For two hours, Ralph stood just inside the entryway of the tent, watching his daughter enjoy herself and wishing that he were home—in his new two-bedroom apartment—working on a crossword puzzle or reading parts of the newspaper aloud to Bethany. He found a little red and white striped chair and squeezed into it. It was so short that his body slumped onto his knees and his breath felt pinched right out of him. Ralph watched the party-goers and wondered if there had ever been a time when he hadn't felt overwhelmed by his glittering, unbalanced wife.
The afternoon ticked by and it was just a little after three when, swinging her cowgirl hat above her head, Vicki skipped over to Bethany and grabbed her hand. "Come on! The clowns are starting a limbo contest."
Ralph extracted himself from the tiny red chair and elbowed his way through the limboing guests until he reached Vicki. "I'm going to wait in the car. Tell Bethany to come out when she's ready to go home."
Vicki shrugged and he wasn't even sure if she heard him.
Ralph turned to leave but he didn't go to his car. Instead, struck by an idea and an intense longing to be done with this party, he slid around to the backside of the tent until he reached the stake furthest from the opening. Squatting down, he unwound the tie. Ralph moved to his left and loosened the next tie, and the next, and the next. The tent sagged immediately. Ralph smiled. End of party, he told himself as he jogged back to his car. No one would get hurt. It was, after all, only a canvas tent, more than half of which was still standing. When he reached his car he turned, grinning like one of those circus monkeys, feeling full-up with long-denied satisfaction. And then he stopped. The tent was on fire.
A sliver of flame—nothing more than a special effect, really—was alight at the edge of the fallen canvas. And then, before Ralph could let go of the car door handle, the flame traveled and grew and within seconds the tent side closest to Ralph was completely ablaze. Ralph clasped his hands over his mouth and screamed, then thrust his hands away and screamed again, "Bethany!"
He stumbled forward across the lawn, seeing but not seeing the yellow and red clown carrying a howling monkey, a jumpsuited juggler rolling on the lawn, the sparkly silver of his pant leg charred to a brown-black, the white-haired bugle player flapping the hem of her skirt as she ran. A rainbow of balloons escaped into the sky. An abandoned drum rolled down a slope of lawn. Errant musical notes sounded here and there over the cacophony of voices.
Ralph ran, holding his breath until his lungs burned and then, when he couldn't stand it any longer, he gasped in a breath. Smoke filled his lungs and he coughed until he doubled over and then, airless, he felt his body hit the packed-down grass he used to mow. He struggled uselessly to get to his feet, or to at least draw a decent breath, but he found that he lacked the strength to do either.