When the Burdys’ house burned down again—almost exactly a year after the first time it burned down—I was doing something stupid. I don’t remember what it was, but it was dumb. Perhaps I was in the shower collecting my stray hairs and drawing them into a perfect little heart on the tile, like when I was in college and my roommate pushed aside the vinyl curtain and told me our friend’s parents just died in a car accident. I’d rehearsed my condolences: “I’m so sorry, Amy… I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I’m here if you need me.” Instead, I walked briskly past her in the lonely, carpeted tunnel of our dorm, and said, “Hey!”
Ten years later, I’m supposed to be a professional at disaster relief, and “Hey!” is still the best I can do. I called Marci Burdy, who I had not spoken to since the last time her house burned down, and said “Hey, it’s Stef…” Several gushy heart-felt phrases pulsed in my head, but I went with “from… last year.” There was some muffled noise, and then her son came on. He told me that now was not a good time, that Marci had gotten shingles from the stress. Then it sounded like the phone was handed to someone in the Jurassic Period. Ancient animal-like screeching pierced my ear. I recognized the primordial din to be Marci breaking down.
When I’d last seen Marci, she was jumping up and down and promising we’d drink beer on the new bigger and better porch. Her husband Bill had pointed at the ash field, outlining bigger and better with his index finger. Months later, I heard Bill had built bigger and better himself, sweating into his T-shirt, dropping the hammer on his feet, getting large splinters in his rough hands—all for nothing. The time spent picking out trim, sconces, waterproofing the deck, picturing friends drinking wine at their bench-top bar while watching them cook with much more counter space—all reduced to ash in 30 minutes.
Like the first time their house burned down, it took the volunteer fire trucks a half hour to reach the source of the smoke. Windy mountain roads were to blame. Or the Burdys for living so far out. Or the city council for not putting a volunteer fire department closer. Or God, who I hoped the Burdys didn’t believe in because what was the take-home message? Or maybe they just blamed each other like couples do when tragedy strikes so unnecessarily or so often that one begins to wonder if there’s something intrinsically wrong with their love.
Of course there is always an explanation. There is no spontaneous combustion. There’s a pile of oil-soaked rags and a chemical reaction. Too much linseed oil, a plan to create a painting of a kitten smelling some roses gone terribly wrong. Marci’s oil painting supplies, which she stored in the garage, were the prime suspects of the last fire, although this was never proven. This year’s fire had also started in the garage. The fire investigator’s report noted the presence of accelerants, meaning the Burdys were either criminals or victims of arson—perhaps twice now.
Since they were under heavy scrutiny by their insurance company, I was told to do an extra-thorough job. I was also assured it shouldn’t take long, as all they’d moved into their new home were small appliances and heirlooms—a steamer trunk from the 1800s full of their grandparents’ most cherished items. From this fact alone, I thought the Burdys were innocent. If you were going to burn down your brand new house as soon as you rebuild it and try to collect, you don’t move in faded love notes and priceless grainy photos from a long time ago because your insurance company is only going to pay you for the frames. Then you’ll have to prove the frames were antique and ornate and that the photos were double-matted at this expensive framing place, and by the time you get to this point, you begin to hate your existence and no longer wish to prove it. Also, I just knew the Burdys were innocent. As I later testified in an overly air-conditioned building at their deposition, “If Marci and Bill Burdy burned down their home as soon as they rebuilt it, then all my instincts about humans are wrong.”
I pulled into the Burdys’ driveway and saw the same depressing scene I saw almost exactly a year before: a cramped RV sagging on its tires, a half acre’s patchwork of black and grey sprouting a lone brick chimney, and field of oblivious emus. I had no clue what to say to people like the Burdys. A house burning down twice in almost the same year is absurd.
Their driveway was 40 feet long, but walking nervously down it with our company logo stitched somewhere very close to my heart felt like my whole first two years in L.A. when I’d fashioned myself an actress. I’d sent myself on countless auditions then, wearing things I’d never wear, memorizing things I’d never want to say, and staring at matronly casting directors and delivering lines like, “Hey, handsome.”
The door to the RV creaked open and Marci appeared 30 pounds heavier and with oozing sores on her face. The same ridiculous high ponytail fountained out of her head, and she smiled big and toothy, blinked, then began petting her ceramic mug of steaming liquid. She was the picture of crazy. An unreasonable amount of silence passed before I realized I’d have to be the first one to speak.
“Hi! I said. “It’s so good to see you, you look great!” I hadn’t even rehearsed this line. I cribbed it from women in general. Women everywhere. Usually women trying to override the awkwardness of seeing a particular woman. But Marci was so gorked, she didn’t respond like most women and chirp, “You too!” She just stood there petting her cup, smiling and blinking. I wished someone somewhere would yell “cut!” Then Bill’s head came into the RV’s doorframe and saved us.
“Hello! We’ve had a tough morning,” he said laughing. “But we’re ready for you. Got all our receipts of things that were in the house, and Marci made some lists of items that—”
“I don’t know what they want Bill.” Marci said, teetering between sighing and giggling. I took “they” to mean me, although it could’ve meant so many things. Moments later, I sat in front of their table and what appeared to be stacks of semi-organized folders sprouting receipts and thought that perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad. There would be some adding and subtracting, some bundling of paper with rubber bands, a few sarcastic comments about disaster never striking twice in the same spot, some small talk about what their emus were up to, and then I’d be on my way. But after five minutes, disaster struck precisely in the same place when Marci lunged at the table just as she had last year.
“Marci! Marci! Marci!” Bill shouted, then buried his face in his hands. Marci began pounding her fists and forearms on the table, sending paper and hours of organization into the air. I turned away in my chair like a kid. Then, as it seems there is with most episodes of sheer pandemonium, a moment of calm rationality arrived, and I reached for an open bottle of Honest Tea that was about to fall and said, “Hold on.” Marci paused, forearms poised for their next crash, said “Thanks,” then continued swinging her fleshy bats. After a few final thwacks, she began stomping around the narrow pathway between the living room and bedroom, snagging her love handles on sharp corners and knobs, alternating between screaming “Ouch!” and “Freakin’ hell!” The RV began rocking back and forth on its tires, and the crescendo hadn’t even happened yet. The crescendo happed when Bill slammed his fist onto a nearby cupboard, releasing the door catches and sending the pullout spice rack to the floor. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme…
Marci stopped, and panted. They both stared at the floor. “I’ll get it, Burdy Bird,” she finally said, exhausted and somehow not embarrassed. But they both wordlessly bent down and began picking up the mess.
Things got easier from then on, if you define easier as something less rattling than watching a couple completely lose it in a Class C recreational vehicle. Bill and I organized the lists and receipts and Marci decided to go outside and hunt around in the rubble for pieces of things she once owned whole. I thought maybe last year was a fluke, but, once again, Marci uncovered the remains of her stuff with the geeky excitement of an archaeologist discovering puzzle pieces. She even ran up and tapped on the RV’s window, flopped her sunhat brim skyward, and stabbed her finger at some fragment, “Lookee!”
In the past, I’ve unwittingly helped three arsonists with their claims. They usually convey sadness or anger, or more appropriately, a blend of the two, and these emotions are no doubt real. But the complexity of emotion that swirled about the Burdys wasn’t something that could be plotted and pulled off. Marci’s untethered happiness digging around her disaster didn’t quite make sense, yet at the same time, it did.
I tried to convey all this at the deposition to the suits seated across the polished table from me. My efforts resulted in smug facial expressions and the moving of pencils down legal pads to the next question. They were the authorities on criminal nature and didn’t let emotions steer the evidence; that kind of thing was the province of amateurs like myself. So I told them something Bill and Marci had nonchalantly mentioned right before I’d left.
We were standing on the patio of a wood cabin on the Burdys’ property. The cabin was weedy and crooked, undulating between quaint and Ted Kaczynski—a place to make poetry or bombs. Bill explained that it used to be nice, but they’d rented it to a lazy alcoholic who stopped paying rent and let his dog shit inside. (One more thing I thought I knew about the Burdys at this point was that they were the types who didn’t make good choices.) Bill lamented that he’d hired the guy to do some house painting so he’d have rent money, but the guy was too slow for the hourly wage, so Bill fired him. This happened four months before the first house fire. The guy spent those four months smearing Bill Burdy’s name around town, then disappeared the day of the fire.
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard this before. “People are looking into this, right?” I wasn’t sure I should be talking about this to clients, or that I wasn’t asking a really obvious question.
“I don’t know,” Bill said, raking his hand through his thinning hair, seeming suddenly and thoroughly drained.
“Last we knew, he was traced to someplace in San Francisco,” Marci said, excitedly. She was still after-glowing from her field expedition. “But no one can find him. Asshole!”
“Huh.” I said, biting my lip like I was some detective who was getting some ideas about something, but mostly I was hoping they weren’t planning to rebuild in the same spot. “Well, time for our annual goodbye,” I joked, and to my relief, they laughed.
No one moved to hug anybody. We all just stood facing one another, perhaps half-believing in jinxing fate for the moment. “OK,” I said. “Let’s be real specific about where we say we’ll see each other again.”
“Have you ever been on highway 89 in Utah?” Marci asked. “It’s beautiful in the fall!”
“That’s not too specific, Marci,” Bill said, his mood lifted. “What about Bryce Canyon National Park? At the visitor center!”
“OK, deal,” I said, and found myself walking toward them with both arms outstretched, the approach of a group hug. This kind of thing is the antithesis of my personality, but the Burdys somehow tugged me away from my own “coolness.” Despite the countless awkward moments, there was something endlessly comfortable about them. They’re your parents. They’re people just trying to get their lives rebuilt so they can take the RV on the road and make it to the KOA before dark.
None of us knew that in six months, we would just miss one another on the 18th floor of a high-rise. I’d be in a cold conference room answering the same question put twenty different ways, and the Burdys would be sitting on a scratchy couch behind a fan of magazines they don’t read, waiting for their turn to go through more hell. They would be found not guilty.
“See you there,” I said getting into my rental car.
“See you there,” they said in unison.