It started out small. That’s how these things begin. No addiction starts out full-blown. It’s a ladder. Soon you need to climb higher to feel the same rush you felt initially.
I remember the first time I held it in my hands. It was as if I was possessed. Just the smell of it aroused me. I held it up and gazed at its beauty, admiring its shape, and color, before sliding the head of the match along the side of the strike anywhere box. There was a poof then a hiss. A plume of smoke wafted up into my nasal cavity, bringing a slight sting to my sinuses and a watering of my eyes. I beheld what was before me, bewitched.
It was intoxicating. It was hypnotizing. It was fire. It was my first love.
At first I was content with lighting matches. I would gleefully watch the flame do the mambo on the tip of the toothpick thin stick, and the white gold colored teardrop inchworm down to my fingertips before blowing it out.
Next I’d plug up the sink and pour rubbing alcohol in the sink and set fire to it, and watch the mini lake of sulfur burn. Soon the thrill was gone, and I went in search of a bigger rush. I didn’t have to look for long. In fact I hardly had to look at all because It found me when one day a friend told me that if you combine fire with an aerosol can you can make a flame thrower…or a bomb if the flame happens to get sucked into the can, but the chances of that happening were minuscule.
There was a moment of hesitation as my forefinger hovered over the trigger of the can of my mother’s hairspray she used to tease her hair. In my other hand I held a lit match with a pair of tweezers. Even though my frontal lobes had not yet fully developed I wasn’t a Neanderthal. Some precautions had been taken. I was in the bathroom. At least if it became bomb it would be contained, although I would have to explain to my family why the bathroom had been converted into an outhouse if things went south.
A foot long flame erupted from the nozzle head.
“Whoa!” I paused and perked up my ears to see if my mother had heard me. I opened the bathroom door and heard only the distant chatter of her keyboard in her upstairs office.
From the corner of my eye I spied a spider. My eyes narrowed to slits. Spiders and I have history. Dark history. I loathe the furry little molesters. Ceiling corner creepers.
Growing up we’d often find spiders in our house. It’s what happens when you live in the woods. One time I was lying in my bed late at night listening to Lights Out with Delilah on 92.5 FM, dreaming of the day when I would fall in love when a spider fell from the ceiling onto my face. I shot out of bed, flipped on the light, and pancaked that sucker with a sneaker within five seconds flat.
As I was saying, from the corner of my eye I spied a spider. I turned to the spider. I could see the flame reflecting in its beady black eyes. I stifled a sinister snicker. The spider shifted uncomfortably, unaware of what was about to happen. I pulled the trigger. A foot long flame shot forth from the nozzle head. “You fiend!” I yelled as the spider burst into flames, and squealed before dropping like a meteorite into the bathtub. From then on this became my preferred method of killing spiders.
One day my friend, Carl from Captain Wilkes Elementary School, came over to play. I suggested we go play in the woods, and beat bushes with sticks. I decided to bring all the makings for a bonfire, minus the wood. I figured that would be easy enough to find since it was everywhere. Carl didn’t have much to say as I wrapped rocks in paper, lit them on fire and threw them randomly into the woods while I saying, “I’m Mario!”
We stumbled upon the remains of what was once a towering cedar tree. The stump was approximately ten feet high by four feet wide. It had huckleberry hair, crooked eyes, and a gaping mouth which may have been a wild animal’s home at one time. It looked like some ancient pagan god, begging to be fed.
Together Carl and I stuffed its mouth with the funny pages, and lit them on fire. We watched it burn. It slowly started to catch fire. I fed it some more, and the fire grew in girth. I looked at Carl who had this look on his face I’ve seen on an animal’s face right before they’re about to be brained by a car bumper or roller pinned by a tire.
“I think I hear my mom calling,” Carl said.
“Dude, your house is like a mile away,” I said as Carl tripped on vines, brambles, and fern’s in his haste.
I shrugged and returned to feeding the pagan god, Humpty Stumpy. I sat on my haunches in reverence, watching the flames rise higher, until Humpty Stumpy had become a pillar of fire. That’s when it hit. The Fear. I looked above me and saw that the fire was spreading to the surrounding branches. I didn’t know what to do so I hurried back to the house, figuring if I couldn’t see the problem it didn’t exist. My father was in the process of dividing a felled tree in preparation for the coming winter.
“What’s up buddy?” He asked. He smelled of woodchips, sweat, and chainsaw fuel.
“Nothing.” I could hear a crackle and pop in the yonder. We stared at each other for a moment. It’s funny how when you’ve done something terrible you feel like the whole world knows what you just did. The weight of guilt can be smothering. “What’s that sound?” I asked nervously, secretly wishing to be found out so I could be saved.
“Probably pine cones.”
“Pine cones?” This bewildered me.
“The summer heat can sometimes cause their nuts pop.” For most of my childhood I had been playing under pine trees that were busting their nuts in summer heat. Horrible.
In the distance came the howling of a siren. Each second it was getting louder until it was practically in our backyard. These are the final moments of my life, I thought as I stood there overcome with dread, watching the fire truck roll down the next-door neighbor’s gravel road. A neighbor had seen the woods were on fire, and called the fire department in a panic. I ran to my room to find my fig leaf, you know because avoidance solves everything.
When the firemen came to our door I caved. I tearfully confessed to my mother I was the one responsible for setting our woods on fire.
“They’re going to take you to jail,” my sister told me with much regret.
“Mother, don’t let them take me,” I pleaded. “I’m too young to go to jail,” I bawled.
I was informed that the fire chief wanted to have a word with me. I expected to see him standing there, waiting for me, brandished fire ax, ready to split my head like a log.
I went to face my fate. I walked outside and approached the fire chief. I squinted as I looked up at him with my tear stained eyes. I cringed when he opened his mouth, but instead of barking at me he let me off with a warning, told me not to do it again, and if I did then there would be consequences.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
He gave me a lighthearted smile and turned to walk back to the fire truck. Maybe he had a son about my age back home. Or maybe he was a reformed pyromaniac. Or maybe he understood that we all make mistakes and need a little grace from time to time.
The first few years of my life feel like a fog without any sort of clear timeline. Much of it seems like tiny Polaroid pictures. Like the time my sister told me a mud puddle was really chocolate milk and I believed her. Or the time when I gave my cat a haircut, or when I poked her in the anus because I thought it was some sort of button and I wondered what would happen if I pressed it. Then there were the times I’d sneak shots out of the bottle of Pepto-Bismol from my parent’s medicine cabinet. Or the time another kid and I at Camelot Elementary, or Camel Snot as we called it, thought it would be fun to fire our shoes into the air to see how high we could kick them. When I came back in to class and the teacher saw me standing there with a shoe on one foot and a dirty baggy sock on the other she asked me where my other shoe was. I told her it was on the roof of the school. The janitor had to be called to fetch it. When he came back down with my shoe he gave it to me and said through gritted teeth, “Keep it on your foot where it belongs.”
Over the years I’ve been able to fill in the gaps. Something I didn’t remember was how my father and I used to wrestle. My mother told me when I was young the first thing my father would do every night when he got home from work was wrestle with me. One night he didn’t get home until long after I was in bed. I remember opening my eyes and seeing my father’s silhouette sitting on the side of my bed. The silhouette asked me if I wanted to wrestle.
Once I became a teenager my mother warned my father that I was getting too big for wrestling. By the age of seventeen I had become a beautiful 170lb 6’ tall butterfly. I was no longer that little boy he used to wrestle with. I had become a man. I had lost my innocence and learned about things like wedgies.
For those of you who don’t know what a wedgie is allow me to take your innocence.
Wikipedia defines a wedgie as when “a person’s nether underwear or other garments are wedged between the buttocks.“
High school was a time of great tension. You had to be on guard at all times. You didn’t know where or when someone was going to give you a wedgie or pants you. For those who don’t know what getting pantsed is, it’s when someone yanks down your pants, leaving you there standing in your underwear.
The last time this happened to me I was in a van with a bunch of people from my church youth group. Someone asked me to adjust the volume on the television in the van. When I got up to adjust the volume knob someone yanked down my pants. Usually people laugh when this happens. No one was laughing. Everyone went silent. I had decided to go commando on that particular day. I pulled my pants back up, rather embarrassed.
Finally one of the girls said, “Nice tan.”
Before I came along my father had never heard of a wedgie. It soon became common place during our wrestling matches. One day we were wrestling in the living room.
He danced around the room while saying “Float like a butterfly! Sting like a bee!”
Mother was busy in the kitchen preparing dinner, keeping a disapproving eye on us.
“Robert, he’s getting too big for that. You’re going to get hurt,” my mother warned him. He disregarded her, as men usually do when women tell them what to do.
(It seems like mothers are always trying to spoil your fun, like it’s their job. They don’t want you to do anything that involves any sort of risk. And it seems no sooner than when they say “Don’t do that. You’re going to hurt yourself,” and we tell them “Trust me. I know what I’m doing,” then BLAM! We end up hurting ourselves, and then we have to hear them say “I told you so.”)
We both danced around the room like boxers often do before they clobber each other’s faces. I tap danced, ran in place, did jumping jacks, all while feigning punches.
“You want some of this?”
“Yeah, but put the sauce on the side.”
“I hope you left room in your stomach because I’m going to ram my fist into it!”
Neither of us really knew how to box or wrestle so we looked like a couple of spaz’s.
I went to jab my father in the ribs. He deflected by raising his left knee. The knuckles in my right hand all popped at once.
“Yeeeeow,” I hollered. He laughed and asked me how that felt.
I tackled him and we went into the clinch, and then I put him in a headlock, digging my bicep into his neck. With Jack be nimble and quick speed and I grabbed the back of my father’s fruit of the looms and yanked them up almost to his shoulder blades, nearly ripping the band clean off. My father danced on his tip toes and howled a High C. He tried desperately to free himself. He clawed around to find my waistband. He accidentally stepped on my foot, and when I tried to take it back I lost half my sock and my balance. We tumbled backward toward the couch. I still had my father in a headlock and inadvertently used his head as a battering ram against the wall, while I landed safely on the couch cushions.
For a while my father lay there like a dead accordion, his head resting against the wall, his severed underwear hanging out of the back of his sweat pants while he breathed heavily.
“Robert, I told you,” my mother said.
“Yes, dear,” my father said with winded voice. “We’re done wrestling.” Shortly thereafter his tattered fruit of the looms became a dust rag and our days of wrestling became a thing of that past.
We’ve seen it before. Children having a tantrum. It usually involves the following: screaming until their face becomes a strawberry, the waterworks, the slobber, stomping their feet, throwing things. It’s really quite unattractive. Eventually they learn that this kind of behavior is not socially acceptable, and eventually with time the beast vanishes. Though not entirely. It’s still there even in adults. Buried. Deep inside. Locked in a cell. Periodically the little beast escapes. Often it’s when we don’t get our own way. Or for some of us it’s when we get behind the wheel of a car. That’s when our true character is revealed…well if no one else is in the car. If we have a passenger we may coat our true character with a thin veneer of civility.
“You drip! You turkey britches! Idiot! Boob! Sheisse-head!” These are just a few of my mother’s favorite names she would ascribe to inattentive or inconsiderate drivers. My father on the other hand I can’t remember a single time in my life I ever heard him curse at any driver. When he was behind the wheel of a car he was a monk. My mother was more of a Pentecostal. She was no less vocal when she wasn’t behind the wheel. One time someone almost side swiped us on the highway. My father was clearly flustered. It takes a lot to rattle my father, but he looked like he was on the verge of flippin’ a bird when my mother said, “Now, Robert,” as if to say, ‘let us take the higher road’. And my father nodded as if to say, ‘Yes let us take the higher road’. But as soon as we got parallel with the offending party my mother decided to take a different road.
“You stupid woman, you need to be more careful,” my mother scolded, shaking her finger vigorously at the offending party. And then the two hens went at it.
“Sheila,” my father said, and tried to speed away. The other driver sped up to keep up with us.
Both my dad and the man in passenger seat, who I can only assume was this hen’s husband, looked mortified. Her eyes flashed with madness, she frothed at the mouth, and a big long vein split the middle of her forehead. The next thing I knew a monster burst out of her skin, its head burst through the roof of the car, its left arm busted through the driver’s side window, and beat on the roof of our car until we were crushed like an aluminum can.
Usually when we’re children and we see this kind of behavior we tell ourselves ‘I’ll never be like that when I grow up.’ And then we grow up.
Some years later I remember a friend of mine asked me if I could driver her friend to the airport. My friend didn’t have a car to take her friend. I wondered how she had even got from the airport in the first place. Nonetheless I agreed and said I would be happy to drive her friend to the airport. I was living in Nashville at the time. I didn’t have a GPS, or a map, or a Smart phone. Needless to say my most frequent pastime was getting lost. Really I don’t know how I survived driving there for two years like this but I did. I relied heavily on others to guide me. I told my friend that she would need to help guide me to the airport. I sort of knew where I was going but not really. She wasn’t really paying attention because she was busy talking to her friend. She would give me last second directions, the kind that causes accidents. It was extremely vexing. I was getting pretty irritated with her. My top hadn’t blown yet but I could feel the pressure inside me boiling. We were on Interstate 24, approaching Interstate 40. We could go either East of West. I didn’t know which way we needed to go.
“Do I go East of West?” I asked. Both of them chattered on, paying no attention to the man behind the wheel. “East or West?” There was tension in my voice. I could see the window of opportunity slowly closing. “East of West?!” I asked excitedly.
“Oh,” she said, finally coming up for air. “You want to take East.”
I turned my signal on, and looked over my shoulder. Another driver was right next to me. Another was riding my rear.
“Come on, man. Let me over.” I pleaded. He sped up to keep me from getting in front of him, making sure to match my speed to keep me from even getting behind him. Meanwhile the car behind kept riding my rear. I could feel the pressure rising to an furious boil. “Come on, man!” I hollered at him. He just shook his head at me. The highways were about to diverge. “Let me over dammit!” I said. The highway split. Rather than going east where I needed to go I went west. “You filth and foul filth!” I shouted and shook my fist at the driver. He grinned at me, and headed east.
The car went quiet. My passengers looked around at things, as people often do when they’re uncomfortable.
The girl in the passenger seat looked at my forearm.
She cocked her head to the side and asked me, “What does your tattoo mean?”
I felt my head burning with embarrassment. I immediately felt convicted. Why? Because the only tattoo I have on my body is a reference to a Bible verse. Romans 8:38-39. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, neither angels nor demons, neither the past nor the present…nor foul language.