My estimable friend and former colleague Paul Kix recently wrote a column in this space on John Jeremiah Sullivan. In it he cited an essay Sullivan wrote about the art of writing:
A fundamental law of storytelling is: withhold information. As the writer Paul Metcalf put it, “The only real work in creative endeavor is to keep things from falling together too soon.”
I thought of that line while revisiting Dan Lee’s devastating New York magazine feature, “4:52 on Christmas Morning,” about a Connecticut house fire that killed all three of a man’s young daughters. Particularly the lead:
Matt Badger believes that what happened happened for a reason. That his children were born in order to live in order to die the way they did, that out of it something meaningful must come. If at any point it becomes clear to him that he is wrong, that what happened is instead an anecdote of the universe’s brutal indifference, then he will kill himself.
The beauty of this passage is that there is nothing withheld, there’s no writerly misdirection, no trapdoor or blind hairpin turn. The impulse for many here would be to open with some lovely, sunny little scene from the past—preferably ending with a big-eyed child saying, “I wub you Daddy!”—to underscore the darkness to come.
But here, in this story about a whole family perishing in a wholly preventable Christmas morning fire, the darkness has already overtaken the story. No point in being cute about it. When we meet Matt Badger, the divorced father, who lives, as all of his children died, we meet a man in hell. Hell is where we begin, and, as it’s suggested in this lead—we can’t expect the universe to become less indifferent—hell is likely where it will end.
From there, Lee settles in to tell you the story of that night, a story so brutal that it barely needs to be written, it just spreads. For 678 words, he tells it slowly and carefully:
Inside 2267 Shippan, a 116-year-old Victorian house, three girls—Lily, 9, and her 7-year-old twin sisters, Sarah and Grace—had wanted to make a fire on Christmas Eve…
The fire was warming the newly opened-up first floor by the time Madonna’s parents, Lomer and Pauline Johnson, arrived from Lomer’s final shift playing Santa Claus at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The artificial tree was lit; the stockings were hung. Earlier in the day, the girls had played outside, riding their bikes in the street…
Grace lit electric candles. Madonna cooked a ham dinner. She was, at 47, among the most successful advertising executives in New York City; she had recently divorced her husband and had bought the house the previous December…
At 10 p.m., the girls were herded up the stairs to their pink-and-white bedrooms on the third floor. They believed that Santa Claus was nearing the air above Connecticut. It was difficult to get them to sleep…
Lily was, despite being the oldest, always the most sensitive, and she made a fuss about not wanting to sleep alone; she and Sarah fell asleep together, in the twins’ turreted room. Grace ended up in bed with her grandparents…
It’s hard not to feel a chill reading that.
Throughout this passage, Lee’s tone appears on its surface to be cold and reportorial, but look closely enough and you can see it’s trembling. Like the 116-year-old Victorian, there is fire in the walls. The result is more effective at building tension than it would be had Lee spent the same amount of time rolling the drums and summoning the gods of thunder. Tragedy of this dimension doesn’t like to announce itself. It prefers to just slide in.
Then, in section two, we meet Matt Badger—such a small, funny little name for a man bearing such a burden—in Battery Park City in New York. It’s daylight now, which gives a short-lived feeling of release, but the darkness has only intensified, in stark contrast to the neighborhood, which is almost entirely immaculate, gleaming glass towers:
When Matt Badger comes downstairs from his apartment in Battery Park City, wearing jeans and an untucked olive button-down shirt, there are two children playing in front of his building, a girl with bright-red hair pushing another girl on a scooter. He looks at them and smiles. He does not appear well.
Badger is wearing jeans, a shirt, he looks like hell, he’s ripping Marlboro Reds. “He wears necklaces around his neck, some leather, some metal, one a miniature version of Himalayan prayer flags.” They go for a walk, and Badger says he went crazy when he heard the news on Christmas Day. He threatened to kill himself, he threatened others. What helped, gave him direction and a purpose, was his idea, inspired by his dyslexic daughter, to create a fund to support arts-based programs in early education:
It has since become all-consuming. It is his job. It is what keeps his children alive. It is what keeps him alive. So far, it has distributed more than $430,000 in 48 states.
Of course, because this is hell, after a strong start donor interest in the fund is drying up. It’s been a year since the tragedy. Others have the luxury of moving on:
The foundation, he says, is his daughters. If it fails, and now he is practically whispering, quietly crying, sitting in a crowded subway car heading uptown around lunchtime, looking down, fondling a business card, the image of the three of them laughing on one side, the color pink and the lettering of the LilySarahGrace Fund on the other, his hands shaking—
From there, we go into backstory. We learn how Matt met his former wife, about what his kids were like; there’s so much sweetness and love, it all seems, to invoke a cliche, too perfect. But of course it isn’t. “Matt has come to see inexorability in everything that has happened to him,” Lee writes. And in hindsight, the setup seems as deliberate and inevitable as teeing up a golfball. The cruelty of the sprung trap is so perfect it gleams:
Madonna [Badger’s ex] recalled instances of her young daughters’ grappling with the concept of death. Grace had asked her repeatedly “if she would die before me. And I told her, ‘No, that is never going to happen.’ But it did, and I wonder, ‘Why?’ ” Once, she had taken Lily to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see an exhibit of Pietà statues. Lily was transfixed by the image of Mary cradling Jesus’ lifeless body. She demanded her mother tell her when she herself would die. Madonna was at first dismissive. Lily lay on the floor. She began crying. She begged her.
“And I told her, after a lot of not knowing what to say, that life is a mystery, and it’s a total mystery, that we will never know when we will die.
“And she accepted that,” she said, “and I did, too.”
From there, because as readers we are to get no quarter, we learn about Madonna’s parents, who also perished in the fire. They too, seem to have been moved toward their fate with an eye toward maximum cruelty. They moved up from Louisville to be with their grandchildren, and there they found happiness like they hadn’t experienced before. Witness the litany of detail:
…Upon arriving at his children’s houses, Lomer, nine-volt batteries in his pocket, immediately checked their smoke detectors; for Christmas, he gave them fire ladders to store under their beds.
Around strangers, Lomer was reserved, but children were another story. Wade’s daughter, Morgan, rolling around on the floor with him one day, tugged on his white beard, which, after retirement, he had vowed never to shave again. It was a little eureka moment. The following holiday, he applied to malls, and when no one hired him, he bought a Santa suit himself, creating a profile on a website called gigmasters.com.
And last year, in what [Madonna’s father] called a dream come true, he beat hundreds of applicants to become Saks Fifth Avenue’s first Santa.
And one more detail that hits you right in the chest:
On his side of [Lomer’s] bed was Lily’s [drawing], which was made back in preschool, when the teacher asked her to draw a message to a family member of her choosing. It was all big circles and stormy swoops of color. When the teacher asked her what message she wanted written on it, she said: “I love you Papa. Don’t leave me behind. See Nana and kiss her. Love, Lily.”
The story grinds on. We meet Michae Borcina, the contractor who renovated the doomed Victorian. Borcina’s record was a copse of red flags. His own workers tried to intervene:
Grunow, a former Sound Beach volunteer fireman, was particularly concerned about safety. He later claimed he took it upon himself to install fire extinguishers and battery-operated smoke and carbon-monoxide alarms throughout the house prior to an insurance-company inspection that he knew Borcina would fail. (He claimed, as well, that Borcina ordered them taken down because of false alarms once the sanding of the walls and painting began in earnest.) He said he repeatedly tried to warn Borcina that he was creating an excessive “fire fuel load,” citing the amount of wood being used—for columns, beams, cabinetry, moldings, oil-finished flooring, and paneling in the kitchen, mudroom, and up the butler’s staircase, which Grunow warned was already narrower than building codes allowed. Borcina made clear his uninterest in any criticism, once forcing Grunow to write a letter of apology, promising he would work according to Borcina’s precise specifications and not offer alternative opinions.
We see Madonna fall into a relationship with this man. We see the stage being set, and in the next section, we see the fire itself. How it started, how it spread. I won’t quote from it, because to take anything out of context harms the passage, which is pure horror—the payoff for all the suspense being built throughout the story, up until this point.
From there, we get into the investigation, the lawsuit, the recriminations. But all of it is so dwarfed by the fire that it feels pointless and stupid. It doesn’t matter. Madonna fled to Little Rock after attempting suicide. Badger reflexively returns to his fund. He visits a state senator for help. He complains that the $1,200 he took in at the fundraiser was unacceptable, a disgrace. The senator shrugs it off, even makes a joke, which makes you hate him:
Matt grows increasingly flustered. He explains he needs to raise $20,000 to make the relationship worthwhile. Duff says he doesn’t have twenty people in his Rolodex that he can just call up. He jokes he is a Democrat. Matt is all but pleading. He reiterates that there were 200 people who attended the fund-raiser, and that they raised $1,200. He wants to know if the senator knows what this feels like: “I put my three daughters out there. And this is what they’re worth?”
I won’t quote from the ending. I’ll just say it derives its punch from a sentiment uttered so many times that it seems meaningless, but placed in this context it becomes everything: Don’t take life for granted, because at the drop of a hat, or the careless disposal of fireplace ash, it could all be taken away. Also: When you permit yourself to love hugely, you open yourself to unimaginable pain. Yet it’s also an article of faith that in the end, it will be worth it. Then we meet Matt Badger, and then we meet his universe, our universe, and then, for a brief moment, maybe we’re not so sure.
Joe Keohane is senior editor for Esquire Digital. Prior to that, he served as editor in chief of Hemispheres magazine, editor in chief of Boston’s Weekly Dig, and staff writer at Boston magazine. His stuff has turned up everywhere from the New York Times to the Boston Globe, to New York magazine and Slate. A Boston native, he also plays the bass, loves Irish picaresque novels and once got chased out of the Muslim Quarter of Old Jerusalem by a pack of children. Children. Then they demanded money, and he gave them a single American dollar, which only made them angrier.
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