Every evening after dinner Willie French went to the front porch to smoke his cigar. It was his time to think about what had happened during the day and to plan for tomorrow.
In the twenty years that he had lived in Mrs. Stanley’s boarding house, she had never allowed him to smoke inside. She said the cigar left an awful stench in the house and that it created a fire hazard. The only reason Willie put up with her nagging was because she was a good, hard-working woman, an excellent housekeeper and a fabulous cook. Besides, he was too old to pack his bags and look for another place to live.
It wasn’t too long ago that Willie used to take an evening stroll after dinner. The year before last, however, a neighbor was severely beaten during a mugging, and now Willie contented himself with a stroll after lunch and pacing the porch after dinner.
The most difficult thing he had ever done was to admit the neighborhood had changed. To make matter worse, more and more of the people he knew were either moving to Florida or to California, or just moving on…
When he walked down the street, now he saw strangers. But Willie never dwelled on morbid thoughts; he just wanted to understand what had happened to his neighborhood and its people. The mailman retired six months before and the cop on the beat was now some young kid who called him Pop. Wille hated that nickname; he was no one’s pop.
For all his sixty-six years, Willie French had lived here. Now, suddenly it was unsafe to walk down the very same street he had helped pave fifty years ago. It just did not seem right.
The house that belonged to his family had stood around the corner, and a long time ago he had taken Mrs. Stanley’s older sister to a social. All the old timers knew of the tragic story about Willie and the house his parents left him. The same week that he had buried his mother, the house burned down right to the brick foundation. More than anything, all the spectators remembered the speed at which the house was consumed. When the fire had finished its job, all that remained standing were the eight chimneys, and five of the twenty-two pillars. It was lucky, his friends said, that he had raised the coverage on the house just four months before. The insurance company paid him for the house, but telling everyone that he was too old to rebuild, he sold the property for an apartment building.
Yes, Willie was a lucky man. He had his social security, and enough money from the insurance settlement and sale of the land to pay for his needs. Being careful with a dollar was second nature to Willie and because he always budgeted his expenses for room and board, clothing, and an occasional trip into the city for a show, he never had to skimp on the quality of marigold seeds, or forsake the purchase of new geranium plants.
As part of his agreement with Mrs. Stanley, he took care of the gardening. In the spring he set out the geraniums, started new cuttings and seeded the marigolds. During the summer, he took charge of watering and weeding, edging and spraying, mowing and trimming. He also planted tomatoes and cucumbers in the back. All the boarders in the house agreed that no one could buy finer vegetables anywhere. In the fall he raked the fallen leaves and pulled out the geraniums that he buried in boxes filled with moist sand. All during the winter he went into the cellar to check the dormant plants, making certain that no rodent chewed on a succulent stem, or that the sand had dried out. The boarders all teased him and called the geraniums his children.
Willie French was comfortable where he was. His room was the old master bedroom; therefore it was big and had its own private bath. Six floor-to-ceiling windows let in plenty of light and fresh air and provided him with a view of the neighborhood from Main Street three blocks away to back of the parking lot of the new mall eight blocks to the north.
Whenever any of the ladies of the boarding house talked about Willie, they always said that it was a pity he never married. His father died shortly after Willie’s graduation from high school, and the other children in the family had married and moved away to other states, or had passed on. There was only Willie left to care for his mother. Such a dutiful son, they said.
Willie considred himself an only child although he had four brothers and sisters. There was a sixteen-year gap, however, between the youngest of those brothers and Willie. Sixteen years was almost a generation; he never really knew them.
Two of his brothers died in France during World War I; one sister died of tuberculosis and one brother took off after a family fight never to be heard from again. As far as Willie knew, the only living relative he had was a great-niece who lived in Arizona. She had asked him once to move out west where they could be more of a family, but Willie refused. He told Mrs. Stanley he didn’t think the dry climate would agree with him. She didn’t believe that story for one moment; the other boarders agreed with her. They knew that Willie would never move to a place where geraniums could not grow.
One warm October evening Willie sat on the front steps of the boarding house, puffing on his cigar, his head leaning against a pillar, eyes half closed, dreaming, remembering how beautiful the neighborhood had been. The big, old houses were owned by individual families, and always had looked freshly painted, the lawns were carefully tended and roses hung over white fences.
Willie was the first to admit that not all the changes had been bad ones: the movie house provided him with many hours of entertainment; the new library on Main Street was always stocked with his favorite newspapers and magazines and the park across from the train station was beautiful.
Willie loved the park especially in winter when neighborhood children skated on the large pond and afterwards warmed up by drinking hot chocolate from thermos bottles.
On the other hand, many of the other changes were awful. Too many houses had been torn down to make way for new office buildings or for parking lots. Others were converted into small apartments that housed families as large as the ones that once lived in the entire house. The structures were old and needed constant care, but were neglected. The absentee landlords were interested only in collecting rents and not in making repairs; the buildings deteriorated rapidly and the neighborhood looked seedy.
Further east on Main Street, stores had metal shutters that were closed at night. Few neighborhood people ventured out after dark to visit or window shop. Groups of teens congregated on street corners and tossed beer cans into the street or at passing cars.
When the house next door to Mrs. Stanley’s boarding house had been converted into six apartments, Willie knew something had to be done.
Mrs. Stanley and the other boarders discussed the problem at dinner that very evening, but could find no solution. They had fought the zoning change that permitted the conversion and lost. Several of the ladies admitted that if things got worse, they would have to find some place else to live; Mrs. Stanley left the table in tears.
Sitting on the porch steps Willie listened to the noise coming from the house next door. Rock music pulsated toward him on the evening breeze; television and radio broadcasts competed in the war of decibels and the sounds of glass breaking. Flinching from the assault of the noise, Willie wondered where they got so much glass to break?
Even in the fading light, he could see the piles of garbage and refuse next door. It wouldn’t be so bad if the garbage was contained on the other property, but somehow it worked its way towards his immaculate lawn. Sure enough, there were already newspapers and cans trapped between the hedges dividing the properties. It was a matter of time before the side yard was covered by debris.
Down the street there had been another house just as bad as this one, but a fire had taken that building five months before. Willie smiled as he re-lit his cigar; he watched the tip glow and ashes form. The remains of the house had been cleared away, and now the empty lot served as a playground for the neighborhood children. Although a more dangerous element took over the lot at night, Willie thought the fire had improved the neighborhood. He had argued the point with Robert several times at dinner, but being stubborn, Robert didn’t see things his way.
All in all, there were only two houses left that were destroying the gentile character of the neighborhood; one of them was the house next door. He had plans for both of them, but now he knew that he would have to tend to the house next door first. Because it had been recently remodeled, it would not be as easy a job as the other had been because of its age and faulty wiring.
Willie pulled on his cigar as he watched the last red-gold rays of the sun disappear behind a row of buildings in the next street. In his opinion there was room on the street for just one empty lot at a time, otherwise the neighborhood might resemble that inner city bombed-out look that he feared and detested. But the owners of the empty lot were taking too long in developing the plot, and the situation next door was deteriorating rapidly. If Mrs. Stanley lost her boarders, she might have to close and sell the house. Her sister in Florida was always writing to how wonderful life was there.
The cigar had gone out, but Willie didn’t notice. He studied the house next door; it had been a magnificent mansion in its day, three full stories and an attic, a huge center hall, graced by an elegant staircase. Pity. But it had to be done.
He walked over to the garden shed and pulled out a large plastic trash bag. Anyone seeing him would assume he was picking up trash as usual. Dragging the bag behind him, Willie worked his way to the hedges and he wiggled through the hole in the bushes towards the utility room in back of the house.
The room was locked, but he could see through a window all he needed to see. The room was a mess; there were rags and newspapers everywhere. The owner had installed a gas hot water heater just as Willie had suspected and he noted with satisfaction that the utility-room lock would not be difficult to open. All he needed were his tools and some gasoline.
Willie French gathered the things that he needed, waited until one in the morning and set out to do his job. It was not like him to be impulsive, but once he had made up his mind, there was no reason to put it off. Moreover, if he delayed he might not get another chance as good as this: there was no moon; the street lamp had blown out that week and it was foggy. Conditions were perfect.
Willie needed no light to cross the side yard; he knew every square inch nor did he fear stepping on a twig or any such thing because the rock and roll still playing masked any noise he might make. It was a simple job to open the utility room door; the sash was weak and the lock of poor quality. Once inside he used his penlight to help him locate the gas water heater. It was all so easy; his hands didn’t shake with excitement. Getting to be a pro, he thought, and then shrugged his shoulders; he always did things right.
It was a good thing that he was familiar with this particular heater; it made things even easier. Carefully, he opened the door where the pilot light was housed and then he opened a container of gasoline that he placed nearby. Quickly he closed the utility room door again. It was a small room measuring only four by six; the almost full gallon of gasoline would do the job. The fumes would build up and in a time meet with the gas pilot from the hot water heater, and boom! Combustion! There were enough newspapers and rags in the room to feed the newborn flames. The house was old; it had a lot of dry timber, and the fire would grow quickly. Willie bit down on the tip of his cigar, and no one would be the wiser.
Willie crept back to his room. He had everything ready; his chair was by the window, his binoculars and a thermos of hot coffee were on the table nearby. All he had to do was to wait and watch. He hoped that it would happen when the house was empty. An empty house meant no chance of injuries; it also meant that the fire would not be discovered as quickly. The last thing he wanted was a building that was merely damaged. It had to be all or nothing. In any case he sat vigil to make sure that if the fire started with people still inside that he would be able to warn them.
He meant to stay awake to witness the fire, but by early morning he was sound asleep. The explosion roused him; he jumped to his feet tripping over the blanket he had used for warmth during the night. After a few seconds of struggling with the blanket, he freed himself and looked at his watch. It was eight-thirty. Good most of the people had already left for the day. He knew that because he had watched them for weeks trying to figure out which one played the stereo until dawn. He had planned to go over there to complain, but now that would be unnecessary.
Willie heard the sounds of running feet outside in the hallway. The other boarders were probably running to see the fire. He should join them, he thought; he opened the door to his room.
By the time they got to the property line, the fire had spread to almost the entire house. It spread faster than he anticipated. The old man walked over to some of the tenants of the burning building.
“Did everyone get out in time?” Willie asked of no one in particular.
The man who answered was wearing only a pair of jeans; his feet were bare and he wore no shirt. “Yeah,” he answered, “but all my stuff is inside. All my stuff!”
Willie reached out to pat the man on the shoulder, but the distraut man pushed his arm away.
“Sorry,” Willie said, but the man had already gone.
By early afternoon the firemen had the fire under control. After lunch Willie took his stroll as usual, and it was only natural to walk by the site of the fire. One of the firemen called him over.
He asked all kinds of questions, and Willie answered as truthfully as he could. No, he didn’t know any of the tenants. No, he couldn’t say whether any of them used alcohol in excess or drugs. No, he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. The fireman thanked Willie for his help and turned to speak with the patrolman. Willie lingered to listen.
“What did the lab guys say? Drugs?”
“Yeah, drugs. There was a stash of pills and cocaine in the cellar. Someone was pushing; I like the guy in that back room. We found the stuff looking by accident, actually. Anyhow, arson is a hell of a way to get even or make a point.”
“Yeah. I hope it’s not the beginning of some kind of drug war.”
“I don’t care if they want to kill each other, but the innocent always get hurt. There were kids living in there.”
Willie walked away; he had heard all he needed to hear. There had been drug dealing in that house, and God knows what else! Willie sighed; perhaps it was divine intervention that had guided his hand. After all it had been so easy.
Willie stopped to light his cigar. “The next time will be even easier,” he said aloud.
People stopped to stare at the old man talking to himself. Smiling and nodding at the passers-by, Willie French headed for the park.