Tale of a Thanksgiving break-in

When a drunken intruder set fire to our living room, one brave neighbor headed off disaster.

Illustration by Gracia Lam

IT WAS A LOVELY THANKSGIVING, until the half-naked man made a campfire in our living room. We got the call just after dinner, but before pie. “First of all, I want you to know that the fire is out and the dog is OK,” our friend, a psychotherapist, informed me.

My husband, son, and I made the 10-minute drive home in 5. The cop and firefighter were staring at a 3-foot circle of charred living room floor. They were arguing jurisdiction. “Can’t be breaking and entering,” the cop declared. “The door wasn’t locked.” “Can’t be arson,” said the firefighter. “She says he poured water on it after he woke up.”

“She” being Margie, our next-door neighbor. We weren’t close friends. She was generous with her lawn mower, and we chatted over the back fence. But we were close enough that she knew we had sold our wood stove the week before. And she knew we weren’t home that night.


In her pajamas, she dashed across our abutting driveways and in our back door to find a young man passed out on the floor next to a flaming pile of newspaper: “Who the hell are you?” she yelled. “I’m Tony!” he blurted, waking with a start. That’s when Margie noticed he wasn’t wearing pants. She ran back to her house to call 911. Tony bolted out the front door.

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He had left his clothes in our driveway  —  a good leather coat, wool sweater, and pair of cords. I suggested to the officer if Tony was not found, they might fit my husband. But the detective insisted they were evidence.

The following Monday, Margie called me at work. “I just read a taxi driver was jilted out of a fare the morning after Thanksgiving by a guy he picked up in the Holiday Inn parking lot.” That lot was half a mile from our homes. Margie: “The guy. Wasn’t wearing. Pants.”

I called the detective. “Do you think there’s a connection?”

“No,” he said. “He doesn’t match the description.”


I let this sink in. “Are you telling me there might have been more than one man running around coatless and pantless in 20-degree weather on Thanksgiving in my neighborhood?”

“Lady,” the detective said without missing a beat, “you’d be surprised.”

It turned out it was the same guy. Months later, I went to the court hearing. I invited Margie to join me, but she had to work. Tony pleaded guilty and faced a small fine and long probation. He claimed the experience — being so drunk his friends kicked him out of the car; nearly incinerating himself and our home; spending a night freezing in a parking lot — changed his life. He was never going to drink again. He’d started going to church. And he’d like to do something to make amends. He said he was a carpenter. I suggested he build us a deck. My husband nixed that idea: “He was only here once before and he left a big mess.”

It was about a year later that Margie called me to read aloud another item from the paper: Tony had been arrested for burglary.

That Thanksgiving fire might not have changed Tony, but it gave me a different take on giving thanks. Sitting alone late that night, after my husband had left for his job, I looked at the books and the guitar the flames had not reached and thought of the dog and stranger they had not killed. And I was grateful not so much for what I had, but for what I had not lost. Most of all, I was grateful for the neighbor who cared enough to run into a burning house. Margie has since passed, but I send up a silent prayer to her every Thanksgiving.

Cathy Wolff lives and writes in Cambridge and Maine. Send comments to

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