The Favor

by Ivan Overmoyer

Originally published in Z Platt

The day my neighbor's car caught fire, I found him on the back steps
of the apartment building laughing like he'd just seen God drop a steam
locomotive on a bus full of nuns.  It was about ten A.M. and it was already
too hot for anyone to function, but I was anyway; I was heading out to work
when I found him.  He was shaking uncontrollably, gripping the rusted
handrail with white knuckles, laughter pouring out of him like red wine out
of a punctured box.  At first I couldn't think what he was laughing about
and was about to join him in his mirth until I looked up and saw the ancient
Oldsmobile covered in ten-foot high flames.  "Oh. Oh my God." I muttered.
It was all I could think to say.  We could hear fire engines screaming down
the road as I tried to get my friend to tell me what had happened, but he
couldn't stop laughing.  It occurred to me that he would keep laughing as
long as he was looking at the car so I took him inside by the shoulders and
up a small staircase and past his door to my apartment.

His name was Oliver, but everyone called him Tom.  I'm not entirely
sure why.  We met the day I moved in; he came over to borrow my can opener,
and we hit it off right away.  Ever since, we'd been the best of friends,
practically living in each others' apartments, going to parties, holding our
own parties, and basically just hamming it up when we weren't working.

When Tom's car burned down, we were both making barely enough to
survive and pay rent, and even then I'm surprised we had enough to eat, what
with the way gas prices were.  Tom worked at a bagel joint on Main Street,
and I ran an industrial dishwasher at Bagatelle's for eight hours a day,
five days a week.  It was a steady job that I enjoyed doing, but the pay was
what one might call "less than rewarding."  I don't know what Tom was
making, but he hadn't been able to buy booze in a month so it couldn't have
been that much.

As I sat Tom down in my meager little kitchen, the laughing started to
subside. I poured some cheap iced tea for him while he wiped the tears from
his face, still giggling deliriously. He took the tea and sipped it
carefully, trying not to spill any despite his shaking. He was wearing his
work uniform, a maroon polo shirt and a hat of identical color into which he
had tucked his rat tail.

"What happened out there?" I asked urgently, sitting down across from
him.

He laughed once, restrained any more laughter that might follow and
set his tea down on the table. "I don't know, man," he said, staring at the
tea. "I just walked outside, looked up." He looked up at me and threw his
hand in front of him. "Fuckin' car's on fire!" He tried to start laughing
again, but his expression changed in mere seconds from delirious glee to
shocked grief. "Oh my God, my car!" he yelled, jumping up and knocking the
chair over.  He ran out of the apartment in a frenzy and I went after him to
try and calm him down, let him know that I was there for him and that
somehow it would be okay. He would have done the same for me if my car was
on fire.

I tailed him through the hallway, hoping that the commotion wouldn't
wake anybody. Fortunately we lived close to the back door so there weren't
too many people who would be disturbed. When I caught up with Tom, he was
staring out the window next to the back door, clutching the sill with both
hands and breathing heavily. I stood next to him for a moment in silence,
watching it all unfold. The fire department had arrived and they were
pulling out hoses from the trucks, killing the flames with a white foam that
made me think of toothpaste. I'd never seen Tom get this torn up about
anything before, so I looked at his face out of curiosity. It was like
looking at a different person -- in all the time we'd been friends, Tom was
always the resilient one, the one who would watch car crashes and house
fires just to see what would happen and make clever comments. He was the
one who would turn disasters into jokes just to make you feel better.
Suddenly he was broken, confused, and without a punch line.

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