It was one hundred and three degrees out but the heat didn't matter to us. We drenched the walls in gasoline and lit a match to the wooden shack. Flames enveloped the building and sinister joy crept across my face. This was before I knew what a pyromaniac was. To this day I think I would still be characterized as one. A fire-starter. Except I’ve been replacing homes with bridges for several years.
We watched the old home burn and fall to the ground in grand glory. In this instant we were in control. Something I’ve always held in high regard. Being the man in charge. And in that, in charge, I’ve made most of my bad decisions. In a matter of seconds we were trapped inside an inferno of out of control flames based on my decision to burn down a deserted house. In a matter of minutes we were digging our way to safety. In a matter of hours we were watching firefighters air drop thousands of gallons of water onto an Arizona field.
In a matter of a heartbeat-- that’s all it took to realize I had made a bad decision. And in that decision I learned that bad ones burned.
Because they’re the only ones you don’t forget.
I was nervous but my dad insisted I give it a shot.
“Go, you got this.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“For Chrissake, say your order.”
“Just tell it to her?”
“But -- what If I don’t know what I want?”
Seven years old and unusually insecure about ordering food from the Paradise Valley mall my dad finally persuaded me that it was a good idea. He was a father with two older kids and he knew exactly how to raise my courage. He delved deep into my troubled seven year-old psyche and made me feel like a total wuss.
“Dude, just freakin’ go up there and order some damn food already. If you can’t talk to the lady at Subway how do expect to talk to a teacher, or god forbid the police some day?”
And with that I bit my tongue and charged.
Unsure of myself-- I approached. The lady must have been seventeen or eighteen. A giant if I’ve ever seen one. She put on her latex gloves and just looked at me. Froze me. What am I suppose to say to this woman? She would never know that I’d leave this sandwich shop, walk out of the mall, turn eleven-years-old, and burn down a field. She wouldn’t know that because it hasn’t happened yet. She wasn’t looking at a pyromaniac. She was looking at a kid that’s never ordered food before. She was looking at a wuss.
“Hey, sweet pea. What are you having?”
“Sorry honey, I can’t hear you.”
“You’re gonna have to speak up, dear.”
“I’ll have a turkey sandwich.”
“Turkey? With what kind of bread?”
“Sorry babe, you’re speaking too low for me.”
Anxiously I look to my dad. He’s desperately not trying to help but distraught nonetheless. Finally, he takes a deep breath and marches to the counter.
“What seems to be the problem miss? Are you fucking deaf? Kid said he wanted a turkey sandwich on white bread. Get it together.”
“Did you not hear me? A turkey sandwich.”
“Sir, I heard you just fine. You were being rude.”
“Oh, you heard me? For once you heard something. Well congratulations. I’m rude. You’re retarded.”
In that moment I understood everything. With a small tear and an angry cut of white bread I caught onto something even my father hadn’t noticed. There was a tiny earpiece in the girls’ left ear. It was easy to miss, especially if you weren’t looking for it. So in a flash of what could only be considered a heartbeat the girl was sobbing uncontrollably. Then, in only a matter of seconds, the girl was running into the manager’s office, sandwiches half made and employees giving us dirty looks.
At last, in what I can only describe as time standing still for an eternity, the manger came out to speak to us.
“Sir, what seems to be the problem here?”
“You tell me. She was making sandwiches one minute and crying the next.”
“Sir, you just called her a deaf idiot.”
“I don’t remember saying the word idiot.”
“Sir, she’s deaf in the left ear.”
“Well how the hell do you expect me to know that?”
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“Yeah, well fuck you too buddy...”
There I was, watching the girl in the back room cry, when my dad grabbed me by the shoulder and ushered me along.
“See what happens when you don’t speak up? You gotta be more assertive.”
I couldn’t do anything but nod my head and agree. He hadn’t meant to make the girl cry. He was trying to help me. He was trying to defend me. But I saw it in his anger. I saw it in his shame. He knew he had made a bad decision.
A mistake I will never forget.
Because every time I sit down at a restaurant or buy a movie from fry’s I look for an earpiece.
I look for an earpiece, then a firecracker, then a lighter. Shortly after, my hand slides across the back pocket of my jeans and I look for my smokes.
I burn my Marlboro and think out loud, “this is probably a bad decision.”
Ash topples to the ground and flame continues to sear the end of my cigarette. I can’t help but just look at it.
What kind of moral lesson will I learn from this one?