Sunday, September 7, 2014

Playing With Fire

I told the cashier my father lost his lighter and that he asked me to go to the corner store to buy him a replacement. The cashier, my father’s age, Indian and thick-browed, squinted at me and looked at the crisp five-dollar bill in my hand, carefully selected and carried into the store in my hand to create the illusion it came straight from a parent’s wallet, bestowed from father to son for a specific errand.

A few seconds passed before he parted his lips. “What color?”

“It doesn’t matter.” I made that decision on the fly. My friend, who fronted the five dollars on the condition that I’d make the purchase, had told me to buy a blue one, but decided that no grown up would really care about the color of the lighter--just that it would produce a flame to light cigarettes, cigars, birthday cake candles.

The cashier turned to the cardboard display of Bic lighters behind him, arranged in rows by color. Only two blue ones left. Three greens. Four or five reds. And, filled to capacity, over a dozen ugly, canned-tuna-colored lighters. Naturally, he picked one of those.

He punched the keys on the register and read off the total. I held out the five and cupped my other hand to accept the change.

Outside the store, Billy waited for me. “How’d it go?”

I flashed a grin and held out the lighter in my hand. “Who’s the man?”

Billy squinted. “All they had was tan?”

On the walk home, I explained the rationale for taking whatever color the cashier would give me, and we debated whether I should pay for half the lighter after messing up the hue.

We forgot all that when we got home to his place. He dragged a big cardboard box from his garage—the packaging for his family’s new TV. For a second, I thought he meant to torch the whole thing. Instead, we spent the next hour breaking of clumps of Styrofoam padding from within the box, setting them on fire, and leaving them out on the street for passing cars to swerve around or run over.

In retrospect, I envision an Oldsmobile with an unsuspected gas leak. I see a new driver veering around the flames and straight into a tree.

But little of consequence happened. More often than not, the fires burned themselves out inside of thirty seconds with little dramatic effect.

And so we advanced to the next stage of Billy’s vision, uncoiling a spool of thread around his driveway with designs on setting the whole thing alight so we could shoot hoops inside a ring of fire. With shaking fingers, I tried my hand for the first time, pressing my thumb to the cold, ridged steel of flint wheel and flicking it downward. Marveling that despite my inability to generate enough hot air to inflate a balloon or to ever fold a paper airplane that would take flight, that I could, just that simply, create a flame.

Be it a demonstration of the principles of physics or a merciful instance of divine intervention, we couldn’t get our ring of fire burning, and before long Billy’s parents got home. Billy retained custody of the lighter. I don’t recall that the two of us ever used it together again, nor that he was ever caught with it.

For the responsible adults reading this post, and particularly any child who might stumble upon it, I wish I could share a moral at the end of this story. That we came to some grand epiphany about the dangers of fire or at least playing with traffic, and that we wised up. Because the truth is that fire is dangerous, and playing with it is stupid.

Just the same, kids do stupid things. To play. To experiment. To learn. And if they survive such experiences, literally and figuratively unscathed, and don’t grow up to become true pyromaniacs, then I dare say the story itself is the worth the while.

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