QUEST FOR FIRE
I was responsible for burning down a park bathroom when I was nine. This, at a time when I like to fantasize about myself as being a perfectly nice, often oppressed, little, nine-year-old twat.
Joanne’s father smoked. And so did Joanne and I when, one day, we stole a pack and took them to the neighborhood park around the block. After following the mysterious blood trail that had been staining the sidewalk for months, we eventually arrived at the park and perched ourselves atop the monkey bars. We sucked our drags in and blew them out into the air while parents, shoving their kids around in strollers, glared at us. We didn’t care, though. We were cool. For me, finally cool.
Forget those candy cigarettes we bought from the candy man who lived on our block. Every morning and afternoon, ensnaring all the kids with his pink-tipped, cigarette-shaped candy. The best “brands” were in the faux Lucky and Kools packaging. But we had the real deal now. We were Kool. We were Lucky. And now we could try our hand at smoke rings. Joanne’s were good, distinct and well-formed. She was practiced. Mine were blobs.
“Eugh…” I was starting to feel ill and lightheaded. Like I might be mere seconds from dropping ten feet to the ground and embarrassing myself until the end of time or dying. So, I tried to come up with a new sensational idea. One where I would still seem dangerous, fun and cool and not have to keep smoking.
I wanted to impress Joanne. She was much cooler and one year older than I was. She hung out with risky kids. Kids who were actively involved in a gang “start-up” effort and who hung out in an overhead storage bin in a shitty apartment building garage. I tried to join, but after I suggested naming the gang, The Elephants, Joanne forbade me to return.
She once punched me in the gut after “convincing” me to eat a Milk Bone by pulling my hair so hard I could hear it ripping out of my scalp. Then, she used it to pry my mouth open, painfully mashing my lips against my teeth, and said, “You better eat this Milk Bone, you ugly dog!”
And I did. Though my eyes were tearing uncontrollably, I was desperate to communicate that I wasn’t actually crying. And that I thought Milk Bones tasted really good. And that the hair departing my scalp in clumps felt pretty tremendous too. So I laughed and laughed hard while I mowed down on the dog biscuit. I couldn’t let her down. I wasn’t weak. I showed her that I literally could roll with the punches. I couldn’t bear being a wilting, crying dork now. She was doing me a favor by hanging out with me in the first place. Maybe if Joanne were my friend, I wouldn’t find myself walking around school with dehydrated loogies in my hair or silently witnessing those boys trying to steal my bicycle on a daily basis.
Rummaging around in my head for some kind of fantastic idea, I blurted out, “Hey! Let’s start a fire!”
“Great idea!” Joanne said.
“Where should we do it?” I asked.
“In the girls’ bathroom of course, Dumb Shit”, she informed me.
The bathrooms in the park were like any city park bathrooms. Tiled walls, a couple stalls. One without a door and the other without a functioning lock. One toilet contained a whole roll of toilet paper that had dropped in and doubled its size. The other was sprayed with pee.
After we collected some dried grass and weeds, we set up our miniature bonfire in the corner. At first it only smoldered and we squawked our discontent like Neanderthal Man in the movie “Quest For Fire”.
Joanne more guttural, “Augh! Augh!”, and me, more like the high calls of female Modern Man, Rae Dawn Chong. “Aye! Yeshing Eam Bah Eh, eh, eh!”.
I added some cigarettes. Then, small shreds from the last bit of toilet paper I could find. My spectacular idea was not turning out spectacular at all.
“Well, this is boring”, Joanne said.
“I know! What the fuck? Let’s go pick out some real CHOICE SHIT to burn out of the picnic area, MANG”, I said like a real miniature, South American slash Mexican coke dealer. “Now that shit…THAT fuckin’ shit’s where the mother fuckin’ shit’s at”, I rambled cloaking my pleasing nature with cuss words and racism. When Joanne seemed interested, I said, “Hang ten, Dude”, and jogged off like Bruce Jenner trotting to the Olympic starting line. Since I was wearing boys’ corduroy pants, a boy’s western shirt and cowboy boots, I looked like a real stupid dick as I went.
After digging around in the picnic area trash, we collected stuff that was sure to burn. I scored a few Styrofoam plates, plastic forks and paper cups, but Joanne was the clear winner when she pulled out a huge wad of discarded paper tablecloths.
There I was, having fun crouched on the floor lighting the cups on fire and watching the Styrofoam bubble and melt into our manageable, Barbie-sized blaze when Joanne picked up the big guns.
It was just the way a nuclear blast travels through the desert. First the bright light, then the blast wave and then the burning fire, as I felt my eyebrows and eyelashes vanish in a millisecond. I was momentarily stunned and I guess surprised by our drastically different approaches to the act of playing with fire. I thought we’d continue tearing little pieces off, just as we had with the toilet paper. But, no, Joanne had thrown the whole wad on at once and the place went up in flames. Right along with the bangs of my bowl haircut.
Oh the humanity!
I thought to douse this flaming, floating, paper cloth Hindenburg, and immediately clippity-clopped to the sink in my cheap cowboy boots. Bits of fiery ash floated in the air, went up my nose and draped over my eyeballs. I could only assume Joanne took off since I couldn’t find her in the smoke and she failed to respond to my panicked screaming. I knew then, that I was on my own, and that if I couldn’t put this disaster out, I was in for the ass beating of a lifetime.
I soon discovered this bathroom had one of those faucets that didn’t stay on unless you were holding the handle. That was unfortunate news. I filled my single available 9-year-old hand to its full capacity, about a teaspoon, and clippity-clopped back to the fire to sprinkle my payload on the blaze. Which, had absolutely zero impact. There wasn’t even any steam! After a couple more goes at this method, I changed tactics and tried flinging the water across the room. Which, given such small amounts, pretty much dissipated completely into what you could call “humidity” before it was even half way across the room.
By this time, smoke is billowing out of the vents under the roof and I can hear loud, concerned talking outside. All those parents shoving their kids around in strollers were gathering around when a smoky figure, me, burst through the doorway. The smoke enveloping me and trailing behind my body.
As I flew by them in my western wear, running so fast I was kicking my own ass with the heals of my cowboy boots, I heard one of them say, “Hey! Get back here little boy!” Then, I knew I wouldn’t be pickin’ my switch this night!
How relieved I knew my parents would be seeing their boyish daughter finally submit to wearing dresses and other clownish, girl get ups for the remainder of the school year.
With a twist of my head and first tinge of rebellion, I called back to the dull-eyed hoard, “Hang Ten, Dudes!”