f alienating the local fire department and turning my beloved cats against me wasn’t enough—and it wasn’t—I soon set higher and more elaborately mischievous goals.
Getting stuck in the upper cleavage of a tall fir tree was at best embarrassing, and feeding sleeping powder to cats, an idea borrowed straight from Tom Sawyer. So much child’s play for mixed results.
So why, then, not up the ante?
In this instance, the ante went by the name “matches,” long wooden kitchen matches, to be precise.
I loved lighting them, inhaling the ignited sulphur and sending them on their way from porch to pavement, where I’d dutifully collect them so no one knew what I was up to (though my mother did wonder why her matches seemed to vanish in large quantities).
I conducted my fire experiments after school and when my mother went shopping, making sure the cats were around to admire my courage and bravado with fire. They’d camp together and stare at me, running with each tossed match, only to return for the maestro’s next trick.
But this, admittedly, grew boring. The matches flew and fizzled. The cats stopped scurrying, let alone applauding.
This is when I hatched my master plan.
One evening, when my parents set out for a Washington cocktail party, leaving me in the hands of the sunny and sweet maid Mozelle, I snuck down from the bedroom to the living room with my fat box of mischief sticks. Once there (Mozelle was in the kitchen), I schemed what to do next. My first idea was to light them up together in the empty fireplace, but that seemed banal.
It was then I saw the big window near the bookcase and decided I’d open it and fling the fire into the space between our house and that of the neighbors. Who knows, I might attract an appreciative audience.
But matches, like mischief, have a mind of their own. They seem keen (like sleeping powder) on making sure their owners face the prospect of accounting for their actions.
My first lit match soared wonderfully out the window, and I whispered a howl of delight.
The second was even more illustriously bright.
But the third, oh the third: I struck it hard but it exploded in my small hand and made its way not out the window but only to the silk curtains, which in an instant turned into a heaping ball of fire that singed my face and hair and scarred all the wood in black ash.
Terrified, I surveyed the damage and decided on an exit strategy, which, highly sophisticated in nature, saw me run to the kitchen, face burned and hair sooty, screaming: “I didn’t do it!” in my most convincing voice.
Mozelle saw my burned shirt and marched me backwards to the living room. “I’m calling the fire department,” she said, but after my tree escapade that sounded like my end of days.
No, I begged her; all was fine. Nothing was on fire. It had simply happened. All she needed to know and memorize was that I had not done it.
She shut me in my room, swept up the ashes (I heard the broom), and my parents returned some thirty minutes later.
I expected the worst: screaming, shouting, punishment, and maybe even a slap from my father if I dared say, “I didn’t do it,” so I sat frozen in my bed.
The next morning, a Sunday, I emerged sheepishly and saw my mother putting clothes in a drawer. She said nothing. I crept downstairs, where my father saw me and his nostrils flared. But he said nothing.
I whimpered and sobbed but this had no effect. This silent treatment went on for the whole of the day. As did discussions between my parents as to how to repair the damage done. When I sulked back upstairs I saw my shirt and all else that had been scorched was gone, no doubt to be placed in evidence when the trial began.
Only at dinner did my father break his silence with one line,
“You could have burned the house to the ground.” Then, “You could have killed Mozelle, the cats, everyone…”
The tree, the cat poisoning, now a fire, what next?
I looked first at my father and then at my mother and said, “Never again, I promise.”
Silence. I promised again but was sent to my room.
I thought about all the harm I’d caused, and vowed to stick with my promise.
I promised and promised and promised until I realized each promise was little more than a ferocious attempt to make the past go away.
It wouldn’t, of course, and never does even in adult affairs—errors repeated like clockwork—but if this sort of truancy was my gold standard, there must be another side to it, something insurgent. Such an effort, I knew, would tax my subversive temptations to the limit. Was I up to it?
Oh yes, I was.