...it was while I was making Johnny’s bed, I found the matches.
He had them stuck under his mattress. “Johneeeee, I’m gonna tell. You got matches. Mommy said we can’t play with matches.”
“Don’t tell, Jake, I’ll let you play with ‘em, too.”
“But we don’t have anything to burn, ‘cause it’s snowed outside.”
“We could burn some of our blocks. We could take ‘em outside. In our pockets.” Johnny came back into the bedroom, wet and smelling of ivory soap. I could hear the tub draining.
“Yeah, that sounds good. We’ll make a fire with the blocks to keep warm in our fort. We can cook stuff.”
When I said that, Johnny went to the closet, and from his Kraut Helmet (a gift from Uncle Mike), he pulled out a bologna sandwich and 4 cookies.
“You have food? Can I have a cookie?”
“If you eat the cookies, then we won’t have any food for the war.”
“We’ll have the sandwich. We can cook the bologna.”
“No. They’re my cookies.” Johnny finished dressing. He walked over to the windowsill and picked up a block. “Maybe we should cook the bologna, now, so it’ll already be warm.”
“But we’re gonna eat breakfast.”
“Okay. But let’s burn one of the blocks, anyway.” Cool.
“But how can we put out the - I know, we can start them on fire, and then we can throw them out to into the snow to put it out!”
We stood there, at the windowsill holding match after lit match on a block that just wouldn’t start on fire. And now we were down to 5 matches.
Outside, we could see groups of men with shovels, not shoveling. All the dads, standing waist-deep in the snow, pointing at things, talking, pointing again.
“Time for breakfast!” Mom’s voice carried up from the stairwell.
“We’re coming.” I shouted back. I must have startled Johnny, ‘cause he dropped the match he’d just lit, on the floor. It landed on a ghost turd, and whoosh, it made a small flash of fire and then went out.
“Ooh” Our voices came out in a whispered rush. “Let’s find another one.” We looked under the bed for more dust and lit the little balls, one by one with the last 4 matches.
“We’re out. Let’s go eat.”
Johnny shook his head. “I have more. I stole them from Uncle Mike’s dresser when we visited for Christmas.”
“Where? Go get ‘em.” We had time before Mom called again.
Johnny went to the closet and came back with two more books of matches. “Jake, I wonder if we could keep the fire going if we started the dust balls right next to the blocks.”
“We gotta find more dust.”
“WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON IN HERE?”
We never heard Dad opening the door. “Is something burning in here? Are you two trying to burn down my house? Matches?”
“Johnny stole ‘em.” I rounded my eyes to show just how innocent I was.
“And you had no idea what you were doing with them.” Standing there next to the open window, I suddenly realized how cold the room was. I pushed my tongue against my chattering teeth. Johnny shivered, and it caught Dad's eye.
“Give me those goddamned matches!”
Ten feet from Dad, Johnny held them out with his arm.
“Bring them here. HERE!” Dad hollered when Johnny didn’t move fast enough. Johnny took little steps forward, still holding his left arm extended out in front of him, hoping the matches would reach Dad before he did.
Dad swiped the matches from Johnny with his left hand while he popped Johnny with his right. Johnny went down to the floor with a thud. Dad rounded to me and said, “You like fire? Let’s see how much. Why don’t we just put you in the goddamned oven for the day and see how you like being cooked.”
“No, Daddy, don’t cook me, please!”
“Don’t cook Jake, Daddy. I won’t have nobody to sleep in the other bed, then.” Johnny stood back up.
“Jesus Christ, Joe. Do you really think you’re gonna fit him in the oven?” Mom. In the doorway.
“Ellen, just stay out of this, o.kay?” There was a look, then. An identical expression on each of their faces, but I had no idea what it meant. Dad snorted and made some kinda smirk. Then, wham! He hit my chest before I even saw his hand. “You goddamned little shit. If I ever see you teaching your little brother to play with matches again, I’ll set you on fire myself.” The thought brought a smile to his face, and he shared that with Mom, too.
“Yes, sir.” It was careful not to rub my chest while I answered. He and Mom started to leave then, and when Dad got to the door, he turned around and smiled again.
“You two can forget breakfast. And lunch, too. I don’t wanna know you’re even in the house till suppertime.” He shut the door then, carefully, like it was breakable. I held my breath waiting for him to come back in, till I finally heard his boots striking the hardwood stairs.
“It’s your fault we got in trouble. You stole the matches.” I hissed at Johnny. “You were the one who wanted to start fires.” He whined back.
“Well, you did too”
“No I didn’t”
“Did too!” Our voices started to raise.
“I'm heating up the oven!" Dad's voice came up through the floor.
“See what you did?” Johnny accused me, now.
“Shhh! Do you want him to come back?”
So, for a while we played quietly with our little toy soldiers, when an idea came to me. “I know what we could do and it won’t make any noise.”
“What?” Johnny was standing at the window. Behind him, on the sill, a company of green plastic men poised ready to attack castle walls of red and black checker pieces.
“I bet if we let the blinds down, we could swing them from my bed and knock soldiers out into the snow hill downstairs.” I ran over to the window to let down the blinds. They were made of sheet metal that would slice you like a loaf of bread if you slid your hands across the blades. The straps that held them were of heavy canvas-duck cloth. They’d probably been white, once, but there were stains on these with brown and orange rings. And some the blades were greasy and thick with dust. They didn’t quite fit the window. Even when they were down, you could still see inside our room at night through the 3-inch gaps on each side.
“Here.” I handed the bottom bar of the blinds to Johnny. “When I get on the bed you hand it up to me.” I climbed up using the headboards. “Okay, hand it up.”
Johnny reached up and I reached down. Johnny opened the window the rest of the way, and ducked. I let the blinds go and, wow. They knocked two of the soldiers out the window. Johnny stood up and looked out, lifting the blinds over his head. “I don’t see them.”
“They’re probably in the snow. Let’s try some more.”
“Okay.” Johnny set up another soldier. He handed me the blinds and I let them swing down. This time they swung right through - right out the window with the soldier.
“OH!” Johnny’s eyes went round as he looked from the swinging blinds to me. The blinds twisted as they swung, and when he grabbed for the bar, he accidentally grabbed a slat, nicking his hand. He did say, “ow.” But thinking back, it was more a reflex because the grin on his face reached both ears. And his mouth was opened too wide to talk. “Jake, Jake. Ah. Ah! We. Jake!”
“We! We could swing on the blinds! We could stand on your bed and hold the blinds, and just swing through the window!”
What a great idea. “But you gotta go first. I’m too big. And we’ll hafta pull the blinds higher, too, so we don't hit our feet on the sill.” I climbed down quietly, suddenly remembering, “Johnny, Dad’s still home. We gotta be real quiet.”
“Oh yeah. Okay.” He whispered as he started climbing onto my bunk. I moved over to the window, and pulled the blinds three-quarters of the way up.
“Johnny, you’re gonna hafta keep your legs tucked up, okay?”
“Okay.” He nodded his head “Jake, how’m I gonna reach the blinds if they’re pulled up?”
“I’ll stand on the headboard, and hold your waist while you reach out for them.”
“But I’ll fall.”
“No you won’t”
“Yes I will. You’ll drop me.”
“Shhh. No I won’t. I’ll hold you.” My voice honked while I try to yell and whisper at the same time. “I promise.”
So, I climbed up, and holding on to the top headboard with my right hand, I stood with my left foot on the windowsill and my right foot on Johnny’s headboard (the lower headboard). I took hold of the blinds with my left hand. And then, as I reached to put my right arm around Johnny’s waist, I let go of his headboard.
Problem was, Johnny wasn’t holding on to any part of the bed, either. As he felt the weight of my body pulling us both away from the bed, he grabbed the blinds with both hands. Just as my right foot knocked into the windowsill to meet my left, the blinds broke free of their anchor at the top of the window. The weight of them came down just as Johnny made it to the window.
With his knees knocking into my chin and the blinds hitting the right side of my head, Johnny’s body dragged me out the window, head first. I must’ve let go of him, then. Because he went straight down to the drift below, crushing it with his weight. I could hear him scream out as I followed close behind.
But instead of hitting the top of the drift with Johnny, my body slid, head and arms first, down what was left of its slope, right onto the bare ground in front of the brand new living-room window. The blinds, still firmly in my grasp, struck the glass, hitting it with a crack. I pushed myself up, and there was my father’s contorted face, yelling at me from the other side.