When you wake up to a phone call from your best friend and business partner, and he tells you fire marshals from three different counties are waiting for you at the hilltop construction site of a million dollar dream-house and they have some questions they’d like to ask you … you don’t have to wonder. It’s gonna be a shitty day. No doubt about it. It’s never awesome when fire marshals have questions and you’re the one with the answers.
Knocking sleep from my head, I said into the phone, “…Fire marshals, huh? Sure. I’ll head out there right now. Was there a —”
My friend said, “Guess it’s pretty bad. Don’t know the details, but hurry up because they’re waiting for you.”
I should’ve said, “Okay … I’m headed to Mexico, but you tell them I said Reno.”
I didn’t say that because my life’s not an outlaw country song from the 70s. And I needed to go because my friend just arrived home from a vacation and was still at the airport when the firemen called him. Then he called me. So off I went to answer the fire marshals’ questions. As I drove, I asked myself the same question over and over again: How do you forgive someone who ruined your future?
I wanted to know because I was pretty sure I’d just ruined my best friend’s future. Somehow, I’d crossed a dividing line in my life. When I went to sleep, it was the time before the fire and when I woke up it was the time after the fire.
My best friend and I grew up in a small college town. In the summer, we worked together painting rental houses. It’s kind of a relaxed, Zen sort of job. After college, we both had the same desire to be independent. We wanted to be our own bosses. I wanted time to write. He wanted time to ski and go fishing. Wisdom says, “Never go into business with friends.” We said, “Fuck that!” And we started a painting business.
I eventually planned to move, so we gave our company his last name. The license, bond and insurance, the legal and financial responsibilities were all in his name. Other than that, it was a partnership.
We had a ton of fun. We’d monkey around. We did what we wanted. We took off four months for winter so he could ski and I could travel. We did high-end custom work. We never advertised. We had no website. We just had a cellphone number, some business cards, and excellent word-of-mouth. After two years in business, we were awarded a contract to paint an enormous multi-million dollar dream-house.
We called the place Rattlesnake Ridge. It was constructed in the wrinkled hills that split Napa Valley from the Sacramento Valley. The owner was a mega-rich developer. He leveled a hilltop and started erecting his custom villa. It took the stonemasons months to build his observation tower. Galileo’s telescope would’ve fit in perfectly.
The construction site earned its deadly nickname. In the seven months we were there, workers caught or killed fifty-six rattlesnakes. I’m terrified of snakes — rattle or otherwise. My friend and partner knew how much I hated that dream-house. But that doesn’t mean I wanted to burn it down.
Sometimes when you’re properly fucked by Fate, you’ll experience a sort-of shell-shocked numbness. My advice is: embrace that feeling. Hang onto it like it’s gold. It’s the best you’re gonna feel for a long time because eventually you realize … this is really happening. And that moment, my friends, is worse than sucking sewage through a straw.
I expected the firemen to be rude. They’d been up all night putting out my wildfire. But the three fire marshals were nice. Each wore a well-meaning, non-ironic mustache. They told me the fire was 85% extinguished. The fire marshal from Solano County told me I’d started a 41-acre wildfire that burned the side of a mountain and most of the one next to it.
The detached garage was about the size of a three-bedroom suburban home. All that was left of it was collapsed into an enormous pile of blackened rubble, surrounded by crumbled adobe brick walls and topped with burnt-up ceiling timbers. Stepping on the still smoldering rubble, I pointed out to the fire marshals where we’d stored all of our volatile chemicals and where the homeowners stored all their brand new ultra-expensive appliances. Then I showed them the door handles and hinges — all that was left of the twelve-foot tall authentic California Mission doors. Each antique door cost thousands of dollars. There used to be eighteen of them.
I told the fire marshals we’d been using oil-based wood stain in the house for weeks. I told them how, every day, we inappropriately handled and stored the volatile chemicals. I showed them where we illegally stored five-gallon buckets stuffed with highly-flammable oily rags, surrounded by all sorts of volatile chemicals, encircled by piles of canvas drop-cloths, and of course, the eighteen authentic California Mission doors. They told me it might be impossible to make a more perfect and expensive starter kit for a structure fire. I knew we were supposed to have a metal firebox for the rags but we didn’t have one.
The fire marshal from Yolo County had the best mustache of the three of them. When I was done answering questions and dooming my friend’s future, he and his mustache told me, in twenty-three years of doing his job, I was the first person he’d ever met who told him the complete truth no matter how stupid it made me look.
He said, “Everyone lies to us. And then we always find out. Appreciate your honesty.”
I said, “If I’m gonna ruin my best friend’s life … I might as well do it the way he wants me to … He said I should tell you guys the truth. He knows I’m a terrible liar.”
According to the Napa County fire marshal’s best guess, based on the information I’d given them, the fire was started by sunlight. As the sun set, rays of light were magnified through a plastic bag and ignited an oily rag. The fire burned slowly for most of the night. At some point around four a.m. the roof collapsed, creating a cloud of sparks and a rain of tiny fiery debris, which landed on the dry summer grass. That’s how the structure fire became a wildfire. An insomniac neighbor on the next mountain called 911. And that’s what saved the dream-house from becoming charred timbers. Sometimes you get lucky.
The firemen said I was free to leave. It was time to go back to my life. But seriously, would you want to go back? I wanted someone else’s life. Mine sucked because I’d just ruined my best friend’s life.
When your world suddenly turns horrible…
Forget the past, it’s gone.
Just try to get through the present as fast as you can.
Focus on the future, where it might be better one day.
As I drove home, one thought banged around in my head.
Someone has to pay for this fire.
I called my friend as I drove. Not a fun call. But he didn’t cuss. He didn’t yell. He didn’t even have a nasty tone. He’s known for having a temper. And for knocking dudes out with one punch. But, he sounded very matter-of-fact about the whole thing. He asked what I told the fire inspectors. I said the truth. He told me that was good because it’s admissible in court. I knew, that he knew, he was fucked.
In business, a company must be insured in case anything goes wrong … like a fire. Before he left on his vacation, I asked my partner if he paid the bill for our insurance renewal. It was 150 dollars. He told me he’d pay it. Now, because he didn’t mention it, I didn’t need to ask if he’d sent in the renewal for the insurance. We discussed our next moves. Get a lawyer and wait for someone to contact us.
When the homeowner’s insurance company finally called, they said it would cost $180,000 dollars to rebuild the garage. That’s how big the garage was, how expensive the appliances were and, of course, they had to pay for the irreplaceable eighteen authentic California Mission doors. One-hundred and eighty grand. That’s enough money to buy like, twenty-two houses in Detroit. I could live for the rest of my days on an island in the South Pacific for one-hundred and eighty grand. That’s probably more than Charlie Sheen has spent on hookers and blow (in a single year, at his peak).
I didn’t have one-hundred and eighty grand. Figured that was it. Our friendship was done. Not because of the money. Because how could he ever forgive me for fucking up his future, for crushing it with a burning mountain of debt?
I was responsible for everything while my friend was in Costa Rica. The fire was my fault. And most folks seemed to agree. The story people told was: my friend went on vacation, and while he was gone, I burned down forty-one acres and a detached garage. He endured the same conversation whenever he ran into someone who’d heard the story of “the fire.” Imagine living in a small college town — everyone knew the story. But after weeks of people blaming me for ruining his life, I never heard a single angry word from him.
The lawyer brokered a deal with the insurance company. It reduced my friend’s financial burden. Since I was so honest, the fire marshals testified in our favor and then testified to help the homeowner’s insurance company turn around and sue the homeowners. It got really messy at the end. When all was settled and done, my friend owed $50,000 dollars.
When we heard the final total, I apologized, but he stopped me. He said it wasn’t my fault. Could you say that? It was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen or heard.
Before I burned down a garage, eighteen authentic California Mission doors and forty-one acres of a mountainside, I didn’t know how to forgive someone. Fifty grand later, my friend and partner taught me…
The best way to forgive someone is not to blame them.
Even if they ruin your future … don’t blame them.
Blame the universe, dumb luck, fuzzy math, the Illuminati, organized religion, the world’s worst Monday … just don’t blame a person.
A few months ago, I went to my friend’s wedding. We got really drunk at the reception. We had a good time. No one mentioned “the fire” or the $50,000 dollars. He’s paid it off. It’s in the past. For me, the fact that I was even at his wedding, reminded me how crazy my friend is. He let a $50,000 dollar mountain of debt melt away like sugar in the rain. For a shit-talking ski bum who’s been known to knock out dudes with one punch, and make them do the silly-dance before they collapse, the guy surprised me with his compassion.
Thanks to my most costly fuck-up yet, I learned from my friend the most valuable lesson:
If you don’t blame anyone … you don’t need to forgive anyone.
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