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Volume 17, Issue 3: Tohu

Alive Day

Jared Miller

I woke up to a room full of haze. Blinking to clear it, I looked at the clock out of habit: 1:45 a.m. Then I smelled it. They say that smell is the sense closest to memory. You grow up thinking of the sharp, good smell of burning wood, and it reminds you of fall bonfires, camping, the fireplace in winter, and songs against the darkness. This was different. It was the gagging stench of burning paint. Burning carpet. Burning insulation. Burning plastic as the flames licked and peeled the coverings off copper wire, dropping it shrunk and shriveled from the blackened skeleton. For months afterward, when I opened one of my books, or took an old sweater out of a drawer, I would get a hint of that smell, and it would turn my stomach.

I didn't expect the first emotion to be something as petty as annoyance. The semester was almost over, and I had two final papers due. I was getting married in less than a month. My fiancée and I had just spent Thanksgiving break cleaning up the place for a waiver of the security deposit. We had painted every room; the kitchen cupboards had gone from institutional white to a Mediterranean red, and the bathroom had taken on a shade of spring green. We had scrubbed, mopped, dusted, and sweated to a medley of Beatles albums, and with our own hands we had transformed a trashed vacancy into our own clean, well-lighted place. Now it was all going to count for nothing. It was that quick, that easy.
I stumbled into the living room where the vintage wall furnace was still blowing. Something glowed orange behind the grate. On the other side of the wall, in the kitchen, flames sprouted from a small hole near the floor. I must have been expecting something different, something from a movie, the liquid billowing of flame in slow motion. These flames were quick, jumping, crackling, in real time, those same bonfire flames that remind you of toasting marshmallows and singing and the sweet, nutty smell that lingers in your hair and clothes. They were out of place, an absurdity, like a spinning child at a funeral.
Choking, I grabbed a glass off the counter and began throwing water a pint at a time on the wall, down the hole, into the heater grate. The fire was bigger than I thought; the wall was saturated with it, firelogged, burning from the inside out. I turned and opened the utility closet where the hot water heater was. The wall and part of the floor were decked in fire: small, sharply-cut flames fluttering from shreds of old wallpaper. I saw them in my mind, quite clearly for an instant, immersing the gas pipes, turning them red hot and then white.
I dialed 911, almost apologizing for the melodrama of the situation, and banged out the door. I stopped suddenly, unaccountably, and turned to go back in. The door had locked. A sign, apparently. I turned again and stumbled down the stairs. You always hear about those who go back, whether for a book, a photograph, or some useless souvenir. It's sentiment and not greed that kills them. It's a defense against forgetting. They've spent a lifetime piecing together a scaffold for the self, a cast to keep the molten stuff of their everyday experience from running down the path of least resistance and dissipating into some shapeless non-identity. If you cannot step into the same river twice, you can at least dam it and swim in the reservoir. We moderns are all recovering amnesiacs. Blame writing, like Plato. Blame the camera and the camcorder. It's too easy to get yourself embedded in things and accept a simulacrum of your past. Then to keep your sanity you've got to shore it up against the flame, the worm, the dark. And you'll go back to save it. Because when your muscles have atrophied, and the scaffolding folds, you know you'll fall with it.
It took some time to rouse the other tenants. I actually had to overcome a reluctance to disturb them. The hippie couple downstairs was still awake—at least their lights were on. They didn't go back, not even for their shelf of LPs or the Hendrix banner on their living room wall. The old man in the basement kept shooting me black looks, but he didn't go back either. Conversation was difficult, standing there on the sidewalk under the streetlights, in a cold, starry December morning. There had been a frost and the grass was stiff. I looked down at my feet. They were bare. I was wearing khakis and a T-shirt. My pockets were empty. I'd forgotten my glasses. For all I knew, most of the artifacts of my past had just been destroyed. I began to suppress a nagging wish that the door hadn't locked.
When Anne Bradstreet saw all her "pleasant things in ashes," she remembered the good times she had spent surrounded by them in the company of family and friends. The deep attachment to physical comforts shines through every line of her great poem. When she finally lets them go, trying to commit to purely heavenly treasures, she can't be entirely sincere. She knows that she's losing something when she professes disillusionment with God's good creation, denying attachment in order to mitigate suffering. The result rings a little hollow, but the hollowness only adds a sad resonance. "Adieu, Adeiu; All's vanity"; "The world no longer let me Love"—the language is biblical, certainly, but the warnings of Solomon and Paul do not condemn the things Bradstreet mourns: the guest-loud table, bursting stores of food and wine, pleasant tales retold, the bridegroom's voice. Their loss should sharpen the appetite, not dull it. She should have quoted Job. Things are destroyed to make room for more and better ones. Like the ancient sacrifice, they are burned so that they may ascend, transformed, a pleasing aroma and not the stench of death.
When the fire trucks arrived, it was almost a disappointment. The fire hadn't grown much; I could see it glowing weakly through a window. This couldn't be all there is. I had to lose everything now. Like a kid playing at orphans. It's strange and catching, that exhiliration of uprooting, of going bankrupt and following some desert prophet. I was silently cheering the fire on now, willing it to grow and consume everything, the house, the trees, the block, the whole town, while we danced in the streets. I'll bet it shone in my eyes. Let it all burn, and we can start from scratch. Everything must be made new, nothing holding us back. To plant instead of water. To break everyone's casts, take them out of traction, and see if they can hold up their heads again. I'd like to think this feeling is universal. Maybe everyone's a secret arsonist.
The gray morning drained any remaining drama from the scene. The house still stood; it hadn't had the aesthetic sense to collapse in a tornado of sparks. Our living room had taken the brunt. Many of my things had survived, but I found myself wishing they hadn't. What wasn't stained or waterlogged carried in it that invisible, sickening smoke.
Later that day we talked with the fire chief. I handed in a written statement and he chastened me, quite rightly, about safety and luck. When we had first seen the apartment a week before, I had noticed a broken smoke detector above the front door, its cover and viscera dangling from red and green wires like some infernal Christmas wreath. The others had no batteries; possibly the cigarette burns on the carpet had something to do with it. You need alarms because fires try to drowse you down with carbon monoxide. Most people just never wake up, asphyxiated and oblivious in their beds while the flames cover them like falling leaves, peeling them to black wire bones. But a few wake up. Some of them go back, if a lock lets them, and some of them are lulled to bed again, dizzied to the floor, as their scaffolding tumbles down around them.
When a child burned, Dylan Thomas refused to mourn her, to "murder / the mankind of her going with a grave truth / . . . with any further / elegy of innocence and youth." Words would blaspheme the "majesty" of her death. The living cannot comprehend the dead until they themselves die, when comprehension is gone and only darkness and silence are left. Death is too momentous, or too petty, for word-shrines; it doesn't fit. The simple, real thing confronts the poet, stripped to its black bones. It's enough to make us all stammer, trying to bury it in words. We can't, but we have to anyway. Not works, but grace. But doubting Thomas settles for the agnostic's knowledge: "After the first death there is no other." No death, but no life either. What then—sleep?
My wife and I celebrate Alive Day every December third. It's a day to burn your bare skin in the snow, stare out the window for an hour, climb the tree in the front yard you've never touched, and throw away all your old papers and everything you haven't used since last year. It's a day for remembering. The only fixed ritual is that I drink wine from a certain goblet—one of a pair that was on the kitchen table and somehow survived while the other was smashed by part of a falling rafter. It's all very profound, fitting, and symbolic. But maybe it's a way of forgetting, really, a way to hush it up. Do we talk in code, like children, because we really don't have anything to say? Do we act out fictions to avoid living? Do we write to avoid remembering? Maybe we grow up cheated by scripted, ritual deaths, never expecting the awkward void of the raw, real thing. The dramatic climax is over in a second, and no one noticed. Maybe we think too highly of ourselves, think the world should stop and watch as we die, that time should slow and bend backwards, and perspectives pan and multiply, so that everyone, including ourselves, may savor the spectacle of our going.
The real thing is too unnatural, too simple. The real experience never gives you anything. I felt no majesty or tragedy of death; my stomach only turned at its ease, ignominy, and pettiness. You never expect to die in this room, in these clothes, with your dirty laundry piled in the corner. Not on this day, with these appointments, with bits of that lunch still in your teeth. You never think of it as leaving a mess that others have to clean up. We can't wrap our heads around it; we turn and gag. We call in symbol and ritual to tame it. You can tell me that they aren't the true reality, but I know they're the better one. The secret things belong to God—He's the only one who can take them on, smiling deviously at some in-joke with the universe, plunging His hands into the mess, out-rawing the raw. We can only stand by and recite our rhymes, shouting over the din. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. It's really the only thing for mortals to do. Otherwise there's nothing, no mankind in your going. You might as well start the fire yourself and go to bed.
It's difficult to remember even yearly how to live like Damocles, how to love and hate our pleasant things, how to say the truth without saying a grave truth. It's hard to remember to wake up, resisting the dizzying drowse. It's hard to reenact the raw real things you've seen, self-conscious of the fakery but still afraid. Above all, maybe, it's hard to face those quick, cheerful flames, throw back your head, and spin along with them.

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