Posted in Poetry on September 9, 2013 by J.


A dog whines,
scratchity scratch at the back door.

Children grouse during the last twenty miles of a road trip.

Just tear the wrapping paper off already!
There’s a surprise inside.

Ideas are impatient.



“Foiled Terrorist” (comedy sketch)

Posted in Humor, Sketches on August 22, 2013 by J.

Foiled Terrorist
A comedy sketch by
Jim L. Cunningham


No dialogue in this sketch

A crowd (general public) mingles about.


Suspicious looking (hat, dark glasses, camo clothing, demeanor) person (“terrorist”) enters carrying backpack. Furtive movements. Looks around. Moves around location a bit. Slips backpack off his shoulder, carries by one shoulder strap, looks around, clearly looking for a place to hide backpack. Places backpack on ground beside garbage can (?).


Loud, infectious dance music plays suddenly.


Upon hearing music, crowd immediately stops what they’re doing, turns toward audience, freezes and begins to dance in sync to music.

Terrorist is caught in flash mob, and clearly caught by surprise. Terrorist at first tries to “fake” being part of flash mob by attempting to dance with them:


Embarrassing few scenes where he’s caught dancing “upstream” as he goes against everyone else, or nearly kicked and clotheslined by arm-swinging dance moves.


Terrorist grabs backpack and tries to run but is continually foiled by carefully-choreographed dance moves that come at just the right moment to cut him off from one escape path or other.

Dancers begin to notice him as being out of place and start looking at him more intently, instead of looking front. After a few more beats, the dancers begin to fall out of character/dance and tackle, jump on top of him until the flash mob ends with all dancers ending in a pile-on in a heap on top of the now neutralized terrorist.

Try my new blog:

Posted in Uncategorized on April 1, 2013 by J.

Furtive Fables


How I became an arrogant atheist, and then a humble agnostic

Posted in Autobiographical on July 27, 2012 by J.

On a long and empty stretch of desert highway in southern Colorado, I waited to be struck by lightning by an angry God. Instead, I lost my faith forever.

I’d been wondering about God, and how I felt about him, for quite some time. I was raised Catholic – even went to “Sunday School” and all of that, as a kid, but I hadn’t gone to a Catholic church for about 10 years because my parents didn’t go. I still called myself a Christian and, as such, went to various church services with my friends’ families with great curiosity: Baptist, Methodist… I even attended some alternative version of a Christening of a good friend’s child. I was very moved by the service that day and told them all so but, surprisingly, nobody tried to recruit or convert me at all; they were just very kind to me and, because of that, the Mormons nearly won me over. But, like so many things in my life, nothing struck me as being quite right for me (and I’ve never been much of a joiner), so I ended up doing my own thing. I’d heard about this whole “personal relationship with God” option and figured that was enough for me. I talked to God quite a lot – several times a day, in fact. I had my own, personal, relationship with God, and that relationship developed to include a great deal of complex (one-sided) conversation, as well as a relatively small number of personal requests.

Eventually, he started pissing me off. I felt he wasn’t keeping up his end of the deal. I was a good Christian. I did good acts. I sung his praises. I even listened to Christian Heavy Metal for crying out loud (Imagine!). But he never answered any of my prayers – not one – not even the smallest of requests. In fact, it seemed, the more I prayed over a problem, the more miserable it would become. And, if I looked around, it seemed like a lot of people had problems – big problems. All over the world, people had problems. Huge, unimaginably-bad problems. The more I thought about it (and I thought about it a lot), the more I became convinced of God’s incompetence.

So, one night when I was particularly angry (the why doesn’t matter) I told him so. I really let Him have it, too. Laying in bed, looking at the ceiling, rather than the usual night’s prayers, I told Him He was an incompetent Asshole who didn’t deserve to worshipped and I wasn’t going to do it anymore. I really did.

Then, I rolled over and went to sleep.

The following morning I was still pissed at Him and didn’t talk to Him. It felt like a relationship with a girlfriend where you have a fight at night and then go about your business the next morning avoiding each-other’s gaze. I wasn’t giving in. I was going to just go about my day and focus on what I had to do and not think about Him.

“Fuck ‘em!”, I thought. Seriously, my argument with God had reached that level. I’d HAD it! I didn’t care.

I went about my business that morning getting ready for school (college) and then got in my car. I lived at the south end of Colorado Springs and went to a University of Southern Colorado in Pueblo, which was a 35 minute drive through Colorado’s version of a deserted desert. I always loved this drive. It gave me time to think. But on this drive I was scared. The way I talked to God. If someone talks to their parents that way, they’re in big trouble. If you talk to a professor that way, you can expect to get kicked out of class, if not out of school. If I talked to my boss that way, I would most certainly get fired. But I talked to God that way. I was scared of what would happen next. Boy was I in trouble!

But I was stubborn. I was right and He was wrong.

I was scared, but I also stewed, “Who did He think He was?”, I thought, “to get all these people to worship and believe in Him… and for what? He was doing a terrible job!”, I thought. And waited.

And waited.

Days went by with me gripping the steering wheel on those long, lonely drives, waiting for something to happen. Waiting for His wrath to come.

It didn’t come.

And then, it happened. I had an epiphany. One day, while driving back from school, with the setting sun shining in my eyes, behind the wheel, in the middle of that long stretch of highway, it finally occurred to me why the wrath never came.

“There is no god.”

I smiled. I might have even laughed out loud. I don’t remember. I only remember the feeling. The revelation washed over me like ice water. It soothed me. And, for the first time, it all made sense.

There is no god.

I felt a weight off my shoulders and felt a relief and freedom like I’ve never felt before or since. I drove home happier than I’d been in quite some time. And that was that.

I was an atheist.

For a while I just basked in it. I’ve heard many stories of many other epiphanies like mine from many other people like me. I’ve heard how people felt. Few felt it for as long as I did. I felt it for years.

Eventually, I began to see that America is sort of organized for and by people who are Christian, and mostly insist that it be so for everyone else. So I got sort of lonely. I joined an atheist political group. For a year or so I attended meetings where we organized and angrily protested the status quo. With them, I’d rage against the injustice of being left out in a country that, supposedly, had a “Separation of Church and State.” I became a sophist, and my atheism was all about “science” and the lack of proof of god, and all of that. I even managed to get elected Vice President of that political organization. Then, in another epiphany, I realized those people were just angry and negative and weren’t doing anything positive at all with the uncommon understanding of the world I thought we uniquely held. I didn’t want to be part of that, so I quit and wrote something nasty in my resignation email (that I regret to this day) – that pissed all those people off.

I was alone again.

Since then, my feelings on the matter have changed many times, until one event that would lead me down a path that would eventually settle on a philosophy about religion and god that, I believe, is uniquely my own.

One night of heavy drinking with friends, I sat across a picnic table from a very dear friend discussing my beliefs and her’s, when she challenged me on, not my beliefs, but my arrogance about those beliefs – my certainty about what I knew and my feeling of superiority in knowing something that others did not. She humbled me. I had to face what I was saying. Was it within my value system to declare myself better, somehow more evolved and more enlightened, than everyone else, including my friends and family or anyone else for that matter? She got to me. And, after a time – days on some level and years on others – I started to change my thinking, not about my beliefs, but my feelings about the beliefs of others. I began to realize that, if anything, they were more human than I. Religion, I’ve come to believe, is simply part of the human condition.

Today, it all makes sense to me in a much different way than it did in the infancy of my atheism. I understand why religion exists. Religion assigns meaning to peoples’ lives. It gives people hope. It helps them overcome hardships and explains their luck. It answers questions – even the most difficult ones, like where we came from and what happens after death. It helps them teach their children – anyone, in fact – moral lessons. It reforms. It soothes and helps people who’ve made mistakes feel the relief of forgiveness. It makes people feel a little bit better when they see grandma laying beneath the bus that ran her over – “She’s gone to a better place.” It serves sinister purposes equally well. Religion helps people control others and convince them to behave (or vote) in certain ways. Religion is the Swiss Army Knife of humanity.

Religion exists for all these reasons and more. But none of these reasons have anything to do with “God.” And, because of that, and because of all the useful purposes religion serves, I believe that religion would exist whether or not there is a god. Because, for it’s own purposes, human beings would have certainly invented it. So, since religion was so pre-destined to exist whether or not there is a god, it is my belief, that this is exactly what happened. Human beings, more likely than not, invented religion and, therefore, also invented god.

I don’t feel alone anymore. I know that most people in this country are religious. It doesn’t seem to affect my daily life. I’m not very secretive about not being a religious person. (That’s the way I refer to it these days, “I’m not a religious person.”) But, frankly, I find that most people simply don’t give a shit. Nobody cares if I believe in god or budda or allah or athena, for that matter. They just care that I show up for work, that I don’t block traffic, that I don’t take too long at the window when they’re standing in line behind me at the bank or at the sandwich shop. I’m just another body.

I’m not fond of the definitions. Atheist, agnostic, whatever. How others define me is of little consequence. Frankly, I don’t really think about any of this anymore. A niece of someone I’m close to came out recently as an atheist which spurred some other people to do the same and, well, in solidarity, I figured I’d write something. So, here it is. Finally. After 20 years. My story is one of many, many, many stories like it. I just happen to like telling stories, so I figured I’d tell mine. I hope it helps or contributes or soothes or gives courage to someone – or even if it merely entertains. My story, I hope, is no longer about me, but about all those who still have yet to be stubborn against their God – and are still waiting yet to feel that wonderful feeling I felt that day on that long stretch of Colorado highway.

The Shiner

Posted in Autobiographical, Stories on July 14, 2012 by J.

I wore footy pajamas when I was a child. You know the kind. It was one of those fuzzy one-piece jobs, probably with a bear or a duck or something embroidered on the front. In any case they had these plastic feet that were slippery as hell; they worked OK on tile but, on carpet, they were like ice skates.

Well, every evening for years – probably ever since I could run – when I got my pajamas on, I would run to go kiss my father goodnight. And when I say run, I mean run pants-on-fire, full-speed from my bedroom through the living room, to make a flying (if not graceful) leap into my father’s lap.

Well, on one particular occasion, when I was around 5, I ran through the living room and rounded a corner, all sliding and running in place like a dog on the kitchen floor, went ass-over-tin-cup, and nailed my cheekbone on the corner of the coffee table. The crack could probably be heard by our upstairs neighbors. My parents stood, jaws-gaping, horrified as I sat there and screamed – my face turning red. Once they regained their senses, they comforted me and applied ice to my face but it was in vain. I was to get the biggest, bluest black eye you ever saw on anyone, let alone a little kid.

I looked like a dog named Spot and it lasted for a year. There must have been more photos taken that year than any other year, or perhaps it was just that those photos were my family’s favorites, because everyone had copies and, all my life, it seemed like I had that shiner in the majority of the photos of me that adorned the halls of my family’s homes. Years later, I’d be at the house of some relative I barely knew and ask where the bathroom was. Sure as shit, I’d pass that fucking picture in the hallway on the way to the can. It didn’t matter if it was a close uncle or some distant aunt that I never saw. Everyone had those photos. A fact, I believe, is still true to this day.

When my Mom tells this story, she emphasizes the fact that people looked at her strangely when they saw her with me at the grocery store or around town. “He fell!” she’d have to say to ward off suspicions of child abuse. She was an active member of the PTA and made a point of making sure as many people as possible knew the truth. I don’t blame her. It was a horrible sight.

It practically had its own personality. When it started to heal, it turned all sorts of magnificent colors – you know how bruises do. It looked like an oil spill with antifreeze in it. Man, that sucker lasted. My uncle, who was NYPD at the time, got a broken nose on the job that came with two black eyes. It happened around the same time I got mine, but I had mine longer. (I wonder if there are any photos of us together.)

Kids remembered me for it, too. Long after it was gone, kids from other neighborhoods I seldom saw would say, “Hey, aren’t you the kid that used to have the black eye?”

My friends would introduce me, “Remember Jim? He’s the kid that had a black eye when he was little.”

They’d reply, “Oh, yeah, I remember!”

It was more famous than I was. I should have named it. I had a distant cousin who, years later, smacked me on the noggin with a toy hammer and gave me a big bump that lasted a while. I think I’ll name it after him. Victor. There. It has a name now. My relatives can write it on the backs of all their photos. “Jim & Victor, 1976.” The famous black eye of Staten Island. My 15 minutes.

The Basement

Posted in Autobiographical, Stories on July 14, 2012 by J.

The latch was attached too high up on the door for me to reach by myself. I think he arranged it that way on purpose. There were few things my grandfather denied me, but a trip down the basement by myself was certainly one of them. Though, that latch made a distinctive rattling noise when he opened it – one I could easily recognize from anywhere in the house, and I would always come running when I heard it. There was nothing quite as exciting as going down the basement.

I was simply fascinated by the place. It was dimly lit and smelled of damp brick and cement. There was a thin old carpet that ran down the stairs. Those steps creaked when he walked down, but not when I walked down; I was just little and didn’t weigh enough to make the stairs creak. There was a banister that would wobble when you held onto it but was too high for me to reach anyway. I always held onto the wall on the other side as I slowly made my down.

That is, until my grandfather saw me following him down.

“Hey, now!” he’d say when he’d turn around and see me, not raising his voice too loudly for fear of making me cry. I could cry to get almost anything I wanted, within reason, but the basement sat in the grey area so luck played a part.

“Pop! I wanna come too!” I’d squeal.

“Alright! Alright. Stay there.” he’d say, resigned, and then either take my hand or carry me down.

Sometimes he only intended to make brief trip down just to get something for my grandmother and come back up, and in those cases I wasn’t allowed to come. My grandfather had an obsession in which the rest of the family found no small amount of humor. Pop did the shopping in the household and when certain items would go on sale at the local market, he would buy them by the caseload for fear that they would never go on sale at that price again. It was his way of sticking it to the greedy grocers who were always raising prices, much to his chagrin. Pop kept track of such things and inflation irritated him to no end. If a can corn cost ten cents more than it did five years ago, then damn it, he was going to stick it to Pathmark next time it went on sale. Part of the basement was filled to the gills with non perishable grocery items. When the apocalypse came, Pop would have enough dish detergent, toilet paper and ivory soap to make it through.

Of course, when friends and family came over, he was always very generous with his booty, so it’s unclear whether he ever actually saved any money.

“Look what I got on sale.” he’d declare as he filled my uncle’s arms with cans of Comet or tomato sauce.

My mother used to ask him, “What are you going to do with fifty cans of cranberry sauce? How often do you use this stuff?”

“Ahhh! Ya never know.” He’d say.

Yeah. Ya never know.

I’m fairly certain that, at the time of his passing, he still had stuff squirreled away down there that he’d been collecting over half a century of Columbus Day sales. So in the end, I guess the grocery store won.

In any case, whenever I heard the basement door’s lock rattle I’d come running to see if I could be part of the adventure down the basement. I simply loved the place. It had so many interesting nooks and crannies and… things!

The big brick pillar in the middle of the basement had a little iron door built into the side of it that was probably rusted shut from decades of humidity. To me it looked like a bank vault door or the door to some old safe, and I was certain that something exciting must lay just within – a treasure map, perhaps. I was never able to convince my grandfather of this and never did persuade him to help me open it.

There was a bump in the floor that looked to me like a secret door to the underworld. I was endlessly fascinated with archaeology at the time, and was convinced that it was the entrance to the crypt beneath. Pop told me it was just the spot where workers had dumped the leftover cement when they laid the foundation, but I knew he was keeping a secret from me. I would scrape all around it with a stick but could never quite get my little fingers into a gap to pry it open. And Pop would always see me and put an end to my work.

My grandfather certainly wasn’t thrilled that I had such a fascination for the basement. To him, it was a place filled with dangers made even worse by my curious nature. To me, it was a place of mystery that I never grew tired of exploring.

I was always so disappointed when Pop would go down there to work on some project or other and wouldn’t allow me to come. Back then I was certain that he was working on something mysterious and exciting that had to be kept secret. Now I know that he just needed to focus on what he was doing and couldn’t be watching me. And when it came to the basement, I needed keeping an eye on.

Once, for my birthday or Christmas, some aunt or uncle – I don’t even remember now – bought me a kid’s tool kit. These weren’t the plastic Fisher Price jobs either. No, these were real tools, if a little old fashioned. I remember the set clearly. It was a plain pine box with a handle on it and clasps on the side like a big wooden brief case. When you opened it, it had all of these carpentry tools carefully arranged and held in place by little wooden latches. You’d turn one latch to remove the saw and another to remove the chisels or plane. It even had a drill – the old kind you held with one hand and cranked around in circles with the other – even an adult would require about 5 minutes to drill through a board with it.

In truth, the set was geared toward someone a little older than I was, but I wanted to do a project using them and Pop told me he’d help me. All we needed was a project. Pop suggested a bird house, but I had another idea. I had seen a window box on Sesame Street. Ernie had one outside his window where he’d watch the Tweedle Bugs play. I wanted to make a window box for grandma. He agreed.

We opened up my tool box brief case on a table. Pop set up a pair of saw horses, fetched some boards from behind the clothes dryer and we got to work. I think it quickly became clear to him that the project was going to be a nightmare and take forever if he had to help me do it with my own tools because almost immediately after we started he began retrieving the man tools from the wall above his workbench. I moaned a bit that the whole point of the project was to allow me to use my new tools, so a compromise was struck. I would begin the work with my tools and he would finish with his. If a board needed cut, I would start with my little hand saw, he’d let me cut on it for a while, and then he’d take over with his. If a hole needed drilled, he’d let me start with my hand drill until I got tired, and then he’d finish with the electric one. It was a brilliant bit of diplomacy on my grandfather’s part that kept the peace and allowed us to finish the project before dinner (or else we wouldn’t have even finished before I left for college).
Then we painted it. Red I think. Pop even had paint we could use. No wonder Pop would disappear down there for hours at a time. He had freakin’ everything down there.

When we presented it to Grandma she was surprised, and quite moved if I remember. After all, it was my idea and I’d done a good bit of the work with my own two hands. I had dedicated an entire Saturday to making something for her when I could have been out playing or doing something else. Eventually I learned just how much the gift meant to her because she kept it, literally, forever – in fact, gazed upon it daily for the rest of her life.

Pop bought some brackets to attach the window box outside the kitchen window right beside where she sat at the kitchen table. Grandma filled it with red Geraniums – a kind of flower that never dies. In the winters, Grandma would bring the box inside and place it on top of the washing machine in the corner of the kitchen where it would stay warm and get plenty of sun. Then, in the springtime she would put it back outside the window.

When I came over, which was quite frequent, I would check on their progress. The window sill was about chin high on me, so I’d stand there with my chin resting on the sill looking out at the flowers through the screen and feeling the breeze on my face. Sometimes I’d think about the Tweedle Bugs in Ernie’s window box, but I knew Tweedle Bugs weren’t real. Still, one day I discovered a dead lady bug on the window sill. It was upside down and its legs were all folded up. I liked lady bugs and felt bad for it. I wanted to do something for it – bury it or something. So, I gathered it up in a bottle cap or a little box or something and brought it to my laboratory.

That’s right, laboratory. One of the greatest joys in my early life was my career as a chemist. (Actually, truth be told, I was employed as a chemist, mad scientist, archeologist, soldier, cowboy and Jedi Knight but that’s beside the point.) Nevertheless, the cement stairs leading from the back yard down to the basement were referred to as my laboratory. It was also, come to find out, one of my grandmother’s favorite ways of keeping me out of her hair. She would provide me with all manner of goods from her kitchen that would serve as my chemicals. Flour, baking soda, vinegar, breadcrumbs, parsley and other spices – you name it – little containers lined the little shelves on both sides of the 4 or five stairs that lie beneath a pair of wooden doors set against the back of the house at a low angle like a storm shelter or a bunker. I’d keep one of those doors closed for privacy and shade. It was cool down there. It was a neat place. It was fun. I could stay down there all day and Pop was OK with it as long as I didn’t go down into the basement itself. I was happy.

So I took the dead lady bug down to my laboratory and went to work. I knew what I was going to do. I’d recently learned in school all about the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. I’d been fascinated about all the work that’d gone into creating those chambers but mostly I was amazed at how well everything inside had been preserved, untouched by anything for all that time. Everything was found exactly as it had been left by whoever covered it up so long ago. That’s what I was going to do for the lady bug. I wasn’t going to just dig a hole and dump it in or even put it the thing in a box and bury that. I was going to build it a tomb.

First, I needed some materials. I looked around on the slate patio until I found a little piece of loose slate, brought it back to the lab and placed the lady bug upon it to lie in state and wait for her masterpiece to be completed.

Then, it was a visit to my chemical supplier. Flour? Oregano? Who knows what Grandma gave me, but minutes later I was combining it into a paste along with a mixture of whatever else I already had down there. And dirt. There was always plenty of dirt in my formulas.

I spent quite a lot of time down there combining a pinch of this and a dash of that into what ended up being as something like cement. But that’s what I wanted, really. Cement.

I took the lady bug on her little slab of slate along with my bowl of cement and found a corner of the patio unlikely to be disturbed. There, I used a popsicle stick like a trowel as I began fashioning four walls out of my spice, flour, water, dirt and who-knows-what-else concoction. When that was done, I delicately placed the lady bug inside. I said a few prayers over her and then placed the slate lid on top. I used the remainder of my formula to completely seal the lid so that no air or water would get inside. When I was done it was a rather impressive piece of craftsmanship. It was a tiny tomb, about the size of a matchbox, with a slate lid, completely sealed up and seamless.

So I went away and forgot about the thing for, oh – I don’t know – a week, a month, a few days? Time is strange to a kid. It could have been two days or it could have been a year. (It was probably more like a week though.)

In any case, one day I rediscovered this thing in a corner of the patio. It looked different in only that it was thoroughly dried and had turned white instead of the wet, muddy color it was when I had left it. The black slate was still tightly sealed on top. The little tomb had no cracks and was really still in quite good shape. I had indeed done a good job.

And I remembered what was inside.
Now, even though my original intention was to create that tomb so the lady bug would be safe and untouched in there forever and ever, that marvelous story of how they discovered King Tut’s tomb was still sort of nagging at me in the back of my mind.

Now, I would be the archeologist. I left, and returned with a stick and a little paintbrush. I worked like I saw them do in film strips in school when digging up dinosaur bones, scraping with the stick and brushing the loose dirt away with the brush. I worked until I revealed a little seam all the way around the piece of slate and then, very carefully – allowing a little suspense and drama to build for myself – I pried a corner of the slate up and removed the lid.

There was the lady bug.

She walked one lap around the little tomb and then her little beetle wings spread and she took flight. She flew right up in front of my face, paused as if to say, “Look! I’m alive”, and then kept right on going. I gasped and got to my feet, eyes wide and mouth agape as the lady bug flew up and up and up. I chased it as it flew through the back yard, into a neighbor’s yard and disappeared from my view.

“It rose from the dead!” I screamed.

I couldn’t believe it. I had to tell someone.

“Grandma! Grandma! Grandma! It rose from the dead! It rose from the dead”, I shrieked as I ascended the back stairs, crashed through the back door and interrupted Grandma’s cooking.

Now, one of the unfortunate things about being a little kid is that adults always think you’re making shit up and, believe me, this incident was certainly no exception. I was unable to convince my grandmother of what had just transpired. No way. No how.

For the next several weeks I worked myself to the brink of madness in my laboratory. I just had to reproduce what had happened. I had to. I was motivated, not by the promise of riches, or the altruism of being able to bring things back to life but, instead, just to get someone to believe me.

Of course, I was going to need bodies for my experiment. No, I didn’t go around killing lady bugs; I liked lady bugs. But there were plenty of flies around. I borrowed the fly swatter from the kitchen and, perhaps thirty minutes later, I was back in the resurrection business. I worked feverishly. I mixed up batch after batch of formula, changing it a little each time. I built tomb after tomb. I wasn’t as careful and they weren’t as well crafted as the first one. No, these were haphazardly thrown together. I was in a hurry. And the prayers weren’t as lengthy or sincere, I can tell you that. A dozen tiny tombs or more lined the side of the patio. I didn’t wait long to pry the tops back off either – a day, maybe. Some of them weren’t even totally dry when they were opened.

All were opened with the anticipation and hope of life, but vindication was not to be had. Dead flies were all that was exhumed from each and every one of them. Eventually Pop noticed the strange piles muddying up his patio and he made me stop. In a way I was OK with it. I was ready to give up.

But I’ll never forget that day. One day in the mid 70s, I, as an amateur scientist, discovered the secret to life in the mysterious properties of dirt and things from my grandmother’s kitchen. I found a dead lady bug among her geraniums and brought it back to life. I tried and tried, but I was never able to recreate that life-giving formula.

Of course, now that I’m an adult I realize that the lady bug was never really dead to begin with. It was only playing dead as some insects are want to do when they’re frightened.

But then again, I am an adult. And adults never believe little kids anyway.

The Fireman

Posted in Autobiographical, Stories on July 14, 2012 by J.

One beautiful spring evening I came home from a perfect day of riding my bike to find a fireman sitting with my mom at the kitchen table. I was 14 years old and I was about to hear the most surprising news of my life.

You know how, once something big happens to you, any other similar experience after that pales in comparison? For example, women say that after they’ve experienced child birth, they’re better able to handle pain – any other pain is small in comparison. Soldiers who have been in combat seem not to sweat the small stuff when they come home from war. People who’ve lived through poverty don’t send salads back to the kitchen at restaurants. Well, ever since the event I’m about to speak of, I’ve been like that with surprises. I don’t particularly care for them, but I’m an old hand at dealing with surprises. When I say, “Nothing surprises me”, I mean nothing surprises me compared to this.

At first, I didn’t know who the man was. He was dressed in plain clothes and could have been a friend of my father’s or a new neighbor for all I knew. Then he introduced himself to me as a fireman from one of the local stations. An uneasiness began to brew within me, but I still had no idea what was going on.

“Do you know why I’m here?” he asked.

I honestly didn’t. He then stated that he and a few dozen of his fireman buddies had just finished fighting a big grass fire in the big open field behind the public library. To this day, I’ve never been so surprised by any piece of news. Or shocked. Or stunned. Or afraid.
Adrenalin dumped into my blood stream and I felt the coolness of it ripple through me. I was paralyzed and speechless.

“Now, do you know why I’m here?” he said, rephrasing the question slightly.

It took him a while to get me warmed up, but once he did, I began telling him a story. It went something like this:

“Well, me and my friend, Brett, rode our bikes out to the pond that’s way out there on the other side of that field. We were there looking for frogs and trying to catch tadpoles on the edge of the pond. Anyway, on the way back we rode past all these big pipes laying out there in the field. Well, smoke was coming out of one of them, so we stopped to check it out. On the way over, we saw two teenagers on dirt bikes going out through the hole in the fence. They were pretty far away and we couldn’t see who they were. When we got up to the pipes and went inside the one, we saw that there was a little fire burning in the middle – like a campfire – but we didn’t go near it, we just left.”

Well, that fireman grilled the living hell out of me right there in front of my mother as if he didn’t believe me. Or maybe that was just his job. He asked me the same questions over and over – asked them different ways, but my answers were always the same. I was sticking to my story.

As an aside, as I was telling him this story, I was kinda wondering if he’d been to Brett’s house, yet. I knew he hadn’t talked to Brett because I had just left Brett. I asked the fireman but never really got a straight answer out of him. My hunch is that he went and talked to Brett’s parents, minus Brett, and came to my house second. This had occurred just before one of the very last days of school, and the first thing the next morning I ran up to Brett at school but the bell had already rung, we were late, and couldn’t talk long. He said he didn’t get any visit from any fireman and didn’t know what I was talking about. I didn’t believe him. One crazy mystery about this story, that haunts me still, is that Brett moved away without warning right after school ended, so I never did find out what happened on Brett’s end.

I also don’t recall ever speaking to my father about any of this, so my mom either didn’t tell him, or he believed my side of it from her account of it, or he just didn’t care. My father had a boys-will-be-boys attitude, so it may have been the later.

So, anyway, the fireman interrogated me (and there’s really no other word for what it was) for about 45 minutes before he was either out of gas, convinced of my story, or convinced I wasn’t going to change my story. My mother sat silently the whole time. When the fireman eventually left, my mother had no further questions for me. In fact, before the fireman even got out the door, I asked my mom if I could go back outside and she agreed.

The first thing I did was ride as fast as I could out to that field. It was quite a trip, out to the far corner of my neighborhood – in fact, the edge of town – and because of the geography of the land and the buildings, you couldn’t see into the field until you got all the way up to the edge of it. But once I did, somehow the fireman’s description didn’t quite prepare me for what I saw. It must have been 100 acres of charred blackness, the point of it clearly emanating from the end of the pipe and then extending out to the east for a few hundred yards. The fire engines were all gone, but the evidence of the chaos they faced remained. Huge tire tracks snaked throughout the, now muddy from the fire hoses, field following zig-zag sections of black where the wind, apparently changing direction, caused the fire to drift this way and that. Even an amateur investigator such as myself could clearly see the arrow-like pattern leading directly to the end of that pipe.

I sat down on the center bar of my bicycle, crossed my arms over my handle bars, and rested my chin on my arms. I gazed out over the carnage and thought about my day.

A few times a year, after dry spells, Brett and I would go out there to ride our bikes in a cement ditch because it would be clean, dry and resembled a skate park. On this particular morning we were surprised to see about a dozen huge pipes out in the field a few hundred yards beyond where the ditch ended and through where the, now dry, stream ran. They had been placed there so they could later be buried for the water to run through, with a housing development built right on top. They were enormous; 15 feet tall, each of them about 50 feet long, lying out there side-by-side like an army of those big worms in that movie Tremors with Kevin Bacon. We rode out to them and found that their weight, combined by mountains of sand on each side, held them very stable. Most of them were clean inside which made this the best skate park ever. We rode our bikes in and out of those things for hours. We even did circus-dare-devil type stuff where we would both be in one at the same time, like two motorcycles in the Ball of Doom or Death or whatever they call that thing. When we became bored with that, we found a bunch of empty 12-pack containers left over from when some enterprising teenagers used our new skate park as a party location. We placed them in a pile to add an obstacle to our daredevilism. And, when that was no longer daring enough, we set it on fire. Man, were we ever clever and brave daredevils, riding our bikes up the sides of a pipe in death-defying feats as flames from burning Coors beer boxes licked at our ankles. When we got bored with that, we left. And we didn’t bother stomping out the smoldering remains of two remarkably different types of parties. Apparently, sometime after we left and found something else to do for the rest of the afternoon, the wind picked up and blew that smoldering mess out one end of the pipe.

Two weeks earlier, my school newspaper had run a front-page story on “Jim Cunningham the Stunt Devil” complete with a close-up of me doing a trick on the front cover. The ironic part is that I had bugged (fuck, I even remember his name, Troy Strout) the student editor until he would do a story on me and my bike tricks. So, while trucks frantically tried to put out the fire we started, my friend the fireman interviewed bystanders. Two kids had seen me and Brett come out of that field shortly before the fire began. One of them recognized me from the school paper and even provided Mr. Fireman with a copy of it. That’s why the fireman came to my house first.
I sat there, straddling my bicycle, staring into that field, and pondering what I had done until it grew too dark to see the pipes from where I sat, and then I turned around and rode home.

To this day, my stepdad, who was my dad’s best friend back then, brings up the subject and hints about fires at every conceivable opportunity just to razz me. I just snort and shake my head. I’ve never copped to it to anyone but Kris. My mother still believes me. And I have yet to be punished for my crime.

As I sit here writing this, I’m sure for the first time of two details that didn’t occur to me until I was midway through writing this story. One is that the honest surprise I felt – because I was truly surprised – must have been evident on my face while sitting at the kitchen table, and this is what concealed my lies from my mother. I mean, after all, if I’d known I started a fire, I wouldn’t have looked so fucking surprised. I wasn’t faking it. And it showed.

The second detail, of which I’m now certain, is that the fireman, after leaving my house, drove back to the scene of the fire, parked nearby, and waited to see if I would come.