Tad liked to play with matches and fire. He enjoyed other boyish pursuits, such as baseball and fishing, but he definitely had a peculiar attraction for fire. I always assumed that fires and the red-tipped sticks that started them attracted Tad chiefly because his parents had forbidden him to use them inside their modest ranch home. On the other hand, maybe his parents banned these items precisely because they knew Tad was so enamored with them in the first place. Then again, maybe they knew something I didn’t about their son.
Eventually, Tad found a way around his parents’ rule: he played with matches outside the house when they weren’t around. Whenever his parents pulled their burgundy Chevelle onto the main road to leave, he would wave to them from the driveway and they would wave back. As soon as he could see the dust rising from the gravel road through the tree row, he would gather his supplies. I didn’t understand why Tad hid this activity from his parents. After all, he wasn’t breaking the “no matches in the house” rule. Maybe he waited for them to go because he didn’t want them to worry. Maybe he waited because his father was six-and-a-half feet tall. Or maybe he knew, deep down beneath his worn flannel shirt, that he was courting danger.
When he played with fire outside, he would use the stray lid of a 55-gallon rusted steel barrel, the type of barrel that people who live beyond the city limits use to burn trash. He would light little fires on the lid, watching the sparks, feeding them tinder, twigs, and a few handfuls of hay he had gathered from the barn.
Gently and with great care, he would watch in wonder as his newborn fire developed into a child. With precisely timed puffs of breath and prodding, Tad would coach, “There you go, you can do it!” As his creation rolled over and then sat up, he would use his hands to shield the flames from the breeze and whisper, “You got it! You got it! Go!” Finally, his baby fire would stand to the height of a toddler.
At that point, Tad had won and he would stand, hands on hips to block the wind, and stare at the flames, just stare, mesmerized by the miracle on the rusty barrel top. His eyes would fixate then, and enlarge to show his mind wandering off. I never knew where his thoughts drifted, but I suspected they went to Jennifer and the trip to Wyoming he had taken with her family a year before. He had told me several times on the way home from school about that trip.
“I wish we could go back, and that I could stand with her again on the boardwalk over those geysers,” he said. “I wish we could do that again.” Their relationship had ended after that trip, and even though I was friends with both Jennifer and Tad, I never was able to discover what exactly had gone wrong. As he stood next to the fire, staring, he would lilt to one side and the toddler fire would keep growing to the size of a kindergartner until I snapped him back to earth. All I had to say was, “Tad.”
Building a fire in the open on a barrel lid was often hard to do for one reason: the Kansas wind. Time and again, when Tad had just nursed a flame into existence, the wind, which never really stopped blowing, would gust suddenly and snuff out the growing flame. If one wasn’t prepared for this, and hadn’t readied sufficient tinder off to the side of the barrel lid, any fledgling flame would have a slim chance. If you could just get out of the wind, things would change, and that fire might prosper. On a Kansas farm, the best place to get out of the wind — but still be considered, technically, outside the house — was the barn.
So one steamy July day at Tad’s place, the afternoon soap operas came on, and his cousin Mike, who was visiting from Nebraska, suggested we make a fire in the gravel driveway. Apparently, the two of them had already made some fires during Mike’s week-long stay. Perhaps Mike, however, did not understand Tad’s fascination with fire.
Tad felt it was safe since his parents were gone. They had driven to town to pay the assorted bills that accumulate over the course of a month. It would be a while before they returned.
In the driveway sheltered by towering catalpa trees, Tad hovered over his supplies as Mike and I sat off to the side, drinking root beer from sweaty bottles of Mr. Frostie. Tad sparked and lit miniature flames on the barrel lid, fighting with the wind to start his fire, coaxing the flames into small blazes barely stable enough to roast a marshmallow. He directed the flame paths with his hands, then used the side of an old cardboard box to fan some more. His eyes lit up as a meager blaze leapt into the air. The wind came up again and extinguished it. He then knelt, leaned forward, and blew again on the pile of sticks and straw at just the right moment, only to see the ensuing flame wither and die in another unexpected breeze. After thirty minutes of this, Tad gave up on the driveway setting. “Let’s do this in the barn . . . get outta the wind,” he suggested.
“That’s a bad idea, Tad,” I said. “It could catch fire.”
“It’ll be all right. I’ll watch it like I always do,” he countered.
“Let’s do it,” Mike said and that was all that Tad needed. He knelt and lifted the barrel lid from the driveway with both hands, and then, like a waiter in a fine restaurant, elevated the loaded tray above his right shoulder and walked hurriedly to the barn, leaving Mike and I to finish our root beers.
“I’m goin’ home,” I said, knowing where this could lead. Tad nodded his head, but never slowed down. Mike followed after him.
An hour later, from my bedroom, I heard the sirens. I bolted upright, tied my shoes and ran from our house, through the yard, across the county road. I stopped at the mailbox at the end of Tad’s driveway. I watched the black clouds of smoke billow against the royal blue sky, then headed toward what had been the barn. Tad, Mike, and now a small crowd of neighbors stood, open-mouthed, wiping their brows, shaking their heads.
Mike told me that by the time the fire department had arrived, there had been nothing much to put out. “I wish I had thought to set up the hose or at least get a bucket of water ready,” he mumbled. Standing in the hot sun, we watched the huge heap of charred timber smolder and smoke. Piles of ash diminished with each gust of hot wind.
Mr. Ivy, whiskered and old, from the next section over walked up to Tad. “What were you thinkin’, Tad?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I didn’t think it would burn like that.”
“They always say, ‘Don’t play with fire.’ You ever heard that one before, Tad?” Mr. Ivy pressed.
“Yeah, Mr. Ivy, I’ve heard that one before,” Tad said, smearing his forehead with his sweaty, dirty hand. He stood, angry and embarrassed, studying the sputtering coals. He didn’t have that far-off look in his eyes this time. Instead, he appeared to hold fast to this one horrifying moment and the worse one to come when he would face his father returning from town.
When his parents did show up a little later, I backed away from the crowd. His father parked the Chevelle by the house and ran to the crowd and the smoky remnants of the blaze. His mother stayed at the car, put her face in her hands, turned, and walked steadily back to the house.
His father approached him, looked in shock at the fire’s remains, then turned to Tad. “What happened?”
“It got out of hand, Dad,” Tad replied.
His father looked for a long while at Tad. He said nothing, but stared deep into his son’s eyes, down to to his cheeks, chin, and back to his eyes, inspecting the product he had created. Then, with both of his long arms, he shoved all his weight against his son’s shoulders, and the boy crashed to the dusty ground. The neighbors and remaining firemen hushed their quiet conversations.
Tad, lying in the dirt, looked up at his dad, and wiped ashen tears from his eyes. His father shook his head and walked away, thrusting his hands the size of snapping turtle shells into the back pockets of his Levis. Twenty feet further, he stopped and studied the ground for a short while, and then turned and strode back to Tad.
Gazing down at him, he sighed and then said quietly, “Well, it could have been worse.” He pulled his hands from his pockets, hitched up his jeans, and knelt down, looking squarely into his son’s eyes. “Do you get it now, Tad? Does it make sense? Why you can’t just drift off to her?” Tad nodded.
His dad held out one hand. Tad took hold, and with a heave, his father pulled him up and into his chest. Most of the neighbors had quietly slinked away, allowing a family in turmoil to right itself without their oversight. Tad and his father embraced and I realized that perhaps Tad’s father remembered what it was like to be young. To be figuring out how to keep your feet on the ground, even though your heart is a million miles away. Many naturally learn this lesson without notice; it comes easily. Others absorb it reluctantly, as the carefree days of youth give way to adult deliberation and practicality.
In the end, Tad and Mike each had to work off $8,000 to pay for the loss of the barn, the burned hay, and the hay the cattle would need for the upcoming fall and winter. At five dollars an hour, Tad kept busy for the next year and a half learning his lesson the hard way. There weren’t many opportunities to think about Jennifer during that time.