Torch House

Torch House
Jamie held up in the corrugated metal which formed the back wall of the abandoned building. The old man carefully shimmied through the opening. Once inside he held it open for her. A couple of pigeons nestled in the trussell’s overhead flew out to one of the broken windows. It was a long building, long now and narrow. Just inside the sheet metal entrance were two old mattresses on the floor. A few feet away from one of them stood the shelves which made up the chemical store. Between the two mattresses was a 55 gallon from the external paint burned off and told pile of wooden ashes inside. It was their heater. They wore matching navy blue coveralls.

Jamie: we got some good stuff here. Kitty will eat well tonight.
Peter: Yep, he’ll have a good one.

Jamie Pulled a two plastic bottles of water from the pockets of her pants. She set them on an old rusted desk that was missing one of one of its feet, now supported by two pieces of wood. Peter walked over to the desk and set down a large plastic bag. In orange and white striped tabby cat ran over and jumped onto the desk.

Jamie: calm down you’ll get some soon.

The cat butted her hand with its head. She rubbed its face and stroked the fur on its back. It responded the way cats respond, stretching itself in ecstasy. Peter open the plastic bag and took out a thick piece of steak. He reached inside of his coat and pulled out a long knife and proceeded to cut it into tiny pieces. As soon as the first bit of steak hit the white ceramic bowl the cat quit purring ecstasy in favour of food. Peter continued to cut the steak until he had about 12 pieces. Then he put the remainder back in the bag.

Jamie: he really likes that
Peter: yup

The sun was going down and it would be dark soon. It been a couple of days since the last time. Jamie hoped that maybe tonight was the right night again. They still had names on the list and some of them were close by. But she was never any good at predicting when he would want to do it. She walked over to the mattress on the left and sat down on it. She untied the boots that Peter had gotten for her. They were good boots, strong but not heavy. It’d taken him several days to steal them. Her previous shoes had been a pair of sneakers with a large tear down the side of the left shoe. They have long sense stopped any water or moisture from getting to her feet. When Peter it seen him he had placed a priority on replacing them. The new ones fit very well. They found them at an outside display rack of a shoe store in the five points area of town. It was a simple grab and run to get them. But Peter is old and can’t run fast anymore so he rode his bicycle. Jamie ran beside him for six blocks before they felt they had gotten away with it.

Jamie: I think I will read some, do you mind if I turn on the lamp?
Peter: no please do. It’s good for you to read.

She walked over to a backpack sitting on one of the shelves and unzipped it. From inside she removed a book, A People’s history of the United States. Peter insisted that she spent three hours each day reading. He carefully chose the books for her. She appreciated the thought he put into choosing them. Often he would read them in advance of giving them to her. This was the case with a People’s history. Best damn American history book ever was his opinion when he finished reading. She started on it the next day.
Peter didn’t talk much. Although at times he could be quite verbose. It just depended on the topic. If you are well-versed in it he would talk, if not he would listen. Jamie was full of questions and doubts as she read the history book. It seems to of been written about everyone who got screwed over in the deal. It made American history look ugly and messy. Jamie looked up from her book after a few minutes.

Jamie: is American history always so violent?
Peter: usually
Jamie: but it seems like it shouldn’t have been that way.
Peter: there’s never enough good people in the world.
Jamie: it’s kinda depressing. But I’m near the end of the chapter. A farewell to arms will seem like a vacation after this.
Peter: good, well hurry up
Jamie: why?
Peter: tonight we burn

Jamie smiled and pulled the kerosene lamp closer to her. These were her favorite nights. There seemed to be something righteous and cleansing to her in their ritual. She reminded herself that reading faster would mean that she would fail the discussion questions with Peter later. If she could not discuss today’s chapter sufficiently she would have to reread it until she could. It reminded her of her high school but less formal. The concentration was hard with the image of glorious fire running through her head. Fire had brought them together.

She had been inside of one of Peter’s targets when he arrived to burn it. She wondered if fire kept them together or merely only strengthened the bond. She first met Peter with a start, when he woke her in the middle of the night as she slept on the floor of foreclosed house. Her immediate reaction was to reach for her aluminum baseball bat but it was missing. Her bleary eyes could not make out his image immediately. Her first thought was that he was a much younger homeless man looking to wet his dick in her. She shoved him as hard as she could but his large frame barely moved. All he said was, ‘get your stuff, it’s time to go’. A moment later her eyes adjusted and she saw the elderly man and the Royal red cans of igniter. He stood up and she got up from the floor. ‘Go stand at the back kitchen door’ he instructed her. ‘But I am staying here’ she protested. ‘Not any more’ was his terse response. She complied. She stood the back door and watched him work. He poured fluid from two petrol cans and squirted it over the floor and walls of the house. He took a small vial from his pocket. He used it to squirt the liquid onto the bricks of the fireplace. As the liquid touched the bricks they began to smolder. With it he wrote a simple message: rusty cage. He worked his way back to the kitchen spraying his liquid onto the walls floor and counter. Then he walked back into the living room and poured a long thin trail of fluid all the way to the back door. They stood together at that door and jointly looked in one last time. He took a box of wooden matches from his pocket and turned to look at her.

Peter: do you want to?
Jamie: definitely! She took the matches from him.

And that’s how they came to live together. Jamie had tried to piece together Peter’s history but there were large holes. She knew that the houses they burned down had been repossessed by Bank of America. They were always Bank of America houses, no other banks. This was significant but she didn’t know how or why. She concluded that he was a disappointed customer. Despite his reluctance to talk about it Jamie had come to know that Peter had been married to the same woman for over 40 years. But she had died of cancer a couple of years ago. Tuesdays he would visit her grave. She could see him off in the distance talk to her, moving his arms as if in conversation with someone standing in front of him. Sometimes it was apparent he was arguing.

Peter was tall with broad shoulders. Most of the other homeless people in the city were scared of him. This made Jamie feel safe. Last week one of them tried to steal her backpack. Peter hit them hard. They did not get back up. He put a half eaten blueberry muffin from Starbucks and an orange in the unconscious man’s pocket before they left.

Peter had an exercise routine which he followed every morning when he woke up. It consisted of 100 push-ups, 100 situps, 100 squats and various stretching routines. Peter was in good shape. Despite this he could not overcome his age. In the far corner of the building at the other end away from the mattresses Peter had rigged a garden hose to a showerhead. Every morning after his exercise routine he would shower. He would reach up to the cutoff valve over the showerhead and the cold water would flow onto his naked body. The soap they used was stolen from Walmart. At first Jamie was worried that the fit elderly man permitted her to see him naked. He reminded her that the same people who told her it was wrong to look at a naked body told her a lot of other stupid shit too. When she showered he ignored her. Showering was much less of an ordeal since he had cut her hair short. She had never had short hair before but after a couple weeks decided she liked it. She also noticed that she got a lot less hassle from other homeless people with her hair cut short.

Peter had taught her the routine. From the weekly laundry run to steal clean coveralls from the delivery truck to the pattern of pilfering from local supermarkets to the best dumpster dives in the city, she had learned all of these over the first few weeks with him. She met the nice woman at the local library who chose books for Peter to read. She learned that the local foreclosure list came out every Wednesday.

Peter had not objected the first time she painted an empty wall with a spray can. He only insisted that she provide a message or art not simply tag the wall. Too egotistical he said. Art evenings always required hoodies and cans of silly string. The latter was used on any CCTV cameras in the area. He was particularly proud of her the night she spray-painted crime scene in letters 5 foot tall on the side wall of the main branch of Bank of America downtown. On the sidewalk in front of the Armed Forces recruitment center she had painted: war on terror? war is terror! Peter was very proud of her that night.

They did not mix with the other homeless people in the city. The other attracted too many cops. Peter with his size was an invitation for insecure cops to assert their masculinity while hiding behind a badge. Peter had seen one homeless person beaten senseless then charged with felony assault because he grabbed the cops arm that held the club beating him. Some of the homeless were just crazy, others adopted some sort of Ayn Rand survival sociopathy. Those were much more dangerous than the crazy ones. They would stab another person for a bottle of wine or a five dollar bill. But all in all Peter weighed it all up and concluded the cops were the larger threat.
They left the warehouse just after 11 PM that night. She had a can of red spray paint inside the deepest right pocket of the coveralls she was wearing. In her left pocket was a plastic squeeze bottle full of paint thinner. They came out of the tall weeds at the backside of the warehouse and headed down the street of the poor neighborhood. Peter had ensured that none of the streetlights in a two block radius of the warehouse were working. Safe entry and exit is always a good idea. They moved past the rundown houses occasionally seeing the flickers in the Windows indications that the cultural soma of television had hold of the occupants. They heard loud voices from one of the houses. They stopped to listen. The people in this house always argued about money or rather the lack of money. He heard the husband yelled at his wife that things were easier when he was in prison. Peter motioned to Jamie to start moving. Best give that husband-and-wife some privacy.

They walked the two miles to the house. They came up the street behind the house. Peter researched the sites carefully. This one had a wooded lot behind it. They would make their entrance and exit through it. The street was empty with only a few houses with lights on inside. Before stepping off the road Peter handed Jamie a set of shoe covers the kind they use in hospital surgeries rooms. They cinched up the shoe covers. They crossed the ditch into the wooded lot. The weeds were tall and Sugar Oaks trees filled the area. Jamie withdrew a slingshot from her back pocket. She placed the ball bearing in the leather end. She carefully aimed at the street light. She missed. In the quiet of the street she heard it hit the roof of the house one street over with a loud thud. Peter had made her practice with a slingshot for many hours in the warehouse.

Peter: you can do it. Judge the wind judge the drop

Jamie took another ball bearing from her top pocket. This time she slowed the process down before she fired. The high pressure sodium light bald exploded and sparks briefly shot out on the top of the bulb. She turned to Peter. He was smiling. They move through the tall grass and trees until they reach the back fence of the house. Peter handed two pairs of latex gloves. She put both of them on. He put two pair on his own hands. From his back pocket he pulled out one of those all-in-one tools that were so popular several years ago. He used it to pry off several boards of the wooden fence. They weren’t hard to remove as they were mostly rotten. As they worked their eyes adjusted to the darkness. Peter took off six of the boards. He wanted to ensure that there was plenty of space because they always moved fast when leaving. They moved inside the opening in the fence into the backyard where the once proud lawn of grass gave way to the inevitability of weeds. A rusted swing set sat to one side, the white plastic swing seats now covered in green scum .

Forcing the lock on the cheap aluminum door of the Florida room at the back of the house was easy. Jamie always liked this part. Her heart would be thumping 90 miles an hour whenever they entered a torch house. Peter would always print a copy of all the details of the house from the computer in the library. He would study them for days before making his choice. He would ride by his bicycle several times before making a decision. He avoided houses where the next-door neighbours like to stay up late. Jamie would study the pretty photographs of the torch house. She was always curious to see how much the photographer tried to lie. Usually they lied a lot. They walked past and abandoned gas barbecue grill. Peter pried open the sliding glass door from the Florida room to the interior of the house. Peter motioned for Jamie to start checking the other rooms of the house he walked towards the steps leading upstairs. Jamie walked to the rooms large and empty. If graveyards held dead bodies Jamie thought empty houses held dead histories. She looked at the stained floor, the linoleum depressed from a washer and dryer no longer there. The near new tall white hot water heater stood like the tusk of a dead elephant, a useless trophy and evidence that fortunes change quickly these days.

Peter came back downstairs. He smiled and that meant everything was all clear. He handed her one of the squirt bottles. They each took a decidedly room and squirted the fluid on the carpet and walls. They were careful and cautious in the use of the flammable liquid. Over the next five minutes they work as a team and all of the downstairs rooms of the house. They would be no need to do the upstairs, fire burns upwards. As they did one final walk-through of the rooms downstairs car lights appeared in the driveway. They moved quickly away from the line of flight. Peter held up his right hand. She watched the carefully. If he gave the signal she would run towards the back of the house as quickly as possible. Luckily it was just a car turning around. A couple of minutes later they were ready for what Jamie called the escape line, that thin line of fluid leading to the back door. Peter squirted the liquid from the wooden fireplace mantel at the front of the house to the back door of the house, stopping to cover wooden door frames along the way then back onto the floor to finish the escape line.

He handed Jamie the matches. She struck one of them and reached down and dropped it onto the escape line. She marveled at the beauty of the orange and blue flame as it moved along the line. At each doorframe the beautiful colors ran around the perimeter as the central line continued further into the house. She enjoyed the dance of color. A tap on her shoulder from Peter indicated it was time to go. They move through the door on the back of the Florida room of the house and onto the grass. In seconds they were at the hole in the fence. Then they disappeared into the wooded lot behind the house. After jumping across the ditch back onto the road they quickly removed their shoe covers and stuffed them into their pockets. A few seconds later they had removed their gloves also.

Peter: feel like painting?
Jamie: hell yeah!

Within five minutes they were safe distance away from the torch house. As they reach one of the main intersections, Peter turned right instead of continuing straight on a direct route back to the warehouse.

Peter: come this way. There is a new wall I want to show you.
Jamie: cool
Peter: let’s cross the road, their less lights on the other side and we don’t exactly look like family values.

They walked for another five blocks. Peter turned left down one of those tiny little road that is almost an alley. At the end of it, across the street, was the newly painted white wall of a bank.

Peter: stay here
Peter came up upon the CCTV camera from behind reaching his arm around like a basketball hook shot he sprayed the silly string onto the lens of the camera. He did both CCTV cameras and the camera on the ATM machine. He walked back over to Jamie.
Peter: take out the lights

Jamie smiled and was took her sling shot out of her pocket. This time her aim was good and she took out all three lights with only three shots.
Peter: what’s the message tonight?
Jamie: rise up
Peter: sounds good, get started the canvas is yours.

For the next few minutes she sprayed her message in deep red tall letters. She used curves and flourishes on the letters. The underlining of her messages was beginning to take on the characteristics of a signature. She had seen something written in Arabic and liked the way the letters and dots flowed smoothly. When she finished she returned to Peter across the street.

Jamie: what you think?
Peter: much better than a blank `wall
Jamie: Can we go to the library tomorrow?
Peter: let’s wait a couple of days. You don’t need to read the news, you made the news.
Jamie: I read about that copycat out in California.
Peter: he was not a copycat just a sad suicidal man facing foreclosure. We don’t burn ourselves up every time, he did.
Jamie: what about the guy up in Seattle?
Peter: he’s closer but I still consider him a copycat. A good idea will always float to the top.
Jamie: but he is targeting the same bank as us.
Peter: that’s good.
Jamie: how so?
Peter: greater interruption to Bank of America’s business.

The conversation died and they walked back to the warehouse. They washed their hands with strong gritty soap until all traces and smells were gone. Jamie laid on her mattress for over an hour before she finally fell asleep. Peter fell asleep quickly. She was glad he was asleep. She worried about the nights when he stayed up late. She had woken up a couple of occasions to see him down at the far end of the warehouse having a conversation with someone who wasn’t there. It was always his wife. They argued. She didn’t like him burning down houses. Not because she liked the bank because she didn’t like him doing things out of revenge and felt it was bad for him. It took Jamie a long time to piece the conversation together since she was only privy to half of it. But tonight Peter was asleep and that was good.