After Arson
Gary Fincke

The soft thud above me might be the cat, but I know it is my son placing the barbells on the carpet. Derek works at the weights in a way that makes me worry it is hopeless. On the first night he tried to lift, he struggled to push just the empty bar over his head.

Now, without walking upstairs to check, I know there are two small doughnuts, two and one half pounds each, he presses ten times. He has asked for a bench; he has rummaged through the medicine chest for talcum powder, equating his efforts with the delicate needs of a billiards expert.

These workouts sustain his faith in growth. Only one boy in his class is smaller. Derek understands heredity, and he is frustrated by the disparity between our heights.

I have reminded him about favorable odds and time. He finishes three sets and starts down the steps to check for results in a mirror by the side door. When he sees I am watching, he turns his back to the glass. “No more ‘Wimp,’” he says. “Or ‘beanpole.’ I’ll ring the bell this summer when the carnival comes to the Rotary field.”

I tell him there’s a secret to the carnival’s test of strength, that the game he’s asked me to try three summers in a row is rigged. “The wire that the weight’s on is slack,” I say. “No matter how hard you swing the hammer, the weight won’t rise all the way to the bell.”

Derek shakes his head and recounts the number of bells rung by older boys and fathers, unlike me, who are willing to test themselves. “The carnival guy always takes the slack out for a swing or two,” I explain. “He makes sure somebody rings the bell occasionally, or else nobody else will play after a while.” Derek thinks for a second. “You’re just embarrassed,” he finally replies.

At the end of one of those nights when I return home late, my wife is waiting for me with an expression of crisis stitched onto her face. Liz is otherwise unmarked, so I expect to hear about my mother’s heart or splints applied to Derek or one of our other two children.

This time I am wrong. It is Derek, all right, but instead of a doctor, a policeman. What does a boy just turned eleven have to do to be detained for questioning? In a small town like ours, not much, but this is serious, Liz insists, a fire in a public rest room, the near-catastrophic spread of flames through a community theater.

Or something close to that. Paper towels had been lit. They had flared, according to what Liz has been told, threatening the brittle wooden walls of the converted barn, but Derek and the theater were still standing. Nevertheless, a confrontation was waiting for me in the theater office, and I was expected to drive back across town to meet it.

Derek claims, Liz says, that he had been only an accidental witness, standing in the rest room when another boy had tried to prove himself with matches. After I ask why I am needed then, Liz shrugs.

When I arrive, Derek is sitting across a table from a policeman who simply nods when I enter. I figure him at once for a tyrant or a fool. SELINSGROVE SEALS is printed in white, block letters on the front of the red cap Derek wears. I check off a series of hard-edged possible responses to the stupidity of what I anticipate is about to happen.

“Tell me what happened while your father listens,” the policeman says.

There were long pauses in the rehearsal, Derek explains. His part, as well as the other boy’s, was small, and they had time to fill. When he watched the other boy light the towels, it had seemed like a performance, something he was expected to watch. He had not even helped throw water when the towel roll opened up across the floor, flames traveling like thick thread. Even when it was over, it still seemed like the other boy’s role, and Derek hadn’t said anything to anybody because nothing looked to him like it was damaged.

Except, I think, now Derek is accused because he expects everyone to be truthful and doesn’t understand the word-against-word dilemma of investigation. I look to the policeman to see how he’s interpreting, but instead of saying anything, he nods again and leaves the room.

Sometimes I am surprised by things. Sometimes there are moments when the world is pliable enough for hope. When the policeman returns, he is pleasant and articulate. Derek is believed. The other boy has lied so badly he could do nothing, eventually, but confess.

“It’s because you had a coat and tie on,” Liz says when we get home. “Being dressed like that at 10:30 at night impresses the police.” Derek twirls his hat on one finger, blurring the stylized blue seal below the white letters. A couple of revolutions and it flies off into the centerpiece of dried flowers.

“Everything is going soft on this planet,” the policeman had said while Derek was retrieving his jacket. “You need to keep a watchdog now just to keep from sinking into the world.”

“We have a cat,” I had said, and he had looked quizzically at me. He had laughed, too, although a beat was missed. The hat with the aggressive blue seal displaces the flower arrangement. “He’s still in the play,” I say. “The other boy is being replaced.”

“On such short notice?”

Derek reaches out to pull the hat free. He begins to twirl it again.

“It doesn’t take DeNiro. Somebody can learn it in a few days.”

This time the hat lands by my feet. I pick it up in a way that keeps Derek from asking for it back.

At breakfast, before his brother and sister come downstairs, Derek explains the urgency of his recurring dream. It is my fault, Liz reminds me, that he has it.

He is running from the pods. All of us have changed, invaded by aliens. Beginning with the remake seen more than two years before and ending with the original watched last month, Derek has sat through both versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

After watching the remake, he’d gone to sleep, as usual, with his Darth Vader punching bag—one of those tall, weighted balloons that sways and bounces and always returns to upright—standing beside his bed. An hour later he’d woken to the certainty of an attack by the pods. A life-size one stood near his face.

“Am I changed?” he had screamed. “Am I changed?”

I had tried to reason with him. I had turned on the light to show him Vader’s plastic face.

“You’re pretending,” he had said. “You’re a pod man. The real you is in the garbage.”

Vader had to be deflated. A night light had been found in a drawer. “Eight years-old,” Liz had said, “and you’ve given him a changeling complex.”

The pods have returned several times a year since then, and his horror stories, when I try to extract them, break off in him like ticks. I imagine holding some kind of medicinal flame to each of them. I imagine his watching the original film when he is eleven will show him it is time to stop worrying. Instead, I listen, this time, to his revelation that everyone who is not real has a tiny red mark behind his ears. After I pour the orange juice, I allow him to check near my hair line.

“Every time,” he says, “I am the only one left who isn’t changed.” When I ask him what he sees behind my ears, he shrugs and returns to his cereal.

That night we watch a television show that shows clips of famous televised magic. Near the end, a magician makes the Statue of Liberty disappear. The statue weighs 225 tons, we learn, seeing an audience follow the action in person.

The magician prattles on about freedom and immigrants and his mother, an enormous curtain tellingly closed behind him. “I remember this one,” I say, “but I didn’t watch.”

A set of commercials comes on. “He can’t do it,” Derek says. “It’s just a trick.”

After the commercials, when the curtain finally opens, the statue is gone. Searchlights play over the empty space; the live audience is astonished. And then the magician closes the curtain again and begins to preach about the importance of freedom, running on so long I tell Derek he’s moving the audience, not the statue. “They think they’re looking at the same space, but he’s turned them,” I say. “Now he’s stalling while he turns them back.”

Derek leans forward and stares. When the statue reappears, he sits up and says, “You’re wrong. It’s a fake statue. He’s changed it just like the body snatchers.”

“It’s him, Dad,” Derek says a few weeks later, pointing at the newspaper. I am watching a Pittsburgh Pirate relief pitcher walk the winning run into scoring position.

He places the paper on my lap and shows me the picture on the front page. I glance down at one of those faces you know but don’t know. “Who?” I say.

“The policeman at the playhouse.”

“Oh.” I think of how reflexively I wave at such people, hoping a gesture is enough. A lefthander trudges into the nearly hopeless situation. The heart of the lineup will surely drive in the run that will put the Pirate losing streak at five.

“He got killed. Somebody shot him four times.”

“Around here?” For a moment, just before I pick up the newspaper and begin to read, I think of how many times someone has said this, looking around the vulnerable spots in his house as if insulation could keep out every kind of weather.

The killer, the paper says, had been seeking revenge. He had stepped out of the darkness and fired four times through the patrol car window.

It turned out he was mistaken. The policeman he had meant to kill was sitting in another car at the beginning of the speed trap. They had switched cars. It was boring, after all, to do nothing but read numbers. Thirty minutes had passed since the killer had been given a speeding ticket—time enough to go home, load a rifle, and return. Perhaps the road, two lanes along the river, had reminded him of a frontier. There was a Country & Western bar a short distance away. After he fired the shots, the killer walked to it and ordered a beer and smoked a cigarette, according to a patron, by taking cowboy-film drags.

So the arrest had been simple. There was even an eyewitness. Parked in front of the patrol car was a pick-up truck whose driver was being cited for littering. Sitting under the dome light, the policeman had been writing the citation when the avenger fired. The litterer had looked out into the face of a man who had just fired a rifle into the body of a policeman. They had stared at each other until the man on foot had crossed the road, tossed the rifle onto the seat of his jeep, and walked off toward the tavern.

Later, everyone in the bar claimed they knew he was the killer because he had been the only one who had not rushed to the door when a man shouted from outside that someone had been shot.

“He didn’t take no mess from nobody,” a friend explained when he was interviewed. “He didn’t ‘low nothin’ to fool with his head.”

There were short biographies of both victim and killer. There were comments from teachers and relatives. The killer’s friend ran on for half a column. “Bad news went down when you messed with him,” he said at the close.

After a spring of record rain, nothing for over a week but heat, the black flies prosper. In this part of Pennsylvania there is a characteristic fanning of the face in warm weather. A stranger riding through town would wonder at the mannerism. If he stopped to inquire, he would quickly discover its source and either be assimilated or covered by welts.

For fifteen minutes, I have been brushing the gnats away and watching the lot in front of the college auditorium fill with police cars. Five hundred uniformed mourners have been promised. An equal number of civilians.

The black flies break into small clouds and cover the crowd. Derek walks across the grass toward me. He looks strange in pants—school has been out for a week. His expression is equally out of place. A first funeral should be some vague great-uncle who seemed to have been born old.

We sit far to the side. There are, perhaps, a dozen people we know here. None of them are policemen. The service is a Catholic one. Several priests stand on the stage, but only one is elaborately dressed. He will say the important things.

The program, I realize, is exactly like a church service. At least until the homily, which is filled with allegories for hope and faith. Derek looks straight ahead. He may be afraid to turn, believing someone will lecture him immediately about behavior. However, when I don’t read the responses or sing the hymns, he is silent, too.

When the policemen who choose to take communion file through the aisles, all of them cup their hands in front of them. Some lessons stay. No one is self-conscious.

An hour of this, prayer and praise. A large picture is mounted above the closed casket. Even from thirty rows back I can tell it’s an enlargement of the photograph in the newspaper.

The priest concludes by telling the story of a little girl’s fantasy of heaven. She claimed, when asked, that everyone had the same expression of happiness. It was that perfect smile, she said, the one that animals have in my picture books. Derek appears to be listening closely.

And then the five hundred policemen exit. They are forming, I am sure, an elongated corridor of grief through which the coffin and the family will pass. A

Gary Fincke’s fourth collection of short stories, Sorry I Worried You, which won the 2003 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and Amp’d: A Father’s Backstage Pass, his nonfiction account of his son’s life in two signed rock bands, were both published in 2004.

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