The Etiquette of Arson

Tara Laskowski

Prologue (The Fire You Didn't Start)

Stop. Touch the doorknob. It is hot, so step back.

Use the towel. Under the door. It will keep out the smoke.

Smoke will still come. Breathe once and hold, large and deep. Open the window and look down. Jumping more than three stories will kill you.

Remove the towel. Open the door. Watch the fire as it curls, roaring, a sound so loud it amazes you since you always thought fire was quiet. Close your eyes and remember the circus man you saw on television who walked through a pit of fire with bare feet.


Chapter 17—Tips and Tricks

You may have a particular fondness for the clink clink of the metal lighter fluid can as you crush it pouring out between your hands, the sound much like the rattling coins inside the soup can you kept under your bed, the bank that allowed you to save up for the plastic cat clock you saw in the window of the pawn shop down the street because you liked the way its tail wagged back and forth every time the clock struck the top of the hour.

Start with something easy, like lighter fluid. Buy cans in the grocery store and imagine that you are just a guy planning to grill up some burgers and hot dogs in the backyard, chew on watermelon until your face is dripping with red juice, tell the neighbors vaguely offensive jokes.

Later, you may find it is more of a challenge to siphon gasoline from random cars. Milk jugs work. Don't fill from cars in the same area. Spread it out.

Location, location, location, vital in real estate and in fire starting. Your first step to a good fire should be to survey the land around you so you can choose the Best Spot. Here are a few things to look for:

  • Abandoned warehouses or old storage facilities
  • Structures with tall grass or trees nearby from which to watch the results of your work
  • Broken windows—a sign that watchful eyes have turned elsewhere
  • Anything large and saggy and sad that needs saving

Technique Tip! A ground floor room is best. A little goes a long way, so spread your gasoline in a zigzag fashion from the back of the room to the front exit, paying extra attention to dense objects like bookcases, desks or piles of crates. Don't forget to leave a trail at the end, an umbilical cord connecting you to the Best Spot.

It may be the end this time, but there will always be more beginnings.


Chapter 30—Things You Wish You Could Say to Your Mother

"Once on the TV, this man died and went to hell. They tied him to a chair and pulled his fingernails off one by one. I wished it was you."

"It is okay for boys to cry in certain situations."

"I am an adult now. Stop telling me what to wear."

"Sometimes I want to scratch your face off like a lottery ticket, only there would be a bunch of zero zeros underneath. I would still feel like I won."

"Do you want to see what I did last week?"


Appendix III—Items that Are Fascinating to Burn

The tail lit up brilliantly with just one touch of the match, but the squirrel ran out of sight before anyone could really understand what pattern the burn took or how fast it spread.


Rubber bands

Squirrel tails dipped in gasoline

Plastic spoons


Dog houses


The attic of your grandmother's house

The letters your mother writes to you from the nursing home


Prologue (cont.)

On one occasion, after she burned a hole in one of the new couch cushions she bought at Walmart that day, your mother spun a creative metaphor involving maggots and your laziness and need for food, but you don't recall the exact wording of the insult, just the way that the vein on the left side of her forehead appeared as blue as those ice pops that your Uncle Lou let you eat the weekend you stayed with him up in Pittsburgh. On another occasion, remember the sweet smell of her perfume as she pressed your face against her sweater, hugging you fiercely and kissing your head when she came home from the casino with $540 from playing the slots.

When you make it out, be sure to let someone know that you are alive. Look for them, your mother, your stepfather. Cough, cough, throat tight and singed, ten times worse than breathing in your mother's cigarettes, watching the ashtray balanced on her belly. The firemen may see you first—let them throw a blanket over you even though the wool scratches your face. See your mom then—she runs toward you, arms flailing. Do not cry when she slaps you. Hear her say the things she's always said before and then she will wipe the mascara on the back of her hand. Say, "Where is Barney? And when she spits and screams again, "Where is he?" and starts to beat her fists against your blanket, remember the remote control car he gave you that summer for your 10th birthday, but don't cry. (At the funeral, the priest told you exactly where Barney went: up to heaven with the angels, and your mother murmured, "Praise be to Jesus.")

Instead step away. Look up at the house emblazoned in gold and orange and yellow, at the thick black swirls rising, at the house's soul escaping.

It is the beginning of the beginning.


On People

People are not to be burned. Do not burn your mother when she dies, even if she puts it in her will. Pat her foot and cover it with the blanket and nod, but know you could never do that, not after what happened to Barney, not even when she says she wants her remains sprinkled out in the ocean.

People are not to be trusted. People are flawed. People smoke cigarettes in the house and fall asleep with them in their mouths and drop matches on the carpet that aren't completely extinguished. It is not their fault, though. They try to love. They try their best.

People do not understand. They do not see what you do, the black curls of the soul, the bits of salvation that appear in the flames. They do not see its beauty.


Chapter 8—The Burn

Once the fire has caught, retreat far enough to not get hurt, but stay close enough to still feel the heat. Look for the colors. Sometimes you can see red, blue, purple, orange, yellow. Sometimes even green. Look at the spaces in between the colors. The black. The white. These are the holes that need to fill. These are the pieces of soul being released.

The purity exists in the holes and the heat. The heat is not orange. The heat is white. The souls are black. Do not take your eyes away. It is important to be a witness to it all. You owe it that much, to watch. You owe it tears if that's what happens, and often it does. There is no pain in that. If it is quiet enough, you can even hear it sigh.