When You Are Engulfed in Flames


By David Sedaris

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“David Sedaris’s ability to transform the mortification of everyday life into wildly entertaining art,” (The Christian Science Monitor) is elevated to wilder and more entertaining heights than ever in this remarkable new book.
Trying to make coffee when the water is shut off, David considers using the water in a vase of flowers and his chain of associations takes him from the French countryside to a hilariously uncomfortable memory of buying drugs in a mobile home in rural North Carolina. In essay after essay, Sedaris proceeds from bizarre conundrums of daily life-having a lozenge fall from your mouth into the lap of a fellow passenger on a plane or armoring the windows with LP covers to protect the house from neurotic songbirds-to the most deeply resonant human truths. Culminating in a brilliant account of his venture to Tokyo in order to quit smoking, David Sedaris’s sixth essay collection is a new masterpiece of comic writing from “a writer worth treasuring” (Seattle Times).

Praise for When You Are Engulfed in Flames:

“Older, wiser, smarter and meaner, Sedaris…defies the odds once again by delivering an intelligent take on the banalities of an absurd life.” —Kirkus Reviews

This latest collection proves that not only does Sedaris still have it, but he’s also getting better….Sedaris’s best stuff will still–after all this time–move, surprise, and entertain.” —Booklist

Table of Contents:

It’s Catching
Keeping Up
The Understudy
This Old House
Buddy, Can You Spare a Tie?
Road Trips
What I Learned
That’s Amore
The Monster Mash
In the Waiting Room
Solutions to Saturday’s Puzzle
Adult Figures Charging Toward a Concrete Toadstool
Memento Mori
All the Beauty You Will Ever Need
Town and Country
The Man in the Hut
Of Mice and Men
April in Paris
Old Faithful
The Smoking Section


Memento Mori

For the past fifteen years or so, I've made it a habit to carry a small notebook in my front pocket. The model I currently favor is called the Europa, and I pull it out an average of ten times a day, jotting down grocery lists, observations, and little thoughts on how to make money, or torment people. The last page is always reserved for phone numbers, and the second to last I use for gift ideas. These are not things I might give to other people, but things that they might give to me: a shoehorn, for instance — always wanted one. The same goes for a pencil case, which, on the low end, probably costs no more than a doughnut.

I've also got ideas in the five-hundred-to-two-thousand-dollar range, though those tend to be more specific. This nineteenth-century portrait of a dog, for example. I'm not what you'd call a dog person, far from it, but this particular one — a whippet, I think — had alarmingly big nipples, huge, like bolts screwed halfway into her belly. More interesting was that she seemed aware of it. You could see it in her eyes as she turned to face the painter. "Oh, not now," she appeared to be saying. "Have you no decency?"

I saw the portrait at the Portobello Road market in London, and though I petitioned hard for months, nobody bought it for me. I even tried initiating a pool and offered to throw in a few hundred dollars of my own money, but still no one bit. In the end I gave the money to Hugh and had him buy it. Then I had him wrap it up and offer it to me.

"What's this for?" I asked.

And, following the script, he said, "Do I need a reason to give you a present?"

Then I said, "Awwwww."

It never works the other way around, though. Ask Hugh what he wants for Christmas or his birthday, and he'll answer, "You tell me."

"Well, isn't there something you've had your eye on?"

"Maybe. Maybe not."

Hugh thinks that lists are the easy way out and says that if I really knew him I wouldn't have to ask what he wanted. It's not enough to search the shops; I have to search his soul as well. He turns gift-giving into a test, which I don't think is fair at all. Were I the type to run out at the last minute, he might have a valid complaint, but I start my shopping months in advance. Plus I pay attention. If, say, in the middle of the summer, Hugh should mention that he'd like an electric fan, I'll buy it that very day and hide it in my gift cupboard. Come Christmas morning, he'll open his present and frown at it for a while, before I say, "Don't you remember? You said you were burning up and would give anything for a little relief."

That's just a practical gift, though, a stocking stuffer. His main present is what I'm really after, and, knowing this, he offers no help whatsoever. Or, rather, he used to offer no help. It wasn't until this year that he finally dropped a hint, and even then it was fairly cryptic. "Go out the front door and turn right," he said. "Then take a left and keep walking."

He did not say "Stop before you reach the boulevard" or "When you come to the Czech border you'll know you've gone too far," but he didn't need to. I knew what he was talking about the moment I saw it. It was a human skeleton, the genuine article, hanging in the window of a medical bookstore. Hugh's old drawing teacher used to have one, and though it had been ten years since he'd taken the woman's class, I could suddenly recall him talking about it. "If I had a skeleton like Minerva's . . . ," he used to say. I don't remember the rest of the sentence, as I'd always been sidetracked by the teacher's name, Minerva. Sounds like a witch.

There are things that one enjoys buying and things that one doesn't. Electronic equipment, for example. I hate shopping for stuff like that, no matter how happy it will make the recipient. I feel the same about gift certificates, and books about golf or investment strategies or how to lose twelve pounds by being yourself. I thought I would enjoy buying a human skeleton, but looking through the shop window I felt a familiar tug of disappointment. This had nothing to do with any moral considerations. I was fine with buying someone who'd been dead for a while; I just didn't want to wrap him. Finding a box would be a pain, and then there'd be the paper, which would have to be attached in strips because no one sells rolls that wide. Between one thing and another, I was almost relieved when told that the skeleton was not for sale. "He's our mascot," the store manager said. "We couldn't possibly get rid of him."

In America this translates to "Make me an offer," but in France they really mean it. There are shops in Paris where nothing is for sale, no matter how hard you beg. I think people get lonely. Their apartments become full, and, rather than rent a storage space, they take over a boutique. Then they sit there in the middle of it, gloating over their fine taste.

Being told that I couldn't buy a skeleton was just what I needed to make me really want one. Maybe that was the problem all along. It was too easy: "Take a right, take a left, and keep walking." It took the hunt out of it.

"Do you know anyone who will sell me a skeleton?" I asked, and the manager thought for a while. "Well," she said, "I guess you could try looking on bulletin boards."

I don't know what circles this woman runs in, but I have never in my life seen a skeleton advertised on a bulletin board. Used bicycles, yes, but no human bones, or even cartilage for that matter.

"Thank you for your help," I said.

Because I have nothing better to do with my time than shop, I tend to get excited when someone wants something obscure: an out-of-print novel, a replacement for a shattered teacup. I thought that finding another skeleton would prove difficult, but I came across two more that very afternoon — one a full-grown male and the other a newborn baby. Both were at the flea market, offered by a man who specializes in what he calls "the sorts of things that are not for everyone."

The baby was tempting because of its size — I could have wrapped it in a shoe box — but ultimately I went for the adult, which is three hundred years old and held together by a network of fine wires. There's a latch in the center of the forehead, and removing the linchpin allows you to open the skull and either root around or hide things — drugs, say, or small pieces of jewelry. It's not what one hopes for when thinking about an afterlife ("I'd like for my head to be used as a stash box"), but I didn't let that bother me. I bought the skeleton the same way I buy most everything. It was just an arrangement of parts to me, no different from a lamp or a chest of drawers.

I didn't think of it as a former person until Christmas Day, when Hugh opened the cardboard coffin. "If you don't like the color, we can bleach it," I said. "Either that or exchange it for the baby."

I always like to offer a few alternatives, though in this case they were completely unnecessary. Hugh was beside himself, couldn't have been happier. I assumed he'd be using the skeleton as a model and was a little put off when, instead of taking it to his studio, he carried it into the bedroom and hung it from the ceiling.

"Are you sure about this?" I asked.

The following morning, I reached under the bed for a discarded sock and found what I thought was a three-tiered earring. It looked like something you'd get at a craft fair, not pretty, but definitely handmade, fashioned from what looked like petrified wood. I was just holding it to the side of my head when I thought, Hang on, this is an index finger. It must have fallen off while Hugh was carrying in the skeleton. Then he or I or possibly his mother, who was in town for the holidays, accidentally kicked it under the bed.

I don't think of myself as overly prissy, but it bothered me to find a finger on my bedroom floor. "If this thing is going to start shedding parts, you really should put it in your studio," I said to Hugh, who told me that it was his present and he'd keep it wherever the hell he wanted to. Then he got out some wire and reattached the missing finger.

It's the things you don't buy that stay with you the longest. This portrait of an unknown woman, for instance. I saw it a few years ago in Rotterdam, and rather than following my instincts I told the dealer that I'd think about it. The next day, I returned, and it was gone, sold, which is maybe for the best. Had I bought it myself, the painting would have gone on my office wall. I'd have admired it for a week or two, and then, little by little, it would have become invisible, just like the portrait of the dog. I wanted it, I wanted it, I wanted it, but the moment it was mine, it ceased to interest me. I no longer see the shame-filled eyes or the oversized nipples, but I do see the unknown woman, her ruddy, pious face, and the lace collar that hugged her neck like an air filter.

As the days pass, I keep hoping that the skeleton will become invisible, but he hasn't. Dangling between the dresser and the bedroom door, he is the last thing I see before falling asleep, and the first thing I see when opening my eyes in the morning.

It's funny how certain objects convey a message — my washer and dryer, for example. They can't speak, of course, but whenever I pass them they remind me that I'm doing fairly well. "No more laundromat for you," they hum. My stove, a downer, tells me every day that I can't cook, and before I can defend myself my scale jumps in, shouting from the bathroom, "Well, he must be doing something. My numbers are off the charts." The skeleton has a much more limited vocabulary and says only one thing: "You are going to die."

I'd always thought that I understood this, but lately I realize that what I call "understanding" is basically just fantasizing. I think about death all the time, but only in a romantic, self-serving way, beginning, most often, with my tragic illness and ending with my funeral. I see my brother squatting beside my grave, so racked by guilt that he's unable to stand. "If only I'd paid him back that twenty-five thousand dollars I borrowed," he says. I see Hugh, drying his eyes on the sleeve of his suit jacket, then crying even harder when he remembers I bought it for him. What I didn't see were all the people who might celebrate my death, but that's all changed with the skeleton, who assumes features at will.

One moment he's an elderly Frenchwoman, the one I didn't give my seat to on the bus. In my book, if you want to be treated like an old person, you have to look like one. That means no face-lift, no blond hair, and definitely no fishnet stockings. I think it's a perfectly valid rule, but it wouldn't have killed me to take her crutches into consideration.

"I'm sorry," I say, but before the words are out of my mouth the skeleton has morphed into a guy named Stew, who I once slighted in a drug deal.

Stew and the Frenchwoman will be happy to see me go, and there are hundreds more in line behind them, some I can name, and others I'd managed to hurt and insult without a formal introduction. I hadn't thought of these people in years, but that's the skeleton's cleverness. He gets into my head when I'm asleep and picks through the muck at the bottom of my skull. "Why me?" I ask. "Hugh is lying in the very same bed. How come you don't go after him?"

And the skeleton says, "You are going to die."

"But I'm the one who found your finger."

"You are going to die."

I say to Hugh, "Are you sure you wouldn't be happier with the baby?"

For the first few weeks, I heard the voice only when I was in the bedroom. Then it spread and took over the entire apartment. I'd be sitting in my office, gossiping on the telephone, and the skeleton would cut in, sounding like an international operator. "You are going to die."

I stretched out in the bathtub, soaking in fragrant oils, while outside my window beggars were gathered like kittens upon the heating grates.

"You are going to die."

In the kitchen I threw away a perfectly good egg. In the closet I put on a sweater some half-blind child was paid ten sesame seeds to make. In the living room I took out my notebook and added a bust of Satan to the list of gifts I'd like to receive.

"You are going to die. You are going to die. You are going to die."

"Do you think you could alter that just a little?" I asked.

But he wouldn't.

Having been dead for three hundred years, there's a lot the skeleton doesn't understand: TV, for instance. "See," I told him, "you just push this button, and entertainment comes into your home." He seemed impressed, and so I took it a step further. "I invented it myself, to bring comfort to the old and sick."

"You are going to die."

He had the same reaction to the vacuum cleaner, even after I used the nozzle attachment to dust his skull. "You are going to die."

And that's when I broke down. "I'll do anything you like," I said. "I'll make amends to the people I've hurt, I'll bathe in rainwater, you name it, just please say something, anything, else."

The skeleton hesitated a moment. "You are going to be dead . . . some day," he told me.

And I put away the vacuum cleaner, thinking, Well, that's a start.

All the Beauty You Will Ever Need

In Paris they warn you before cutting off the water, but out in Normandy you're just supposed to know. You're also supposed to be prepared, and it's this last part that gets me every time. Still, though, I manage to get by. A saucepan of chicken broth will do for shaving, and in a pinch I can always find something to pour into the toilet tank: orange juice, milk, a lesser champagne. If I really get hard up, I suppose I could hike through the woods and bathe in the river, though it's never quite come to that.

Most often, our water is shut off because of some reconstruction project, either in our village or in the next one over. A hole is dug, a pipe is replaced, and within a few hours things are back to normal. The mystery is that it's so perfectly timed to my schedule. This is to say that the tap dries up at the exact moment I roll out of bed, which is usually between 10:00 and 10:30. For me this is early, but for Hugh and most of our neighbors it's something closer to midday. What they do at 6:00 a.m. is anyone's guess. I only know that they're incredibly self-righteous about it and talk about the dawn as if it's a personal reward, bestowed on account of their great virtue.

The last time our water was cut, it was early summer. I got up at my regular hour and saw that Hugh was off somewhere, doing whatever it is he does. This left me alone to solve the coffee problem — a sort of catch-22, as in order to think straight I need caffeine, and in order to make that happen I need to think straight. Once, in a half sleep, I made it with Perrier, which sounds plausible but really isn't. On another occasion, I heated up some leftover tea and poured that over the grounds. Had the tea been black rather than green, the coffee might have worked out, but, as it was, the result was vile. It wasn't the sort of thing you'd try more than once, so this time I skipped the teapot and headed straight for a vase of wildflowers sitting by the phone on one of the living room tables.

Hugh had picked them the previous day, and it broke my heart to think of him marching across a muddy field with a bouquet in his hand. He does these things that are somehow beyond faggy and seem better suited to some hardscrabble pioneer wife: making jam, say, or sewing bedroom curtains out of burlap. Once I caught him down at the riverbank, beating our dirty clothes against a rock. This was before we got a washing machine, but still, he could have laundered things in the tub. "Who are you?" I'd said, and, as he turned, I half expected to see a baby at his breast, not nestled in one of those comfortable supports but hanging, red-faced, by its gums.

When Hugh beats underpants against river rocks or decides that it might be fun to grind his own flour, I think of a couple I once met. This was years ago, in the early nineties. I was living in New York and had returned to North Carolina for Christmas, my first priority being to get high and stay that way. My brother, Paul, knew of a guy who possibly had some pot to sell, so a phone call was made, and, in the way that these things happen, we found ourselves in a trailer twenty-odd miles outside of Raleigh.

The dealer was named Little Mike, and he addressed both Paul and me as "Bromine." He looked like a high school student, or, closer still, like one of those kids who dropped out and then spent all day hanging around the parking lot: tracksuit, rattail, a wisp of thread looped through his freshly pierced ear. After a few words regarding my brother's car, Little Mike ushered us inside and introduced us to his wife, who was sitting on their sofa, watching a Christmas special. The girl's stockinged feet were resting on the coffee table, and settled between her legs, just south of her lap, was a flat-faced Persian. Both she and the cat had wide-set eyes, and ginger-colored hair, though hers was partially hidden beneath a woolen cap. Common too was the way they stuck their noses in the air when my brother and I entered the room. A little hostility was to be expected from the Persian, and I guessed I couldn't blame the wife either. Here she was trying to watch TV, and these two guys show up — people she didn't even know.

"Don't mind Beth," Little Mike said, and he smacked the underside of the girl's foot.

"Owww, asshole."

He advanced upon the other foot, and I pretended to admire the Christmas tree, which was miniature and artificial, and stood upon a barstool beside the front door. "This is nice," I announced, and Beth shot me a withering look. Liar, it said. You're just saying that because my stupid husband sells reefer.

She really wanted us out of there, but Little Mike seemed to welcome our company. "Sit down," he told me. "Have a libation." He and Paul went to the refrigerator to get us some beers, and the girl called after them to bring her a rum and Coke. Then she turned back to the TV and glared at the screen, saying, "This show's boring. Hand me the nigger."

I smiled at the cat, as if this would somehow fix things, and when Beth pointed to the far end of the coffee table, I saw that she was referring to the remote control. Under other circumstances, I might have listed the various differences between black people, who had been forced to work for no money, and black, battery-operated channel changers, which had neither thoughts nor feelings and didn't mind doing stuff for free. But the deal hadn't started yet, and, more than anything, I wanted my drugs. Thus the remote was handed over, and I watched as the pot dealer's wife flicked from one station to the next, looking for something that might satisfy her.

She had just settled on a situation comedy when Paul and Little Mike returned with the drinks. Beth was dissatisfied with her ice-cube count, and, after suggesting that she could just go fuck herself, our host reached into the waistband of his track pants and pulled out a bag of marijuana. It was eight ounces at least, a small cushion, and as I feasted my eyes upon it Little Mike pushed his wife's feet off the coffee table, saying, "Bitch, go get me my scale."

"I'm watching TV. Get it your own self."

"Whore," he said.


"See the kind of shit I have to live with?" Little Mike sighed and retreated to the rear of the trailer — the bedroom, I guessed — returning a minute later with a scale and some rolling papers. The pot was sticky with lots of buds, and its smell reminded me of a Christmas tree, though not the one perched atop the barstool. After weighing my ounce and counting out my money, Little Mike rolled a joint, which he lit, drew upon, and handed to my brother. It then went to me, and just as I was passing it back to our host, his wife piped up: "Hey, what about me?"

"Now look who wants to play," her husband said. "Women. They'll suck the fucking paper off a joint, but when old Papa Bear needs a little b.j. action they've always got a sore throat."

Beth tried to speak and hold in the smoke at the same time: "Hut hup, hasshole."


On Sale
Jun 3, 2008
Page Count
336 pages

David Sedaris

About the Author

David Sedaris is the author of the books Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Holidays on Ice, Naked, and Barrel Fever. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and BBC Radio 4. He lives in England.

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