John Noonan was drunk. He was very drunk. You couldn’t say that he was gloriously drunk because after twenty years of drinking and scribbling electrical circuit designs on yellow pads for I.B.M, drunk was what he did to feel normal. Drunk was what it felt to be alive. And there was little that was glorious about that.
And he was drunk, and alone, that night and still awake. And hungry. So he piled charcoal, the whole bag, on the grill and doused the black heap with lighter fluid. “The secret to a good fire,” he slurred to no one (for there was no one there), “is to soak the fuckers down good.” He squeezed the can and lighter fluid sprayed like his words, “goooooooood.”
He could already taste the steaks as he struck a match. Yellow flame danced to life, staggering him back as appraised his work. “Not going to be big enough,” he muttered and stumbled into the house. In the living room, he scooped up three logs from the wood box in the corner. He staggered back to the porch and dropped them in a billow of dark smoke on the withering flames. “Unacceptable.” He jostled the logs, coaxing, but all he did was snuff out the last yellow tongue of flame.
His engineer’s mind worked the problem as he scratched his chin and swayed in an imaginary breeze. He opened his eyes wide and stepped into the garage then back again in a moment with a red can of gasoline. He grinned with satisfaction as he tipped the can and a slurge of gasoline rained down on the grill. Angry vapor boiled in the air but nothing. “Fucker,” he said and rained down more gasoline. Still nothing. He struck another match and things got fuzzy.
The boiling vapors exploded and a six-foot fire ball engulfed him. He lurched back but the fire wrapped searing fingers around him. His eyes were burned. He gasped and filled his lungs with fire. He jerked his head back violently. Through a translucent haze he saw his shirt, more clear in his mind than in his scarred eyes. The shirt his wife had given him the Christmas she left, the one with the tiny paisley pattern, the one his son teased him about. “Too cool for an IBM-er. You’re no hippy subversive, old man,” his son said before he too left.
He remembered then realized – in one reeling instant of lucidity – the last thing he would ever understand. He stumbled into the kitchen, weirdly relieved that the shirt was not on fire. His steaks would go uneaten.