Flames

written by Brandon French

The way I remember it, I had stayed after school that day, discussing the ending of Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” with my English teacher. The street was empty when I came out, except for a very old Chrysler stalled in the middle of 104th Street and a blond, blue-eyed fellow who was pushing it with sweaty determination, his right arm gripping the steering wheel through the open driver’s window.  To my mildly myopic, twelve-year-old eyes, he looked a lot like James Dean, with his long, sandy blond hair, Levi’s and motorcycle boots, a resemblance that was especially alluring since the real James Dean had died the month before in a car crash in Cholame, California, and I, along with several million other American teenage girls, was mourning his loss. 

But James Dean had expired in a silver Porsche Spyder convertible, not an old Chrysler whose base color had devolved into murk like my father’s 1946 Chevy. My mother and I had gladly left that “death rattler” behind, along with my father, when we moved from Cincinnati to Los Angeles in August of 1955. But this old car had some amazing red and blue and orange flames lapping upwards from the front bumper, teasing the tires, framing the squat windows, and enveloping half the body in fire.

“Can you give me a hand?” the blond fellow asked breathlessly.

“Oh, sure,” I said, stepping into the street. “But my books –.” I indicated the heavy canvas bag I was toting, packed with geometry, biology, American history, and 20th century literature. 

“Toss them in the car,” he said, pointing to the open window on the passenger side.

We pushed the car seven long blocks, crunching through the red and yellow leaf-strewn street lined with slapdash, two-story apartment buildings, one of which my mother and I lived in. But when we finally got to the Shell station, Tommy – that was his name, Tommy – only bought twenty-five cents worth of gas. 

“I’m divorced, with a kid to support,” he said, “so I’m always broke.” 

“Oh, wow,” I said, realizing with a pang that he must be much older than I’d thought.

Tommy opened his wallet and showed me a picture of his son, James. The little boy looked serious, like he was worried about the spread of Communism or Adlai Stevenson beating Dwight D. Eisenhower in the presidential race. Of course, I knew he was probably too young to be thinking about grownup things like that, although I did, even when I was a little kid.

“Does James miss you?” I asked, thinking about my parents’ recent divorce.

“I see him a couple times a week,” Tommy said, flipping his wallet closed and shoving it back in his pocket like he didn’t want to talk about that anymore. 

I wondered how it would be to kiss him. I was always picturing myself kissing boys back then, even though I was still flat-chested and therefore pretty much out of the running. I was a dedicated imaginer, especially about ‘making out,’ preferably with Georgie Johnson, the varsity quarterback of the Monarch Fireballs, or Joseph del Conte, the most popular boy in school. But I’d never done it and would quickly turn my face away whenever a guy tried. 

“So what do you want to do now?” Tommy said, looking me over like a menu item he couldn’t decide whether to order. Judging from photographs of me back then, I was cute enough, especially without my glasses, which I refused to wear except in class or when I was at home. I had shoulder-length auburn hair, a sprinkling of freckles across my upturned nose, a serious forehead despite the long bangs, but a playful mouth with a knowing smile, as if I’d learned all the important things by then.

“What about the library,” I said, unable to think of anywhere else that didn’t cost money. 

Tommy looked at me with a comical grimace, like I’d just suggested we take up ballet dancing.

 “Maybe we can go out sometime,” he said, starting the car.

My heart soared.

As soon as Tommy dropped me off, I raced upstairs and called my best friend Linda to give her the lowdown. She said I shouldn’t tell my mother about the flames on Tommy’s car or the part about him being divorced with a kid. Linda was wise that way, like a big sister, emphasis on big. She was 180 pounds and half a foot taller than I was with a deep, grownup voice.

 “He’s really cute,” I told my mother when she came home from work, because at twelve, cuteness was my primary criterion. He seemed a little dangerous, too, with those hot flames dancing the Dirty Chicken on his car. But I didn’t need Linda to tell me I shouldn’t mention anything about that to my mother. 

“Does he go to your school?” she asked, throwing two lamb chops on the broiler for our dinner.

Tommy had told me he worked from 6 a.m. to 2 in the afternoon at the A&P, unpacking groceries and restocking canned goods, but I said “Maybe,” and “I think so.” 

I was a fairly accomplished liar by 12, and my mother didn’t probe. She was preoccupied with Perry Hochner, the recently widowed accountant in the cubicle next to hers,  whom she would soon begin to date and eventually marry. 

When school let out the next afternoon, Tommy was on 104th Street again, leaning against his blazing car. 

 “Hi,” he said, acting like he just happened to be there by chance. “Want a ride home?” 

“Sure,” I said. 

After I climbed into the passenger seat, he said, “Have you got a quarter? I don’t want to run out of gas again.”

I loved watching Tommy take charge at the gas station, grabbing the pump away from the pimply-faced attendant and handling it like a pro. (His previous job had been pumping gas, he said.) And he stopped at exactly twenty-five cents, although I would have given him extra pennies or even a nickel if he’d needed it.

When Tommy slid back into the car, he leaned over and kissed me on the mouth. It happened so fast that I didn’t have time to turn away. His lips were soft and his breath was sweet, like Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum. Wow, I thought. Wow, wow, wow. 

But then he told me that I kissed all wrong, which made me feel like a squished worm. 

“It’s not like kissing your grandma,” he said, instructing me to keep my mouth open and relax my lips. 

The next day, royally bored by the War of 1812, I wrote Tommy’s name over and over in my notebook. Thomas Gustafson. (He’d said it was Swedish.)  T-o-m-m-y G-u-s-t-a-f-s-o-n. Then I wrote Mrs. Thomas Gustafson. Mrs. Doris Gustafson. Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Gustafson. Doris Gustafson. B-o-y-f-r-i-e-n-d. 

On our first official date, Tommy chauffeured me to a drive-in movie theater which was showing Jailhouse Rock starring Elvis Presley. My mother was out with Perry Hochner so I didn’t have to make up a lie about where I was going, so long as I got back home before she did. 

The movie was already playing when we got to the drive-in but we didn’t go inside.

 “There’s no point in paying money to watch the movie when we can see it from right here,” he explained, parking next to the large white wall that separated the theater from the road. 

“But what about the sound?” I asked.

“There’s no sound in a drive-in movie,” he said authoritatively, as if everyone over the age of six knew that. “Listen,” he commanded. “Do you hear anything?”

The only sound was a monotonous hum from the freeway. 

“It just doesn’t make sense to me if you can’t hear Elvis sing,” I persisted. “Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure,” he said, adjusting his shoulders defensively. “Nobody cares about the sound because they come here to neck.”

With that, he pulled me closer and began to kiss me roughly, forcing his tongue into my mouth, which made me gag. 

“What are you doing!” I protested, pushing him away. I’d heard girls talk about French kissing, of course, but they’d never mentioned it involved tongues.

“I want to watch the movie,” I said, reaching into my purse for my glasses.

“What’s the point?” he said, and made another dive at my mouth. “You don’t need these, do you?” he said, yanking the glasses off my face.

“Give them back,” I cried, grabbing for them. 

He tossed them into my lap like they had cooties.

“Well, I guess I was wrong about you, Doris,” he said, pulling out a pack of Camels from his jacket and lighting one up. He took a long drag and exhaled at the windshield through both nostrils like a fire-breathing dragon.

“What do you mean you were wrong about me?” I asked, my confidence waning.

“I thought you were more mature.” 

“I’m sorry,” I said, tears crowding into my eyes. “I guess you just went too fast.”

He took another drag and then held his cigarette out to me. I knew I must try to smoke it if there was any hope of redeeming myself in his eyes. It felt wet and hot on my lips, and the taste on my tongue was unexpectedly bitter, but I breathed in deeply as I’d seen him do, which caused me to cough, choke and spit, all at the same time.

He grabbed the cigarette out of my hand before it fell onto his ragged gray upholstery and then he laughed.

“How old are you anyway?” 

“Old enough,” I said with as much dignity as I could muster, relieved that he no longer seemed angry.

“It’s okay.” He patted my shoulder like my father used to do when I got upset, and started the car. 

I loved having a boyfriend, it made me feel popular like the girls I admired, instead of being some lonely brainhead who’d been double-promoted three times in grade school. One afternoon it came to me, more like an idea than a feeling, that I loved Tommy. It might have been because of how gently he held me when I cried about my mother getting engaged to Perry Hochner. But mostly I just wanted to feel like the people in the sappy love songs that played all day long on the radio. Earth angel, earth angel, the one I adore, love you forever, and ever more. .  .

When school let out early for a teachers’ meeting a few days later, I walked to the A&P and surprised Tommy just as he was coming out of the employee john.

“Hey, hey, kiddo,” he said, taking me in his arms and kissing me on the mouth.

“I love you,” I said, rather thrilled to say it out loud.

“You do?” Tommy’s cheeks turned salmon pink and his chest swelled.

“Uh-huh.”

He pulled out his box cutter and sliced open a carton of Del Monte cling peaches with a dramatic flourish, removing a can and slipping it to me like a precious jewel.

“Put it in your purse,” he whispered, looking around to make sure we weren’t being observed. It seemed like a very romantic gesture. I kept the can of peaches unopened on my vanity table for a whole month. 

I had a boyfriend, I sang to myself like a hit record, someone who would call me and take me out and go with me to the Autumn Harvest Dance. Back in Cincinnati a year earlier, I had gone to the Winter Solstice Dance alone, looking ridiculous, I’m sure, in my mother’s much-too-voluptuous black sheath dress. She had fled to Florida for a week, sick of the relentless Ohio winters and my dissolute father, and when he wouldn’t give me money to buy a party dress, I raided her closet.

I spent three hours sipping Cokes at an empty table in the darkened gym, scorched with envy. Girls in blue and pink and white party dresses circled the dance floor, billowing gracefully like blooming phlox, especially Miranda Todd, who everybody agreed was the most beautiful girl in the school, as well as the nicest. I imagined setting fire to all that tulle and marveled at how quickly the flames reached up like bony witches’ fingers into her cascading blond pageboy. 

When I got back home, my father was sitting on the sofa in his boxer shorts, watching wrestling on TV.  

“Nobody danced with me,” I announced, hoping he’d say something consoling.

“Oh, grow up, Doris,” he growled, the rye whiskey bottle he’d brought home that afternoon more than half empty. He never took his eyes off the television.

I used to be crazy about my father when I was little.  He was the one who taught me how to tie my shoelaces (loop, loop and scoop) and how to read and spell way before kindergarten. And he let me have hot dogs and Coca-Colas at the racetracks in Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana, where we bet on the horses and never told my mother where we’d been all day. 

“Peaches and pig shit,” he used to say when we drove across ‘Hoosier Land,’ rolling up the car windows and turning on the exhaust fan to dampen the stink. It was just one of those dreary places you had to hold your nose and pass through, my father explained, in order to get somewhere better. 

But the night I came home desolately from my first high school dance, my heart burned black, and I wanted to shout I hate you! at the top of my lungs.

That was last year, though, and now I had Tommy. So what if he didn’t have a suit, only chinos and a sport coat he’d inherited from his older brother. I loved him anyway. And he would be my date for the Autumn Harvest Dance.  

Then something unexpected happened. Gary Bauer, one of the fellows in my drama class, leaned over and whispered, “Are you going to the dance?” Gary had never even said hi to me before this.

“Maybe,” I lied. 

“With who?”

“I don’t know yet,” I lied again. 

Gary wasn’t handsome and glamorous like Georgie Johnson or Joseph del Conte and he didn’t drive a T-Bird or a Corvette like they did. He didn’t even look like James Dean or any other movie star, except maybe Jerry Lewis. But he’d memorized some of Mort Sahl’s comedy routines from his record album “At Sunset,” and he performed them flawlessly at the Monarch Talent Night, winning second prize, which made him a campus celebrity. 

“Wanna go to the dance with me?” Gary asked.

Suddenly I was flooded with rationalizations. 

1. Tommy was a divorced, nineteen-year-old A&P stock boy who drove a beat-up jalopy. 

2. The kids at school might mistake him for some creepy guy like Betty Jackson’s forty-year-old Okie boyfriend who mucked the stalls at the Hollywood Park Race Track. 

3. They’d think I was a total loser like she was and make fun of me behind my back.

In one minute flat, I had turned into a “sosh,” which was what we called mean girls in the 1950’s. Would I ditch one fellow for someone more desirable? Would I lie and hope I didn’t get caught?

Yes, I would.

On the same day I told Tommy that school dances were stupid and said I had no interest in attending one, Linda and I went dress shopping for the Harvest Dance. 

“What if Tommy finds out you’re going with Gary?” Linda asked, trying not to scratch a mosaic of inflamed flea bites on her chest. 

“He won’t find out.”

“He’ll be really pissed off at you,” she said, rubbing the largest bite with her elbow.

 “Shut up,” I snapped, pulling the cord so the bus would let us off at Henshey’s Department Store.

I had worked it out in my head that I could go to the dance with Gary and still keep Tommy as my boyfriend. But  over the next several weeks, I stopped feeling excited to see Tommy, and sometimes he even annoyed me, like when he tried to wedge my legs apart while we were making out.

“I’m not going to do anything,” he said with frustration. “I just want to touch you.”

“Not there,” I said fiercely. I wouldn’t even let my pediatrician do that anymore.

On the evening of the dance, there was a fire raging in Griffith Park, the result of a scorching hot Indian summer and the treacherous Santa Ana winds. Sirens shrieked in the distance and the air was soupy with smoke and the stench of burning trees. 

When I peeked out the bedroom window, a gangrenous yellow glow had lit up the night sky. I was worried sick that Tommy would be outside when Gary came to pick me up, even though I’d made up a pretty impressive whopper to get out of our Friday night date – I’d said my father was flying into town from Cincinnati for the weekend and we had to go to the airport to pick him up. 

When I came out into the living room, Perry Hochner and my mother were sitting on the sofa watching The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. 

“You look very nice, Doris,” he said. My mother had probably told him to say that, so I’d like him.

“Thank you,” I said. What did he know?  He had a salt and pepper crew cut, thick glasses, and an ugly plastic pocket protector for his pens. And to top things off, he was guzzling a beer. I gave my mother a disapproving look.

 “Why don’t you sit down?” she said, making room for me on the sofa. Her diamond engagement ring glinted at me like a taunt. 

“I don’t want my dress to get wrinkled,” I said, although I was wearing so many crinolines that a bulldozer probably couldn’t have flattened it.

I leaned against a wall and tried to concentrate on the TV. “The irrepressible Ricky” was my favorite character on Ozzie and Harriet, the little brother who made wisecracks. When my father told me I was a smart aleck like Ricky, I took it as a oompliment. 

Gary arrived half an hour later. He looked very grown up and proper in his suit and tie and fresh haircut and I could see that my mother and Perry were impressed. They said all the usual parent things as we were leaving, like have a good time and drive safely now and don’t stay out too late, sounding just like Ozzie and Harriet. 

“Your mom and dad are nice,” Gary said as we were going down the steps. I didn’t bother to correct him.

When we reached the street, a car roared past, its headlights momentarily illuminating my dress like twin accusations. Startled, my legs began to shake and I lost my footing. Gary had to grab hold of my elbow to steady me.  

“Are you sure you’re okay in those high heels?” he asked, looking doubtfully at my three-inch-high black pumps.

“Don’t be silly,” I said, wrenching my arm away from him. The car had gone by too fast for me to see if it had flames but I could scarcely breathe until I was inside the bronze Chevrolet Impala that Gary had borrowed from his father. When he offered me a sip of whatever was in the small brown bag that he took from the glove compartment, I accepted it gratefully, savoring the warm, sweet apricot antidote to my jitters. It opened a small window of understanding in my head about why my father drank.

I loved being at the dance. I was happily unaware that my fire engine-red gown probably looked like a matador’s cape, attracting bulls each time I moved. The prize bull was quarterback Georgie Johnson, who staggered toward me and mumbled a few bourbon-scented words that included “dance.” He had to grab hold of my arms during the Del-Viking’s “Come Go with Me” to keep from toppling over, and he ripped one of the shoulders of my dress before the song ended.  

“Who are you again?” he kept asking me, his blue eyes as clouded as his brain. 

“I’m still Doris,” I said with a sigh.  

The gym was half-empty by 11:30. Linda was slow dancing with Irwin, her “pygmy boyfriend,” whom she’d known since the third grade, looking happy even though he was half her size and height. 

Gary came out of the men’s room and walked over to me with a question mark on his face.

“Yeah, let’s go,” I said. My feet had grown numb inside my pumps and my ankles were wobbling. 

 We were almost to Gary’s car when I spotted Tommy in the parking lot, leaning against the flames of his Chrysler like one of those dogs that guard the gates of Hell. There was an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth and when he struck a match, I could see him glaring at me. He swaggered toward me, flinging the spent match in my direction. Then he lit another one and flicked it at my dress. 

“Cut that out,” I snapped, pinching the ripped shoulder of my dress so it wouldn’t slip down my arm. I knew I should feel guilty but the sight of him revolted me.

He looked short and old and soft in the belly, like something used up. And he was drunk, I could smell it. 

“Who’s he?” Gary asked, sounding uneasy.

“Yeah, who’s he?” Tommy repeated scornfully. “Who’s he, Doris?” He belched loudly. “Sure doesn’t look like your faah-ther!”

“Oh, grow up,” I said and turned my back on him, acting as haughty as Bette Davis in All About Eve

“We should go,” Gary said. He started to walk toward his car but then turned back.

Other couples were passing us on the way to their cars. I could feel their eyes on us, but I refused to look at them, especially Linda. I didn’t want her to say, I told you so. This was the kind of scene that used to happen back in Cincinnati, the shouting matches between my father and mother that spilled out onto the street, when the neighbors had to call the police and people were staring at us through their windows. I felt a cold and heavy ache at the bottom of my stomach like I’d eaten something spoiled.

“I thought you were my girl,” Tommy said. “I thought I was your boyfriend.”

How could I explain what had happened to me when I didn’t understand it myself? It was like going to sleep as one person and waking up as another.

“You said you loved me!” Tommy shouted, his voice sounding like his throat was bleeding. 

I remembered saying those words in the back of the A&P, but the feeling was as lost as my baby teeth.

“I don’t know what you want from me,” I said, although actually I did. He wanted me to be the Doris he knew, the girl who’d cuddled up in his arms and worshipped him. But she was gone. 

“You’re too old for me,” I said, “and you don’t even have enough money to pay for gas or a drive-in movie.” 

I hated the way his face looked then, like I’d slapped him and he might even cry. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, taking three dollar bills and hurling them at me.

“There,” he said. “I hope you’re happy now, Doris.”

“I don’t want your money,” I said, picking them up off the pavement and trying to shove them back into his hand. But he twisted away from me and climbed into his car, slamming the flaming blue and orange door shut and rolling up the window so I couldn’t throw the dollars inside.

“I don’t want your money,” I shouted, suddenly mindful of little James and his ex-wife and how much three dollars might mean to them. “Please take the money back!”

His Chrysler lurched forward, the tires shrieking, and roared down the asphalt like a ball of fire.

I felt sick to my stomach and thought I was going to throw up. Gary took hold of my elbow and steered me toward the Impala without a word. I climbed into the car, struggling with trembling hands to pull the bloated red skirt of my dress inside, and even before Gary shut the door, I burst into tears.

                                                         ***

I never saw Tommy or his flaming car again, and I avoided Gary like a disease. Other boys became important to me, temporarily, and then men, one in particular. Bob was a married swim coach at Monarch who invited me over to his house on the evenings when his wife went off to her book club. For a while I thought I was in love again, because he was tall and handsome and glamorous in the way forbidden things can be. I had fantasies of becoming a home wrecker like Bette Davis in The Little Foxes. But then Bonnie Bradshaw, one of the Monarch cheerleaders in my modern dance class, told me that Bob messed around with lots of girls, including Janet Horvell, the school tramp. After that, I couldn’t even look at him. I seriously considered writing his wife an anonymous letter about what a bastard she was married to, but I decided she’d eventually figure that out for herself.

I didn’t give Tommy another thought until I was in college and a pre-med student I fancied named Aaron wanted to take me to see Psycho at a drive-in off the 405. 

“But there’s no sound in drive-ins,” I protested. 

“What are you talking about?” he said. “Of course there’s sound.”

After we pulled into the lot and Aaron attached the speaker to his car window, he taunted me mercilessly in a squeaky cartoon character’s voice. “Speaker right here, and oh-my-gosh, another speaker over there by the truck, and gee whiz, a third speaker by the blue VW. Testing, testing for sound, can you hear me, Boris? Roger, Captain Video. Over and out.” 

“Quit that,” I said, punching him hard in the arm. I felt a whole new wave of resentment toward Tommy for making me look like a fool. 

By the time Marian Crane was driving through a rainstorm with a neon Bates Motel sign flashing in her windshield, the movie screen had become backlit by the red and orange sky of another autumn fire, this time ravaging the hills above Malibu. Fire trucks raced north on the freeway, their sirens keening like fresh widows, which added even more angst to Bernard Herrmann’s nervy violin score. And there I was again, back in 1955, watching the Griffith Park fire on the evening of the Autumn Harvest Dance. 

I remembered my old flame Tommy’s bruised expression after I blew him off. Why had I turned on him so savagely? What had made me want to hurt him? Friends who heard the story about my first romance said Tommy was a pervert who deserved what he got. But I never saw it like that, then or now. All I knew was that, like my father, I was capable of terrible cruelty. And  something about that pleased me.

Up on the screen, Norman Bates was mopping up the blood in the bathroom where Marian Crane lay slaughtered. “Mother! Oh, God! Mother, mother!” he cried out, as if this was his first murder. But we learned later that  it had already happened several times. By then he knew the score.

I could picture Norman looking in the mirror after he poisoned his mother and her lover, and thinking, I am a very dangerous person

“You’d better watch out,” I said to Aaron. 

“What?” Aaron turned away from the screen and held out the box of popcorn to me with a puzzled smile. I reached into the popcorn box and scooped up the greediest handful I could manage, my fingers crushing shut so none of the kernels could escape.

Brandon French is the only daughter of an opera singer and a Spanish dancer, born in Chicago sometime after The Great Fire of 1871. She has been (variously) assistant editor of Modern Teen Magazine, a topless Pink Pussycat cocktail waitress, an assistant professor of English at Yale, a published film scholar, playwright and screenwriter, Director of Development at Columbia Pictures Television, an award-winning advertising copywriter and Creative Director, a psychoanalyst in private practice, and a mother. Seventy-two of her stories have been accepted for publication by literary journals and anthologies, she’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart, she was an award winner in the 2015 Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Short Story Contest, and  her short story collection, “If One of Us Should Die, I’ll Move to Paris” is now available on Amazon.

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