Someone’s setting fires around Arboria Park, under the noses of the neighborhood watch and police sergeant Corky McAllister. Could it be affable dad Carl, who has a mysterious illness? Iraq War vet Ryan, suffering from PTSD? Grumpy Mr. Wong, determined to rid the neighborhood of beer-swilling teens? Or the punk-rock slackers of We Are 138? Cassidy can’t start her novel or finish her mental breakdown in peace until she finds the perpetrator.
The official start of summer is still four days away and already it feels like August. The humidity’s a tease, since it hasn’t rained in a month. The petunias I planted by the front and back doors have shriveled even though I try to water them every day. They were an attempt at cheer and normalcy (like my plan to thoroughly clean and maybe even decorate this four-room duplex on Pine Court) that just didn’t take. As the days lengthen leading up to the solstice, the extra light taunts me: Do something. Go outside. Walk to the store. Walk anywhere. Write something. Anything.
But I end up on the couch or on the bed, with the air conditioner and TV on but not paying much attention to either, until an urge overtakes me to run out the door. Because, as I’ve learned during this miserable June, it’s quite possible to be kind of agoraphobic and get cabin fever at the same time.
The clouds started to gather last summer. Things had seemed good at first. Jonny and I went to the beach on weekends and helled around DC; Jonny working hard at the Washington Post and me finishing up my MFA. It was Jonny who’d been unsatisfied, bored, and full of complaints. Two of his high school buddies were serving in Afghanistan and regularly sent him stories he couldn’t do anything with, because he was on the local desk and the Post had people to cover the war, after all.
In the fall he’d blown up, quit his job, and announced his intention to go to the Middle East, officially as a news service stringer, but really, we both knew, to practice being Ernest Hemingway and Walter Winchell and every other kind of throwback writer/journalist/adventurer he could think of. Jonny dreams of wandering the world with a camera and backpack; of slugging back whiskey and smoking cigars with soldiers of fortune and ex-pats and spies. It was part of what had charmed me about him at first.
Fast-forward to January and Jonny was embedded in Afghanistan, in danger every minute and loving it. Unable to afford the DC metro area on my own, with no plans, and a bad feeling that the Big D (my personal stalker) was hot on my trail, I’d washed up in Arboria Park (near Jonny’s hometown), alone, where rent was cheap and there were no real distractions. “You can finally start your novel,” Jonny had urged. “It’s good that it’s boring there. I’ll send you some money every month, so you can hold on to the place. And I can write my own book there when I come back…”
Jonny had made a perfunctory offer not to go when it became apparent that I was heading for another depressive episode, but I knew if I’d somehow persuaded him to stay, I could look forward to a miserable breakup in a few months. At least this way we’re still nominally together, but it’s also kind of a trial separation. There are emails, one or two phone calls. For someone who could be killed any second, he’s having the time of his life. While I sit mired in guilt over doing nothing.
It’s about ten a.m. and my beagle, Buddy, knows the routine. He’s at the front door. I follow him outside. As he sniffs the maple tree, I wander around the side of the house.
Carl’s there, like I knew he’d be. He lives in the other side of the duplex. We may not be good for much over here on Pine Court, but we’re punctual. As usual he’s smoking a cigarette. Carl has some kind of neurological condition; he can’t work anymore because he gets these violent headaches and has to stay inside, shades drawn, in bed for the duration. Because of that, he loves to be outdoors when he’s feeling okay. He knows smoking isn’t good for him, but he can’t quit. He won’t smoke indoors or within ten feet of his precious little toddler, Tanisha. Carl’s a house husband/daycare daddy. His wife, Diandra, is a nurse at the hospital. Carl lives for Tanisha. She’s playing in her sandbox, like she often does. Sometimes she’s in her baby pool. Carl watches her like a hawk, puts sunscreen on her, plays ball, and even lets her smear pink lipstick all over his face. They walk around the neighborhood a lot, T in the stroller or, lately, her cute red kiddie car.
Carl throws his cigarette butt aside. “Mornin’, Ms. Cassidy.” There’s a trace of the South in his voice, and an inability to call anybody by their first name without attaching a Ms. or Mr. It bothers me, makes me feel like I’m Scarlett O’Hara interacting with a self-effacing field hand, but it’s just Carl’s way.
“Hey, Carl. What’s new?”
“Quiet again. Too quiet. Nobody’s out at night when it’s this hot, at first. All inside with the AC. But you watch, they’ll be out, up to no good soon.”
He’s been saying this for a couple of days now. He hollers, “Come on, T,” to Tanisha, and she scrambles over to accompany us to the corner. Buddy, finished with his business, comes along.
Mr. Wong, who lives in a single-family house facing Cedar Street, is in his front yard, poking at some weeds with a hoe. He nods as we approach. Mr. Wong never says much.
“Working before it gets too hot?” Carl asks. Mr. Wong nods again.
I hear a screen door slam nearby. I don’t even have to look. It’s Ryan, who lives in the duplex directly across the court from me. He owns both halves, bought them as an investment before he was deployed in Iraq. He’s battling PTSD, taking a couple of college courses, trying to get himself together. He’ll give me a ride when I have to be somewhere, accompany me to do whatever I have to do, say he has my back. We often compare notes about what his shrink at the VA says versus mine at the clinic. I think helping me makes him feel less screwed up. So we each serve a purpose.
Ryan walks over. He pets Buddy and swings T up in the air. “Hey, what’s new?”
“Mornin’, Ryan,” Carl says. Recently he dropped the “Mr.” with Ryan, for some reason. “Just saying, it’s too quiet.”
Mr. Wong, who will always be Mr. Wong to all of us, jabs at a root. Now that we have a quorum, he speaks. “Those teenagers, down at the playground again. I found some beer cans.”
“Well, they’re not noisy, they’re bothering anybody yet, and they don’t stay there all night,” Ryan says. “We’ll keep an eye out, but I think they’re harmless.”
People call us the Neighborhood Watch. We’re among the few adults not at work during the day, and we take the night shift too. Carl has insomnia, so he’s outside smoking at all hours. Ryan gets restless and goes out walking or driving around. Mr. Wong and I are both light sleepers, prone to wake up if a car slows down or speeds up or kids make too much noise roaming the street. Most of them know now to keep it down if they want to avoid us. We even negotiated a deal with We Are 138, the college students who throw punk-rock shows in their basement at 138 Cedar, so they can let it rip until eleven thirty or so on weekends but are responsible for making their guests leave quietly. When somebody actually is up to no good (the all-night rager, complete with nudity and fireworks, across from Mr. Wong’s; the drunk driver who hit six parked cars in a row on Cedar; the dude smacking his girlfriend around in the street; the kids tagging people’s porches with spray paint), one of us, usually Carl or Mr. Wong, phones the police. We’re on a first-name basis with Sgt. Corky McAllister, the unfortunate state trooper who handles most calls in Arboria Park. We’re not in town, we’re no-man’s-land, so the state gets stuck with us while the politicians wrangle about whether the county needs its own police force.
The deal’s the same pretty much every day. We review the previous night’s activities (or lack thereof); maybe chew on a couple of news stories (Mr. Wong and I are particularly avid readers of the local paper). Carl shares any street gossip he’s extracted from Ms. Jennifer or Ms. Monique, whose kids play with T sometimes. Then we drift apart for a few hours. Around dusk we may gather again, see if anybody needs anything. Mrs. Wong is home from work by then, so sometimes she joins us, but she’s even quieter than her husband. We say good night, go in, and turn on the lights. And wait. For noise, for trouble, the bat signal. Whatever.
The night of the solstice, I can’t sleep. The air conditioner is on, but I still feel sticky. I kick Buddy off the bed, then feel bad and invite him back up. The AC deadens outside noise; usually it makes me sleep more soundly. I’m thinking of getting a white-noise machine for when it gets cold again. I wonder if Jonny will be okay with that. Ryan put central air in his house because it’s quieter; the roar of a window unit reminds him too much of the trucks in the supply convoy he used to run, or the generators they used. Maybe Jonny will be screwed up when he comes back, I worry. He’s seen a lot of shit. Ryan says he was fine while he was there, watching people get blown up or shot and never knowing if a kid or a woman with a baby was going to throw a bomb at him. It hit him when he got back, he told us. When things got normal again.
I get up and look out the side window, the one without the AC unit in it, for no reason. I see a lit cigarette in the darkness. Carl. It moves away and disappears.
I go back to bed. Constant insomnia must be awful. It’s rare for me; I’d sleep all the damn time when I’m depressed, if I could. The only thing that gets me out of bed sometimes is that I have to pee. Or Buddy does.
I’m dozing off when I hear a blaring air horn over the AC, and suddenly red lights flash. Through the gap between Mr. Wong’s house and the one next to it, I see a fire engine race by. What the hell, the rest of the gang will be up; I might as well be too.
I throw on some clothes and step outside. I don’t see Carl, but Ryan’s coming out, and even the woman who lives in the other half of his house. We catch up to both Wongs on Cedar, and a half dozen other folks. The engine, two police cars, and another firetruck are parked at the end of the street, where it meets Birch near the playground.
That’s where the fire is. Someone set the wooden play castle ablaze, and the swing set too. The firefighters have it out by the time we reach the end of the street, but the stuff is ruined.
Carl’s there. He phoned it in, he says. Went out for a smoke and saw the flames, was afraid the woods were on fire.
People stand around and talk for a while, even after the firefighters leave. A couple of cops are still there (not Corky this time), and Carl and some guy from over on Birch are giving them details of what they saw. It always takes something like this to get everybody talking and being friendly. Mostly folks around here just go about their own business, but a few wrecked cars or a burning swing set and it’s like a block party.
We post-mortem the whole thing again the next day, a little later than usual because some of us slept in after all the excitement. Mr. Wong insists it’s those kids he saw with the beer cans; Ryan counters that they wouldn’t burn up the stuff they messed around with and sat on. Carl’s upset because Tanisha liked to be pushed on the swings.
Jonny emails to say he won’t be in touch for a while; he’s going off in the hills. I hold Buddy and weep.
The homeowners’ association takes up a collection for new playground equipment. Things stay quiet for a few days, except for Carl breaking up a fight between two teenage girls. Ryan has a couple of bad days and calls his shrink about upping his Prozac dosage.
On the night of the 25th, I leave the windows open because there’s a nice breeze. I fall asleep easily and dream that Jonny shows up with a Pulitzer Prize and says he’s leaving me for Britney Spears.
Buddy wakes me up, pawing at my face. I smell smoke and run to the window. It seems to be coming from outside. Two fires in a week? I get dressed and run out again.
This time the field behind our court is burning. It used to be farmed but the owners are trying to sell it for development. It’s just a lot of scrubby grass and weeds, and it’s been so dry lately.
The Jamaican dude at the end of the court has his garden hose hooked up, but it’s too short. Carl appears. “I’ll get mine! Ms. Cassidy, get Ryan. He has one too.”
We string together three hoses. Everybody in the neighborhood is out now, and Mr. Wong and Ryan are hooking up another set of hoses. The punks from We Are 138 run out their back door with buckets of water, stumbling in the dark and sloshing it all over themselves.
We put out one section of fire before the firetrucks show up and deal with the rest. A police car arrives, and this time it’s Corky.
“It’s the second fire this week,” I tell him.
“It’s those kids with the beer,” Mr. Wong insists.
Corky shakes his head. “If it were closer to the road, it could just be somebody throwing a cigarette out of a car window. But not in the middle of the field.”
He takes Carl aside to talk. They’re used to each other.
Carl hadn’t been outside when this one started, though, so he didn’t know any more than the rest of us. The fire marshal comes over and says the origin appeared to be closer to Oakley Estates, the development on the other side of the field, and it had burned toward us.
Now everybody’s edgy. Carl gets a headache and stays inside for two days. Ryan’s snappish. Mr. Wong’s giving the stinkeye to every teen and college student who has the misfortune to wander by. And I’m not sleeping well. Depression has given way to anxiety. Panic attacks will come next, if I’m not careful. I force myself to walk to the shopping center to buy food, sweating all the way even though it’s not especially hot. I don’t ask Ryan to come along because he’s not in much better shape.
The penultimate night of the month, I’m lying awake again. There’s heat lightning on the horizon, but no storms or rain are predicted. Carl and Ryan have gotten their shit together and are going out a few times a night to patrol the backyard perimeter along Cedar and loop around Pine and Spruce.
I feel a buzzing in my head and my heart starts pounding. Buddy whines, and I sit up. I’m not surprised when I hear yelling outside a moment later.
This time it’s a wooden shed, behind the house next to We Are 138. It’s out by the time the firetrucks arrive because 138 have bought themselves a garden hose.
Corky shows up with another cop. By now, we all know the drill. The homeowner is alternately cursing in Spanish at the scorched shed and thanking 138, who stand there grinning shyly. They’re not used to being the neighborhood heroes.
Carl and Diandra are talking to Ryan’s tenant when the cop who isn’t Corky walks up to Carl. “Mr. Evans, please come with us.” He grabs Carl’s arm.
“I told you everything I know, officer.” Carl is polite as always. “Me and Ryan walked around at two, and everything was okay. We were going out again at four…”
The cop pulls on him, roughly. “Yeah, you’re always outside, and smoking like a chimney, according to everyone around here. Seems a little weird, huh? You’re coming down to the station.”
Diandra, holding T (who’s somehow managed to sleep through most of the excitement), asks, “Is Carl being charged?”
The cop flips out. “He will be by morning, if I have any say about it.” He pushes Carl. “Get moving or I’ll cuff you in front of your wife.”
Carl immediately kneels on the ground and raises both hands. The cop whips out the handcuffs, grabs Carl’s arms, and then kicks him. “Stand up.”
Diandra’s crying now, and people are running over. I step in front of the cop. “Well, is he being charged or not? Why Carl? Because he’s black? Because he smokes and has insomnia? You might as well charge me. Hell, I’m mentally ill. I go to the clinic downtown. Ryan’s got PTSD. Why not us? You have as much evidence…”
Corky walks over and touches my arm. I pull away and yell, “Get your hands off me, Corky. You know me, you know Carl. This is bullshit.”
Corky’s eyes are cold, and he’s all business. “Ms. Swanson, we are taking Mr. Evans in for questioning. Nobody’s being charged with anything yet, but we would prefer to do this without interference. Please step back before this gets ugly.”
“It’s already ugly.” Mr. Wong speaks up. “What right have you?”
Corky doesn’t answer. His fascist partner pushes Carl into the police car, but at least he holds Carl’s head down so he doesn’t hit it on the car roof.
We’re up the rest of the night with Diandra. She puts T back to bed and collapses at her kitchen table, sobbing. I put on a pot of coffee. Ryan takes charge.
“Diandra, you need a lawyer. I know a guy. Soon as it’s morning, we’ll call him, get Carl bailed out if we need to, find out what they’re doing.”
Diandra nods, calmer now. She calls her sister in town, asks her to come get T when it’s light. The Wongs assure her that if she’s worried about bail money or paying the lawyer, we’ll all chip in.
Carl’s back home by noon. They badgered him about his walks and the cigarettes and finally let him go. Ryan’s lawyer friend went with Diandra to pick him up and said to call if anything else happened.
Another part of the field is set afire that night.
Carl doesn’t even leave his yard. He’s been in the house all night; Diandra is prepared to swear to it. A different set of cops respond, and they don’t even talk to us.
I sleep late again in the morning, waking when I hear Diandra’s car start. I assume she slept late too and is heading for work.
I stay inside all day. Thunderstorms are predicted, and it’s dark and close-feeling. Just rain already, I think. Rain like crazy so nothing can burn.
A storm finally hits around three. Buddy goes nuts.
It clears off around five, and the sun comes out. I venture outside to check on things. Ryan comes out too, and we head for the corner without saying anything. I wait for Carl to join us, but he doesn’t. I assume he has one of his headaches.
Diandra doesn’t come home. Their house is quiet and dark as evening comes on.
Someone knocks on my door. It’s Ryan. He looks shaken.
“Cops came and arrested Carl this morning, while we were all asleep. Dude over on Cedar saw it, walking his dog. Says two cops led him out and put him in a car. Few minutes later, Diandra puts T in her car and takes off. I assume she must be with her sister.”
“Call your lawyer friend,” I tell him.
“Already did. Left a message.”
We head over to the Wongs’ house, and we all stand around in the yard, feeling helpless. Then I decide the hell with it.
“I’m calling Corky, personally. He left his card with me once.” I start back toward my house.
“Cassidy, wait.” Ryan looks awful. “He won’t tell you anything. And—I can’t believe I’m saying this—maybe we should wait and see…”
“I can’t believe you would say that either,” I say. Mr. Wong mumbles something about the kids with the beer cans and how the cops won’t listen to him. I go home and call Corky. I get his voice mail and leave a message, trying to be polite and businesslike, but I’m furious. At Corky, even at Ryan. Maybe Ryan’s the one hiding something. Or maybe he’s right, and Carl’s been fooling us all.
I can’t even pretend to sleep, although I’m exhausted. I lie awake, feeling incredibly vulnerable. It’s cooler now, after the storm. I hope the field is too wet to burn.
I finally sleep for a couple of hours toward morning, then Buddy wakes me to go out. I don’t see anyone, and then I stay inside again. Corky doesn’t return my call.
Despite my anxiety, I do fall asleep when night falls. I’m fried.
And then Buddy wakes me again. This time all the yelling and red lights are coming from over on Spruce Court, behind Ryan’s. By the time I’m outside, both Wongs are there and Ryan is running out of his house and motioning us to follow him over to Spruce.
The firetrucks are in front of an empty duplex, one side of which is on fire. It’s almost out, though.
And Corky McAllister and Trooper Fascist have a young man down on the ground. Fascist has his knee pressed against the man’s back. I’ve never seen him before.
The guy gets put in the police car, none too gently. Corky walks over to us.
“We got him. Saw him run from the house, tackled him in the field. Had it staked out for the last couple nights. I knew this guy would escalate, maybe try a house next, and we couldn’t take any more chances.”
Before we can say anything Diandra’s car drives up and she and Carl and T get out, smiling. Carl comes over and shakes Corky’s hand. “So, who was it?”
Corky grins. “Kid named Jared Vanderwende. I talked to Matt Halloran a couple days ago. He’s head of emergency services and coaches my softball team. Carl here and I—” he slaps Carl on the shoulder, “—came up with an idea to confuse the perp, and Matt gave me a lead to follow. Said where there’s smoke, there’s a Vanderwende. Crazy family, lived around here for years. Some of them are pretty respectable—you’ve heard of Vanderwende Realty? But others have been on the police blotter for three generations now. Sure enough, kid has a firebug uncle who’s in the slammer, so I thought there might be another one around. Did some digging, and those 138 kids said they’d kicked a Jared Vanderwende out of a show once for making trouble, and he waved a lighter at them and threatened to torch the place. Kid’s renting a room over in Oakley Estates. That’s why Carl and Ryan never saw anything; he was coming from that side, maybe up through the woods.”
Carl smiles and puts his arm around Diandra. “I was kinda disappointed y’all slept through my fake arrest. We wanted the neighborhood to kick up a fuss, hoped the word would get back to the guy.”
“We’ve been staying at my sister’s,” Diandra says. “Corky just called and told us they had their man. We didn’t want to miss it.”
“Corky, I’m sorry I gave you so much shit.” I look around to make sure Fascist is busy, talking on the radio. “But your partner’s got some issues…”
“He’s learned something,” Corky says. “When you people talk, we listen. We’ll keep listening.”
The next few weeks are pretty quiet. Ryan stays inside on the Fourth of July because he doesn’t like the fireworks. Carl has a couple of headaches. They install new equipment at the playground, and it’s not wood. The kids with the beer have found somewhere else to go. We Are 138 put on a benefit show and present the proceeds—all seventeen dollars—to the neighborhood association for its new project, putting “Neighborhood Watch Community” signs here and there around the neighborhood. Ours is on Mr. Wong’s corner.
Jonny surfaces in August. I find I’ve nearly forgotten about him.
He’s in a hotel in Cairo, waiting to fly to Germany and then home. He’s got enough material for the nonfiction book he’d planned to write, and maybe a novel too, he says. But he wants to know if I’m okay.
I write back. I’m fine. I’ve started writing a little. I’m walking around the neighborhood, meeting people. Every place has a story, after all, if you know how to look. Danger, intrigue, deceit. We have it all, right here.