As a small promotion, the Force assigned me to live undercover at the one apartment complex not yet touched by the arsonists. When I told my wife, she ran into the bedroom and slammed the door; her usual strategy: protesting her neglect by becoming unreachable. “Fine!” she screamed. “Go!” I told her I’d miss her and packed up my plainclothes.
The woman at the apartment office, Judy, also had a hard time understanding. “A lease?” she said. “For three weeks?”
“Yes,” I said. “And I don’t have any pets.”
After whispered calls to my boss and hers, I signed a lease and she bit her nails. “Do you really think there’s a chance?” she said. “I mean of us too?”
The prospect put a damper on our tour of the premises. “The pool is fairly large. Second rated in the county. That could put out a fire, couldn’t it? If we got a line of people and some buckets?”
The complex was complicated, a labyrinth of earth-toned pods set back in the trees. It was Fall and the dogwoods weren’t close to blooming, so I assumed the white dust on most of the cars was ash, the remains of nearby apartments. The observation pleased me. I had to keep my eyes open for work like this, and I had to see things differently. I had to keep a record. The job as I saw it, a large one, was to protect everyone in the apartment complex without drawing the attention of anyone but my superiors. It was daunting.
“And this is Mr. Clyde,” said Judy, pointing to a man in a wheelchair sitting on a second-story porch. “He’ll be your upstairs neighbor.”
“I see. Where is the elevator?”
“And he lives upstairs?”
“Yes, the one-bedroom below him is yours. It would have been Mr. Clyde’s of course, but since this is an emergency…”
“No, no, I can take the upstairs apartment, that’s not a problem.”
“I’m afraid it’s too late for that.”
“But how does Mr. Clyde even get out?”
“He doesn’t. Well, he has his porch.”
I waved, with guilt, to Mr. Clyde. He did not wave back.
For some reason I thought the apartment would come with furniture, or at least the Force would have pitched in for an air mattress. As it was, all I had was a folder of take-out menus from Judy and an icemaker in the freezer that sounded like two barges slowly colliding. My one-bedroom had a half-bath, a cute kitchenette, and a parking lot view. There was an obvious carpet cleaning done recently; the floors could not have been more perfectly off-white, nor the walls or ceiling for that matter. I’m sure I was to be fined if I left the apartment any more or any less off-white than I had found it. I wondered what they’d charge me if the place were burnt down.
Unsure of the rules on how often I could leave my post, I snuck out for furniture as fast as I could. I found a small couch in town and, since it looked lonely without, a TV too. I drew up a supply list once I got back. I thought about walkie-talkies; binoculars, maybe passing them off as a bird enthusiasm. I wondered if the apartment had a fire extinguisher. And did the fire alarms work? I made a note to check them once I got a chair, or at least the strength to move the couch. I also needed a place to hide my gun, because if I wanted to look out, I had to allow for people, arsonists, looking in. The only potential place was under my new cushions. I pushed the gun under and fluffed, which gave me an excuse to sit down, turn on the TV, lie down.
A twilight descended that was utterly unlike the ones we had in my neighborhood. There were things to see and so I strained to see them, but the effort made everything seem impossible. If it were night and black, I think I could have seen better. I could have the moon or a light bulb. But this was just mud. A fluorescent streetlight outside the living room window buzzed on. The dull noise was terrible.
I didn’t know the apartment came with cable, but there it was. I clicked up past the static and the game shows and the sitcoms and soon enough I was in the mid-twenties. I settled on a favorite, the Discovery Channel, and they happened to be discussing my favorite Discovery Channel subject, the universe. I like to think about infinity from my couch, like where it starts and what’s at the end of it. Seeing those Hubble Telescope pictures in my new apartment made me feel at home. And it wasn’t just me. Soon I noticed that, with a two-second delay, the same show was playing upstairs. Mr. Clyde and I were learning about strangelets.
But I could tell the cushions were taking me under. I had bought a comfortable couch. However, I vowed to stay vigilant. There were no striking matches, but I noted the sensory street lights coming on, the sliding glass doors being shut. I heard a dried leaf scrape against the pavement like a cracked and upturned dinner plate.
The next morning I set out for some research under the cover of a leisurely stroll through beautiful autumn weather. Although I had the look of an aged man enjoying his daily allotment of fresh air—a shaggy crew cut kept in nostalgia for the Marines, a sweatshirt over a shameful stomach—in truth, I was secretly scanning the islands of landscaping for signs of potential arson. Perhaps the arsonists had scouts, and perhaps these scouts left clues.
There were sirens rising up from the north. Hopefully not a fire, I thought, half out of genuine concern and half out of envy I couldn’t be there catching the bastards myself. I was on the other side of the complex when my wife buzzed in my pocket. I realized just before I answered that in my fatigue the night before I had forgotten to call and check in, tell her how my first day on the job went. I had never been away from my family like that, and admittedly, the etiquette escaped me.
But from the tone of her voice after I apologized, I gathered my wife did not mind the missed phone call. Without pleasantry, she told me that my daughter, Maddy, was deep in a science project and making too big a mess in the house. Since I had the space, she said, there was no reason Maddy couldn’t come over and make a mess of my place. “Saturday can be your day,” she said.
I was happy to see my daughter but worried about the amount of work left to do. My undercover jaunt had turned up nothing and there were only so many excuses I could give for picking through mulch in flowerbeds. But it was a nice walk. Surprisingly, the apartment complex was even quieter than our subdevelopment. There were no lawns to be mowed. No ice cream truck jingles. No teenagers roaring through on the Jeeps they got for Christmas. They would have been forced to a crawl like everyone else, portaging over the yellow, half-acre speed bumps that the Brits call, hideously, “sleeping policemen.”
I was shaking my head at the name, trying to get the image out, when, coming up on my apartment, I saw my daughter standing at the door. She had a camcorder and tripod in one arm, a three-part folding poster board in the other. At the exit back to the road, I saw my wife’s car pulling away.
“Hey, Roland!” Maddy called. “Nice crib!”
Since she was two and I decided to tell her the truth, my daughter has always called me by my first name. “Thanks for getting all the furniture out of here, Roland,” she said once inside. “We’re gonna need all the space we can get.” Maddy pushed my couch into the closet and unfolded her tripod.
“Do you want anything?” I said. “If you hold your nose the tap water’s all right.”
She was busy drawing little squares into her notebook—the one with the dolphins flying through space on the cover—then filling the squares with arrows and stick figures. It made me think I should have been doing the same, noting the measurements of apartment units, locations of the best escape routes, etc. My daughter has always had a way of making me feel less professional.
As she scouted locations, an idea began to take shape in my mind, perhaps inspired by Maddy, of an extensive fire-drill plan for everyone in the complex. I would have to pass out fliers to set up a time. Maybe the promise of a barbecue afterwards would get the job done.
“Aren’t you going to get that?” said Maddy.
I had never heard anyone use a knocker before and I guess it went unnoticed. Looking through the peephole, I found four or five mops of unkempt hair around the bottom. I opened the door.
“Maddy’s father?” said the child in front.
I recognized him, and a few behind him, from Maddy’s school plays.
Maddy pushed me out of the doorway and ushered them in. “Joseph, did you bring the chair?” she said to the short one.
He held up a collapsible wheelchair.
“Alex, did you bring your iPod?” she asked another.
His headphones fell out of his pocket.
“Benjamin, what about the sticks?”
Benjamin pulled a movie clapboard and a pack of chalk from his jacket. It seemed I wasn’t alone in wanting to work as hard as Maddy.
The knocker knocked again, and in the peephole I found another swarm of classmates.
“Get in here! You’re late!” said Maddy.
The place was quickly packed. I was in permanent danger of being toppled by Maddy’s gophers and yes-men. My only choice was to pull up a chair in the back and watch, maybe jot a few notes for my fire drill.
Maddy yelled and a kid slammed a clapboard in front of Joseph’s face. His legs were dangling over the wheelchair’s footrests and his head sat slumped into his collarbone. His hands hung over his lap, holding the iPod.
“Dr. Hawking,” said a boy sitting next to him. “Tell us: what’s at the end of the universe?”
Joseph made a few clicks on his iPod and a few tics with his lip while another boy standing over by Maddy spoke into a toy megaphone. “Space and imaginary time together,” he said, his voice now deep and electronic, “are indeed finite in extent, but without boundary. That would be like the surface of the Earth, but with two more dimensions. The surface of the Earth is finite in extent, but it doesn’t have any boundaries or edges. I have been round the world, and I didn’t fall off.”
Another question was asked and again Joseph pulled up his lip and clicked his iPod, keeping his eyes fixed ahead of him with hints of curiosity and delight. The less he moved, the more his eyes seemed interested, ambitious, wild. Maddy cast well.
“Take five!” she yelled.
Joseph jumped up and ran around the building, just to stretch.
I was impressed. It all sounded like something I could have heard on TV. “You’ll get an A plus,” I said to a student. “I’m sure of it.”
“We’ll see,” said the child. “The other group is shooting in the planetarium.”
The afternoon turned out to be as productive as the morning. Stephen Hawking himself was floating through my apartment, speaking simply and powerfully about the collapse of hydrogen giants. “That was stunning!” I said to Maddy after a take. “You have a real talent.” And she did. But I realized that the time I spent sitting in amazement of her hard work was just that: time spent sitting. The little notebook I had vowed to fill slipped from my lap, and just when I noticed, Maddy yelled, “That’s a wrap!”
A knock came at the door and the pizzas I ordered were welcomed inside. Someone hooked up the camera to my little TV and soon we were all putting back our third slice and reviewing the day’s work. The students were entranced, laughing and boasting, glued to the screen while I stole another slice.
But Maddy was doubtful of her success. “Something’s missing, something’s missing,” she would mumble, and her minions passed it on. Soon I noticed some students laying down their pizza and picking up equipment.
“What’s wrong? Do you guys want ice cream?” I said to a few.
“We’ve been dismissed,” they said.
Cell phones were brought out and parents dialed. Students were leaving in twos and threes, faster than I could say goodbye. A long line of headlights stretched outside, and I waved blindly, proving myself a responsible chaperone.
A few of the headlights suddenly switched off. I braced myself for confrontation—“Do you know how late it is?” “My Ethan should not be working this hard on a science project!”—but saw instead only college kids, slamming their doors and walking up to the apartment across the way.
The lights inside that apartment got brighter, music came on, and I could feel the bass. I began to wonder if the arsonists weren’t already embedded in an apartment just as I was. Did they have the resources for something like that? I wanted desperately to know if that beer had Whole Foods labels on it; perhaps that was the alcohol they used to spread the flames.
I rushed back to my notebook to mark every flip-flop and lower-back tattoo I saw. It felt good to finally have an idea. “Sorry, sir, my daughter was making a fascinating video” would be some excuse for the Chief.
“Whatcha doing?” Maddy said. The camera and tripod were again slung over her shoulder and the three-part poster board, now covered in banners and photos, was in her arm.
“Drawing a thong,” I said.
“Thanks for letting us use your place.” She walked over to the door. One more pair of headlights had come to rest behind her. They switched on to high beams and Maddy leaned in for a hug. “I don’t want her to think you’re keeping me.”
The lights were still bright in the apartment opposite. Their sliding porch door opened and voices—singing, laughing, shouting curses—filled the parking lot. I told myself I had no proof that they were arsonists, which helped assuage the cowardice, and retreated quickly behind my door.
Pizza crusts and plastic plates awaited my return on the living room floor, but I didn’t mind. It was a nice reminder of a nice day, what I had and the alleged maniacs across the street did not. I speed-dialed a friend. “You wouldn’t mind sending a couple of rookies out on a noise complaint, would you?” Brushing a few breadsticks into the crack between the cushions, I sat down and kept my fingers between the blinds until the uniforms came. I had a good laugh. The revelers would have to shut up and the recruits would have to suffer their abuse. But when I saw one of the college kids open the door and invite the cops in, I grew gloomy and turned up the volume on the Discovery Channel.
Again, the subject was the universe. Meteors were falling over a desert. It was a moving sight, especially coupled with the soothing rain sound effect. The light changed shape and soon the stars were water being poured into a fishbowl. A fish appeared rounding the bowl over and over and I felt a little bad for it. A deep voice came on telling me that although the fish could never leave the bowl, I shouldn’t pity it, because the line it swam was endless.
“How’s that supposed to make me feel any better?” I thought, and I might have said it out loud. “It would get so bored! And it could leave if it wanted to. Don’t some fish jump?”
“If it jumped it would die,” said the narrator.
“Well,” I reasoned, “that’s a form of leaving, isn’t it?”
The voice grew impatient. “Nevermind! You are stealing this from Mr. Clyde!”
The meteors came back. I heard the rain again, and an odd sound effect of dried leaves scuttering across pavement. A car ran over a speed bump, and, before I fell asleep, I said a short prayer for the policemen who had to sleep outside.
After I woke up I called Maddy’s cell phone but couldn’t get her. I tried her mother. “I’ve got a great idea for Maddy’s project,” I said. “Is she coming over today?”
“Just text her your idea.”
“You don’t understand, she has to be—”
My wife hung up. How’d she get so busy all of a sudden? I was the one with the job. There I was in my plainclothes underwear on the floor of an unfurnished apartment in a student’s apartment complex working my ass off. I reached for my notebook to prove it, but the spare scribbles I saw there reflected poorly on my discipline. I put on my pants. I would not waste the day.
With the notebook at my side I locked the apartment and set off into the field for inspiration. I managed to squeeze out a few half-hearted thoughts about removing the spare keys from under everyone’s mats, and a really laughable one about covering the grounds in dog crap. My idea: one squishy step and the arsonists would flee. But each thought was an embarrassment, an insult, and they quickly subsided to thoughts of Maddy’s project. Passing a dumpster, I had a strong urge to jump in and find some styrofoam I could sculpt into planets and moons, but I resisted.
The air was floral, pleasant. The revelers were passed out inside and the streets were mine. I felt flushed, warm, and as I walked further, hot. Up above the leasing office, a plume of smoke was drifting. I thought, Already? I had only begun to take notes, my phone was inside; I wasn’t prepared! But how was I to put that in the report? I jogged towards the plume, hoping the arsonists were not far behind, or at least the fire not too far gone.
At the office I saw nothing. The doors were locked, the lights out, and the smoke continued. The mini-gym was empty too, though the TV was blaring. I pounded on the doors of the the mini-laundromat, heard the pennies and buttons tossed around in the driers. I ran around the back, not having the presence of mind enough to look for footprints or lighters. The back of the laundromat was as pretty as the front, painted and landscaped. The grass grew flush with the first line of mortar in the bricks, where a pipe extended letting out hot air from the dryers, which met the cold air outside and—of course—turned thick white.
I sat down on the grass, up against the bricks, and tried to focus on that amazing floral air. At least there was no one to see me running around, I thought. In that sense a catastrophe was truly averted.
“Hey. Why don’t you keep a key under your mat?”
Maddy was standing over me. The light on the front of her camera was red.
I offered Maddy the leftover pizza back at the apartment. “It was a real treat to watch you work yesterday. How do you feel it went?”
“So, so,” she said, spooning the cream out of a Twinkie. “We haven’t hit it yet.”
“Hmm. Haven’t hit the core yet, the juicy bits.”
“I don’t know a lot about juicy bits, but I’m glad you brought your camera. I’ve been thinking about your film, and I wanted to introduce you to my neighbor, Mr. Clyde. I think he could add a really authentic touch. Not that Joseph isn’t any good, but why not make this a documentary?”
Maddy seemed intrigued. She consumed three more deboned Twinkies before her camera was done charging and I escorted her upstairs.
“Is it on?” I said outside Mr. Clyde’s door. “Are you ready?”
Maddy snapped her fingers in front of the camera. “Testing. One, two.” She gave me a thumbs up, looking even more professional than she did yesterday.
I looked into the little screen she switched around to face me and brushed the sleep out of my eyes. Then I knocked on the door. And I knocked again.
“Not home?” said Maddy.
“He can’t leave!” I craned my neck to peek through the windows but his blinds were closed. I turned to Maddy and sighed.
“Just push it open,” said a voice behind the door.
Maddy nodded me on.
Wheeling back slowly into the hallway was Mr. Clyde, a toy periscope in his tiny hands. “It’s how I look through the peephole,” he said.
Mr. Clyde was probably a small man even standing up. His banana peel body fell to one side of his chair. His slacks looked pressed; his shoes were tied. A piece of string wrapped around his globular head connected the ends of his glasses.
“Excuse me, Mr. Clyde,” said Maddy, the viewfinder still cupping her eye. “I’m leading a science project about Stephen Hawking.” Leave it to Maddy to ditch the small talk. “My father suggested I interview you about your similarities with Dr. Hawking.”
Mr. Clyde smiled. “I don’t know if I’ll be much help,” he said. “But come in, come in.”
Mr. Clyde gestured toward his living room arrangement and we sat down on his sofa, a shade more faded and an inch less poofy than mine. I wondered who, if anyone, had ever sat on it before. I never heard any footsteps when I was downstairs, so I don’t think he had any visitors. The sofa served a more general purpose. He could not use his legs, and yet he had them. The same was true for his sofa.
“I apologize for the spare set-up,” said Maddy. “I usually have a crew with me, lights, microphones. I’m afraid I’m as unprepared for this as you are”—she glared at me—“Could I ask you to say something for me?”
“Say something?” said Mr. Clyde.
“A little more.”
“What would you like me to say?”
“Got it.” She looked up from the rising and falling lines on her little screen. “How long have you been using a wheelchair, Mr. Clyde?”
“Since I was a teenager.”
“What were you like as a teenager?”
“Were you passionate about science then too?”
“I was never any good at science.”
“Does your limited physical space give you free reign over a vast, uncharted mental space?”
“I like things quiet.”
It occurred to me I should have been more specific in describing what I knew about Mr. Clyde. But this was an awkward time to clear things up. I urged Maddy on.
“Mr. Clyde,” she continued, “do you find people discount your intellect on account of your condition? How do you cope with that?”
“People are generally very nice.”
“When did you notice you were losing your mobility?”
“After the car crash.”
“Is your family supportive of your research?”
“I have a stamp collection. Do you mean are they supportive of my stamp collection?”
Maddy turned to me, put her palm over the mic, and sighed.
I felt she was asking for my help. The camera was rolling and, subject or no subject, she needed a film. If I couldn’t find any arsonists, I could at least make a good eighth-grade science project. “All right,” I said. “Now we won’t take up too much more of your time, but I think we’re ready to delve into some juicy bits. Sound ok?”
“Ok,” said Mr. Clyde.
“In your opinion, does the universe have a boundary?”
“Let’s say you think it does. Now, can the universe still be infinite?”
“I’ve never thought about it.”
Maddy was turning red, and not her embarrassed shade, the angry one. I needed to prove to her that I retained at least some small part of yesterday’s work. “Well, Mr. Clyde, I know a certain Stephen Hawking who would be very disappointed in you.”
“I don’t follow classical music.”
“Stephen Hawking! He’s all over TV!”
“I don’t watch much TV.”
“Well, I wouldn’t either, but there’s nothing else to do here! And it’s free!”
“Yours is free? I pay every month.”
“Well, thank you Mr. Clyde. I think we got everything we need.” I was getting a little angry too. Mr. Clyde’s paraplegia did not affect his brain, so it wasn’t a total tragedy. The tragedy was that his brain wasn’t that great to begin with. Unlike Hawking, Mr. Clyde’s dead-fish expression had less to do with his condition than with his dead-fish thoughts.
“I hope your video comes out well,” he said, wheeling behind us to the door.
“We do too,” I said. “We’ll try and get you a copy when it comes out.”
“No we won’t,” Maddy whispered.
I followed her out, but stopped, remembering my own work. “You wouldn’t happen to hear anything strange outside your apartment at night, would you Mr. Clyde? Anything suspicious? Footsteps? Sort of like leaves blowing?”
“I hear leaves blowing,” he said.
“Hmm, I hear that too.”
Maddy wouldn’t talk to me once we got downstairs. She called her mother for a ride and waited on the sofa. I would have gladly offered to take her back home myself if I didn’t think she’d bite my head off. I wanted to apologize to Maddy in the car for ruining her project when I couldn’t save my own. And if she didn’t want to go back home, if she wanted to go to the mall, or the movies, I would have done that too.
But my wife pulled up outside and honked. Maddy walked out without a goodbye and I was alone again. I should have closed all the blinds and turned on all the lights. I should have microwaved some hot chocolate and stoked the fake fire. The twilight was still very depressing. But I did nothing. On went the television, one more window for that cheerless blue-grey light. Grainy images from the surfaces of other worlds were floating across the Discovery Channel.
Pretty soon Maddy would be home, my wife preparing dinner. My work kept me away, quite far away really. I could see the arsonists through the craters on TV. They sat at a table in the middle of a Whole Foods café just outside the universe. Though they were surrounded by people, trays of food flying over their heads, children running between their legs, they never seemed to mind. They were involved in a lively discussion, almost athletic, full of old embarrassing stories shouted across the table, whispered secrets, and snatches of song. They were white, black, Asian, Indian; but all young professionals, people who knew that the world was before them and they were invited inside.
If I stared a little harder, and concentrated, I could see a young man in black-framed glasses, something of a ringleader, conferring with a young woman beside him. He was listing numbers, addresses.
The young woman said, “Ski masks this time?”
He shook his head. “Too hot. Why bother?”
I saw an Asian girl bragging to a friend. “I’ve been pretending to read meters for three weeks and no one notices! With a few more readings, I can find a way to take out three units in a row next time!”
A shorter girl, the Tiny Tim of the group by the sympathetic smiles she garnered, sat on a bag of charcoal, permanently perfuming her adorable red pea coat. “Do you know the body is two-thirds water and it can light on fire?” she said. “The world is two-thirds water too.”
I blinked and realized I hadn’t blinked in ages. I couldn’t afford to. All this strange information was coming so fast. I wanted names, phone numbers.
But the fluorescent streetlight switched on outside and drowned the arsonists out. I listened for a moment past the buzzing, hoping they were still there. But I heard nothing. The leaves took up again outside my door, a slight wind pushing them across the porch. If I were an arsonist hiding from a policeman who was disguised as a renter, a loner, a divorcee, I would disguise myself as a leaf and tiptoe as if I were scraping along his porch.
Soothing thoughts of infinity crept in to claim me: sun spots, my daughter’s discipline, the length of my evenings, the fact that the Discovery Channel goes on discovering even while I sleep.
The fire started at twelve that night. When my eyelids fluttered open for a brief moment, I thought: someone’s doing laundry. It wasn’t until the fire came in through the fake fireplace and lit across the carpet that I fully woke up.
I cannot remember the order of my thoughts. I remember the TV was burning but still on. I remember appreciating the little there was to save. And I remember noticing the lack of any emergency procedure. There was no line of neighbors outside passing buckets of water up to the fire. No one stormed in and threw me over their shoulders. The notebook that detailed all of those plans was a flying fleck of ash in the kitchen.
I slid into my shoes, placed by the door for such an occasion, and ran out through the flames with my hands over my face, tired, disappointed, hot. I should have left my wallet inside; that way I would have something to complain about too. But, as it stood, I lost nothing.
From the parking lot, the building looked like a fancy wrapped gift. One long sheet of flame wrapped up from the bottom porch to the tallest chimney, coming together in a smart bow. The flames, like a candle’s flame, were not violent. There was barely any sound. The bugs had flown off the streetlight. I suppose they had something bigger in sight. I noticed also there was no late-night kegger behind me. It was a good night to be drunk somewhere else.
I took out my phone and decided to call the wife before I called the Chief. I told my answering machine I’d be coming home that night, that the job was over, and she wouldn’t have to worry anymore.
The arsonists were surely on the other side of town by then. All they had to do to admire their work was turn on the news. The TV vans were probably already on their way, the fire trucks following shortly behind.
Uninterested in seeing the roof cave in or the windows shatter, I got into my car. The flames left my rearview mirror minutes out of the complex, the smell of smoke minutes later. Soon I was back to the homes that aren’t connected to other homes. I knocked on my front door and followed the retreating nightgown into the bedroom. Without undressing, I curled behind my wife. I did not miss my couch.
When I went in to surprise Maddy the next morning, I found her already hard at work—of course. Several monitors were set up on her desk and bed. “Did the school let you have all that?” I asked, tapping on her headphones.
“Hey,” she said. “Did you get off work today?” She seemed to have an eye on every screen, and didn’t turn around for an answer.
I ignored her question too. “How’s it coming together, champ?”
“Just working with this guy.” She brought up the blank face of Mr. Clyde. “He’s a little tricky. A lot of the stuff he says doesn’t make any sense put together. I’d ask if we can go back for some follow-ups, but I’m not sure how much more—Are you ok?”
My face went ashen. “We have to go,” I said. “Get your things.”
“Roland, I appreciate it, but more of the same isn’t gonna give me—wait up!”
I wasn’t sure if I expected Mr. Clyde to be alive, that in an act of belated heroism I could drive over and save him, or if I was going out of morbid respect, that I had to hold some peremptory funeral. I think I went in order to deliver an apology.
We drove in silence to the complex, and found my building a blackened skeleton like all the others before it. The caution tape was up but the cops were gone; there was no one to yell at me. I told Maddy to step carefully, the embers could still be very hot and the rubble could give way.
We walked into my apartment, much as I left it only without walls, and, tragically, without ceiling. Beside the heap of my sofa sat Mr. Clyde’s wheelchair. It faced the television, Mr. Clyde a small pile on its seat. Maddy, realizing that she had made absolutely sure to return her own prop wheelchair and had not left it behind, began to cry.
“I’m sorry, Maddy,” I said. “I failed.”
On the way back home she insisted we stop at the mall. I was happy to oblige. Her friends could cheer her up better than I could. But when we pulled up to the door, she asked me to get out with her. She took my hand and made a beeline to the pet store. “I’ve been saving up,” she said. “I want to buy a fish.”
We picked out a gold one with deep red fins. Removing the wad of allowance from her back pocket, she got a bowl, some flakes, and the fish. She held it up to the window on our way home, explaining to it everything it saw. Careful the fish didn’t fly out of its bowl, I drove very slowly over the sleeping policemen.