The Happy Circumstance of Your Mom Being Gone

Argent came over to hang out with us the day that Liz Chaplin got my friend Jippy to tell me that if I asked her out, she’d go out with me.

“Using gasoline as an accelerant isn’t that crazy,” Argent said. “I know that people make a big deal out of not playing with gas, but if you’re not an idiot about it, it’s fine.”

We looked at Argent with looks we wanted him to read as “what are you talking about?”

“I mean, you guys light stuff on fire anyway, right?” he said.

We all nodded or intoned a low ”yeah.” Argent made the gesture you make with your hands in front of, palms upturned, akin to a shrug, that says, “we have to admit that I’m right, don’t we?”

“I do it in my garage at home all the time, and I’ve never gotten caught, never burned anything down. Like we have this hole in our garage floor, and I found this old metal pipe that’s this long,” Argent held his hands 12 inches apart,” and I put it in the hole, and then pour some gas in there, drop a match down it, and boom, shoots fire almost to the ceiling.”

We all laughed, against our will. I laughed against my will. Argent didn’t hang out with us, which had been fine with us, or me, because he felt unmanageable. He wore clothes with sports insignia. He followed, and considered himself a fan of, specific professional sports teams, for reasons that we, or I, couldn’t understand. I could understand why someone would enjoy sports, but I couldn’t conceive of how someone could choose a particular team to follow.

“I do that in my garage, without anyone finding out. And my garage is connected to my house, unlike yours.” He waved a hand around to draw our attention to the structure whose threshold he stood inside. ”Not to mention the happy circumstance of your mom being gone.”

Jippy shook his head like he was trying to swing a spider off his nose. We called him “Jippy” because his younger brother called him “Jippy” because his younger brother even at eight years old could say only the words “eggs” and “gun” clearly,

“Cool,” Jippy said. “Lighting gasoline on fire sounds cool. I’ve mystified my mom by burning off several cans of PAM cooking spray. Do you know PAM brand cooking spray? It creates a pretty neat blowtorch if you use it in conjunction with any kind of kitchen lighter. The ones with the triggers. But that was a few years back.”

He shook his head a few times. Jippy’s default vocal attitude made him sound like a gameshow host at a cocktail party.

“What I think is really cool,” Jippy said, “is your jacket. You support the Bulls’ basketball team?”

“Yeah,” Argent said in a way that made it obvious that he was wondering where this line of questioning was headed. We were all wondering where this line of questioning was headed.

“I couldn’t help but notice,” Jippy said, his eyes focused at a spot five feet left of Argent’s knee. “I guess because I supported the Orlando Magic for awhile when I was 12. Because a basketball team with magical powers sounded ideal to me. Basketball without magical powers seemed fine, just not quite as interesting.”

Argent stepped back into the garage. He picked up a roll of paper towels, rolled several off into a bundle, and lit this on fire. He tossed the flaming bundle onto the ground in a gravelly divot in front of the garage. The sheets unballed themselves a bit as they flared up, then turned to leaves of ash-paper that glowed orange, then turned black and crumbled in the breeze.

“Very cool,” Jippy said. “Even devouring some paper towels, fire truly is an elemental force, and inspires, in me anyhow, both awe and respect.”

Argent ignored him.

“See, lame,” he said. “Without an accelerant there’s no flair to it. You want to feel the heat on your forehead, some sweat. Get your own personal sprinkler system going.” He took several jumpy steps backwards and grabbed the gas can.

Another spasmy bout of head-shaking overtook Jippy.

“Picking up that other thread of conversation, I actually went so far as to buy an Orlando Magic baseball cap. Then I was unsurprised but still disappointed to confirm that the team possessed no magical powers. I never bothered to learn the name of a single player on the team. I found the hat several months later, in the wet part of the basement, under a have-a-heart-trap, ruined. All moldy. The little stars of magic around the logo, that accompany and signify magical deeds accomplished, all black with mildew. As was my love for the team the hat represented.”

Argent tore a train of paper towels off. He soaked the remaining roll in gasoline.

Jippy’s stream of language and Argent’s determined series of actions worked together to incapacitate me.

“Let’s light these,” Argent said, in a voice that made this seem unassailably reasonable.

“I tried buying hats that had nothing to do with sports teams after that,” Jippy said. “I tried to wear hats that someone in James Herriot’s Yorkshire might wear.”

“Shut up, Jippy,” I said.

Argent twisted the loose paper towels into a sort of fuse. He poured gasoline over the fuse. He ran the fuse to the roll.

Jippy moved towards Argent as Argent stuck his hand into his pocket and retrieved a lighter. The rest of us stood there or sat there.

“Don’t light it,” Jippy said. “I tried the indirect approach, but I think you should stop. All that’s required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”

Argent kicked Jippy in the knee. We stood there. Argent lit the paper towel fuse on fire, the flame ran to the paper towel roll, which grew like a bush of flame. The dry grass around the front of the garage caught fire. The overflowing contents of the trashcans just inside the garage caught fire.

“Stomp it out,” I said. I was walking towards the garage.

“Don’t,” Jippy said. He pointed to the gas can, which sat just a couple feet away from the trashcans. “That’ll catch in just a second.”

We moved away. The gas can caught and exploded, threw flames further into the garage. Our bike tires expanded then exploded. The whole garage was on fire.

Argent walked over and stood next to me.

“I love Liz,” he said. He walked to the street and away.

We moved further away from the garage, as sweat grew on our faces. The flames from the garage burned without any concern for our opinion of them. They danced as if we were not watching.

“Argent will probably get arrested for this,” Jippy said.

We all just nodded and sat there.

Reuben, who’d been silent this whole time said, “I think I love Liz, too.”

I told him to shut up.

Jippy walked over and stood in front of me. He was about to say something when my mom pulled up in the car and the push mower exploded.

The Happy Circumstance of Your Mom Being Gone

My Brother, Laughing

My older brother Thomas pulled out in front of the truck because he was laughing at how mad I was. The truck skidded to a stop. Thomas zipped ahead, out of the way, and laughed about how we almost died. Behind us, the truck held the horn down for the rest of Red Brick Lane, a quarter mile.

All summer Thomas played Monica and Brandi’s “The Boy is Mine” and smacked the cast on his arm against the steering wheel. He had the single on tape. One side was the song, the other side was an instrumental version of the song. I was mad because he wouldn’t let me change the tape.

When we turned, the truck behind us turned too, and followed us. Along Route 23 the truck honked behind us.

I darted a look over my shoulder. Glare on the windshield hid the interior.

“What do they look like?” Thomas said.

“I couldn’t see anything,” I said. “There’s a glare.”

“When we go under these trees,” Thomas said, “I want you to look back there.”

“I’m not going to,” I said.

“Then hold the wheel.”

Thomas had driven us to the mall once with his eyes closed, with me on the wheel, speaking gas and brake pedal instructions.

Thomas turned around. He waved and laughed and this went on through the turn onto Pine. The honking became continuous.

“Whew,” he said, and took the wheel again.

“What does he look like?” I said.

“He looks like he’s killed humans for sport,” Thomas said. “And the woman with him looks okay with it. She’s got a very, ‘go get them, honey’ kind of look.”

“That’s not funny,” I said.

“Yes, it is,” he said. “He’s showing off for her.”

“I hope not,” I said.

“I guarantee it,” he said and tapped his cast. “It’s like with Holly.”

He broke both the radius and ulna in his right arm trying to vault over our Jetta in the school parking lot after learning that Holly would go out with him if he asked her. He said the moment of falling to the pavement on the far side of the Jetta, combined with a moment later that day when he received an injection of Demerol, had taught him what love was.

“If he’s showing off for her, doesn’t that mean he might do something worse than normal, because he has something to prove?” I said.

“But he doesn’t want to prove he’s a psycho,” Thomas said. “He doesn’t want to hurt two beautiful kids in a Jetta, and prove he’s got road-rage.”

“Unless she likes psychos,” I said.

Thomas looked right at me. He bent his eyebrows into a look of thoughtful agreement.

Behind us the horn transitioned into the Morse code pattern for the F-word.

“You could be right,” he said.

At this point, Thomas turned onto our road.

“Don’t go to our house,” I said. “Don’t let him see where we live.”

“Don’t worry,” Thomas said.

I became frantic. I pleaded with my brother in a flurry of words, in gestures of hand-wringing, nearly crying.

“Don’t worry,” he said.

He pulled into our driveway. We rented a farmhouse with an enormous paved driveway spanning the distance between the house and the barn. He turned the car off and got out. I could hear the rumble of the other engine behind us. I did not get out of the car. I started to worry that I should have just gotten out of the car and run into the barn and hid somewhere in the hay bales, and now that it was too late, I’d just have to die beaten to death with a tire iron.

I snatched a look at Thomas. He leaned against the Jetta. The man stayed seated in his truck and screamed many F-words, railed against our entire generation, and described the many ways in which “the Chinese will eat your generation’s lunch.” Thomas stood by the car and nodded and appeared to be listening carefully. For a solid three minutes the man maintained a varied range of and keeping the word fresh for its every instance. Then he drove away. As he did, Thomas leaned away from the Jetta, folded his hands at his chest and bowed.

I got out of the car. Thomas was laughing.

“You’re an idiot, Thomas,” I said. “He’s going to come back.”

Thomas spasmed at this into even deeper peals of laughter.

“He’s not coming back!” he said. “That was everything he needed.”

I went inside to my room. After contemplating my situation, and realizing that I would die if I spent the night in this house, I went downstairs and called my friend Peter. It took me five minutes to create an organic opening, through which I succeeded in getting Peter to invite me to spend the night. I accepted Peter’s surprising offer, packed a bag, kissed my parents, Thomas, and the rest of my siblings goodbye, and rode my bike to Peter’s house. I felt guilty for abandoning them, but I knew that with Thomas’s irrepressible optimism at work, I wouldn’t be able to convince them of anything.

I slept poorly on Peter’s urine-smelling hide-a-bed, woke at 6 in the morning and rode back to my own house. I ditched my bike in the yard and ran inside. I went from bedroom to bedroom, steadying myself before I opened each door, prepared to find carnage. Everyone was fine. Thomas was right.

I went downstairs and got my bike. I wheeled it over to the driveway, to the garage, and then saw the rear windshield of the Jetta. A large piece piece of limestone sat on the trunk, having evidently crushed most of the rear windshield and then settled there. I went inside. I sat at the kitchen table and waited.

Not even sleep could constrain Thomas. He bounded downstairs at 6:30. I motioned for him to follow me. I took him outside. I pointed to the window. I expected to see his face fall for once. I wanted to make Thomas sad.

He laughed until he turned purple.

My Brother, Laughing