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Flash Fires

 Philip Levitas, Fiction



Trees burn all summer long in his neighborhood. Leaves lose their lives.

Leo's birch is only the first to go.

People are frightened. They're afraid their houses will catch fire.

They think a professional arsonist is on the loose and dismiss other possibilities. Everybody is angry; suspicion looms.

The map of burning trees circles Leo's block and he witnesses the plumes of ash like vultures form a ring closing back upon his house.


Leo rises with the sunrise. Usually, in better times, when he had a day off from work he'd sleep until ten or eleven. Now, he beats the rooster.

In his kitchen, at dawn, he drinks green tea. The house is still. It's his only hour of peace. Leo's son, Bernard, is already out of the house, pedaling his bicycle around the neighborhood, tossing newspapers onto driveways.

The kid's a failure.

It kills Leo to think so, but it's true. Bernard shows no interest in anything except seconds at supper. The paper route is not undertaken by choice. Leo forces him to do it. Sometimes, Leo looks at that boy's face and feels actual hate well up inside of him. He's certain Bernard senses it.

All Leo teaches him, he doesn't want to learn—Bernard never listens, he never learns.


Leo has other things on his mind besides Bernard and the tree fires. He has radioactive seeds implanted in his prostate.

There's a lot to consider.

  • He may not allow young children to sit on his lap for long periods of time (more than fifteen minutes).
    • This is not a concern because Bernard is no longer young, nor does Bernard ever sit in his lap.
  • He must minimize his time with pregnant women.
    • Again, for Leo, that's not much to trouble over. Besides, if he maintains a distance of three feet or more from young children and pregnant women there is no limit to the length of time he may spend with them.
  • He may not have sexual intercourse, but he may sleep in the same bed with a woman (as long as she's not pregnant).

But there are no women in Leo's life. There is no desire.


He will die with his mind intact, for certain, just like his old man, who on his own cancer deathbed had calculated the interest rates of Leo's inheritance.

It's not Leo's mind that concerns him. It's the flesh.

  • He does not eat red meat.
  • He eats salmon, tuna, mackerel, and trout.
    • Because of mercury poisoning, he's mindful of the tuna.
  • He takes natural vitamins.
    • Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat soluble and may affect the liver.
  • He drinks shakes made with isolated soy protein.
  • He finds ways to integrate flaxseed into his diet.
  • He takes Xanax and Celexa—with food—for depression and anxiety.
  • He power-walks.

But none of this, he thinks, will save him.


Moisture beads erupt onto the surface of the leaf. In the tick of a clock, the veins push the rising heat outward to the saw-toothed margins of the leaf. The leaf's underside—dry as a lizard belly—buckles an instant before the flame flicks to life.


Insects complain. Their circular-saw sighs fill Leo with dread, as he associates the sound with the dense and dreary rising morning heat.

Like that, his peace is shattered. The bug song arrives on the folds of air entering his kitchen window—thick air that plugs the nose, clots the lungs. He's encased in hazy heat. Short of breath. He chews wheat toast as if his life depends on it so that he can take a sedative. He swallows tea and scorches his tongue.

Leo hears Bernard outside. A bicycle falls against the side of the house. Bernard's returned from his paper route.

It's a miracle that he manages to keep the job, Leo thinks. He's lost count of the number of times one of their neighbors has called to complain about Bernard—a paper in a puddle, a paper in the weeds, no paper.

Each morning that Leo hears his son's bicycle knock and rattle against the shingles, he receives an unexpected jolt.

He listens as the boy enters the house and trudges up the stairs.


After the fury—the dog barking, the yelling, the confusion, the smoke, the wild palms at his neighbors to stay back, going hoarse, the fierce adrenaline commotion, the siren's wail, the heat, smoke and ash, the ascending curls of bark birch paper-thin, children chasing them as they do butterflies, the men, their uniforms, buckles catching flame, faces large, luminous, unreal, the radios crackling Tree fire on Hungry Hollow Road, over..., and a sudden sigh when the hose opens, the jet of water, a fabulous eye sobbing in ecstasy, and men's heels trampling the grass, clods of mud and turf, the gleaming pink grubs swelling to the surface, the dizzying circle around the blackened birch, and finally Leo's simmering anger—he realizes, with a degree of shame, that Bernard has only just arrived.

There's Bernard, a neighbor carrying an anxious dog says.

Son, come here, Leo says, as restrained as a funeral director.


When Bernard was half as old as he is now, he adopted a dog. The dog was out of control and Bernard should have kept it tied up.

Never trained it right. Bit Bernard, twice.

There was something wrong with that dog, Leo recalls.

It had to be put down.

It was a shame because the thing knew it was doing wrong when it'd go for you. He'd throw himself at your feet, immediately afterwards, and show you his tender belly. It was pitiful. He asked forgiveness, but a betrayal, even by an animal, is a hard thing to shake.


Other trees have been set on fire since Leo's birch—a clockwise sweep of arsons, stealthy, precise, inflicted by a searing second hand. 

The police have no leads.

On the night of Leo's fire, one cop had the balls to ask him, right in front of his neighbors, if he hadn't done something to somebody to deserve it.


The white birch is the chameleon of January and the peacock of July. Beneath a boiling sun, neighboring pines, his birch suffered for its hubris.

It was the arsonist's obvious victim, he'd thought.


Leo's reflection appears inside his teacup. Then again, it's been there all along. He supposes he's been avoiding it.

His face looks old—he looks like his father, Christ! The jowls, especially. Dog—tired, lumpy. A potato rolled in ashes. How will he be remembered? Like this, certainly: a potato head pocked with cancer.

Leo draws close to the tea's surface, meets his double, and blows him out to sea. A tempest in a teacup.


At summer's end, Bernard will drink half a gallon of gasoline and shake the rest over his head. Leo will receive second-degree burns over his forearms. While other men march solidly by him, hoisting his son onto a stretcher, Leo will sit on the grass beside the ugly birch stump, moaning for his boy.      


After his breakfast of tea and toast, Leo suffers to urinate. He stands over the toilet in the downstairs bathroom. The gold wallpaper was up even before they first moved into this house. Spirals of amoebas, like helixes of DNA, pattern the paper. Once, before the sickness, Leo locked himself in this room with a bottle of Scotch and got drunk. He sat on the toilet seat for two, three hours and stared at that wallpaper.

Now, he leans an elbow onto the wall above the toilet and props his forehead against the back of his fist. He barely holds himself with his other hand. Actually, he dangles his knuckles near his dick much like a diseased silver-back gorilla would.

A picture frame hangs beside his head. It's a picture of Bernard. What a nuisance this kid is growing up to be.


What am I going to do with him? Leo thinks.

It's not that I don't love my son.


The burns on Leo's arms will be painful, but they will heal. He will hope to God that the pain stalks his bones. Never leaves.


Bernard tilts the gas can into the mower's tank. He yanks the rip cord. Before he begins to mow, he stands patiently swiping the exhaust.

His father watches the boy from his bathroom window.

The lawn is scorched crabgrass.

Why's he bothering? Leo asks himself.

Bernard pushes the mower, rounding the yard in slow passes. Every other trip toward the house, he takes a long squinting look up at Leo's window.

Keep going, Leo thinks.

Bernard cuts the motor before the charred birch tree. He steps over the dead grass at its base. He lays his hand on its trunk.

Quit acting crazy, Leo says.

Got to chop that thing down.