A Season for Burning
Mobile, Alabama, 1969
I leap and leap trying to land in Daddy’s footsteps. Grandma Ames squeezes my left hand with her right and tugs me behind Daddy and Aunt Terri. “This is no time to fool around,” she says, so I walk serious-like and soon we are standing in the street with our neighbors, staring at the burning house. It belongs to people Daddy grew up with. My skin glows pink and white in the firelight. Flames spit through howling windows, and if you stare long enough, nearly every color in a box of large crayons is there marking the night. Firemen push us to the other side of the street but the air is so cloudy I could disappear and no one would know. Poof. Just like that.
“I couldn’t stand it if I lost my house,” Grandma Ames says.
She’s lived in her house since Daddy was born. Pretty much forever. But this isn’t the first house to burn. The old men at my church say the rapture is coming. I hum when they talk because I’m scared I won’t go to heaven.
Mr. Foster walks over and talks to Daddy. “There’s gasoline everywhere,” he says. Grandma Ames covers her mouth with one hand and mashes my face to her dress with the other.
“I knew it was arson. God damn nig—,” Daddy says.
“J-i-i-mmy!” Grandma Ames scolds. She draws out his name like an Amen sung at the end of a hymn. Taking the Lord’s name in vain and saying the N-word are about as bad as you can get. She’s all the time telling Daddy to watch his mouth but he pays her no mind. She may as well talk to the devil.
I’m still wondering who Arson is when Daddy leans toward me. “I’m glad your Mama’s at the movies. This would tear her up.”
Aunt Terri tells him to take me home. She must’ve forgot there’s no school tomorrow on account of it being Saturday. Daddy wraps one arm around me and the other around Aunt Terri. “Our neighbors need us right here,” he says.
The walls of the house tumble, just like Jericho’s. The heads of our neighbors hang like wilted lilies. Fire trucks sparkle in the blaze and I know I shouldn’t be thinking about climbing up the big ladder but if I was Supergirl, I’d do that and more. I’d fly over this whole place. Higher than ladders or trees or maybe even clouds. But I’m only eight and I don’t have a cape.
Daddy listens to a police radio late at night. “It all started with that first family,” he says.
He means the colored family who bought the two-story house last year, the one halfway up the block next to Mr. Foster. The house reminds me of a place we visited on a field trip when we were studying plantations, except the colored family’s house doesn’t have a staircase outside that twists up to the second floor. But it has a light made of glass teardrops that dangle from the porch ceiling, like the kind they have on Lawrence Welk. Since the new family moved in, half the houses on Pettiway Street are up for sale. Daddy says the family bought the house to stir up trouble. “I don’t live where I’m not welcome,” he told Mama, “and neither should they.”
Me, Daddy, and Mama are living in Grandma Ames’ house to save money for our own, and Grandma Ames says as long as we’re under her roof, we must try to be good neighbors. That doesn’t keep Daddy from going on about this or that when he sits at the kitchen table and reads the paper in the morning. Grandma Ames pretends not to listen. She might be peeling potatoes in the kitchen sink or putting away dishes. Or she might be pretending to wipe off a counter because she doesn’t like to butt in—though Mama says she can’t help it. Sometimes Grandma Ames shakes her head a lot when Daddy talks. I’m guessing if she didn’t butt in sometimes, her head would snap right off her neck. This is one of those days when Grandma Ames lets Daddy and Mama talk too long before she says something. “That new family isn’t hurting a soul,” she says.
Next thing I know Daddy and Mama start complaining about my new teacher, Mrs. Fleming. She is young and pretty like one of the Supremes on Aunt Terri’s album covers. I get bored with all their talking. I go outside to play. I run and jump through crunchy, yellow leaves. Kwadch, kwadch, kwadch. I hope Daddy doesn’t get around to raking them any time soon.
Mr. Foster says it’s hard to rake his leaves while I’m jumping all over them like something out of Wild Kingdom. He leans his rake against a tall camellia bush with dark green leaves as thick as playing cards. He says he needs to rest. I set down on the porch that wraps around his house. From there, you can see just about anything.
Mr. Foster never talks about the fires or the new family that bought the big house, even though they live next door to him, but he slips me extra candy at Halloween and sometimes lets me drink Coca-Colas. We don’t keep them at home. Mama says she may as well mail her paycheck to the dentist if I start drinking them and eating Hershey bars any time I please.
“A treat every now and then never hurt a body,” Mr. Foster says, “but don’t tell your mama I said so.”
Mama says it’s good for me to visit him because his wife died two years ago and I help to keep his mind occupied, which makes me wonder who keeps it occupied when I’m not there.
When Mr. Foster goes inside for Coca Colas, the two colored kids from next door dawdle outside his yard like their want to play. “Come on in,” I say.
They’re shy but the brother unhitches the gate and then him and his sister tiptoe toward me like I might chew off one of their arms. The boy wears a Snoopy for President T-shirt and is no taller than me. The girl is younger and wears yellow culottes and white socks laced with ruffles. If I blow hard, she looks like she might scatter into a bazillion frilly pieces.
“Hi,” I say. “I’m Darlene.”
“I’m George and that’s Sophie,” the boy says.
“You like hide-and-seek?” I ask.
The sister nods. I’d love to touch her perfectly braided hair but instead I say, “I’ll count first. You go hide.” George comes so close that I can almost touch his spidery eyelashes. “You better run fast,” I say. Two big dimples sink into George’s face. I turn my back and start counting. I only get to six when I hear a ruckus and stop. Out of nowhere, Mr. Foster’s two German shepherds Daisy and Mickey tear across the front yard. They growl and bark and run with their tails stiff as sticks. I’d been around Mr. Foster’s enough for them to know me, but George and Sophie are brand new.
The two kids take off, barely slipping through the gate in time. The dogs grow pointy, awful grins as they chase after them. I scream for Mr. Foster then whistle for Daisy and Mickey loud as I can over and over. The screen door of the kids’ house flies open and slams shut. I’m happy George and Sophie are safe but mad at the two dogs. Daisy and Mickey have ruined everything.
Soon as it’s over, Mr. Foster steps out the front door and calls the dogs home. The pair trot back wagging their tails and panting. Mr. Foster pats their heads when they return. “That’s that,” he says and leads them into the backyard.
Seeing as the dogs are locked up, I say, “I’ll go tell the kids it’s safe to come back.”
“Leave well enough alone,” Mr. Foster says.
Maybe he’s worried the dogs will cut loose again. I look over at George and Sophie’s house. George is staring at me through a window.
“Go inside and get a Coke,” Mr. Foster says.
Not long after meeting George and Sophie, Mrs. Fleming writes a note and sends it home with me. I get off the bus and pay no attention to the barking dogs at the end of the street. I don’t even wave to Mr. Foster, who is busy watering his grass. I’m hoping Mama has already gone to work at Felton’s Big and Tall, but instead she has one leg curled under her on the front porch swing and is listening to “Georgie Girl” on the radio. Her mop head of yellow hair leans a little to the right. “What’s wrong, honey?”
I hand over the note and swing my satchel above my knees and run a saddle oxford in a horseshoe shape over the gray slats of the porch.
She reads the note and says, “Your teacher says you won’t play with all the kids at school.”
Some days I get terrible feelings, and I’m afraid our house will catch fire if I say or do the wrong thing. The day after Mr. Foster’s dogs got out, I asked Daddy about playing with George and Sophie and he told me to leave them be. “Each to his own,” he said, but I don’t repeat this to Mama. She will only say, Listen to your daddy.
Mama turns the radio down and motions for me to come closer. She hugs me and reminds me to be good. Afterward, I sit on the porch steps and think about Alex, a boy who used to live down the street. When we played cowboys and Indians, the other boys wanted me to be a squaw like Pocahontas, or a saloon girl like Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke, but Alex said I could run as fast as any boy, so why shouldn’t I be sheriff, too?
“Can we go visit Alex?” I ask Mama.
“You never know,” she says.
Which pretty much means no.
Mama surprises me and visits my school the next day. Not long after that, Mrs. Fleming tells me that a family at her church lost their house in a fire a few weeks ago. They’d just moved into our neighborhood. “Bad people are no particular color,” she says.
“Everybody knows that,” I tell her.
“Not everybody,” she says.
My family is excited about the new year until another house catches fire. Mama says no one knows who is setting the fires, but everyone wishes they’d stop.
“Could be anybody,” Grandma Ames says. “There’s plenty of hate to go around lately.”
I figure they’ve forgotten about Arson.
When Mardi Gras and Easter roll around without the least bit of trouble, Mama’s thinking she’s gotten her wish. Purple, green, and gold are the only colors we think about. Even the old men at my church say the worst is over.
At the end of May, me and Grandma Ames ride a bus to Marion, Mississippi, to visit her sister. Mama drives us to the bus stop in Mobile. As she stoops to kiss me, the honeysuckle smell of her skin pushes everything far away, and I don’t want to go. “When you get back,” she says, “You, me, and Daddy will be in a new house.”
I don’t think much about her words when I get to Mississippi. I spend most of the summer playing in a cornfield with a puppy called Licks. Sometimes an older cousin marches into the tall green poles but he hardly ever smiles and only comes to check the corn.
Just before school starts again, we drive to my new house for the first time. As we turn a corner, a boy who looks like Raggedy Andy plays outside. A wagonload of plastic soldiers and tanks covers his driveway. He pays no attention as we drive by in our blue Oldsmobile. Even though he looks younger, I decide he will be my friend.
Mama and Daddy are proud of our new house. My room is the color of a tutu. Pink and white with a ballerina jewelry box to match. The room has one closet, two windows and a wooden floor that whines like Baby Tender Love when you walk across it. But the thing I love most is the blue and red Supergirl bedspread.
“This room is all yours,” Mama announces.
Up to now I have always shared a room with Aunt Terri. I hop onto my twin bed and poke the big “S” on Supergirl’s chest.
“That was your daddy’s idea,” Mama says. “I would’ve gone with something pink, but he insisted.”
“A person can only stand so much pink,” Daddy says. He is one big grin when he squats to hug me. Right then I feel like I could fly.
The next day I skip down the block to Raggedy Andy’s house. He lines his driveway with soldiers barely bigger than my pinkie. I catch my breath and introduce myself. “What’s your name?” I ask. He squints from the sun. His red hair shoots around his ears and flips up in the back.
“Robbie,” he answers.
I hold out my hand but he acts like I’ve offered him something dead. When I remember to smile, his hand meets mine. Daddy says a person’s handshake is very important. Mama says to smile when you want something.
Robbie’s freckles dot his face and arms. We have owned spotted dogs, but he is my first spotted friend. “Can I play?” I ask.
“Sure,” he says and dumps a clump of tangled plastic soldiers near my feet.
We set up the tiny army men in rows. When they are just right, we pitch rocks at them, balloon and pop our cheeks to make sounds like explosions. We topple the whole platoon with pebbles, then cheer when the last soldier falls.
By supper Robbie is my new best friend.
My Sunday school teacher Miss Kate talks about the fiery furnace at church the next day. She says an evil king tried to burn Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in a furnace the size of a house, but when the king peered into the flames, he saw four people walking around. Miss Kate says the fourth person was God. And that’s the reason the men walked out of the furnace without so much as a rash. She gulps a bunch of water right after she tells the story.
When I tell Robbie about the fiery furnace, he says, “Nobody can do that.”
“But they did and God was there too,” I repeat. I spread my fingers and point them like candlesticks so Robbie can see they’re not crossed.
“Fine. Let’s see you walk through fire.”
Robbie lines up six rows of soldiers, then fetches paper and matches from his house. He wads the paper and squishes it between the rows. That’s when I see he’s not fooling. I want to say something, but I know better than to argue with Robbie. Being Catholic, his family has different ideas about things. Sometimes they even go to church on Saturday.
He tries to strike a match and fails. I’m not so sure about this idea. The men in the Bible were famous after all, but if I back down, Robbie will think I made it all up. I snatch the matchbox away from him and almost burn myself when one of the matches sparks and burns. Robbie grabs it and sets it on top of a wadded ball. Little by little the blue and orange flames spread. A rotten smell fills the air and reminds me of the paper mill where Daddy works.
“Go ahead,” Robbie tells me. Tiny green bodies sweat into an oily shine and melt in the ankle-high flames. The flames flutter near the neighbor’s grass when the wind whips up and blows dry leaves into the burning battlefield. “I knew you wouldn’t do it,” he says.
“I’m not scared of anything,” I say. I step into the flames just as Robbie’s mom totes a basket of wet clothes through the back door. As soon as she see us, she lets go of the basket, runs toward us and begins stomping the ground when she reaches us. The rubber soles of her house slippers stick to the melting soldiers. She yells at Robbie to get the hose. In no time she is spraying my feet and the whole mess of deformed soldiers. Worst of all, I’ve ruined a pair of pants and know I’ll get in trouble.
“Give me the matches,” Mrs. Lane says.
Robbie tries to look like an angel in a Christmas play. I surrender the matchbook and stare at the wet, globby plastic. Mrs. Lane takes us by the wrists and marches us toward my house. Once there, me and Robbie sit on the front steps while she and Mama talk. Their voices are too quiet. It’s never good when grown ups whisper.
After the Lanes go home, Mama says, “You’ll be staying here until you can mind better. What if you had really hurt yourself or caught the yard on fire?” Mama goes on and on about right and wrong but she never mentions the pants.
Sometimes Miss Kate reads from a book that talks about a time for everything. One for crying. One for marrying. One for dying and so on. I know we shouldn’t have set the fire, but there must be a season for setting things on fire, too, since there’s one for everything else. I kick rocks along the driveway wishing I could drink a Coke at Mr. Foster’s, but it’s too far to walk and I wouldn’t know how to get there anyway.
Not long after moving into our new house Mama answers the phone and drops the receiver. She runs outside where Daddy is mowing grass. He cuts off the motor and they shout for me to get in the car. I take my newest blonde Barbie, the one with white sandals, along for the ride.
“Slow down, Jimmy,” Mama tells Daddy who is running every stop sign in sight. I lean forward from the back seat, but Mama tells me to sit back and behave.
“I told them not to stay in that house,” Daddy says, “but nobody listens to me.”
I slide back like I’m told and run my fingers through Barbie’s pencil-straight hair. It’s better to be quiet when Daddy’s mad. He makes no sense, keeps saying how a person can’t leave their house for a minute without everything going to hell. Mama stares straight ahead as we whiz through the neighborhoods between us and Grandma Ames.
When we see my old street, police cars and fire trucks block the road. Daddy jumps the curb and parks our Oldsmobile in somebody’s yard. He doesn’t even bother to close his door or wait for us. Mama snatches my left hand and drags me past the yards where I used to play. I am still squeezing the unlucky Barbie in my other hand.
I finally catch sight of Grandma Ames and Aunt Terri standing across the street on the neighbors’ porch. I jerk loose from Mama and dodge elbows and fire hoses to reach Grandma Ames. I throw my arms around her and she hugs me long and tight until a loud boom undoes everything. The roof of our old house caves in, causing Grandma Ames to let out a short yelp. She lifts a shaky hand to wipe her cheeks. I have never seen her cry.
Something in me is let loose. I don’t know what’s coming, but Daddy is moving toward us. “God damn niggers!” I scream.
Bodies twist toward me and everyone is staring. Grandma Ames whacks my bottom. Her eyes go straight and stiff. “Hush up now,” she says.
Daddy jerks me around to face him and squeezes me so hard I can’t move. “We raised you better than that.”
Mama tells him to let go. Daddy loosens his grip but yanks the Barbie away and hands it to Mama. “You’ll get it back when you‘ve learned your lesson.”
I wipe my face on Grandma Ames’ daisy apron. When I’m a grown-up, I’ll be able to say what I like. Just like Daddy.
Around the flames, the day is turning to night. The air sparkles in the darkness and blinks like a million lightning bugs. It seems wrong that anything is pretty.
Ramona Reeves has short fiction forthcoming in Pembroke and also has published stories in The Southampton Review, Steel Toe Review, and Gris-Gris. She received an honorable mention in the 2015 Austin Chronicle Short Story contest and was the 2013 recipient of the Marg Chandler Fellowship from A Room of Her Own. Currently, she lives in Austin, Texas.