about the author

Peter DeMarco teaches high school English and film in New York City. He was first published in The New York Times when he wrote about hanging out with his idol, writer Mickey Spillane. His stories have appeared in Prime Number Magazine, Red Lightbulbs, Cadillac Cicatrix, SmokeLong Quarterly, Flashquake, Verbsap, Pindeldyboz, DOGZPLOT, and Cinema Retro. His debut collection, Background Noise, is forthcoming from Pangea Books. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two boys.

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The Fireman

Peter DeMarco

One morning my mother backs the car over our dog.

A police car comes down the street, unusual for our quiet suburban neighborhood. I wave for him to come over, an instinctive gesture, since my mother is upset.

His uniform is blue and crisp and everything about him seems shiny, even his smile. He places the dog on the grass and covers him with a towel from his trunk.

Later in the day, at my Little League championship game, I tell my best friend on the team, Tim, about the police officer. Tim once said he wanted to be a fireman because he would get kisses from all the girls he saved, but after hearing my story, changes his mind.

Why don’t you be the fireman, he says, and then we can be a couple of heroes.

In our final at bat, I step up to the plate with the bases loaded and the championship on the line. We’re down a run. I’m built like a matchstick, with a fast swing, one of our best hitters.

Come on Henry, I hear my father call out from behind the backstop.

I’ve worked my way to a full count. As the pitcher releases the ball, a dog barks from somewhere. I think of our dog on the driveway, lying in a puddle of urine.

A called third strike. The bat never leaves my shoulder.

In the parking lot, my father and I are getting into the car when I hear a kid from our team yell, you suck Henry, from across the lot. Then I see Tim charge him and smash the kid’s nose. As we drive away I hear a cacophony of yells and screams.

We find out later that the policeman who covered our dog was on his way to the house of a kid who bullied me in school. George would kick my chair in math class and say, wake up idiot, when the teacher called on me. My strategy had been to pretend not to hear her because I didn’t understand math. Especially fractions.

It was common knowledge that George’s family was unstable. His older brothers had been arrested for breaking into people’s houses, and their father was a drunk who took a belt to the kids. This time, someone called the police.

In the fall, when tree branches are brittle and the leaves red and crunchy, George sets my tree fort on fire. I can’t prove it, but he always said that my fort was nothing, that a real fort was underground, a place where you could hide cigarettes and Playboy magazine.

My father built the fort one summer day and said it was so solid it would never come down. He was like a God in the way he swung a hammer, making long steel nails disappear into the wood. In the fort, I read comic books and ate candy bars.

Firemen tramp through my backyard with a hose. There seems to be a special power in their black rubber coats, which stand in contrast to the green of our yard.

I decide to let Tim be the police officer. I’ll be the fireman.

I think about calling him but I don’t have his number. He goes to a different school than I do, so I don’t see him outside of baseball. Then my mother gets sick and everything else loses importance.

The hardware store my father owns is across the street from our fire station on Main Street and for years I watch the truck, shiny and red, come and go. It is fun to pretend that I’m going to grow up and become a fireman.

In high school I rip tickets at a movie theater and wear a red velvet blazer. I watch the same movies over and over, heroes who save the world from giant bugs or bad guys.

I don’t think about being a fireman anymore. It feels silly now, a kid’s fantasy.

My father dies of a heart attack before high school graduation, and his partner, my Uncle Rick, offers me a share of the partnership. Uncle Rick wasn’t my real uncle. He and my father were childhood friends and shared a proclivity for fixing and building things.

I’m not the business type and tell Uncle Rick that he could have the store, but he cuts me a check anyway. It’s enough for me to remain in the house and pay the bills.

I skip college and work custodial or construction jobs, as well as maintain the house and property. The years drift by. I end up at Home Depot, where I unload trucks and set up patio furniture displays.

Sometimes I play ball with the kids in the street, using the faded white bases my friends and I once painted. There’s still a desire to swing a bat and climb a tree, or read a comic book.

One morning I open the paper and see a picture of Tim on page three. I know it’s him. Same name, same age, same I want to kiss all the girls smile.

According to the article, Tim was a police officer who’d been killed by a drunk driver. He was married and had two children. When I read the name of the driver who hit him, I whisper, Jesus Christ, Jesus fucking Christ.

The old bully, George.

I wonder if he still lived in the same house. Whenever I’d pass it, I’d think of the tree fort, or the way he’d call me a little punk if I didn’t give him the answers on a test.

I put the paper down and stare out the kitchen window into the yard. I’m not sure how to feel about this news with Tim, but I take some comfort in the fact that he might’ve become a policeman because of my story about a kind officer with a shiny smile.

I pour another cup of coffee.

A policeman who just happened to be on his way to the house of a kid who would cross paths with Tim thirty years later.

I laugh in the quiet kitchen.

I cut the grass and then take a drive around the neighborhood. I stop across the street from a house that could only be described as dilapidated. That had been one of the first big words I learned to spell in grade school.

The paint on the house hangs off like skin from the burned bodies I saw in documentaries about Vietnam. The shutters are crooked, the gutters twisted. It’s like the house was built for a movie that needed a haunted house.

I put my head back against the seat and remember the day our dog was killed. The police car cruising along, slow enough for me to wave down. The shiny badge. A gun with a wooden handle. On his way to this house.

I look down at Tim in the casket. There’s a vague resemblance to the face I once knew, but on the street, I wouldn’t recognize him. A display of pictures is mounted on an easel. A full life.

I leave the funeral parlor and stop off for a drink at a local bar. The place had been here forever and was walking distance from the neighborhood. It sat on the edge of a strip mall that contained a bakery, deli, ice cream parlor, and barber shop.

Everyone knew that George’s father was a regular here, and that the Good Humor ice cream man was his drinking buddy. One night I saw the truck parked in front of George’s house. It seemed out of place, an ice cream truck parked at night next to a front yard overgrown with tall weeds.

I watched from behind a wide maple tree as the Good Humor man sat George’s father on a wooden porch swing.

In his white uniform, he looked like a ghost.

I was in George’s house once.

My mother was a class mom and stopped by to see George’s mother about a field trip they were planning. The inside of the house was bereft of comfort. It possessed a dusty scent, as if its inhabitants were just passing through. There was no carpeting, just dull bare wood floors that had probably lost their shine around the time the family lost its soul, if they ever had one.

We weren’t in class again until high school, when we shared an English class. Our teacher was new to the school. I liked the way she taught us how to look for symbols in novels. In To Kill a Mockingbird she pointed out something in the scene where a character’s house burns down. Orange flames in the upstairs windows resembled the eyes of a pumpkin, and she explained that it foreshadowed something that was going to happen on Halloween.

I felt bad for her when George called her a slut for failing him, and flipped over a desk as he left the room.

A follow-up article in the paper says that George is out on bail.

At night, I take walks and watch the house. Sometimes I stand behind the tree where I witnessed the ice cream man drop off George’s father.

One night, a guy who looks like George might look many years since high school, goes for a walk. I keep my distance and follow him down to the pub. His father’s second home.

The jukebox plays an annoying eighties tune. George sits at the bar, near the door, a bottle of Budweiser in front of him. I walk to the furthest end of the bar and ask for a Tequila Sunrise. The bartender gives me one of those you gotta be kidding looks. I tell him that I just want to see something pretty.

George stares at the television above the bar. He’s got a beard, and wears a denim jacket. The bartender puts the drink in front of me and says not to blame him if it sucks. He’s never made one before.

I finish my drink and walk up to George with a smile. Hey, he says, you look like the same little punk. I shake his hand and buy him a beer.

I tell him that I’m still in the same house, trying to figure my life out. He chain smokes and says he works as a mechanic, but after paying alimony, he barely gets by. His brother lives with him too, he says, and a couple of nephews. He doesn’t mention the accident.

I pretend to be nostalgic and bring up his calling the English teacher a slut. School sucked, he says in a cloud of smoke. Then I ask him if he burned my treehouse down. Who the fuck can remember, he laughs, I did so much stupid shit. I was high most of the time.

I say it was nice running into him, and if he ever needed any home products to come see me at the store. He says he could use a new toolbox. I tell him that I’d be happy to get one with my discount and drop it off.

That’s cool of you, he says.

On my way out, I grab a book of matches, the kind with the name of the bar on it. You never knew when you’d have to light a candle, or something.

After work, I stop by the old Little League field, set down below the road, one of those fields that appeared to have been forgotten by the world. Nothing but weeds and rocks. The backstop, where my father stood, is rusty.

I stand at what used to be home plate and hold an imaginary bat, with my knuckles lined up just like George’s drunk father showed me one summer night. Sometimes, after drinking at the bar, he would take the long way home and stroll through our after dinner baseball game in the street. He told us he played semi-pro ball once and showed us how to hold a bat.

That’s the key to hitting, he’d said. You line up your knuckles, like this, and it brings your bat around, lightning quick.

He was a skinny guy with glasses and a mustache and always had a suit on. I got the sense that he was eager to pass his baseball secrets on, since his kids didn’t play sports.

In a Little League game we needed to win to enter the finals, Tim was nervous before his turn to bat. So I showed him the batting tip. He hit his first home run. We raised him in the air after he crossed home plate.

I eat spaghetti with homemade sauce, my father’s recipe. He liked to cook on Sunday mornings as he listened to old crooners on eight-track tapes sing about heartbreak. I always woke to the smell of garlic.

In the yard, leaves crunch under my sneakers as I take a short cut through the woods, my favorite place to play as a child. Branches brush my cheek. I sit on a tree stump and listen, eyes closed, a kind of private seance: kick the can; lawnmowers; my mother’s voice yelling dinner time; the morning paper on the stoop; the distant pop of firecrackers as I drift off to sleep; my mother’s hand, swollen from needles.

From behind the maple tree, I can see that the upstairs of George’s house is dark.

I walk up to the front door. The porch swing is rusty and hangs at an angle. I ring the bell.

George answers wearing a white T-shirt and holding a cigarette. He invites me in.

In the hallway, he notices the bat in my hand, and the gas can in the other.

I drop the can and line up my knuckles like his father once showed me. Then I swing the bat that never left my shoulder thirty years ago. Because of a barking dog.

I run up the wooden stairs and splash gas throughout the rooms. Downstairs, I toss the rest of the gas onto living room curtains. I take out my matches.

Outside, I walk down the street and lean against the maple.

Soon, someone comes through the door, their clothes on fire. They roll on the ground. But my eyes stare at the upstairs windows, where the movement and beauty of orange and yellow flames offer life to a dead house.

Later, in bed, as sirens break the silence of a fall night, I think about the flaming upstairs windows, and how they did resemble two eyes.

But not the eyes of a pumpkin.

More like a skull.

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