The Little Pyromaniac
By Abbie Johnson Taylor
I remember the day my five-year-old brother Andy was arrested for arson. On a warm Wyoming spring afternoon in 1974, when I was twelve years old, my parents and I were in the garden behind our house. While Mother and Dad prepared the soil for planting, I studied seed packets of peas, corn, and tomatoes. Even with my limited vision, I could read the labels and make out the pictures. I imagined how they would look and taste on our dinner plates.
My food reverie was interrupted by the distant sound of sirens. “I’ll bet those are fire engines,” Dad remarked.
A little while later, I heard the phone ringing in the house. “I’ll get it,” I offered, dropping the seed packets and hurrying toward the back door.
In the kitchen, breathless, I picked up the receiver. “Hello.”
A brusque male voice said, “Could I speak to Mr. or Mrs. Johnson?”
Alarmed, I said, “Yeah, just a minute.”
I dropped the phone and hurried outside. “Mother, Dad, there’s a guy on the phone who wants to talk to one of you.”
“I’ll take it,” Mother said, putting down her shovel and wiping her hands on her slacks.
Curious, I followed her into the house and waited to see what I could find out. Of course, I couldn’t glean much from her end of the conversation.
“Hello. Oh, my God! We’ll be right there.” She slammed down the receiver and rushed past me out the back door.
I hurried after her and heard her say to Dad, “Ed, we need to pick up Andy at the police station. He was playing with matches near that abandoned shack at the bottom of the hill when it caught fire.”
After they left, I wandered aimlessly through the house, letting my imagination get the better of me. Although my little brother was a pain in the anatomy, I loved him and hated the idea of him being handcuffed and tossed into a jail cell. What if they locked up my parents and came after me?
A knock sounded at the front door. My heart pounding, I hurried to answer, fearing the worst. But it was only Carrie and Shelley from next door, who were close to my age. Andy and I often played with them.
After I invited them in and explained the situation, Carrie, the older of the two, said, “Maybe you should call the police and find out what’s going on.”
“Yeah,” Shelley agreed.
Call the police? That was the last thing I wanted to do. “But I don’t have the number,” I said, hoping that would be a good enough excuse.
“Call the operator, and she’ll connect you,” Carrie suggested.
“They can’t arrest you for calling them,” Shelley assured me. “You’re not committing a crime.”
That made sense. Although their presence comforted me, I still felt trepidation, as I made my way into my parents’ bedroom and picked up the receiver on Mother’s side of the bed. They stood eagerly in the doorway while I made the call.
The same brusque voice answered. “Sheridan Police Department.”
I was tempted to hang up but managed to babble, “Hi. I’m looking for Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. They should be there with Andy Johnson.”
“Oh, yes, they’re here,” he said. “They’re filling out paperwork. Who’s this?”
“I’m Miss Johnson. Thanks.” It was all I could think to say, and I hung up.
When I relayed our conversation, Carrie said, “See? There’s nothing to worry about.”
“Yeah,” Shelley chimed in. “They’ll be home soon.”
A little while later, we were in my room, drinking Coke and listening to music when I heard the station wagon pull into the driveway. I hurried outside, Carrie and Shelley at my heels. To my relief, Andy climbed out of the station wagon, and I hugged him. “I love you. Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he answered with a grin. “They put me in a jail cell.”
“Oh, no!” I cried.
“Weren’t you scared?” Shelley asked.
“No, I found a rotten peanut butter sandwich.”
“Ugg!” I said. I’d always hated peanut butter and never cared for peanuts.
“Did you eat it?” Carrie asked.
He shook his head.
Dad, removing Andy’s bike from the trunk, said, “Now, you’re going to stay off this for a week, do you hear?”
Andy’s face fell. “Yeah.”
That wasn’t the only time he committed arson. Once, with the help of another neighbor girl his age, he set fire to his basement bedroom. Fortunately, Mother put it out before it could do much damage.
Another time, when Andy and I were in his room, he picked up a lighter, held it to my face, and flicked it. It hissed, but that was all. “It’s empty,” he cried, as I hurried away, screaming.
I don’t know what turned him around, but Andy eventually outgrew his fire fetish. However, in elementary school, he exhibited some behavioral problems. Through the years, he had other brushes with the law, most of them alcohol-related.
But he now has a P.H.D. in physics and lives in Jupiter, Florida, with his own family, where he teaches at a private high school. Perhaps he ignites, in his students, a spark of scientific interest.
The above true story appears in the summer issue of The Writer’s Grapevine, which can be downloaded here. I was inspired to write it while taking a class from Glenda Beall, who blogs here. She prompted us to write something about a family member, starting with the sentence, “I remember the day when…” I hope you enjoyed reading this.
Photo Courtesy of Tess Anderson Photography
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