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A Father Transformed by Anguish

Alex is 19 and about to leave for his second tour in Iraq and is trying to explain to her what to do if he dies, "and I said, 'I can't. I can't do that,' and I went to the sink and did the dishes."

Alex is 20 years and 20 days old, and Carlos is on the phone telling her that if she hadn't signed the papers, Alex would still be alive.

The worst of Arredondo's injuries were on his legs, to which he applies antibiotic cream. Twenty-six percent of his body was burned. (David Finkel -- The Washington Post)

She sits in the chair where she sat when the Marines told her that Alex was dead, in the chair she sometimes just sits in, looking around. There's Alex's picture. "What a handsome guy, huh?" she says.

There's the phone, with an answering machine filled with a father's messages, all of which Brian listened to. "He said, 'I know I should call, but . . .' So I took him off the hook. I said, 'Your father's not very healthy right now. Maybe it's better not to talk to him.' And he said okay, and you could see him lighten up."

There's the TV, the reason for so much of Brian's confusion.

"Turn on the TV!" Melida said into the cell phone that day, speaking loudly to Brian because of a hovering news helicopter from which pictures were going live across the country.

And so Brian, in Maine, turned on the TV.

"That's my father!" he said. "That's my father!"

"He saw his father shaking, on the stretcher," Victoria says. "He thought he was going to lose both of them that day. I can't imagine what he was feeling. I don't even know what I was feeling, except: What are you doing!

"The first thing I said was, 'Oh, my God.' And the second thing I said was, 'You bastard.' "

Her ex-husband's reaction -- everyone knows his 20 minutes. He is the man who set himself on fire.

Victoria's reaction -- no one knows it. This is what it was:

"I stood up. I sat down. I stood up. I sat down. I kept doing that. I probably did that for 10 minutes. For 20 minutes. I have no idea. I don't know what I was trying to do. I guess I was trying to feel okay."

Recovery, Maybe

The list for the benefit is up to 500 people, including City Council members and neighborhood friends. There will be a computer with a looping slide show of photos of Alex as a baby, as a boy, as a young man, as a Marine, as a baby. The suggested donation will be $20, to go to a fund for medical bills or toward a scholarship fund named for Alex. The deejay will play subdued music, and there will be 1,000 copies of one of Alex's letters, which, the night before the benefit, Arredondo is folding into envelopes.

"Nine hundred sixty to go," he says after he has been at it for a while.

The next morning, he is up at 5:30, and while Melida sleeps, he looks at some of the sympathy cards he has received. One person wrote a message of condolence on a napkin and enclosed $25; another sent $7 that she said she was going to spend at McDonald's; another sent $1,000. All totaled, the contributions have come to about $8,000, which Arredondo has mixed feelings about accepting, just as he has mixed feelings about the benefit itself. "It doesn't feel right," he says.

Eight thousand dollars, however, is not $50,000, and so by sundown he is in a coat and tie and loosely tied sneakers and long pants that sandpaper his skin as he moves among the people who, for whatever reason, have shown up to see the man who set himself on fire.

There are not 1,000 people in attendance, only a hundred or so. They are generous, though, and have donated nearly $5,000 by the time Arredondo thanks them for coming and says to them, "I have people ask me, 'What happened in Florida?' I cannot really tell you what happened."

He also says, "There's a lot of families out there, they're thinking their kids are going to be safe, and the truth of the matter is everybody's at risk."

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