Girls don’t start fires, do they?

dad reads me a story

Tonight I listened to people talk about fire–an escape from fire, an attempted suicide by fire, art made with fire. A few weeks ago, my mother-in-law’s church was set on fire. I learned that over 80% of arsonists are men and that most kids who play with fire are boys.

In the eighth grade I would stick crayons and pencils into the space heater to watch them melt or scar. I hid them in a metal box in my sock drawer. That was when I lived with my mother. When I lived with my father I placed crayons and paper in a pitcher and set them on fire in my room. The pitcher was plastic. A hole opened up on the side. Flames shot out. I rushed to the bathroom and threw it in the tub. Then I had to clean the mess up before my dad got home. I buried the pitcher in the field next door at ten o-clock at night. I was in the ninth grade. Sometime later my dad asked me if I had seen the yellow pitcher. “No,” I said. “Not for a while.”

I was in the tenth grade living with my dad when I started my period. Until I got the courage to tell my dad I would empty the carton the tampons came in and burn the box in the fireplace. I’d then sweep up the ashes and dump them into the bottom of the outdoor garbage can. I burned a Cosmopolitan magazine that way too.

When I was very little, we had to burn our trash. I remember peering over the side of the stone wall my dad built around the pit. Bits of paper and sparks flew into the air. Eventually we got trash service and the pit disappeared. A pool is there now.

In 7th grade I knew these sisters whose house had burned down. The younger sister had been home at the time and her skin twisted up from her legs to her face. She was a tough girl. She and her sister got into fights more days than they didn’t.

Did Kafka want his manuscripts burned when he died? Or was that Nabokov? How many writers condemn words to the flame? I burned all the poems I wrote in high school. They did need to be disposed of, but they didn’t deserve the drama.

Have you…would you ever burn your writing? Do you have some secret stash or unfinished work you’d like to know that no one will see after you die? After my mother died, I found a novel she’d been writing. I keep it in a metal box and wonder what to do with it.

19 thoughts on “Girls don’t start fires, do they?

  1. Jay Stober

    I know I got burned before when I tried to distinguish truth from fiction, but that photograph is too good to be real life. How do they set up the lighting to get those effects? The elegance of that candle, the fully absorbed expressions of the figures! The actors must have posed, and rehearsed fifty times before they got it right. I think it’s an early scene in a thriller. Was it the bad weather caused the power to fail just as it washed out the only bridge connecting sleepy little Snoopyville with the mainland? Or does somebody know something, and they just aren’t saying?

    I believe it was Kafka who asked for his papers to be burned. Nabokov was an anal retentive of the anal retentives. His study was lined with the boxes they use in university libraries for unbound periodicals. He rewrote and rewrote but let nothing go. Freud kept all his love letters to his future wife. Presumably he thought history would want them. But apparently, after she died, he burned all the letters Martha had written him. How did his wife see the great man? We’ll never know.

    1. My mother was taking a photography class and had us pose–sort of. It was normal for my dad to read to me and it was normal for me to have Snoopy. She added the candle and took several shots to get that one. And then I had to go to sleep. Oh, and she may have had a filter on her camera. Sometimes she did that.

      I think that recently Nabokov’s son published the half-finished novel his father had wanted destroyed. I read different opinions about whether or not the son should’ve followed his father wishes.

  2. Great picture of you and your dad.

    I think that story about the yellow pitcher is one of the funniest stories you’ve ever told on yourself here, and that’s saying something. If you ever want to try your luck as an onstage monologuist, right there’s the keystone of the show.

    The Missus and I once burned, well, let’s say it was a stack of paper which was doing us collectively much more harm than it was doing it either of us good. (Enigmatic enough for you?) We did it in a charcoal grill, and after setting it alight we watched for a while as the smoke rose and ashes dispersed in the breeze. Huge catharsis, y’know?, and afterwards I completely understood the huge attractions to be found in burning things — attractions of irreversibility, of plain old gone-ness.

    But that also makes burning things pretty damn scary, especially once you’ve been through enough experiences that you wish you could have burned, but didn’t, and whose traces you were later very happy to have discovered still lying around. Like, how many things do I really want to lose, forever? Am I that good a judge of what I’ll ever need and not need?

    (Of course, the downside of carrying this question too far is that you don’t get rid of enough.)

    I do love fire. (Not enough to set fires randomly, haphazardly, etc. — and if I’m ever a suspect in an arson investigation, this comment will probably come back to haunt me.) The Missus’s father was a big-city fireman pretty much his whole life, so she’s got a much different take on it.

  3. I had an uncle who died from a yeast infection. He got the infection when he was 20 years old. He went with a friend to visit someone else’s house. They were having a house party and there was much drinking and loud music. One of the homeowners worked on a car in the tiny garage, and in those old suburban San Francisco houses the water heaters stood in a corner of the garage. A doorway led to a back room behind the garage, divided by the staircase leading to the main living level.

    The people who owned the house put security bars on their windows. It’s not a great neighborhood; it’s not a great town. My uncle and his friend went into that back room and the clot of people working on that car in the garage kept on drinking. The car was propped on those steel standards which hold a car up so you can get under it to work. I guess during the course of working on the car, it was tipped so the metal stand came loose and the curved edges of the platform on which the car rests punctured the gas tank. The gas ran over the concrete floor and under the water heater.

    The ensuing explosion killed almost everyone in the garage, including the drunk under the car. Those in the back room were trapped by the flames on one side and the security bars over the window. Eye witness accounts vary, but the only way my uncle and his friend had to get out was through the inferno.

    They wrapped themselves in sheets, so their bodies — including their arms — were covered as much as possible. On a three-count they sprinted out of the smoke-choked room and into the fire. The sheets roared to flames in short order, and my uncle’s friend dashed, singed but otherwise intact, out onto the front lawn. He turned but didn’t see my uncle. He called. No answer.

    He raced back inside and found my uncle sprawled in what was left of his sheet and burning. He grabbed the prone figure and dragged him out of the flaming liquid on the garage floor, receiving third-degree burns on his hands for his effort, and screaming all the way in agony. He used his own sheet and jacket to beat the flames out on my uncle’s motionless body and then the scream of the sirens reached him.

    My uncle was burned over 70% of his body. Not his body surface, his body, inside AND out. He tripped on the drunk mechanic’s toolbox in flight and fell. He couldn’t use his hands to stop himself and he got knocked unconscious when his head hit the pavement. He inhaled burning gas, flames and smoke for however long it took for his friend to discover him and get him out of the inferno.

    I was there, an 11 year-old boy visiting his best friend and staying with his grandmother, when the authorities knocked on my grandmother’s door that night to tell her what happened and where my uncle had been taken.

    Three weeks later, he died in the hospital. From a yeast infection which ran rampant in his fire-ravaged body and which the hospital couldn’t treat because of the extent of the burns, the amount of tissue damage. A simple, common yeast infection killed him.

    I don’t play with fire. The Delete key works just fine for me.

    1. That is a horrifying story, Darc. Thank you for sharing it. My condolences to your family. At least you learned something–though at too high a price. For all the damage I saw done by fire, I couldn’t resist it. I do now. Just so you know. No more fires here. I’ve got a kid to think about.

      I won’t forget that story. It’s been in my head all day.

  4. I burned my journal when I turned 18. Something about putting childish things behind me. If only it were that easy! And cotton balls were fun to burn, but other than that and pictures of ex boyfriends, I can’t say I was every a pyro. It is mesmerizing to watch though, and I could stare for hours into the eyes of a fire.

    As for your mother’s novel – you could take her ideas and incorporate them into your own stories, maybe. Like a blend or something. Maybe you’ll come up with an idea for this years NaNo. 🙂

    1. For all my fire moments, I just threw my journal in the trash. Not as satisfying. I never burned a picture of an ex, but I did burn a picture of a former friend. I poked holes in the eyes of the picture to see if I could get flames to shoot out.

  5. I tend to favor shredders. Hand-shredding and recycling is fine. Kafka told his friend Max Brod to burn his manuscripts but I think it was Nabokov who said that if he really wanted them burned, he would have done it himself. It’s true. Kafka surely knew that story would go a long way to inflame imaginations.

  6. Your writing is really great. I enjoy it.

    As for burning: the only thing I ever burned was a diary I kept when I was 12 or 13. It held all my really embarrassing secrets, such as the boys I had crushes on and the girls I was nice to but secretly couldn’t stand.

  7. lazym

    Hi, Marta!
    I haven’t burned any poems or stories (though I’ve lost quite a few, one way or another). After I graduated from college, I did burn quite a few of my drawings and paintings on paper. It felt good to get rid of the dregs. I still have quite a few left, though. Maybe it’s time for another purge.

    Your mention of crayons reminded me – I used to have an electric play stove when I was little. I’d melt crayons in a pan on the stove. And then what? And why? I have no idea. We also used to heat up marbles on a cookie sheet in the oven and then plunge them into ice water so they would crack. Sometimes they cracked into pieces and sometimes just glazed up inside.

    Oh! and in high school, someone showed me a way to attach a dry cleaner’s bag to a bent coat hanger, attach it to the ceiling fixture, and set it on fire. Very dramatic and cool colors. You’ll want a pail of water underneath for the greasy stuff to fall into – if you try this at home.

    1. Ooo. I like the marble idea. I really want to try that. But the dry cleaner bag thing scares me. I’d worry it’d set the ceiling on fire.

      As for your art–don’t purge under the wrong circumstances.

  8. brinkmanship

    I burned everything I wrote in high school in a tennis ball can, back when the cans were made of metal. Then I would flush the small amount of charred paper that remained. I did not burn my writing for dramatic effect. My goal as a teen was to be invisible in all situations, and for the most part, I succeeded. Burning my writing was another instance of rendering myself invisible, or maybe just a form of insurance so that my parents couldn’t read what I wrote. The drama happened if they found my writing, and then it was black eye, bloody nose kind of drama. Now I’m nearly 40, a responsible adult with a child and a job and a mortgage, and I still feel the same as I did at 12 or 14 or 16 or 18 years old: my parents suck. Maybe I’m a perennial adolescent, or maybe they really do suck. I’m going with the latter even though, as I type, I’m suddently aware of just how angry I still feel about things that happened decades ago. I remember all those nights feeding pages of notebook paper to the flames in the tennis ball can. I haven’t thought about those nights for a long time.

    1. If drama with your parents involved black eyes, then your parents did suck. Sorry, but nothing a child writes (a person writes) needs a bloody nose.

      Sometimes I think we are all teenagers forever. I carry those wounds with me always, ready to hurt at a moments notice. That is an interesting way you dealt with what was going on then. I hope it is okay to think about those nights again.

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