The New Life

My name is Malcolm Casady. I translate Medieval documents for the Smithsonian institute. It is the fourth of June, and I arrive at my apartment building with the firm intention of burning down a building tonight. On my way home I couldn't avoid seeing a hideous Baptist church in downtown Baltimore. It was gaudy, it was tasteless, it was an offense to the eye. The world will be a more beautiful place without it. I haven't burned down a building for almost eight months, and after that long my mind starts to get cluttered and my dreams become very crowded and disturbing. Setting fires is a way of psychologically cleaning house. It is cathartic and revelatory. In fact, I contend that it is a form of fine art. Really, who's to say that the act of destruction is any less beautiful or sublime than the act of creation? It may not be as aesthetically pleasing, but it takes no more strength of will to bring something new into this world than it does to erase something utterly. That's what art is. It's willing your vision into reality.

But not everybody sees things that way. Because of the apparent lack of motive, the local news organizations go on and on about some "pyromaniac". I hate that word. It makes me sound like some kind of nut. It makes me sound like I'm not in control of myself. This could not be further from the truth. Perhaps I have been unable to deny my calling, but there is no weakness to be inferred from that. A man who spurns his destiny isn't much of a man at all. But the world glibly assumes that I am unable to suppress my baser urges. They label me "pyromaniac". I prefer to think of myself as a pyrophiliac. I do not suffer from an undue obsession with fire. It is simply the medium in which I work. I am an artist.

I actually live in Reston, Virginia. It's a small city on the edges of Washington, D.C.'s sprawling metropolitan area. I have a small flat on Fifth Street, on the second floor of an eight-floor building. I stride quickly into the lobby of my building, walking across a poorly-maintained Persian rug to the bank of mailboxes on the far wall. Usually the mail I receive is nothing but junk, but it's the beginning of the month and I'm expecting a disability check, as well as a payment from the trust fund that my mother established for me before she took her life. Neither have arrived today, though, so I quickly shut the door and walk to the elevators. I press the UP button.

"Malcolm!" a voice echoes from the end of a long first-floor corridor. I turn quickly and see my downstairs neighbor, Mr. McTeague. He is a squat, portly alcoholic with Gordian tangles of gray hair encompassing his head. He toddles towards me, a plaintive expression on his face. I see a limp cigarette behind his right ear. He rubs a greasy hand across the front of his shirt and extends a hand. I nod with all due politeness.

"I hope the day finds you well, Stanley," I say quietly.

"Wha?"

"Never mind. What can I do for you?"

"Have you got a light?" he asks.

"Yes," I say quietly as though entranced by a Siren of old, "I do." I tuck my briefcase under my crippled arm and pull a gold-plated Zippo lighter from my pocket. He takes it, eagerly pulls the cigarette from behind his ear and tucks it between his lips, and strikes the lighter. A weak flame appears.

I am transported into another world, a higher plane of thought. The rest of the universe disappears like smoke diffusing into the wind. I imagine myself as a tiny homunculus in the center of the flame, that tiny empty space between the wick and the visible fire. I become a man so consumed by his passions that they radiate from him in every direction. I become a tragic hero.

Mr. McTeague snaps the lighter shut and hands it back to me. I try to take it from him but I can hardly control my own body. I have broken into a cold sweat.

"You alright, Malcolm?" he says.

"Fine," I say, putting the lighter back into my pocket. "I just have a little cold, that's all."

"You looked fine a minute ago." He's looking at me strangely.

"It's one of those intermittent colds. It comes and goes, you know."

"Oh."

I step into the open elevator. "Hey," Mr. McTeague says as an afterthought, and puts his hand up against the elevator door to stop it. "Do you even smoke?"

"Filthy habit," I say quietly.

"Then how come you have such a nice lighter?"

"My mother gave it to me," I say with a straight face. "I start fires with it."

I can still hear Mr. McTeague laughing as high as the third floor.

I scurry through the door to my apartment and toss my briefcase onto my five-year old couch I purchased at Goodwill, on top of a pile of laundry. The place is a mess; the floor of the living room is strewn with clothes and magazines and discarded aluminum cans and half-empty bags of sugar. I take off my suit coat, kick off my shoes, and walk into the kitchenette where I open an eye-level cupboard. Inside it is a translucent plastic bottle, half filled with red and yellow capsules.

I am not addicted to Percoset any more than I am addicted to setting fires. Even so, my hand starts to shake as it fumbles with the childproof cap. My skin is clammy and my heart is pounding until I get the cap off and pop two of the pills. I can feel their effects almost immediately; my limbic system shifts into a lower gear and the outlines of the world become sharper and more distinct. Maybe, I think to myself, this is beginning to get out of hand. No, that's impossible; I have more self-control than that. I place the bottle back in the cupboard and crouch in front of my sink. Beneath it there is a ten-gallon plastic tub I purchased at The Container Store. It is filled nearly to the top with a fine gray powder.

The recipe I use can be found in The Anarchist's Cookbook, author unknown but traditionally referred to as the Jolly Roger. There are only two ingredients in this recipe: household-grade sugar and an oxidizing agent commonly used by welders known as Solidox. "Solidox" is meant to stand for Solid Oxygen, and chemically it functions very much in the same way as oxygen, but its principal component is actually potassium chlorate. The advantage of Solidox over its namesake is that the former is solid at room temperature, making it easy to store. More than that, Solidox is plentiful; for less than ten dollars, you can get an aluminum can containing six sticks at practically any hardware store. The fact that Solidox is so easy to obtain makes it virtually untraceable. That's a big plus. All you have to do is mix the Solidox with granulated sugar, set up a simple slow-burning fuse, and you have the cheapest, most effective incendiary device there is to be had.

Granted, it isn't quite that simple. You have to exercise extraordinary caution when mixing the explosive, or you could very easily be injured. Be that as it may, I consider my wounds to be a manifestation of my passion. During his work at the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo was so used to being on his back all the time that even when he wasn't on the scaffolding, he couldn't read his mail without craning his neck back and reading his letters from underneath. All artists make sacrifices, and they adjust to them. I surrendered one of my hands to my art in stride.

The Percoset has placed me in the proper headspace, my animalistic frenzy of eagerness has given way to composed anticipation, and I am ready to begin. The church I have in mind is no larger than an affluent two-story house, so I'll only need a quarter-pound or so of my explosive cocktail. I begin rummaging through cabinets and drawers looking for a conveniently-sized container, and then I hear a smoke detector go off. It is such a familiar noise that I don't even flinch. I just look around the room for a moment to be sure that there's no fire that might threaten to detonate the explosive. My only thought is: I didn't do that.

I assume it's just a false alarm. Occasionally the kids on the fourth floor or the top floor will pull a fire alarm or hold a lighter up to a smoke detector, just to be cute. They always get a stern lecture from the fire department, but like most children they never really learn. However, the notion that this is another childish hoax is put to rest by the smoke I faintly see through the window, rising in the failing light. The fire must be on the first floor. My unshod feet are beginning to feel alarmingly warm.

I suddenly see an image of Mr. McTeague laying on his mattress, nodding off, his cigarette slowly falling from his lips onto a plush down pillow. He's just the sort of man who'd do a thing like that. For a moment I am struck by the irony of the situation. This is the third time my lighter has burned down my home; the first time in the hands of my mother, the second in my own, and again in the hands of an ignorant second-generation Scotsman.

I look out my window again, and despite the fact that the sun has set, it actually seems brighter outside than it had last time I looked, and this is of course because of the flames. I can see the orange-red tendrils of fire reflected in the windows of the apartment building next door. It's getting very hot and smoky. My feet hurt from the heat below. If Mr. McTeague is still down there, he's certainly dead.

I don't care much for smokers, nor am I particularly fond if Mr. McTeague, but the idea that people are dying down there gets me moving again. I find my shoes about seven feet apart in the living room and put them on. It's still unpleasantly warm, but the shoes provide a stopgap comfort.

Now to get out of here. The fire escape is right there, not ten feet away from me, but what I'm really concerned about is the bookcase against the wall next to the door, a floor-to-ceiling pine bookcase I purchased for sixty dollars at a garage sale when I first moved to Reston. It is filled to capacity with antique books, ranging from e.e. cummings to Aldous Huxley to Heinrich von Kleist. Many of them are first editions. On the middle shelf, about chest-high on me, there is a book in a glass display case. Bookends on either side of it ensure that none of the other books touch the glass. The object inside the display is almost unrecognizable as a book. It is very short—about ninety pages, little more than a pamphlet. It is open to a page towards the beginning. A tatter that was once a silk place marker rests between the open pages. The spine of the book is miraculously intact, but the front and back covers are badly worn. The pages are yellow and the ink is faded but readable. The passage the book is open to, when translated, reads "Then he woke her, and that burning heart he fed to her reverently, she fearing, afterwards he went not to be seen weeping."

The book is a first edition of Dante Alighieri's La Vita Nuova. It is seven hundred years old. Despite its terrible condition, it still represents a substantial percentage of my net worth. Five years ago I accidentally burned down my house in Chicago, and I leapt through a window buck naked, cradling the display case in my arms.

The smoke in the room is thickening. It's becoming hard to breathe and even harder to see. Time is starting to become a factor. And I have a choice to make.

I would happily die long before I would allow any harm to come to that ancient manuscript, but beneath my sink there is a large gray plastic receptacle containing about thirty pounds of Solidox explosive. When the fire reaches the plastic bins, the explosion will be of sufficient magnitude to bring down the entire building. This will almost certainly kill every person occupying it.

I'm no murderer. I've burned down fifteen buildings in my life, plus the one I destroyed by accident, and not one of those conflagrations has resulted in a fatality or even a serious injury. I might be able to make it to the street and get far enough away before the building goes up, but I can't just let all these people die. I won't live with that on my conscience.

Okay, I decide with more than a little reluctance, forget the book. That's one problem solved. But how to get the explosive out of here? I can't just throw it out the window, it would be just as likely to explode right next to the building as it would inside it. I have to get it out of the building and get it far enough away to eliminate the risk of even a single spark hitting it.

I crouch down in front of my sink. Next to the bin is the lid that came with it. I quickly put the top on the bin and engage the plastic latches; I can't have any of the powder falling out of the containers and into the fire. I squat down a little lower in front of the cabinets and attempt to wrap an arm around it. I have to support most of the weight with my good arm, because I never worked out as much as my therapist wanted me to and my left arm is crippled and useless. The body, always I told her, was a husk. A container. The mind is what makes a man strong.

"So it goes," I say, glancing back at the book one last time, and I wrap both arms around the container, lifting it out of the cupboard. I take a few steps over to the window and brace the container against my right leg, supporting it partially with my stub, while I use my hand to open the window. I take the container in both arms again and step through the window onto the fire escape.

I very nearly kill myself descending the blackened iron ladder to the sidewalk because it requires me to bear the full weight of the explosive with my hopelessly atrophied right arm. But I make it, falling the last few feet to ground level, and before my legs have fully recovered from the impact I'm running across the street to an empty ally. I run all the way to the dead end and put the gray tub in a corner, stacking some bulging garbage bags on top of it for good measure.

I'm walking with purpose back towards the building when I'm stopped by a burly arm. It's connected to an equally brawny man in a black uniform.

"Where do you think you're goin'?" the police officer asks.

"I need to get something from my apartment," I tell him coolly.

He looks up at the flaming building and back down at me, raising his eyebrows. "You're not going anywhere."

"It's important," I say, and shake loose his grip on my arm. I walk a few more steps and he jumps in front of me. Without thinking, I shove him away from me, and before I can even move he's got his arms wrapped around me. He pulls my arms behind my back and reaches for a pair of handcuffs. He puts one cuff around my good wrist and grabs my stub.

"What the fuck…" he whispers, wondering how to do this.

He's calling out to his partner when I spring with unusual speed out of the officer's grasp. He's still twenty feet behind me when I burst through the front door into the entryway, and I can imagine the look on his heavyset face as he decides he'll be damned if he's going to follow me into this.

It's much worse than before. I'm sure my lungs aren't getting oxygen as I go up the stairs, which I have to take two or three at a time because many of the steps have collapsed. I have to leap over a hole about three feet wide at the top of the stairs before I can get to my door. I'm smart enough not to touch the doorknob, so I just kick the door open.

I am mesmerized. It's so beautiful. There's fire everywhere, climbing the walls and rolling across the floor in perfect waves. It's like a sonnet. It's perfect. I shake my head quickly, trying to focus, and look towards the bookcase. I can hardly believe my eyes; even after this much time, the flames are climbing the bookcase, but they haven't reached La Vita Nuova. There's a part of me that almost wants to see it consumed by the flames, but that book is the only thing in this world I've ever loved besides my mother, and fire has long since consumed her.

Without thinking, I grab the case in my hand and my stump without even thinking about it, and the pain is so exquisite that I almost throw the case to the ground, but if I do that the glass will break and I'll lose the book, so I just grip it tighter. The glass is so hot that it's actually burning my chest through my white dress shirt. I can smell the flesh of my left arm sizzling. I actually smile. This is another badge of honor. Proof of my devotion. Irrefutable evidence of my passion.

I'm halfway across the apartment when the floor rocks and groans and my entire kitchen sinks down another two feet. It is now impossible to get to the lowest landing of the fire escape, as it is about a foot above the window. My only option is a ten foot drop, onto solid concrete, holding a glass case in my arms. But, since I'm going to catch fire if I stay in one place for more than a half second, and breaking both of my legs is a far more favorable fate than burning alive, I run across my flaming, cadaverous kitchen floor towards the open and badly misshapen window. As I go, I feel and hear the wood splintering beneath me, preparing to drop me into what can only be, by now, a roiling sea of flame.

I hurl myself screaming through the window and the floor I have just been on collapses altogether. I twist my body in the air, hoping to land on my back and prevent the book from being damaged; I don't care at this point whether I break my back. It would only be a testament to my strength. Thankfully, though, I land on the police officer who apprehended me about sixty seconds ago. When I hit him I hear some of my ribs crack from the impact and he starts swearing loudly.

I must be in worse shape than I thought, because while I'm on the ground people huddle around me and look at me like I've been decapitated. As the seconds slowly pass, I become aware of agonizing pain in various parts of my body. I slowly raise my arms, which is hard because my skin has fused to the half-melted glass of the display case and it tears off in a lot of places. Then I can see what they're looking at. My arms look like overcooked fried chicken.

I am suddenly and surprisingly beset by a long-absent sanity. Why did I ever consider this to be an art? Why did I think dying for this would be honorable? Why did I allow the madness of my mother to cost me so much?

I decide I'm not going to start fires anymore.

I also decide it's best to conserve my energy, and lower my arms again to rest on the display case. Amazingly, it is intact.

For a while the police and the paramedics are fighting over me. The police insist that I'm conscious and medically stable enough to give a statement as to why I was carrying a barrel of home-produced explosives and whether I might have something to do with this fire. The paramedics think I should be taken to a burn center first, then interrogated. Eventually the paramedics win. They try to take the book away from me, but I cling to it with an enthusiasm that probably borders on scary aggressiveness and they let me hang onto it for now. When they get me on the gurney and into an ambulance, they administer a much-welcome morphine drip, and as I slowly lose consciousness I hear a voice reciting random passages from La Vita Nuova, in a haphazard mix of Medieval Italian and slurred English. The voice is mine.

"Then I was so filled by distress, I closed my eyes heavy with that evil, and so scattered were my spirits, they all went wandering…"

Watching over me, the paramedic glances down at me queerly, as though he thought I was trying to talk to him. He decides I'm just incoherent, shakes his head dismissively, and looks away.