by Brandon Gardner
I stared at it from the darkness of my car. I hated it. I hated every inch of it. It was a monument to everything that was wrong with this country, to everything that was wrong with my life. I had twelve gallons of gasoline in my trunk. Enough. They’d know right away it was arson. I didn’t care.
ONE YEAR EARLIER
I looked at the house and smiled. MY house. I was a homeowner. And not just any house. A 1.3 MILLION dollar house. Of course it wasn’t what I’d imagined a 1.3 million dollar house would look like. It was only one story. Two bedrooms, one bath. And it was pretty old.
But the good news was the previous owners were willing to knock off 30k because the wiring was old and the roof needed to be replaced. And at least Em and I wouldn’t be throwing our money away in rent anymore. Twenty-two hundred a month year after year and in the end you didn’t own anything.
Of course we’d be paying considerably more a month for the mortgage. More than we really could afford at the moment. But that was at our current salaries. We’d both advance in our careers and soon be making enough to pay our mortgage comfortably.
In the meantime, we’d budget. Eat at home more. Get rid of cable. Buy the cheap eggs from the chickens that aren’t allowed to walk around. It’d all be worth it. It was a really nice neighborhood.
And the good news was that property taxes were almost nothing. The real estate lady explained that it was a great time to buy. City council was pro-home owner and had restructured a lot of things to save tax payers’ money. Plus real estate is one of the most stable investments you can make. According to Zillow this house had been sold for eight thousand dollars in 1973 and then sold again in 1997 for seventy-five.
Kayden is going to love the backyard. It’s not huge, maybe ten by twenty, not a regulation soccer field or anything, but plenty of room to throw a ball around. We used to have to drive ten minutes to the park. Now we could come out here whenever we wanted. Whenever the mood hit us.
I guess I should look at lawn mowers. The push kind obviously. Although, it’d be pretty cool to get a riding mower. I bet Kayden would love to sit on my lap while we rode around. I loved doing that with my dad. There’s a picture of it somewhere.
Em and I will be able to be a lot more social now. That’s the thing about your thirties and forties, if you want to socialize you have to invite people over. Friends have invited us over for a game night in their dining room or margaritas by their fire pit but with our little apartment we could never return the favor. It would have been embarrassing.
Now that would all change. We’ll have friends over all the time. Em is gonna love it. I wonder how much a fire pit costs? I think I saw one at Costco. Or maybe we could get a croquet set. Or a trampoline! Kayden could invite friends over to jump around. I’m sure Mom would offer to pay for it.
Mom even said she could help us pay for the roof and the re- wiring which was a big relief. We’re very fortunate to have a parent who can help out like that. When things get going for us I’d love to help buy Mom a little house in the neighborhood. Kayden could go there after school. It’d be great for them to be able to spend more time together.
It feels good to make plans, to be thinking about the future. And not just our’s, Kayden’s. Kayden’s especially. He’ll get to have a childhood like I had. A good, normal, American childhood. It all starts with a house.
* * *
We’ve had to postpone a lot of the home repairs. Mom wanted to help out but I guess she had to put her knee replacement on her Visa card and the interest has been getting a little out of control. I wish she would have told us about it sooner. We wouldn’t have let her pay for the trampoline. Although Kayden is having a blast back there. It’ll be a good memory for him when he’s older.
And we’ve been good about cutting corners. I bring lunch to work now and Em cuts our hair. Sometimes the lights dim or flicker but that isn’t a big deal. The roof is eighteen-years old but it says online that composition shingles can last up to twenty, especially in a mild climate.
We’re a bit of a drive from our old friends and we’re still getting to know our new neighbors so we haven’t been able to be as social as we would have liked. Jim from the big colonial across the street seems nice though.
He came over the other day asking me to sign a petition. Apparently someone was trying to build low-income housing a few blocks away. He noticed my hesitation and smiled. “It doesn’t mean you’re against this kind of thing in general- just that you don’t want it next door.” He leaned forward. “If this goes through crime is going to go like this,” he raised his finger up in the air, “and our home values are going to go like this,“ he shot the finger down towards the ground.
I said, “Well, we don’t want that.” After I signed he slapped me on the shoulder and said ‘good man.’ He seemed interested when I invited him and his wife to come over some time for croquet.
No promotions for Em or I as of yet but all things considered we’ve been pretty lucky. A lot of her coworkers were laid off. Which means a lot of late nights for Em. She’s considered quitting and looking for a new job but we get our health insurance through her work so it’d be a little risky.
I got a side gig delivering groceries to help us keep up with the mortgage payments. The grocery store is about forty-five minutes away so I don’t have to worry about delivering to any of our neighbors. Not that I’m ashamed or anything but I don’t want them to feel awkward about it. I don’t get to see Kayden as much as I would like but knowing it’s temporary makes it easier. There are some guys I work with that are older than I am. It’s sad to see.
* * *
The fire started at 3pm on a Tuesday. In many ways we were very lucky. Em was at work and Kayden was on his way home from school. I had left work early so I could throw the ball around with Kayden for a bit. I was changing upstairs when the fire alarm went off and I called 9-1-1 right away.
The fire department is just down the street so we had two trucks outside our house in under five minutes and the whole thing was over five minutes after that. Apparently it had something to do with the power strip in the living room and the old wiring.
All of our electronics melted and there was some smoke and water damage but Em called our home insurance and they said they’ll be able to cover it. Great news. Huge relief. I got a nice photo of Kayden up on one of the fire trucks.
Another funny positive was we finally ended up meeting a bunch of our neighbors. A lot of them came over to ask what happened and see how we were doing. The old lady in the little Spanish-style place, I forget her name, brought a tray of Snickerdoodles.
I remember being in a really good mood that night. It felt like we were part of a community. Em ended up bringing the Snickerdoodles to the fire house later with a thank you note.
The fire chief had been really nice about the whole thing and didn’t try to make us feel bad about it or anything. “These things happen,” he said. He did recommend that we stay somewhere else until we’d had a chance to get someone to come in and replace all the old wiring.
So that meant that we’d be staying at Mom’s for a couple of weeks. It was tight - she’d sold the house after dad died and had moved into a one bedroom condo. But we were still lucky to have a relative close by. We camped out in the living room with sleeping bags and tried to make it fun for Kayden.
* * *
We got the bill from the fire department three weeks later. I found it when I went over to the house to check the mail. Actually, it wasn’t a bill. It said that right on the top, “THIS IS NOT A BILL.” But there was a big amount that they said was due and a date to pay it by. They said the bill was coming later but we could start the appeal process now if there was an error. There had to be an error. Who ever heard of a bill from the fire department?
I looked at the itemized list.
(1) Emergency Phone Call- $17.34.
(2) Fire Trucks - $6,878.00. (2) Fire Crews x (1) Hour Service - $2,312.89.
(.2) Miles Traveled - $272.09. (1) Fire Extinguisher - $152.51. (170) Gallons of Water - $318.09. (1) Hour Fire Chief Advice/Council - $209.19.
Total - $10,160.11
Ten thousand dollars. That’s absurd. The numbers didn’t make any sense. The damage to our house was only $1,100. This was probably supposed to go to the city treasurer’s or something. I noticed I was feeling light headed. I sat down and tried to take long slow breaths. Mom asked me what was wrong. I said, "Nothing, a mistake."
I called the number on the bill, or the notification, whatever it was. Press 1 for English. If this is an emergency hang up and dial 9-1-1. Press 1 for Billing. This call will be recorded for verification and training purposes.
The woman I spoke to said her name was Amber and she sounded like she was telling the truth when she said how sorry she was. It made me feel a little better. Amber explained that unfortunately there wasn’t an error. The fire department had been privatized eight months ago.
I googled it while I had her on the line. It was true. The City Council had voted for it unanimously. It now operated like a hospital or a library. Libraries had been privatized three months earlier. It cut property taxes in half. Met with popular support by home owners.
'“Why should we all pay for services we don’t use and may never need?,” said home owner Jim Fultz.' (I think that’s the guy from across the street.) The article went on to say that the Police Department would continue to be funded by the city. The City Council considered them essential for law and order and the enforcement of billing.
Amber explained to me that by calling 9-1-1 and requesting assistance I was entering a contract. She recommended that I call my home insurance company. I thanked her and texted Em.
“What is the name of our home owner’s insurance?” She texted back: “Why?” I texted “Nevermind. What’s their name?” It was the one with the basketball player commercials -”we know what it means to be a good teammate.”
I looked them up and called. It rang. And rang. No answer. “We are experiencing higher than normal call volume.” Do I want a callback? No I don’t.
Kayden came in from school and asked me if I was okay. I told him, “I’m fine, everything is fine”, but I must have said it a little too loudly because he burst into tears. Mom took him into her bedroom.
A man picked up on the other end. Also very nice. He had a slight southern accent and said his name was Yusef. He asked if he could put me on hold for a moment while he reviewed my situation. I said yes and waited. Incoming call from Em. I pressed “Deny.”
Why had I called 9-1-1? I could have probably put the whole thing out with a bucket of water. And why did they send two fire trucks? I didn’t ask for two fire trucks. And I definitely didn’t know I’d be billed for my conversation with the Fire Chief.
“Mister Murray? Are you still there?” I said I was. Yusef looked it up and found that my policy would cover part of the fire department bill. I laughed out loud. He laughed too. Thank you! That’s great news. I asked how much they would cover. He said $136.09.
I didn’t say anything after that so he went on to explain that for customers who use a private fire department they pay 85 percent of service costs after the deductible. Because we were Bronze customers our deductible was ten-thousand dollars. “Mr. Murray, are you still there?”
I asked him what would have happened if I hadn’t called the fire department and the house had simply burned to the ground. He said they would have covered everything. “Crazy, huh?” I hung up.
Incoming call from Em. I pressed “Deny.” I kicked the wall a few times. I didn’t damage anything but it must have been loud because Kayden and Mom stayed in the bedroom for a long time.
* * *
The annoying thing was that even though we were staying with Mom we still had to keep up with the mortgage payments. I’d talked to Amber again and we worked out a payment plan where we could pay the fire department $288.45 a month for the next 36 months. I used the insurance check for the down payment which meant we needed to wait on the rewiring.
Mom got a job in a factory that made paper plates. I hated that she was on her feet so much at her age but we needed the money. It also meant Kayden was by himself a lot after school -which I also hated- but I knew it was all temporary. Em’s boss had been laid off and it was only a matter of time before they increased her salary to reflect her new duties.
I still went over to the house once a week to check the mail and mow the lawn. It felt nice to get out of that little condo. Em was always in a bad mood these days and Jayden wasn’t really talking. I asked him if he wanted to drive to the house and throw the ball around or jump on the trampoline but he shook his head no.
I limped around the front yard with the lawn mower (I think I might have broken my toe kicking the wall) and stopped to look at the house. From the outside it still looked perfect. Well, except for a dark patch that was forming on the roof.
I needed to stay positive. I owned a home. A 1.3 million dollar home in a great neighborhood. Who knows, in a few years we might be able to sell it for twice that. Get an even nicer place. With a pool. Kayden would have friends over. I’d make everybody burgers out on the grill. Em would look over at me and we’d--
Jim hollered over from across the street. “Have you heard the bad news?” The low-income housing complex had been approved. It’d be up and running by Christmas. He shook his head. “Crime is going to go through the roof.”
I was shocked. I thought the City Council was pro-home owner? “Well, they usually are”, he said, “but one of the members is getting investigated by the FBI over some bullshit and now they’re all a little nervous.”
That night I read all about the new housing. The digital representations were beautiful. Sixty-four studio, one bedroom and two-bedroom units. The two bedroom units were nine-hundred square feet- as big as our whole house- and the rent could be as low as $600 a month for qualified families.
They’d even have a big outdoor area where fathers and sons could throw the ball around. A year ago something like this would have been perfect for us. The whole thing made me sick to my stomach. Em and I worked so hard, sacrificed so much, and these people would get to live in a palace for practically nothing.
I sat in the car and looked at my house.
Our roof had caved in the night before. We’d had a couple days of heavy rain. The old lady in the Spanish-style place had called Em to let her know. Our insurance wouldn’t cover the damage because we’d gone past the recommended period to replace the roof. The guy on the phone was really nice.
I turned and looked across the street at Jim’s big colonial. It really was impressive. The nicest house on our block. Two car garage. A gazebo. He had a new sign by his rose bushes that said THIS HOUSE IS PROTECTED BY SAMSON HOME SECURITY.
I put the car in gear and started to roll down the street. The trunk sagged a little from the weight of the gasoline. I rolled by the familiar homes in our neighborhood, the nice old lady’s little Spanish-style, the cheesy one with the statues and the fountains, the blue and white Victorian with the wrap around porch.
I rolled slowly past the fire station. There was a big new banner outside that said, “Proud To Keep Our Community Safe.” The lights were all out. New operating hours.
A few minutes later I pulled over and put the car in park. I stared out the window at the brand new building. It looked so beautiful. You’d never guess it was low-income housing. The lucky families had already been notified. Move-in was in three days.
I popped the trunk and got out.
BRANDON GARDNER is an actor and writer. He has spent the last twelve years performing and teaching improv in NY and LA. DAVID, a short film he co-wrote with Zach Woods, is an Official Selection of the 2020 Cannes Film Festival. He currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter.