by Cody T Luff
Tom was going to the Las Vegas annual Fire Fighters convention to be held in the Quicksilver Casino and Convention Center. Being a fireman and not a firefighter, Tom knew how to handle these kinds of events. The goal being, of course, to burn the place down to the foundations.
Tom had nothing against firefighters. They saved lives and rescued cats from trees. He didn’t really care for their annual charity drives where they walked around carrying boots that you were supposed to fill up with cash. Tom didn’t like the boot part, not one bit. Cash was dirty enough but throwing it in a firefighter’s boot? No thank you. Tom had a hard enough time handling money after he attended Garry’s bachelor party. There had been a stripper and she would pick up dollars without using her hands. Tom had started to use his debit card exclusively after Garry’s party. No, Tom really had nothing at all against firefighters. He just wanted to burn down their convention.
Tom had first discovered that he was a fireman after accidentally burning down St. John’s Seminary and Christian School in the fourth grade. He was a student at St. John’s, every male relative had been at one time or another. Tom’s family was considered so pious that he had convinced his first grade class he was related directly to Moses AND Jesus. Tom had once demonstrated his miracle-making prowess by “splitting” the water fountain’s stream, a trick showed to him by his elder brother Mathias and requiring only the use of a shortened drinking straw wedged into the spray. It went over swimmingly and for the rest of that year Tom had the run of the playground.
Tom had started the fire by accident after the Fourth Grade Presentation of the Crucifixion as part of the Drama in the Classroom program. He’d been dual cast as Jewish Fanatic #5 and Roman Soldier #2. Tom had preferred Roman Soldier #2 because he got to carry a spear. Even though the spear point was constructed from cardboard and tinfoil, Tom’s status was greatly elevated because he was instructed to make stabbing motions at Jesus who was played by the blond boy from Cincinnati who nobody liked. Tom was lucky enough to secure the part only after Mark Luipold Gettersly came down with mumps. During the second performance of the Fourth Grade Presentation of the Crucifixion, the performance scheduled for the first through third grades, Tom over-extended his spearing. This resulted in his spear knocking over Sister Winslow’s lamp with the red light bulb. Father Lorja had insisted on using the red lamp to backlight Cincinnati Boy as he was dangling on the large, wooden cross that had been constructed by the Junior High shop kids. Tom had been enthusiastically poking Cincinnati Boy in the side when the spear slipped out of his hands, bounced off Jewish Fanatic #8’s forehead, and knocked Sister Winslow’s lamp into the bale of straw behind the main stage curtain. Since the bale had been used consecutively for twelve Fifth Grade Presentations of the Nativity, it caught fire almost immediately. Aside from the pop of Sister Winslow’s red light bulb and a smell like his mother’s clothes iron, there was very little to warn the rest of the Fourth Grade class of the rapidly incinerating straw bale. Since Tom was the only performer with his back mostly to the audience, he was able to see the quick little jets of blue flame that were crawling up the main stage curtain. For a moment, Tom stood and watched the little fire, his role as Roman Soldier #2 exchanged for Fireman #1. He watched and something unwound inside of him. It was like a thousand Christmas mornings, a newly discovered copy of Playboy or speaking directly to Jesus.
The first through second graders started to scream and the nuns attending them began to scream and finally the entire Fourth Grade Presentation of the Crucifixion erupted in a hysterical wave that exited the stage with such speed that Cincinnati Boy was left tied securely to the wooden cross. Only Tom and Cincinnati Boy were left, flames billowing like fantastic red clouds in fast forward, leaping from curtain to curtain, boiling over the lighting rack and prop storage cage. Tom stood, his mouth open, his breathing husky in his throat. He felt so light and there was a funny, tickling feeling, inside his belly. Every part of him seemed to wake up, to watch the fire rake the back of the stage, to feel the heat pressing his skin. He’d only felt this way once before, when he’d been at Jack Purdy’s house when Inga, a Swedish exchange student, had joined them in Jack’s family’s pool. She had been wearing something you couldn’t buy in Tom’s town, something that came in two pieces and had strings instead of straps. Inga had dived into the water and the top part of her foreign swim gear had simply come apart and Tom had nearly drowned. But the fire, the fire was like twenty Ingas diving completely naked into his bathtub.
It was Cincinnati Boy that brought Tom back. Cincinnati Boy began to cry. It wasn’t the baby kind of cry that some kids managed after a skinned knee or an atomic wedgie. This was the kind of cry that was soft and private and the kind of cry that was past tense, without hope. Tom looked away from the fire and he saw little blonde Cincinnati Boy looking out into the empty auditorium.
“They just left us.” Cincinnati Boy said, his face full of tears and sweat.
Tom looked out into the smoke black room and saw Cincinnati Boy was right. The nuns were gone, the first through third graders were gone, even Father Lorja was gone.
“They’re grownups,” Cincinnati Boy said; it was an accusation.
Tom made the front page of the newspaper. He was pictured standing next to Garry, Cincinnati Boy’s real name. Unable to untie the knots that held Garry to the cross, Tom had managed to push the cross down. Not knowing what else to do, Tom heaved the cross onto a shoulder and dragged it down from the stage, through the smoking auditorium to the rear entrance. The police found him dragging Garry, firmly crucified, along the sidewalk near the shop building. A reporter photographed Tom bracing Garry’s cross against a chain-link fence. Tom is seen to be staring up at Garry who is heavily smeared with soot. Garry is gazing down at Tom, his eyes half closed, his mouth open in benediction. After their picture was printed in the newspaper, Tom started calling Garry by name and Garry started punching kids who called him Cincinnati Boy. St. John’s Seminary and Christian School was never rebuilt.
Garry never knew about Tom being a fireman. They had remained close friends through high school and into college. They were still close but Garry had married a beautiful Jewish woman who proved to be as fertile as the Nile river flood plains and Garry had become the father of six. Now Garry and Tom played pool on Thursdays and Tom attended far too many sporting events in which kids ran around with various balls while their parents screamed at them from the bleachers. To his credit, Garry bragged about his kids in a gentle and tolerable way, almost never to excess. To his detriment, Garry harassed Tom about women. Wasn’t it time for Tom to put away his swinging-dick life style and settle down somewhere? Garry knew several eligible young women who would love to produce babies in quantity and didn’t mind if Tom wasn’t Jewish. Tom endured but never let on that he was already in love. He was, after all, a fireman.
After the fire at St. John’s Seminary and Christian School, Tom began to read about arsonists. They were always creepy guys who watched fires burn things down with their pants around their ankles. Nothing was sacred: warehouses, factories, apartment buildings, orphanages. Arsonists burned them all. Tom had wanted to classify himself, give himself a definition. Arson had too many angles that didn’t fit. He had no desire to burn up orphans nor did he find himself particularly creepy. Yes there was something erotic about fire, but it wasn’t the only thing that floated Tom’s boat. Tom’s boat was multifaceted and healthy and did not involve the rampant destruction of warehouses. Redheads were nice but not charred corpses. Arsonist didn’t fit Tom and he was left without definition for several years. It wasn’t until his final year of college that Tom finally found his explanation.
She was a redhead of course. The natural kind that had trails of freckles leading to exciting places. She had skin the color of cake frosting and green on green eyes. Her name was Mary and they met at a blood drive near the Student Center. She was short with wide hips and a narrow waist and when she laid down on the table next to his own, he started to sweat. The phlebotomist asked him if he was afraid of needles. Tom said no and Mary said something funny to her own phlebotomist and both laughed, looking at Tom. He approached her at the orange juice and cookie table after he’d given his pint. Tom introduced himself and Mary smiled at him, a cookie poised near her pink mouth.
“Let me save you the trouble. No I don’t want to go for a drink sometime. I like movies, especially shark movies. But nothing with a number in the title. If you can find a shark movie without a number and can afford two tickets, call me.” She wrote her number down on a little white cup. Written over her number was her name, Mary, simple and beautiful carved forever into Styrofoam.
The best Tom was able to do was a movie called Shark! It was old and Burt Reynolds wasn’t his favorite actor but it didn’t have a number and Tom liked the exclamation point. He borrowed money from Garry, enough for tickets, popcorn and a few beers afterward. Tom wore Garry’s best shirt and his black slacks that he saved for Jazz Band performances. He met Mary at the number 12 bus stop. To his credit Tom didn’t stare at Mary’s tube top or her nearly transparent hippy skirt, the kind that looked like curtains or exotic floor coverings. They didn’t ride the bus; Mary paid for a taxi and held his hand in the back seat. She told Tom about her passion for sharks; about how they didn’t have any bones, just a cartilage frame. She said she thought the way sharks were muscled was sexy and that they rolled their eyes back into their heads before they bit you. Her hand was warm and dry and had freckles all over the thin knuckles. Tom watched Mary’s mouth move and the way her neck was underlined by the smooth stripe of her collarbone.
The movie was good if a little old. Burt Reynolds punched out the leading lady but he had the courtesy to apologize. Mary held his hand through the entire film, squirming in her seat during the shark attack scenes. When Reynolds threw the bad guy into the water and a cloud of sharks surrounded the splashing man, Mary put her cheek against Tom’s arm and moaned against him. They did not go for drinks afterward.
Mary didn’t have a roommate in her tiny dorm. Tom thought that this was a good thing considering the collection of shark posters that covered the walls. Mary had crocheted a life-sized Mako shark that sprawled across the floor. With the lights on Mary devoured Tom; she was a confident lover and led him through all the acts that pleased her. She scratched his skin, deeply enough to leave marks but not so deep as to print his blood on her sheets. Tom had been with other girls, Garry’s sister and several girls from college. He considered himself a powerful lover, skilled and smooth. But beneath Mary, with sharks staring from every wall, he felt deliciously powerless. When she was finished with him, she lay beside him and took his hand again; she splayed his fingers wide and placed his hand, palm down, over her heart. Tom could feel it beat, hot and strong against his skin.
“You’re a fireman, aren’t you?” she said.
Tom said he was a college student. He was studying architecture.
Mary brought his hand up to her face and pressed it against her cheek. “That’s not what I asked.” Her breathing was slow and it made Tom sleepy.
He wondered aloud about what she was asking.
“You’re a fireman. You like fires.”
Tom was suddenly awake. Did she know he’d burned down his school? Burned down the drug store the night of high school graduation? Did she know about the golf course’s club house?
“They like me you know,” Mary said, her voice rounded with sleep. “You firemen like me. It’s not just my hair…” She fell asleep before he found out what firemen liked about her or in fact what a fireman was.
Mary didn’t say anything about firemen or fires the next morning. She chatted about the movie and food and she told him she was learning how to tap dance from an old man with one leg. They went to breakfast at a small diner that was always filled with college kids. She held his hand as they waited for their food to arrive. After they ate she took him back to her dorm and undressed him and lay down beside him on her rumpled bed.
“Tell me about them,” she said.
Tom didn’t understand.
“Tell me about your fires.”
Tom tried to get up but she placed her hand against his chest, gently, her fingers warm and firm.
“Tell me,” she said.
There was a silence and it needed to be filled, so Tom began babbling. He told her about being related to Jesus, about parting the drinking fountain’s stream. He told her about his brothers and about how Garry was into black women and Jewish girls.
Mary listened, keeping her hand against his chest. When Tom stopped talking, his eyes still wide and everywhere but looking at her, she said, “Now tell me about your fires.”
So he did. Tom told her everything. About St. John’s Seminary and Christian School and Sister Winslow’s lamp with the red light bulb. He told her about the drug store, the club house, he even told her about the cat he set on fire. It was a stray he caught that lived near the dorms. Tom had tied the poor thing up and set its tail on fire. When the cat began making a horrible mewling sound, the same sound Garry had made on the cross, Tom had put the cat’s tail out, untied it, and taken the terrified animal to the vet. The tail had to be removed and Tom had to borrow money from Garry but Smokey was now living in his dorm room.
Mary listened to it all, saying nothing.
Tom waited for her reaction, wanting it somehow, but she said nothing for a long time.
“I’m glad you saved the cat,” she said. “That’s why you’re a fireman.”
Tom said something about being an arsonist and Mary pinched his rib.
“No. Arsonists burn down people. You’re a fireman, Tom. Just a fireman.”
Mary found a little apartment just north of the City Aquarium. She worked there part-time as a tank cleaner. She was always out of breath and bubbly the days she cleaned the Mako tanks. She began moving Tom into her new apartment by taking things from the place he shared with Garry. She never once mentioned moving in together, she simply started. First it was just his Fahrenheit 451 poster. How she slipped it out, Tom never knew. She followed up by leaving little empty spaces in Tom’s bedroom, places on the wall that were a brighter white, shaped like picture frames, empty spaces appeared in his dresser. The most impressive of Mary’s removals was his microwave. She had come over for coffee and somehow left with an appliance.
Garry swore he wasn’t in on it, “I don’t know how the hell she got it out the door. We were both looking right at her. Hell, I even said goodbye. You better seal the deal Tom, I’m afraid she might start swiping my shit. You seen Smokey?”
The day Tom brought his mattress to Mary’s apartment he found all of his stolen goods neatly arranged, the microwave sitting innocently in a little galley kitchen and his Fahrenheit 451 poster tacked to the ceiling of the bedroom. Smokey sat on a mint green couch, licking his chest. Mary stuck her head out of the bathroom, a brush noisily working her hair.
“Thought we’d go for some Thai tonight. I’m in the mood for spicy.”
Living with Mary meant three things. Jaws was playing in the VCR constantly, it was his job to clean the bathroom, and there was always someone next to him in bed. Mary’s job paid next to nothing and Tom spent most of his days looking from something above minimum wage. Being poor had its advantages. Their only entertainment was each other and Mary was creative in that aspect.
Tom got used to sharks. They were everywhere in Mary’s life. Shark shower curtain, shark posters in the living room, and shark print panties, shark shaped pot-holders. He’d just hired on at an architectural office when Mary hit him with the big news.
“The Discovery channel does this thing called Shark Week. They put together all these documentaries about sharks and they’re looking for people with diving experience. I sent in a resume.” Her flush erasing her freckles. “I’m in. They want me for three months. I don’t believe it.” They celebrated with takeout from Long John Silver’s.
“I bought you a phone card so you can call me anytime.” Mary told him. The taxi behind her was full of luggage; a vinyl hammerhead belly up next in the back. “It’s on the counter, there’s a present there too.” She kissed him, “I’ll see you in three.” She waved the hammerhead out the window as the taxi pulled away.
The apartment was a disaster. Mary packed like a leaf blower. Smokey had retreated somewhere dark and private to contemplate appropriate punishment for Mary’s disappearance. Tom sat on the couch, the contents of Mary’s underwear drawer scattered over the cushions. He listened to the sound of Mary’s absence until he left for work.
Tom remembered the phone card that evening and after getting home, found it on the kitchen counter next to a small box wrapped in bright red gift paper. Inside a VHS tape with a magazine ad carefully clipped and taped to a card. Framed by billowing smoke, a man stood in the picture, chin thrust forward. He was wearing a black and yellow jacket and a serious mustache. The add read: “Support Your Local Firefighters.” Mary had changed the lettering using red sparkle glue to read: “Support Your Local Fireman.” When Tom put the tape in the VCR it played looped footage of volcanoes erupting. Superimposed on the bottom of the screen, simple white text scrolled by stating: Thinking of You, Lucky Boy, Thinking of You….
The first month was easy. Tom’s new job kept him busy. Mary’s first letter home included a bunch of pictures of her posing underwater in a shark cage. Each photo detailed the slow removal of her swimsuit. A bright yellow sticky note declared: “Don’t worry about the photos. Mark, the guy who took them, is gay.”
The problem started when Tom noticed the old diner on 32nd. It was an old-fashioned thing, silver siding, boxcar shaped. The place had a sign dangling from a pole out front. A hamburger, faded to black and white, lettering peeling. Frank’s Diner. It wasn’t the first time Tom had seen the place. He’d driven by daily for months. Tonight, Frank’s stopped him.
The diner was out of business. Had been for years. The parking lot wasn’t big enough for five cars and the black top had crumbled into powder. Somebody had boarded the windows, the graffiti long faded. Something inside Tom’s belly started itching. Just below the bellybutton. He stood, staring for a long time before heading home.
It was four in the morning when Tom made it back to Frank’s. The empty street made the diner look fragile. Tom was shaking as he pried the boards from a window. The place smelled like piss which meant Tom would have to be careful. Tom did a complete walk through of Frank’s, taking in the gutted counters, buckled linoleum and the rotten mattress someone had left in the tiny kitchen.
After meeting Garry, Tom had spent some time playing with chemicals. Sometimes they did it together, mixing dish soap with some gasoline, lighting it in a tin bucket behind Garry’s house. Garry thought it was great, Tom thought it was research. When the fun ran out for Garry, Tom had practiced on his own, using everything from ethanol to paraffin oil. Lighter fluid was a cop out. It was just too easy. The idea was to create something unique, something personal. Tom had settled on a mix that included powdered creamer, kerosene, and Crisco. It had been awhile since Tom had the chance to mix some up. Smokey had watched Tom work in the kitchen and Tom couldn’t help feeling guilty as he filled a frosting gun with his dangerous paste.
There hadn’t been any fire drills since Tom moved in with Mary. He just hadn’t thought about it. Tom wondered why as he frosted Frank’s diner, flashlight clamped between his teeth. Being at Frank’s made Tom’s blood quick, his muscles thrummed under his skin. The smell of the frosting was rich and chemically. Tom could taste it in his throat.
It happened too quickly sometimes. The excitement was worth more than the action. Frank’s burned down in less than an hour. The rotten old building going up in oily, orange flame. The sound was delicious at first but the roar gusted out, the flames too hot, the structure simply too weak to sustain it. Tom made it home in time for work, irritated, the itch behind his bellybutton subsiding into a confused ache.
Frank’s made it into the paper the next day. The headlines doing all they could to make a mountain out of a sparkler. Arson. Possible serial arson. Town in grip of terror. Tom threw the newspaper over Smokey and laid his head back on the couch. He wasn’t an arsonist, he was a fireman.
Tom skipped out on his Thursday pool with Garry, instead he visited the library. One of Mary’s favorite places. She’d sent him another letter, this contained a photo of Mary standing next to a Great White dangling from a crane. She was wearing cut off jeans, a crocheted tank top and was giving the camera the thumbs up. On the back was a list of phone numbers and a messy knot of words: “You should try out that phone card.” Instead, Tom was researching pyromania. He checked out five books, wondering if he would actually read any of them.
Tom kept his eyes open on the way home, looking for something more satisfying than Frank’s. He thought about calling Mary, telling her about the diner, about why their one sauce pan was now too toxic to use for cooking ever again. At home he made himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, turned on Mary’s volcano tape and flipped through “Peterson’s Comprehensive Guide to Psychological Disorder.” Somewhere near the entry for “mania” a little scrap of paper fluttered onto Tom’s lap. Written in thin, blotchy hand writing, were the words: Arsonists, Pyromaniacs, Fire Dancing—-Bush Fire—What did Nero do?” An address followed. Tom sat for a moment, the little scrap of paper between his fingers. It was probably nothing, a note for a class, some half formed thought. He set the note on Mary’s phone card and dialed directory assistance. He’d give it a shot. After all, Tom was a lucky man.
Bush Fire was a strip club; it was the kind of strip club that was attached to a truck stop, three hours away from a post office. The parking lot was composed of gravel and crushed beer cans. Rows of pickups, semis, and motorcycles clustered around Bush Fire’s entrance. Tom followed a group of bikers to the door, most wore studded leather but one man was clad in cut-off jeans and a t-shirt with “If You Can Read This, The Bitch Fell Off” printed in peeling letters on the back. Tom watched the bikers pay the cover charge and his palms began to sweat. This was the critical moment; Tom took a breath.
The door attendant was a small man, sitting stiffly on a worn barstool. He was old enough to be gray around the fringes. He had unfriendly hands.
“Ten bucks,” he said.
Tom smiled and replied, his voice cracking as he said the code phrase.
The attendant blinked. “He fiddled with what?”
Tom swallowed. He repeated the phrase.
“He fiddled as it burned?” repeated the attendant, his mouth slightly open.
Tom nodded rapidly.
The attendant stared at him. “Ten bucks,” he said again.
Tom shook his head and tried to explain, he’d used the code phrase, the phrase that got you into the backrooms, for the Firemen.
“Firemen?” The attendant had begun to look at Tom in a sidelong way.
Tom tried again, repeating the code phrase and his explanation.
“Look, if it burns when you fiddle with it, go to the doctor. Otherwise if you want in, ten bucks.”
Tom was suddenly aware of the line forming behind him. He tried one more time and the attendant made an exasperated sound between his teeth.
“Look, buddy, either pay up or leave. I got people waiting here.”
A man with a trucker’s cap said something that caused the rest of the men waiting in line to laugh. Tom mumbled an apology and turned away.
Back at his car he stood, thinking about Mary and the night they burned the brewery. He was unlocking the car door when someone spoke.
“You’re a Fireman, right?” The voice belonged to a tall woman wearing a plaid dress. Her thick glasses dominated her face.
“You were trying to get in back there. I heard you,” she said. She was hugging her arms to her chest, the way teenage girls and old women do. She reminded Tom of a sad librarian.
“You went to the wrong door,” she said, her voice thin against the sound of the parking lot. “Follow me.”
Tom followed the woman through the crowd of trucks and around to the rear of Bush Fire. The back entrance was quiet and partially blocked by two graffiti-coated dumpsters. A thin- looking red door stood out from the cinder block wall. Above it a little gas lamp jutted from the building, a bright blue flame bubbled inside.
“Nice touch, right?” the women said, gesturing to the lamp.
Tom nodded dumbly.
The woman knocked; the door cracked open and she spent a moment talking with someone Tom couldn’t see.
The door opened and Tom caught his first scent of Bush Fire. It was the acrid tang of hot metal and sweat, of match heads and mixed drinks. He shivered.
The interior was brutally close, the walls were painted a thick red, orange and blue lights pooling at random. There were chairs but no one was sitting. A small circular stage was compressed against the rear wall. Here humanity clotted; men stood shoulder to shoulder, their voices hushed in the absence of music.
“Oh. Show is about to start. You should watch,” his guide said. She smiled, her thick glasses catching the flickering light and painting her face a mottled red. She led Tom toward the stage; as they approached the crowd turned, drifts of anxious faces. Men were staring at him, sweat sparked in the light. Tom considered running.
When his guide walked to the edge of the stage Tom understood that the men of Bush Fire weren’t looking at him. His sad, plaid librarian took the stage and every sweaty face in the room followed her. The lack of music bothered Tom; he could hear breathing and the rustle of clothing against clothing. No one spoke.
Tom’s librarian lost something as she moved to the front of the stage. Her body opened up as she moved, her arms uncrossing, her head no longer bowed. She took off her glasses and the men of the Bush Fire hissed appreciatively.
“We have a new Fireman tonight,” she said and her voice was like lighter fluid. Tom could feel her eyes against his; she smiled down from the stage, her lips parted and her teeth red in the light.
“You can light me tonight.”
Tom blinked, men surrounding him, hands clapping his shoulders. He heard one man call him a lucky bastard.
Tom’s librarian produced a bottle from the pocket of her plaid dress. The plastic was pale and a large red bull’s eye was printed on the front. She began to move, a slow swaying, and somewhere music started. A deep, sexual thumping of speakers. Tom’s librarian oozed across the stage, the bull’s-eye bottle always held in front of her, advertising.
Tom began to sweat. Suddenly the plaid dress was on the floor somewhere and the librarian stood naked save for some kind of see-through shift that moved against her skin like bath water. The crowd groaned, an animal sound. Men began raising their hands, little tubs of Vaseline clutched in their fingers.
The librarian reached out from her stage, stretching, her shift moving and Tom felt the urge to run again. After she selected a tub, she smiled and ran the yellow plastic container along her jaw and down her neck. Expertly she popped off the top with her thumb. Her smile was pornographic.
“Well?” she said, her voice chocolate.
The men shouted, a chant started. “Butterfly, Butterfly, Butterfly”
The librarian laughed and spun a slow circle, the bull’s-eye bottle and Vaseline held out like spokes. She came to a graceful halt, kneeling on the edge of the stage, her hair falling over her face. “New Fireman,” she said, “Come here.”
The crowd of men parted and Tom felt sweaty hands push him to the stage. Tom’s librarian set her bottles down and put both of her palms against his face. “You’re going to start me,” she said.
Tom felt the pressure of the men behind him, felt the pull of the woman in front of him.
“Are you afraid?” the librarian said to him, her hands now in his hair.
The push came from behind and he was lifted onto the stage, the crowd roaring. The librarian was touching him, her hands on his shoulders, running across his chest. She combustible against him; liquid and volatile.
The librarian had retrieved the bottle and the Vaseline. She held them out to Tom, “On my back,” she said. When Tom didn’t move, she laughed and pressed the bottles into his hands, leaning close, her lips against his ear she said; “Mix them well or you just might burn me down.” She stepped away and her shift fell somehow, smooth and deliberately to the stage floor.
The librarian’s body was coated in red light, blue shadows moved across her as she turned slowly. “On my back,” she said.
Tom closed his eyes, would he really do this? When he opened his eyes his hands were working. The Vaseline was warm and ran as he smeared it across the librarian’s back. He spurted the contents of the bull’s-eye bottle along the outline he had drawn in Vaseline. Tom’s breath husked in his throat and the librarian swayed slowly as he worked. The smell of lighter fluid and his sweat was heavy between them. The crowd had grown silent save for their wet breathing.
“Now light me,” the librarian said.
Garry had purchased a pearl-inlaid Zippo for him during their first year of college. The Zippo had burned down two bus stops, a hamburger joint, and a condemned apartment complex. The complex had burned for ten hours straight. Tom still visited the now-empty lot on Sundays. The last Fourth of July he had brought sparklers and a six pack of Zima and spent a lovely night lying on the blackened foundations.
Tom pulled his Zippo from his pocket and slowly opened the top. The crowd moaned in one voice. Tom hesitated but the Zippo moved on it’s own.
Blue fire blossomed from the librarian’s nude back; the ignition was deliciously large. The librarian writhed and twisted, moving across the stage.
Tom stood, his Zippo between his fingers and a flaming woman dancing in front of him. The crowd became a Rorschach of noise and motion.
Smokey. Smokey had been so skinny when Tom found him behind the dorm. Grey fur, chewed up ears. The cat had walked right up to Tom, rubbed his leg. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing; he’d burned down so much but never anything that was breathing. Tom had tied the cat up, a little piece of clothesline, a stretch of tape. Smokey had yowled at first but he just seemed to give up after Tom poured lighter fluid on his tail. Tom remembered the smell of burning fur, the sound the little animal made as it fought against the clothesline. Tom came back to himself, his face dripping sweat. The librarian was writhing, flames like fairy wings rushing from her back. She looked like the curtains from St. John’s stage, looked like the fabric that flowed and twisted in the flames. He remembered Garry, tied to the cross, his face streaked with soot and tears, “They just left us.”
Tom pulled his jacket off and staggered toward the flaming librarian. She was still spinning and little curls of blue flame were touching the ends of her hair. Tom smothered her burning body in his jacket, burying his face against the librarian’s neck.
Her name was Martha Brooks and after she put her clothing back on they went out for coffee. It was a long drive and she smelled like Vaseline and lighter fluid. The coffee shop was really a truck stop and the coffee was really something that happened after coffee beans had died and gone to Hell. Martha Brooks was a third-grade teacher at Williamson Elementary. She preferred to be called Ms. Brooks.
“Why’d you put me out?” Ms. Brooks asked. She was smiling at him in a way that said he was bite sized. Tom didn’t have an answer for her. He just asked if she was okay.
“Just some blisters.” She said. She’d checked in the bathroom while he’d ordered their coffee. Tom added too much creamer and didn’t say anything.
“So what’s your game?” Ms. Brooks asked. Tom didn’t understand and said so.
“What’s your game, what do you burn?”
Tom’s face went red. He tried to look around, casually, to see who was listening. Ms. Brooks laughed over her coffee.
“It’s two in the morning. Nobody’s that interested.” She reached across the table and touched his hand. “Let me guess…churches. You like churches? No, you don’t look like the kind of man who would burn a church down. How about gas stations?” Tom pulled his hand away and looked at the table between them. They were in a booth and even though the Formica table was smeared, he could still see his blurry self looking back. What was his game?
When the waitress returned Ms. Brooks ordered peach cobbler ala mode. “I always like ice cream afterward.” She said, digging in. Tom didn’t know how to make conversation with a woman he had just set on fire. He watched her eat. When she was finished, Ms. Brooks leaned back in the booth, her eyes half closed. Tom asked his question and immediately felt childish.
“I do it because I like it.” Ms. Brooks said. She adjusted her glasses, her face soft against the backdrop of country music and tired truckers. “I do it because firemen like it.” Tom spoke before he could stop himself: He didn’t like it. Not at all.
“Not true.” Ms. Brooks said and her voice was gentle. “You knew what you were doing when you drew that M on my back and lit it up. You knew it would burn me. You liked it. The other firemen liked it. That’s why you put me out.” Ms. Brooks smiled. “You put me out because you liked it too much. Now, we’re out for coffee because you’re ashamed.” Tom stared at the ruins of her peach cobbler. “Who’s M?” she said. Tom asked how a place like Bush Fire could exist.
“You’re cute.” Ms. Brooks said, she took her glasses off and her eyes were young, pretty. “There’s more of you than you think. Some of you are important, some have money. Not everybody wants to burn down buildings and play tag with the police.” Ms. Brooks watched him and her smile grew. “I like you. You can still blush.” She took his hand, her long fingers working his palm. Her skin was so warm. “I stay away from most of you. Firemen are dangerous sometimes. I date single dads, sometimes guys from the school board. Safe, simple guys who aren’t into anything more exciting than barbeque. Done it all my adult life. We have a good time, watch movies, go for long walks, even have decent sex from time to time.” Tom tried to pull his hand away but Ms. Brooks held tightly. “The truth is they aren’t my thing. No matter how hard I try to make them my thing, they aren’t. Somebody famous said there are people out there who need to put a saddle on somebody and ride and they won’t happy until they find somebody who needs to be ridden.” She let go of his hand and put her glasses back on; those pretty eyes vanished behind the librarian.
He drove home with the radio off. At home he opened a can of tuna and watched Smokey eat, the kitchen light buzzing. Tom called Mary at eight that morning. He told her everything.
“You set her on fire. You set a third grade teacher on fire?” Mary said calmly, ocean sounds leaking in the background. Tom said yes. He was sorry.
“You didn’t just screw her, you set her on fire.”
Tom said he never screwed anybody but yes, he’d set a third grade teacher on fire in front of a group of sweaty arsonists.
“Yeah? Well, Mark isn’t gay.” She hung up. Tom tried calling her again after work and again the next day but she wouldn’t pick up. He was reprimanded at work for not shaving.
Smokey gained weight. Tom brought home tuna every night, the apartment smelled like rancid fish, cans piled up. Tom’s next letter from Mary included only a rent check and a photo of a skinny guy wearing a name tag that read: Mark. Tom called Mary every night for three weeks. He stopped calling when her next letter was a copy of Mary’s work agreement. She’d signed up for another month.
“Move out.” Garry told him over hot wings and a beer. “Take the cat and go. You said you met the other chick at a bar? Why not give her a call?” Garry’s hands were thick with hot sauce. “Last time we did this I rubbed my eyes? You remember that? Son of a bitch that hurt.”
Tom told Garry things weren’t that easy. The whole mess was complicated.
“Everything’s easy.” Garry said. “You either do it or you don’t. That simple.”
Tom called in sick the next day. He sat, staring at his telephone until three thirty, Ms. Brooks’ number in his hand.
A few days later Tom got the postcard. A massive white building dominated the card. Blazing across the top of the card in 1950s science fiction font was: Ready for a Hot Time? Annual Firefighters Convention! Quick Silver Casino and Convention Center, Las Vegas Nevada.
Tom didn’t book his flight right away. Two more postcards pushed him to the airport. One had a Dalmatian wearing a firefighter’s hat and cowboy boots and the other had a picture of the Five Alarms Topless Revue girls clustered around a grinning man with a LVFD t-shirt. He bought a case of tuna, dropped Smokey off at Garry’s and paid the rent two months in advance on his only credit card. His ticket was one way.
Tom had never been to Las Vegas. Garry had talked about going for several years but had never gotten around to it. Tom spent the last of his money booking a cheap room at the Quicksilver. He haunted the casino for the better part of the afternoon but didn’t find what he was looking for.
How do you empty out a Las Vegas conference center? How do you start a fire in a place that has security cameras every three feet? Tom sat in front of a slot machine, a complementary bottle of water in one hand, postcards in the other. Why the hell did he come here in the first place? There was no itch behind his bellybutton, no quiver of muscle as he thought about the place burning down. Was he even here for the fire?
The casino smelled like cigarettes and Bengay. Tom drank his water slowly, savoring its freeness. Nobody bothered him at the slot machine. People moved around him, most of them in a hurry. Those at the machines looked tired, disappointed. He saw a woman win three hundred bucks only to put it back into the slot she took it from. Tom thought about Frank’s and he suddenly had something in common with the woman throwing her money away.
Firefighters were everywhere, they were all big guys, broad chests, mustaches. They seemed like the only people really having any fun in the Quicksilver. They even seemed to laugh when they lost.
A one way ticket was a bad idea, Tom thought. This wasn’t some end all or be all. He looked at his empty water bottle.
“I got you a shirt.” Mary said. She stood there like a sun-tanned mirage. One hand forward and a LVFD t-shirt dangled from her fist. The other hand was attached to a guy Tom recognized from the photo Mary sent. Mark looked uncomfortable, his free hand played with the collar of his polo.
Tom took the t-shirt and stared, looking from Mary to Mark and back again.
“What did you expect?” she said, “You set a third grade teacher on fire.”
“He did?” Mark said.
Tom nodded and looked at the casino’s carpet.
“How’s Smokey?” Mary said, her voice bright through her smile.
Tom told her Smokey was with Garry and the rent was paid in advance for two months. He told her he wasn’t interested in burning anything down.
“Good.” Mary said, dropping Mark’s hand. “I lied. Not at first, but afterward. Mark really is gay.”
“It’s true.” Mark said.
“Do you feel bad?” Mary said, Tom missed her freckles.
“I wish you had just screwed her, you know,” Mary said. “It would have meant less.”Tom smoothed the LVFD t-shirt over his knees. Mary was wearing sandals, the left one sporting a clip-on rubber shark with googly eyes.
Tom took a deep breath, “Why do firemen like you? You said it, when we first met, that first night. You said it wasn’t just your hair.” Tom’s voice felt thin, unused, like a sheet of onion skin paper.
“Because I’m on fire,” Mary said, taking his hand and placing it over her heart. Tom felt her skin, the heat of her, the pressure of her steady heart.
“What am I?” Tom said, Mary pulling him closer, the ocean and sunshine smell of her skin all around him.
“You’re a fireman, Tom.”
“Which type?” He said, his eyes closed.
“Mine.” Mary said.
They didn’t go home right away. Mary had a little money and they spent it on floor shows and buffets. He wore his LVFD t-shirt and Mary wore a yellow halter top embroidered with a rather realistic nurse shark. They rented a big car and Mary took him out to the desert. Off an access road and butting up against a withered-looking hill, there was a little drive-up motel. The sign read: Lucky Boy Motel. In the shade not far from the boarded up lobby door, there was a bright red gas can with a green bow tied around the handle.
Cody T Luff grew up listening to old men swap lies in his grandfather’s barbershop. He learned how to spit polish a pair of boots and a decent story at an early age. His work has been published with the Pitkin Review, Inkspeak, Splashlife.com, Clockhousewest.com and he has edited a collection of new voice short fiction titled Souls Road.