Writing Exercise #4

Prompt: Describe a place you love by detailing its destruction. Or describe, as Denis Johnson does, a please your character loves. Nature could be the destructive force--fire or flood or the ravages of weather--but feel free to interpret the idea of destruction broadly. Consider the erosion of neglect and poverty, or the damage that comes with discovery, or the harm that's done in the name of improvement. Your setting could be anything from a hurricane-torn backyard to a city block that's being gentrified. My hope is that the parameters of the exercise will offer--even for those who, like me, are tentative writers of setting--a foolproof means of generating descriptions rich with both movement and feeling.

It started on the second story. He would be told it had been a home-made fire bomb, a Molotov. During the investigation, shards of broken glass would be found amongst the blackened metal skeleton of the thirty-five-dollar couch he’d gotten at a thrift store, and further analysis would indicate a napalm-like mixture had been the culprit. They would say a “thickening agent, like soap or baking soda” had been added to make sure the fire could spread. It had been thrown through one of the front windows—with luck just this side of ridiculous—to land on the sofa. It was absurd, but there wouldn’t be any signs of forced entry to explain the fire otherwise, and everything in the building had met code standards.

Three days after he came home to the howl of sirens and strobing emergency lights, the clouds of smoke so thick they coated his lungs the way the froth of a good cappuccino would coat his tongue, and the red, red, red of the trucks, the blood that stilled in his veins, and the fire that slithered its destructive path around everything he’d ever worked for, through every good memory he’d made, and destroyed the Eden he’d created as surely as a serpent, he sat on Ben’s couch and wondered how he’d tell his sisters. On his lap was the single thing he’d manage to filch from the cinders before the emergency workers chased him off: the stuffed dog that had been Ronnie’s companion since she was a girl. The dog was yellow, modeled after a lab, and nearly as big as Ronnie had been at the time. It was a gift from Cal for her fourth birthday.

As it sat in Cal’s lap, spared the total destruction the rest of the building couldn’t escape, its once yellow fur had dulled with age, but was now a dark gray where smoke and soot had stained it. It smelled like wet wood left to rot, and holes were burned into its fur, the pilled and well-worn material charred black and brittle along the edges. One ear was missing, rendered to ash before rescue, and the tail was a few stitches shy of being lost as well.

As Ben puttered around the kitchen to fix a meal, the running sink reminded him of the fire sprinklers that, yes, had activated just as they were meant to, but hadn’t been powerful enough to douse the flames that consumed his home and business. The curtains Abby had salvaged from the moth-eaten remains of old bed sheets—the ones she’d spent nearly an entire spring break to turn into a trendy patchwork of patterned cloth—were probably one of the first things to turn to catch and one of the biggest contributors to the fire’s spread; the material had thinned so much over the years, Cal couldn’t imagine them burning slow. The second-hand rugs found in each room, Cal knew, served as fuel for the fire. As surely as tracks directed a train, the throw rugs and patches of carpet lead the flames from room to room, consuming everything in its wake.

The scent of cellophane, curling and crisping as the fire stole every captured memory, had been lost once the café store room fell victim as well. Bags upon bags of varying roasts—a new shipment had arrived just two days prior—colored the devastation with the trivial olfactory signature of a busy day. Cal couldn’t recall the number of times a pot of brew had been forgotten and left to scorch, but the smell of it had wafted to him when he’d stood in the street, safely beyond the reach of the flames. It was a cruel that the innocuous smell of burnt coffee became indicative of something so ominous.

“Have you called the girls, yet?” Ben asked. He put a plate of chicken and rice on the coffee table in front of Cal, then joined him on the couch. He’d been considerate enough to bake the chicken instead of frying or grilling it, but the sympathetic bow to his brows was enough to make Cal want to punch him.

“Not yet.”