The first stop was a Holiday Oil Co. “Hey, my sister ran out of gas,” Jack said. “Do you guys have one of those . . . portable thingies?”
“A gas can?” said the exhausted attendant lady, southern-accent-touched voice scathing.
Jack gave a cringing smile and nodded, paid the ten dollar deposit, and filled the two-gallon container at pump four outside.
His destination was this Victorian-styled, sage-colored house that a rich young couple had moved into days prior. Jack pulled his car up to a curb a few blocks away, then walked calmly through the night to the carport of the pale green home. He noted the dullness of the color, muted by lack of illumination.
He thought back to when his dad, Jack Senior, took him to an art museum filled with vibrant colors. “Look at these paintings, kid. You see this? These people will never die. These people – they changed the world.”
But what Jack’s daddy – the man whose cancered lungs would turn him to ashes when his only child was seven – never realized is that it works both ways. You build something? Change the world. But if you destroy something?
It’s the same, thought Jack, age 15, as a page stolen from his step-father’s art collection blazed – some element spawning momentary threads of colored fire – and quickly crumpled to a crisp in front of him. So fragile. So pretty. So gone.
Jack gave a fond smile at the recollection, then poured the gasoline beside the fifty-thousand-dollar cars, across the wooden frame of the house, around in tiny swirling circles on the pavement. The soft splashing noise of gasoline against concrete soothed him. Then Jack put his lighter – a silver antique etched with the letter J – to his mouth. He pushed on the clicker without sliding the flint, and after his cheeks filled with the warm tastelessness of the butane, he held the lighter a foot from his lips.
Slide, click—he breathed out heavily and the inch-tall flame turned into a wave of heat that hit the gasoline in a burst. It crackled with muted volume, nothing more than the sound of rushing wind and quietly anxious smoldering. Jack noted the reinvigorated colors of the home. He backed away in the no-longer-dark, moved out through the home’s backyard and across the fence, and made a two block circle to a nearby hilltop.
Dark clothes, dark background – he was a shadow, didn’t exist. The now empty gas canister beside him was his only company. The two of them watched.
It starts very simply. The fire creeps up, the wood begins to boil, the heat gets under the paint. The flame glows, and sometimes a neighbor catches it, and sometimes the people in the house figure out what’s going on, and usually no one realizes anything. Usually they get it around the time the gasoline from the cars ignite, when the fire gets boisterous enough to call out primal instincts even from a distance.
Jack hovered forward over his crossed legs as he sat on the hill. He watched the fire grow, his eyes ignited, his heart finally racing, his skin finally tingling. He thought of DaVinci. Renoir. Michalangelo. Monet. He thought of every artist who had ever made anything, ever. How much had they done? How immortal were they with their hundred-thousand brushstrokes?
And how could any of them ever come close to this blazing beauty – the whip-lashings of fire now bursting into the air, the crackle of collapsing wood, the sound of stunned, heavy-whisper screams?
The beauty lasts for days. The imminent rush of water from the fireman’s hose in the dark, cascading in an arc toward a fire it can’t hope to quench. The waft of thick, dark-grey smoke from the building as it burns itself to nothing. The frightened, hushed voices of people discussing the important questions – did the family make it out okay? did they have insurance? what could possibly have happened to cause this?
The evidence would be consumed and the art would eventually decay, but Jack … Jack would live forever.
This story was written in Spring of 2011. It is part of a collection of poetry and prose tentatively titled A Tribute to Vice (slated for completion in 2013).