Unrequited Love & Arson
That season, brush fires seemed to ignite themselves just to spite the dry weather. This kept the town’s small volunteer fire department hopping. They prided themselves on not having to call upon a full-time — they refused to use the word “real” — fire department to put out these fires. However, this point of pride didn’t stop them from grousing about how difficult life was for them; being interrupted in their fields, in their shops, or, as McAvoy told it, in his bedroom. McAvoy drove around with a license plate holder that read: Firemen do it with big hoses.
At thirty-one, George Freeman was, with a child-like simplicity, living out his childhood dream of being a fireman. He lived in the apartment over his father’s tobacconist shop, which he worked in occasionally when he needed some extra money or when he felt guilty about his father doing all the work. What George really lived for was hearing the siren and racing through town to the firehouse.
Up on the engine, speeding toward a fire site, he knew he belonged. He was a part of a small, elite band; one which not everyone could join, even if they wanted to. People noticed the engine roaring by and wondered what it and George were up to. People would be grateful — to the fire company, to George, for what they would do. George was important.
He kept his car parked directly in front of the store, his volunteer fire department sign prominently displayed in the windshield. A few months back George put in some extra hours with his father and picked up at the Radio Shack in the next town over, a blue bubble light. Most who use such a light keep it on the dash. George, however, would slap the bubble light on the roof of his car and charge through town looking like he was driving an unmarked police car. When his father asked why, he told him that the light couldn’t be seen when it was inside the car and he didn’t want to cause an accident running traffic lights. He wanted people to know he was coming. George was giving serious thought to a siren.
It was a bright, hot afternoon and George squinted behind his sunglasses as he walked across the town square. Normally, he drove everywhere so that he could be at the station as quickly as possible, but Nora’s Diner was close enough, though, that he felt he could take the risk. Besides, he knew he could be at his car in a minute and thirty-six seconds. If he ran.
The town Green resembled an old newspaper, browned and brittle. It was empty save for a group of pigeons that wandered aimlessly near the benches; purposeless since no old people would brave the heat to throw bread and popcorn to them.
It was off behind the old oak that George spotted the smoke. He ruled out his first notion of cigarette smoke, since the color was wrong. That could only mean that something was burning. He cut across the common, the grass crunching under his feet, and shortly saw the someone who was doing the burning.
There was a boy, about eight years old, crouched on the ground, intently setting the dried grass on fire with his magnifying glass. The glass captured the sun and cast a tiny, but just as intense version of the star onto the ground. The dry grass was perfect tinder and soon began smoking. The minute star then moved over slightly and hovered over another small patch of grass until that too was set alight. The boy continued in this way, moving his tiny star around, burning grass and bursting the occasional ant until there was a small fire burning. That is until George’s foot came down and stomped it out. So intent on his fire, the boy didn’t know George was there until George’s boot was under his nose and the magnifying glass was snatched away.
“Hey! That’s mine!” The boy jumped to his feet and tried to grab the glass back.
George held the magnifying glass as if it was a dangerous weapon. “Were you intending to burn the entire green down?”
The boy looked down at his feet. “No, just a little bit of it.”
“Why would you want to burn any of it at all?”
The boy shrugged. “Nothin’ else to do.”
There’s a problem here, George thought, and that was this generation’s thoughtless destruction of property. Whether it was burning down the Green, spray painting on walls, stealing mailboxes or cow tipping, they were always damaging something. As for a reason, George chalked it up to those movies they watched. The ones with body counts in the hundreds and entire buildings were blown up. All this mayhem was done by the hero, no less.
George studied the boy and realized he didn’t know him. “Are you visiting here?” he asked.
“No. I live here now. My mom sells old things. We’re moving in next to where they sell the smoking stuff.”
When he thought about it, George could remember his father mentioning something about the empty shop next door being leased. It seemed the little arsonist was his next-door neighbor. He placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder and gave him a little prod to move along.
“Why don’t we go see your mom?”
“Are you a policeman or something?” The boy looked up at George with more curiosity than fear.
“I’m a fireman.”
“Really. I ride on the big trucks, slide down the pole, well I used to, I even get to wear red suspenders. Do you like firemen?
“I like fires….”
The two walked the rest of the way in silence.
True to what the boy said there was an antique shop being installed in what had been, this morning, an empty store front. Parked at the curb in front of the shop was a large truck being unloaded by two tired and sweaty men. They dried their hands on their trousers in order to get a good grip on the cabinet before they wrestled it out of the truck and into the store. George felt sorry for them working in the heat, but that’s what they got paid for.
Inside the shop was a maze. Crates were everywhere. Some piled up in corners, others open, their contents and stuffing strewn about. The heat inside was as palpable as outside. Someone with obvious good intentions had set up a fan, but all it did was push the hot air around. There was a pair of movers grunting and groaning as they shifted crates to the instructions of a female voice, which George took to be the boy’s mother. The two men George followed in had set down their load and were finishing off the last of a pitcher of lemonade. One of them belched.
George stood off to the side, out of the way, twirling the boy’s magnifying glass around in his fingers; wondering how to tell a mother that her son was a member of the Junior Arsonists of America and wishing the two movers hadn’t finished all the lemonade.
“That’s him, Mom.” George looked up at the boy’s voice and saw him standing next to his mother.
Suddenly, he felt ugly. His hands were now large and clumsy, so much so, that he fumbled the magnifying glass and dropped it. (The boy snatched his property back.) George’s hairline seemed to have instantly receded and his nose, which he had broken as a boy, was now twisted and gnarled. He wanted to turn and run so that he wouldn’t offend the beautiful woman that was standing there, but he couldn’t because she was saying something to him.
“I take it Jerome was into something again?” and then she smiled. A tingling started in his stomach and progressed outward to his extremities, washing over him. A dumb, dreamy smile curled his mouth. He was totally soluble in her smile.
George finally managed to nod. His tongue was thick and clumsy in his mouth. “He was starting fires with his magnifying glass on the green.”
The woman frowned down at her son and scuffing him on the back of the head, took the glass from him. “Get in the back. I’ll deal with you in a minute.”
Jerome sulked to the back of the shop. The woman put out her hand.
“I’m Emily — “
Just then, the fire station siren cut through the air, drowning out every other sound. Emily cringed at the volume. It was like a leash tugging George out of the shop. He reached out and took her hand. It was small and soft and he didn’t squeeze too hard for fear of crushing it.
“I’m George,” he yelled over the siren. The leash was pulling hard and George was half turned to the door. “I really have to go.” Giving in he let it pull him out the door and he was out of sight before the siren faded away.
When George’s father mentioned that a welcoming gift should be brought over to the new neighbors, George leapt at the chance, until his father put the humidor in his hands. George protested, telling the old man that Emily didn’t smoke cigars.
“That’s because she had no place to keep ’em. Now she does. Send her over and I’ll cut her a deal on some nice hand-rolled,” he said and he scooted his son out the door.
So George stood outside her shop, nervously rubbing his fingers along the top of the humidor, conforming the wrapping paper to the engraving on the lid. He was eager to go inside and see Emily, but was frozen by the ludicrous gift in his hands. Finally he moved, stiff legged, to her door and went inside.
George found the antique shop in order and open for business. Gone were the boxes and their stuffing; the moving men and their hand trucks. He would have thought the shop had been here all along if he hadn’t known better. George’s mental picture of antique shops usually had them dark and overcrowded with useless merchandise and run by an old, senile Englishman who had a story for every piece. Emily’s store was bright and open and she was a far cry from a senile old Englishman. All the fixtures were white and lacquered and made the dark wood pieces stand out so that they were all you saw. There were podiums that lit the clock or vase or knick-knack on them from the bottom. In the center of the store was a large gothic-looking dining table on and under which Jerome deployed his plastic armies. The store smelled of old wood and years of polish. It was the smell of time passed and memories kept.
He found Emily behind the counter, finishing up with a customer and he could hear Jerome making war noises as he played at the table. She looked up and saw him and her smile flashed on. George felt himself stagger back a step or two as he fought off his transformation into the world’s ugliest man. Pulling himself together, he looked back up at her.
“Just don’t stand there, come on in,” she beckoned him over to the counter.
He walked over to her and presented the humidor like a student giving a pretty teacher an apple. She made the usual responses associated with receiving a gift: “Oh, you shouldn’t have” and “How lovely.” George, didn’t hear her, he was watching her hands open the package. They were thin and fine and were not knotted with veins like he noticed on some older women. Her fingernails were short and unpainted and to George’s relief her left hand was free of rings.
He was going to blame the present on his father, but she actually seemed to like the humidor. It was an old one and, George figured, she liked old things; so he let her continue to think it was from him. His mind screamed at him to make small talk as they just stood there, both staring down at the Indian head engraved on the lid of the humidor. He was about to comment on the heat when Jerome was drawn to the front of the store by the sound of the wrapping paper; like a cat drawn into a kitchen by the sound of a can opener, both hoping that whatever it was would be for them.
“It’s a cigar box. Big deal,” he said, peering over the countertop.
“It’s a humidor, not a cigar box and it’s an old one. And it’s for me, not you. Now apologize to Mr. Freeman.”
“Sorry.” The boy seemed properly regretful for about a second, when his face lit up. “Any really big fires?”
“Nope.” George said. He wanted to stay, to talk to Emily, to look at her a little longer, to get some kind of glimmer of her feelings toward him, but with her son there it would be impossible.
“I just wanted to drop the present by. Welcome to the neighborhood,” he said to Emily, with a half-shrug, as he backed away from the counter.
“Thank you, George. I’ll see you soon.” Then she smiled again and it exploded in his head, making him grin like an idiot.
“Yeah,” was all he managed to get out before he left.
He didn’t want to go back to the tobacconist shop. His father would want to know what he was so happy about and George didn’t want to share this with anyone just yet.
Emily was different from Diane. Emily was a brunette. Her short hair was in the process of growing out of a perm and George was glad because women with perms looked cheap. She was small and perfectly proportioned. Not too hippy, not too busty. It was her smile, though, that held George spellbound. It animated her whole face and it, well, shone. Her green eyes crinkled at the corners and her teeth were white and straight and George couldn’t help wondering if she had worn braces.
Diane, his ex…he didn’t know what to call her. She wasn’t a girl and George wasn’t a boy, so girlfriend was out. They hadn’t been engaged or married. George couldn’t throw around the word “lover” like so many did these days. He settled on referring to her as his ex, letting people draw their own conclusions. What you know and people think are two different things, he told himself. Diane was blonde and tall and big boned. Good German stock. In heels she was taller than George and looking back, he realized she wore heels quite often. She had thin lips that disappeared when she smiled. Diane had a nice smile, but it never had the same effect on him that Emily’s did. He wouldn’t mind having Emily smiling at him twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
This is going to be great, he thought, as he walked. He and Emily together. There would be the fire company picnic. He and Emily on a blanket, under a tree. His head in her lap and she gently stroking his hair. He could feel the envious eyes of his fellow firemen on him now.
There the two of them would be walking through town, arm in arm, nodding hello to other couples out for their evening strolls. As they passed by the others would whisper to each other saying what a lovely couple he and Emily made.
Every man would be beside himself because George had the most beautiful woman in town at his side.
The firehouse siren interrupted him. As he spun on his heel, he saw a column of grey-black smoke rising off to the west. Another brush fire. George ran for his car.
One minute and thirty-eight seconds. George cursed himself for day-dreaming. It had cost him time. In one fluid motion (he had spent many hours parked in the high school parking lot after class was out, practicing and perfecting this move) he slid into his car, started it and stuck his blue bubble light to the roof. As he tore away from the curb and past Emily’s shop, he noticed she and Jerome standing in the doorway watching him speed away. She’s impressed, he thought. And like a ballplayer dedicating a game to a teammate, George decided he’d fight this fire for Emily.
George’s visits, spaced out as far apart as his desperate heart could stand, were short and friendly. They talked at the front counter, Emily sitting on a stool behind it and George standing before it. The conversations were mostly small talk about the unyielding heat or business or a recent movie or the latest trouble Jerome had gotten himself into. And during each one, George would laugh when she laughed and frown when she frowned; hoping that she saw that they looked at the world in the same way and that they had much in common; that he was the kind of man she could fall in love with.
As he entered the shop, Emily hung up the telephone and she stared at it distractedly. Backing out the way he came crossed his mind, but Emily looked up and smiled at him. It wasn’t his smile. He smiled in return and with his hands in his pockets, shuffled over to the counter.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” she said. She drew the word out into a sigh.
“Pretty hot today, huh?”
Her gaze had returned to the telephone. It was an old, heavy black rotary phone. Some people may have considered it an antique. But it wasn’t because, George knew, something had to be a hundred years old to be an antique. He couldn’t see what she found was so interesting about it.
“It’s been hot for a long time now, George.” She addressed the phone, not him.
“Yeah, I guess it has.” Leave now, his mind shouted at him. Better to try another day then to have her think him an idiot. Women don’t fall in love with idiots.
“We really can’t complain, Jerome and I, you know.” She said suddenly, still speaking to the telephone. “Stan left us the house and the bank account. All he wanted was his freedom.”
Stan. George’s mind raced. Stan was her ex-husband. Her ex-husband who had left her and her son. His heart began pounding. He could see the fabric of his shirt pulse with each beat.
“Jerome and I stayed in the house for about a year, but the memories just got to be too much.” She looked at George and then past him to the opposite wall where she watched the memories being played out.
George was ecstatic. This was what he had been waiting for. They were building a relationship. She was sharing something, something substantial, of herself and that wasn’t something done with just anybody.
She went on to say that after that year she sold the house and bought the shop. It represented everything she had left.
“Despite it all, I can’t really be angry with him. He was good to us and he remembers Jerome on his birthday and at Christmas.” She leaned in close to George and he could smell the apple scent of her shampoo. It made him dizzy. He had never been this close to her before. She quickly glanced around the shop and dropped her voice down to a whisper.
“I count my blessings for that because Stan never wanted any children. He told me before we married. He was very serious, emphatic about it. I agreed. For the longest time I was fine, but then that baby hormone kicked in and…and I stopped taking the pill. I have to give him credit, Stan stuck it out for six years in something he didn’t want or plan on. I tricked him, so I guess I got what I deserve.”
She pulled away from him and sat back on the stool, suddenly engrossed with her left thumbnail. George wanted to tell her that he thought Stan was an idiot and to hold her and let her know that everything will be all right. He looked at her sitting there, staring at her hands in her lap, looking for all the world that she wanted to be comforted, but he couldn’t do it. There was a huge gap between thinking and doing that George just couldn’t bridge. Whether it was fear, nervousness or an unwillingness to invade her privacy he didn’t know. All he did know was that he couldn’t reach out to her.
“I should be going,” he mumbled and left.
George couldn’t bring himself to go see her so sure he was that he had blown it. Yet he couldn’t go without seeing her.
Crammed into the far corner of the tobacco shop, behind the wooden Indian in the display window, George squatted and waited each morning for Emily to arrive and open her shop. Here was the only place that he could see her without being seen by her. His car had been a consideration, but it was too easy to be spotted sitting there, too out in the open and everyone knew that it was his car. Besides he would have felt like a pervert just sitting there, waiting. So, concealed from prying eyes, George watched from his corner, his shoulders cramping, his legs on fire and his left side cold from being pressed against the glass.
In his right pocket he fingered a diamond ring. He had disinterred it from underneath his underwear in the top drawer of his dresser, where it sat in its black velvet box. It long ago, he was sure, lost its power to hurt him and had become no more than a lump sitting in his drawer under his briefs. A lump that was there because Diane had left him for another man. Left him the very night he was going to propose. The image of Diane and her new boyfriend driving away resurrected itself from wherever George had hidden it and brought with it a masochistic anger that hooked his vision and forced it to turn inward to watch Diane and friend drive away.
Pain in his right hand released him and the memory slunk back to where it came from. George pulled his hand from his pocket and opened his fist. The ring had cut into the pad of flesh at the base of his fingers. He sucked the blood from his hand and licked the ring clean. He held it up so that it caught the sunlight from the display window and it flashed blue at him.
In the week that he had been watching Emily, he became enamored with a white gauze summer dress she wore. She wore it only once, and the morning sun was such that it backlit her as she walked down the street and George could see the outline of her thighs as they curved into her hips. He was struck with how wonderfully perfect she was. She wore the dress this morning and George took it as an example of how in tune the two of them were since he knew she was going to wear it.
The sunlight played its trick, she unlocked the store, Jerome rushed in and she followed, disappearing inside. The whole episode lasted perhaps half a minute and George had every one of the thirty seconds memorized.
As he sat there replaying the morning’s sighting George noticed something. Someone. Bob Burke, a man who drove a Trans Am, wore gold chains and seemed to have a different girl every week, walked into Emily’s shop. What he was doing there, George couldn’t figure out. Bob’s idea of an antique, he felt, was a lava lamp.
Then it hit him. The thought that he might not be the only one interested in Emily had never come to him until just then, seeing Bob go inside. Jealous, black thoughts invaded his mind. He had to know what was going on. He jumped to his feet, making the Indian he was hiding behind totter. He steadied it, hoping his father didn’t hear it, and then quietly left the store.
Not moving his head, George looked into the antique shop by just sliding his eyes over to the right as he walked by. Bob was standing where George normally stood. Emily was behind the counter, staring at the phone. It must have rung, because she leapt at it. She spoke into it for a moment, hung up and stared at it again. Bob said something and Emily smiled. It wasn’t his smile. Although, there was always the possibility that she had bestowed the smile on Bob at other times.
Nervous and needing to think, he walked around the block and found himself coming up on his car. He got in and drove to the firehouse.
Polishing the fire pole was a mindless as well as useless task. Several years ago the second floor of the firehouse was rendered useless by a fire. Someone (they never found out who) had put a towel too close to the stove and the fire spread throughout the living quarters. The fire department managed to put it out, but not before the second floor was declared unsafe. Being a volunteer fire department, there were just enough funds to shore up the defective ceiling. So the fire pole stood there, a monument to the department’s ineptness, and George kept it bright and shiny. Many times the guys had thrown out the polish and rags, but George went out and bought new ones. He felt the pole kept them humble.
George up-ended the bottle of polish into his rag and spread it over the pole. He waited a minute for it to dry and then rubbed it off. Working from the top of the pole, he spiraled his way down it leaving gleaming brass in his wake.
His mind swam with Emily and Diane. Diane stood in the doorway of the antique shop with Bob Burke and Jerome watching him race away, and Emily drove off with her new boyfriend. Their faces warped and blended like his own reflection in the pole. George was lonely and empty and his heartbeats echoed inside him. One woman was taken away by a man who came out of nowhere. He had had no clue. The other….
George jumped, dropping the bottle of polish and the chalky white liquid oozed out over his shoes.
“Georgie, you’ve been rubbing the same spot for the last five minutes.” McAvoy smiled and his teeth seemed yellow in comparison to his pasty white skin. He reminded George of a potato with red hair. “Gee, you spilled some polish. You shouldn’t let people sneak up on you like that.” McAvoy chuckled once and moved on.
George bent over and wiped off his shoes. He felt the ring, in his pant pocket, bite into his leg. McAvoy was right. He shouldn’t let people sneak up on him. He straightened up, took the ring out of his pocket, dabbed some polish on the stone and wiped it clean. George dropped it in his shirt pocket and left to see Emily.
She was on the phone when he walked in and she waved hello to him distractedly. Jerome sat beside her, not really playing, but just fiddling with two of his army men. George walked around the shop, to give her some privacy, but mostly to build up his nerve. The terror of rejection was freezing him up. This whole idea was silly. Why not wait a bit? Just to be sure? If he never said anything, at least he’d have his fantasies. His tongue darted out and licked the sweat from his upper lip. He heard her hang up the phone and found himself walking toward the front counter.
“Was that Daddy on the phone?” George heard the boy ask.
“Yes, it was. And you know something?” George froze in his steps.
“Daddy’s coming back to live with us.” George reeled. She was letting the man who abandoned her and her child back into her life? Wait. Maybe she’s not happy about it. Maybe she had no choice.
“I missed him a lot, Mommy.”
“So did I baby, so did I.”
There was a roaring in his ears as he felt all his blood rush to his feet. George hunched down and put his head between his knees so he wouldn’t faint. This didn’t make sense. Why did she lead him on like she did if all she ever wanted was her ex-husband back? Was he going to be some kind of back-up in case things didn’t work out with Stan? What about Bob? Was she just a tease? He had no answers, just frustration. Here he was shot down, rejected before he had a chance. It wasn’t fair. The ring in his pocket felt like it was going to burn a hole through his chest and embed itself in his heart.
She had chosen Stan over him. Again and again his mind ran that thought. It echoed and reverberated so that it was all he could hear.
Far away in the distance was the firehouse siren, but he didn’t move. It burrowed through the noise in his head. Growing louder and bringing with it a new thought. Once again a man had snuck up on him. This time George wasn’t going to let anyone drive away.
“George! It’s the siren, don’t you hear it?” It was Emily calling to him.
He didn’t answer, but walked out of the door, taking his new idea with him.
Stan arrived a day or two later. Maybe more, maybe less. George couldn’t be sure, he was preoccupied with his plan.
The plan was simple. He was a trained professional and could handle fire. He would have Emily and anyone else (even Stan) out before the flames really had a chance to catch hold. It would be enough, though, to reduce Stan to a quivering mass and make Emily gratefully fall in love with George. Lastly, any damage would be covered by insurance. Nobody gets hurt and he wins. The end justifies the means. Simple. George picked up the bottle and stuffed the rag that was to be the fuse of the Molotov Cocktail down its neck.
He took the fan out of his bedroom window and climbed out. The loose gravel on the roof bit into the bare soles of his feet. The two roofs were separated by foot high wall and on Emily’s side three pigeons wandered, pecking at the gravel and dirt. George couldn’t see what they could possibly be eating, but the birds looked fat enough, so they must know something he didn’t.
Fishing a lighter out of his pocket, he lit the fuse and threw the Molotov Cocktail across to the roof of Emily’s shop. The bottle shattered and the flames spread across the roof like orange liquid. The birds fled at the impact, one with additional faint yellow and orange tail feathers. The pigeon beat its wings stronger, trying to fly away from its new feathers. George watched for a moment and then climbed back inside. He didn’t mean to pitch it near the birds.
George felt a little ridiculous roaring back on the fire engine to the place he had just left a matter of minutes ago. There was no way he could have waited for the truck to come to him. Even if that were possible, he wouldn’t have deprived himself of that sensation, that rush when he raced to the station in his car, his blue light flashing and knowing that everyone he passed was watching him and feeling envious.
The fire, when he arrived, was more intense than he expected. The day was hot, just like every other day, and there was a dry wind blowing. Already he was sweating beneath all his gear. His shirt, even his underwear was quickly soaked through. George didn’t mind, he was exhilarated. This was a real fire he was going to rescue Emily from. He rushed over to the safety equipment, telling the crowd that had gathered not to worry because he was going to get anyone inside, out. He shrugged on his air tank and slid on his face mask and rushed to the shop door. McAvoy was right behind him. George would be damned if he would let him get to Emily first.
The shop door, when he tried it, was locked. George couldn’t understand why. He grabbed the ax that McAvoy was brandishing and smashed his way inside. The fire inside was incredible. The place was popping and burning like kindling. The old, dry antiques burned hot and with plenty of smoke. George scanned the shop, but Emily was not to be seen. He moved further inside. The air he was breathing was thick and tasted like smoke and he found himself coughing behind his face mask. He heard McAvoy come up behind him and then collapsed.
He came to outside. An oxygen mask was on his face, his throat was burning and his lungs felt like he was trying to breathe sludge. McAvoy came over and squatted down next to him. His pasty-white face had a ring of soot around it from the face mask. He knocked on George’s skull.
“Next time, Georgie, remember to turn your tank on, okay?”
George took a long pull of the oxygen. It all had unraveled. It was all for nothing. McAvoy had rescued Emily. They were probably already engaged. All George had gotten was smoke inhalation.
McAvoy stood up. “Tell you one thing, though. It’s good thing no one was inside. Seems her husband took her and the kid out for the day.”
George let the oxygen mask drop into his lap. He watched as the flames, coerced by the wind, licked at his father’s shop. They quickly took hold. Some of the fire company rushed to the building. George didn’t move. Having seen his father in the crowd he didn’t think twice about him. George just sat there and watched the building burn.
The next day, George went sifting through the wreckage. He parked his car in front, his blue light flashing so everyone knew it was official business. Among it all he found the humidor he had given Emily. It was charred and water soaked, but still recognizable. He picked it up and wiped it off. When he turned it over, he found on the bottom a price tag. Emily’s price tag. He sat down and stared at it. He took the diamond ring out of his shirt pocket and placed it inside the humidor. He closed the box. Then went to his car, removed the light from the roof and drove away.