“Fires” — An early draft of “Combust”



The first time she combusts it’s in the middle of a meeting she is conducting with the rest of the marketing department. The company sells breakfast cereals, the fortified sugary kind she would never actually buy but her husband eats by the boxful. She is explaining three new promotional strategies that target stay-at-home mothers, is gesturing to pie charts derived from focus group data, when she feels the pain in her left ankle. She smells char, skin and nylon, glances down and sees the flames sprouting from her ankle, a patch of them big as her palm and about two inches high. They are red-orange at the tips and blue near her skin. She screams, drops to the floor, rolls back and forth and yells for someone to call 911. As the medics carry her out of the room on a stretcher, she sees her boss frowning slightly like he thinks it’s her fault.

In the hospital bed she examines the blister. It is small, maybe two inches in diameter, looks like a burn one would get from splashing hot water or oil on skin. She can’t explain why it’s not worse. She was on fire. The nylons are ruined. Her skin isn’t black but hurts like hell. She tries not to cry. The hospital attendants hook her up to all sorts of monitors, take a pint of blood. A doctor runs a few interns through the room.

‘This is the first case of spontaneous combustion our hospital has ever observed,’ she says. The interns squint at the combusting woman and scribble on notepads. They all linger in the room for five minutes, check their watches, fiddle with their stethoscopes, clip out the door when she ceases to be interesting.

The combusting woman’s husband sits on the edge of her bed, clutching her hand like he’s waiting for her to catch fire again. Which she does. Twice. Finally a nurse unhooks some of the tubes and lets her sit in a plastic chair in the shower. She’s less comfortable but feels safer. She also feels drained, but that’s been happening a lot lately. She’s found herself getting tired more easily, needing more sleep, more coffee, more makeup under her eyes in the morning. She thinks this is annoying because she’s not even old, only forty-one, and she’s the sort of person who works fourteen, fifteen, sixteen-hour days and hates slowing down.

By the second day in the hospital she’s going crazy, has to get back to her job, but she’s still catching fire every five or six hours, usually on her arms or legs but once her hip ignites. Her husband grumbles at nurses scribbling ineffectually on clipboards, brings her boxes of Popsicles even though she hates Popsicles, hauls her laptop from home after she’s harangued him for six hours.

‘But what if you ignite while you’re typing?’ he says.

‘I won’t,’ says the combusting woman. ‘I have lead time.’ There’s about twenty seconds of intense pain in an area before it catches fire, so she can grit her teeth and grab a damp towel. She hopes that doing work will make her feel better, more normal.

‘You need to take a break sometime,’ her husband says, sitting beside her bed and crossing his arms.

She types with one hand and pats his arm with the other. ‘I’m just a really disciplined person,’ she says. ‘A hard worker.’

He puts his hand on her hand.

She draws her hand away after a moment so she can keep typing.

He sighs.

She types. Sometimes she feels a little guilty about working such long hours, but he knew the sort of person she was when he married her, that she would be putting in the hours at work so she could move up in the department. Selling cereal isn’t easy, but she’s the highest paid person in the marketing department and they have a great house with four bedrooms and two full baths and the pool in the back and the kitchen with the skylight and cupboards filled with free boxes of sugary cereal she won’t eat but he has for breakfast and dessert and before bed. This means she doesn’t go a day without checking her e-mail ten times, meeting with her staff twice, and sending the president a progress report.

While the nurse fastens a tourniquet around her arm, hold it still to take blood, she grimaces and reads another e-mail. In the hospital she has seven phone conferences a day, writes memos, and drafts plans for the next marketing initiative, the polls that will need to be taken, the focus groups that will need to be organized. She likes selling things and has always been good at it, figuring out angles, telling people why they can’t live without sugary cereal even though she most certainly can.

Her boss calls every day to encourage her to take time off work.

‘You catch fire yet today?’ he says.

‘Twice,’ she says.

‘Take a week of sick leave,’ he says.

‘No,’ she says, ‘I’m fine. I’m keeping up with everything.’

‘You need to consider it,’ he says, ‘get some rest.’

‘I’m sitting in bed all day,’ she says. ‘It’s not stressful.’

She thinks her boss wants to get rid of her because she doesn’t listen to enough of his ideas. He gives her lower performance reviews than she deserves, but the board of directors likes her so she stays on.

She’s in the hospital for ten days while doctors conduct blood tests, bone marrow tests, hormone tests, kidney and liver function tests, and take endless urine specimens. After they can’t find anything physically wrong with her they send her home with a large tub of ointment. She’s still in a tizzy, spends half her time in the bathtub and the other half sitting on the toilet, typing away at her laptop with a bucket of damp towels at her side. She wears a bathrobe around the house, sleeps in the bathroom on an air mattress covered with a fire-retardant blanket. She catches fire twice a day. Before combusting she feels a rush of tension, pain like a muscle spasm. When the fire erupts it’s like a release, a good ache even if it’s an intense one.

‘Bruce is doing a very good job,’ says her boss, ‘you should consider taking some time off. He’s handling things well.’

‘But I’m fine,’ she says and grits her teeth. Bruce is her assistant marketing director and a pushover, does whatever people tell him. Her boss always praises Bruce highly, says she should listen to his ideas more often, but all of Bruce’s ideas originate with her boss.

‘You’re too uptight,’ says her boss. ‘You need to relax.’

‘I’m spending half of my time in the bathtub,’ she says.

‘I don’t want you coming in until you’ve gone two weeks without an episode,’ he says.

She grimaces but agrees to keep working remotely since he has something of a point and she doesn’t want to burn the company down.

Spontaneous combustion is also not good for a marriage, though her husband tries to be understanding, comes home sometimes over his lunch hour so they can have a tryst. They sit naked on the edge of the tub filled with hot water and bubble bath. He stares at the suds, arms crossed.

‘We don’t have to if you’re not in the mood,’ she says even though she’s really in the mood. When she was working sixteen hour days she was always too tired for sex, promised him they’d do it “tomorrow.” She didn’t think their sex life could have gotten much worse than it was then. Of course she was wrong.

‘The tub is too damn small,’ he says.

‘You’d rather risk setting the bed on fire?’ says the combusting woman.

‘It might be more satisfying,’ he says.

She shrugs and slides into the tub because it’s a shame to waste a nice bubble bath. He sighs but follows her in, him on top and her on the bottom for safety reasons. It’s bad sex. He mutters about his butt being cold and neither of them climax because they’re twisting around, too frustrated to make an effort at passion. Afterwards they sit side by side on the edge of the tub again, dripping and cold.

‘I should get back to work,’ he says.

She feels a spot of tension in her left leg by her knee, gets back into the cold water anticipating flame. After he is gone she towels herself off, sits on the closed toilet with her laptop and stares at an e-mail from Bruce without reading it. She thinks her husband wants to have a child. He’s been leaving catalogues open to pages with baby clothes, collecting toy store ads from the paper and keeping them in piles by the couch, saying there is too much sugary cereal in the house for him to eat alone. She says she’ll bring home less from now on. He grimaces and buys video games.

That evening he comes home with yet another game, plays it in the living room after supper while she sits on the couch with her laptop and a bucket of damp towels. As he kills dragons and evil dwarves she wonders why she married a man who was five years younger. It made sense when he was twenty-three and she was twenty-eight and both of them worked at the bank, were both just starting out. He said he was happy at the bank teller job, didn’t want to move up. Just before they married she landed her job marketing breakfast cereal. It was a good arrangement, she thought. She wanted to advance and he wanted to stay in one place.

‘Do you have to keep working?’ he says from his dwarf-killing spree in front of the television. ‘You’re not even at the office but you’re still acting like it.’

‘I’m going to have to be on top of things when I get back,’ she says. She gets frustrated at him sometimes for wanting to change things. They laid out the rules in the beginning – he would make dinner, she would work longer hours, they wouldn’t have kids. He lives in a house that is seventy-five percent hers, drives a car that is seventy-five percent hers, enjoys the pool that is seventy-five percent hers. They still owe money on everything and so she has to keep working as much as she does, but selling things is her job, what she loves, and she’s good at it.

After she’s been working at home for a month, her boss calls to say he is making Bruce Temporary Acting Vice President of Marketing and her position is being changed to Off-Site Marketing Consultant. She knows this just means Bruce can call her if he feels like it.

‘I’ve been getting almost everything done from home,’ she tells her boss over the phone. ‘I don’t see why we can’t keep this up until I return to work.’

‘We someone who can be in the office,’ he says and she can picture his shrug, his slight smile. ‘The position will still be here when you come back.’ She knows her job is as good as lost. He is always waiting for her to mess up so he can pounce, criticize her, even though their arguments are quiet, hissed whispers in the corner of a conference room.

She stomps to her car and is going to drive to the office, confront her boss, burn a few boxes of cereal for good measure, but halfway down the block her wrist ignites, burns the cushion on the passenger seat before she can put it out with a damp towel. She has to turn around, go home to ice the blister. By the time her husband comes home she is a little calmer, tells herself the combusting will end soon, she will be able to return to work and reclaim her job.

Because she’s just working part-time at the company her salary is cut in half. There are still car payments, the mortgage, and medical bills insurance won’t cover. She sits in the bathtub and frets. The fires come more frequently, are even more painful.

Then the talk show producers start calling. She knows she shouldn’t say yes, that the whole thing will just be sensationalized and the money isn’t as good as it should be for her to ignite on national television, but things are tight so she books herself on five of them.

The day before the first taping in New York she’s sitting in the hotel bathroom talking to her husband on the phone when she feels tension in her arm, hangs up so she can douse herself in the tub. Right before she quenches the flame she sees it is higher than usual and she could swear there’s a tiny figure in the fire, its body glowing blue, the color of the hottest part.

Before the taping she meets Jill, a guest on the show who’s a woodburner and does reproductions of famous works of art. She’s on the show because of a project she’s doing for charity, toast art. She toasts bread slices quite dark and uses knives to scrape away bits of brown stuff, create miniature art reproductions. Mona Lisa. Birth of Venus. Drowning of Ophelia. Jill says it’s like woodburning, an art of lights and darks, just reductive rather than additive. She’s going to be doing an installation at the Met, reproducing Degas’ ballet dancers in toast, a fifteen-foot-high grid of strategically scraped slices. She asks the combusting woman if she ever thought of using her fire for woodburning. The combusting woman shakes her head no. Jill gives the combusting woman her card anyway, says to call her if she ever wants to try it.

The show itself is a fiasco. She tries to ignite and the host is smiling too big and the audience members who paid for the privilege of watching her burn are sitting forward in their chairs. She concentrates on her right arm and it’s perfectly quiet and nothing happens for ten minutes. In the end they have to roll taped footage and she’s horribly embarrassed. It’s like that for all five shows. She ends up on the cover of all the tabloids and some of the nightly news programs haul experts out dank laboratories, experts who claim people really can’t catch fire, that this is all a publicity stunt since she couldn’t combust when put to the test of public scrutiny. The combusting woman doesn’t know how many people believe the tabloids, how many believed she was catching fire in the first place, but the accusations hurt. It’s rather like having a massive head wound and no one believing she’s bleeding all over the place.

Three days after the shows air, her boss calls and tells her that she’s fired.

‘I’ve been watching the news,’ he says, ‘I knew it was just a ruse.’

‘Ruse my ass,’ she says, which probably isn’t the best thing to say since she’s trying to keep her job. ‘I’m catching on fire.’

‘It’s physically impossible,’ he says. ‘That’s what all of the experts say. I don’t know what sorts of chemicals you’re using, but you’ve had your chance to stop.’

‘I nearly killed myself over the company for the past thirteen years,’ she says. ‘Seventy-hour weeks. You can’t just let me go like this.’

‘You’re a liar,’ he says and hangs up.

The combusting woman drives to the office, makes it all the way there before she catches fire in the parking lot, puts herself out with a damp towel from the bucket of them she keeps in the front seat. She storms through the swinging glass doors and sees Bert at the front desk, the secretary who has four grandkids and weightlifts in her spare time.

‘I’ve been fired,’ the combusting woman announces, ‘and I’ve come to clean out my office.’ She sweeps past Bert before the secretary can register anything more than a concerned expression. Of course the combusting woman does not stop at her office door but continues down the hall to her boss’s office, barges through the door. He is on the phone, takes it from his ear and muffles it against his shirt.

‘Do you mind?’ he says. ‘We can talk about severance pay later.’

‘Bastard,’ says the combusting woman. She stands in the center of his office and tries to catch fire, tenses her arms, tenses her legs, pictures her whole body ablaze, but to no avail.

‘Bert,’ yells her former boss while the combusting woman is still frantically trying to ignite. The secretary appears in the office door just as the combusting woman has given up hope of catching flame and is instead lunging for her boss’s desk, planning to belt him. Bert grabs her arm just in time, hauls her out the door and down the hall. The combusting woman struggles. Bert’s grap on her arm is not hard, not painful, but she is a sizable woman and could probably beat up the boss herself if she felt like it.

When they reach the front lobby the combusting woman finally feels pressure in her arm, says, ‘Let go for God’s sake I’m going to ignite.’ Bert obliges but block’s the combusting woman’s path back down the hall.

‘Not that I like him too well,’ she whispers, ‘but I’m concerned over legal repercussions for you.’

The combusting woman catches fire near her right elbow, doesn’t have any damp towels. She looks left, looks right, straightens her arm and smothers the flame on the white wall. It makes a nice dark smear. The combusting woman grazes her warm elbow with her fingers and nods. Extinguishing the flame like that, marking the cool white surface, feels hard and satisfying. She thinks of Jill the woodburner.

‘Well, shit,’ says Bert. She grabs some fliers from her desk about an upcoming company picnic and tapes one to the wall over the burned spot. ‘You just get yourself home now before anything else happens.’

The combusting woman thanks her and scoots out the swinging glass doors. In her car she is calmer, figures it was for the best that Bert pulled her away from her boss and assault and battery charges. She stops at lumberyard on the way home and buys plywood, a full eight by four sheet that she has cut into foot-square pieces. This takes longer than she thinks it should and so it’s after five when she arrives back home. Her husband is already there.

‘God, I was worried about you,’ he says, crushing her in a hug that hurts her elbow.

‘I’m fine, let go,’ she says, pushing him away a bit. ‘You hit a sore spot.’

He holds her at arm’s length and his eyes get hard. ‘You were out driving. You know I don’t want you to drive.’

‘The bastard fired me,’ she says. ‘I had to go to the office and clean out my stuff.’

‘You could have waited,’ he says, gripping her arms tight. ‘I could have done it. You shouldn’t be driving. Too dangerous.’

She wrests herself out of his grip. ‘If I stay in the house all the time I’m going to go crazy,’ she says.

‘You could hurt people,’ he says, stepping toward her again but she turns and goes back to her car, gathers the plywood in her arms and stomps into the house with a three-foot stack of boards.

They eat a quiet dinner and sit in the living room afterward, him playing video games and her on the couch reading a magazine and waiting to burn. When she feels the pressure she grabs a board, waits until the flames erupt on her thigh, and rolls the panel back and forth across her leg. It smothers the flame quickly. The wood doesn’t char dark but there are attractive brown tones, burn marks like three-inch beige explosions. She limps to the kitchen to make an ice pack, sits back down on the couch with the ice and the wood and a black pen.

‘What the hell are you doing?’ he says from in front of the television.

‘Art,’ she says. She plays off the grain of the wood, the char marks, add lines and dots for embellishment. Before she is finished a spot near her elbow ignites. She blots it out on the second piece of wood. It feels better than water somehow, more physical. She is killing the flame herself instead of dousing it. And it is good to have a project, to sit on the couch and draw though her limbs ache. She always rather liked art in high school but didn’t take any classes in college, her business courses kept her busy enough and she thought art was a bit impractical. She wonders if Jill finds woodburning this satisfying even though she doesn’t create the fire herself.

In a week the combusting woman has completed eighteen panels, take a stack to show the owner of a local art gallery.

‘I’ve read about you in the paper,’ says the gallery owner as they sit in her office, her eyebrow raised. The combusting woman furrows her brow, still hates it when people are skeptical of the flames. Then she feels the tension in her wrist. She shows the gallery owner her eighteen wood panels after putting out the flames with a cup of cold coffee. The gallery owner’s eyes are wide and the combusting woman doesn’t know if it’s because of her art or her flames. The gallery owner offers her a contract for a show to be held in a month.

‘People will go crazy for stuff like this,’ she says.

When the combusting woman tells her husband about her success he yells at her for driving. ‘I don’t see why you can’t just wait until I come home,’ he says, waving an unadorned plywood panel at her.

‘I’m going crazy by myself in the house all day,’ she says. ‘I’m careful. I’m safe. I pull over if I feel anything.’

‘And what happens when you’re caught in traffic?’ he says. ‘What happens when you fumble the towel? What happens if there’s ever a time the flame won’t go out?’

She storms out of the house and burns all his toy ads in the backyard using flames that sprout from her hip. When she comes back inside he’s playing video games, killing evil elves.

Two days later the figures start emerging from the char marks, suggestions of arms, legs, heads, torsos. The tiny bodies are darker than the surrounding char and maybe four inches high. She outlines them in black when she sees them. They are running, flying, crouching, jumping. They are in motion. The gallery owner loves the tiny people.

‘How do you do that?’ she says, but the combusting woman doesn’t know. She thinks the pain is more intense when the people emerge, but that could just be her imagination.

Her show is ready to open in a month. The gallery owner helps her choose the best twenty-five panels. She knows about working the media, calls papers and radio stations and television stations, assures the gallery will be stuffed with cameras and lights and all sorts of reporters. The combusting woman wears a short sleeveless black dress, suggested by the gallery owner, to showcase the blisters.

‘I don’t find them very attractive,’ she says to the gallery owner.

‘But they add authenticity to your art,’ says the gallery owner, patting her hand.

On opening night the combusting woman keeps a bucket of damp towels and a piece of wood by her side, figures the photographers and cameramen are praying for her to ignite. Everyone wants to touch her arms and she has to grab their fingers, shake their hands before they graze the blisters. The gallery owner priced all her work and the combusting woman thought she was asking too much, but eight pieces sell. Local television reporters are there and the show is on the eleven o’clock news that night. In a day the story is picked up by state news organizations and then the national news. The combusting woman sends Jill an article from the local paper, says they should get together and chat sometimes. The talk shows start calling again, asking for appearances. Jill calls as soon as she receives the article in the mail. She says she is working on a toast installation project at the Met, wants to take the combusting woman around New York when she is there.

‘I don’t think you should try this again,’ says her husband as they sit side by side on her air mattress in the bathroom where she still sleeps. ‘You could get hurt again. Embarrassed.’

‘I’ll be fine,’ she says but thinks he grips her hand too tightly.

She’s on all the same talk shows but with a stack of plain boards by her side instead of the towel bucket. She manages to combust twice, smother the flames against wood, and the audience loves it. She’s offered a few thousand dollars on the spot for the unadorned boards, grits her teeth and ices the wounds as art collectors sign their checks.

In her hotel room she notices the figures are becoming even more distinct. On the charred wood she can see them interacting, arms and legs extended, touching. At first she thinks they’re dancing, but when she holds the board closer she can see they’re punching, kicking. The pain and tension before she catches fire is intensifying though the blisters are no worse than before. She sits in a hotel bathtub filled with ice cold water, takes aspirin, calls doctors who still can’t explain anything.

She has lunch with Jill who takes her around to eight New York galleries, all of which want to sell her work. Jill insists that the combusting woman show the gallery owners three of the newest panels, the ones with figures fighting. The owners love them, want as many as the combusting woman can supply.

‘That interaction,’ says Jill, ‘that’s what people want.’

‘It’s kind of disturbing,’ says the combusting woman.

‘You have to balance doing what you want and doing what the art world will support,’ Jill says. But the combusting woman thinks it’s not a question of balance since she doesn’t have a choice in the matter, can only decide whether to quench the flames with water or smother them on wood. The latter is more satisfying, but the tiny people who emerge in the wood grain are screaming, crying, writhing in pain, punching each other. She can’t stop them.

‘They’re so visceral,’ says one art dealer, fingering a panel in which one figure is stabbing another. The combusting woman doesn’t want to look at the figures but she can’t help it, has to sit down with each new panel and a pen and make every gruesome limb more distinct.

When she arrives back home she has orders from ten galleries for work. She keeps maple and cherry boards in the kitchen, spends most of her time doing art there because the floor is tiled instead of carpeted. She’s flaming with wars, battle scenes, three or four a day. Gallery owners leave messages on the answering machine, ask when she can ship them more panels. She drives to the grocery after Kip leaves for work because they’re out of milk. In the produce section her upper arm catches fire and she can’t stop it in time, the flames are too high, burn the sleeve and shoulder before she can smother them. She has to call her husband to come get her.

‘You could have waited for the damn milk,’ he says once they’re in the car.

‘I’m a grown woman,’ she says, ‘I can make decisions for myself.’

‘Even if they’re fucking stupid?’ he says.

‘It’s fucking stupid to be in the house all day like a fucking invalid.’

‘We haven’t done as much as we could yet to figure out what’s causing this,’ he says.

‘I don’t know what else to do,’ she says.

‘It’s too disturbing,’ he says. ‘Those people. I don’t like seeing the panels in the living room.’

‘I can’t help it,’ she says, ‘My thigh has been aching for the past two hours. You think I like that?’

He just shakes his head.

She drives herself to the museum and seeks out paintings with scenes of war, wonders why artists would paint such things, raised swords and gaping wounds, lifeless bodies and screaming mouths. Darkness. She wonders if they even had a choice, if they felt the same way she does, the desperate and hypnotic bodies emerging from her skin because she has no choice.

She dreams of being consumed by fire, watches the flames from her body waver before her eyes, bright people killing each other.

Her work keeps selling and the price increases, floats into the tens of thousands of dollars. She can’t understand it, tries a couple times to stop combusting because the pain, the pressure, is too intense, but she has to keep going, see each new scene, render each new atrocity in black. She hates that these people are emerging, hates that she lets them emerge, that she has to let them emerge. It is a compulsion. She hates it that people like the wood burnings as much as they do. Eventually the pain gets so intense that she has to lie down and recover after completing each piece. More often than not when her husband gets home she is on the couch in the living room, a pile of plain boards by her side and a new piece still smoldering slightly on the kitchen counter.

‘You’re killing yourself,’ he says when he arrives home on the night of another gallery opening, finds her icing her thigh in the living room. ‘You have to stop this. There’s going to be nothing left of you. We shouldn’t go to the opening tonight. We should stay here and call more doctors.’

She glances at the toy store ads piled at the end of the couch. If there is nothing left of her he can’t have a kid. That’s all he cares about really. Not her. Not her career or her pain. Just a baby. She feels the pressure building in her arm.

‘I’ll drive to the damn gallery opening myself if I have to,’ she says, wresting her body up from the couch. She starts walking to the stairs and up to their bedroom to change clothes for the opening. She plans on wearing her little black dress, the short one that highlights the blisters.

‘We shouldn’t go,’ he says and grabs her upper arm. She swivels and he doesn’t let go. She is angry, feels herself willing the fire to burst, to burn him. The tension builds in her arm and she screams ‘Let go,’ and he does the second before she ignites.

‘What the hell,’ he yells as she is burning.

‘I can’t control it,’ she yells back and smothers her arm against the wall, the floral wallpaper that smears with char. Both of them stand and stare at the mark. He doesn’t yell like she expects him to, just touches her shoulder, and his hand is shaking terribly. They both are, their whole bodies in tiny convulsions.

They drive to the opening together but silent. For a half-hour they mingle and nod and exchange fake pleasantries with patrons of the arts. She’s holding a little plate of hors d’ouvres, smiling blandly at woman and her husband who own three of her works, when she feels the tension in her forearm. She barely has time to put the plate down before her skin erupts fire, a four-inch flame. It feels like she’s being gouged with a knife. She can see the figures inside, one choking another. She panics, looks around for a piece of wood or a damp cloth, something to put the fire out, but then she realizes no one is coming to her aid, everyone is just staring, transfixed by her arm and the tiny bodies. She grabs the cup of punch from the lady standing across from her, pours it on her arm, sighs with the coolness. Everyone is staring at her and the plastic cup in her hand. She sees all of their eyes are just a little angry.