CONFESSION OF AN ADOLESCENT ARSONIST
The Montreal Review, January 2011
| "La carte postale"
(Oil on canvas - 20" x 24") by Christiane Frenay at Galerie de l'Isle
(1451 Sherbrooke Street Ouest, Montreal, Qc, Canada, H3G 2S8 )
The trouble began when Uncle William took an old chest of drawers on the Antiques Roadshow. A smartly-dressed woman from New York City ran her fingers over it greedily, smiling like a well-stoked pothead.
"This is truly magnificent, sir. A treasure. The finest example I've ever seen of Rhode Island block-front. Any idea of the age of the piece? No? Well it was made around 1780, at the time of the American Revolution. Do you know anything about John Goddard? No? Well, John Goddard, of Newport, is considered the first American craftsman to build block-front furniture. Notice how the contour of the piece's front is made by three blocks: the middle one concave, the outer two convex..."
She then grandly pegged its value at around $18,000-"at auction." They always say "at auction." I think it's to cover their tails. I mean, the expert didn't say she'd give Uncle William eighteen grand for it, dovetails, scrollwork and all. Anything can happen at an auction where fools can bid as well as connoisseurs. Anyway, that whole show exists to exhibit the astonished faces of your neighbors, to hear stuff like "You're joking" and "Oh, My God, and we've been letting the children climb all over it." Sure, once in a while they'll throw in a dud. "I'm sorry to say it's not Meissen but a souvenir of the 1939 World's Fair at Flushing Meadows, New York." They need the contrast; moreover, it's entertaining to humiliate some avaricious idiot who's expecting his putative porcelain to pay for a year's medical coverage and a yacht.
When I say the trouble began what I really mean is the feud, the vendetta. According to my mother William "just took that chest" after Nana had to give up the old Victorian and move to Assisted Living. "He had his pick," she snarled, "his pick." That Uncle William picked that chest hadn't seemed to bother her before Antiques Roadshow, though. In fact, I remember she once referred to it as "that hideous huge dark thing with the bulge." Her own taste ran to the clean, dull lines of what she called "Danish modern." She always stressed the "Danish" part, I think, as if Denmark were so up-to-date it had just been invented. "I need light," she'd say passionately, like a Manichean or a sunflower.
It wasn't as if Uncle William put the thing up for auction and pocketed $18,000. No, he held on to the chest. He actually liked it. He was proud of it and thought it an heirloom. He wanted to keep it in the family. It was also something he had to remind him of his mother. I pointed all this out to Mom but it was as if I'd lit a two-inch fuse to a bundle of dynamite; she went off the fast. "And what do I have? The jewelry that that wife of his didn't want."
"That's not true," I said reasonably. "You chose first and, anyway, we've got lots of Nana's things. Dishes and silverware and those compote things. And what's with calling Aunt Janice 'that wife of his'?"
"Don't be so fresh," Mother barked. "Oh, the mouth you've got on you-and taking his side. . ."
At this point my older sister Beth, who, being preoccupied with her college applications, paid less attention to all this than I did, stuck in her oar. "But it's true, Mom."
"Et tu? Oh, how sharper than a serpent's tooth," Mother quoted. She tended to come out with Shakespeare when she was worked up because she'd been in the Drama Club at Bryn Mawr. When we were younger and more obedient, she used to make us read Shakespeare all together. Beth and I hated it-and I'm still pretty immune to bardolatry-but Father went along, if he couldn't come up with a ready excuse. He took directions and corrections to his diction with cheerful equanimity. Beth and I used to think he was cowed but then we realized it was just that his life was elsewhere: tennis, golf, business. It was easier for him to go along, within unstated limits. So, in the matter of "the Goddard Chest," as Mother took to calling it, Dad punted. He wouldn't discuss it. When she got wound up he'd just leave the room or turn on the TV or tactically fall asleep.
"Well," said Beth when we discussed his avoidance behavior, "it's always been his method, hasn't it?"
"Not sure. Actually, his usual method's just to agree," I observed.
"True. But this is different. She's obsessed. How much raving you figure he's had to listen to that we haven't?"
"Eww. Lucky thing we've got all this homework."
"And college applications."
"And Facebook," I added.
"And texting." Beth made her Mother face. "What do you read, my Lord? Icons, icons, icons."
"Seriously, this thing with Uncle William seems to have driven her right up to the edge."
"It's sibling rivalry," I said authoritatively, hot from a two-week unit on psychology. "It's obvious. I mean the chest's a symbol. That Uncle William has it means Nana loved him more."
"Or that he loved her more," Beth added subtly.
I shrugged. "Or. . . or maybe it's just the eighteen thousand bucks. And the getting on TV."
"She can be petty."
"But she's ours."
"Dad's not here much."
"And next year I'll be away at college."
"Yikes! Don't remind me."
Beth took my hand as if to say, "Let's never be like them." We'd always been close. "A pair of confederates," Mother called us. Seeing the way she and her brother were behaving made us want to fortify our alliance.
Beth was seventeen and, though I was only fifteen, she let me vet her boyfriends. I didn't have a boyfriend yet, if you don't count Freddy DeMaria, who had a crush on me and rode his bike up and down our street every day for two weeks but was too shy to say anything and gave up when he caught sight of Beth and me giggling behind the living room window. After that, it was like I had the plague.
For my sister and me the worst consequence of the feud was that we didn't see our cousins, Seth and Brian. Though they lived forty minutes away and went to a private school it was rare that two weeks went by without a family cookout at either their place or ours. Seth was a year older than Beth and they liked each other a great deal. Their names rhymed. As for Brian, he and I were born two days apart on the same floor of the same hospital. The boys could act like jerks, of course, but that was seldom and even then probably more hormones than character. We loved them like brothers, which Beth remarked on when we hadn't seen or heard anything from them in three weeks.
"You don't think they're at us, do you? Don't they miss us?" I wondered.
Beth grinned. "I guess they'd have called if Seth didn't have a new girlfriend who, by the way, is sweet and pretty and named Sylvie. Then Brian's pretty much all
lacrosse these days, isn't he?"
"Preppies," I said the way I'd say it to Brian when I wanted to tease him. He'd snap back, "Townie," and give me a light punch on the arm.
So we called them up.
Seth apologized "We've been wanting to call. We're as exasperated by this crap as you are."
"It's so incredibly stupid," Beth said.
I took the phone. "Our dad's kind of checked. What's your mom have to say?"
There was a pause. "It may be a little harder at this end."
"Well, your mother did sort of start it so Dad feels it's up to her to end it, nothing he can do. Mom told him just to send her the damned chest."
"Really? She said that? You heard her?"
"Yep. We were all eating dinner together. But Dad said that would only make things worse."
When I told Beth what Seth said she took the phone back. "He's probably right. Mom would only say he was showing off how much richer he is than we are. You never heard the way she went on when you guys transferred to Whitemarsh."
"I guess it goes back a long way."
"Long way, yeah. That's what we think, too. Pre- us."
I grabbed the phone. "So... so what do we do? I mean, we've made our speeches already."
"Well, we do have a kind of wild idea, but I really need to think it through."
"What is it?"
"Look. Gotta run. I'll call you in a couple of days, okay? I promise At night. Say, ten-thirty."
Beth and I filled each other in on what we'd missed then stared glumly at each other, cross-legged on her bed.
"Not altogether satisfactory," was her laconic verdict.
Things grew worse, Mother was so possessed by resentment that Uncle William's "treachery" became almost her sole topic of conversation. Actually, there were no conversations, only screeds. She summoned the ghosts of slights long past, toys broken, taunts, insults and injuries. You'd have thought her childhood was one long tale of abuse, her adolescence an ordeal of scorn and mockery. "I always admired that chest," she whined at last, adding a still more fatal revision of history: "And that's why Mother wanted me to have it, not him."
Father took to coming home later; he invented more weekend errands, more games with his cronies. Beth and I gave up arguing with or even trying to propitiate Mother in favor of avoiding her.
Brian and Seth called back and said things were getting nearly as bad at their end. Uncle William, who used to be so easy-going, had turned peevish and irritable. He raised his voice to Aunt Janice because she insisted he make it up with his sister. When the boys seconded her the result was that he just became more defensive, resentful, and isolated. He said that what he expected from them was support, not mediation.
"And," Brian added, "he polishes that damned chest every Sunday. The house stinks of lemon oil all the time."
Seth really did have a plan but one which, in retrospect, didn't make a lot of sense. At the time, though, it seemed brilliant and audacious-the one way to cut the knot, lance the boil. Perhaps it appealed to me because I so seldom transgressed and it as a way of playing at illegality, a clever, safe adventure. Anyway, I took my cue from Beth and she went for it right away.
The plan was to steal the famous chest-to abduct it, rather-and keep it hidden until the adults came to their senses. The logic of the thing was that if the source of the feud was this hunk of wood, then if we removed it everything would go back to normal. Later, we could think about restoring the chest and everybody would have a good laugh. Seth said he had this friend with a pickup who knew of a perfect place, an abandoned shed. He'd already offered him a hundred bucks.
Beth explained all this and put her hand over the phone. "I'm going to insist on going along," she whispered.
"Me too," I answered with joyous recklessness.
Seth and Brian weren't keen. They had good arguments against including us: the risk, the space we'd take up in the truck, the additional excuse-making, the more complicated timing. But Beth said that our participation was, in fact, vital because, after all, this was family business. She was adamant, hitting her knee with her fist as she argued.
The boys gave in, eventually, and Seth promised to phone back the following night with details. He did but first he dropped something a tad thermonuclear.
I couldn't hear his voice but Beth said later it sounded kind of choked, funny. "Look," he said. "I don't know how to break this except to say it straight out. Your father and our mother-they're having an affair."
What I did hear was Beth. "What!"
"What is it?"
She waved me off and went on saying "What!"
"What is it?" I repeated, feeling suddenly scared and curling up at the foot of her bed.
She hissed at me out of the side of her mouth. "Seth says they're having an affair."
"Dad and Aunt Janice."
"And you know this how?" she demanded of Seth.
"You're father's been gone a lot, hasn't he?"
"That doesn't prove anything. He's just hiding from Mom. So are we."
"Well, our mom's been gone a lot, too. Said it was a new yoga class. We trailed her. They use this motel out on Route 45."
"You saw them?"
"Well, we didn't peek through any key holes. But we saw their cars; we saw her get out; we saw them kiss each other and the way they did it."
"What?" I yelled.
"Shh. Later," Beth snapped at me.
Seth then explained the plan and made it sound more urgent than ever though we really ought to have realized it was pointless.
Uncle William and Aunt Janice were going to a dinner party on Saturday night. It was easy for us to convince our parents we had a double date and would meet with the boys at an imaginary, highly chaperoned, school dance. Dad thought that was cute; Mom didn't seem to be paying attention.
Seth's friend Josh had a tattoo of a Chinese dragon on his left arm. I picked up right away on the way he looked at Beth and the way Beth looked back. It was a case of irresistible bad boy/good girl magnetism. Brian and Seth noticed nothing; they were focused on burgling their own home, of course.
Beth and I squeezed into the cab, with Beth next to Josh. Our cousins rode in the bed with the chest which the three boys wrangled neatly through the garage. Josh took it slow, wary of cops and liking Beth right up beside him like that. We drove out of town on Route 45, passing three motels, turned off the highway at Rosedale then headed into the country. The shed was about twenty yards from the dirt road Josh drove us up. There was one of those weathered, tumble-down barns that always make me feel sad. Seth and Brian had brought along a chain, a tarp, and a padlock. Beth and I ran along beside them as they hefted the big old thing into the shed. They'd rolled up their sleeves and that's when I spotted the Chinese dragon. Josh smoked, too. I saw the pack of Marlboros in his shirt pocket.
Brian and I wanted to sit in the bed on the way back. We were feeling pretty wild.
"You think they'll get divorced?" he shouted over the noise of the wind.
"I don't know."
He moved closer to me. "If your dad married my mom, what would that make us?"
I considered this puzzle. "I'd say it was a wash."
"Oh yeah. I guess." He punched my arm gently. "God, this is fun, isn't it?"
Beth began going out with Josh. Well, not "going out" exactly; that sounds conventional. Sneaking out's more like it. With Dad so busy with golf and tennis and Aunt Janice and Mom drilling further into her apparently inexhaustible gusher of bitterness, there wasn't anybody to disapprove except me.
"You've got him wrong," said Beth, eyes all aglow.
"It's you who've got him wrong," I retorted and reminded her of the jerks I'd pegged right. I said Josh was worse than all of them put together.
An infatuated seventeen-year-old is going to listen to the wisdom of her little sister? Right.
One Saturday night she didn't come home until Sunday. Mom didn't notice and Dad was away for the weekend on a "business trip."
Meanwhile the boys told us Uncle William had begun to crack. When they got back from the dinner party he called the police at once. The officers were more suspicious than sympathetic: no locks broken, nothing else taken, a insurance policy recently taken out on Goddard's block-front masterpiece. Brian phoned me and said his father was practically beside himself; he felt guilty for not protecting the thing better.
"Maybe we should, you know, give it back?" I suggested.
"That would make everything worse," he said morosely.
"Things are pretty bad as they are," I allowed.
He perked up. "Tell you a secret?"
"We're going to do it again."
"Another house. Seth's friend Angela's. She's mad at her mother and wants some jewelry taken."
"Are you crazy?"
"It'll be easy."
"No. No Josh this time. You don't need a pickup to boost a few bracelets and necklaces."
And things went on like this for about a month.
Then at around ten one night I heard Beth crying and went into her room.
"What's the matter"
Her face was all boated and teary. She was clutching her old stuffed lamb.
"My life's a catastrophe. Grades all gone to hell. Josh says he's joining the Marines."
"The Marines? Why?"
"Look. I'm. . . pregnant. All right? Don't tell!"
I dropped on to her bed. "Jesus, Beth."
She looked forlorn. "I tore up my college applications."
"My life's over, what's the point?"
"Don't say that."
She looked away from me, at the far wall. "We were sitting on this bench in the park when I told him and he stood up and told me what he was going to do and then he just walked away-straight to the recruiting office, I suppose."
She started to wail, but quietly, so Mother wouldn't hear her, though Mother wouldn't have heard because it turned out she was downstairs listening to Dad tell her he wanted a divorce.
Uncle William and Aunt Janice separated. Dad moved into a garden apartment and Mom hired a lawyer-"a real barracuda," she called him. She even found some Shakespeare to quote at us for the occasion: ". . . as the long divorce of steel falls on me, make of your prayers one sweet sacrifice, and lift my soul to heaven." It's so obscure she must have looked it up. "The operant word, girls," she said furiously, "is steel."
Josh went to Parris Island and then overseas. Beth had a secret abortion-paid for by Seth and Brian with some of the money they'd gotten for all the stuff they were stealing. Then they got caught. Unfortunately, Seth had just turned eighteen, so he went to prison. The judge gave Brian two years parole on the grounds of being so young and under the influence of his brother.
As for the Goddard chest, it was turned to ash when I went back to the abandoned farm and burned down the shed.
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play; his recent novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction.
Illustration by Christiane Frenay.
Christiane Frenay is a Canadian artist. Her father is the French artist Jean Malé. She studied at École des Beaux Arts in Toulouse.
At the crossroads of various cultures, Christiane Frenay's work is both austere and baroque, branded by sensitivity and contained sensuality.