Our burning jacket
Posted on November 20th, 2012
“It will still be there,” I reassured him. “We’ve only been gone for 30 minutes. We’ll pick it up and then we’ll go to the library.”
The park is only a block from our piano teacher’s house, and as we rounded the corner and the blacktop came into view, Roy spoke up.
“That looks like a fire,” he said.
How poetic! The sunset blazing down the mountain below us looked like nothing so much as a fire. My throat closed up a little as I prepared to praise him for the beauty of this spontaneous simile. Then I saw the smoke.
“Oh, you mean a real fire,” I said to him. My throat continued to close up, this time for another reason. “Yes. That looks like a fire.”
“Where’s a fire?” Peaches asked querulously from the backseat.
“Is my jacket on fire?” Roy asked, his voice rising. I slowed the car down and parked it on the curb. Roy and I opened the doors and started running toward the abandoned basketball court. As we approached the tiny blaze that engulfed, yes, Roy’s blue-striped hoody, I noticed that Roy had not left the car empty-handed. My son had jumped out of the vehicle with an abandoned glass of water he’d seen in the in-dash cup holder and dashed the 100 yards to throw its contents on his burning jacket
“Mommy, they’re running away,” Roy said breathlessly. He pointed beyond the fire to the playground where, sure enough, two boys – middle schoolers, maybe – were running for their lives toward the major street south of the park.
“You better run, you little (insert expletive here),” I screamed at their retreating backs. “I’m calling the cops!”
Roy sprinted with me back to the car.
“Where are we going, Mommy?” he wanted to know as he kept pace with me, step for step.
“We’re going to follow them,” I explained grimly, starting the car.
“I’m afraid! I’m afraid!” Peaches hollered.
“Afraid of what?” I was impatient. There were perpetrators to pursue and Peaches’ incessant screaming was distracting me.
“Roy’s jacket is on fire!” she yelled back. “Fire!” I guess that was all she had.
Let me pause here to say the next few minutes weren’t my best. Following the vandals in the van and parking next to the drainage ditch they were hiding in while I called the police. The conversations with city and law enforcement agencies in which I had to explain that our situation required neither 911 nor the full-on fire engine that was dispatched anyway then, mercifully, recalled. My half-hearted attempts to console a beside-herself Peaches (who was kind of interfering with my ability to serve hot justice to those terrified miscreants).
You’ll be pleased to know that I managed to rally. After the policeman put out Roy’s jacket with a fire extinguisher and I began to accept that our aspiring arsonists had escaped out of the drainage ditch and back into anonymity, we waited on Marcel in the dark outside of our piano teacher’s house. Peaches sat in my lap and Roy say across from us and we talked. About why we were upset, about how much more afraid those little fire-starters were than we were, about how it probably wasn’t the best idea for Mommy to have followed them with the car.
It was a mean thing that those boys did, I told them, but it wasn’t personal. If I had left my book in the park, it could have just as easily burned right alongside Roy’s jacket.
“Really?” Roy wanted to believe me, but he wasn’t sure.
I knew what he meant. That’s what started me screaming at those children, what drove me running back to the car to start my ill-conceived, slow-speed chase. Roy’s burning jacket felt like an assault on us. But it wasn’t. That jacket burned because two boys were bored and unsupervised. And my days of running after people whilst a-burning with righteous indignation–regardless of how justified–have to be behind me. Because if I’m telling my children that something isn’t personal, I’m going to have to act like I believe it. No matter how hard that might be.
(I keep thinking about Roy running with that glass of water to put out his jacket, though. That’s a boy I want on my team for the Zombie Apocalypse. I call dibs.)