Thomas Molander lives in Montreal and studies creative writing at Concordia University. His work has appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, Queen Mob's Teahouse, Metatron's ÖMËGÄ blog, and elsewhere. He edits fiction at BAD NUDES, Hybrid Heaven, Soliloquies Anthology, and is a research intern at Maisonneuve Magazine.
1 story by Thomas Molander
My Brother Michael Arson
My brother is the famous documentary filmmaker Michael Arson. Before today I hadn’t seen him in two years. He’d been in Arizona, living with an apocalyptic cult and filming them every day. In the end, they’d backed off their predictions and committed to living a better life on earth instead. Michael returned to Montreal disappointed, swearing off human subjects for future films. He just got back this morning.
“Thomas,” he said to me on the phone. “Let’s go on a hot air balloon this afternoon.”
If you’d read his Wikipedia page, you’d know that before Michael was a famous documentary filmmaker he was a screenwriter and before that he made music for commercials. He seems to jump between jobs effortlessly. When we were kids, people always said our voices sounded identical, but when he became a documentary filmmaker his voice changed. He started speaking more slowly, yes, but the timbre changed too.
I was sitting on my futon when, through the window, I heard a car horn and I could tell it was directed at me. I assumed we would stop for lunch, but I put a bagel and two oranges into my backpack just in case. I looked at the disarray in my apartment: dishes in the sink, the tangled mess of wires beneath my desk, my dirty clothes on the futon. When I went outside I saw Michael leaning casually against a red Mazda. His blonde hair was down to his shoulders and perfectly straight. He was wearing a navy blazer, acid washed jeans, and tan boots.
“It’s so nice to see you,” he said in that documentary voice.
I got into the car, which had two other people in it.
“I’m Marie,” said the driver in a thick French accent. “Your brother’s publicist.”
“Marie’s so great,” my brother said. “She arranged this whole thing.”
She reached back one hand for me to shake while she steered through traffic.
I turned to look at the guy sitting next to me in the back seat and waited for him to introduce himself. He was around my age.
“I won a contest,” he said. “My name’s Lincoln.”
“A contest?” I said.
“To go in a balloon with your brother,” Marie said.
I had no sense of where we’d board the balloon. A couple minutes into the drive, Marie took a call and spoke in French as she drove through the city and merged onto the highway. I looked out the window as Lincoln lobbed sporadic questions at my brother, who answered them while looking at his phone and without turning around.
“What was your favourite documentary to make? Clothing Germs?”
“Oh you know, they’re all special in their own way. Each of them is like a child, really, they all have their own needs and desires, benefits and pitfalls.”
We were driving past a forest of stunted trees.
“How did you get into making documentaries?”
“Well I’ve always been interested in storytelling and it really feels like the most direct, intimate way of telling a story.”
We were driving past fields of corn.
After an hour of driving, Marie took an exit and ended her phone call. She pulled up to a gas station and went inside, returning with four blue Gatorades and four Crunchies. She distributed them while getting us back onto the highway.
“What advice would you give a young, up-and-coming documentary filmmaker?”
My brother put down his phone and turned around.
“Are you one?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Lincoln said. “Maybe.”
My head bonked against the window and I woke up. We were bumping along a pitted dirt road, passing white tents where people stood around in fancy clothes holding plastic wine glasses. Marie pulled the car into a parking lot and we got out and stretched our legs.
“Is that your real last name?” Lincoln said as he slammed the car door shut. “Arson?”
Michael looked at me and smiled. He always said never to say. In the distance I could see the huge pink and yellow balloon, inflated and waiting.
The four of us approached one of the tents. A lanyarded man with a clipboard and a walkie-talkie attached to his belt shook our hands—even Lincoln’s—and escorted Michael away for interviews. Marie raised her phone to her ear and walked away, so I was left standing with Lincoln.
Each tent served a different miniature food for free so Lincoln and I walked in a circuit: fish tacos, sliders, pulled pork poutine, sandwiches, gelato, poke, salad. Sometimes people approached me and shook my hand. If they spoke to me it was in French, so I smiled and nodded. I wasn’t sure whether they thought I was Michael, or someone else notable, or if they just found it important to shake many hands. I was wearing a black shirt, black jeans, and dirty white tennis shoes: admittedly a hard outfit to place.
We stopped at a tent with wine and beer. I asked for a white wine and was given a glass of water.
“She thinks you’re Jesus,” Lincoln said and I told him to calm down.
Marie returned and seemed stressed.
“It’s time to get on that balloon,” she said. “Where’s Michael?”
We decided to wait for him near the balloon. It was weighted down by ropes attached to large sandbags. The flames were surprisingly hot and I rotated my body slowly around so the heat wasn’t focused on any part of me for too long at a time, like a rotisserie chicken. My pockets were full of the little pieces of paper the food came with. Michael came sauntering over.
“How did they go?” Marie asked. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you there would be interviews; I didn’t know either.”
He said it had gone fine. The four of us stood in silence.
“Is anyone afraid,” Marie asked. “I’m afraid.”
Lincoln looked at me, unsure how to answer.
“I’m not sure if I’m afraid,” I said. “It depends.”
“Is it true that you’re planning to film an entire documentary from hot air balloons?” Lincoln asked.
“If something is important I’ll just say it,” Michael answered. “You needn't ask.”
After he said that he turned to me quickly. I think he’d forgotten I was there.
“Come here a sec,” he said, nudging me in the side with his elbow.
We walked away from Marie and Lincoln. He pulled a joint from his breast pocket.
“I did this before the last time I went up on a balloon,” he said. “I mean, it’s a calm experience as is. But.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m worried about getting up there and freaking out.”
He nodded. I stood and watched him finish the joint, throw the roach on the ground and grind it into the dirt with his shoe. We walked back over to Marie and Lincoln. Now an old man wearing denim suspenders was talking to them.
“Mr. Arson!” he said, shaking my brother’s hand. “I’m the pilot of this baby.”
“She’s a beaut,” Michael said, smacking the wicker basket.
“So unfortunately we’re not going to be able to fly today,” the pilot said.
“What,” said Michael.
“Can’t go up,” the pilot said. “It’s too windy.”
He reached down and grabbed a handful of grass. He threw it in the air, making us watch how the wind blew it. He pulled out his phone and showed some charts that were obviously incomprehensible to us.
“It was easily this windy when I went a few years ago,” Michael said.
“Yes well different companies have different standards for this,” the pilot said. “Plus it depends on the riders. I could fly in this wind of course.”
“What do you mean?”
“If it was just me, I would go up. If it was me and my friend, we would go up. If it was ordinary customers, probably I would go up.”
“But because of my client’s prominence,” Marie started to say and was cut off by the pilot’s nodding.
“But I don’t care,” Michael said. “If you can go up, I can go up.”
“You do not choose,” the pilot said. “I’m going to put out the flame.”
On the drive home nobody spoke. Sometimes Lincoln perked up and seemed poised to pose a question but it never happened.
“You needn’t ask,” I wanted to remind him.
I remembered the food in my bag. I took my time peeling the oranges: picking at the pith, putting it in my backpack.
I think Michael looked at his phone the whole way home. A few times I looked over his shoulder to see what he was looking at. Pictures of ocelots. I noticed the amount of traffic increasing, and soon there were buildings lining the streets again.
I was dropped off first. Michael got out of the car when I did and walked with me to the door of my apartment. He looked tired.
“Damnit, huh?” he said. “I’m going out west for a couple weeks tomorrow but let’s plan something when I’m back.”
We hugged and then I turned and entered my apartment. I felt upset when I saw the clothes still on the sofa, the dishes in the sink. We never could have gone up, of course.