ON FIRE

The Best of Breslin: Marvin the Torch

The legendary reporter finds an arsonist who just couldn’t say no.

08.01.15 4:01 AM ET

Marvin the Torch never could keep his hands off somebody else’s business, particularly if the business was losing money. Now this is accepted behavior in Marvin’s profession, which is arson. But he has a bad habit of getting into places where he shouldn’t be and promising too many favors. This is where all his trouble starts.

There was this one time a few winters ago when he listened to a hard-luck story from a guy who had a custard stand, located on the wrong side of a big amusement park, that was a bad loser and the owner had no way to get rid of it. Marvin the Torch should have kept his mouth shut, but he had a couple of drinks with the fellow, and sure enough, he wound up promising to do something about it. So a week later, gas cans at his feet, he stood in front of the guy’s custard stand. The custard stand was just an old boarded-up place and it was an insult to bring Marvin the Torch anywhere near it. Marvin the Torch is a man who has burned in the best industries.

But here he was, stuck with another favor, so he picked up the gas cans and went to work. As long as he was at it, Marvin decided to put a little spectacle into the job. Marvin the Torch wanted to try to make the roof blow straight up into the air without bending the nails in it.

This would have been all right, except Marvin the Torch’s fire caught a good south wind and the wind carried the fire straight over the amusement park and before the day was over, Marvin the Torch’s favor job on the custard stand had also belted out most of a million-and-a-half-dollar amusement park.

He got into the restaurant business in Florida on one of these favors, and it nearly ruined him. Marvin was down there visiting restaurants which were not doing too well to see if he could drum up a few contracts. In one of the places he was eating at a table near the kitchen entrance when he noticed the chef hanging in the doorway with a disgusted look on his face during most of the meal.

“Business bad?” Marvin asked him.

“See for yourself,” the chef said.

“Why don’t you get yourself a cup of coffee and sit down with me,” Marvin said.

Over coffee, Marvin carefully sold the chef on deal to “build an empty lot,” as Marvin refers to his trade, on the site of the chef’s restaurant. The chef liked the idea. Then, during a succeeding conference, a hitch developed. The chef said that after collecting the insurance and then coming up with Marvin’s fee, he wouldn’t have enough left to buy the new place he had his eye on.

Right here Marvin went ahead and opened his mouth. Some of his friends say he gets such a kick out of burning places down that he’ll do anything for a deal. Whatever it is, Marvin wound up agreeing to waive his fee and take a partnership in the new restaurant the chef was going to get when Marvin burned his old one down.

Two weeks later, on a dark night, and with the chef visiting relatives two states away for alibi purposes, Marvin the Torch arrived at the restaurant with his team, which consisted of Benjamin, the blanket man, and a fellow named Lou, who drove. Now, arson is a three-man job. Two men pour, then one of the pourers comes out and becomes the blanket man. He holds an old car blanket and throws it over anyone coming out whose clothes are on fire. The driver counts the gas cans to make sure none is missing. In short, people don’t pay you if they find gas cans in the ruins of your accidental fire. The Torch, of course, does the actual igniting.

Following the usual delay, the chef received his insurance money and bought his new restaurant. Marvin returned and the venture was off to a bright start. After a week, however, Marvin found that the chef couldn’t cook. After a month, Marvin the Torch found the place was costing him money and he was telling the chef good-by.

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“I’ll be back around next season and stop around to see you,” Marvin said. “If you’re doing any good by then, we’ll square up.”

Marvin the Torch came back, all right. He came back a year later at four one morning and he belted out the restaurant with so much juice that the kitchen pots melted. But this still didn’t satisfy him. In the end, he had had to do two jobs for the price of one.

“Favors,” Marvin the Torch says in disgust. “Favors are for pyromaniacs, not professionals.”