by Nat Buchbinder
Nathan kept his hands in his coat pockets. It was a cold night, even standing before the burning shack. It was a cold city, Chicago, in the winter of 1923. Richard couldn’t seem to keep his hands still, and in the dim light Nathan imagined them growing redder in the bitter air. His face looked sharp between the orange of the flame and the silver of the moon.
They stood together in the middle of the crowd. Richard wanted to talk to everyone around them about who may have set the fire, and why, what the motives might have been, how to catch them. He seemed to be almost smiling as he went on, playing the concerned citizen. Richard could talk to anyone about anything, but it didn’t always make him beam like this. Few things did.
Nathan kept his mouth shut, turned down, but inside he was smiling just the same. It did feel good to be the only one who knew. And it was nice to make Richard happy, in spite of all the trouble. And to think about what they would do later in the evening was something to smile about as well.
Richard was almost acting like he did at parties. “This city is getting worse and worse, and nobody is doing anything about it.” The people around him all nodded. “There needs to be a crack-down on this sort of thing immediately. Everyone here ought to be questioned. After all, people who commit crimes like this often return to the scene to see how things play out.”
One woman nodded. “That’s right. It’s because they like to see things being destroyed. It’s fun for them.”
Richard shook his head. “There are some dreadful people in this country these days.”
A fire-truck arrived and the men went to work immediately, setting up the hoses and trying to move the crowd away. The shack was still standing, but starting to break away in pieces. Still, it was in the middle of an empty lot. There wasn’t much chance the fire would spread. At least, not too quickly. Nathan looked at the scraggly grass, orange by the glow of the flame.
The only thing that nagged Nathan was his car. He had left it a few blocks away. That was far enough, surely, but he hoped nothing would happen to it. They would probably go back for it later in the evening.
He turned around just in time to see the police car pull up. He wondered if he should let Richard know, but the ever-growing crowd did that for him, all shifting together to watch the cops climb out and start asking questions. Nathan watched, too, and so did Richard, but not with the curiosity of the rest. Their faces all seemed so weak and simple, like children or animals. They went along in their lives, doing the same as everyone else.
Still, Nathan did not want to stand out, draw attention to himself. Richard chatted with everyone, but that was smart; it would be suspicious to shut up once the cops arrived. Even towards them, once they made their way through the widening throng, Richard was friendly, polite, charming. Nathan could never pinpoint exactly what it was about Richard that everyone loved. He only knew that he didn’t have it. That was their great difference; Richard could talk to anyone about anything. He could convince anyone of anything.
Then the policeman came up to Nathan, pad and pencil in hand. “Excuse me, sir, can I have a moment?”
“Certainly.” Nathan clenched and unclenched his fists inside his pockets. His fingers were starting to get numb.
“Were you here when the fire started?”
Nathan looked past the cop, at the building, the fire now dying down. Then he met the man’s eyes again. “No, officer.”
“How did you end up here?”
“I was a block or two east and I overheard someone mention it. I went to see if there was anything that could be done to help.” Stupid. What an idiotic thing to say. None of the rest had any desire to help. They just wanted to watch something burn. He needed to act like the rest.
“When did you arrive?”
He inhaled, exaggerated, like he was trying to recall. “Maybe ten or fifteen minutes ago.”
The officer made a note in his pad. “Did you see anyone leaving the area who seemed to be acting suspiciously?”
This time he rolled his eyes upwards, squinting a bit, as if the sky would provide the answer. “No, officer. At least, I didn’t notice anything.”
The cop nodded. “Thank you for your time. Your name?”
“And, if we need to, where can we get in touch with you, Mr. Leopold?”
“My address is 4754, South Greenwood Avenue.” He spoke slowly so the officer could write it down. “Feel free to stop by if you have any more questions.”
“Thank you, Mr. Leopold.” The cop moved on just as Richard turned and met Nathan’s eyes.
He came close and spoke softly into Nathan’s ear. “Stay a little while longer?”
Nathan nodded. “But we ought to get home soon.”
“Don’t look so–” Richard stopped, standing on his toes to see the last of the fire sprayed away. The firemen went closer to the shell of the shack to make sure nothing was still smoldering, and the crowd started to disperse. Now Nathan’s toes were starting to go numb, and his face ached with the slightest breeze. “Alright, now is good.”
They walked together to Richard’s car, parked across the street. Nathan climbed into the passenger’s seat and breathed in deeply. The car was still a little warm from earlier, and it smelled like Richard.
Richard turned the car on, then looked at Nathan, grinning. “That was terrific.”
“It went well.”
“Much better than the calls.”
The telephone calls. They had done it dozens of times. Call the fire department and report a fake fire, then go to the scene and watch. It was better if they were inside when it happened, so they could see all of the people looking panicked as the fire-trucks pulled up, the murmurs and shouting while the firemen rushed in, ready to save the day again, only to find there was nothing but a room full of frightened cattle.
The Cooper-Carleton had been the best. White table cloths, crystal and silver, all that gay nineties wallpaper. The whole room was so subdued, everybody eating and drinking at their tables. They were having lunch with Mandel and Rubel when Richard slipped away and made the call. Everyone in the dining room jumped when they heard those sirens. One woman even screamed. The whole room turned pale, all of them looking at each other as if staring wide-eyed would give them the answer. Then they started talking, is there a fire, isn’t there, should we get out? Plenty did, including Rubel and Mandel, but Nathan and Leopold had stayed. They pretended to be put off their lunch by the commotion, the concern.
It had been fun, watching them all panic and knowing what they didn’t. Nathan did not think it cruel. He didn’t think they deserved it. Not exactly. It isn’t as if a sheep deserves what a wolf gives her, after all. Nature has structure, and that structure is hierarchical. Nathan and Richard just happened to be at the top.
“We can’t do it again until at least a week from now, I suppose.” Richard shifted the gears and started backing up. “A different area, too. If the same police find us again, we’re finished.”
Nathan watched as Richard drove. “I think we’ll be alright, so long as we make sure to think everything through. Do you have another location in mind?”
“Not yet. I need to do some searching. But it’s not hard.” Richard laughed. “When I said this place is going to Hell, I really did mean it.”
Nathan turned and stared out the front windshield. “It can’t. Too cold. Much too cold for Hell.”
Richard laughed again. “I think this is it for the evening. I’ll drop you off at your car, but then I’ve got some things to do.”
Nathan’s head snapped back towards Richard. “I thought we were–”
“I know, I know. But something came up.” Richard smiled, but Nathan turned and looked out the side window. “Ah, don’t get sore.”
Nathan looked back at Richard. “I’m not sore. But we had plans.”
“I know. But, look, I’ll see you tomorrow. Right?” Richard pulled up in the lot next to Nathan’s car and flashed another smile. “I’m sorry. Babe.”
Nathan looked down at his shoes. “I’m not sore.”
“Of course.” Nathan got out of the car and into his own, watching as Richard drove off. Then he sat there, staring at the gray brick wall. He knew he needed a thicker skin. It was weak of him to get so upset if Richard cancelled. Nathan felt like those people with their wide eyes in front of the shack. Might as well have their mouths open and drooling. It was cold inside his car, and he turned it on when his fingers started to ache again.
Everybody was still asleep when he got home. He went into his bedroom without turning on a light and undressed in the dark. He lay on his back, closed eyes full of that burning building and Richard’s smile.
Light was creeping through the fine lace curtains. Nathan didn’t want to have breakfast. But his father and brothers would ask why he was so tired, and he couldn’t say he’d been with Dick. He squeezed his eyes shut, sat up, then opened them.
His father was already sipping coffee when he stepped into the dining room. “Did you sleep well, Babe? You’re late.”
“I got up for a little while after I went to bed. I remembered there was something I needed to get done.” Nathan took his place at the table and the maid laid a plate before him. “School, you know. Lots of work. And birds.”
Nathan’s brother, Samuel, cut away a slice of bacon. “What birds, at this time of year?”
Nathan did not swallow hard, or look away, or even blink. “That’s just it. It’s the dead of winter but we’re seeing more birds staying around than usual. It’s strange. Maybe you’ve noticed them?”
His father nodded. “I suppose I have seen quite a few, lately.” This man was also called Nathan. “Now that I think of it, there were about thirty all sitting on the building opposite my office last week. It is strange.”
Now Nathan looked down, at the eggs and sausage and thick bacon. The smell of it opened up his appetite like a sinkhole. He tore into the food, chewing and swallowing almost without pause.
Foreman, Nathan’s other brother, stared at the vanishing food. “Will you have some spare time this afternoon?”
Nathan stopped, remembering Richard’s face. Tomorrow, then? “I’m afraid not. I have to do some reading for class. I’ll be at the library most of the day.”
“And after?” Foreman spread butter on a slice of toast.
“I don’t know. I’ll see. I think I’ll probably be with the bird watchers.” Nathan finished his plate and got up while wiping his mouth on a napkin. “I should get going. Tomorrow is Monday, after all.”
Nathan spent the rest of the morning reading. In the afternoon, he wrote and studied and had a bath. His mind was never far from the night, from Richard and what heart-quickening they might do together. In the evening, he rejoined his brothers and father for supper, and went to bed early. But instead of sleeping he listened, in the dark room, for the rest of his family to retire. Then he slid out the front door.
It was around one in the morning. Nathan stood on the library’s steps, looking out to the street for Richard. When he spotted that coat and hat in the long, blurred shadows, Nathan grinned, but he pressed it down to what he hoped was a pleased expression as he went down the steps.
He grasped Richard’s hand and tapped his shoulder. “Dick, how are you?”
Richard smiled. “Terrific.” They started down the street. “I’ve been thinking a lot.”
“About what?” Nathan glanced to the left and right before crossing the road.
“Do you remember what we were talking about on Thursday? When we were on our way back to Chicago?”
“Thursday?” Nathan was shorter; he always had to walk slightly faster than his natural pace to keep up with Richard. “What did we talk about Thursday?”
“You remember. We were at lunch, and we were talking about how easy it would be.”
Nathan did remember. They had sat at a small table in that dim restaurant, heads leaning close together over their drinks. “Right.”
“I’ve been thinking. Only abstractly. Just a few ideas here and there.”
“Such as?” Nathan wasn’t sure where they were going, but he didn’t want to interrupt.
Richard shrugged. “Only small details. If it was a child, for example, rather than someone like Buchman.”
“That would make it much easier. By the way, where are we headed?”
“I thought you were leading the way.”
Nathan knew that was absurd. “Where did you want to go?”
“Let’s just keep going and talk.” So they went on down the street. “A child would catch a lot more attention, even more than a woman.”
“That’s true. But children also get watched more closely.”
“I don’t mean a really young one. One who was old enough to walk home from school. That way?” Richard pointed to the right.
“Sure.” Nathan shrugged. “Was that all?”
“I also realized that if we wanted to write a note, it would be better not to use one of our typewriters.” Richard adjusted his hat, pulling it down on the back and side in the breeze. “We’d have to type it, of course.”
“Of course, because of the handwriting.”
They paused the conversation while an older man walked past. “Asking for money would make sense. It would be a great distraction. After all–” Richard gestured to his gold watch, widening his arms to include his jacket, his whole suit, made of fine fabrics, this prince of Sears, Roebuck & Company.
“That’s true.” Nathan glanced at his own coat with its silver buttons. “But, what about today? This evening?”
“We couldn’t do it today.”
“No. What are we going to do this evening?”
“Oh. I thought we might do some smashing. We can pick up some bricks and use my car.” That was another delight, one that started after the calling but before the burning. Find some broken bricks or large stones and hurl them through the window of a closed shop or parked car.
Nathan could almost feel the heaviness in his hands, and imagined Richard’s face as they watched the glass give way, scattering shimmer in the dull moonlight. Singular, rigid, and lovely. “Right. That sounds good.”
Nat Buchbinder has a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a concentration in Creative Writing. Her novel, PANDO, advanced to the semi-finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest and her work as been published in The Stonesthrow Review, Honesty for Breakfast, and Urbanette Magazine.