For those of you who know, you know that my work has been stuck for years. Serious years. Either I was too afraid of failure to write, or too (easily) distracted by the charms of the life of struggle and success, joy and sadness. In large part, writing these posts has been about that life. And surely, I have found other and certainly valuable things to do with my time and energy. But in the background of my thoughts, no matter what else I was doing, no matter where I was traveling, or who I was with, there was a story percolating. Something about art and fire and theft and identity and… Well, as usual, about everything. And not.
Waiting for inspiration or signs, or for enough weight and gravity to accrue around a character or two will only do for so long. I’m getting older. I’m hearing the footfalls of cats’ feet in the hallways. I can’t wait for love or hope or generous fate to take a hand. It’s back to work. As a friend has called her project over the past few months, “Write or die.” And so I’ve been practicing. Seven to nine hundred words every two or three days. It’s been good. And it feels like the pump is actually bringing worthwhile stuff to the surface.
So, here’s how it starts. I’m laying down a marker. Give me a few months. With any luck more than a puddle, but not enough to put a fire out. As Willi says, “Everything is fuel.” So then…
“A little fire will solve all our your troubles,” said Carlo.
“Or cause them,” amended Benjamin.
“Cause or solve? What’s the difference?” asked Carlo. “Either way, you have to figure out what you are going to do after the fire.”
“That is true,” answered Benjamin. He looked at me and winked. “Still, I’m happy that Willi is starting our fires, especially tonight.”
“What’s so special about tonight?” asked Carlo. Then he looked at me, cocked his head, and gave me the half-bemused, half-annoyed glare that I had been receiving for the past two months.
I averted my gaze and looked around the room. There is nothing wrong with a clean room, and given the fact that people had sent their prized possessions to be kept safe while they were in the middle of a move, a remodel, or a remarriage, I was always surprised by how many storage facilities looked like a restaurant at 11:37 at night. This was a storage room like any of the others in which we had worked. It was climate controlled: dry and cool. On one side of the room were a set of safes in which people kept documents they never wanted to age. There were shelves from floor to ceiling in which delicate hangings: small tapestries, quilts, fifteenth century circus posters; were rested flat on their backs. Fine art was stored vertically, on edge, in a wall-length series of slender slots. There was a clean yellow mechanical lift in one corner. The lighting, even with all the bulbs lit, was reserved and respectful. Still, even without a bright fluorescent glare, I could tell that there was not a mote of dust anywhere. Everything was immaculate.
“Did we get everything we came for?” Carlo asked me. I was responsible for knowing what we would find in storage so that Carlo could put together what he glibly called our “shopping list.” When the date for our job neared, he gave me the list so I could alert him if anything was coming out of storage early, or if anything particularly interesting was being added to the facility he had targeted. He already had clients ready to purchase everything we took.
I took one last look at the list and double checked the labels on all the long cardboard tubes gathered near the mechanical lift.
“Yes,” I answered.
“All right. Ben! Time to pack.”
Benjamin got right to it, and put all the tubes into two oblong grey canvas duffel bags. Benjamin had been born to pack and carry. On occasions, I had caught him lifting chairs, or tables, or desks. “You never know,” he said sheepishly, “It may come in handy sometime, you know, just to know the balance.” Secretly, I think he just enjoyed grabbing oddly shaped things with his catcher’s mitt hands and gauging how much, or little, effort, he needed to lift them. Of the four of us, Benjamin was the only one who anyone would stop to stare at in the street. He was six and a half feet tall and looked like he should weigh as much as a bull. “Sarah,” he once told me, “cows weigh nearly a ton. I’m more like a tiger.” I guess we all can dream.
Willi waited for us at the entrance to the warehouse. He and Carlo stepped aside for a moment. Carlo listened and Willi pointed to several places along the walls and ceiling, indicating how the fire would start and where it would spread. Carlo, Benjamin, and I left the warehouse. Willi joined us at the van ten minutes later. The warehouse looked perfectly normal, a huge brown sepulcher of stone and brick. The fire was already alive inside it.
We sat and waited to watch the fire in the van. It was my last night.
I can understand why fires draw such big crowds. Even at three in the morning, a crowd that would fill four concert halls gathered outside the police barricades. This was the biggest fire most of them have ever seen—bigger than a campfire, less spread out than a brush fire. All that flame in one place was like looking into part of the sun. They saw an impossible furnace that could consume anything. On the sun, even water is fuel. As horrible as it is, fire is the source of light, heat, and life.
People will stop whatever else they are doing to watch a fire. Madly in love and in the throes of devotion? Wait, there’s a fire. Furious and on the verge of murderous intent? It can wait; there’s a fire. On the way to work, or a birthday party, or grandmother’s funeral. Can’t you see there’s a fire? Let’s stop and watch. Just set a warehouse ablaze to conceal the theft of forty seven million dollars of art? Even we stopped for a moment and joined the crowd.
To be honest, Willi’s handiwork was worthy of admiration. While Carlo, Ben, and I broke into the storage lockers, Willi turned the building against itself. By the time we had collected what we came for, the first tongues of flame had converted wood, wire, and plaster from innocent structure to experienced fuel. Willie said, “After a minute anything is possible. After five minutes, everything is inevitable.” He pointed to an unignited corner of the building and quietly said, “Watch.” And so we watched. It was better than a Zambelli show.
The flames poured up the side of the building between Main Street and the Schuylkill River in Manayunk. Under the cloudless night sky the conflagration looked like a negative image of the day. The worn stone of the warehouse that years of sun and soot and car exhaust had worn to a dull brown was nearly ebony. The shadows cast by afternoon clouds were now bright patches of flame.
The streets brimmed with noise. Super-amplified emergency radios blared garbled commands. Diesel engines of the fire trucks churned fuel into the electricity that powered a hundred spotlights and the pumps that redirect the flow of water to the net of hoses surrounding the burning building. Klaxons sounded as new men joined the fight. The building grunted and groaned as its guts shifted, resettled, and gave way.
Worse than the noise was the stink. It smelled like the worst barbecue ever. Imagine your idiot uncle inviting you to an evening of recycled tire briquettes and cretonne-soaked shoe steaks. For days after the fire no flavor of good food will penetrate the residue left in your nose or on the back of your throat. I would rather kiss a fly.
Willi once asked, “How would you do it?” I told him that I would probably slosh gasoline all over the place, throw a match and run. He shook his head and laughed. “Everything is fuel,” he said; this was his mantra. Willi could walk into a building with nothing—no matches, no tools—and leave it smoldering. Of course, while we were worrying about where the art was kept, and how long it would be in storage, Willi went over building plans with an inspector’s nervous eye for details. Old sprinkler systems, termite damage, air conditioning that only cooled the office spaces, little escaped Willi’s attention. In spite of the obvious damage, no one ever died in one of Willi’s fires.
“It’ll be out in 20 minutes, half hour tops,” he said. When was he wrong?
Carlo gestured toward the van, to nudge us away. Benjamin wasn’t having any of it, “I like watching the fire.” Sure, Carlo was the boss, Benjamin could pick up a car—in a previous life he probably had been a car. So Carlo just shrugged and walked to the van by himself. After five minutes Willi touched Benjamin on the arm, and gently led him away. It wouldn’t do to keep Carlo waiting.
As we walked to the van, Willi asked, “Can you give this up?”
What did I know? I was twenty-eight years old, and I had never had what anyone could call a steady job. After graduating from college my resume was a Swiss cheese of retail and food service jobs. It was work that I could leave at a moment’s notice and work that I could find again just as easily. I knew more about art and appraisal and conservation than anyone with an MFA or PhD would ever have. One night in Boston, I had my cheek pushed into the impasto of a Rubens. Carlo thought he heard someone walking behind us and pressed us both up against the yellowing bosom of some semi-deity. Sure, put that in a résumé.
I didn’t want to grow into an old thief. Every so often we would meet men that had worked with Carlo in the past, and Carlo never introduced them, and the men always slinked away like sinners from a church. And I did not want to become like the men whose lives were defined by theft. The truth is that we met plenty of thieves and almost all of them were young and stupid. They sat at bars and tables at restaurants talking too loudly about what they have done. At least half of what they said was lies, which only made the truth seem worse. Even Benjamin, whose size and strength were his simple dual assets, looked at these buffoons and said, “Maybe I’m too dumb to know better, but those guys should shut up.”
They had grown numb to the rest of the world. They had forgotten that the rules that all the so-called rubes and suckers followed made our lives possible. Without limits anyone could be a thief, and what we did would be neither prized nor profitable. All they could think of was how different they were, how free. But they weren’t. They could only live in the shadowy other world they, we, created. They would never see themselves as part of the larger world.
Even the men I worked with and admired lived this way. When Willi looked at buildings, all he saw was fires. Benjamin gauged the world in weights and balances. And even though Carlo managed to be charming about what he did, he was like Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley. And like Stanton Carlisle, the fall was coming; it was just a matter of time. It could happen in a year, or in twenty. Carlo wasn’t like one of Willi’s fires. No one knew when his time would end.
I wasn’t sure how I was becoming like them, but I did feel sure, after only a few years, that I had lost some sense of a happy vision of the world that was unencumbered by dark possibility. I loved what I did. I was thrilled by illicit acquisition and by the secrets of my life, and I knew I would miss it. I told Willi the only truth I could remember, “Yes.”
I wasn’t ready for the moment when we got to the van and Carlo waited outside, holding a long cardboard tube. “These, I believe, are yours,” he said. He got back into the van with Willi and Benjamin, and rolled down the window. “Go home, Sarah Proctor. Go home and never come back.” The van headed into the city and I stood on the curb with two paintings worth millions of dollars in my hands. I could never sell them, I already knew I would be too scared to show them to anyone, and the life that had christened my adulthood was over.