Over the years I’ve grown a little less destructive and a little more cautious when it comes to everyday life. After a certain point in time, the thrill of doing 115 down the highway or making homemade napalm take a back seat to mundane things, like safety, and not committing felonies. It’s a shame really as burning patches of your father’s perfectly kept lawn can be entertaining as hell.
My career as a carnival barker seemed to be in the bag as well. Give me a few people, a prop, and some working material and I light up like fission.
Also to be noted is the human condition of being unable to put a lid on something even though you are well past the meter of taking it too far. Lying and tickling come to mind. Two activities that cross borders with ease.
The perfect storm of all these factors came together on a rainy night late in July. It was only a matter of time until the truth of this story was released to the police. Or just the fact that the statute of limitations has kicked in and I am no longer allowed to be prosecuted for crimes against nature.
My sister had a habit of hosting a girl’s night jamboree about once a month. I had a habit of dating, or at least sloppily making out with a multitude of my sister’s friends. One of the few benefits of having an older sister. Kim, my current conquest of my sister’s social circle, was a missionaries’ daughter; wet behind the ears and had a penchant for the good boy/bad guy routine I strove to bombard her with. Sadly, she was unable to attend this particular meeting of the “Brat Pack”, the label the group of girls had decided to paste on themselves. I found my solace in the fact that the weather outside had cut into my late night outdoor activities and I was instead left with a crowd of older women, no girlfriend present, and hankering for delivering some unabashed entertainment.
Within a few minutes I was the embodiment of Murphy, Pryor and Carlin. I had the room on the edge of their seats. The one liners were strung together seamlessly, the laughter dying out just as the next quip was being received by stretched cheek muscles and bright attentive eyes.
“She’s like a pair of socks in your Christmas stocking. Everyone gets some, but who really wants it.” A perfect barbed stuck into one of the more promiscuous girls attending the impromptu show. It took a few more biting stings and parting shots before I packed up my comedy show. One thing I’ve learned is that girls will turn into praying mantises if you don’t escape when you have the chance.
Hot off the stage I was too geeked to just turn in for the night. I needed action, I wanted some thrills, and I was determined to stroke my male ego just a little bit more. I settled in for a long distance phone call and a bit of seductive triangulation.
“Oh it’s been such a blast here. I was just downstairs entertaining all the girls.”
“Aww, I wish you were here too…”
That was a bit of a lie. I’m a shameless flirt. Having 4 teenage girls in one room was like Spanish Fly.
“Wait a second, I’ve got an idea. Oh you’ll love this, just give me a minute.”
I tossed the phone towards my bed and it bounced off my pillow and stopped with a jolt against my headboard. I slid into my computer chair and within a few clicks, the monitor was staring back at me. A delayed choppy image projected in horrible resolution. My eyes caught the edge of my devilish Joker grin as I swiveled around for the telephone.
“Okay, sorry about that. Go over to your computer and sign online, tell me what you see.”
The receiver muffled a squeal of happiness as I started waving my hands in front of the camera lens. I could tell Kim had started to watch.
After a few minutes of chit chat my romantic side kicked in and I sprang a plan into action.
“Since we didn’t get to see any firework shows this year, I thought I’d shoot some off for you and we can watch them together.”
“No, right now. I’ll shoot some off from right here, right out my bedroom window. It’ll be fun.”
The prospect of lighting gunpowder and shooting balls of fiery gas indoors didn’t set off any not so great of an idea alarm bells.
I dug inside my closet and got out the paper shopping bag full of leftover fireworks from my earlier outdoor 4th of July extravaganza. I searched for the hand held Roman Candles as they provided the best means for indoor to outdoor shooting. The pfft noises echoed in my quiet room. The colorful balls of light flashed through the window and streaked halfway across the front lawn before being smothered out from the fast falling rain. Kim giggled and cheered me on over the phone. The praise just sent me over the edge and as the light stick spat out it’s last puff, I instantly took things well over the top.
“Alright I’m going to go outside and set up the grand finale and I’ll drag the camera to the window so you can watch.”
Before she could respond, I amassed an armful or two worth of pyrotechnics and I waddled down towards the front door. I did make sure to pause long enough in front of the room full of girls to coax their curiosities into coming to see what I was up to. I do so love a big audience.
“Come on he’s going to light all those fireworks off!” Girls love bright flashy things.
There was a slight let up in the rain and I rushed to get everything set up before more thunder and lightning rolled through. I strung together a hodgepodge of fireworks, stringing some extra wicks here and there to make sure everything didn’t go off at once. I gave my setup a once over to make sure all the wicks would light at their designated moments. I flicked through 3 matches before giving in to the rain’s attempts to thwart my plans for teenage greatness. I wound up lumbering back into the house looking for the red handled grill lighter stuffed in one of the kitchen’s junk drawers. I had a show to put on and I was determined to see it through to the end.
Coming back outside, all the girls were huddled under the front stoop eagerly waiting to see some action. I was flushed with a feeling that something unknown, but ultimately memorable was about to happen. I felt like Jordan looking into the crowd as he walked onto the court in an epic NBA game 7 finale.
It took a few clicks of the trigger, but with a spark and a sizzle, the twisted cords of primed cotton began their burning countdown.
As so often happens with adolescent boys trying to impress women, this story followed the inevitable path to catastrophe.
The white hot light disappeared into the first set of cardboard gunpowder holders, and after a brief pause, a brilliant purpley blue light erupted from within. Sparks shot into the air before erratically falling back to earth. Erratically falling right on top of the row of gunpowder purgatory.
I had strung up the fireworks so they would detonate in order with my master design. In the planning stages, I didn’t take into account the close proximity of all the fireworks, nor the fact that errant sparks might ignite the rest into a ball of dervish inspired flaming projectiles.
Fortune didn’t smile upon me as the box that caught fire happened to be the last in line, a powerful multi-ball shot I had seen go off a few weeks earlier. Matters worsened as the entire setup, which was secured to the ground by nothing but a Newton Theory or two, tipped over at the force of the out of order blast. Rockets of rapid firing yellow, blue, orange and red fireballs found their ending against the leafy oak tree in front of the house.
“Oh my god! Oh my god! You’re going to burn the tree down!”
The chorus of voices called out for me to do something, faces filled with terror watching the out of control firemakers blasting round after round into the tree. I wasn’t as worried as the hard rain of the day had protected the tree from any harm, and there was little I could do reverse the actions of a volatile string of fireworks.
After a few more fiery bursts, bangs, and whizzes, the smokey charred boxes finally relented their oak bark onslaught. The only evidence of the almost tree fire were the sulfur soaked raindrops filling the air.
I got a mini applause, but mostly disapproving head shakes as I headed back to the breezeway. As the front door clicked shut on my failed light show, I strained to hear a very far away, but familiar sound. My concentration was interrupted by Kim’s voice coming over the phone. I had almost forgotten she was on the line.
“Yeah everything just tipped over and it started shooting fireballs everywhere. I didn’t think it was going to catch anything on fire it’s too wet outside. Such a shame the camera didn’t catch any of it, it was actually quite awesome.”
“No no no, the tree is fine, at least I think it’s fine.”
As I went into the kitchen to return the grill lighter, my eyes were drawn to the red globes of spinning light cutting through the dense leaves of the wooded land behind my house. It took only a few seconds before the sound that had eluded identification earlier was replaced by the very visual picture of a fire engine screaming down the road. With the thunderstorm again raging outside, I watched the red truck disappear behind some houses.
“Probably just a power line down or something. Maybe something got struck by lightning.”
I tried convincing myself the firetruck had some other destination in mind, but that notion was quickly smashed as the red engine #17 re-emerged and made a sweeping right turn onto my street.
“Oh that’s not good. FUUUCK! That’s really not good!”
The woods and the fire truck had done the job of obscuring not one, but four police cruisers in equal pursuit to whatever crime scene they had been called to. Make that, MY crime scene they had been called to.
I leapt down the staircase and burst out the front door frantically running towards the cardboard graveyard that was in plain sight on my front lawn. I needed to get rid of the evidence. Quickly.
As I reached the front lawn, I could see the fire engine between the houses. It less than 100 yards away from where I was standing and bearing down fast. I gathered up all the spent fireworks as my brain raced trying to figure out what to do with them.
“If I bring them inside and they search the house they’ll find them. I can’t throw them into the road…Fuck fuck fuck what am I going to do.”
In an act of desperation, I heaved the charred boxes over the house with the hope they would sail into the woods, and with how dark it was outside, remain unseen to any sort of property search I was convinced was in the cards. I pitched the last one right as the firetruck’s headlights breached the hedges of the next door neighbors driveway. As a horde of police and firemen stormed my front yard armed with hoses and flashlights, I tried to look the part of a curious teenager wondering what was going on in his yard. In a thunderstorm…With no shoes on…Holding a red handled grill lighter.
A tall, muscular policeman got to me first.
“You see anything?”
“Why are you outside with no shoes on in the rain?”
It was a legit question.
“I just saw all the flashing lights and heard the sirens. I thought something was going on outside and I just came out to see.”
“What’s with the lighter?”
“Umm, I uh, had it just in case I needed to light a candle?”
The last part came out as more of a question than a statement, but it was too dark and the flashlight in my eyes kept me from seeing if he believed anything that had just come out of my mouth.
“Had a report that lightning bolt struck a tree in your front yard.”
I took a breath before answering. A very sulfur filled breath.
“Wow really! I heard a big crash of thunder earlier. It probably was from that. That’s crazy! I can’t believe that tree got struck.”
The cop gave me another skeptical look as I pointed to just one batch out of the 4 clumps of trees that were in my front yard.
I was drowning in my lies.
Before he could question me further, our “hero” next door neighbor crashed out his front door sporting his ketchup stained wife beater and his technicolor bathrobe. He bounded across the property line gripping his phone and wagging his finger wildly towards the tree I had just identified to the police officer.
He did have a love of trees. A few years earlier he mourned the loss, with a beer in hand, of a rootless Christmas tree he had planted in the hopes it would magically grow and be usable for the next holiday season.
“That’s the one, that one right there. I saw her get hit. All these lights! They were sparking in the air. The whole tree was lit up. I saw it catch fire!”
Hahaha, oh lord this wasn’t pretty.
As the fire fighters shined their lights up the tree and the police officer moved past me to talk to our neighbor, I felt something clamp down on my shoulder. My eyes followed the hairy fist that was attached to me, up the arm, settling on the unmistakably pissed off face of my father.
“What did you do?”
I tried to plead innocent as to why there was a platoon of Cheshire’s finest stationed in front of my house inspecting a phantom lightning bolt that had struck an unsuspecting tree.
“I didn’t do anything, it was a lightning bolt.”
I thought following the official storyline would be convincing enough.
“It smells like fireworks out here. Did you just light off some fireworks?”
My father had a stunning accuracy to point out the fact that I was a young and stupid kid and he was quite the wise ol’ poppa bear.
“Umm…welllll…maybe a few?”
My father loosened his grip on my arm and moved past me towards the fire fighters crowded around the scarred tree. I held my breath figuring my father was turning into Sammy The Bull and I was going to be spending the rest of tonight in the Big House.
After a few minutes of back and forth conversation, the small crowd of people consisting of my father, our crazy neighbor and a few municipal workers, had hashed out the goings on of the night, and everyone started walking back to their respective points of origin. The firefighters were convinced that a lightning bolt had struck the tree. The dark soot marks all over the upper bark and the sulfur smell in the air was enough evidence to keep the suspicion, off me, and squarely on Zeus. With a few handshakes and the scraping sound of wet tires making K turns, my father started walking back towards me, his face reserved but filled with a little hint of a smirk.
“You’re lucky I was a kid once.”
With that, he put his arm around my shoulder and led me back into the house.