Some days in the life of a carpenter feel like any other; a thin slice from a continuum of work carried out by a fraternity of craftsmen dating back to the pyramids and stretching out into the space age. All in all, an honorable way to make a living.
And then there are the days I walk into a burn job.
There is something deeply objectionable—obscene even—about a home consumed by fire. Whatever the reason—an overtaxed extension cord, a somnolent smoker, or a forgotten project boiling dry on the stove—fire is an elemental force that teaches us of our impermanence. The amount of time it takes for a guttering teardrop of flame at the end of a match to become a life-consuming pyre can be measured in an eternity of seconds counting down with complete indifference to our existence.
The first time you walk into the remains of a life destroyed by fire is a moment you never forget. It reveals to you that you’ve never truly known what it means to say that something is destroyed, but the appalling, indiscriminate obliteration of a fire will teach you. There’s this visceral, involuntary revulsion that rises up in you from some ancient racial memory passing down through eons of ancestors, all running for their lives through fields of flame and heather.
Even to those that make a life of it, a burn job is a bludgeon to every human sense, no matter how many times your footfalls land in that ashen world. The stench can fill an entire block, and when you step into it, the sooty campfire smell instantly fills up your olfactory pallet to saturation, blotting out everything else. The fire may as well have happened in your mouth.
The whole thing is a frieze of chaos: clothing, carpet, and children’s toys melted into a single, indistinguishable mass, cooled together into frozen magma flows. All the synthetic fibers, the man-made substances—the end-state of unthinkably ancient bones—meld into piles of amalgamated slag, forever one. Overhead light bulbs ooze into grasping tendrils like soot covered icicles. Television screens flow and slump in molten surrender to unthinkable heat. DVD’s, beer bottles, remote controls, couch upholstery, X-Boxes, all fused into surrealist sculptures that must be chiseled apart with pick-axes and pry bars.
Even the things that don’t burn are covered in an ephemeral film of the finest ash, shellacked in oily resins whose chemical makeup is a list of compounds never intended by nature. Everywhere lay heaps of the burnt-edged confetti of photos, junk mail, novels, college degrees; the documentation of an entire life reduced to tattered remnants, unrecognizable even to those that lived it. A testament to the transformative power of fire.
And then there’s us. The strangers that come into the smoking ruins of what you’ve got to show for your life. We gather up a hundred thousand dollars worth of clothing, appliances, knick-knacks, electronics, books, dishes, cutlery, musical instruments, fitness equipment, computers—everything you worked irretrievable hours to amass—and we throw it all into endlessly revolving dumpsters. We find the pot stash, the porn stash, and the dildos; every secret is revealed as we disassemble your life one piece at a time. What took four months to construct will take us a week to dispense with, one bite-sized piece at a time. We’ll take hammers, crow bars, saws, jackhammers, even the occasional chain hooked to the bumper of a truck, and reverse-engineer the process of creation, finishing what the fire started. All the while punching the clock, whistling a work-a-day tune.
“St. Peter don’tcha call me, ‘cause I can’t go…”
This process of deconstruction is unbelievably taxing because it all happens by the brute power of sinew, bone and sledgehammer, and then every scrap of it is transported to the inexhaustible dumpsters manually, by trundling laborers blackened head to toe by soot and ash. As the ringing of tireless blows resounds through the house and the cacophony of collapse goes on and on, a blizzard of ash swirls continuously through the air. Only our respirators stand between us and the black-lung heartache, as even a single step through this wasteland wafts up micro-flurries of carcinogens from a thick sediment of plaster dust, fiberglass and asbestos piled and drifting across the floor. Each blink of our eyes is like a windshield wiper clearing the scrim of soot from the gelled surface continually; the little wrinkles, nooks, and wattles of our faces become etched depositories of the blackness.
All the while you can only pray that nobody died in this one, because it’s creepy enough to live and work in the world of Old Man Fire without dancing with the ghosts of the ones who almost made it, or those that never saw it coming. Nobody ever asks because that workaday tune can seem a lot like whistling your way past the graveyard otherwise. It’s said that the world once ended by water and will one day end again, this time by fire. Some days I find that easy to believe.
What can I say? It’s a living. A weird, disturbing, brutal living. Still, I can’t count how many times I’ve handed a shiny brass set of keys to a homeowner at the completion of their job and actually had them say, “The fire may be the best thing that ever happened to this place. It went from an old wreck to a modern palace overnight!” And really, that’s the payoff. When you take what feels like the single lowest, most irredeemable moment of someone’s life and turn it into something new and hand the keys—that precious metal—back to them.
Of course some things are irreplaceable; I can’t give back a wedding dress, kids’ finger paintings on the fridge, or family heirlooms. But that’s life. It isn’t a boutique, or a wish granting factory. It gives and it takes away. The best you can hope for is decent insurance.
Lawrence Elliott is a journeyman carpenter of seventeen years. He enjoys playing the guitar and creative writing. He blogs about autobiographical oddities at Scratched in the Sand.