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April Fool

April Fool

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Published by Anne Marcotty
In which I set myself on fire.
In which I set myself on fire.

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Published by: Anne Marcotty on Feb 13, 2009
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06/16/2009

April Fool by Anne Marcotty page 

April Fool
I hadn’t planned to set myself on fire. It’s not the sort of thing one usually plans. In fact, I’ll bet that most people have, at one time or another, made plans to not be set on fire. And that’s what I thought I had done. On that Saturday, the first day of April, I had gone outside to survey the disaster that we called our lawn. It was still too early for new grass, there were bare patches where the kids had played football last fall, the moles had spent another winter procreating—bless their little tunneling hearts, and the dogs had evidently been very busy. Our dog and three of her dog friends had been collaborating on a long-term project; I think they were digging to China but they couldn’t seem to agree on the best dig site. Oddly, though, with all that digging, the dogs had only buried two of their approximately 460 bones. So the “lawn” was covered with bones and holes, brown grass and mole hills, and plenty of dirt. And then there was the stump. It wasn’t a big stump, but it was inconveniently placed, about twenty feet from the house, and it had bothered me for years. Every spring, I would venture forth once again into the garden, full of all the hardy optimism of a crocus, ready to face the stump and do away with it once and for all. Right then, I was pretty sure that it was the stump’s fault that the lawn was such a mess. How could you possibly mow around such a thing? Stump assault would be the very thing to let off some income-tax induced stress. My husband had just left to run some errands, not the least of which was an appointment with the tax man, and the tension had been thick around our house for the past few days as we had scrambled to pull together statements and receipts and other bits and pieces of the previous year. A little hard physical labor would be very healing, I thought. I started with a hatchet; my plan was to methodically hack off slivers. I thought of it as erosion— eventually all those slivers would add up to a full stump—but I soon got tired and my middle-aged arm had already started to ache. Then my son, James, rode up the driveway on his bicycle and skidded to a stop. He watched me for a minute and said, “Why don’t you use Dad’s chain saw?” James is nine, and full of brand new ideas about the world and how things might work. I was afraid of the chain saw, and I thought maybe a crowbar, or a shovel, or a sledgehammer, or some

April Fool by Anne Marcotty page 

other non-gasoline powered device would be safer. But I had already tried those methods in previous years and the stump was still there; they hadn’t worked. “Wouldn’t it be cool to throw a grenade at it?” James pantomimed pulling the pin from a hand grenade and launching it at the stump. He made one of those boy noises that sounds remarkably like an explosion. I smiled indulgently, understanding that a fascination with weaponry is an important part of Boy World, and with the theory that if I don’t make a big deal out of it, I will not be creating the mystique of the forbidden. “Or you know what would be awesome?” he went on. “What if you put a whole bunch of gas on the stump and set it on fire? Wouldn’t that be cool, Mom?” “No! No! No!” my sensible, well-informed mind said at once. “That’s not very safe,” I said out loud. “Fire can get out of hand fast, and it hasn’t rained here for weeks. It would be foolish.” Then my mind said, “But what if you had the garden hose handy, all set up and ready in case the fire begins to get out of control?” I didn’t answer. Instead, I went into the garage and looked at the chain saw. Wood Shark, it was called, and there was a picture of a shark viciously—and unaccountably—tearing through a tree trunk. I imagined myself starting up the chain saw, touching it to the stump, and ricocheting wildly off and away, the very force of the spinning blade propelling me across the driveway until I slammed into my parked car, with the saw blade sunk deeply into the hood. “James, can you go round back and get the hose? Screw it onto the tap in front by the bushes, and let’s make sure the water’s running.” I picked up the metal gasoline can with the long flexible spout that my husband kept near the lawn mower. It was about a third full, judging by the weight. I carried it back to the stump and went in the house to get matches. James had joyfully run to get the hose and was connecting it to the tap as I came back outside. “Mom, are we really gonna do it?! This’ll be great!” I was thinking about the term “controlled burn”, which I’d heard used in connection with farming and forestry practices. People had been using fire as a way to clear brush and promote new growth for centuries. It seemed like a positive thing, this controlled burning. “We’ll try it once, just a little bit. See what happens. I think it’ll be okay if we’re very careful and have the hose ready,” I said, giving him credit for the idea by including him in the plans. I had no intention of letting him take part in any of the actual burning, though. I wasn’t that foolish.

April Fool by Anne Marcotty page 

The ground around the stump was mostly just dirt. Our dog, a terrier and self-appointed manager of the digging-to-China project, had seen to that. Looking back on it, I should have soaked the ground, and myself, with water before starting the controlled burn. Actually, looking back on it, I shouldn’t have started it at all. As I dribbled the gasoline on the stump, my mind, which had been so persuasive and helpful just moments ago, started nagging at me to stop. “This is foolish,” it said. “Nothing good will come of this.” I paid no attention. In fact, I felt that now would be a good time for my mind to shut the heck up. The first match blew out. So did the second and third. The fourth match produced a mighty whoosh, and the stump was in flames. A cloud of smoke billowed from the fire; not the pleasant blue smoke you get from a camp fire, but black as petroleum. I thought about Kuwait and the oil fields set ablaze during the first Gulf War. It occurred to me then to wonder whether water from a garden hose would be enough, should the need arise. Didn’t they use some sort of foam for an oil fire? But the flames settled down and the smoke died away and we stood watching our little controlled burn and it suddenly all seemed quite reasonable. “Hey, Mom, do we have any marshmallows? We should get some marshmallows and, you know, roast ’em. That’d be awesome,” James said happily. We chatted for a while, watching the fire. I could hear our neighbors through the trees that separated our yards. They always listened to opera while they worked outside. I decided then and there that one should always listen to opera while watching a burning stump. After the fire went out, it didn’t appear as though much of the stump had been consumed, but I swung the hatchet and a satisfyingly big chunk broke away. “Hey, this might work,” I said. I took another swing and another chunk broke off, but that was all. After those first two chunks, I was back to slivers. So I did the sensible thing: I poured more gasoline on the stump. Another match, another whoosh, another controlled burn, and two more chunks hacked off. I was making progress. I repeated this process four more times, glad that I had told James not to turn on the water unless we needed it. Sometime last fall we had lost the nozzle, and a lot of water would now have been wasted if we had kept it running. Then I got ahead of myself and the situation took a dramatic turn for the worse. I unwittingly poured gasoline on the stump before the previous fire had gone out. The whoosh was enormous, and

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I jumped back, at first relieved that an enormous whoosh had been the only consequence, and making a mental note to wait a little longer the next time. Then I saw the flame at the end of the gas can spout. The gas can that I was still holding. The gas can that still had gas in it. My mind was instantly at attention, evidently having forgotten that I had told it to shut up. An entire scene played itself out in my head in less than a second. I saw the flame travel down the spout into the tank of gas. I wondered whether an explosion set off in an enclosed space had more, or less, force. It didn’t matter, really. There would be an explosion, and my arm would be blown off, leaving me with a ragged, bloody mess. At this point, I had a difference of opinion with my mind and the scenario it was presenting so vividly. I felt certain that if a gas can exploded in my hand, it would take off a lot more of me than just my arm. The important thing, my mind and I agreed, was to get rid of the burning gas can. I flung it as far as I could, (it landed next to the burning stump), and yelled for James to get away. What I meant to say was, “James, get away!” What came out was, “Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod!” It would have to do. Meanwhile, while I was yelling and hoping that James would understand what I meant, I was also running the five or six feet to the water tap. I turned it, but nothing happened. I didn’t hear the expected hiss of water. I turned it in the other direction. Right to tighten, left to loosen, right? Which direction was left? I couldn’t remember. I decided, foolishly, I’m now thinking, to go to the other end of the hose—which was near the burning gas can—and see if any water was coming out. It was not. In fact, the end of the hose was plugged with dirt. But that wasn’t the bad thing. The bad thing was that the fire had now spread. It was racing across the lawn towards the house. It was now no longer a controlled burn. I turned again to look at the end of the hose to see if there was any water flowing yet, and I happened to notice that I, too, was on fire. My shoes and pants—with me in them—were on fire, as in, totally engulfed in flames. I was on fire, surrounded by fire. My reaction surprised me. I was angry—furious—at the fire. “How dare you?!” I thought. “I don’t remember giving you permission to step out of bounds. Fuck you, fire!” I thought. But the fire, being only a powerful molecular reaction involving the exchange of energy, paid no attention and kept on burning. Stop, drop, and roll. That’s what the fire safety guy told us at school, all those years ago. My

April Fool by Anne Marcotty page 

mind pulled up that file instantly, and I stopped, dropped, and rolled. The flames kept on. I could hear James screaming. He sounded far away, which was good. He was yelling, “Don’t die! Mom, don’t die!” I knew I wouldn’t die, but I could see in that instant that things would get worse, horribly worse, before they got better. The heat on my legs was intense. I tried beating out the flames with my hands, and the hair on my arms singed off. The fire raced toward the house, the house that had just been painted with oilbased paint. It caught with another whoosh and the side of the house was now on fire. It was then that the gas can exploded. I felt a sharp pain—sharper than the burning—in my leg and another in my side, just below my armpit. I could hear screaming. I decided it was me who was screaming. I tried to tell James to go to the neighbors and call 9, but I must have passed out. When I came to, I was in the hospital. I thought, “Oh, James went to the neighbors to call 9. That’s good. Good for James.” I hurt like hell all over. There was a tent-like thing set up over my legs, and bandages on most of the rest of my body. I seemed to have all my limbs, but I wasn’t sure that I had any hair or skin. My husband, Jack, had been sitting in a chair at the end of the bed. When he saw me move, he got up and came over to me; he looked very sad. He didn’t kiss me, and I wondered, vaguely, why he hadn’t. “I feel like such a fool,” I croaked, hoping to prevent him saying something like, “That was a very foolish thing to do.” What he said was far worse: “Your face is... I’m not sure how much they’ll be able to do... the doctors.” “Where’s James? What happened to the house?” I couldn’t take in what he’d just said. “James is okay. He’s at my mother’s. Actually, that’s where I’ll be staying, too. The house... the wall that got it first, well, on the other side is—was—the propane line to the hot water heater. It didn’t take long after that... The dog got out, by the way. She’s at my mother’s, too.” “Were you able to get the taxes done?” I asked idiotically. “I had to leave the stuff with the tax guy. He’ll finish them. We’re gonna need every penny of that refund.” Jack told me that they’d had to cut my clothes off and that most of my skin had gone with them. I thought briefly of the fact that I had been wearing my good underwear, but that when I’d had an

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appendectomy several years ago, the nurse told me that in an emergency, the last thing they care about is the state of your underwear. Then I thought about the guy I’d seen on the beach last year, the guy who’d come back from Iraq with half his body blown off and massive burns over the rest of it. His skin was ugly and shiny and he had no lips and no hair. His wife had to prop him up in the waves, and she was laughing and kissing him and helping him to have a nice day at the beach. I hoped that Jack would come around to that, to wanting to touch me again, to being able to forgive me for being such a fool. I felt very sad, too. But that last part—the part where the house burned and I ended up in the hospital—didn’t really happen. It was my mind again, presenting me with a “what if ” scenario while I tried to put out the fire on my legs. I saw the whole thing, like a movie, in a flash, giving further evidence that our thoughts exist on a plane where time has no meaning. Meanwhile, I stood up and pulled down my pants, which put out the flames on my body. I then picked up the hose and waited for the water to come out. Which it did. It was a long hose and the water had seemed to take forever to get to the end, but it did come out. I sprayed the flames that were heading toward the house, and just in the nick of time, stopped my favorite bush—a spirea, which has lovely pink flowers all summer—from catching fire. I turned around and aimed the water at the burning gas can, which was next to the burning stump. It took another few seconds, or so, before the flames were completely gone. By that time, my neighbors, decent salt-of-the-earth people whom you would want around in an emergency, we always said, came running through the trees. Al had a bucket of water and Kim had a tube of aloe. How had they known? I noticed that my pants were still down around my ankles, but at least they weren’t burning anymore and at least I had my good underwear on. This is when my mind shut down. I think it had used up all of whatever it is that minds use for energy. It must have taken a lot to keep all those files open at once. I was standing pantless in a stinking, dripping mess, with a nasty adrenaline hangover, and my mind shutting down. Kim and Al took over. She got ice for my finger—the one part of me that had actually been burned—and Al went to get his chain saw to cut out the stump. It took about an hour to cut the stump, clean up the charred patches, and dispose of the remains of my controlled burn. James had gone off to play with his friend, and try to forget the image of his mother in flames, I imagine.

April Fool by Anne Marcotty page 

During that time, my mind had slowly started to reboot, picking out little details as it came back online. My pants were now on again, and amazingly unscathed considering they had been on fire. It made me realize that it had been the gasoline, and not me or the lawn that had been burning. But of course, it would only have been a matter of time before the lawn and I truly were on fire. Al’s chain saw, I noticed, was also a Wood Shark, and judging by the effort he was putting into sawing through the stump, I had been smart not to try the chain saw myself. This knowledge only slightly mitigated the shame I felt for having set myself on fire in front of my son. “Kim,” I said, as she put aloe on my finger, “can you do me a huge favor?” She looked at me and grinned. “Don’t tell Jack, right?” “Uh, yah. You know— He would worry...” “Oh I know. I would never tell Al about something like this. I’d have to hear about it for a year.” And that was the real issue. Jack would worry retroactively, for sure, and I would want to spare him the burden of worrying about something he couldn’t fix. But I knew the real reason not to tell him. He would think less of me; would lose respect and think me foolish. Kim said, “Jack’s going to wonder what happened to his gas can, though.” I looked at the blackened can hulking silently by itself on the driveway. “I’ll figure out something. It may involve you, Al. Something about borrowing the gas can for your chain saw... If Jack asks about it, just say yes.” “No problem.” Al was grinning, too. “Hey, what you did? Don’t worry about it. It happens. People do this kind of thing, and it happens. It’s called an accident. You’re fine, right? So don’t worry about it.” I was grateful—for his plain wisdom, for the fact that he was finally getting rid of that stump, for Kim’s good humor and common sense, and for their just being there while I recovered. I was also curious about something. How is it that my mind could come up with the memory of what a nurse had once said about underwear, but couldn’t remember which direction was left? Could I trust it to steer me away from making foolish plans in the future? There were no guarantees of that. I could guarantee, however, that I would never, ever again, in this lifetime, use gasoline to set fire to a stump.

April Fool by Anne Marcotty page 

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