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Fiction by Alex Tronson

Bob’s on Fire

I went out to Bob’s house in the suburbs to see the damage. His house was impressive. A big lawn. A two-car garage. But the front picture window was all smashed up. There were bits of glass all over the flower boxes. Even so, with the shattered window, this place seemed to loom over me and my own studio apartment.

Bob greeted me as he was coming out onto the front porch, wearing a new denim jacket and a Twins baseball cap, with his long blond hair spilling out over his ears. He was lighting a hand-rolled cigarette.

Hey, Pal,” Bob said. He nodded to the window. Del’s got a pretty good throw. Must run in the family.”

How do you know it was him?”

His truck rattles like a bowling ball in a washing machine. I’d recognize that sound anywhere.”

He threw a brick in your window,” I said. He must be pretty upset.”

Oh, sure,” Bob said. If you think he’s upset now.”

Bob went down the porch steps and over to the garage. He raised the overhead door. I followed him inside. There was a lot of room in the garage because Bob’s car, a very nice navy-blue Chevy sedan, was parked out on the driveway. Bob dabbed his cigarette in an ashtray on the workbench and picked up a small plastic bucket and a red gas can. He poured a little gasoline into the bucket and set it down in the center of the room.

What’s this about?” I said.

Napalm,” Bob said, raising a finger at me. Wait here just a second.”

Bob disappeared through a door to the house.

I took a few steps and peered down into the plastic bucket. Bob and I had been roommates in college. We had lived together for two years, but he rarely talked about his relationship with his brother, Del. In fact, Bob only ever mentioned him in passing, as the butt of jokes. Del was often the target of various pranks, some of which I had actually helped Bob commit. And now here we were, with this bucket of gasoline. I didn’t understand what Bob was meaning to do with it.

The other thing going on was my uncle, my dad’s brother, had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. This meant Dad was spending a lot of time at my uncle’s place helping him out. The last time I saw Dad, he’d told me that my uncle’s brain was like a bundle of Christmas lights. Some days half the strand was out. And other days they all twinkled as intended. He was forgetting a lot about his past.

All these brothers. Needless to say, I had a lot on my mind. I was an only child. Bob came in behind me holding two bottles of Grain Belt. There was a thin slab of Styrofoam tucked under his arm. He offered up the beer and said to me, To winning.” Whatever you say,” I said. I took one of the beers, and we drank.

Bob knelt down and broke the Styrofoam into chunks. He jammed the pieces into the bucket and mixed them all around. As he worked, I could see the Styrofoam was disintegrating into a white goo. It was amazing to see.

I said to him, What exactly is the plan here?”

I’m going to burn his truck,” Bob said.

With napalm?”

With napalm, yes.”

How’d you get to this point? Throwing bricks and making bombs and all that. It’s insane.”

My brother’s a spiteful, hateful, and jealous bastard,” Bob said. And it’s not a bomb. It’s more like jelly.”

Still,” I said. Why so much violence?”

Bob laughed. You were always kind of a hippie.”

Where’s Del, now?” I said.

Lives in our mom’s old house.”

Aren’t you worried someone’ll get hurt?”

He’s going to tap out,” Bob said. It’s like a game of bloody knuckles.”

But with bricks and bombs.”

It’s not a bomb,” Bob said again. This stuff just burns and burns, and it’s tough to put out. You’ve got to smother it to put it out. Plus, I’m buying a new car soon, and I’ll sell him the Impala in the driveway, there. He wouldn’t get a dime for that old truck anyway. He’ll be thanking me when this is all over.”

I’m not sure he’s going to see it that way,” I told him.

He will,” Bob said. I’ll make him see.”

I myself wasn’t seeing Bob’s big picture plan. It was all too aggressive for me. I wanted him and Del to put this feud to bed. I didn’t understand how two siblings could hate each other so much. Sure, Dad and my uncle had their spats, but it was obvious that they loved each other. And arson? I was curious, of course, but it didn’t sit right with me.

Bob asked if I’d drive him because he wanted to maintain the element of surprise. I agreed, thinking I could talk him out of the plan on the way. And as for Del, I didn’t know him. I wasn’t even sure what he looked like.

Bob was finished with the napalm which now looked like a bucket of melted marshmallows. He brought it down to my car, and we took off, driving slow as to not jostle the bucket too much.

I said, You know you didn’t really answer me back there.”

About what?”

How did it come to this? You and Del?”

Bob futzed with the radio presets and some jazz came through the speakers. Who can really know?” he said. Del’s always been jealous of me.”

Jealous doesn’t get your truck blown up,” I said. Why’s he so mad at you?”

Cars don’t blow up,” Bob said. Not in real life.”

I was getting impatient. What happened to you guys?”

Del’s always hated me for being better at stuff. Better at school. At sports. At girls.” Bob laughed. What can I say? I’ve been on a roll since I was born.”

I didn’t understand. He blames you for him being worse at things?”

Pretty much so,” Bob said. He’s older than me by a year. Thinks that counts for something.”

I wish I had a brother,” I said. Or a sister. I was pretty lonely growing up.”

Being lonely isn’t so bad,” Bob said. If Del wasn’t around, all my windows would be intact.”

We took a long winding road outside of town. The late afternoon was cold and grey. Bob directed me through an area where hardly anybody lived. The trees were lifeless, and there were only a few houses in the hills.

What could I say now to dissuade him? At this point, it seemed Bob’s mind was pretty much made up. He cradled the bucket of napalm tenderly in his lap. He drummed his fingers along the side of it.

We’re going to be just fine,” Bob said, but I couldn’t tell if he was talking about him and Del or the two of us here in the car. Did I tell you I got that promotion?” he said.

What does that make you now?” I said to Bob.

A security manager.”

That’s great,” I said. Really good.”

I know it,” he said.

I start working at the museum this week,” I told him.

The one downtown?” he said.

That’s the one.”

And what does that make you?” he said.

A gallery assistant,” I said. I make sure nobody fucks around with the art.”

Kind of like security, too,” Bob said.

I sat up in my seat a little. Kind of,” I said.

Bob sighed. Almost there,” he said. Take the next right.”

I gestured to the napalm in Bob’s lap. Is there anything I can say to change your mind about this?”

Bob didn’t say anything.

Del’s house stood by itself off the county road, but it wasn’t part of any farm. The truck Bob was looking to burn up was parked diagonally in the unpaved driveway.

I parked up the street and left the engine running.

Bob opened the passenger door and stepped out.

I rolled down the window and said, Hey, Bob. Wait a sec.”

Yeah?”

What about the cops?”

What about the cops?”

Won’t Del call them?”

Then Bob said something that surprised me. He laughed and said, Not a chance.”

And for a moment, I wished I was Bob. Not because of his nice house, or car, or promotion, and certainly not for this business with the napalm, but because it was suddenly very clear to me how well he knew his brother. I realized I’d never had that feeling with anybody. These two had watched each other grow up. They had watched each other their entire lives. And even if one got sick and started forgetting things. Even if one of them was forgetting about all the things they’d done as kids or teens or adults, they’d still be brothers.

I watched Bob move low and fast up to Del’s truck and scrape the napalm into the driver’s side window. I was nervous. I’d never been a getaway driver before.

Bob reached into the truck holding a cigarette lighter, and when he pulled his arm back out, flames were crawling up the forearm of his jacket. Bob howled. Fucking Christ!” he cried. He stumbled backward, flinging himself into Del’s yard.

I watched Bob’s flaming arm in amazement. It hadn’t occurred to me that Bob’s plan might fail so spectacularly. I shut off the car, got out, and ran into the yard where Bob was writhing around on his stomach, batting his arm against the grass.

A large man, who I took for Del, was on the porch now, running a hand over his mustache. In his other hand, he held a dark dripping towel or blanket. It didn’t look as though he’d noticed the truck yet, the interior of which was leaking smoke and flickering with golden light. Del was saying, Bob, you stupid asshole.”

Oh my god!” Bob yelled. I’m going to die!”

Roll around!” I called out to him. You got to roll!”

You’re not going to die,” Del said as he came down off the porch. He stood over Bob in the yard for a moment, then dove downward with the blanket. Hold still,” he said to Bob and began smothering the flames.

After a few seconds, Bob said, Okay! All right. Okay!”

Got to make sure,” Del said and started whipping him with the towel.

Bob coughed and sputtered. The sun was setting behind a crop of bronze clouds. The fire on Bob’s arm was out, but the upholstery in Del’s truck was pretty much ablaze.

Del turned and looked at the truck. He dropped the blanket in the grass. He cleared his throat but didn’t say anything.

Bob sneezed. Don’t let it bum you out,” he said. That truck cost about as much as my window.” He laughed, but I could tell he was in a lot of pain.

Plus, Bob’s going to give you his car,” I said. Right, Bob?”

Del looked right through me. Who are you?” was all he said.

A friend,” I told him, of Bob’s.”

Bob was moaning. I think I need to go to the hospital,” he said.

The flames eating up the truck’s driver’s seat had grown and were now lapping at the roof like dog’s tongues.

Del unraveled the garden hose and sprayed down the truck’s interior, overwhelming the flames with enough water to put them out with one last gasp. The front seats of Del’s truck were scorched through.

I helped Bob into my car and together, the three of us, we went to the hospital to get Bob’s arm checked out. On the way to the hospital, I said, To be honest, I don’t really know what you guys are fighting about.”

When I was twelve,” Del said, Bob sold my bike to a stranger for twenty-five bucks.”

You never rode that thing,” Bob said. He sounded weak.

But I was only half-listening. As I drove, I was thinking about something my Dad had said during our most recent Sunday dinner. He told me that he’d started lying to my uncle about some things. Small things. Letting his brother misremember certain events. He was enabling a few of his brother’s fantasies and hallucinations to protect him. He hated to see his brother so confused. If he’s not upset about it,” Dad said, who am I to correct him?” And when we had finished eating, Dad said, As long as it doesn’t hurt him.”

The urgent care center rose up in front of us and I pulled the car into the drop-off lane.

Del turned to look Bob in the face, saying, I could cave your head in.”

Bob looked white and sick. But you’d miss me,” he said.

Alex Tronson

Twitter: @alex_tronson
IG: @alextronson

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