’ apartments, going to parties, holding our own parties, and basically just hamming it up when we weren’t working.
When Tom’s car burned down, we were both making barely enough to survive and pay rent, and even then I’m surprised we had enough to eat, what with the way gas prices were. Tom worked at a bagel joint on Main Street, and I ran an industrial dishwasher at Bagatelle’s for eight hours a day, five days a week. It was a steady job that I enjoyed doing, but the pay was what one might call “less than rewarding.” I don’t know what Tom was making, but he hadn’t been able to buy booze in a month so it couldn’t have been that much.
As I sat Tom down in my meager little kitchen, the laughing started to subside. I poured some cheap iced tea for him while he wiped the tears from his face, still giggling deliriously. He took the tea and sipped it carefully, trying not to spill any despite his shaking. He was wearing his work uniform, a maroon polo shirt and a hat of identical color into which he had tucked his rat tail.
“What happened out there?” I asked urgently, sitting down across from him.
He laughed once, restrained any more laughter that might follow it and set his tea down on the table. “I don’t know, man,” he said, staring at the tea. “I just walked outside, looked up…” he looked up at me and threw his hand in front of him. “Fuckin’ car’s on fire!” He tried to start laughing again, but his expression changed in mere seconds from delirious glee to shocked grief. “Oh my God, my car!” he yelled, jumping up and knocking the chair over. He ran out of the apartment in a frenzy and I went after him to try and calm him down, let him know that I was there for him and that somehow it would be okay. He would have done the same for me if my car was on fire.
I tailed him through the hallway, hoping that the commotion wouldn’t wake anybody. Fortunately we lived close to the back door so there weren’t too many people who would be disturbed. When I caught up with Tom, he was staring out the window next to the back door, clutching the sill with both hands and breathing heavily. I stood next to him for a moment in silence, watching it all unfold. The fire department had arrived and they were pulling out hoses from the trucks, killing the flames with a white foam that made me think of toothpaste. I’d never seen Tom get this torn up about anything before, so I looked at his face out of curiosity. It was like looking at a different person— in all the time we’d been friends, Tom was always the resilient one, the one who would watch car crashes and house fires just to see what would happen and make clever comments. He was the one who would turn disasters into jokes just to make you feel better. Suddenly he was broken, confused, and without a punch line.
I saw something blue out of the corner of my eye and looked out the window just in time to see a police car park itself next to the back stairs. I controlled my breathing and put my hand on Tom’s shoulder. “Come on, man,” I muttered, masking the panic in my voice, “let’s go back upstairs.” He didn’t say anything, but he turned around and I led him back to my apartment by the shoulders. I was reminded briefly of countless nights we’d gotten drunk together when I would have too much and lose my head, thinking I was about to die… Tom would always lead my by the shoulders to my bed, telling me the whole way that everything was going to be okay. I tried to tell Tom that everything would be okay as I led him back to my apartment, but the words wouldn’t come out.
When we got back to the apartment, I closed the door quietly and stood Tom’s chair up again so he could sit down. He stared silently at the tea that sat in front of him. It didn’t look like he was going to do any talking anytime soon so I killed some time by calling my manager and telling him I’d be a little late. I was on my manager’s good side so I didn’t have to tell him my friend’s car was on fire in order for him to accept my excuse. Then as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me that Tom would be missing work as well so I went ahead and called his manager too. Lord knew Tom had a better excuse than I did and I felt responsible for him.
“Jane’s Bagels n’ Things, how can I help you?” came a perky female voice from the other end. I recognized it instantly as Wendy, a good-looking friend of Tom’s and a former drinking buddy of my own.
“Hey, Wendy, it’s Heron,” I replied.
“Oh hi, Heron! I haven’t heard from you in a while, how’ve you been?”
“Getting by,” I muttered, “how about you?”
“I’ve been alright,” Wendy said, “what’s up?”
“I’m calling for Tom,” I said, “could you tell his boss that he’ll be late today?”
“What happened?” Wendy asked, suddenly concerned, “is he alright?”
“He’s fine… just somebody’s set fire to his car.”
“Oh my God!” Wendy exclaimed, “do you know who did it?”
I shrugged even though I knew Wendy wouldn’t see it through the phone. “I don’t know.”
“Oh jeez, that’s awful… yeah, I’ll go tell Marie now. Give him my best, okay?”
“Sure,” I said, “see you later.”
I hung up the phone after Wendy and went back to the table. Tom looked at me as I approached, and took a sip of tea. “What makes you think it was arson?” he asked.
“Well what else would it have been?” I returned coolly.
“I don’t know,” he replied, “an electrical problem maybe? It could have been anything.”
“I guess,” I muttered. We sat still for a moment and listened to the commotion outside. “Wendy sends her best,” I said finally, breaking the awkward silence.
“I was reminiscing with her the other day.”
“Yeah. She says she misses drinking with you.”
I stared into nothing, trying not to blush. Tom and I told each other practically everything, so Tom knew that I had a soft spot for Wendy. I’d gone drinking with Tom and Wendy in about five bars and countless parties; I think it was something about her cheerful disposition that made it so much fun to get drunk with her. But of all the places we’d gone, I always liked it best when she came to our apartments. It had only happened three times, but by the second time we had a routine. We’d always play a few drinking games for starters, then we’d sit cross-legged in the living room and have the strangest conversations on various subject matter while we worked on a case of beer and mixed drinks; sometimes we’d talk about music and how important it was for basic survival, and other times we’d try to think up things you could make out of human hair or unusual ways to roast marshmallows. I loved to watch her whenever she talked— every time she came up with a new idea her face would light up like a pinball machine and she’d have to push her round glasses back onto her face. Later on in the night the conversation would always take a deep, philosophical turn, but if it got too depressing Wendy would always change the subject. Then eventually Tom would pass out on the couch and Wendy and I would take that as our cue to go to sleep. I’d always try to be a gentleman and say she could have my bed, but she always refused to take it and instead would just steal my pillow and sleep on the floor next to my bed. The last time we got drunk together, I remember she looked up at me as we went to sleep and whispered “we have to do this again sometime.”
I pointed at her, my arm hanging off the bed, and I told her that someday we’d get drunk every night. She giggled and said that she hoped I was right. I’m not sure how, but one way or another we ended up holding hands, and we fell asleep that way. When I woke up, she was making pancakes and I had a terrible headache.
“I miss it too,” I muttered, “but I’ve been a little low on spending money. I know I keep saying this, but I need to start saving up or something…”
“I know, man, I know,” Tom said. “We’ll think up something.” He knew as well as I did that I didn’t have any money to save. Neither of us did. “Are you okay, Heron? You don’t look so good,” Tom muttered, watching me over his cup.
“Huh? Oh, yeah, I’m fine, I uh…” I feigned a yawn, “I didn’t get much sleep last night. I’m just a little tired.”
“If you say so.” He took another sip of tea and I stared at the oven. “Maybe you should have some tea,” he suggested, gesturing to me with the cup.
“Nah, I’m fine,” I said quickly.
“Okay, whatever.” He sipped his tea again. “I hope she’s not concerned.”
“Oh right… What do you mean?” I asked, trying to look curious.
“Well all things considered, maybe it’s better this way,” he said gloomily, “remember our conversation the other day?”
He was referring to a Saturday two weeks before when we decided to walk to Burger King for dinner. We were both griping about how expensive everything seemed and we got onto the topic of money and how we could save it. We’d been tossing some really bad ideas and a bank account back and forth for about a half hour before I finally suggested carpooling. I figured that with the way gas prices were, we’d be able to save a decent amount of money if we split the expenses and just took one car. Sure, it might not make a big difference right away, but it would add up over time. When I made the suggestion, Tom was all for it until we tried to decide whose car to use. It was between his Oldsmobile and my Subaru, and I of course suggested we take my car, the younger and probably more dependable of the two. Faced with this argument, Tom asked me somewhat sardonically what I expected him to do with his car. He didn’t want to leave it sitting around, so I suggested that he sell it. Tom didn’t go for the idea at first. “Who would want it?” he asked me, “It’s thirty years old and can’t drive against the wind. Even if we did find a buyer we wouldn’t get anything for it.”
I told him that even if it wasn’t worth much we could still use the cash. He said he’d think about it, but two weeks had passed since then and he was still driving the old thing.
I’m not one to aspire to much. I like living simply, and when I got my apartment next door to Tom I was fairly certain that I’d found my niche. But there’s a difference between living simply and living precariously, and I’d crossed that line when I lost my second job and was forced to go full time at Bagatelle’s. Now that I’d found a way to solve the problem there was a rusty ‘76 Oldsmobile standing in my way. I didn’t know how to confront Tom about it— he’d been avoiding the subject for two weeks now— so I took what seemed to be the easy way out at the time. Getting into the car wasn’t a problem; Tom never bothered to lock it— he couldn’t think why anybody would want to steal it. There was an old can of charcoal lighter fluid in the grounds shed that nobody would miss so I sprayed it thoroughly around the interior of the car and lit it with a few kitchen matches.
“I’m gonna have to remind myself to call my insurance agent,” Tom murmured, lifting the tea to his lips again, emptying the cup. “Not that I’ll get much for it…”
At that moment there was a knock on the door. I was a little apprehensive getting up to answer it because I knew it was the police and the police always made me nervous, but I also knew it would be worse not to answer. There was an officer and the fire chief and they were looking for Tom. It took a moment for me to explain to them why he was in my kitchen and not outside talking with the police and the fire chief, but fortunately they were understanding about it. The whole encounter was relatively brief, the officer just had to confirm that it was, in fact, Tom’s car and then they both asked him a few questions about the previous night.
“Did you see anyone suspicious in the area?” the officer asked him.
“No, it was just me,” Tom replied.
“Have you had any negative confrontations with anyone in the past few days?”
“I don’t think so. Why?”
The fire chief spoke up. “Evidence indicates that somebody started the fire on purpose,” he said.
“Do you know of anybody who might be holding some sort of grudge against you?” the police officer asked.
Tom shook his head. “Not that I know of,” he said.
“Did you leave your windows open last night?” the fire chief asked.
“Nope,” Tom said. “Were they open?”
“They were,” replied the police officer. “Is there a way somebody could have gotten into your car last night?”
Tom acted as if he was thinking for a moment. “I might have left the door unlocked,” he said, “I sometimes forget to lock it.” I’m not sure why he lied about locking his doors, but I figured he must have some reason.
The fire chief went on to explain to Tom that sometime in the early morning somebody had evidently entered his car, rolled the windows down, and set fire to various parts of the interior, first presumably covering them in lighter fluid, as evidenced by an empty can of the stuff they’d found twisted and scorched in front of the driver’s seat. They set it on the table to see if Tom recognized it, but he said he’d never seen it before. He looked at me and I shrugged. The police officer told Tom a few more things, but I didn’t listen. I was too busy being fascinated by the burnt husk of metal sitting on my kitchen table. It had been in a fire. A roaring, raging inferno that had destroyed a whole car. And there it sat, on my table.
I was snapped out of my thoughts when the police officer thanked Tom and me for our time and left with the fire chief and the piece of evidence.
The door closed and Tom looked at his watch. “Shit, I oughtta get to work.”
“You really sure you want to go after all that?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said slowly, “but I need the money. I don’t have any more sick days left.”
I nodded. “Yeah. Don’t want to worry Wendy too much, either.”
“Huh? Oh… Yeah, I guess,” he muttered absently.
The burnt remains of Tom’s car were sitting beyond the back steps on the side of the driveway, covered in foam and surrounded by caution tape. We stood and looked at it for a moment. I thought Tom was about to say something, but he didn’t. He just stood there in reverence for a few seconds then turned away.
“You alright?” I asked as we walked to where my Subaru was parked.
Tom sighed. “I’ll live,” he muttered.
I unlocked the car and Tom opened the passenger door. “Hey…” I said, “everything’s gonna be okay.”
Tom looked at me strangely before getting into the car. “That’s an odd thing to say,” he muttered. I just shrugged.
“So what are you gonna do with the money?” I asked him as we headed into town.
“From the insurance.”
“Oh… I don’t know,” he muttered, considering the question carefully. “It probably won’t be much. Maybe I can take you and Wendy out barhopping or something. It’s been too long.”
I smiled. “It’d be cheaper to drink at home,” I said. I’m still not sure if he heard me.
“I could use some new shoes, too,” he continued. “Fuck, I don’t know. I can always think of stuff I need when I’m broke but as soon as I get money I don’t know how to use it.”
“I hate that,” I said, keeping my eyes on the road.
“Do you think they’ll ever catch the guy who did it?”
I sighed. “Well nobody saw him, they’ve got no leads,” I said. “Any and all physical evidence they’d have would have been burned… no prints, no hair, nothing.” I looked over at Tom. He was staring out at the road. “Arson’s a tough thing to catch,” I said. I think I was trying to reassure myself more than anything. Tom kept staring. I pulled the car over to the sidewalk in front of Jane’s Bagels. “Well here we are.”
Tom undid his seatbelt. “I should probably chip in for gas if this is gonna be a regular thing, huh?”
“You don’t need to do that.”
“Don’t say that,” he said, “you wanted to carpool before, right? Come on… it’ll save us both money.”
“If you insist,” I said, “next time I get gas I’ll write you a bill.”
Tom smiled. “Okay.” He opened the door and started to get out but stopped. “Hey, Heron… How did you know somebody did it?”
“Like… how did you know it wasn’t an accident?”
I shrugged. “Just a feeling,” I said.
He nodded passively. “Thanks for the ride,” he said. He left the car and closed the door behind him.
I drove farther down Main Street and turned onto Stirnie Road, where the sun caught me in the eyes. I put the visor down so I could see better, but the windshield was still glowing. It made me think of how the Oldsmobile had looked, lighting up from the inside in the dark like that. Funny how a few tiny sticks of wood and sulfur can trigger something so big…
I don’t know how Tom would react if he ever found out what I did. Quite frankly, I don’t want to know. I feel bad enough about it already, even though I know I was doing us both a favor. Someday when we’re living comfortably, making decent livings, I might tell him. Maybe.