By Rodger Jacobs
“What I don’t understand is how the fire jumped all the way over here.”
Trace poked with his cane at the charred remains of a stack of rackjobber paperback books. The covers of the books were singed but intact, lurid gay porn titles with even more lurid charcoal renderings of homoerotic art.
“The fire didn’t jump over here,” Trace said. “This was a separate fire.”
Greg chewed on his thick lower lip for a beat. He didn’t like Trace’s answer.
“What does that do to my theory?”
“Shoots it to shit, Greg, unless you think these books spontaneously combusted as well.”
As actors go, Trace felt, Greg Harrington was a smart one. He always kept his ego in check and was painfully aware of his limitations as a thespian. When his big break finally arrived – a lead role in an ill-fated sitcom – Greg saved every dollar he could and bought a piece of income property in North Hollywood, a duplex with an apartment over the garage in the rear. Greg lived in one of the duplex units and rented out the other and the garage apartment. It proved an especially prescient move because Greg was yesterday’s news when the sitcom flopped – and quite spectacularly at that – and he never worked as an actor again, unless voice-overs for feminine napkin commercials count as acting.
“I didn’t know they still published books like these,” Trace said.
“Are you kidding? He wrote one a month, twelve a year.”
“Yes, Greg, I know how many months go into a year. For Christ’s sake, how can you even think this was spontaneous combustion? It reeks of gasoline in here.”
“I’ve owned this place for ten years, Trace. The apartment over the garage has always smelled like gasoline. That’s why I gave him a break on the rent.”
Trace moved to the bathroom. There was a large charred circle on the white tiled floor.
“Why didn’t you put him out yourself?”
Greg nervously bit at a hangnail on an index finger. “I freaked, man. How often do you see people on fire? Plus I don’t own a fire extinguisher.”
“A garden hose?” Trace suggested with a raised eyebrow.
“Like I said, I freaked. I saw the fire, I ran up the stairs, and there he was on the bathroom floor, sitting cross-legged and all and burning like a fucking log. He wasn’t screaming or nothing.”
Trace leaned on his cane and carried himself back to the living room, back to that stack of smoldering gay porn novels.
“This is his suicide note,” Trace announced.
“The faggot books?”
Trace fumbled in his coat pocket for a pack of cigarettes, shook one loose, and lit it with a disposable lighter.
“I’ve had four books published and only one to this day continues to be a bestseller. You know what that one is? A book on sex positions. There are days when I wish I could burn every copy in existence.”
“But you get residuals, don’t you?”
“Not for that kind of writing.”
Trace splurged for lunch at the H. Salt Fish and Chips on Lankershim Boulevard near Universal City. Between mouthfuls of deep fried whitefish and clams and zucchini strips Greg once again recounted the events of two nights before.
“I heard him leave about ten o’clock but then he came right back, like maybe less than ten minutes later. I was in the kitchen and the window looks out on the back so I saw him get out of the car and run up the stairs.”
Greg drenched a plank of fish in malt vinegar. Trace left his gloves at home so he couldn’t allow the acidic vinegar anywhere near his fingers.
“Anyway, I stayed in the kitchen, doing the dishes, and suddenly I heard this whoosh and then I go out --”
“Yeah, yeah, skip the rest. What did the fire department say about your theory?”
“They said he set himself on fire. But that’s the thing, Trace, there’s no gas can to be found anywhere and, like I said, the place always smells of gasoline. He was under a lot of stress. He was tired of writing these smut books and all – that’s what he told me – and I think the pressure just got to him and --”
“He spontaneously combusted just like that. I see where you’re going here, Greg. You want your little apartment house on the Graveline Tours or something, right? See the spot where a failed writer spontaneously combusted. And you want me to validate it for you.”
“You’re a writer. You can get the story into print.”
“If it’s true. Where’s his car?”
“You said he went out for about ten minutes before he went up in smoke. Where’s his car?”
The silver Toyota Cressida was parked on the asphalt slab that passed for a driveway to the rear of Greg’s house. The windows were rolled shut but the driver’s side door was unlocked. Trace opened the door slowly, half expecting the car to be booby-trapped with some kind of incendiary device.
“Holy shit!” Trace hissed. “This thing is a gas can on wheels. Stick your fucking head in there.”
Trace sat down on a cinder block in the driveway and rested. His legs were burning from the latest cruel permutation of his psoriasis; in fact, at this stage of the inflammation his skin resembled that of a burn victim and often confused doctors who were seeing him and his condition for the first time.
“You need anything, Trace?”
“Just to be home. Do you know where he went for ten minutes that night?”
They drove in Greg’s car a half a mile to a gas station on Laurel Canyon Boulevard near Gelson’s Market. The station manager, an obscenely hirsute Persian with hair on every exposed surface of his skin, laughed long and hard when Trace began his inquiry.
“Let me see if I have this straight,” Trace said as the man continued laughing at his recollection of events. “A man drives into your gas station at ten o’clock, walks up here to the window, pays for ten dollars worth of gasoline --”
“And then he walks back to his car over there at the island and instead of putting the nozzle in his tank like most people, he takes a fucking shower in the shit and then calmly gets back into his car and leaves.”
“Yes. Like I said, strange but funny.”
“You didn’t think of calling the police?”
The hairy Persian hiked his shoulders. “I wasn’t here.”
“Okay, fair enough. Your attendant didn’t call the cops?”
“Why?” The man laughed again. “This is L.A. We’d have the police here all the time if we called them every time somebody did something … funny.”