Chris Orlet
V2:E10 Oct. 2000


When I knew her, she was this little old Italian woman living alone in a yellow brick house on Main Street and she wore a net over her head like someone had been trying to catch her but decided she wasn't worth the effort. My only connection to her, and the only reason we knew of each others' existence, was that I delivered her newspaper every day after school, and on Fridays I would collect $1.50 from her. She was always good about paying, although she never smiled and never invited me in for a glass of Kool-Aid like some of the other ladies.

One day my dad got a phone call from the old woman. I suspected the reason was her dissatisfaction with her newspaper delivery, but that wasn't it. It was about me and my little brother Wyatt doing some yard work for her. My father was raised with a strong Protestant Work Ethic--even though he was raised Catholic--so he was never one to turn down work for his kids.

She was waiting for us just inside the screen door. I looked around for a lawnmower or some trimming shears, but the only thing she had waiting for us was a book of matches. She was a hard one to understand, this old woman. Her English wasn't too good and had a strong, harsh, Italian submarine accent running underneath it. After five minutes of listening to her pidgin English and exchanging looks and shrugging, we figured out what she wanted us to do. She wanted us to burn her house down. She handed me, the oldest, the book of matches. I was maybe eleven and I was a little concerned what our father would say if we burned down an old Italian lady's house. After all, if she had no house she might want to come live with us.

"She said burn her grass, not house," Wyatt said.

"I know that," I said. I accepted the book of matches and went over to a likely spot, away from the house, and struck a match. It was a warm, windless Southern Illinois afternoon.

At first the grass didn't want to burn. It just smoldered a little in protest, darkening a little round spot the size of fat Italian man's shadow. That was okay. I was eleven years old and had never burned somebody's lawn before. Not even by accident. We tried another spot in front of the house. Not much happened there either.

Eventually my little brother said, "This grass doesn't want to burn. Let's go home."

I explained that we couldn't go home. The old Italian woman was going to pay us five dollars each if we burned up her grass. More money than either one of us had ever made, even on our paper route. On our paper route we generally lost money. But my dad thought it was a good learning experience even if we only learned how to lose money.

We tried other places: on the side of the house, in the back near the neighbor's yard. We had to be careful there. We weren't supposed to burn the neighbor's lawn too.

"What kind of grass is this?" Wyatt said.

"Italian grass," I said. I was some kind of know-it-all back then.

"Why does she want us to burn it, anyway?"

"It's an Italian thing. They burn all their lawns in Italy." I saw the Italian sun blotted out by grass fire smoke. Whole cities in flames, but just the lawns. This seemed entirely possible--at the time.

The old woman's name was Mrs. Macio. I don't think there was much more to know about her, though she could have had an interesting life. If she hadn't I could have made one up for her.

For instance:

She and her husband Dario had been members of the Italian Resistance during World War II. They had played a minor role in an assassination attempt of Mussolini, but had been ratted out by a double agent named Brigulio and had to flee Italy in a dramatic late night Adriatic Sea crossing in a leaky row boat. Afterwards, her husband, also an internationally famous actor, went back to Europe as an American soldier and was killed during the Normandy Invasion. He threw himself on a half dozen live grenades to save the life of the division cook because he was Italian and appreciated good cooking. I was always making up crazy stories about people in part because I was part crazy.

Wyatt said, "I'm going home. This is stupid."

I lit another match and said, "No, wait."

But he went anyway. I wanted to leave too. This was stupid. I lit one more match and, like a Virgin Mary miracle, a fire took hold. I ran a little ways and called my brother and he dragged himself back to have a look. The grass was burning. "Hey," he said. Or maybe he said, "Wow!" or "Hmmmm." I don't remember. Then Mrs. Macio appeared on the porch like a ragged ghost of the Resistance. She called something to us, started waving her arms around, pointing at the grass. I wasn't sure what she was trying to say. We said, "Okay, Okay." She frowned, muttered and went back inside.

By now we'd burned an area the size of a porch sofa. "We'll be here all day at this rate," I said. So we lit more fires, on the side, in the front. They burned slowly, reluctantly. We sat in the shade of a wild rose bush, tending the fires and talking about what we'd buy with our five dollars. Baseball caps. Bicycle seats. We felt rich and happy sitting in the shade and watching the fires creep. We went around front and sat on the porch and breathed the thick grass smoke. The fires left a black scorched area that got on our sneakers and melted the soles. Our shoes were ruined and new ones would cost more than five dollars.

I told Wyatt to check on the fires in front and he did. Almost immediately he came back yelling, "The house is on fire!" He was only exaggerating a little because the bushes in front of the porch were on fire, burning like a gasoline-soaked tinderbox. Mrs. Macio floated out on the porch clutching her netted head and tapping her heart, crying, "Dios Mio!" Wyatt and I scrambled around the house, leaping small fires, looking for a garden hose.

But there was no hose, just a spigot and a leaky watering can. We filled that up, but the pressure was bad so it took forever. In the backyard the fires spread like communism to the neighbor's bushes. We sprinkled the little water we had on the bushes in front and the porch went up in flames. Mrs. Macio followed us around with her broom, weeping and whacking me on the head and shoulders. She probably hadn't been that excited since she tried to assassinate Mussolini.

"Why doesn't she help us?" Wyatt cried. "Why doesn't she call the firemen?"

The front porch burned like a Roman candle. I took off my shirt and tried to beat out the flames. My brother did the same. "Don't fan the flames. Beat them!" I said. It was like trying to smother an elephant with a pillow. Now our shoes and our shirts were ruined. Twenty bucks.

In the backyard the fire had spread to the neighbor's garage. Soon, I was thinking, the entire block would be smoldering ruins. Fortunately we lived on another block.

Wyatt was crying. Had been for a while. He said he was going home and he did. Through the black wisps of smoke I saw Mrs. Macio kneeling in front of her little Virgin Mary statue praying for a miracle, praying for a cloud burst, praying no doubt for vengeance on the American devils who burned her home and did such a lousy job on the grass. I watched the neighbor's garage collapse in a shower of sparks like a scene from Vesuvius. Then I went home too.

Location: Belleville, Illinois

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