By the time Erik lights the match at the second used-car lot out on Orange Blossom Trail, he knows he has made a mistake. But it is not because the streetlight-polluted sky suddenly looks dark by comparison, flames licking upward from the metal hoods of the early 2000s Toyotas, black paint shriveling and flaking in the fire. It is because there is a man on the sidewalk watching him now, a Hispanic man with his fingers curled over the jagged top of the car lot’s wire fence, holding a sagging Save-A-Lot grocery bag in his other hand.
There are cameras here, of course, and there were cameras at the first car lot as well, and by tomorrow the news reports will play and replay a cross-town narrative of grainy gray security-camera images, a sad version of Paranormal Activity where a middle-aged man lugs a gas can over fences, sloshes, dumps gas in clumsy signature-shaped trails from Sentra to Accord. Erik should have already been worried about this, about identification and arrest and jail time, but so far these attempts at arson have been unremarkable—minor flare-ups atop the cars, fires bursting high and angry for an instant, and then, because the car-lot owners never leave much gas in the tanks, no Hollywood explosions—and so he’s simply felt like an idiot with a gas can, not yet a criminal.
But it is this man at the fence who suddenly worries him, this human presence that convinces him that his vandalism is real, despite its unimpressiveness.
The man at the fence says, “You work here?” He wears a Goodwill ensemble, faded Boston Red Sox hat with too-large New York Yankees t-shirt. His fingers are still wrapped around the wire, gaze directed at the gas can, and he makes no attempt to back away or run. Orange Blossom Trail is a name that speaks of 1950s and 1960s Florida, Tin Can Tourists and motor inns and roadside citrus stands, but today everyone in Orlando derisively calls it “OBT,” the original three words having long since faded to inaccuracy. Now, it is all wire fences and dumpy fast-food joints and slumped black-mold apartments, the left-behind glass and metal of old car accidents clumped at curbside. Erik assumes that, living down here on OBT, where illegal immigrants are targeted and mugged because they carry cash but cannot go to the police, this man has certainly seen worse.
Erik walks to the fence, flames calming on the spent gasoline, orange waves flattening and dying on the rubber tires, only one camel-colored Sebring convertible top still flickering with fire. “What do you have in the bag?” Erik asks.
The man on the other side of the fence looks down, pulls out a carton of orange juice. “For breakfast tomorrow,” he says. “This fire. You shouldn’t be here.”
“I’d like a sip,” Erik tells the man and points to the bag. “I’d like some of your orange juice.”
The man considers his orange juice. He shakes his head. “My wife. This is for my wife.”
There are sirens in the distance, and Erik thinks how sad it would be if they are not for him, if they are for any number of ghetto stereotypes he has imagined for the streets of OBT through the years. If someone has held up a 7-Eleven, for instance, or if a drunk woman has been hit as she crossed the road. If a prostitute has flung a heel at an officer. If his act is so puny that it doesn’t even top the emergency task list. The sirens, in fact, don’t sound urgent, just mandatory, the sighing response to a call.
“Please,” Erik says. “Orange juice?”
The man uncurls his fingers from the fence but doesn’t move away. “No,” he says.
Thick black smoke still coughs from the tires, puffs from under the hoods and inside a few of the interiors. It seems Erik has succeeded only in melting rubber and plastic, and if the police or fire department indeed arrive at this used-car lot to investigate and/or douse the kiddie flames, they will likely have been alerted by the toxic smell of twisted burning plastics.
“Give me a sip,” Erik says. “One fucking sip.”
He jams his foot into one of the fence’s tiny diamond-shaped openings, everything shaky and rusty as he grasps, lifts himself, begins climbing up the fence to join the man on the other side. In his mind, the man will cower and acquiesce, place the OJ on the sidewalk and hold up his hands in surrender. In his mind, the entire city of Orlando surrenders.
But halfway up the fence, Erik stops. The gas can is fifty yards away, still center-stage for one floodlight. He is overweight, 48 years old, and he will not be able to make this climb again to quickly gather what he has left behind. And why is he even thinking of things like fingerprints now, and DNA? He has been filmed, that’s what will be devastating for him. It is too late to think of evidence. Not too late for orange juice, but too late to pretend that he hadn’t simply gathered the gas cans in his cart at Super Wal-Mart and—with the jingle of one used-car lot’s daytime commercial stuck in his mind—set off to destroy something. There was no plan. He would set the city on fire, and in the flames the city would see the consequences of their cuts, destroying the lives of men and children alike. There was symbolism in his choice of a used-car lot, too, but he couldn’t quite remember how he’d articulated it to himself earlier in the night. Something about capitalism and education. Maybe poverty and exploitation, too. Mostly, he just imagined the movie Falling Down and convinced himself that his life was shit without his job at the school, without hope of any jobs in education throughout the entire state, and he’d show the world that he was no push-over and no easy-to-delete cell on a spreadsheet, that his outrage was palpable and dangerous. But now Erik feels he has become a Far Side character, fat and hilariously hopeless, and he wants to leave his laughable protest-against-the-world behind; the night has become reality, and it is not the reality he wanted.
And now the flames are dead and he cannot climb higher up the fence without slipping or splitting his pants and looking even more foolish in front of the Hispanic man who will not let him take a drink, and the sirens are indeed fading.
Erik jumps down from the fence, and when he catches his breath and looks up, the man is walking away.
“Don’t go,” Erik says.
“My wife is expecting me.”
“Tell me,” Erik says. “What does this look like?”
“What does what look like?”
“This fire. The destruction. What does it look like to you?” Erik points at it, tightens his features and tries to scowl like a maniac.
“I didn’t see nothing,” the man says and holds up his hands. “I didn’t see nothing.” And he disappears into the streetlights of Orange Blossom Trail, past a bus-stop bench painted and repainted in varying shades of gray to cover new waves of graffiti that will never stop, used-up cars passing the both of them without slowing to notice the men or the dead flames.
Nathan Holic teaches at the University of Central Florida and works as the Graphic Narrative Editor at The Florida Review. He is also the editor of the anthology 15 Views of Orlando (Burrow Press).