Grassfires of the Resistance

When I knew her, she was this little old Italian thing living alone in a beige 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 the other's existence, was I delivered her newspaper every afternoon after school. 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.

That would have been the end of it except one Saturday we got a phone call from the old woman. I figured we were going to hear about her dissatisfaction with the newspaper delivery, but that wasn't it at all. She told my father that she wanted my little brother Wyatt and me to do some yard work for her. My father was raised with a strong Protestant work ethic--even though he was 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 large box of matches. She was a tough one to understand, this old woman. Her English wasn't too good and had a thick Italian submarine accent running beneath it. After five minutes of listening to her pidgin English and exchanging looks and shrugs, we figured out what she wanted us to do. She wanted us to burn her house down. She handed me, the oldest, the box of matches. I was maybe eleven then and I was doubtless a little concerned what our father would say if we burned down an old Italian lady's house. After all, if she didn't have a house to live in she might want to move in with us.

"She wants us to burn her grass, not her house, dummy," said Wyatt.

"I know that," I said. I accepted the box 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 a 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 lady 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. Especially on our paper route. Actually, 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 fail economically.

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 over there." I saw the Italian sun blotted out by grass fire smoke. All of Rome in flames, though 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 may have had an interesting life, back in Italy, perhaps. 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 the Second World War. They had played a minor role in the attempted assassination of the Italian foreign minister, but had been ratted out by a double agent named Brigulio and had to flee the country in a dramatic late night Adriatic Sea crossing in a leaky rowboat. Afterwards, her husband, also an internationally famous actor, went back to Europe as an member of the Free Italy Corps 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 could appreciate good cooking.

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

I lit another match and said, "Just one more try."

But he left anyway. I wanted to leave too. This was stupid. I lit one more match and, like a Holy Roman candle, a flame took hold. I ran a little ways and called Wyatt and he dragged himself back to have a look. The grass was burning. "Hey!" he cried. Suddenly 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 lawn. I couldn't make it out. We just nodded and 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 of the house, 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, breathing the thick grass smoke. The flames left a black scorched area that got on our sneakers and melted the soles. Our shoes were ruined and new ones would cost a whole lot more than five dollars.

I told Wyatt to check on the fires in front. Almost immediately he came running back crying, "The house is on fire!" He was only exaggerating a little because only 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!" and "Assassins!" 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 a mutant cancer to the neighbor's bushes. We sprinkled the little water we had on the bushes in front while 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 brutal 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 Dante's Inferno. 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. He had been for a while. He said he was going home and I couldn't stop him. Through the black wisps of smoke I saw Mrs. Macio kneeling in front of her little Santa Maria statue praying for some kind of 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 some memory of Vesuvius. Then I went home, too.

About the author:

Christopher Orlet's homepage is That is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.