Header Image

The Fire

by Thomas J. Stanton

An accountant received a less-than-average singing telegram for his sixtieth birthday. The accountant was only able to judge the performance of the singing telegram on the grounds that he had been given one by his wife every year since they married, thirty-six years prior. To the accountant, thirty-six years of having people sing clever little jingles to him had made him something of an unofficial expert in the field of singing telegrams, and he gradually grew unafraid to express his opinion.

Later that night, he told his wife, who every year is anxious to hear how the singing telegram has gone, that the performers were, “just not together. It was a man and a woman this time,” he said, lying in bed the night of his sixtieth birthday. “They just didn’t seem as happy as they should be. You’ve been getting me these things for a long time, Florence. I’ve seen clowns and hula dancers. There was that young man who did the wonderful Elvis impersonation. But these two just didn’t have a spark. They seemed rushed and rude. It’s my birthday, for crying out loud.”

In the middle of the night, the wife of the accountant cried quietly.

The man and the woman who had given the accountant the inadequate singing telegram were, in fact, married and had three children. It would have been beyond the accountant’s understanding to assume that the lack of chemistry between the man and the woman could be due to issues of the family. As it turned out, the oldest of the couple’s three children had deliberately started a very destructive fire in the hills above the town where the man and the woman and the accountant and his wife all lived.

“What the hell was that?”

“What the hell was what; the performance?”

“Yes, the performance! You were off-key at least four times, and you said ‘crappy’ instead of ‘happy,’ don't think I didn't catch that.”

“Well, forgive me if I have other things on my mind.”

The oldest son of the singing telegramists, the arsonist, had gone into the forest two days before the accountant’s sixtieth birthday and poured five bottles of lighter fluid into the shape of a giant peace sign. The son was mesmerized by what fire could do, how it moved through objects like something supernatural, like a character that he read about in his middle school mythology class. Fire communicated to people in a way that everybody understood and obeyed.

First to bring word of the fire to the rest of the city was one of the local news stations. The broadcast journalist, a man wearing a heavy coat, a fire helmet, and surgical mask said, “three houses burned to the ground already” and “no human casualties yet, but the fire is growing stronger by the minute.” The accountant sat in front of his television, stunned by the power of the fire and yelled to his wife, who was in the kitchen fixing a roast, “Who in the hell has done such a horrible thing, Florence? And right before my birthday even! They said it was some kid, an arsonist. They caught him. If you gave me five minutes in a room with that little shit…” the accountant trailed off.

The broadcast journalist who first reported news of the growing fire to the rest of the city had been with the T.V. station for ten years and so was a well-known and trusted television personality in the city. The reporter had even run for mayor twice, only narrowly losing both times. Immediately following the report on the fire -- heavy coat and surgical mask and fire helmet -- the reporter went to a hotel and ordered the services of a sex worker. This was not something necessarily unusual for the reporter. He had done the same thing in 1981, when a devastating flood turned swaths of the city into a crumbling disaster, then in 1982 when a serial murderer paralyzed the city for three months, and again when a bank robber hit four banks in two hours, and then only a few months before the fire, during a ten-car pile-up on I-70.

“Hey Frank, you want your usual?” asked the woman on the other line.

“Yeah,” said the reporter, “and if possible, could you not use my real name when we're talking on the telephone? I thought we'd already discussed a different name that we would use. I'm sure you understand, just for the sake of safety. A lot of people in this city know me.”

“Sure, um, Todd,” she corrected herself. “I'll be there in about fifteen minutes.”

The oldest son of the couple was held at the police station for several hours and questioned unrelentingly. After starting the fire he had tripped over a rock and knocked himself out, unquestionably linking him to the crime. A female hiker rescued him. She would later receive the key to the city for her bravery, as well as a job in the mayor's office, which she would later quit, claiming sexual harassment.

When the singing telegramists came to gather their oldest son from the police station, the son was crying. He did not know why he had caused so much trouble. The police were angry. The couple was confused as to why their son had done such a horrible thing as to start a fire that looked like it may go on for days, yet happy that he was safe and not burned to death, and yet angry that he had done something like this, and yet guilty that, in some strange way, they may have alienated him into a position that he would make such a cliché cry for help. All three of them: the mother, the father and their oldest son, were silent for the car ride home.

By the fourth day of the fire, the news reporter was doing several lines of cocaine with the sex worker. “I love you,” he told her. “I love you so much. Please don’t tell on me,” he told her. “Please, please, please, please don’t tell on me.”

After the fire had burned for a week, twelve houses were destroyed, scorched seemingly back to a time before they were built, before the city had expanded wildly into the wilderness, during the early 1970's. Most parts of the fire had been completely contained, but a few glowing cells shifted in the wind, uncontrollably. The firefighters remained optimistic.

The couple that had performed the unsatisfactory singing telegram only six days prior and their two youngest children had gone to stay in a hotel for a few weeks. As it turned out, the courageous female hiker had informed another woman at her salon as to the secret identity of the arsonist. Her hairstylist, later that afternoon, told another one of her regular customers who, in turn, was going to a dinner party that night. Three large rocks were thrown through the window of the couple’s house the next morning.

As they packed their bags, the couple and their two youngest children started to receive profane phone calls. They would receive thirty in four hours.

A week after it was started, the fire took its first and only fatality, a forty-two-year-old eye surgeon from the East hills. The young arsonist had made an early plea bargain and agreed to stay in a juvenile facility for one year. He watched in the T.V. room as the final cells of the fire shifted drastically in another direction and took two more houses, one of which belonged to the surgeon who had steadfastly refused to be evacuated.

That evening, the news reporter dropped a few hits of L.S.D, something he had not done since high school. He stood naked in front of a hotel mirror, arms outstretched, and imagined himself as some sort of mythological figure.

And then, three days later, the rain came. The accountant and his wife were in the grocery store. The courageous hiker was going down on the mayor in the back of a movie theater. The young arsonist was in his bunk, reading the bible. The news reporter was at a strip club. The singing telegramists were just laying down for the night while their middle daughter was in the bathtub, timing herself as to how long she could hold her breath underwater.

Just a day before the downpour, a good portion of the city had vested their interest in a local prayer group. “We think that the firefighters are doing a great job, we really do, but we thought it could only help to enlist the help of the man upstairs. As you all know, it worked last year with J.P., and so we thought it couldn’t hurt to put together a great group of prayer makers, and just see what happens.”

The prayer group’s success rate was adequate. A year earlier, the group had prayed for the innocence of J.P. Streeter, a local Christian boy band frontman who was on trial for aggravated assault. Parents in the prayer group kept their daughters out of school for most of the trial and had them make t-shirts and posters with puffy paint; they danced and sang some of the more-recognizable hits from the boy band’s musical repertoire outside the courthouse. The group ultimately triumphed and celebrated ecstatically when they found “West Side Prayer Group” listed in the dedications of the boy band’s moderately successful third album, “Faith in the Fast Lane.”

By morning, the rain had put the rest of the fire out. The singing telegramists watched a news report of the West Side Prayer Group taking responsibility. “We don’t necessarily want to take all the credit the fire fighters are absolutely deserved of some of it. But with the help of the man upstairs this fire will no longer hurt another person or burn down another house.”

The singing telegramists called the juvenile facility to see how their son was doing. “Arsonists don’t always have it easy in here,” a counselor at the juvenile facility told them. “Nobody does. Kids can be very cruel sometimes, I’m sure you’ve heard that before, but strangely there is a certain kind of malignity directed towards kids that have done widespread harm. Drug convictions and even robberies are seen as fairly victimless crimes to most of the kids here. It’s difficult for them to see the reverberations of crimes like those because they’re more abstract. Arson is different. The kids see the disaster and the victims and the problems that it causes, firsthand. I promise you though, we’ll do our best to take care of him.” The youngest son of the couple got beat every night with books wrapped in pillowcases, while he lay in his bunk. “Ten times for every house that gets burned to the ground,” the shadows told him.

Beyond that there was the accountant and his wife, sitting in their living room, the inconstant flicker of television re-runs illuminated and then hiding their tired bodies. “You know what Florence, I’ve been thinking about it all, and I think that next year I’ll make the arrangement for the singing telegram. This year was such a disaster. It’d be best if I handled my own birthdays from now on.”

And beyond that conversation, there was the news reporter.

“I can’t get it up.”


“I told you, I can’t get it up. I just can’t do it.”

“But these last few weeks it’s been so good.”

And beyond all that there was the courageous hiker. She cried while she accepted an award at a charity ball, recounting her brave deed with animated certainty. The crowd was mesmerized, some crying a little themselves. Afterwards, the hiker sat at home, smoking a cigarette, and wondering to herself, how she had done it; how her body, the body she inhabited now, had changed into something different, something fearless, how she had changed suddenly into something better than herself.

Thomas J. Stanton received a master's degree in creative writing from the University of Southern California. His writing can be found in various places. He lives in Los Angeles. @_thomasjstanton.

stop here