Total Loss: A Column About Inventorying Other People’s Tragedies
Stef Willen works for the leading West Coast natural disaster company. Her thorough inventory of everything in a burned-down home or business helps owners receive fair settlements from their insurance company. She planned on doing it for a couple of months. Then a couple more. Then maybe long enough to write a book about it. Now it’s what she does, and she gets a decent paycheck if someone’s charred dwelling is at least 3,500 square feet. If they are a clinical hoarder, she doesn’t have to work for the rest of the month.
I Have a Sneaking Suspicion You Burnt Your Own House Down, Or Maybe You Just Give Me the Creeps.
BY Stef Willen
Before Timothy Mumford’s house burned partially to the ground, my relationship with energy was defined by my loose understanding of physics. Energy was the potential of something to do work, and it involved equations that corresponded to the different types, like kinetic, thermal and electromagnetic. But energy was not “bad.” People who told me about “bad energy” only told me they were inarticulate, and that perhaps they did pointless things like walk around a perfectly fine home waving a wad of burning sage. Then, I set foot inside the doorway of Mr. Mumford’s charred home, and I had no other way to describe the invisible heavy force that hovered all around me and prickled beneath my skin.
I met Mr. Mumford at his boyfriend’s house. The adjuster for his claim had sent me an advisory e-mail that morning: “20% of the contents are still there. Mold is starting to set in (USE A MASK!). Mr. Mumford is a bit weird, but he has a lot of pre-loss photos to go over with you. Enjoy your weekend!”
Because I’d figured the adjuster to be something of a homophobe, I figured his “Mr. Mumford is a bit weird” stood for “Mr. Mumford is a bit gay.” And he was. He greeted me with what can only be described as a cross between a curtsy and a tip of the hat. He was in his mid fifties, and while he was flamboyantly gay in expression, his clothes were plainly Costco. He was so skinny that his braided leather belt held his Kirkland jeans to his waist like they would to a scarecrow’s—hanging a bit too high and bunched up in all the wrong places.
The fact sheet from the insurance company stated he was unemployed, but Timothy told me he was a dentist. I noticed he had great teeth. Then I pictured myself prone in his chair, my dry mouth forced open with hard metal bits, and his gaunt skull wrapped with albino skin descending down on me with unblinking, grey eyes. Yikes. Okay, he kind of creeped me out. But he had just lost roughly 80% of his belongings, so I felt sorry for him and got ready to take notes on his recollections of everything he’d owned that was now burnt to a crisp.
Our half hour meeting consisted of him making sudden and unnecessary arm movements, shuffling through piles of paper and not finding what he was looking for, then getting up and pouring himself another cup of decaf and popping a pill he promised would help with his ADHD. Every now and then he’d click buttons on his computer, which led him to still not finding what he was looking for. I finally suggested he keep looking while I go and do the physical inventory at his home. Mumford seemed relieved and drew me a detailed map of where his key was hidden (under the rock to the right of the doormat).
Protected by my Tyvek disposable suit and toxic dust respirator, I turned the key in his lock, but the door was warped by water from the sprinklers or the firefighter’s hose, so I had to kick it in. I felt tough. I stepped into the remains of his home. It was a sinking step. I’d put my foot down on soggy carpet, but it was something else—something unsettling. Something didn’t feel right. I trusted this feeling, because in the way that others begin their days with a sales meeting in the conference room, my routine is kicking my way into other people’s four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath debris piles. I know what to expect.
With one hand on the doorknob I switched my headlamp on and turned my head from left to right, doing a slow sweep of his front room, catching little piles of unidentifiable lumps in its faint yellow beam. I needed more light. I propped his front door open by jamming his welcome mat underneath, then located two windows and tried to pull the curtains to the side. They were a polyester blend and had melted stiff, so I yanked them down, snapping Mumford’s walnut curtain rods in half. Nice bright sunny light streamed in, and I saw that I was standing in a room that had been sparsely decorated in modernist style. I recorded the two curtains and the rods into my Dictaphone, then moved onto Mumford’s French art deco bookshelves and began inventorying books and counting his CDs.
The feeling that something wasn’t right returned the moment I moved into the darker recesses of his house. I located all the windows, running to them in the dark and tearing off their curtains so hazy light shone through the sooty glass. Then I came up with a game plan. I’d do the scariest rooms first so I could get them out of the way and spend less time feeling the heavy, shapeless darkness.
In an utterly unscientific manner, I deduced that Mumford’s master bedroom was the scariest. The corners were pitch black, and a skylight cast a hazy beam of light flecked with floating and swirling ash directly onto the center of his bed. Some of the floorboards were burned completely through in spots, exposing peepholes into the black abyss that was the foundation of Timothy Mumford’s home.
I started with the near-impossible task of inventorying his piles of semi-burnt clothing strewn around the room. I immersed myself in the tedium of tearing each piece from its melted plastic hanger, searching for a label with my headlamp’s fading beam and methodically describing the fabric. If there was something bad and creepy in the room, my antidote was hearing my own voice and its nonstop steady stream of drivel spoken into my recorder and shuttled into the darkness: “Poly-mix button-up dress shirt, long sleeve, no label. Wool dress pants, silk-lined, no label. Kirkland jeans. Kirkland cotton undershirts, six of ’em.”
An hour later, I moved onto the next four scariest rooms: the hall, the guest bedroom, the kitchen, and the dining room. It was is this last room, when I was in the vulnerable position of lying on my back under the dining room table searching for a designer’s name, that I heard a noise. The sound wasn’t a normal burned-down house sound, like wind blowing through the missing parts of the roof and fluttering the yellow caution tape or rustling the burnt leaves of a potted ficus. It was unmistakably human. It was the soft padding of feet slowly making their way down the hall.
I got up carefully, avoided crunching shards of glass from the broken curio cabinet doors, and tiptoed across the room. I picked up a broken wooden chair leg and peered into the hall. At the very end, backlit from sunlight, I saw the black silhouette of tall, skinny man carrying a large, perhaps plastic, bag.
“Hi there, Timothy, I’m just about done in here… you had beautiful things,” I said casually, in an effort to nudge things from eerie to bonhomie. As I walked toward him, Mumford turned his back to me and made several fake attempts to set down what was now coming into focus as a large, full plastic garbage bag.
“Oh gee, I— " Mumford said staring into his bag.
I tried to see what was in the bag, but could only make out boxy shapes.
“If you are taking that I should make sure I inventoried it already…”
In one quick, autistic flutter of his arms, he reached into the bag and shoved a yellow and red cardboard box squarely at my face. It read “Preparation H Anti-itch Relief Hydrocortisone Cream 1%.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, taking several seconds to realize that the whole bag was full of Preparation H. Several more seconds passed before I understood that Timothy Mumford had crept into what remained of his home and was trying to sneak out with a trashcan-sized amount of hemorrhoid treatment.
Timothy said he figured the ointments were still good because they were all in unopened boxes and made quick strides toward his front door. I followed him for a moment, then stopped and yelled, “You can totally take those, but it’s really not recommended. I mean, once they’ve been exposed to a fire…”
He didn’t reply, he only moved the full bag into his left hand, raised his right and waved goodbye with a delicate wriggle of his fingers. I made my way to my final room, his garage. I was excited about this room—not only because I could open the garage door and be flooded with light—but, as I’d suspected, the garage wasn’t brimming with complicated tools whose names elude me. It was just abounding with bug sprays and pest killers. I spent twenty minutes taxing my vocal chords with “Raid Ant Baits roman numeral three, Raid Flee Killer Plus Flogger, Ortho Home Defense Max,” when I decided to simply count the bottles and give five examples of brands. I had counted somewhere into the mid-twenties, when my cell phone rang and I lost count.
It was the friend who introduced me to this business that had me hatching strategic plans for counting insecticides. She also happened to be my boss.
“What are you doing?” She didn’t even say hello.
“I’m in the client’s garage counting stuff, why?”
“I need you to leave immediately,” she said. “I’ll explain later.”
I was ordered to not meet with the client or contact him in any way. I was to drive my car away from the property and call her back. Nothing seemed like a better idea.
Once I was safely parked at a nearby strip mall, I called her and learned that the results from the fire investigation had just come in: The cause was accelerants, and the origin was the master bedroom. The adjusters had dropped the claim because Timothy Mumford was suspected of arson.
As I made my way to the airport, a deep pity for Mumford welled up in me. I pictured him waiting for me, nervously swallowing gulps of coffee while perched on the edge of his swiveling office chair. I imagined his bony knees making sharp peaks in his jeans, which raised his pant legs just enough to reveal white tube socks. I thought about him clicking buttons on his keyboard and still not finding what he was looking for.
Yeah, he probably did it, but I felt sorry for him. Had I known all along he’d done it? Did the amorphous heavy dark thing tell me? Maybe there had been a subconscious notation of all the little differences between his and other torched homes. Perhaps his house was too neat and lacking in costly items and personal papers, like maybe someone had methodically removed valuables the night before, leaving a few decoys behind. Then, perhaps somebody got up the next morning, dribbled ignitable fuel all over his bedroom floor, lit something and took off in an awkward, almost sweet trot.
Or, maybe I wanted to believe I had something deep inside me that told me when something wasn’t good, but the truth is, I’m so oblivious to crime that I sat on it, gently. Maybe I took a break, leaned up against Mumford’s bed, lowered myself onto the floor, directly down onto a localized burn pattern, grabbed a nearby item and recorded its existence, “Bamboo backscratcher, 12 inches.”
Timothy Mumford was convicted of arson by a jury of his peers.
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