Thursday, July 29, 2010

House Burning

One spring when I was eight, it was too cold to play outside, so I came up with the stellar idea of playing poor orphans in my friend’s attic. This meant we didn’t have parents, or money for electricity, or heat. (In my real world, my family had a live-in black maid. I lived in a five-bedroom, brick Tudor house.) My friend, Joan, had pale, thin braids, and a sweet disposition. She went along with anything I suggested. I was a year older, bossier, with big front teeth and auburn hair, cut in a pixie style—a style I despised but which my mom insisted on despite my tears and attempts to avoid that dreaded hour at the beauty parlor.

Joan lived around the corner in a large stucco house. Her attic on the third floor had two large rooms. The room we played in had a double bed covered in stacks of old books. That weekend her parents were on vacation. A short-term housekeeper, an older white woman with an Irish name, came to watch Joan and her two older sisters while their parents were away.

Joan’s house was larger than ours, but furnished plainly with dull, hook rugs and handmade cushions on the couch. Her mom bought clothes from the Sears Roebuck catalogue. My mother never ordered anything from a catalogue. We shopped at top name department stores as soon as the season’s new fashions came in. When Joan rushed home to tell her parents that my father had bought a new Washington, what she really meant to say was that my father had just purchased an expensive Lincoln Continental sedan. Mrs. Brickman, an unadorned woman with large shoulders, unpolished nails, hair in a bun, who sewed and volunteered at the temple, drove a practical station wagon. She told Joan that such an expensive car was unnecessary, frivolous, extravagant. Our money came from Brilliant Bros. Shoe Company, a family business passed down from my grandfather, whereas Joan’s father worked hard for a corporation. The Brickmans didn’t inherit their wealth like we did.

While the temporary housekeeper was in the basement folding clothes, and Joan’s oldest sister was in her bedroom on the second floor, we found matches in the kitchen and a candle in the dining room. Back upstairs in the third floor playroom, Joan and I found a small door that opened into a crawlspace where thick wires had been stapled to the rafters. We rolled up old newspapers into balls, then lit the paper into small, frolicking fires.

“Are you sure this is okay?” Joan asked me.

“Sure. Don’t worry. I’m a Girl Scout. I know how to light campfires.”

We watched the small fire burn. When it went out, I grew braver and made another pile and lit another fire, warming our hands until the pile collapsed to ashes. Watching the fire, we sang lullabies. One from my favorite Peter Pan movie:

Tender shepherd, tender shepherd
Let me help you count your sheep
One in the meadow, two in the valley
Three in the nursery, fast asleep.

After the fire burned out a second, third and fourth time, I decided that we needed to go to sleep. We slithered under the big bed that was stacked with books. Then we lit our candles and brought them under the bed. Soon, we were drawing soot faces with our candles, the soot leaving black marks on the plastic underneath the bed. My soot face caught fire and grew into widening rings of blue that wouldn’t stop.

“Get water!” I shouted. We scrambled out from beneath the bed. Joan ran for water in the bathroom down the hall. She threw it under the bed but it was useless. The fire had caught and wouldn’t let go. Joan ran downstairs to find her sister who tried to put it out with another glass of water.

“Go downstairs! Go on! Go! Go! ” her sister shouted at us.

Downstairs we huddled in the glassed-in den while giant firemen tromped through the front hall whisking black hoses up the stairs. I wanted to leave, but the fire chief told me to stay. The housekeeper kept shaking her head. “I heard singing. I thought they were upstairs watching TV.”

The fire chief looked massive in his thick, black raincoat. His hat almost reached the ceiling; his rubber boots looked fat as elephants’ legs.

“What’s that for?” I asked, pointing to his clipboard.

He sat down in a chair next to us.

“We report all incidents and keep them on file.”

Joan began to cry. I wanted her to stop. “I’m sorry I’m sorry,” she kept saying.

The fire chief talked about fire safety and matches but he sounded far away.
Did I understand the danger of lighting matches? (Nodding. Yes.) Had I lit fires before? (No. No. Shaking my head.)

Oh, when would those lights stop? I couldn’t hear, but I could see. Outside, two red trucks hummed and blinked, lights circling rhythmically.

I fretted about my father coming to get me. Would he hit me the way he hit my sister? Drag me up the street, shouting and tugging? I had been the perfect one. But those days were over. I had committed a crime. Ruined. A sorry, damaged life.

Finally my father walked in looking tiny next to the fire chief. “I’m sure this won’t happen again,” the Fire Chief said to me. He turned and talked briefly with my father. Then I was allowed to go home.

My father took my elbow. I waited for his assault. Instead, he appeared sheepish and meek. “What happened?” he asked, sounding ashamed.

“We were playing poor.”

Silence. The air was cold and quickly growing dark. We walked up the driveway to our house. By the time I entered the kitchen it was black outside. The kitchen looked bright as a football field lit up at night. Mother turned to me. “Why don’t you go to your room, Jessie.”

I went upstairs past my older sister. “What happened?”

I shook my head. I would never be okay. My chest and throat collapsed into one closed pipe. I struggled to breathe.

I dragged myself into my room and sat by the windowsill in the dark. Over the trees the flashing lights from the Brickman’s house burned my face, advertising my crime to the neighborhood. To the world. My heart sank into my lungs. I pulled for air but breathing was hard. Only gasps. At last I heard the great, majestic sound of the fire engines driving off into the night.

Mom walked into my room. She stood back from me. “The Brickmans will be coming home tomorrow morning. They’re very upset.”

“I feel terrible,” I said, stroking my throat. “I can’t swallow.” The sharpness in my heart had spread in all directions, from my chin to my legs. “What do I do now?”

“Your punishment is how you feel, Jessie.” She spoke in a clipped voice. “We’re having dinner. Will you come down?”

No. I couldn’t eat.

She left and I stayed at the window until it was time for bed. I heard the rest of the house getting ready—my infant, baby brother in his crib. My older sister, brushing her teeth. My oldest sister upstairs in her new attic bedroom suite. Still, I waited for my father, the shouter, to come in and scream at me or hit me but he stayed away all night. My shoulders ached in anticipation. I finally crawled under my blankets exhausted and fell asleep.

The next morning my parents didn’t mention the fire. My sisters didn’t say anything either as if everyone understood that this was the way to handle it. I met Joan and another neighbor, Alan, at the corner of the street. We walked to school together. Alan was Joan’s age. He wanted to know all the details. How did you do it? Who started it? He circled me like a boxer in the ring.

“Shut up, Alan,” I said. The only way to minimize the disaster would be to silence it, like my parents did.

Joan walked with her head down but her words flowed out of her. Her parents had flown back early from their vacation. She was grounded for a month and given extra chores around the house. She wished it hadn’t happened. She talked on and on.

“Did the whole attic burn?” Alan asked.

Joan said most of the damage was from the water. All the books had burned. Her mother had been upset about the books.

What did your parents do to you?” Joan asked me.


Both Alan and Joan stopped talking.

“Nothing?” she said, disbelieving.

I shrugged. It was hard even for me to believe.

“My father wants to talk to you,” she said in a way that implied we both knew I deserved a reprimand. Since when was my fancy family above the law?

All week my parents didn’t speak of the fire. At the end of the week, mom said that she had conferred with the Brickmans and that Mr. Brickman wanted to talk to me. At school a boy in my class heard I started a fire and said so in front of three other children.

“No I didn’t,” I said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“That’s what I heard,” he said.

“You heard wrong.”

The others looked at me but I must have convinced them because no one pursued it after that.
Silence trumped.

Another week passed. I wondered if everyone saw flames when they looked at me, but mom seemed oblivious, as if she’d already forgotten the incident. How could she forget? For a whole year, every time I passed a fire station I looked around to see if people knew how I had burned down my neighbor’s attic, but no one else seemed to notice or care.

After a month passed, Joan told me the attic had been repaired. “It looks brand new. You wouldn’t recognize it,” she said, almost cheerful in the way she kicked the pebbles on the way to school.

I braved a visit to her house on a weekend afternoon that Mr. Brickman was home. I waited for his punishment. Each time he walked by me in the downstairs hallway or came through the kitchen where Joan and I were eating lunch, my shoulders hunched up to brace for his harsh words. He looked larger than the fire chief. Back and forth he hauled firewood into the house in his Sears and Roebuck jacket and boots. Mrs. Brickman fed us lunch and said “Jessie, I hope you understand the seriousness of what you girls did.” She said she wished it hadn’t happened but it had and that was that. Did I want milk with my sandwich? I was grateful to her for talking to me that way—stern yet kind. I waited for Mr. Brickman to tell me how bad I had been.

He never did.


So there you have it, dear readers. It took me years to get over my “mistake.” Now I want to ask you if you ever started a house fire when you were a child or did something damaging to your house or somebody else’s house by accident? And have you forgiven yourself for it?


  1. Oh. My. God. This would be brilliant fiction, and somehow it's even more arresting as memoir shaped into real art. It's both terrifying, moving and also shatteringly funny in spots. The whole idea of "playing poor" , the shock of the fire, and the fact that your parents allowed your punishment to be the way you felt, was extraordinary. Loved, loved, loved this.

  2. Oh my! I barely breathed the whole time I read this story - it's so beautifully written you forget the tragedy that occurred. How horrible you must have felt - a simple child's mistake yet you were old enough to realize just how serious it was. My heart breaks for you, Jessica. I can even imagine how at eight years old, a fireman or policeman would terrify you - hey, I'm decades older and they still terrify me. Your parents' reaction is very curious but I think I understand. In fact, I know I do.

    In answer to your question, no, I never set a fire, because I was scared of matches up until, oh, age 16 but right about then Bic lighters came on the market and I only used them to light joints so...

    But here's what I did do, and you are the first person, and now your thousands of readers, who will know my sad story. When I was twelve, I already considered myself a social outcast. By some miracle, one of the most popular girls at school invited me to her house for a sleepover. I had just started attending a school for gifted kids which drew students from all over Philadelphia, so here was a chance to not only make new, exciting friends but to have a "clean slate", a place where no one knew I was really a dork.

    So I go to her house, and it's gorgeous. Nothing like the small messy beatnik rowhouse I grew up in, littered with vinyl and books and art (which of course I duplicated in my own adult life and grew to love)...this was a palace, with almost every piece of brocaded furniture covered in plastic slipcovers (blech - how could I ever have thought that was cool?). I kept sticking to it and when I moved, it sounded like I farted, which was just mortifying. There was one easy chair, though, that had escaped the plastic. It was a striped, silk recliner, and I guess because it did recline, it made it immune from slipcovers. Anyway, as young girls do, we laughed and shrieked all night long, and someone eventually said something so funny I laughed so hard that I peed myself. I couldn't stop, it came pouring out on the striped, silk recliner. I was so horrified, I didn't know what to do. If I stood up, I would forever be known as Robin who peed her pants. So I sat there, paralyzed, and wouldn't move. I turned around and tried to check subtly and saw that I had left a big, ugly smelly puddle on the chair. When everyone wanted to go to bed a few hours later, I was paralyzed. Even though I was feeling dryer by then, I knew the spot would still be there since I was sitting on it and I was terrified someone would smell it. After considering my options, I saw a throw pillow at the end of the sofa next to me. Trying not to attract too much attention, I filched the pillow and quickly lifted my butt and threw it on top of the stain, jumped up, and said, "Okay, I'm ready for bed now". All night I tossed and turned, worrying my friend's Mom had discovered it but when we woke up the next morning, the pillow was still where i left it. I managed to sneak a look under it, saw the spot had dried although you could definitely see it and God knows what else, but I moved the pillow back where it belonged anyway and could not believe I got away with it.

    Or did I?

    I never did get an invite back to the house, and I felt shut out at school sitting at the popular one talked to me. I'm sure it wasn't because of what happened, but I put myself into self-imposed exile. Looking back, it's a good thing. I would have become a cookie-cutter boy crazy teenager in make up and a halter top instead of a diehard hippie devoted to making art.


  3. Jessica, what a powerful, painful story - I can imagine the weight you must have carried, both from the accident itself and from the fact that there was no open discussion with your parents about all the confused feelings you must have had.

    I don't remember ever doing damage to a house as a child, or setting a fire, but I do have a memory of something that happened in first grade that still horrifies me. There was a girl in a wheelchair in our class. I'm not sure what exactly was wrong with her - looking back, I would guess she had cerebral palsy. She was hunched over, and her wrists were curled. She had very garbled speech and for the most part, we didn't know, nor were we told, how we might communicate with her.

    So she was in some ways a novelty to our class - a child who was different but never explained to us, or introduced in a way that modeled how we might interact.

    Someone was chosen each day to push her to the cafeteria and back. Most of the time no one volunteered - I think we were in some ways afraid of her.

    One day during "naptime" our teacher turned the lights off (the classroom had huge windows so it wasn't at all dark) and left someone in charge, to "take names" of anyone who didn't remain quiet, head on desk, while she went to the office.

    I'm not sure how it started, but what happened was that several of the boys in the class wanted to see the hump on the girl's back. So they leaned her over in her chair, pulled up her dress, and we all looked.

    She didn't want them to do it, but she wasn't screaming or crying. In some ways I think she just resigned herself to it. I remember how it looked - the hump, the fabric of the dress bunched up, the back of the wheelchair - and that we were all slightly horrified - no one really made fun of the disfigurement, but I suspect our horror was as hurtful as ridicule would have been. I cringe right now at the violation of her body and her privacy.

    I have never ever forgotten that day, and never gotten over the wish I have always had - that I had told the boys to stop, taken the wheelchair and pushed it to the next classroom to get another teacher - anything that would have stopped what happened.

    It makes me tear up just typing it. I think that day I felt more shame at my own behavior than any other time in my life.

    I think I have forgiven myself, for the most part. Every now and then I imagine finding her and apologizing. She did not stay in our school so I don't know what happened to her. And then I skipped two grades, so I was with a different class. I wonder sometimes if anyone else remembers her and that day - it was a small town and we all grew up together, with a few exceptions. I remember her first name but don't want to use it - out of respect, I suppose, although we certainly didn't show any that day.

    My memory doesn't have anything to do with house or home, but reading yours instantly triggered it - so I have shared it anyway. I appreciate the chance to "air it."

  4. Caroline,
    Thank you so much. Coming from you, a master novelist! I have to mention here to readers your forthcoming novel: Pictures of You--coming out in November by the great Algonquin Press. To learn more about Caroline go to:


  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. I accidentally double posted, so delete the repeat!

  7. Robin,
    Your story has to be one of the worst experiences a child could have. The humiliation is profound. It reminds me of the time a girl in our class wet her pants and everyone in the class witnessed it. It was during lunch hour and the teacher had left the class with strict instructions not to get up from our chairs. The girl said that water came out of her chair. I don't know where she is now but I hope she recovered and is having an okay life.

    You have the gift of words and can write about it, which also reminds me of your astonishing essay: The Briefcase over at RedRoom about your dad's drug use and shattered dreams at home. Read it here:

  8. Billie.
    Woah. I'm glad you shared this because it's obvious that we all walk around with these potent and poisonous memories that need airing. How often we hold them in and in doing so they intensify. I can't imagine what that moment was like for that poor girl. It's a horror story. Makes me understand why Stephen King gave Carrie her bloody powers.

    What a story.

  9. When I was eight, I almost burned up the lawn in front of our house. I was using a magnifying glass to burn holes in a newspaper on one of the hottest days of August. It was a large magnifying glass so that even a relatively large "circle of magnified light" would burn the paper. Well the large circle of light/heat started a large burn which quickly burst into flames. In an instant, the whole paper was burning, my arm hair disappeared and the slight breeze started to blow the burning paper on to the dry lawn. Fortunately a neighbor was out watering her lawn, saw flames and rushed over with the watering hose and dowsed the flames. She was going to call the police. The commotion brought my mom and she was able to calm the woman down. I, like you, was extremely scared and ashamed of my own stupidity. Likewise, no one talked about it. Thank you for telling your very eloquent, terrifying story. This is the first time I have talked about "the burning incident".

  10. Roger.
    Amazing! You succeeded where every American child failed! What kid didn't try to make fire using a magnifying glass? I sure tried and never got anything going. Of course, I'm sort of kidding with you here. Your experience was terrifying and, thankfully, all worked out. I think there's something about age eight. We're explorers at that age. We're somewhat independent yet far more innocent than we understand.
    Thank you so much for airing your story. I'm glad you did.

  11. When I was about ten years old I borrowed a shirt of my mother's and got ink all over it. I hid it and then threw it out. For years and years she perseverated on it: "what happened to my shirt? it was brand new!!" and I lied and lied rather than getting a beating.

    When she was in her seventies, I finally told my mother what I'd done. She got so angry and yelled so much that I knew why I'd chosen to lie. "I could kill you," she said.

    What amazed me, is that she never figured it out.

    There was also the case of the broken lamp, the stolen goods from Woolworths, and many other crimes that I only confessed to when I reached middle age.

  12. Randy,

    Thanks for stopping by. I am shocked that your mother was still mad about a shirt--such an insignificant thing in life. And, so many years later. Your story reminds me of why we choose not to speak. We don't want to get emotionally burned. I think there's a statue of limitations on this and it's just as you said: middle age.

  13. This does what the only the very best writing accomplishes: it lifts the reader up, spins them around, and drops them back in their armchair, forever changed. It is my favorite kind of "thriller." From the amazing stories you elicited, your power to trigger reflection is obvious.

    You've tapped into such a rich and complex vein here-- a child's understanding of subtle and not so subtle class distinctions (being "poor" is quite literally playing with fire!) as well as that nascent sense of shame and responsibility. I want more, more, more!

    And yes, you made me remember a particularly vivid episode from my own childhood. But I may need to think about it a little more before I'm ready to tell it.

  14. Patry,

    It's true I often felt ashamed of my supposed financial 'status' growing up. But I often felt poor inside--

    As for that incident that is sitting inside you--you see? We all have these episodes and they hold such power.

    Thanks for your wonderful insights.

  15. Wow. I could read a while book about this gutsy little girl. I, too, love that you wanted to play poor.

    Jessica, your writing, your story, is simply stunning. Urgent and honest and so visual. Don't ever stop.


  16. Tish,

    The poor part-it's embarrassing and true. Thank you so much for your kind words. xo

  17. Jennifer JeffersonJuly 29, 2010 at 9:11 PM

    So powerful! I'm tapping my feet impatiently, waiting for a book of your collected essays to come out.

    Thankfully I never started a fire by accident, but one of my kids did, and it was traumatic for all of us.


  18. Hi, Jennifer.
    Thanks for your foot tapping!
    Sorry about your family's fire trauma. These fire incidents seem to be far more common than any of us realize.

  19. Oh my God, what a crushing sensation in my chest as I read this. I'm so glad you're alive to tell the story!

  20. Whoa! There's such a rich vein of material here, Jessica—and throughout the Hermit Crab, as I KEEP ON TELLING YOU. Keep mining it!

  21. I once tried to start a garage on fire, but it was harder than I expected. After I got called home, I left the matches with my friend, Stuart Crump, who always followed me around and did my bidding. He successfully started the blaze after I left. He got in trouble, told everyone I'd given him the matches and told him to do it. I lied my way out. I feel guilty even after all these years.

  22. This is so wonderfully and frighteningly evocative. I find myself recalling how my sister and I would play not in the attic but in the basement crawl space, which was dark and cramped and of course forbidden. We would come out wheezing from all the dust....

  23. Sue-
    Funny that you should mention being alive...It never crossed my mind that I was endangering my life or my friend's.

  24. Jon,
    I just finished your incredible new novel, Kings of the Earth. If anyone knows how to mine material, you do. I am taking your kind words to heart. Thank you.

  25. Caroline- Amazing and scary story. Thank goodness no one got hurt. I'm honored that you've spoken your truth here.

  26. Hi, Daphne,
    Thanks for stopping by.

    That basement crawl space sounds horrible! and yet it was irresistible to you. Hmmm. I'm intrigued.

    On a side note: I can't wait for the world to read your sumptuous novel coming out in September--Russian Winter.