I was waiting in the student union for my cap and gown, about a dozen people ahead of me, when I got the call about the job.
It was Gary Pizor, editor of the New Vernon Morning Call.
"Only thing is we'd need you Saturday," he said, talking around a mouthful of what sounded like sandwich.
"Two days from today?" I asked him.
"Yeah, Saturday. The senator's coming into town to take a good long look at our huge boils of post-industrial blight."
I rubbed my jaw and smiled. I said, "Yeah, I think I could cover that."
"If only," Pizor said and cleared his throat. "We've got bigger and better plans for you. Vernon High graduation's the same day. Low man on the totem pole and all that. You'll get 'em next time."
The line stuttered forward. It was shrinking and I stepped to the side to let the four people behind me move with it.
At least it was a job, I thought. I'd been expecting these kinds of tepid offers from the Wall Street Journal and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But Pizor was the only one who'd called.
I wanted to write but this gig barely paid enough to feed me.
You willing to sleep in your car? I asked myself.
I'd done it a dozen times before. It always seemed easy when I was drunk.
"You there, Chris?" Pizor asked. Dave Jones, a kid from my advanced fiction workshop was walking past, his crimson gown over his arm and his chin pointed up like the one-use garment was some kind of fine suit. He got a job at the city magazine we both had gone out for. I didn't understand it. He vomited adjectives all over anything he wrote.
"What do you think?" Pizor asked again.
I stayed for the robe, threw it on over my head, followed it with the mortar board and made the four-hour drive to New Vernon, that stupid tassel bouncing and buzzing around my eye.
Tonight we slumber like kings, I smiled to myself -- in an '85 Oldsmobile in New Vernon.
New Vernon was a small borough, but I parked that first night and most nights after outside of it, in one of the townships, outside the territory of the local police. I was afraid they might bug a guy for choking down a handle of whiskey and passing out for the night, or a month of nights, in his car.
It was summer, grass at its tallest, so I pulled the Olds between a forgotten field of weeds and its border of woods, and sipped plastic-jug whiskey with my feet hanging out a back door till the white-noise lullaby of cicadas and crickets took me under.
The assignments of the day weren't taxing, which was fortunate. The sun through the passenger windows would be hot on my face by 6:30, waking me to a creased back, the slow crescendo of a hangover, and the imprint of Olds upholstery across my face like the scars of Frankenstein's monster.
I would show up in khakis, a collared shirt and tie, each piece more wrinkled than the last. My face rosy in areas from lingering whiskey and the vigorous rubbing of a man trying to erase the imprint of bench-seat stitching in a McDonalds bathroom mirror.
Pizor handed me assignments about kids raising money to reopen the town's rusted-out pool and long lost pets wandering home, and I worked my way up, if you want to call it that, to covering the borough's council.
That's where I was the night the first fire broke out. The mayor, Ed Taylor, was arguing with a resident.
"You can't even keep grass around here under four foot," said the homeowner who hadn't identified himself. He had five-day stubble, sunken eyes and a blue discount-store collared shirt untucking in the back as he stood, hunched and pointed to the horseshoe table at the front of the room. That's where Ed and the members of council sat. "Got a house next-door with grass chest-high. You already cut the fire department's hours. What are you going to do when that grass goes up and burns up my house? Let alone, it looks like crap. Aren't we paying somebody to write these people up? Better yet pay somebody to just cut the damn grass. It ain't hard."
With the muscles around his eyes, Ed squished his fat face in around his thick glasses -- thick lenses and thick red arms. He was shaking his head, rattling a skinny ponytail across the shoulders of his baby blue polyester jacket.
He pushed his gut against the table and answered: "Considering that you're standing, I don't assume you have any leg issues. They're not broken. Is that safe to say? Don't you mow your own lawn? You don't have five more minutes for just a little more grass? That fire hazard that's going to destroy your home and kill your family?"
Ed cleared his throat and settled his ass back into his wooden chair.
"Pretty sure Ed's not going to do it," the resident's neighbor muttered up to him. "He couldn't push a mower more than five minutes. That'd be his marathon."
"You want me to mow it? I'll mow it," Ed boomed, pointing to the neighbor, much angrier than I would have gotten over the fat joke. Ed was tense and coiled. He'd been rubbing the heel of his hand chronically against his cheekbone since the meeting began. "Everybody get in line for Fat Ed's Lawn Service."
"In the event that you're not joking, Ed, I need you to know that you can't do that," said the solicitor, Douglas Reed, a few chairs down from Ed, trying to whisper. "That's bank-owned property. You can't step foot on that land and neither can anyone else in this room. It's trespassing."
"I can't mow someone's lawn?" Ed said. "Like hell I can't."
Ed would go on to say something I'm sure would contradict his general beliefs about personal property, but I didn't catch it. My phone began buzzing in my pocket and I pulled it out. It was a text from Pizor.
"Huge fire. Columbia and Washington. Drop anything and get there."
The Morning Call was a small operation. That means no photographers, so Pizor, anytime we left the office, sent us with a camera. I held mine against my chest to keep it from rattling or dragging the lens across a shirt button, as I snuck out the back of the room. I stepped out and onto the sidewalk and looked back over the two-story borough building, where I knew the fire should be. There was a pink flickering glow behind the rooftop and the ones behind it, the smoke a gray fuzz that disappeared into the black sky.
I held the camera by the barrel of its lens and ran through the alleys. I could smell the air beginning to change.
When I got to Columbia, I found a half-dozen New Vernon guys working relays between the two trucks at the curb and the house, stretching out hose and throwing up ropes of white water into the second floor, where the fire's orange tongue was widening a window.
I shot from the yard, sidestepping over hoses and working an arc out around the scene, but the heat pushed me into the street. The fire punched through the roof, and the eaves cracked and creaked, as if the fire was working to splinter them over its knee.
Over the next hour, I watched the house shrink and reduce to a blackened, hunched-over shell.
"We're going to find accelerant in there, I can guarantee you that," Chief Brooks said. He was yelling toward my ear over truck engines and the other din of the scene as I scribbled. I looked up at him. The sweat on his face was as round as marbles.
"What?" I yelled back.
"This is arson. I promise you."
"Any idea why?"
"I'm not that good. Looks abandoned. Could be kids."
With half an hour until deadline, I ran back to the office. I'd never taken this stretch of streets before, by foot at least. Washington to Penn to Elm. There were stretches of houses, three or four in a row, same side of the street, that were empty.
Not just dark because their occupants were out at the bar or in bed. They were empty. Hollow. Surrendered. The porch roofs of some had caved in; some their side doors were broken, open, hanging loose on their hinges; but all of them had at least one window with a moon-shaped hole.
How do the kids know? I wondered. It has to be kids. Maybe they're just brave enough to heave a rock through a window that could have someone behind it.
A few of the houses were marked. On their front doors was the letter A marked off in hunks of orange tape. The ends of each leg were ragged, hand-torn from their roll. It wasn't quite a scarlet letter, but in its legs someone had scribbled a warning: Abandoned. No firefighter entry.
Each A on each door was nearly uniform. Same slanted handwriting, same formation of the A. But this wasn't official. This wasn't signed by the fire or police chiefs. This was something outside of that, a person, maybe a self-appointed committee that's inspecting the houses, making their determination, leaving their mark.
This was a story, I thought.
And so, after I'd turned in my photos, banged out their cutlines and a brief out of what the chief had told me, I asked Pizor.
"Sure, I've noticed them," he said. "The orange stands out."
But he didn't know where they came from.
"Never thought of it," he said.
The next morning I called the borough building.
"I'm glad for what they're doing," said John Kimes, the borough manager and a volunteer firefighter himself. "Those old houses go up fast and my wife doesn't need me stuck in one if I don't need to be. But, yeah, we're investigating them. The police is. As grateful as I am personally for it, like the mowing issue, that is trespassing."
I called the housing office for good measure, and with no leads, started hitting up civic clubs, fraternal groups and the like. Your Kiwanians and Rotarians. I began to picture a handful of Lions with their silver pates and yellow vests gingerly squeezing through half-open windows with clipboards, checking the requisite boxes before ceremonially pulling a forearm's length of tape from the roll -- that sucking sound the fibers makes as they get loose -- and making their fire-orange letter.
But the Lions didn't know, nor did the Rotarians or Kiwanians or Jaycees or Boy Scouts or Citizen Rangers.
There was a handful of these houses between the paper and the Mexican place where I got lunch most days, and every week or so I'd find a new A there. Like mushrooms, they sprouted sporadically and without pattern in the dark parts of the town.
Most of my stories were shallow pieces about small successes, but this was a mystery. A weird obsession of just a few. And if I could get the interviews, it was the kind of story that would warrant callbacks from the Wall Street Journal, or least the Post-Gazette. It seemed like a ticket to a job that paid rent, that would get me out of my car, and in the meantime, it could provide its own shelter. If I was going to get this story, I was going to have take some unorthodox means. I was going to have to imbed myself, move in.
So on a Tuesday night after work, my hand squeezing the muscles of my back -- my spine was slowly curving from passing out each night in my car -- I began shopping for a house.
It was all counter-intuitive. I wasn't looking for manicured lawns and new construction. I was looking for shattered windows, dusty panes, peeling siding. I was looking for fire-orange A's. I was looking for clusters of them and where they stopped. I was looking for where my secret committee would convene next.
The stretches of property were eerie. They had a different feeling. The houses with curtains and cars and bikes outside were warm. Even after their lights were out, that warmth lingered.
With their people gone, these places were cold. There were puddles of it outside them that seemed to move in breezes at times, out the broken windows and cracks and seams of the houses. It hung on me and collected on me like fine dust as I moved from house to house. To the touch, my skin had the cold of evaporation.
After the first few I was able to pick out a vacant structure based on temperature alone.
I circled around one duplex with a kind of brick veneer that was now sagging off the walls like old wallpaper.
There was a padlock on the side door -- not really a door but a slab of unfinished plywood with a hasp and the lock hanging from it -- but a nearby window was open enough to slip my fingers underneath. Standing on my toes, I pried the opening larger with my thumbs; still it was just out of reach to climb through. In the yards nearby there were patches of litter, chip bags, beer bottles and empty cartons of cigarettes. I found a milk crate and climbed into my new home.
It was a huge house that seemed to have been running down for the last 100 years. I rolled down from the window into what would have been a dining room. I took a tour, looking for signs of other squatters or nesting predators, structural damage or a sense of what kind of broken dream had driven the last family from this house, or at least this half of the duplex.
The floors were wooden and rough. The walls were stained with sprawling amoebas big enough to see in the dark, and in one room, I assume before the last exodus, it seemed someone had taken a sledgehammer to the sheetrock. I shone the light of my cellphone into the cavity -- maybe they had tried to stash something -- but there was just drywall rubble and wood splinters.
There weren't family photos, a television or a design scheme. It was really nothing more than ordered, aged lumber, chipped trim and carpet remnants. And even at that, every surface was cracking and crumbling, trending toward disorder. The whole house belonged in a landfill. It fit better among all of our other discarded and decaying former things.
There was one piece of furniture, a sectional that must have originally come through the window and have been too big to fit back through the door.
It had been a long day, so I pulled off my tie, laid it over the back of the couch and laid down. The couch faced a cracked picture window that was lighted by a fat moon. I folded my hands behind my head and began to think about sleep and began to wonder if this could feel like home.
Until something began to soak through my pants and into my thigh.
I jumped from the couch and rubbed the spot. It was surely piss from a cat or a possum. Something that's probably now dead inside the walls, I thought.
The water had likely been shut off for years at this point, but just in case it hadn't, I began walking toward the kitchen to at least dilute the blob of urine.
I stumbled where dry rot was crumbling a floor board into the basement and my phone went off.
"Another house fire," Pizor had written. "Plum and Maple."
I typed out a few words, "Screw off," But deleted them.
It was 11:30. Well after deadline. Papers were already hitting porches. The story would have to wait till the next edition. But I wasn't sleeping and it wasn't that far away. About four blocks over and about five blocks up.
It was close, but I had to run to the office first.
Knowing I couldn't park outside where I'd be squatting, I'd left my car at the paper. I ran there, got a camera and ran to the scene.
"Surprised you're out so late," said Chief Brooks, smiling as a home disintegrated into an orange blur behind him. The blaze wasn't important enough -- it wasn't a working factory and there weren't any injuries -- for other news crews to make an appearance, and so, like the last one, I was the only reporter there. "It's going to pay off for you."
"How's that?" I asked.
"I'm damn sure this is another arson," he answered, lifting his heavy padded helmet and dragging a band of wrist, exposed between his sleeve and glove, across his forehead. "Serial arson by my count. You're going to make a name with what comes next."
It was probably because I was tired. Either that or I felt like I was traveling in a mist coming off the unidentified piss on my leg. But I wanted to ask him how exactly he could know I'd be making a name on this or anything else, where he'd gotten his degree in journalism studies or if he'd just been keeping close tabs on general newsroom employment trends. Instead I simply asked, "Why do you say that?" with maybe a grimace on my face.
"Guy before you's in Miami. He covered our Silver Street Skinner for just a few months before landing bigger fish. And he wasn't the most obvious candidate. Always looked slow to me. Showed up to more than one scene with his zipper down. Have a feeling his subject had something to do with his success."
Brooks was a weird guy. Part of me wondered if he was our serial arsonist himself. He smiled when he laid out the term, that is if he hadn't coined "serial arsonist" himself, and the Venn diagram of firefighters and arsonists has a fairly large intersection.
The house was vacant and its fire was accelerated with gasoline, just like the first, he explained. Still no guess on a motive, but the same general fingerprint.
With that I had everything I needed, but when I tried to get out of there, he asked me if I wanted to get a beer.
"Well," I said trying to get out of it.
"You can't be worried about the story. You've got about 20 hours of deadline to work with."
"I'd like to," I lied and began to turn. "Gotta get this all down before I forget it, though."
"Next time," he said.
That second arson was on a Wednesday night, and like Brooks had said, because of its timing, my story didn't come out until Friday. With that big of a window, it was fortunate the TV news didn't catch wind. When my paper did hit the stands, my front page byline about Brooks and his declaration of serial arson landed me calls and emails. My inbox was always packed with obits and police reports from far-flung townships but never actually a person and never actually someone interested in something I'd written.
"I told you people read this stuff," Pizor said over my shoulder, smacking a copy of the edition. He was talking about small-town newspapers and not necessarily Brooks and his declaration as I would come to find out.
Pizor was in his late 40s; glasses and a mustache. He wore brown pants most days, a white shirt and brown tie. He had an office but didn't believe in it. He orbited the newsroom, his second desk there his comfortable sun. He spent most hours there, his phone to his face, his stomach rising like dough and softening.
I'd taken the job because I had a kind of passion for this. Maybe not community journalism but writing. When I read Hunter S. Thompson or Steinbeck, I could feel fire in me, embers that stayed hot and burned until I got some of my own words down. In my experience there was slow power in it, to change people, to nudge them, make them feel something and change their physical chemistry no different that any narcotic.
Pizor didn't feel it.
"So where do we go from here?" I asked him.
"Did you get all those meeting notices typed up?" he asked. It was late, after deadline, and he'd sent our four other, more tenured reporters home. The sports guys were shuffling papers and rolling chairs around in a room down the hall before leaving for the night. Pizor had retreated to his second desk and flung his feet up on it. "Rotary, Lions and Rebekahs?" he asked and I nodded. "What about that Little League fundraiser, the one where the kids play six innings as Ninja Turtles?" I nodded. He sighed. "Might as well head home then."
"I mean, we've got a serial arsonist out there. I guess I'm still relatively new and a bit confused, but compared to that, does any of this other stuff matter?" With his finger he pushed the corner of his mouth into his cheek like he was preparing his rebuttal. "People read this stuff. I just need to know where we go next with it. And shouldn't we get them as much info as we can dig up on this? I mean, how many houses is this guy going to burn? The people living next to these places, are their homes in danger? Is the fire department putting more guys on shifts? How often does this happen? Are the state police going to come in on this?"
I was leaning over and Pizor sat up. He said, "Like murders, two fires does not make a serial. Call me when we get three."
Perhaps he thought he had just imparted some wisdom or didn't feel like he needed to say more. He stood and began to head back to the break room -- a fridge, a fading fluorescent light, carpeted walls and a coffee pot.
"There's got to be someone I can call," I said after him. "There's gotta be someone I can talk to. This is the biggest story we've had since I've been here. People deserve to know. It's public safety."
He walked with his back toward me, then turned, looked at me and said, "I'm not going to create a panic. That's not something this paper is going to do. I wasn't comfortable printing 'serial' and 'arson' side by side. But your night editor let it through. You're putting a lot of trust in Brooks, something that I don't know that I'd do. If you want another story on this, you're going to have to do the legwork, and you're going to have to do the other stuff first. The briefs, the obits, the warm, fuzzy, fluffy features. That stuff you think doesn't matter. That stuff that sells us papers."
"What about the Silver Street Skinner?" I said before he could turn again.
"I didn't come up with that epithet. It's silly. It's offensive. That's why that joker's working somewhere else now. I told myself if we ever had a story like that again, we'd do it properly and with respect."
We went our separate ways: he to the breakroom and me out the door.
I was watching my feet as I left the newsroom, shaking my head as I, inside my head, continued to argue with Pizor.
"Just go get it. It's your goddamn story," said Jim one of the older sports writers from the sportsroom. He had a backpack on a chair and was jamming old notebooks into it. "You gotta get it before the TV people get to it. They're animals. They'll smell blood and just tear and slobber all over it. Pervert whatever the truth is into melodrama. You can at least get some real, honest reporting out of it while it's still possible."
"Yeah," I said and shrugged. I didn't know what else to say. He was spot on and generally intimidating. He was wearing a green rugby shirt adorned with the shamrocks of his heritage. Straining its sleeves were biceps ending in forearms like stumps. They were shaved but I wasn't willing to risk my health to mention it. The rumor had been that he ended up here after being a jail guard that had routinely been too rough with inmates. "Yeah. You're right. That's my plan at least."
"Well stop planning and just do it. They may pay you dick, but I need this job. I can't afford them shutting this place down because you're willing to listen to Pizor. Go sell us some newspapers."
The gas station where all the cops hung out was on my way home. It would have been more work to circle around it, so I stopped.
I found the department's sergeant and a patrolmen out front, each leaning on their cruisers at a different angle. But they didn't believe in scoops or off-the-record.
"Fire department doesn't know anything either," said Sergeant Wareham, his back and an elbow pressed against the hood. "Just give us a few days. This isn't CSI: New Vernon."
At home, I drank. Out of impatience. Out of impotence. Out of frustration.
I didn't know what I was doing. I knew how to call people, how to bump into them. That's how I wrote stories. That wasn't going to get this story.
That was too passive. But what else could you do?
For this story, I decided, I was going to have to hunt it.
There was romance in it, I guess. Giving Pizor the finger. Stalking just outside the reach of the streetlights, around the abandoned houses of this town. Pushing through broken doors, slipping through open windows. And I could do it. I had done it. And I had already started by moving into the house I did.
I'd find him. Whoever he was. Probably squatting, like this, on some piss-stained couch. Maybe holed up in an attic or a basement.
It wouldn't be hard.
And so, with warm whiskey having filled and still stretching my stomach, I waded through my plastic whiskey jug moat and wandered out into my backyard. The property around it, for blocks and blocks, was unimpeded by fences. Each piece just sprawled and melted into one another, only houses every 20 yards or so as any kind of discernible demarcation amongst the weeds, as though this stretch of streets was devolving into a new frontier.
I ambled past my borders, stumbled over rotting garden hoses, orphaned yard toys and months-old goldenrods, hovering close to tree-cover and out of the spotlight of the moon.
Occasionally I'd find a light in a bedroom, an upstairs bathroom, a living room. Some signs that there were still people here.
But what was I looking for? Some otherwise forgotten dining room filled with boxes brimming with matches, newspapers and other kindling? Gas cans of course. Maybe a confession scrawled in charcoal across a pale wall.
I'd have to figure that out, I told myself. That's what I was doing. Figuring out what I needed to figure out.
Three or four times I saw Sergeant Wareham roll past in the cruiser. Drunk and wobbling, I stumbled to the nearest shadow, pressed my back to a tree and slid to the ground, out of sight, I hoped.
At least they're trying, I thought. Maybe one of us will catch him.
When I saw Wareham again 10 minutes later, I slumped and landed knee-first in an oblong puddle of mud at the edge of a garage. They were my favorite khakis. Perfect amount of fray around the cuff. Minimal ink stains. Not one of the pockets torn. But soon there would be a phantom brown amoeba from my shin to my thigh to forever remind me of this night.
And this night was beginning to be very special. I didn't notice it at first, but soon, the special of the night started creeping up my throat, then out my mouth. A spray of whiskey frothed up with bile that was warm and stung in my nose. I covered my mouth at first, in the habit of trying to keep my vomit off other people's carpet. But, realizing I was just on grass, I pulled my hands away and let my stomach empty itself and ring itself out into the damned mud puddle. My sick floated as a foam on the water. I imagined it looked like pink sherbet on punch, but it looked as gray as everything else in the night.
I wiped my hands on my already-ruined pants, put my thumb on one nostril to blow clear the other of sick and started for home.
For obvious reasons, I hadn't heard it while I was vomiting, but there was a banging not far off. In the next house, maybe the house beside it. I held my breath and listened for it, but my whiskey-thinned blood was exploding in the veins deep in my ears.
I breathed and the banging in the house began again, sounding like someone falling down steps. I stepped toward it. There was more shuffling, a struggle with the door, then someone slammed through, leading with their shoulder. He slid out into the dark, onto a wooden deck, which was above me now. He wore a black T-shirt and a thin pontyail, which I didn't recognize at first. But when he began to scan for anyone who might have seen him, the tail began to swing and then I knew him.
"Ed," I yelled, half whispered up at him. "You're one of them."
He must have a roll of orange tape and a Sharpee in his pocket, I began to think. In that moment it made more sense that the mayor would be making fire-orange A's than arsons.
He looked around again, looked down to me and said. "Don't think so. You smell like puke."
"You gotta tell me, does this one get an orange A? How do you decide?"
He shuffled down the steps and away from me, then between the house and the one next to it, trying, as I soon learned, to disappear.
I followed him. He'd take me to his group, I figured. They'd confide in me their covert and unique processes and standards. I would write a story that had never existed before and never would again. Not here, not in Pittsburgh, not in New York.
This story was cracking open. I didn't think it actually would, but it was unfolding right in this backyard.
"Ed," I whisper-yelled, but with it being clear that he was trying to lose me, I kept just a little bit of distance to tail him. That is until my body began recoiling again, ringing out more sick.
"Ed," I said louder this time, hunched over, between convulsions. "I need a ride. I'm not doing good."
After a few moments I was able to stand again, but he was gone. I walked into the deep shadows between the houses and said his name a couple more times. I walked out front to the sidewalk but didn't find him.
I walked back to where I'd first seen him, in case he'd doubled back, but this time I found smoke leaking out the ground floor windows. The mist thickened to ropes and then clouds. The windows brightened and the siding bubbled and I ran.
I ran because, in the moment, it seemed obvious to run from any fire. But also, I was drunk. There was no way I could explain myself, that I was merely trespassing and not responsible arson. I also wasn't prepared to implicate the mayor in this and a whole string of other massive felonies.
With those things in mind, I didn't hurry off to a safe place to call 911. I'm not sure where I hurried off to. Maybe I was afraid my house was next on Ed's list, because I woke up behind the wheel of my Oldsmobile, parked behind the paper, and woke up at noon, only because Jim knocked on the window.
"You got that goddamn story yet?" he said through the glass. I was unwashed and unshaven, but his face was darkened with more stubble than mine. He looked pissed. He always did.
I rolled the window down and rubbed my face.
"Got some leads," I muttered.
"What do you mean, you've got some leads? The TV people are all over this shit."
"Oh, man," I said, trying to sound as concerned as Jim obviously needed me to be. He was leaning toward my window, tore off his backpack and dropped it to the pavement from about hip height. Not to get something out of it. It became clear he had a lot say.
"That's right. You don't know what that means yet. These goddamn TV people, they're going to trot in from their minor-metropolitan areas and blast the shit out of this story, like they're the only saviors willing to stomp out this townwide arson epidemic. Channel 5 is already crowing about 'Day 1 coverage from New Vernon: Town on Fire.' They will squeeze this thing 'til blood comes out. They don't have to give a shit about the lame daily triumphs of the people who actually live here. That boring crap that you're forced to devote your life to. They will root out and blast any misery they find until this thing climaxes, until they get bored, or until another town catches fire."
"But they just got here. They don't even know who to talk to. I've got a head start."
"You had a head start. People flock to TV cameras like moth to flame. Your buddy Brooks is likely unlocking his diary for them as we speak. And anyone in this town that's seen a match in the last three months is hunting down the closest news van. They aren't reporters like you. They don't have to beat the pavement and outsmart the people they're questioning. People bring them stories. So what do you got?"
"What do you mean?"
"You said you've got leads. I need to hear them right now"
The sun was directly behind Jim's head, I was squinting and slowly pivoting hoping to create an eclipse.
"Well," I said, pretty sure I couldn't tell him the mayor was the arsonist.
"Well, do you want me to pull you out of that window?"
"I think I know who did it."
"No you don't," he said and crossed his arms. "You didn't just go from screw-up to Bob Woodward in a matter of seconds."
"I've been out doing some legwork."
"Then goddamn go finish that legwork."
Jim didn't move until I put the car in gear, leaning with his arm on it as it slowly rolled, some other practiced portion of his shtick, I'm sure. I didn't know where I was going, but for my safety I knew I had to go somewhere.
Except I had a question.
"Shouldn't I be going to the police?"
"Goddamnit, no," he said picking up his backpack. "You talk to him now, whoever your arsonist is. When they slap the cuffs on, he's going to shut the hell up."
"Wouldn't I have some liability in whatever fires he sets between now and whatever time I turn him in?"
"So you know for sure that he did it? You've done all the requisite forensic work to send this guy off to a life-ending jail sentence?" I stared at him blankly. "Didn't think so."
I had probably eight hours to get a story out on the fire from the night before. It felt like plenty of time. So instead of tracking down Brooks, I drove to the borough building, unaware that in a municipality that small, the mayor doesn't have an office at town hall, or anywhere. If I hadn't already flushed him out of town, I'd have to run into him at his favorite six-pack shop, his job, his home, wherever he stores his empty gas cans.
"And where would that be?" I asked the borough secretary.
She didn't know of any job, but she gave me his home address and I began rolling around his block. His house and the ones around it weren't any different than mine. They had the same earmarks: fat fallen tree limbs on porch roofs, paint peeling off mildewed siding, dangling gutters and wandering garbage. Maybe that's why he did it, frustration with his own little universe.
It was a sleepy afternoon, though. All was quiet around his house. With no answer at the door, I moved my circles out to the liquor stores, beer distributors and bars. I honestly didn't know for sure if he drank, but it felt like a safe bet. I went inside Wal-Mart, took a lap around, then McDonalds, before passing the Channel 5 van and flipping it the bird.
My desperation grew with each lap and peaked as the sun began to fall.
He's gone, I said to myself. Now not even the police can get to him. He's gone and took my story with him.
I parked on the street behind his house and watched the sun disappear behind it. It took me longer than it should have, but eventually I realized the closest thing to talking to him would be going through his stuff.
I felt experienced at this by now. I moved my car a few streets over, crept through the yards between and snuck up behind the house. There wasn't a working vehicle on the property, but there was a '70s Monte Carlo in the yard without its wheels and a maple tree pushing up from under the half-open hood. There were individual shoes, disintegrating cardboard panels of Carling Black Label cases and their empties freckling the yard.
The house -- two stories with asphalt shingle siding, each scale of it crumbling at its edges -- was quiet. No lights, no noise. The gray wood porch creaked and groaned as I stepped onto it. I looked around the spiderweb cracks in the window of the back porch, and seeing nothing, eased, surprisingly, through the door and into the kitchen. The table there was stacked with empty imitation Cap'n Crunch boxes, and the nearby sink was filled with their bowls, but the living room was empty. There wasn't furniture or a TV, just stains and torn carpet. I started to worry. Each detail just seemed to prove further that he was gone.
I stepped faster, hurried up the stairs, looking for any signs of life. There weren't family photos or artwork of any kind, but there was something in his bedroom. A mattress on the floor, dirty laundry littered around it, and a short-barreled revolver on a dinged up nightstand.
"Well, he'll be back for that," I said to myself.
As I backed away from the gun, my phone vibrated. I squeezed it to keep it from rattling in my pocket -- in case he, the police or someone else might hear -- and I snuck out the way I came. By the time I was off the property and had a chance to look at my phone, the call was gone but a text had replaced it.
"Fire at Columbia and Main," Pizor had written. "Email me the story on last night's fire NOW and GET TO THAT NEW ONE! I can give you 45 minutes."
Immediately I felt the flutter of panic in the veins in my throat and in my chest. I was supposed to have more time. It didn't seem possible there could be another one.
I looked for smoke and listened for sirens, but nothing.
Main Street wasn't far off, so I started walking, and a few steps in began to hear the squeals and whines of the trucks coming from three or four directions. I started to run and soon saw the smoke.
I could feel more panic ooze into my throat. It was rising in my veins to my head.
When I got to the scene, fire was shooting through the top of a huge Victorian house. Windows were crinkling and popping, and out of them, long arms of flame were groping at the houses to its right and to its left.
Crews had shut down Main Street. Long red and blue and yellow trucks crowded in around the scene and lined up and down Main and Columbia. Two groups of men were firing into the second story with hoses, one on each side, and the Hempfield ladder truck was shooting down into the inferno.
Brooks had stepped out into the street, away from the cacophony of the fire to yell into a radio.
"This is an all-call," he said. "I need everybody."
He held the radio at his side for a moment, looked into the fire, waiting for a voice to emerge from the static.
"Brooks," I yelled and waved a big arc over my head.
"Expected to hear from you hours ago," he yelled. "But to answer your question, it wouldn't burn like this unless it was another one."
"What about the one last night?" I yelled.
The big Victorian was already too close to the house to its right, and an addition put it snugly next to the one on its left. The vinyl siding on the neighboring structures bubbled as the fire batted at them. Then new fire began to climb them too.
Firefighters dragged new hoses to each house and blasted at the new patches of flame. They'd tamp them out for a moment or two, but the Victorian just seemed to grow. It grew hotter and gave off its fire to a tree above.
The burning patches on the neighboring homes ate into the wood beneath their siding, climbed to the roof, and soon sunk deep into the interior of each. Now three houses were fully involved.
"Get everybody out," Brooks began yelling, and waving. "Evacuate this whole damn block." He was storming toward the fire and didn't take a moment, didn't have a moment, to look back at me. "Make sure the gas on this whole quarter of town is shut down," he was yelling, his mouth pressed into the radio.
He disappeared behind the wall of trucks, and then it seemed everyone was yelling.
"Got a man down in there," I heard repeating and echoing again and again on each truck radio. "Man down. Where's the RIT team?"
New troops converged on the house on the right as the fires grew.
I didn't know what to do. At least one firefighter hurt, maybe worse, the fires growing, and all I could think about was the 20 minutes I had to write two stories. 20 minutes, then 19 then suddenly 10.
I stepped back to the far curb, sat down, pulled out my phone and began to type.
"The second fire in as many nights destroyed at least three New Vernon homes Wednesday. It appeared one firefighter was hurt battling the blaze, but as of press time, crews were still working to put out the fire and the Morning Call could not confirm the firefighter's injuries or his identity."
I sighed and put down the phone.
"It appeared?" I asked myself. "It appeared? Well, what do you actually have? What do you actually know is true?"
Nothing I could report. This was all I had.
I stared into the fire for a minute or two, the wobbling, throbbing mass of orange, hoping Brooks would emerge bearing answers. Brooks, any firefighter or police.
No one came. They and their fire felt a hundred miles away.
I hit send, shook my head and stared at my hands.
My phone buzzed.
"Only got fragment of second story," Pizor wrote. "Send rest of second and first now!"
"That's all I have," I typed.
Pizor called. My phone rattled in my hands. I couldn't answer. He called and called and called. The rattling numbed my skin.
I opened the text I'd sent him. My two-sentence story. I'd never been so embarrassed of 50 words. I looked up the street and down it. Somehow there wasn't any TV crew or another reporter of any kind. But there were kids in nearby windows, their parents behind them, watching then shooing them off so they couldn't see.
Ed was burning this town down all around these people and they were dependent on me to tell them everything I could muster. And on this, the greatest string of disasters in their time, that's all I had. Fifty words. I'd never worried about it before, but I'd let them down.
I had told myself I was better than this job. Better than his place. Just waiting to be restocked to where I belong.
I dragged myself home. My eyes down, my arms dangling from my shoulders. The feeling was like a new density inside of me, like it was a new heavy metal infused into my bones and pulling through my stomach.
For the next few hours, I sat with my elbows on my knees on my piss-stained couch by the light of a few candles and thumbed away at my phone. The newest Morning Call was surely on the press, but I was writing, rewriting, moving around those 50 words with morbid curiosity, wondering if I actually had the pieces of a story but had just failed to put them together.
Every 10 minutes or so Pizor would call. I'd put the cell on the floor and let it rattle.
Sometime after midnight, I looked at my phone a last time, thumbed through about a dozen drafts and admitted a last time that all I had was a collection of poorly reported words and unintelligible fragments. I went to the kitchen, got a bottle of whiskey and returned to the couch.
I took a swig, held it in my mouth and let it burn the corners of my lips.
I dripped a puddle from the bottle onto the rough, ragged floor and watched it darken the wooden planks in the candle light.
I wondered how fast it would burn. Or if it would.
I tore a strip from one of the dozen newspapers scattered near the foot of the couch, a column worth of my own words, pushed it into a candle's flame and stabbed at the dark wet oval on the floor. It didn't burn. The red, leading lip of the fire climbed the paper strip and nipped into my finger and I dropped it.
And so I found a trash can I'd stolen from work, crinkled up what was left of the first paper, lit another strip and dropped it into the can. An orange glow filled and overflowed the can's rectangular mouth, but I wasn't satisfied. I kicked it over and let the burning scraps tumble to the floor. But all they did was fall dark, just little black husks like the littlest tumbleweeds.
I'd stacked papers two feet tall in the corner. I told myself I'd clip out my genius stories and send them out to those important papers but never did. Maybe never wrote any. I grabbed the top edition, held it in the candle's flame and tossed it, as it burned, its edges spreading like a bird stretching its wings, onto the couch.
In the past few weeks, I'd stood outside so many fires. Just seen them grow and consume and destroy anything they cared to. They were big, powerful, hungry animals.
I just needed to see if I could do it, if I could create something like that.
There was an old thrift store afghan on an arm of the couch and I dragged it slowly into the paper's flames. The fire slowly ate into the tangles of the blanket and grabbed into the yellow couch cushions below.
I stood back and looked at my sad, little fire for a moment. I heard something outside, an animal pushing through brush or something, then went to my stack of papers. I grabbed a handful more, crinkled them up one at a time and dropped them on top, before dragging the rest of the blanket in.
The noise outside was louder. Loud enough to be a person. I jogged to the back door and looked out into the darkness where the back porch had been torn out, but didn't see anything.
From behind me, though, at the front of the house, the front door exploded. I whipped my head around and across 20 yards and through two entryways, I could just make him out. It was Ed, a dark shape with a couch fire glare on his glasses where his eyes should have been.
I fumbled toward the sink. I didn't have any real weapons -- steak knives were the closest thing -- so I grabbed a dirty one, sure he was there to silence his only witness.
When I turned around, he had rushed to the couch and was stomping at the fire. He picked up whole, thick papers from the floor and layered them over the heart of the flames. The couch underneath was still smoldering though, so as he did it, he pointed to the remaining stack in the corner and yelled at me, "Throw the rest of those on here."
There were probably a couple dozen papers left, and I dropped them, a couple at time onto the fire. They blackened as the fire shrunk, but soon the fire died.
"What the hell are you doing?" Ed yelled at me, his head cocked.
"Me?" I coughed from the haze of smoke. "You just busted through my front door."
"Your front door? This isn't anybody's front door."
"I sleep here every night so it's somebody's. And why would you of all people care if I burned a couch, or a house for that matter? And what are you doing here anyway?" I said gripping the handle of the knife.
He bent at the waist and looked into the black crater that the fire had left in the couch The springs beneath shined in areas like an exposed skeleton.
"You don't know what you're doing. You almost hurt yourself. You could have gotten this whole thing shut down."
"I doubt it."
"You get caught. You rat on me. I go to jail."
"Wouldn't that be a good thing for this town? You wouldn't be able to burn down New Vernon from a jail cell. Why do you hate this place so much?"
Ed was looking for a place to sit and with the couch, my only furniture, destroyed, he leaned on the back of it.
"Hate it?" He shook his head and sighed. "Can I tell you something? And can you put that thing down?" I shrugged and tossed the knife to the floor. "This town has provided me everything I've ever needed. At one point it handed out mill jobs to everyone in my life. I'd lose one and it'd hand me another. And you couldn't have grown up in a better place. A pool and a park in the summers. An ice rink in the winter. Hell, I was Baby Jesus in the town play for three years running. For that short stretch, my folks actually had a reason to be proud of me.
"Parts of that town have died off and left pieces and carcasses around. Like the rink. Like this place." He looked up at the soot smear on the ceiling. "The heart of this town is still beating. Like the library, and some might say your newspaper. But these dead old, decaying houses, the old polluted tube plant, these leftovers are strangling that heart. People see them and turn the other way. People don't want to live next to this or even near it. These places are cancer. They're killing this town. The borough's got enough money to knock down one of these houses, maybe two every year. But every year, there's five or six more. We can't keep up."
Very rarely had I actually seen Ed. His thick glasses were like a shade, throwing off any light as a glare and hiding his eyes. He looked away from me though and the way the moonlight and few candles meandered through the glass, I could see his eyes. They were down.
I didn't know what to say to him. That I was sorry for him and his town? That his story made it OK to set fire to dozens and dozens of houses?
"Just give me a head start before you call the cops," he said. He slowly turned and stretched a knot from his back. "All I ask is 10 minutes. I'm too fat for this stuff."
"I didn't call them before, why would I now?"
"I'm a weird old, fat guy who broke into your house."
I couldn't stay in New Vernon. After that 50-word story and ignoring my boss, I was going to be fired; my living room was ruined; and although I wasn't willing to drop the dime on Ed, I had no guarantee that he wouldn't change his mind and push that short barrel revolver to the back of my head.
I left town that night, left the state and wandered deeper into the middle of the country, to sleep in fields and write for more little papers in more little towns like New Vernon, until maybe I could love a place like Ed did. Maybe in a less destructive way.
I reconstructed what I could of what he said to me and what I'd seen him do. I wrote it all out, called it "The Virtues of the Benign Arsonist," and read it every night. It was my story.
I addressed a fat manila envelope to some big news magazine, even bought the stamps, and stuck my story inside. I let it sit on the back bench seat of my Oldsmobile.
I knew chances were that at some point Ed would make a mistake and hurt someone. He'd burn a house where someone was squatting, or one of his fires would catch onto some family's home.
But my manila envelope never made the mail. Out of laziness and procrastination probably at first.
A few years later I ended up in Hamburg, Ohio as the editor of a paper the size of the Morning Call. I still covered the crime beat, all the big fires, and any big promotion the Little League put on. I moved into an actual apartment. It had a balcony that looked out onto a huge, old Victorian. I looked out onto moldings and embellishments that were surely beautiful once, but now were cracked and gray and hanging. Nearly every window was broken and the roof had failed, giving a glimpse into the gray, rotted wood floors of its guts. It was the ugliest thing I'd ever seen and I knew it would be there as long as City Hall.
And so, my third night at this new place, I went to my car, grabbed my manila envelope, and returned to the balcony with it, a trash can and a pack of matches.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Caleb Stright. All rights reserved.