Afterburn

Given that I was seven years old in 1968, I didn’t want to hear about college students dropping acid and prancing around nude in public places, or Muhammad Ali shouting, “I ain’t got no beef with them Viet Cong!” or the Soviet menace, or Richard Nixon, or Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, or Herman Hesse, or the Chicago riots, or burning bras, or Neo-Realist cinema, or anything else painful, incendiary, ugly, or obscure. I didn’t care about the horrible mess the world had gotten itself into, and I wasn’t interested in anybody’s grand cultural statements. I just wanted a minibike for Christmas.

But there was nothing to be done. America had spun out of control by then, and so disruptive currents still flooded into my daily routine whether I wanted them to or not. There was no escaping them. Beatles lyrics, for instance, had become so puzzling that I couldn’t really follow them anymore. John Lennon was singing things like, “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, it is not dying, it is not dying. . . ,” which made me wonder what was wrong with him.

I also noticed very weird changes taking place within my family. My older brother had traded in his crewcut for a hairstyle that reminded me of Prince Valiant, which is what I called him when I knew I had a good running start. My older sisters were dressing like gypsies, plastering gauche little stick-on flowers all over their cars, and dating boyfriends who talked a lot about Canada, the Coast Guard, and heart murmurs. And as a result of my naivete, my mother and father considered me their last hope in upholding long-held family traditions they had spent decades cultivating simply because I had no concept of  “family tradition.” In short, I was stuck in a crossfire of generations when all I really wanted to do was be a little boy.

We lived in a private neighborhood of secluded houses overlooking Long Island Sound, and when it was warm and sunny, I spent as much time as I could down by the water. I would swim, snorkel, spearfish, rock-hop over the jetties, scavenge the coastline, examine seagull nests, things that made me happy. The quickest route to my favorite stretch of beach was through the Willoughbys’ back yard and down a fifty-yard flight of rickety wooden steps. At the bottom of the cliff, an old cabana that must have been a loud shade of aqua at one time sat by the stairway landing. My friends and I used the cabana now and again for squirt gun fights, blackjack, and sharing dirty jokes that none of us really understood at all, although we pretended we did. But we had also heard rumors of teenagers sneaking down to the cabana at night, smoking cigarettes, drinking Miller High Life, and trading nasty secrets about one another that they actually put into practice.

The cigarette issue was a big one. Most of the neighborhood parents were certain that teenage smoking was a hideous consequence of the changing social climate, which seemed strange to me because the local housewives smoked like dragons during their afternoon bridge games. Whatever the case, one weekend afternoon as I played alone by the Sound, my suspicions were confirmed. Bored from skipping rocks at low tide, I decided to make a quick reconnaissance of the cabana before heading home. I scurried over the rocks, leaped up the cabana steps, and peered around the corner of the first doorway.

There on the floor lay a box of matches. My heart started pounding. My parents had warned me never to play with matches, but this demand struck me as being wildly unfair. After all, wasn’t I almost eight years old? Hadn’t I won my second-grade spelling bee? What harm could I do with a box of matches? And besides, the matches were in one of those red and blue cardboard boxes with brown strips on each side, and the matches themselves were the solid wooden kind with big red bulbous heads, the kind that grownups could spark up with the snap of a thumbnail. No normal seven-year-old could resist such temptation. I pulled a match from the half-opened box and struck it against the tinder two or three times until it flared into a glorious little fireball. Impressed by the natural grace of my accomplishment, I sauntered over to a wall, placed the match under a window ledge, and ignited an abandoned spider web. Then, just before the match could burn my fingers, I blew it out—a very daring yet practical gesture, I thought.

It was a foregone conclusion. The matches were mine, and as I climbed the Willoughbys’ steps, I mulled over how to smuggle them past my mother and into my bedroom dresser next to the steel-tipped darts Billy McCallum had given me. Three-quarters of the way up the steps, I noticed that the vines and crabgrass along the cliff were unusually dry. I figured a small fire on the hillside might make for good practice. I scanned the area to make sure that nobody was watching, crouched down, struck a match, and placed it under a dry patch of densely coiled tangleweed.

Within seconds, flames shot through the undergrowth like a swarm of army ants charging from a leveled anthill. I stomped furiously around the edge of the fire, but for the first time since finding the matches, I noticed that I was shoeless and wearing only a tight blue bathing suit. The flames were now a full ten feet in diameter and belching thick plumes of smoke, some of which were beginning to trickle across the Willoughbys’ lawn. A familiar numbness seized me, and inexplicably I remembered the day my father caught me dropping handfuls of pebbles into the gas tank of his new Chevrolet convertible. I threw the matchbox in the fire, flew up the remaining steps, and sprinted across the Willoughbys’ back yard, squealing, “Dr. Willoughby! Dr. Willoughby! The cliff’s on fire! The cliff’s on fire! The cliff’s on fire!”

In the gray zone between joy and terror, I watched Willoughbys pour from every door. Dr. Willoughby, our family dentist of seven years, skidded to a halt in the middle of the yard and stared at the flames, his eyes twitching beneath his coke-bottle glasses, his body trembling violently. I’d certainly never seen him like this. He’d always seemed so cool in his dentist’s office when he strapped the ether mask on my head and tested his drills. He managed to gain just enough composure to size things up, spin toward Mrs. Willoughby, and shout, “Harriet, call the neighbors fast! Run, dammit, run! Then get back here as fast as you can!” Whirling on his teenage children, he barked, “Wendy and Warren, fill the water buckets in the garage and dump them over the cliff! Move it, Goddammit! Get the lead out!” Then he charged back to the house, grabbed a thick green garden hose, hauled it across the yard, and spewed water into a thick wall of smoke engulfing the steps.

Within minutes, the entire neighborhood battled flames that had by then overrun a row of low hedges and advanced several feet into the Willoughbys’ lawn. I remember the rest of the fire mostly as a montage of noise, violence, and determination: Mr. Bouton, a wealthy foreign expatriate who flew a French flag in his front yard, tripping over Danke, the Willoughbys’ German Shepherd, and spewing a vicious diatribe of French invectives at the befuddled dog; my father, overworked, exhausted, and furious that another weekend had been ruined, manning the other waterhose like a cornered badger; my mother and three other housewives on a flank of the hillside covering the fire with shovels-full of dirt; and Mr. Brodelle, a grave eighty-year-old widower in the early stages of Parkinson’s, the stern recluse of the neighborhood who normally left his house only at sunrise and sunset to gaze at the Sound, limping across the lawn with buckets in each hand, his withered face a contorted mask of ever-deepening furrows.

I felt the worst for Mr. Brodelle because he had always been very kind to me. Every now and then, we would run into each other near the top of the cliff steps early in the morning and watch the sunbeams spread across the water. One morning, he even thanked me for “being a nice young man who would never hurt anybody’s feelings,” which we both knew was an exaggeration, but at the time, I understood what he was trying to say to me. And to all of their credit, within two hours, the neighbors of Old Field Place managed to subdue a baby inferno that could have grown into a local newsflash had it been given another ten minutes or so of unattended freedom.

As the last threatening embers were being doused, I knew a tribunal of angry parents would be posing some serious questions. This scared me more than the fire itself. As I expected, Dr. Willoughby and my father were the first to walk over. They studied each other carefully for a moment, then stared back down at me. The others staggered up and surrounded me in a tight circle. My dog Wolf sensed the danger and brushed gently back and forth across my knees as if to say he believed in my good-natured innocence and would stroll that extra mile with me regardless of what anyone else thought and despite what I might actually have done. I loved that dog.

Dr. Willoughby’s glasses were coated with soot, his shirt smoldered, and dried spittle was caked on his chin and around the corners of his mouth. Slowly, he reached up, grabbed my shoulders—a bit too firmly, I thought—and in a gravelly near-whisper said, “I bet you know what happened, Eric. Who started the fire?”

So there in the smoky silence, I confronted my first great moment of truth. Would I be noble in defeat, admit my guilt, and suffer the consequences, or would I lie? I gazed up at my father. He wore that strange and terrible expression of a man ready to either explode into an uncontrollable rage or melt into a weary mass of relief and surrender. I could only conjure scrambled visions of dark punishments fading into still darker ones no matter what I said, my brain screaming help but there was no help, and my breathing slowed and then my thoughts did too, decelerating to a crawl, just numbness and the brain a lone blue whale gasping on the sand, flat, torpid, everything around me as silent and static as the middle of the night but not peaceful like after a good dream, silent after a nightmare, and the circle of accusers a grotesque tableau of sweat, oil, and anger, my temples pounding the mesmeric rhythm heard only in moments of unconditional desperation, and then in near surrender, just three words away, I almost knelt before the judge and jury and accepted the sentence, the inevitable banishment or worse, no matter how bad it would be.

But just before I said anything, I threw a quick glance at Wendy and Warren and all the other pubescents leering like jackals over a putrefying carcass, excitement glittering in their feral little faces, and suddenly I felt a surge as a voice inside my head shot out of the silence, life-force returning, golden animation, the desire to hop across the jetty rocks again and again, to live and be loved, to breathe the open air for just one more second, and then another, and then another, the nimbus of youth still visible, not wholly a lost vapor. My arm shot out. I pointed north, scrunched up my eyes, and said, “I saw two guys walking that way along the beach just before the fire. Maybe they did it. They looked like teenagers.”

Dr. Willoughby’s head jerked back as if he’d just been clipped by a sharp uppercut. He pivoted toward the Sound and stared blankly at the charred cliff, his left cheek twitching. For a good 20 seconds or so he just kept staring at the Sound. Nobody said a word. Finally, he removed his glasses, rubbed the bridge of his nose, lowered his head, and muttered, “This is never gonna end, is it Harriet? What in the world did we ever do to deserve this?” He sized me up briefly. He was probing, I knew, but it was as if he’d already decided something. Then his face took on the look of a satyr. He said, “Teenagers, huh Eric?”

The crowd was edgy. Several adults shifted uneasily from foot to foot and whispered among themselves, their eyes riveted to Dr. Willoughby. My father wrapped his arm around me gently, protectively, and asked, “What else, Eric? Were they headed toward the cove?”

I was gaining momentum. I spoke quickly: “Yeah. Yeah, Dad! They were headed toward the cove! There was a Boston Whaler docked over there too! Maybe they came in from Port Jeff, but I couldn’t tell, but one of ‘em was smoking a cigarette. I saw it with my own eyes!” With that, the mob exploded like a hydrogen bomb.

“That’s it,” Dr. Willoughby hissed. “No more Jimi Hendrix in our house Wendy and Warren. Got it? And the nine o’clock curfew? Back in full force until Harriet says otherwise. Got that, too? Harriet, call the cops. Let’s get these punks.”

And so it went. I stood bewildered amid the cacophony of threats and gossip, thinking what a miracle it was that anyone, and especially grownups, could believe such a desperate lie. Mr. Brodelle stood silently at the edge of the crowd. He stared at me very deliberately, without a hint of malice, just deliberately, his head bobbing slowly up and down like a metronome ticking at low cadence.