The Books

Almost fifteen years ago, I put my books in the attic. They were out, in shelves, but tucked beneath a sloping ceiling and packed behind all manner of family detritus. When my ex-wife and I separated, I moved them into my main living space, where they sang back to me after their—or my—sojourn.  My books matter to me, and I felt their absence. Getting them back onto tall shelves, walking past them every day, reminded me of what I had done, what I had learned, and what I wanted to do with my life and mind.

I have books about writing, books about religion, books about education, history books, philosophy (what we called theory in graduate school), fiction, poetry, books full of art and art history, and even books about sports—mainly baseball. I have a hard cover edition of Dickens published by Chapman and Hall with pages that requires a pocket knife to cut open.  I own a set of Andrew Lang’s color-coded Fairy Tale books.

The books reflect my preoccupations over the past thirty years.  Much of what is on my shelves I first read while I was in graduate school. Some I acquired afterward to keep me in touch with what I spent six years studying. Some comes from undergraduate college—books about gothic art and architecture, an old edition of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There are some newer books that reflect my current interests: a collection of Sumerian mythology, a book about Djinn.

As much as I love my books, as much as they tell a story of my past, as much as they feel like an external manifestation of my mind, I think it may be time to lose them.

How long can one hold onto the past—a past that weighs an actual ton—without moving into the future? Yes, there are some things that I would keep, and this is true of more than my books, but they possess so much gravity. What is the past to me? Of course it is, was, everything. However, the future beckons, and requires a kind of lightness to which things do not lend themselves. Even memorable things.

There are other presences in my life—deep and profound connections. This time last year, I started unraveling the two jobs I had in Norfolk, Virginia. I moved away from those jobs and in the process also moved away from my daughters, who continue to live with their mother in Norfolk. Of course, I separated from and divorced their mother. It may seem inconsequential, but over 30 years ago, I picked a cat off the street, and have had cats ever since. I have never been more than three weeks away from them. This year I considered giving up a long standing fantasy baseball game that I have played for nearly 30 years with friends.

I wonder about what I have given up, but also what I have stayed with over the years. I have been a teacher for over 20 years—including my work as a TA in graduate school, over 25 years. What would it be like to not teach? I wrote for years, and then, if I didn’t stop, I slowed considerably—at what hazard, I cannot guess. I am writing again now, and have been, but can’t help wonder why my work slowed to a trickle.

I wonder would it would be like to be free of obligation and free of the gravity of myself—that ton of books, the closet full of clothes, my job, my family, my cats, even my friends. I wonder what my life would have been like if I had just chased words—the stories that I had declared as my purpose when I went away to and then stayed in graduate school. When I went away to graduate school, I traveled in a single car, with a mattress tied to the roof, and a single cat riding in the passenger seats. What would it be like to travel to what’s next with even less?

I do not regret the life I led, nor the life I lead; regret possesses a gravity greater than all the books own own, and I have no time for that. Not now. Nonetheless, I am aware of another life that exists, not over the horizon, not over the rainbow, but buried deep within me. I don’t know how I have kept it buried for so long, or at what cost—or even at what gain. Still. It is there.

I wonder, and wonder hard, and the wondering stirs something in me, something alive and insistent. What will I carry into the future? What must I carry? And what must I leave?

At first sight

Country Living posted a video of Jeff Bridges’s romance with his wife Susan. He first saw her while she worked as a waitress when he was on the shoot for Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. “I knew I was madly in love with my wife the minute I saw her,” he claims. They married, and remain married after forty-some years. How did he know? How does anyone know at first sight?

What the hell. I say, “I love you” easily. It gets me into trouble.

Call it a predisposition—an attitude toward the world. I can walk into a museum and be delighted by things made four thousand years ago, four hundred years ago, and four hours ago. There isn’t one kind of music that is my “favorite”—so long as it avoids cliches, I like it. The same holds true for art. For movies. For most everything. So long as that thing provides some spark of surprise—the world is larger than you thought, old man!—I am, once again, in love with the world.

Cliches interrupt that feeling because there is no surprise. It is the pure unadulterated expression of the absolutely familiar. We’ve seen this show before. I thought about this when revisiting Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” last week in school, and his rail against schools for studying “monuments of [old men’s] magnificence.” How many times have I heard praise for souls that would (or should) “clap [their] hands and sing”? A hundred? A thousand times? More? Surely so. And yet, Yeats’s poem doesn’t feel like a cliche at all, even after all these years. I am surprised again. And in love.

But this is not about poetry or art. This is about falling in love, and saying “I love you”—and for doing it fast—at first sight, before the number of days and months proscribed by articles in Men’s Health or Psychology Today have passed.

Maybe men are more likely to go all in at first sight. Think of Romeo’s quickly fickle heart as he falls from Rosaline to Juliet. But Juliet, young and inexperienced as she is, follows quickly enough. And Susan Geston may have said, “No” to Bridges’s first request for a date, but she traveled home with him after filming in North Dakota wrapped up. I don’t know.

And a quick nerd note here. There is something I protect against: the reifying power of the male gaze. I suspect my gaze—and that of other men and women. It’s a way we have been, what? taught to see the world. This idea took shape when I studied film theory and encountered the work of Laura Mulvey. It’s worth serious consideration.

I do know that finding or creating a bond, and accepting that bond as something deeper than a mutual appreciation for art or wine or politics (I’ve been in those relationships, and what they lack in depth, they can more than make up for in breadth; there is much to appreciate in the world with a sympathetic soul) can help weather the inevitable differences that will occur. Most of my enduring friendships or relationships began nearly from the moment we met. Love provides the substrate for all that follows. And so much does follow.

But, how does one know? How does one ignite a deep and abiding passion based on a look, or a conversation? Experience, and more, has taught me that looks can be deceiving, but words, especially spoken words with all their attendant gestures, rise and fall of voice, and the play of expressions can unmask a heart—mine, hers.

What unmasks me, makes me open to the possibility again, is the blend of surprise and recognition. When someone adds some new aspect to the world, breaks some old pattern (like him, like her, but—somehow—not the same), and also reprises some aspect of the world that I value above all others, then I am laid bare, and I fall. I am less on guard against another person, than I am to my own repeated patterns—Am I doing that again? I am doing that again. Oy.

If I was a cynic, I would wait, and say, why love, when you know what will follow? Why not let the uglier side of each person—either her or me—assert itself, and avoid the disappointment? Go ahead and replace “cynic” with “practical.” And replace “ugly” with whatever euphemism for “real” that suits you. Either way, I am neither cynical nor practical. I am open to surprise.

London Thoughts

History is a story of discontinuous events—events that collide like weather systems or galaxies, having barely understood origins, and even less decipherable records. All the witnesses were destroyed in the collision. What they saw, what they thought, and what they felt—even if they recorded their observations on stone, paper, steel, or silicone, have been destroyed along with them. We are living in the age of delusion, in which we believe in the sanctity of our recorded history—either self-scribbled or captured by another.

This thought is brought about by two things. First, wandering, quickly—this time—through the British Museum (or Westminster Cathedral, or almost anything else in London), what becomes painfully obvious are the gaps. All these artifacts, so painstakingly arranged create an idea that history is continuous, and has flowed in a linear pattern. And then a closer inspection shows that over and over again, things haven’t come that way. There are sudden breaks in history, when entire empires vanish, or when they change—seemingly overnight—religions, or methods of governance, or technologies, and the old gets swept away, almost as if it was a betrayal of the new.

England as it shifts back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism bears these marks hard. Or, reading through the story of Ashurbanipal and the claims of glory made by this king reminds me of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”

Thinking of history reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of punctuated equilibrium—evolution proceeding in long quiet periods of little change, and then having sudden outbursts of change. I know, we are taught that slow and steady wins the race, but, we are also taught to believe in the nature of story as an overarching “way things are.” We see things through that frame, and it doesn’t always support the picture inside—or outside—the frame.

Second, in the musical Hamilton (which was also part of this trip to London), the character of George Washington warns Hamilton that we do not control who writes our stories. He’s telling this to a man who believes in his power to literally write his own story—and to use his words to cement his reality. He can’t—and doesn’t. His wife, Eliza, sends his legacy forward—and Lin Manuel Miranda brings us her legacy. But, as Miranda admits in interviews, even this moment for Hamilton—and therefore, for him as well—is provisional and subject to changing tastes and critical opinion.

Does everything disappear? No. There are 2000 year old Roman walls in London. But Rome? Everything can disappear. And we will tell stories that soften the loss.

I wonder, I can’t help but wonder, what I am doing when I write: whose story I am writing? It isn’t my story. Of course it’s my story–as if it could be anything else. Nonetheless, as I write about characters who are 5000 years old–older in some cases–I think about history, because they think about history. How can they not? How can any of us not? It is everywhere–in the streets, and in the faces, here in London.

My Destination

I had always shrugged off the idea of traveling to the Grand Canyon. I was one of those, “what’s the big deal about a big hole in the ground” skeptics. I was wrong. Of course I was wrong. The Grand Canyon is an amazement—and of course, I was properly amazed when I saw it—looking into two billion years of rock will do that, should do that. I realized that what I had held aside was not the geology or the landscape, but the travel. Why had I discounted my ability to be amazed by travel? I had done it all my life. Going, all kinds of going, even if so much of it has been more local—on this continent, in this country—has been part of me all my life.

When young, my family would take day trips—Sunday drives—through the Amish country in Pennsylvania. We got in the car and headed out Route 30. Or we would go to the West Chester airport and walk among the privately owned single prop planes. In the summer, we headed to Longwood Gardens for fountain shows. There were trips to nearby parks—I remember lakes with small patches of added sand for “beach.” We routinely drove to Long Island—heading up the New Jersey Turnpike past the refineries—to visit family. When I was ten, we headed to Maine, a day long drive with three boys and a dog. Once we began sailing, it did not take long to head to the British Virgin Islands—my first plane rides, and first swimming in warm Caribbean seas.

I loved airplanes and airports. Departures were invitations to new adventures. When I traveled with my family, I usually sat alone—the hazard or benefit of being an odd numbered group. I took my first plane flight alone when I went to Iowa to swim; I was 15. I traveled by train and bus alone all through my early adult life. I usually traveled to visit friends. However, I also went to cities to simply see them, to look at buildings, and camp in museums—visiting and revisiting works of art that held sway over my imagination.

I loved driving, and would sometimes eschew expedience for country roads, foregoing straight, broad, multi-laned ribbons for winding paths along mountain sides and down by river beds. Landscapes called to me as well as vaulted ceilings. Beauty was everywhere.

And, I loved walking. I hiked 500 miles when I was 12. As an adult, when I took myself to Maine, I would walk the beaches in Phippsburg, breaking up my study sojourns with hours long ambles. When I arrived in Bermuda, I walked off my sea legs with long walks and runs around the island, walking into local places, on roads no taxi or rented moped hazarded. Once, on a trip to NYC, I walked, in winter, from Soho to the Met, freezing along the way, but surrounded by shops and towers and people. When I spent a conference week in Portland, Oregon, I took a day off to wander to Portland Museum of Art to see Native American artifacts from the Pacific Northwest, and a painting by Clifford Stijl. Afterwards, I headed onto Powell’s Bookstore, then to the DeSchutes brewpub. All on foot.

There were trips under sail with my father and brothers. These were tests as well as trips. The ocean makes us foreign to ourselves, our bodies not made to be perpetually wet, and perpetually in motion—shaken and stirred. I have never been anywhere larger than surrounded by sky and ocean, never felt as alive, nor as alone.

This blog began with travel some four years ago—a trip to China, to a strange land to bring a stranger into my life. There are so many strange places yet to go—so many friends to visit—people I have not yet met, whose tables have an open seat waiting.

So, walking to the edge of the canyon should not have surprised me. I am sure that some snobbish impulse to avoid what millions of others had done informed my thought. But I am not like millions of others. I forget that sometimes. On purpose—as a bulwark against being a snob, against falling into the easy habit of travelers to simply bring myself wherever I go. I would rather be a stranger—not just to the place, but to myself, and welcome this new person into my already teeming life.

And so, finally, after one long ago missed opportunity, I am traveling to London. It is an easy enough first step to Europe. I wonder what I will find there, what old memories will rise up, what new experiences will awaken. And I wonder, who I will find there in among the histories and wanderings. Who will come home, amazed, this time? And what will happen if the wanderlust takes a firmer hold of me this time? How will that change me–or, rather, change me again. Eyes up, here I go.

Comedy Tonight

So much of wit is based on shared experiences.  I know I can toss in a “Brian Clements, we love you, get up!” to my friend Brian, and he will smile that wry smile that accompanies a reference to O’Hara. Or proclaim, “Hell, I love everybody!” and he will know what I mean. If I draw my finger across my eye, we have traveled into Bunuel’s fractured mindscape. We share those images and words. I can tell my brother to “Blanket the fucking jib,” and he will know the context. My mother can call me a “Son of a Bitch,” and know the ground upon which she treads. My father would offer a “You have all done very well,” recognizing the provenance of ignorance that surrounded Mr. Grace’s signature line.

My fantasy baseball friends call themselves “lobsters” because 25 years ago, I dubbed us the “League of Blood Sucking Intellectuals,” and one of us couldn’t get “sucking” through the email filter at his job (hard to believe—hehe). So, “Lobsters” we became. One day on the golf course, while following a slow moving group of much older players, I declared that my goal in life was to grow up to become a codger, which elicited chuckles. Maybe because I was already on that road. Or maybe because the bridge to that destination had washed out long ago in my life.

I sit in plays and howl out loud at all the jokes, my laughter more obvious at the jokes no one else gets. I make jokes daily that fall on deaf ears, and that’s because my reference points are in literature and art, and no one knows my plan. If I go for slapstick, there are laughs, or pity (Dr. Brennan, we love you, get up). “Bastard,” or “Rat Bastard” will get broad smiles. Because I am a teacher, I rarely turn my barbs on anyone below me on the food chain—I rather turn myself into shark bait, and perhaps, by example, show the way from chummy ignorance to razor-toothed wisdom. That bridge too stands on uncertain pilings.

I can understand why comics aim for the gut and crotch—there is shared knowledge (fat and thin as it may be) in the bodily functions. And I get it, and laugh at it, up to a point. There is no denying that absurdity of the fleshy slap of desire, or the rumbling gurgle of gluttony. We fuck lustily. We eat heartily. We can dress both up in fantasy, but the actuality is less glorious. And more. The secret is that the middle way is stupid and tiresome. Angels or demons are the way. Humans don’t know enough.

Once upon a time, I read Joyce’s Ulysses, and realized quite quickly, that he was having a ball. My serious classmates scoured the book for meaning, and yet, a big part of the meaning was swaddled in laughter. The great play. Not for them. And so, out went the baby. I do not deny that there is something serious in that book, or that there are books and art and times that are deathly serious—all of them, in fact. But there is play, truly unconscionable and irreverent all the time.

“Dying is easy,” goes the old saw, “Comedy is hard.” Now, we hide the dying, or reverence it out of the sphere of our daily experience. Failure—even for those who practice the dictum, “Fail Harder” (they do so only to achieve a higher form of success)—is fatal, and therefore dirtier than anything else we can imagine—even dirtier than the raunchiest comic’s imagination. And, like death, inevitable. But we do fail, do fall, and do, with mud on our clothes, rise back up, not like zombies—there are plenty of those already manning the parapets—but like humans who have learned that laughter is the key to resilience. It is the joy of the second, third, fourth, and fifth acts.

We may need to banish Jack, but we also need to learn from him. And the Queen will have him back. And even if you don’t know who Jack is, or why he was banished, or which Queen requested the fat man’s return, we know. It may be hard to walk into the room, caked in mud, but given the alternative, here I go, ready to kill it. Again. “Brian Brennan, we love you, get up.”

Writing for the reader—surprise

When I sit down to write, I haven’t thought about an audience. Often I feel more like an amanuensis, copying down whatever the universe commands. The universe commands much, by the way. You might call it inspiration—divine or otherwise. I have not spent much time trying to figure out “my voice,” as much as I have trying to listen keenly to what comes my way.

That changed recently, and I actually began to think about delighting a reader. I began a writing project with one particular reader in mind, and I sought to please that reader. This shift helped me to shift how I wrote. I no longer found myself struggling to listen for some voice that came from another place. To be honest, I still feel that my voice is only partly my own, I still rely on inspiration. But now, I realize that thinking about a reader was something that I had been missing. For years.

In part, and a big part, I worry less about getting the inspiration right. That has been a weighty burden. What if I misplaced word and intent? What if I failed to capture the muse’s song? Now, all I need to do is surprise, and somehow, please a reader. That is so much easier. I know enough about my reader that I can throw in some reference that the reader will appreciate. Or add some detail culled from our common experience.

As I have written more, I have focused less on that particular reader—for whatever reason—and began to accept that all along the muse, my muse, did not want me to repeat a song. My muse wanted me to sing back. All this time, my muse had been aching for surprise and delight. How did I not know this?

One of my first teachers, Ron Hansen, ends his spectacular novel Mariette in Ecstasy with Mariette’s message from her muse (who just happens to be God). The message is, “Surprise me.” I read that years and years ago, and only now has the lesson begun to take hold. How I wish I had stumbled into that realization 20 years ago. But better now, late as it is, than not at all.

And so, now, finally, I write to the surprise. And it comes. Over and over.

The Writing Process (this time)

This time, I have little idea where my writing is going. I have some vague notion, but with each chapter, I am surprised. Something happens as I write. A snippet of speech. An image. An action. They are there, already waiting for me, like a message underneath a thick film of dust—everything gray until it gets brushed away. And then…

I have struggled with longer work. My head was always full of plans and themes and rumination. I wanted so much, and could never trust the words—or myself. It was always easier to write short things. They were all fire, and almost extinguished before the fire spread. And perhaps that is how I am writing now. Not worrying about the longer vision (even though it is there). Letting each chapter be its own part.

Of course, as I glance back at the early chapters—which I do only fleetingly, let the rewrite come later, when the whole draft is done—I see that I have changed course, developing  elements that were nascent in the first few chapters. But there! Everything tumbling out unbidden.

Fortunately, I don’t look back too hard. And when I do, I see that I have opened pathways to correct my initial steps and bring them in line with where the work has headed. That happened today. I exclaimed, out loud, when a few students were in my classroom, “I know what to do! It was there the whole time!” And it was. And it is.

Is it writing itself? No. I have to carve out time to work at the thousand word chunks. And it takes work and time. Sometimes the chunks are smaller. Sometimes I skip ahead when I get bogged down, but rarely do a few chapters follow before the way through the snarl becomes at least a little more obvious.

Mostly, I feel as if I can just write into the void. It is like letting go of the bar in trapeze. I trust that the story will catch me—or the net.  And if it is the net, then I know the way back to the slender ladder up to the platform.  Once more, and into the air.

Names

landscape-1435262834-cotswolds-homeI recently swapped the nicknames that we give our kids with a friend. We had both, surprisingly and strangely, settled on “Bug.” I’m not sure that our daughters will appreciate that longer into their lives, but for now, it will do.

The first time I met her, my younger daughter bounded across the room shouting, “Baba”—Chinese for father—and into my arms. I was a goner. The names I am called matter.  When my daughter calls me, “Daddy,” it stamps me in a more definite way–not just as a father, but as her “daddy.” Sometimes when she is in a softer mood, she will call me “Papa,” and I know to take a gentler stance. She will sit next to me in the car, and say, in that drawn out imploring way, “Da-a-a-addy,” to which I volley, “Dau-au-au-aughter.”

Years of being called “Doctor”—which is more reliably shortened to “Doc,” by my students—has turned me from a reluctant, begrudging authority, to a genial, self-effacing curator of knowledge. A “doc,” in the rural veterinary or GP sense. But I still feel a mild shudder, because of my first “Doctor”—“Doctor Groton,” who taught Latin at my high school, and had an imposing, almost menacing presence. Besides, which of my friends with similar degrees who teach in college would ever sidle up to the honorific with less than irony?

Even more powerful are the words we use around someone. I tell my daughter with almost casual splendor, “I love you.” To which she responds, “I love you too.” Recently she has started initiating these exchanges, “I love you daddy,” which is followed before breath is drawn with “I love you too, daughter,” or “I love you too, bug.”

Giving something the imprimatur of “love” is easy, perhaps too easy. Perhaps I should gird on cynicism and protect myself a little more than I do.  Instead, when I feel the connection, which reveals all the connections in the universe (“every atom as good belonging to me belongs to you”), I find love to be the easiest, truest response.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd I do know the other side. I know how easy it is to let upset slide into hate. And I know that once uttered—by an adult, not by a child, because children must experiment with all words and all emotions—it breaks the bonds in a nearly irrevocable way. I have said it, out loud—either in the perpetual external conversation I have with the world or directly the object of scorn—and the immediate thrill is followed by a deep remorse as the tendrils that connected me to another person wither immediately into dried spiked vines, like the hedges of multiflora rosa that grew brown and foreboding in winter. All that was planted must be uprooted. Maybe something can be saved, some sprig, somewhere.

And because love is, well, love, there is fertile soil. The assurance and reassurance that I give and receive from my daughter spreads new life, almost instantaneously. My bug is a pollinator and the fruits are plenty–the golden apples of the sun, the silver apples of the moon.

 

Two Sides: Ambivalence Part 2

When we are young, we change.  The hurtling forward into growth exhilarates us. We learn at full gallop, disastrously adding new ideas before old ones have taken shape. We are gluttons, and the table is richly laid out and endless. Our Apollonian and Dionysian sides eat together—the only rule is More, and more we do have. We learn and learn, good gods I hope we do, like gods.

rr-apollo-quiz-apollo-lyre_23f7551cSome people, most people, grow up, and cast their lot on one side or the other. Apollonian selves dream into an idea of logic and order—think a sonnet by Shakespeare, glorious in its arrangement of rhythm, rhyme, and idea. This is Apollo brought to earth, walking firmly on the ground. Dionysian selves trumpet feelings and instinct: Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” is as much a dictum as can be borne.

180px-Dionisio3

Rule three thousand one hundred and sixty-two: if you are one, do not marry the other. And do not ask about the other five million rules.

And recognize that just because one is Dionysian, do not think there is a lack of rules about how to go wild. A little Apollonian memory slips in.  You need to party like this, or you aren’t really partying, dude.  On the flip side there may be a wild inconsistency built into that Apollonian logic—call it hypocrisy if you feel like it but know that wildness finds a way.

A few people never settle into one side or the other.  The two halves bristle within like ions in a storm cloud. Ambi-valent: charged in two directions, fire in both hands.  We don’t grow up, but out, finding hidden paths through the forest, wanting one last opinion, and reassessing as we charge into conflict. Yelling at our superiors and demanding a reckoning.  Being schooled by our students and admitting our blindness. and always, always learning.

I bemoan my ambivalence; I cherish my ambivalence. It’s a dirty little secret about my life. I hate being fenced in, and I love the elegant symmetry of a well written novel. You point out chaos, and I will chart the forcelines that create paisley swirls. I want to love someone and build a life with them and I want them to dance right out of the picture on their own. I want to lead the way, and I am happy to chase comets.

Oh, it’s the worst. And the best. Or the other way around. And the other way around.

Some folks tell me that I’m too strict, or not enough of an adult, or that I have too many rules, or that I don’t follow their rules. Dude, this is how we party. How am I a teacher? How could I be anything else? How can I not shake up my life and take my daughter along for the ride: reassuring her, giving her the foundation she needs, and teaching her that when the earth shakes, the ground still loves her. And that everywhere I am, I will love her.

coin_flipping_by_uroskrunic-d36x79rMy youngest brother has told me many times that I am too serious. And of all the boys, I am. And not. My wildness is serious, and my seriousness is wild. Flip a coin, and watch the light glint off side after side after side as it tumbles through the air. Heads or tails, the glinting wins.

Unstuck

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…
Provenance

Chapter 1

 “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.

 “And yours?”

 “Yes.”

 “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.