“I don’t want to know what it was ‘like’, I want to know what it was.”
When the detective with the crooked jaw and prom king blue eyes says this to me, I want to punch him in the throat. Apparently, he lacks an appreciation for metaphor because what I said was “it was like a symphony of orange and white, dancing, mocking us as we watched our life disappear into little black specks of nothingness.” I know, it was a bit elaborate, but I couldn’t help myself. What it was; was a fire. One that I started, but he doesn’t know that. He doesn’t ask his arrogant questions because he suspects anything. I am flawless and practiced. He asks his questions because he is simple. But I still want to punch him in the throat. Instead I look at him, calm and confused.
One important thing to remember, after you incinerate your home for insurance money, or murder your adulterous wife or maim your abusive husband: don’t act upset. Act confused. The detective that is questioning you, the one that looks like a depressed version of Johnny-football-hero from your high school or a clean cut version of Jimmy-always-high from college, learns everything he knows from watching television and movies. So if you act like a guilty actor, laying it on thick with snot and mascara running down your face, phlegm crackling in your throat, coughing out a screaming accusation toward the God that is sending you straight to hell, he will know you are guilty. And if you feel the icy fist of guilt squeezing your throat and punching your bowels, then confess, because you have done something wrong and you probably deserve to pay for it. But, in my case, I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve only incinerated my house.
This is because I am an arsonist.
It’s not a metaphor. It’s not a philosophy or a way of life or a path to some sort of Nietzschean ‘destroy everything’ enlightenment. It’s just me and I just am. Analyze me if you feel the need, but your backyard psychology would be put to better use in your own life. So, if you are looking for an easy story, go away and read ‘Tuesdays With Morey.’ I hear it’s delightful. If you are looking for enlightenment, go meditate under a tree or eat some LSD. This isn’t the trip you are seeking. If you are killing time between phone calls and two-dollar coffees, you should start to seriously consider suicide. If you are looking for reality, lets continue through this together. I will be your guide.
I’ve successfully set sixty-four structure fires. Today was my last. And yes, you guessed right, I’m going to tell you about the first. You know the drill, so let’s jump back about thirty years.
Once upon a time there was a stupid little boy with stupid fat little fingers and a stupid fat drooling mouth. During the bright cancer-causing sunny days of summer, he chased beautifully colored infection carrying butterflies and fluffy feral cats, pulling off their wings and yanking on their tails. And of course, this stupid little boy was stupid little me.
I stumbled around, barely able to talk without drool oozing out of the left side of my mouth. A stupid little chubby legged kid, I picked up shiny dirty things and popped them in my mouth until my mother smacked me. She only smacked me when the object was small enough to swallow or obviously lethal. She only looked at me when she smacked me. So I spent most of my time sifting through garbage and knick-knacks finding items big enough to choke on or strange enough to kill me. I became quite skilled at it despite my mental handicaps. A marble will pass right through you, whereas the cracked lens from a pair of big fashion sunglasses can roadblock your esophagus and scar your throat in a matter of seconds. And nail polish remover, well, you’ll have to experience that for yourself.
And my father, he never looked at me, and I never looked at him. I never had the opportunity, so I can only assume my mother was some sort of whore. This is why I exist. I take no offense. Everything comes from somewhere. The best coffee is dug from the fecal matter of a strange tree marmot (it’s called an Asian Palm Civet; look it up if you don’t believe me).
So it’s not surprising when this stupid little version of me with his stupid little lazy eye wandering around a cluttered garage, picking up dried up cockroaches and silverfish remnants and putting them in his slobbery disgusting mouth, stumbled upon a red box of matches. It was a cardboard box about as long as one of my ugly little stubby fingers. The box was painted with unknown words (stupid little me couldn’t read a word with my lazy stupid eye) and a golden bicycle.
I put it in my mouth and sucked on it, cleaning off the chips of lead paint and dried moth wings with my tongue, but my mother didn’t smack me. That’s because she was inside with my grandmother crying about something. Probably crying about being a whore. So I spit out the now soggy box and my retarded little brain managed click on and realize there was something inside the little red box. My fat fingers slid the box open to reveal blue-tipped matches. I ate one, which I advise against. Unless you’ve mastered the nail polish remover—if so, enjoy the ride. With no smack my little idiot brain shockingly began to churn out ideas and thoughts. After much trial and error, and swallowing only three more matches, one was not in my mouth, but rather in my hand; aflame. And like the first man to reach his hand into the dung of a tree cat and bravely ingest his findings, this is how it began.
Mouth wide open, gawking at the flame like a little moron who has never seen fire before, I dropped the match. Mouth still open and drool oozing toward the ground, I watched the match as the once lively flame slowly diminished into a tiny blackened tip and a beautifully curved arc of off-white smoke. My stubby little sausage fingers pulled out another match and struck it. I dropped it again and watched. Again, mouth open, drool running, as if I had the memory of a goldfish and had never seen a lit match before. After wiping the snot from my nose I lit another. Then another, and another. Tossing them all on the floor, watching them burn. Finally, it was more than the dry clutter could handle. I remember a rush of air pushing on my back and sweeping through my hair. Then, born from old magazines and dead bugs and an unhealthy layer of dust, an enormous jagged wall of flame climbed the side of the garage like some medieval beast.
Because I was a stupid little moron, I stepped toward the flames, bathing in the heat and smoke that was quickly turning from a brown gray to a fuzzy black. I inhaled deeply, coughing. Soon my eyes were tearing from the heat and my face was tanning from the collected soot as I was surrounded by the blaze. A halo of fire, the flames danced around me swaying in unison. I stood admiring, mesmerized. There was no exit, just continuous drooling and crying and coughing up bits of cockroach shell.
I never heard my crying whore mother enter the garage. I never heard her scream in surprise or fear. I never heard her yell my name or call for help. All I heard was the sizzle and pop as the flames ate her hair while she punched through the wall of fire. Grabbing me roughly, flames hopped from her head to her shirt, finally licking her leg until she was covered in hot yellow.
Dragging me far from the blaze, she rolled me on the ground, putting out my non-existent fires before she rolled herself on the ground, extinguishing what must have been an excruciating burn. We both lay in the dirty insect-infested grass. Ants crawled up my leg as she patted my head softly.
She was never the same after that, scarred on her arms and face. Her hair never fully returned and she never cried again. I never put anything in my mouth and she never smacked me. She looked at me every day. She looked in my eyes and stroked my hair until I fell asleep. She took me for walks and played catch with me and fed me Popsicles when I stubbed my toe. She was too ugly to be a whore anymore.
That was my first burn. It was many years before my next. It was many years before I realized what really happened. The burns became more controlled and more purposeful.
That was my first, and this one was my last.
Sixty-four successful structures fires. Approximately eleven humans born from their useless self-indulgent, self-pitied, privileged existence. Don’t snicker, you are one of them. You haven’t been born yet. You have yet to be pulled you from the waste of a common animal.
Because I’m smarter than you, I know that there are six locations inside every standing structure; that if ignited, can create an unstoppable blaze. This is not meant to be an insult, just the truth. I don’t know you, but by the law of averages, if you are reading this, my academic résumé has more than likely far surpassed what you will ever accomplish. I won’t tell you where the six locations are because you would only hurt yourself.
So along with that statistic, here is another item you can share the next time you are pretending to care what your colleagues are discussing at work: one out of six people still have enough human left in them to face death in order to pull someone from a deadly unstoppable blaze. Enough human because that is what you are supposed to do. You are a human when you are born and everyday it slowly slips away from you. Until you become a number, or a tax dollar or a debt ratio or a rapist.
The reality is we exist to continue existence; to keep things alive. That’s all, nothing else. Sorry to disappoint you, but there is no grandiose plan, no epic journey, nothing special. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know that. Not many do, and only one in six figure it out when given the opportunity. You probably wouldn’t, so go complain about your paycheck at the nearest chemo center.
So when the blaze peaks and the thick black smoke floats toward heaven and John Q. Paycheck bursts into the towering inferno without rationally analyzing his options, he comes back out a human. Caked in dust and soot and barely breathing through the hot fog, carrying a child or an old woman or a useless accountant, he is born again. Rising from the flames and ashes of all of our daily mistakes. He is clean.
The first thing they usually do is phone their wife or girlfriend, hysterically professing their love and commitment in fits of oozing tears and snot choked laughter. Next they call their mother, to apologize for not calling enough and not caring enough. This is the first time those mothers hear ‘I love you’ from their son in over twenty-five years. Then they cheer for their kids at soccer games, visit their grandmothers on random Saturdays, teach their sons how to build a fort out of sticks and newspaper, drink fake tea and hold one-sided conversations with their daughter’s stuffed zebra. And sometimes they quit their jobs and do what makes them happy. But not often.
So where do you want to go from here? I could go through all the previous sixty-three fires in detail, but they are all the same. Sometimes people died. Sometimes they didn’t. Those who didn’t are cut from a different stone now, if you don’t mind the bad cliché. They are not heroes among men; they are humans among junk and numbers. They are the clean full flavored coffee beans, far removed from the dung.
So when my baby boy was born and opened his tragic green eyes for the first time, I knew I had to do it. I wanted to wait until he was four, but when my wife cried because she got a diaper genie instead of Gucci purse for Christmas, I had no choice.
Approximately three hours ago I looked at the skin pulled tight around her face and watched her sunken eyes twitch under her veiny purple lids as she slept roughly under the influence of colorful factory stamped pills. She was skull and stretch marks and fabric. Hollow.
I looked into the crib. I didn’t know him yet, at least not in any describable way. He was just a sack of skin that I didn’t quite understand. At that moment, I knew he would be a martyr or a genius, but not a number or a ratio. So just to be sure, tonight I ignited three out of the six places. There was no room for error.
So when the detective with the football player jaw widens his eyes sarcastically and asks me to repeat myself because he doesn’t understand my metaphor, I want to punch him in the throat. He doesn’t get it. He sips his two-dollar coffee. Two minutes before he started questioning me, he was bragging to a fat greasy fireman about his new bass boat. He will never be human. He thinks he is a hero. He thinks if he catches the man with the snaggle tooth and jagged scar he is living out his epic grandiose plan. He thinks this gives him the right to find a shiny new wife and a shiny new boat. He thinks it makes it okay to forget his son’s soccer game because he is shopping for that new boat, shaking hands with the owner of the boat shop describing his super heroic hero-ness.
So after acting confused and innocent and not punching detective hero in the throat, I take the time to gaze across the charred remains of my lawn at my wife. Wrapped in a gray blanket, she holds my son tightly. His fat little dumb fingers pull at his mother’s hair. She kisses him lightly on the cheek. He gurgles disgustingly and drool runs down his chubby little chin.
A nervous EMT with a menopause haircut tries to tend to the ugly white puss filled burn wound on my wife’s once beautifully tan neck. She pushes the frustrated EMT away, too concerned about my son’s dopey little soot covered face to care about her new atrocious disfigurement. She rocks him back and forth as his dumb little eyes close calmly while he sighs.
Relieved, I lie down in the soot and look up toward the night sky, admiring the dancing pinpoints of light winking at me. I smile because life continues, even through the mess.
This is where I brought you, and there is no easy moral here. The story doesn’t end in a box with a bow. It is just reality. And what it is; is fire. And what it is like is the blinding white-hot face of god.
James Henschen is the author of the award winning short film “Looking in the Fishbowl” as well as a film adaptation of the short story “The Monkey’s Paw” which screened in film festivals throughout the country. His work has appeared in literary journals such as Whiskey Island Review, Glassfire Magazine and Eleven-Eleven magazine. James currently resides in Orlando, FL.