Dave Engeldrum

I used to think Wesley started the fire. And he wasn’t even home. He was over at Jimmy Salvo’s house, and he almost never slept there, though he wanted to all the time because Jimmy’s sister was so hot. She had big, round tits and long, straight black hair like a horse’s tail. And she smelled like cinnamon.

I was home and Molly, my kid sister, and Mom and Dad, and Bob, our cat, who got fried so bad no one told us until a few weeks ago. People kept saying he must’ve gotten out first, that cats have a keen sense of danger and don’t really give a crap about humans, which is true of course, and why I always wanted a dog in the first place.

Wesley was over at Jimmy’s, like I said, and even got to stay there afterwards while we picked through Hefty bags of black shirts and photographs in the garage of an old house we had to rent. He had to be the point guard. He had to get ready for college exams. He was three years older and needed his own space. The Salvos had plenty of room for him.

It all happened about a year ago, on a Saturday night in early November. I woke up when the window shattered at the foot of my bed. It was so loud, the glass crunching and then the fire, hissing and crying like a busted-up snake, sticking its yellow tongue out here and there, around corners, under doors. I coughed a few times and thought I heard Wesley across the hall coming over to help, before I remembered he was at Jimmy’s.

Mom pushed open the door, with Dad and Molly behind her. We ran right past the fire, down the hallway, down the stairs, through the living room, and out the front door. The blue flowers on the wallpaper turned black, curled up and disappeared. Everything glowed orange, like the inside of a Halloween pumpkin—before some punk comes and smashes it all over the street. And it was hotter than hell. I was ready to be toasted like a marshmallow. I kept picturing some big fat fireman huffing and puffing his way into the house and trying to blow me out.

As we were getting out, Mom chanted, "Go, Go, Go," over and over, really serious, like a cheerleader at tryouts. Dad didn't say a word. He just waved his giant hand forward, either signaling us to go straight ahead or hoping to push back the black smoke. Molly blubbered like a three year old even though she was almost eight then. I squeezed her tiny hand so tight.

It all happened so quickly, but I remember leading the way. "Cover your mouths and stay low," I said, having picked up some wisdom from a cop show I watched on TV. Everyone must have taken my advice because we were in pretty good shape, considering. Except for Bob, of course.

When I got to the front door I turned the handle and gave a karate kick, knowing the door would be unlocked because not much happens in our neighborhood and because we’ve never had anything somebody might want to take. We burst out in a big cloud and kept running, diagonally across the street to Mrs. Fingleman’s.

Why I chose to lead us to Mrs. Fingleman’s house is a bit of a mystery. Going to the left or the right seemed silly—you could end up in a house that catches the fire from your house. You’d just have to start running again. I could’ve headed for the Miltons, right across the street, but Mrs. Milton is no looker—real skinny, no tits, big owl eyes that stare straight at you and tell you you’re no good, a bony ass. And her husband is a twerp who can’t even get his wife pregnant, at least that’s what Steve, a tenth-grader up the block who lifts weights, told me. They’d have been no help at all. Eighty-something Mrs. Fingleman is no looker either, but I imagine she was one in her day. That’s what creeps me out. She shakes her poofy white hair and flashes her teeth, all eight of them, and I can imagine her a lifetime ago, like Marilyn Monroe, a real hornball.

After Mrs. Fingleman let us in we ran over to a big picture window as Mom started making phone calls. I hadn’t noticed on the way over but it was snowing. Big flakes were floating down like feathers off a bird that’s been shot. I was still hot, standing there in my flannel pajamas, and the feathers were burning up before they reached the top of our house across the street. At first I got excited thinking that the snow would put out the blaze or at least slow it down until the fire brigade put away their cards and beer and dancing girls and got on over here. I swore I could hear the sizzle of the wet flakes bumping into the flames as they climbed out the windows. Then I started remembering all that To Build a Fire stuff. Rubbing frozen sticks together in Alaska. If you can light one up there, Upstate New York flakes aren’t going to do very much.

Mom called Wesley right after she’d dialed 911.

"Mrs. Salvo ... Hi … It’s Linda Moss,” Mom said. “Yes ... Hi … Please get Wesley. I know it's four o'clock in the morning, but our house is burning down. Thank you."

"Wesley, please come home. The house is burning down.”

"Yes, really, it is. Come home now, honey."


Wesley got to the phone too quickly, so he must have already been up. He must have been waiting for this call. At least that’s what I thought.

He came in the Salvos’ black Lincoln. The car screeched down the block, between neighbors who were glad I hadn’t run to them first and fire trucks that had just arrived. Wesley jumped out of the back seat with Jimmy and Jimmy’s sister, Sophia, who looked all snuggly. You could make out her tits among the puffy ridges of her light blue jacket, twin beach balls riding the ocean waves. Mr. and Mrs. Salvo joined them and the whole crew sprinted over. By that time we’d all gone back outside to greet the sirens and the men with important hats. A fire chief was asking us a few questions when they reached us on the sidewalk in front of the Miltons. After the sorries and the hugs the Salvos stepped back and Wesley stood at the edge of the little family bunch we’d made next to the chief. He did look pretty shocked. He stared at the house, both of his hands resting on top of his fat head, and said, "Holy Christ, Holy Christ," over and over.

I wondered if he was shocked to see that his plan had gone as far as it did.

A crack team of medics interrupted the chief and took us over to the ambulance for a check-up. Wesley, who didn’t know what to do with himself, followed, a few feet behind.

Like I said earlier, we were in pretty good shape, considering. Molly was scared, but fine, I had a few nicks on my arm from glass, Mom’s hand was scorched pretty bad from grabbing doorknobs, and we’d all swallowed a chunk of smoke. Dad, with his diabetes and bad back, was not the healthiest guy to begin with. They said we could go, but Dad had to stay so they could poke and prod him with every gadget in their black bags. He fought off going to the hospital to test his ticker until daybreak, and spent much of the time until then watching from his stretcher, looking like he always does, like he’s watching TV from the couch.

After I got my band-aids, I sat in the snow on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Fingleman’s house and watched the fireworks. Molly stood behind me, sniffling and wrapping my hair around her finger. Mom stood behind her, cradling Molly’s chest. Behind us, Mrs. Fingleman tiptoed up and down the steps of her porch, refilling trays of coffee and cookies that she delivered up and down the block, like the beer guy at a Jets game—she couldn’t fill the tray fast enough.

We should’ve all had lawn chairs. It was really quite a show. The fire was grabbing things, my things, our things, one by one, swallowing them whole, and spitting them back into the sky like roman candles. My lacrosse stick and Penthouse magazines, the Baby Wets Herself doll I gave Molly, the garage-sale guitar Wesley gave me for Christmas the year before, the dining room table (with my friend Cheryl Schwartz’s name carved underneath with a dinner knife), Dad’s disability check—all gobbled up and used for rocket fuel.

The firemen tried hard enough, scrambling up ladders and flying around in the little car they use to get kittens out of trees, but they were no match. The fire hose was icy and once it slipped out of their hands when they aimed it at the living room. They struggled to hold on, like zookeepers trying to hold on to the trunk of an elephant that has gone berserk.

Wesley, who’d disappeared (to go ditch some evidence, I thought at the time) snuck around the fire marshal’s spiffy white sedan and joined us.

“Mom,” Wesley said. “They tell me the smoke alarm never went off.”

“That’s right. I told the chief that before you got here. I woke up when I smelled plastic burning and then I roused the gang. The alarm never went off.”

“I should have checked it.”

“That’s not your job, Wes. Your Dad put the thing in. He can take apart an engine and put it—”

“Yeah, but with the way he’s been, not at the top of his game ... I should have made sure it worked.”

“We all got out just fine.”

“With nothing and nowhere to live,” I said. “With Bob off to who-knows-where with his tail sending smoke signals.”

Mom kissed me on the top of the head. “We’ve got each other, Jared,” she said, truly believing that was enough. She circled the three of us inside her long, skinny haircutter arms. “We’ve got each other,” she said again.

That’s not how I see it. If we all had each other, we wouldn’t have all been pointing fingers at each other. My opinion was no secret, but the rest of the clan had their suspicions too. I found out Dad’s after things had calmed down a bit, when the fire marshal talked to us, one at a time, over by his spiffy car. I probably should have been still on the sidewalk, watching another side of the house collapse, waiting for my turn with the chief and slurping a cup of hot chocolate from Mrs. Fingleman, but I snuck up behind a car and caught a bit of the conversation.

“I hate these electric stoves,” Dad said, trying to sound like Mom. “You can’t control the heat. Can’t even see the son-of-a-gun when it’s on low.”

Dad thinks Mom did it. Thinks she left on one of the zillions of appliances she has to use all the time. Like Dad would even know what kind of stove was in the kitchen or how to turn the thing off.

“Were there any appliances that might have been faulty, Mr. Moss? Any wiring problems you are aware of?” The marshal flicked snowflakes off his clipboard as he scribbled.

“Nah. The house was old but I’m a mechanic—though I’m out for a while on account of my back. I keep the place in good shape.”

Mom won’t tell me who she thinks lit the place up, says it doesn’t matter, but she gets on Dad about smoking his Camel Lights pretty bad, now that we’re back in the house, so I figure she blames him. Sometimes he smoked while watching TV in the living room. Maybe she thinks he fell asleep and left a butt between the cushions in the couch before he went up to bed. Now he has to go outside to puff, which doesn’t seem to bother him much. Even Molly marching up to the new stoop, scrounching her little hamster face into a serious frown, wagging her finger and saying, “Tsk, tsk, Daddy” doesn’t get to him. Gets to me though; I’d quit doing anything if it made Molly upset.

Mom walked Molly up to the car when it was her turn with the marshal, right after I’d finished telling him my theory. I was feeling a little lightheaded and goofy by then, having sucked in all that smoke. Mom was wearing Mrs. Fingleman's pink robe and fuzzy slippers. Molly had on Barbie pajamas, high-top sneakers, leather gloves, and a Russian hat, from the Zellwicker’s next door.

"Well, look at the two of you," I laughed.

"What is so funny, young man?" Mom asked. "Do you find something humorous about all this?"

"Nice duds.”

Molly smiled. “Well, you look like a raccoon with those rings around your eyes.”

I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hands, smearing the soot across my face.

“Maybe he got slugged again by George Pembroke,” Mom blurted. She looked ashamed right after she said it and she tugged at her pink robe.

I faked punching myself in the eye, and I fell to the ground in slow motion.

The three of us broke out in loud, idiotic laughter.

I was howling like a monkey, until I stopped to think about Mom’s wisecrack: tough-guy Georgie had smacked me upside the head real nice at recess the year before.

“So I hear Principal Schneider is doinking your mama,” I’d said.

He came at me with his little posse of snot-nosed seventh-graders.

“Easy, Mossballs,” he said, spitting on the ground after he’d said it. He was always spitting or hacking up something.

“Well, there’s got to be some reason you got outta sixth grade, Georgie, I mean you are a handsome fellow. And I’m pretty sure you can count to twenty, maybe twenty-five.”

“Mossballs, you’re a dead man.”

“But your mama being that good and all must’ve helped a little.”

And then after a chase around the swing set, Georgie and his posse were on top of me, getting in a few licks. Not before I threw the swing right into his big fat face though.

I don’t usually bring up kids’ mothers doing it, but Georgie deserved it. He’d said Dad was milking the system and wasn’t really hurt. Like he had any idea what the system was.

It bothers the hell out of me when kids just repeat what their no-good parents say, which is exactly what went on when I went back to school a few days after the fire. Cheryl Schwartz, who is sort of my girlfriend now, told me kids were hanging out at their lockers swearing they had the real scoop, swearing their parents had overheard so and so telling so and so so and so. Dope dealers did it because my Dad was behind on payments; a lady on Jefferson St. did it because she got an awful perm from my Mom at the salon and was getting revenge; Mrs. Milton did it because her twerp husband was fooling around with my Mom, who wasn’t getting any from Dad; Molly did it to try and get some attention because Mom and Dad aren’t giving out any; I did it because it’s just the kind of thing a weird kid like me might do.

In the meantime, nobody for a second thought Wesley did it. Nobody but me, that is, which doesn’t bother me—I’m used to being different.

The fire marshal, the one whose job it is to figure out this kind of thing, chalked it up to accident: “It was probably an electrical wire on an appliance or something. There is evidence to indicate that the fire began in the kitchen.”

The place was pretty much leveled, so it was hard to tell. Sherlock had no idea. He never told me what that evidence might be.

Sunday morning, the day after, we woke up at Uncle Frank and Aunt Mary’s. Uncle Frank had come in his giant SUV in the middle of the parade and had taken us all back to his place, across town. Then he went over to collect his brother at the hospital. Dad’s ticker was okay, but he looked pretty horrible.

We all spent hours in the shower that morning trying to get rid of the smell. No matter how much soap I used I still reeked. I figured the smoke was hiding out in the holes I couldn’t get to, so I put soap on some Q-tips and started shoving them in my nose, ears, up my butt. Then I guzzled some mouthwash.

We were all starving so Aunt Mary cooked up platefuls of eggs and bacon and pancakes. We looked at each other across the table but didn’t say much. We stared at the crispy bacon, which nobody ate but Dad. Sometimes he just doesn’t get it.

Aunt Mary said we could stay as long as we wanted. Mom said thanks but we’d get our own place once she’d talked to the insurance. Wesley said he had a calculus final on Monday and his book was back at the Salvos and should he stay or go study and Mom said he needed to study. I went outside to play in the snow with Molly.

Later in the day we all went shopping to buy one new thing each. We went to the department store so we’d have a lot of choices. Wesley came along too, but said he was feeling weird and didn’t want to buy anything. I thought he should have been behind bars anyway.

When we got to the entrance, we split up, going in our own directions, except Wesley, who followed Molly around. We started off like zombies, walking up and down aisles without looking at any of the stuff around us, like somebody’d hit us in the head with baseball bats. I mean what do you get when you don’t have anything? Do you try to replace something or do you get something you never even had?

I started thinking about my stuff again, stuff I didn’t remember to grab on my way out, my guitar and my lacrosse stick and the note from Cheryl Schwartz that said I have nice brown eyes. Nobody remembered to pick up a single thing, not even the disability check that was lying right on the dining room table in front of us that Dad was bitching about at Uncle Frank’s the next day. I forgot my cash too, 127 bucks I had bundled up in a rubber band in my top dresser drawer under my underwear. I'd raked neighbors’ yards all fall. I’d rounded up Mrs. Fingleman’s leaves and acorns once a week for two months. I could’ve had a cartload of stuff if I’d remembered the cash.

We met half an hour later by the checkout. Mom had a cheery red scarf, fire-engine red for chrissakes, folded in the palm of her hand. Dad picked out a ratchet set, even though I think most of his tools survived pretty damn well in the basement. Maybe he thought he needed a fresh set to help in the rebuilding, like anyone was going to let him near the place. Since Wesley didn’t want anything, he gave Molly his choice and she got two things, a stuffed zebra and a Cinderella video. Except none of the rocket scientists figured out that we didn’t have anything to play it on anymore. I was the last one at the checkout and when I saw the tape I asked if I could return the CD player I’d picked out and go get a TV/ VCR combo instead. I was feeling pretty charitable, you see, and wanted to do something for the whole family. I probably didn’t have any CD’s left anyhow.

A few days later, we were in the rental and back to school, trying to get back to normal, whatever that means. I was heading to my locker first thing in the morning when I saw Cheryl Schwartz and a couple of her pals coming towards me on the other side of the hallway. She was dressed in tight jeans and a sweater. She had a purple ski cap on her head with cute little brown ringlets coming out the sides.

It was crowded and I looked away quickly, hoping she didn’t see me. But she did. She signaled to her friends to wait a second and crossed over.

“Jared, I heard what happened,” she said, nervous, her wet tongue playing with her braces.

“Yeah. Thanks.”

“Are you okay? You and your family?”

“Yeah. Thanks. Everything’s fine.”

Cheryl looked me over, green eyes wide open and staring at my outfit—my cousin Sean is a couple of inches shorter than me.

“I haven’t had time to get new clothes yet, with settling in and stuff,” I said.

“My brother’s about your size. Want me to ask if—”

“Nah, Cheryl. Thanks. It’s not that I don’t appreciate charity, because I do. But I’m gonna get some nice stuff real soon. Really classy. Besides, people’ve been dropping off stuff all week. Cousins, neighbors, the church. Every goody-two-shoes in town wants to give me corduroys and turtlenecks.”

“That explains the jacket too I guess.”

I looked down at the silver snorkel jacket with fake silver fur and shook my head. It sucks when you work for months to get a cute girl to think you’re not an ass, and then blammo, you’re toast.

“And who knows what snot-nosed kid wore these things before? What disgusting things he might have done in them?” I said, trying to get back. “Not that your brother would do nasty things in his—”

“I gotta go, Jared,” she said, smiling and pointing to her friends.

When the Jets clobbered the Dolphins three weeks before Christmas, by two touchdowns, I couldn’t wear my green team parka to school. I had to wear that snorkel jacket, that Raiders-colored snorkel jacket.

I rode my bike home from school that day and pretty much every day last year. The fire didn’t get in to the tin shed in the back so my three-speeder made it through, along with a few rakes and shovels and a push mower. So if anyone wanted to tidy up—scrape the charcoal planks into a pile or give the singed welcome mat a little trim—they could. Besides, my new bus stop was horrible. No action. No football like we played at my old bus stop, where I could launch beautiful spiral passes and run over the Milton’s grass seed. Everyone stayed in their houses until the last possible minute, until the bus came around the corner. How are you gonna get to know anybody that way? Have a good conversation about Mars or Clint Eastwood movies (the outlaw ones) or anything? You can’t—that’s how.

So Mom and Dad said I could ride to school, and so I did, and on the way home I’d take a detour to check on how the house was coming along. That’s probably why they let me—so I could keep tabs on the house. I’d ride up to Mrs. Fingleman’s and hang with her on the porch and she’d let me use her binoculars. Later, I’d report back to Mom and Dad, saying, “A big crane squashed the rest of it today and threw it in the dumpster,” or “They put in the living room today but they could’ve gotten to the bathroom too if they didn’t take a water break every five minutes—I’d call the foreman if I were you.”

After I rode back home I’d wait at the bus stop for Molly. Dad’s diabetes and back were worse after the fire, but he got up some mornings and tried to find odd jobs for a little cash—a man and his new ratchet set (It’s not that he didn’t try at all). He was around most afternoons though, plopped on the couch, when Molly and me got home from school, when Mom was at the salon snipping away. Wesley came over a couple of times a week, parading around with pamphlets from colleges in Florida and California.

“I’m going to school where it’s warm all year,” Wesley said one afternoon in the cold living room to no one in particular. “Maybe I’ll study Marine Biology.”

Dad was napping and Molly was at dance class. Wesley was going to pick her up in his Jeep Wrangler. It was all scratched and at least ten years old, but I still don’t know how he afforded it; he only worked a handful of hours at the record store. The Salvos probably gave him the cash.

I got up from my chair in the little kitchenette where I’d been trying to solve some stupid geometry problem, walked over to Wesley and punched him in the gut. “Why’d you do it Wes?” I asked, staring him right in the eyes.

“Do what, Jared, you asshole,” Wesley said, bending over a little to catch his breath. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“You know … burning the damn house down.”

“Hey. Pipe down,” Dad mumbled from the couch. “I’m trying to rest over here.”

The big shot point guard stood up and walked over casually, like he still wasn’t in pain. He pinned me up against the crummy wallpaper of the rental house and held my wrists tightly over my head. “You’re a crazy kid, Jared.”

He didn’t scare me. “What was so tough about living there?” I pointed to the lump on the couch. “Too depressing? Afraid you’re gonna be like that?”

“No, I’ll never end up like that,” he said, pushing me harder against the wall. “None of us will. But what’s that got—”

“Cash, Wes, hard cash,” I said. “Mom works like a dog and Dad’s been too sick or lazy to ever make a lot and you seem to need a lot.”

“You seem to need a lot too, a lot of mental help.” Wesley shook his head. “You just don’t get it. Don’t you know how much it pisses me off that I wasn’t there to help? That everyone almost got killed, had to go through all that, and I didn’t?”

“How are you helping now, Wes? Helping yourself to cars and cash and the Salvos’ refrigerator—”

He let go of my wrists and punched me in the gut, though it really didn’t hurt. “This is what they want, what they need,” he said. “They need me to get there on my own, to get a decent scholarship, make something of myself.” He shoved himself away from me, picked up his knapsack off the ground and headed for the door. “You’re a twisted kid sometimes, Jared, twisted, twisted, twisted. Haven’t you ever heard of an accident? It was a fucking accident.”

“You picked a fine time to be tight with Jimmy Salvo, huh? Pretty convenient?”

Wesley walked down the broken path to his Jeep.

“And what’s up with all that chemistry you’re studying?” I called out the door. “That stuff could come in handy, huh?”

We moved back into our house this past summer. But it wasn’t the same. I’m sure they did the best they could, but it still stunk. A weird smell floated through all the new paint and wood and fake marble, like those black snakes you light on the street on the 4th of July, the kind that grow all puffy like Cheese Doodles and then blow away. Then you chase them down and stomp on them with your foot. The smell is cool for a while but then it just stinks.

The house was smaller too. We must not have had enough insurance or else somebody in a nice striped tie pulled one over on Mom and Dad again. Besides, Wesley would be off to college in a few short months, so we didn’t need the extra bedroom, or a playroom for that matter, since Molly and me were getting older.

A few weeks after we’d moved in, I met up with Wesley for the last time before he left for college. It was over at the Salvos. It was a sweaty day in August and I was riding my bike around town, wishing I had a lousy swimming pool. I cruised by and saw Wesley in the driveway washing his Jeep.

“You taking that hunk of trash with you?” I asked. “A little soap and water ain’t gonna help it much.”

“This is the perfect car for California girls,” he said.

“Fat chance it makes it past Ohio. You’ll be stuck in a cornfield with a fat pig sitting on your lap.”

“Not me, bro. Maybe I’ll stop in Vegas on the way. I’m feeling pretty lucky.”

Wesley’d been out of the house for almost a year. He talked in this deep voice, all slow and mature, like he’d been out on the road for years swilling whiskey and smoking cigarettes. Not me, bro. He dropped the sponge and picked up the hose off the ground. It was still on. He spun halfway around and lifted the hose up, pointing it in my general direction.

“Don't even think about it," I said, still sitting on my bike. "I'll run your ass right over. ”

“Take it easy, Jared. You look a little hot is all. ”

“Damn right I’m hot,” I said. “Stuck in the house all summer long trying to find things to do … Gee—stand in the sprinkler with Molly or the watch the Mets lose with Dad or sneak in a cold beer with Steve from up the block.”

Wesley had come over the house the night before for a goodbye dinner. Mom had come home from the salon early and cooked up a big fat roast beef with mashed potatoes. The whole Moss clan, Dad and Uncle Frank and Aunt Mary too, sat together, yapping about our wonderful Wesley, all grown up and off to college.

“Wes, could you tell me one thing? ” I said, running back and forth over the hose with my front tire as he tried to rinse the suds. “After all this time stayin’ here at Jimmy’s, please tell me you got a peek at his sister’s tits.” I looked toward an upstairs window. “Please say it’s true.”

“A sight to behold, my young man,” he said, making his hands round and pulling them half a foot away from his chest. “Pure gold.”

As I rode my bike back home, taking a little detour down Cheryl Schwartz’s block just to see if she was out doing some cheerleading in her front yard or something, I wondered why Wesley got all the luck. Pure round golden tits. I could see him in that Jeep, top down, cruising along the beach with three tan beauties. I figured the moron would be surfing by then too, so I pictured a shiny board in the back seat leaning against a yellow bikini. A banana thong.

Would Don Ho be thinking about me back here in Alaska? Think he’d give a crap if I’d found another crummy guitar and learned a barre chord?

Cheryl, of course, wasn’t in the front yard bending over or jumping up and down so I continued on home. Mrs. Milton was yanking weeds from between more weeds in her front yard. Mrs. Fingleman sat on her front porch, fanning herself like a princess and sipping iced tea. In the middle of the road, on its side, was our rusty garbage can.

“Son-of-a-bitch,” I said to myself. “This should be Wesley's job.”

I tossed my bike on a mound of dirt that was supposed to be a new lawn by now. It didn't seem to strike anyone that the seeds might have a tough time of it, being mixed with bug killer and other chemical crap.

I walked back into the street and was struck by a whiff from the can. It smelled like puke, and was probably filled with maggots, though I didn’t bother to look when I lifted it up with the tip of my pinky. It’s not that I have a problem looking at maggots, I even ate one for five bucks once, but the stench was god-awful. Knowing Wesley, he would’ve talked Molly into doing it for him, promising to buy her an ice cream cone. I dragged the can towards the side of the house, scraping it slowly on the new concrete driveway. The ladies across the street looked over to see what the racket was about and I looked right back at them with a big clown smile and waved.

“A little hot today for all that yard work, isn’t it Mrs. Milton?”

She didn’t say a word. She just turned back around to pluck a dandelion and stuck her bony ass up in the air. Mrs. Fingleman, the old tart, said I could come over to her porch for some cold iced tea if I was too hot.

I leaned the can against the new aluminum siding on the side of the house and noticed for the first time that the big oak tree that Wesley and I used to hide out in was gone. With binoculars around our necks, we would climb high up in its branches and pretend to be snipers waiting for Fidel to come by. When Dad or Uncle Frank or the mailman walked up to the front door, we’d launch an acorn attack, pelting the unsuspecting enemy in the head like the marksmen we were.

Two weeks ago, one year exactly after the house went down, Wesley called from college. He’d phoned a few times since he’d left, to say things were fine but he had to run—to practice or study or work. Mom answered it this time, in the kitchen. Dad and me were inside watching one of Molly’s really funny idiot cartoons—she’d gone to bed. We stopped laughing so we could try to catch a little of what was being said. All I caught was Mom’s first line— “Yes, one whole year, dear, thanks for remembering”—before she switched phones and went into the bedroom.

After a while, Mom came in and gave us the scoop: “It’s been eighty degrees every day, but he’s so busy with homework and work in the lab and basketball practice, he hasn’t had a chance to get to the beach. His teachers are first-rate. His dorm room is small and smells like urine because it’s right near the bathroom. His roommate, T-man, the Tower of Power, is a 6’ 10’’ center on the team and a slob. Wes tripped over his size 16 sneakers and twisted his ankle.”

We waited a second to see if she was through, but she wasn’t.

“Wes sounds lonely.”

She turned to me.

“He asked me if it would be all right if you went out to visit him for Thanksgiving—have dinner, go to the beach, stuff like that,” she said. “He said he’d love to come home but he’s got basketball practice. I said I thought you were kind of young and I’d discuss it with your father and maybe Jimmy who’s at community college could go instead.”

“I think Jared should go,” Dad said.

“I asked him who he thought would pay and you know what Wes said? He said he’d already bought the ticket. Got five hundred bucks for his Jeep. Said he can walk or take a bus anywhere he needs to go.”

“I think he should go,” Dad said. “Wesley’ll watch out for him.”

“I think so too,” Mom said.

“Me too,” I said.


Return to the Issues page