It was just a crazy man talking. That’s what we decided. He’d come inside, sat right next to my girlfriend even though the entire bar was empty, and ordered a vodka on the rocks. Dead tonight, the man said. Yeah, I said. It’s Christmas Eve, he said. Probably dead because of Christmas Eve. Yeah, I said. I didn’t think you’d be open Christmas Eve, he said. Most places are closed. People should be home with their family. What time you close? Midnight, I said. That’s too late to close, he said. He thought for a moment. You should close at eight, he said. If we closed at eight, you wouldn’t be able to have this drink, I said. I don’t drink, he said. I stopped drinking. This is just a sip. I’m just sipping. He sipped his drink. Why aren’t you home, he said to my girlfriend. You from around here? I’m from California, she said. Why aren’t you home? she said. My wife threw me out, he said. He ordered another vodka on the rocks and put a fifty dollar bill on the bar.
We heard sirens. Outside we watched as dark smoke come out of the third floor window of the building across the street. A woman on the second floor was leaning out of her window looking up at the smoke. She was shaking her fist at the smoke. People on the sidewalk were shouting at her to get out. Oh my God, my girlfriend said. That’s not a fire, the man said. He was standing behind us. That ain’t nothing. When we got cold we went back inside the bar and I poured them another round. That ain’t a fire, the man said. I’ll tell you about a fire.
I was sixteen, the man said, and I was going with this girl. She came from a religious family. They read the Bible every morning after breakfast and went to church every Wednesday and Sunday–sometimes twice Sunday. The girl was real smart, straight A student. But she was a little wild, I guess, that’s why she liked me. Her father hated me. He didn’t want her to go out with me, but she didn’t care. I had this dirt bike and we’d go riding through the woods. She’d sneak out at night and we go drinking in the woods. Her mother was nice to me when the father wasn’t around, but as soon as he came home she was cold to me because she knew that’s how he felt. I didn’t go over there all that much but Natalie we always telling me to come over. She didn’t care what her father said. She knew how to handle him, and he was letting her go out with me, even though he hated me. He wanted her to come to the decision to break it off herself. When I turned seventeen I says to her, Let’s get married. She laughs at me. Why are you laughing? I say. You’re just fooling around with me, she says. You don’t want to marry me. I say, No, I love her and want to marry her. She says she’d think about it. One night I went to their house. I told her father I wanted to marry her. I’m in love with her and I want to marry her, I say. He laughs at me. No, son, he says. That’s not going to happen. She’s finishing high school. Then she’s going to college, having a career if she wants, and getting married when she’s ready. She’s not going to be some housewife right now. Which is funny because that’s all his wife was. He says for me to get out of his house and if he ever saw me again he’d kill me. He got out his shotgun and pointed it at me and says this is what he’ll use to kill me. So I leave. Natalie finds out what happened. She calls me one day and says that she wants to run away to California with me. She says her father is crazy and her mother is crazy for marrying him and she can’t take it anymore. She wishes they were dead. She says she wants to run away to Los Angeles and become an actress. I say, Yeah, let’s do it. But she keeps putting it off. She keeps saying the next week, the next week. She tells me one night she’s going to her grandma’s for the weekend. I knew this was my chance. Late that night I go to her house. I let myself in the back door. I take the batteries out of the smoke alarm in the kitchen and the downstairs hallway and then in the upstairs hallway. I knew if he heard me he was going to kill me. I was sure of it. But I got all the batteries out. I went back down into the kitchen and I unscrewed the gas line for the stove. I put newspapers in the trashcan and I got out a pack of cigarettes. The mother would sometimes sneak a cigarette when she thought no one was watching. I saw her sometimes at night when I was waiting for Natalie to come out. I put the trash can by some drapes. I lit the cigarette and put it in the trashcan and got out fast. It went up. There was a huge blast. The whole place was burning. Just went up real quickly. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
We poured ourselves a drink. I’d told him to leave. He’s off his medication, I said. He’s a crazy old man. You don’t think he did it? she said. No, I said. It was midnight. Merry Christmas, I said.