Every Fourth of July, my buddies and I camped in the woods behind Anderson’s house. We called it Boston Hill because you could see the lights of the city thirty miles away. You could watch fireworks from all directions, all at once.
We hauled sleeping bags and backpacks two miles to the peak. We whacked golf balls into the swamp, watched bark peel and burn, Halloween colors, a dead tiger. I was eighteen.
We got bored and walked into the black, in a train, one flashlight in the front, one in the back, and McMahon ducked off the trail and waited for us to notice and scream his name, and I knew he was kidding, I knew he was in there somewhere, but my heart didn’t. When classmates died, it wasn’t enchanting like The Virgin Suicides.
From the top of the hill, fireworks looked like birthday candles, melting wax. Fireworks looked like car crashes, a beautiful war.
Then Anderson said, “Fire melon.” He halved the cantaloupe with his machete and hollowed out the pulp. He poured gasoline into the fruit’s bowl, the metallic liquid splashing onto the grass, his shoes and hands.
The rest of us stepped back.
Anderson sparked the melon. Orange flames spread to the ground.
“Hit it!” We screamed.
He brought the golf club back to his ear and chopped down at the cantaloupe, launching the blaze into the murky pond below. He turned back to us. Flames climbed his shoes, jumped to his hands, his Viking beard. We yelled. Anderson stared at us. His face was an orange.
“Guys,” he said, “calm down,” and dove into a puddle at his feet.
Under flashlight, we thumbed Anderson’s features and brushed dirt from his beard. In the morning, the only scar was a thin check mark above his lip.
What do we owe the universe for surviving, for driving on the highway with eyes closed? We are born puppies, and puppies turn into boys. Some boys die and some boys go to jail and some boys write books. Some boys say thank you.
David Bersell, a former Nashvillian, is the author of Nashville Notebook and The Way I’ve Seen Her Ever Since. He writes and teaches in Brooklyn.