BURN THE SHIPS by John Darcy

The first scam was parking outside the bank, mobile-depositing a check, running inside to cash it with the teller. He dubbed it The Double Derring-Do. Loopholes find fault in failures of imagination. It’s about outsmarting, round-abouting.

Okay, he did end up with two years for wire fraud.

Watching a scumbag stoner conman movie, he whispers, “That’s not what it’s like.” On his computer are two hundred years of pirated movie soundtracks. He’s working his way through them. Also the first two acts of a five-act play, stellar dialogue but lacks compelling conflict. Policies in triplicate because it never hurts to be over-insured. A scanned draft of his last will and testament, the first line of which reads: I sure made a mess of this, didn’t I?

Never has he ever flown on airplane, seen ocean, met-cute, punched wall in heartbroke anger. Personal goals are fingers pointed at the moon. Mostly these days he feels recycled, amalgamed, trauma-tinged. 

Lately he’s got this ache in his head like a cold front. He guesses the trouble began with his mother. Don’t even get him started on reincarnation. 

He wants to get into the burning-down buildings for money business. There’s a word for it. His plan is to bring in a companion, accomplice, compatriot. Good listening skills are a must. 

First interview:

“Name?”

“Man.”

“Pardon?”

“My name is Man.”

“Any interest in becoming partners in crime?”

“We’ll never make it out of this alive.”

“You mean life?” he asks Man. “I was under the impression that was part of the deal.”

Man looks lived-in, city-dwelled. Hair that’s airplane-mode yellow. Caution-tape eyes. Second thought it could be jaundice.

“Well, Man, the job is yours, man.”

“Anything else?”

“You wouldn’t happen to have anyone you could set me up with, would you?”

He wants to do stand-up comedy, open his tight-five with something along the lines of: What’s the deal with dads, am I right? See, my old man only had one hand. I know, right? He’d say, Well, on the one hand…

Still workshopping it. 

The actual story is all dark and stormy night. The year is 1974, the sun a faded smile behind the clouds. Adopted Father is at his workbench, trying to construct a crib, thinking that if he builds said crib the universe will have to assent, agree, sort of just let him have a win for once. Upon hearing his wife yell through the house that, yes, no, seriously, this was it, the adoption had been approved, Adopted Father cuts his left hand off with a table saw. The amount of blood is simply tremendous. Looks more like low-budget slasher movie blood than hardcore realism blood. It spurts from his open wrist to the beat of his beating heart. His hand is inches from his forearm, the distance so small and simple that it crunches his brain. Adopted Father is reminded of the boardwalk carnival trick where a person’s hand and a prop hand are separated by a curtain as someone strokes the real hand with a feather, then comes down on the fake one with a hammer or mallet, and the game’s participant flinches and winces and retracts even though no contact was made with the real thing. Adopted Father is already getting phantom feelings. Woozy go the lights, the workbench and his body like a different body as a grayness comes over him, the fainting and the floor, and the pain begins a courtship with his limb, and sleep.  

He draws up a contract for Man to keep things above board.

He says, “I did that New Year screw up on your contract. Earth to me, it’s not 2018 anymore.”

Man answers, “Life is attachment. Attachment is suffering. Life is suffering”

“But the food isn’t half bad.”

“Pointless bodies on a pointless rock, convinced we matter. Birth is a terminal disease.”

“Ever thought about therapy?” he asks. Man doesn’t answer. “Anyway, I did a strikethrough and initial. You’re supposed to on official things.”

Man says, “I want to burn something down.”

“Did you get a chance to read my play yet?”

“There’s a lot working but I want to know more about the main character.”

Meaning Man wants to know more about himself. The play being as it were autobiographical. A lip-smacking development. 

They stroll the streets together. He tells himself take it easy or you’ll scare him off. The sun circles a Miller Lite sky, clouds made of gout and gauze and dust. He tells himself take it easy or you’ll scare him off. 

He asks, “Do you want to be best friends?”

“I don’t see why not,” Man says.

“Cool. Yeah.”

Is there a word for something beyond happiness?

Man says, “Joy, rapture, bliss, death.”

They watch the fire all glue-eyed, the fall of Rome from nosebleed seats. First job for the duo came from the insurance company. Burn down abandoned warehouse before the owner does, please. Use lots of accelerant to prompt investigation, if you would. Pay out claim denied. 

He asks Man, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

The blaze sounds like a brass band. A crackling roll of popping joints. Boards of flame lick the walls outside, falling upward. Heat. Very smoky, very true.

“In this exact spot,” Man says. “Returning as a meditation on the flatness of time.”

“Me too,” he says. “I was going to say the exact same thing.”

“We’re really in it now,” Man says.

A brightly dark night, gray stars and the moon. The fire makes his headache go away like a cure. 

“I meant to ask,” he says to Man, “do you have any hobbies?”

“Postponing my suicide.”

“Been thinking of getting into model airplanes myself.”

They move in together, balance the TV on a stack of pizza boxes. He says to Man, ‘I can’t help but notice you don’t have a bed.’

“I sleep in a coffin,” Man says. “As a reminder.”

“Don’t forget it’s your turn to do the dishes.”

“Where will we go from here?” Man asks.

He thinks about saying, well, we could soften up, find our way to the straight and hallowed narrow. We could throw on a movie, shovel down ice cream like the freezer’s busted. Start a band, get into birding, walk the streets and catcall catcallers. One hundred eighty degree ourselves. Decide to something or other, dust that hard-to-reach place. Floss more. Colorize our lives and come to a conclusion. Maybe this whole thing just isn’t for us. Or maybe we got the world we deserve.


John Darcy is an army veteran from Madison, Wisconsin. A Best of the Net 2020 nominee, he has fiction forthcoming in Conjunctions.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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