The Arson Department

burning-house-mdby B.J. Best

In every firefighter lives a seed of pyromania. Know that. For firefighter, read American. Know that, too.
Know this: in the U.S., it is perfectly legal to set fire to your own home if you do not claim the loss. Nick and I learned that early on at the battalion, yet we put the fires out anyway. “It’s not good for business to sit and watch ’em burn,” the chief said.

But Nick and I knew plenty of people who had good things to burn for good reason. So we quit our jobs, bought a truck with two thousand gallons of jet fuel in its tank, and set off to educate people about the law. We called ourselves The Arson Department, had a few campy commercials made with people screaming out windows—Call the Arson Department!—after something important to them broke. Our first client was a woman who was divorcing her alcoholic husband, and allowed us to melt his bottles into a puddle of glass in their front yard. There were wedding rings. Draft papers and death certificates. Love letters, love letters, love letters. Our hoses were alive and red as vipers, painting things to ash.
We did buildings, of course. Barns where failure had been reaped for decades. Sheds where something had happened years ago, but no one would say what. A whole town’s worth of businesses—bakeries, insurance agencies, dime stores—ruined. All ruined.

Some people wanted to stay inside while we were flooding the area with fuel. They wanted to burn with it. We were sympathetic to these people. In rare cases, we felt so bad as to give them a discount. But we were very careful to explain the law. We were not murderers. We were arsonists. But it would make little difference were someone to die.

We knew we’d eventually be taken to court. Our star witness was a widow whose inheritance from her husband was a garage full of broken cars and car parts. Oh, the lightness she felt in her soul as those flames rose to heaven! The sweetness of smoke in the air! The satisfaction of watching it all go to hell!
We asked to give a live demonstration in the parking lot. The judge reluctantly agreed. There, tied to a chair, simpering eyes, was his ex-wife. I’d rather not discuss how she got there, nor the gasoline tank next to her. We are not murderers. It’s just that the affair was so sordid and public, the way she left him for his rival for the same judicial seat, midway through the election, the vulgar headlines, and now he’s a senator and she a senator’s wife. Nick, despite being handcuffed, managed to produce a book of matches and tossed them at the judge’s feet.

How could we be guilty? To take everything you have loved, everything you have worked for, invested your time and money and blood and life, and destroy its pathetic wreckage in a blaze of regret: that is our inalienable right. That is what it means to be American.

B.J. Best once burned a shirt given to him by an ex-girlfriend. The temperature was three degrees, and it was hard to do what with all the snow.
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