The Quotable

Friends and Pyromaniacs

It started with Bill’s thirteenth detention from Ms. Calluso, our helpless sophomore English teacher.  This suited him fine since he loved the irritation — the friction of match on sandpaper.  He had this nest of feral red hair, almost like some fun-free clown wig.  Wearing a System of a Down t-shirt and slashed Salvation Army jeans, he was teacher’s pet target.

The latest was for “repeated obstinacy” like Calluso was taking the opportunity to train him for the S.A.T. verbal.  This one time Bill showed me all of the detention slips.  The line where the teacher writes the reason was always some variation of “repeated obstinacy,” like “consistent exasperation” or “unyielding irritation.”

Calluso was right about one thing: Bill never had that one big transgression.  He always stopped right at the imaginary line.  Right when the teacher was about to flare up and hurtle him out, he’d get quiet and compliant for a good minute or two, like a soldier caught in the blast wave from an improvised explosive device.  Then he’d start tapping his pencil obnoxiously or he’d kick Tiffany Winters’ seat just light enough for her to hit that awful, nasally Jewish princess tone, and that was how he’d break Calluso down.

Fire does that too — converting, transforming, breaking things down.  There’s better words for it, but I’m not as great at science.  The point is, life is energy, and energy never dies, it only transforms, so really, life never ends.

I’ll tell you how I tried to impress that upon Bill.

On our walk home, that day, Bill had himself ignited. His hair was bouncing around like the flame tongues climbing around a charcoal briquette.  His red tongue lashed out acidic, scathing words like “bitch” and “cunt” and searing phrases like “key her car” or “sugar her engine.”  But he wouldn’t do it.  Bill lived behind imaginary lines.

He spit on the form, this little pink rectangle they give you, and balled it up and tossed it.  I told him, I said, they’ll just give you another one, they make you bring the signed form to the detention, but he just grunted and lit up a Newport.

Some people just don’t take advice.

We were walking, me strolling and Bill brooding, when this fat housewife in stretchy pants came the other way, walking her labradoodle.  She eyed me.  J. Crew, pressed jeans, short hair.  She nodded.  She eyed Bill.  Mudvayne shirt, slashed jeans, the red nest.

“C’mon, Muffin,” she said to her dog. They crossed the street, six legs trotting.  A jeep coming around the curve screeched to a dead stop, honking.

“That fat bitch almost got creamed!” Bill observed.  “Oh!  Almost forgot!”  He dove into his ratty backpack.  We stopped walking.  I was intrigued.

Bill pulled out a matchbook with a leprechaun on it. The wee man was smiling, winking, like he knew the recipe for the rainbow marshmallows and he wasn’t telling a soul.

“Got it at some Irish street fair. Folks made me go. Learn about our heritage,” he said.



So today would be a fire day.  That was good, I remember thinking.  It had been too long.  Bill and I started setting them the summer after seventh grade, in a sand pit just under a quarter mile behind Bill’s house.

It was a project during a lazy month.  We were at that phase of August where you dread school but you’re bored with free time.  You almost want to go back but you don’t dare start studying on your own.  So Bill and I were thrilled to have a task.  He had procured his dad’s grill ignition stick and lighter fluid.  I had brought old toys whose paint and sentimental attachments had weathered.

We each wore one of Bill’s mom’s garden gloves and tore out as many small branches as I could gather with my left hand and Bill could gather with his right.  The orange tiger is an omnivore.

The first sacrifice was Storm Shadow. We convicted him of conducting covert assassinations for Cobra, a radical terrorist splinter group.  The sentence was death by incineration.

Burning plastic is a manufactured smell, like bleach or gelatin.  But the visual was a revelation.  Storm Shadow’s acrylic white hood, once chemically bonded to his face, bubbled and seared, revealing the standard molding that we were to learn existed under all G.I. Joes.  Boiled down, they were each of them tiny mannequins with joints at the knees, elbows, shoulders, and thighs.  Then that too broke down into a slick, petroleum-based ooze, and later still, puddle.

A cynic would say we made a mess.  But I saw art.  I saw the produced energy, the combined talent of the creative minds who invented the idea of Storm Shadow, of Cobra, of G.I. Joe itself, returned to the earth and sky.  A cynic would see a tiny oil slick in an ash pile in a pit; he would smell toxins on the breeze. I saw energy returned to its source. I smelled the potential for renewal. New minds inventing new Storm Shadows, their energies returned via fire.

Destro was next — same crimes, same sentence.  Then Cobra Commander, the one with the cloth hood, not the helmet. Bill and I lamented we would never know what their faces looked like. Nevertheless, they would be unmasked.

“That was awesome!  I’ve got Thundercats,” Bill said.  I’m surprised I ever thought he understood what he had seen.

So today would be a fire day, as that one had been.

Only fate intervened.

I suppose it’s hard to believe we were talking about a fire day and we walked past the aftermath of a fire.  But that’s exactly how it happened.

Bill and I were filling the same imaginary footprints on the asphalt we’d always filled.  I don’t know why we always made the right at Maplewood — we could have just as easily taken Mulberry or Thorn. But those were the steps we’d always taken, so those were the steps we took.

The light show drew our attention first — red invaders circling the green leaf suburban canopy.  There they were: fire truck, ambulance, fire truck.  I smelled what I can only call wet smoke.  Then we saw the smoldering wreck of number 32.  Neither Bill nor I knew the soot-smeared, white-haired woman shaking on the gurney.  She was immersed in her oxygen mask.

“How’d it start?” Bill asked one of the firemen.  He didn’t respond.  The fireman was moving with all the urgency he could muster in his thick rubbery coat, as if moving all of the darkened appliances into some makeshift graveyard had the urgency of a screaming child and advancing flames.  I still don’t know what he was doing.  I’m guessing he thought he was ordering the chaos by rearranging the debris.

“Gas.”  A tan retiree with hedge clippers was pretending to do yard work — an excuse to gawk.  “Ms. Pike’s 89,” he continued.  “Prob’ly hasn’t smelled or tasted much in years.”

“Thanks,” Bill said.

I remember disagreeing.  The taste of ash is very distinct.  Back when my dad was around he’d reduce our burgers to cinder on the grill.  I remember having to bury them under three slices of cheese and a mudslide of ketchup.  But that taste still found my tongue.  Ash.  I can’t imagine old age dulling one’s senses to the point they couldn’t process something so sharp and bitter.

They instructed Ms. Pike to lay back on the gurney, as she quaked.  They strapped her in and heaved woman and gurney into the ambulance like battered freight.  The ambulance pulled away, along with the first fire truck.

That’s when I noticed Bill making his way towards the dead washing machine.

I didn’t realize my fire day was in trouble until I saw Bill take the leprechaun out.  He was rolling the poor grinning creature over in his palms.

“What are you doing?” I asked him, but I was afraid I knew.

“Look at what it did,” Bill said.  He motioned to the darkened house bones.  Then he let the little fella drop, jovial grin and all, to oblivion in ashy murk.

Bill didn’t understand.  He let an appliance swallow our afternoon, my fire day.  Then, like all delusional people, he tried to rationalize.  He preached safety — how we could be charged as adults soon.  But it all boiled down to Bill drawing little lines around me.  It was all Bill’s attempt to cram me and my great understanding into some dead washing machine.

He looked at the house and saw a cautionary tale.  I saw evidence of power and metamorphosis.  Call it a friendly disagreement.

When I stared at the pitch frame, I saw back in time.  I saw Ms. Pike’s house as it was.  Chipping paint and stale air — asbestos of abandonment.  Old lady, gas stove — as noxious a combo as carbon and monoxide.  Cooking up old lady food, forgets.  Then she’s collapsed into a creaking chair, a crusty blanket over her knees.  She’s squinting intently at a crossword.  Her nose perks up for a moment, purely an animal sensing danger, but she’s ultimately dismissive, and what is a five-letter word for royalty anyway?

The fridge kicks over, the smallest spark of orange behind it, like an insect taking a flash photo.

Then the blast.

That’s what you witness when you see a fire from the time it’s ignited until extinguished.  You observe a great becoming, exponential transformation.

Old Ms. Pike is knocked across her living room — a doll discarded by a great petulant toddler.  When breath returns, she glimpses that perfect moment when the probing tongues of flame from the kitchen penetrate the living room, lapping at the walls, eagerly devouring those dry and dusty curtains.  Smoke pummels her lungs as she crawls for the door.  She turns as she exits.

She has witnessed the primal dance of red, yellow, orange — colors that consume all.

Bill babbled something about needing to go home.  I told him to go on ahead.  He mumbled, “Whatever, dude.”  He left.  The magnitude of his incomprehension was finally clear

I’ve heard that all prophets, scientific or religious, have experienced a certain crystallizing moment, a sand grain of time where their course of action is absolutely clear to them.  This was mine.  I knew I had to go home and have a normally abnormal dinner with my mother.  I knew I would sit at the table afterward and read Chapter 7 in “The Living Earth” for Biology.  I knew I would complete review questions 1, 3, and 4 as assigned.  Being an outstanding student, I knew I would seamlessly transition to the rough draft of my paper comparing modern racial injustice to that in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  I would cite the text thrice, as assigned.

And then, when my mother went to bed, my night could begin.


I was wearing all black, as I tended to on such night excursions.  I had a glass bottle of Pepsi that I got at the Pepsi store in the city, this one random Saturday my mom wasn’t working and felt like a bonding day.  It was one of those things I got used to on my shelf: alarm clock, DVD, glass Pepsi bottle.  The rag was under the kitchen sink, next to the lighter fluid.  The matches were in a silver dish next to the stove range.

The pit behind Bill’s was empty.  There were no thorn bushes that time of year and I was fresh out of G.I. Joes.  Nevertheless, I sensed a great becoming.

The wind ruined my first match.  Thankfully I brought the whole book.  The Finns, who invented the Molotov Cocktail, had these wind-proof matches with special sticky chemical tips.  I was struggling with the bottle tucked under my arm and my hands working the matchbook.  I’m no Finn.

Then the blazing match head touched the rag.  The orange tiger danced.

When you throw one, it arcs end over end in the night, neck over base making glowy light circles.  I had aimed for Bill’s picnic table.  It must have been saturated with burger grease.  Prowling and ravenous, reflected in the sliding glass doors, the tiger advanced towards the carbon copy of herself that appeared to be in Bill’s kitchen.  I jumped back when the grill’s gas tank exploded, launching twenty feet in the air and landing in the next yard.  I retreated to the woods, feeling suddenly exposed.

No sirens yet.  No gawking neighbors with purely cosmetic hedge clippers.  It was after midnight so the reaction time was delayed.

I can admit it now, the heresy of my fear in that moment.  I worried about Bill’s folks; the sentimental nature of an adopted family.  I’d eaten medium rare, ash-less cheeseburgers on that deck.

I had a faithless moment, when I worried about the fire harming them.  Harming.  Imagine it now.  I was still new to the understanding of fire as a catalyst for change.  I still thought of the becoming as destruction.  I’m so ashamed, but there it is.  I worried for them, as if there was no beauty at all to the deck, house, and family journeying through that shift together.

Like I said, I’m ashamed of it now.

It took the shattering side window to reclaim my attention, and a large shadow heaving a smaller one away from the house.  Later I learned the fire had caught some cheap, illegal insulation in the walls and it had blocked Bill and his sister, who had been on their parents’ heels in a mad rush to the front door.  Bill thought first of his young sister, his own perceived safety was secondary to him.  They would call him a hero for it.  Personally, denying someone else’s becoming seems selfish to me, but as the first to lift myself up to this new plateau of understanding, I can’t expect immediate company.

The shattering glass of the back doors surprised me.  I had thought Bill, surrounded, would succumb to transformation in his kitchen, the place where so much energy had donated itself to his sustenance, in the form of food and drink.  Instead, he sprinted as a human torch until he hit the grass.  Then he rolled and rolled until he was a smoking heap of tissue.  He couldn’t scream; his voice was already reclaimed.  I wrapped him in my coat and pulled him to our pit.

I looked down on what had been Bill, and all I could think of was a caterpillar with one beautiful wing, and the other a demented mockery, a sad reminder of squandered potential.  A half-transformation was blasphemous.  I had to finish his becoming.  It was the only mercy in my power.

I squirted the rest of the lighter fluid on his head and chest.  He gagged and sputtered like a waterlogged engine.  One more time, match head to sandpaper, lit match to soaked kindling.  He flailed like a half-crushed spider at first, then relented to the blaze.  Every part of him finally accepted its altered state.

There was no separation.  Bill was the fire and the fire was Bill.  His becoming was complete.

My first thought was to run home, but that too was heresy.  The new understandings I had were meant to be shared.  And the first people to share them with were on the other side of the great collapsing mass.  They were out on the asphalt, among the gathering red lights.

Bill’s sister was unchanged, as were Bill’s parents.  I tried to tell them, huddled in a burlap blanket between fire truck, ambulance, fire truck.  I tried to tell them not to mourn.  This was an exchange of energy.  This was liquid-vapor-solid.  Bill was as good as immortal.  Bill will always be.  Bill’s father said he’d make me immortal.  The firemen held him as he lunged for my neck.  Again, I’ll have to accept when everyone doesn’t immediately understand.

The line of misunderstanding stretched from firemen, to police, to psychologist, and even to mother, who asks me what she did wrong.  It seems like the wrong question.  To me, the question is, why mourn the fire or the changes it’s wrought?  I tell all the doctors they bring in.  Mourn the tide or the sunset.  It’s equally ludicrous.  I tried to show them.  I say hand me a match and some lighter fluid and I’ll show you the beauty of becoming.  They never do.

So Bill got the best of it in the end.  Molecules on the breeze, borne by the improvised currents of the wind, finally to set down in thousands of exotic places, blooming into being once again.  And me, I sit behind wire, concrete, padding — the real lines imagined by men in judge’s robes and doctor’s coats, while Bill becomes again, inheriting the gifts of our mutual friend.


I’m an English teacher from New Jersey and I love to read and tell stories. “Friends and Pyromaniacs” is a about a high school student whose mind gets a little too focused on chemical reactions. Think “Tell-tale Heart” with a Molotov cocktail. It’s from my collection, “Men in Strange Arrangements,” which I’m always trying to find a home for. I also have a novel, “Jesse Rules,” about a Catholic school class president who gets a bit suicidal and a bit homicidal. So crazed teen brainiacs are kind of the Johnny Depp to my inner Tim Burton. Would-be publishers and agents can contact me at with offers of fame and fortune. No, really, you can. Now would be fine.

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The Quotable Issue 3 - Transformation