Matchhead

Carlos Arredondo did the unthinkable with gasoline, a Marine van, and a propane torch. Two years later, he still burns.

As the city blocks scroll past, the neighborhoods morph from working-class white to black to Hispanic and finally to Vietnamese. Old men in front of Desmond's Pub applaud. Some joker with a cup in his hand calls out, "This is sad, man. Don't bring down the parade." A kid on a minibike rolls up to ask, impishly, "Is somebody really in there?" At an intersection, a large police officer starts clapping, and it spreads through the bystanders.

Then, farther down, from the sidewalk: "WHAT THE FUCK?"

The voice sounds like an ogre's. It belongs to a large man with a gray beard.

"HEY! I'M TALKING TO YOU! WHO THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?"

He's walking out of the crowd, into a gap in the parade. He is behind Carlos but gaining on him.

"WHO DO YOU FUCKING THINK YOU ARE, BRINGING A COFFIN HERE?"

Carlos, silent, hands off the picture of his son, to clear his hands. He has decided he will not let this man touch the casket. The man keeps asking Carlos who he thinks he is, and pointing, and stalking closer. Another marcher steps between them; the angry man rips at a campaign sign in the marcher's arms. "His son was killed!" someone says.

Who the fuck does he think he is? He was a father who was shoved as hard as he could be shoved — now, he's not sure who he is, because for Carlos these days, the parade never stops. He is through the fire, and yet he is not. He carries pills in his truck. He thought his son had come home to visit. When troops are beheaded, he goes to the cemetery to cut the grass, then drives around with his coffin until he runs out of gas. He has a letter his son wrote on the way to war, and he would be honored if you read it. Jeffrey Lucey hanged himself in the basement. Alex was shot in the head. It was Carlos' birthday. It was the worst, the worst in his ever life. He is emotionally incapacitated, and he is as alive as anyone you've ever seen.

The man pushes toward him — and then stops, as reason finally gets the better of him. He stalks back down the block, muttering. Carlos is relieved. "I'm glad he went away," he says. "I would not have let him touch the coffin. I would have grab his shirt, push him onto the ground, held him down until — something."

Carlos' Marine friend explains that he recognizes the man from the neighborhood. "His brother's in Iraq," the veteran says. "I tried to talk him out of going."

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