It was a Saturday, one of those long, sweltering summer days in Texas when the heat builds and builds for hours until the air is so heavy and close it’s an effort just to breathe. The sun bakes the top of your head and burns the tops of your feet.
If you turn on the hose for a drink you have to remember to wait until the boiling water in it has been completely flushed out, and you still need to be careful not to touch the blistering metal end with your lips. You’re so hot you stick your whole face into the cool water rushing from the hose and drench yourself all over. That’s a mistake. The relief lasts about two seconds before your wet clothes encase you in a stifling steamy blanket.
It’s so hot you can burn your hand opening a car door. You don’t dare walk barefoot on the cement; there are stories about people’s feet melting into the sidewalk.
The asphalt gums up the bottoms of your shoes if you make the mistake of walking in the street.
Indoors is even worse, close and still and breathless, unless your house happens to have an air conditioner, still considered an expensive luxury in our neighborhood. We have an old refurbished one in the living room window. It makes noisy clattering sounds and the fan is weak, but it delivers a few moments of blessed relief as long as I stay no more than two inches from it. Every time I stand in front of it my sister gets mad at me for hogging it and accuses me of stealing her cold air. As soon as we start arguing Mom makes me go back outside.
There’s not a lot to do when it’s that hot. Baseball, or anything that involves running is way too taxing when just being in the sun makes your knees wobbly. Making a fort is way too much work. So is a lemonade stand.
You can watch bugs in the grass for only so long.
That day Billy had something really interesting. A magnifying glass. It was fun to look at things blown up several times their normal size. A blade of grass revealed details you wouldn‘t ever notice otherwise. An ant was revealed as a terrifying monster. Gray pebbles became multi-colored boulders. This was fun!
Five of us were sharing one glass. I got impatient waiting for a turn and ran back in the house. Mom found a little plastic one I could have. I was looking at a leaf when a tiny dark spot began to swell and smoke, and a little hole burned itself all the way through. It didn’t take us long to figure out how to focus the sun down to a scorching point and burn things. I scalloped the edge of a blade of grass. We found a feather and made it curl up on itself. We cut a piece of string in half.
At some point we decided to see if we could actually light something on fire and moved to the empty lot next to the Maddox’s house. By mid-summer the knee-high grass and weeds there had turned from lush spring green to dried-up brown. We made a pile of dead grass and tried to light it with the magnifying glasses. We got individual leaves to turn black and smoke a little but couldn’t coax an actual flame. We tried focusing both magnifying glasses on the same spot simultaneously, with the same result.
I had an idea. I ran back across the street to my house and opened the door as quietly as I could. Fortunately, the air conditioner was running and it masked the sound. Mom was in the kitchen, so the coast was clear. Mom kept a pack of cigarettes in a drawer in the table next to the upholstered chair in the living room. I opened it and found her Marlboros and a box of matches.
Back at the lot, I triumphantly held up the box of matches. My friends were amazed. None of them was allowed to use matches. I assured them that I, being mature and wise for my age, had permission. I struck a match and held it to the pile of dead grass, which caught immediately. In seconds we had a nice roaring flame going. Everyone agreed that I had had a brilliant idea. I was the hero of the day.
Then the flame started to spread.
It began to occur to use that maybe it would be a good idea to put it out. Someone found a cardboard box a few feet away in the weeds. We covered the flame with it. Whew! That did it!
No, it didn’t. The box was now on fire. And soon, so was the grass around the box.
I had another brilliant idea. I ran home as fast as I could and went into my room., which was in the back of the house as far away from the empty lot as I could get. I pulled out my pencil and paper and began to draw, whistling virtuously for good measure. With any luck, Mom would think I’d been there all along.
Pretty soon the yells from across the street caught her attention. She went to the front door, looked out and gasped.
“What going on?” I asked, as innocently as I could.
She didn’t answer. She ran out of the house and across the street and started banging on the Maddox’s front door. At the same time, Mr. Maddox came around the corner from the back of his house, carrying a hose that was already gushing water. Calmly, he extinguished the blaze, which had by now consumed a quarter of the lot. By the time the fire was out, half the parents and most of the kids on the block had gathered there.
I retreated to my bedroom.
Not for long. Mom came in, grabbed me by the arm and dragged me out of the house and across the street. The other kids were there with their parents.
“Okay, boys, how did the fire start?” Billy’s Dad asked.
I was afraid that someone would tell about the matches, but nobody said anything. They all just looked at their feet.
“This is serious. You boys all know better. You could have burned down the Maddox’s house.” He pointed at the black scorch marks on the side of the garage. “I want each and every one of you to apologize.”
We all shuffled over to Mr. Maddox and one by one told him we were sorry. He nodded, but didn’t say much of anything.
When we got back to our house, Mom was furious.
“Eddie, you were told never to play with matches.”
“Why are you blaming me?” I asked, looking as innocent as I could.
“Where did you get them?”
“Why do you think it was me?”
“Because I know you, and I know it was you.”
“That’s not fair!” I protested.
“Come on, where did you get the matches?”
She opened the drawer where she kept her cigarettes. Her matches were, of course, gone, burned up in the field across the street. Busted. Worst of all, Mom made me go across the street and tell everyone what I’d done.
I was grounded for the rest of Saturday, and for the whole next day. Sunday afternoon I saw that Mr. Maddox was painting over the black marks on the side of his garage. I felt pretty guilty knowing that he was spending his day off fixing something that was my fault. Dad agreed to let me out of the house so I could offer to assist him.
For some reason he didn’t want my help.