In the HOA-controlled master-planned country club neighborhood where I grew up, the maximum allowed size for a shed was 4×4 and no higher than the 10-foot cinderblock wall. Ours was 10×14, composed of yellow corrugated aluminum siding and as tall as our house. Ramshackled, unstable, and a few decades old, it was salvaged from an old rental property. For the privilege of having that eyesore in our spacious backyard, my parents were fined $150 a quarter, fees they probably never paid. The shed’s contents were intriguingly and creepily relic, from the decrepit lawnmower to my brother’s abandoned Charlie McCarthy ventriloquism dummy. I was afraid to step foot inside. There were tales of black widow spider nests and the interior of the shed was lined with 5-gallon canisters of propane, kerosene, and gasoline, all kept as back-up supplies by Dad “just in case.” Just in case of what I’m unsure.
But, if one turned a blind eye to the risk of scary spiders and scent of flammables, and ignored the crunchy-hot quartzite pea gravel and occasional lizard, behind the shed was a great place to hide. Strange? Maybe. But without a treehouse (without trees!) or a quiet place in the house that wasn’t overrun by siblings, pets, or siblings’ children, I had few options. I didn’t know any better and it worked.
Around this time I made the huge leap from Dr. Seuss to ‘real books,’ prompted to do so when I noticed the smile of encouragement on the librarians’ faces turned to an eye-brow raise of skepticism every time I brought my summer reading log to their desk. It wasn’t so much that they doubted my truthfulness as they probably expected a child my age should have advanced beyond books with simple sentences. Hannah, the stereotypical old maid librarian at the local branch, took action and introduced me to the next age group in books.
“What do you like?”
“Uh, I dunno. Unicorns I guess.”
“So mythology? Fantasy? What about science fiction? Mysteries?”
She loaded me up. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, books on Norse paganism, and the Madeline L’engle then-trilogy that began with ‘A Wrinkle in Time.’ Add a couple Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys serials and I left with probably 20 books and three weeks to read them. I was thrilled.
Behind the shed I regularly reenacted book scenes with whatever resources at my disposal: plush animals, the occasional ratty-haired Barbie, and courtesy of pilfered kitchen cutlery. Mother noticed that our spoon supply was dwindling but couldn’t determine the cause. Little did she know that, inspired by Nancy Drew’s “The Mystery of the 99 Steps” I was using mismatched tablespoons to dig a secret tunnel under the shed. Later, I left the outdoor hose running for hours at a time to fill the hole with water to support my imagined role as a companion of Jim Hawkins below the deck of a flooding Hispaniola. At some point, I attempted to re-landscape a portion of the narrow area behind the shed so it more closely resembled how I imagined Terabithia. I repurposed the watery innards of the Hispaniola into a creek where I pretended to be a stranded Mary Belle.
My antics weren’t entirely unnoticed but thoroughly unattributed to me. When the water bill arrived, Linda and Raoul got berated by Dad for using the shower too much. Mother accused my brothers of leaving the spoons in their room and not bringing their dishes out to be washed. I just went on my merry way, reading, digging, and flooding.
Water was great (and cool during those long summers) but particularly captivating were stories involving fire — both destructive and holy. I was entranced by anything reduced to ashes and how all former substance would seemingly disappear. The ability of fire to lift fallen heroes to Valhalla or facilitate a spell mystified and delighted. Thanks to a houseful of smokers, fire was everywhere. I especially liked the smell of sulfur and learned my first bar trick with matches. Walking through the house, I would snap matches with my thumbnail, dropping the burnt heads as I passed sinks, toilets, and garbages, driving my mother crazy with the smell and mess. It was my 7-year-old tic.
There’s a scene in “A Swiftly Tilting Planet” where Madoc gathers flowers from the people, places them in a pile, and buries his hands into them. As he cries out a rune, the flowers begin to burn a purifying flame and then Madoc conquers the invader. Good over evil with fire to boot. What kid doesn’t dig that?
If you’re a little kid, there’s a lot of perceived injustice in the world. The baby sister got more attention than I did. Brother locked me out of his room so I couldn’t play with his model airplanes. Mother made me eat boiled Brussels sprouts. Dad wouldn’t roll down the car window on hot days. Failing intervention from Spiderman (which didn’t come even once), I was on my own to right wrongs. With the aid of some matches and the rhododendron flowers littering our backyard, I reenacted Madoc’s ritual all…the…time.
No genius is needed to see where this story is going. A shed full of fuel. A kid lighting fire behind it. Ka-boom, right? Right there in the middle of relatively affluent north Phoenix?
Mother went hunting for me one day when she finally noticed I was missing. It was a classic Western showdown – Mother yelling at me to come out from behind the shed and to not light any more matches. Dad hurriedly moving the fuel out of the shed. He shouldn’t have worked so hard. The fuel wasn’t the problem. The real problem was the body of water underneath the shed — the water that could be the Terabithian creek, the ocean surrounding the island of Lilliput, or the Great Eastern Ocean of Narnia.
Dad’s rushing in and out coupled with all the movement and commotion was more than the old shed could handle when it was floating on a child-made sea of mud and clay. It creaked, it groaned, and then in a movement that was nothing short of epic to the little brown-hazel eyes of a pudgy and imaginative 7-year-old, the shed listed and creaked to near collapse – with Charlie McCarthy trapped inside.
If you’re the owner of an illegal shed that’s just collapsed, there’s a lot of blame to go around. Dad blamed Mother for not watching me. Mother blamed Dad for letting me have a library card. My brother blamed my parents for forcing him to keep his creepy ventriloquist’s dummy in the shed.
But the HOA and our neighbors? They were pretty happy at the shed’s demise. And me? I was simultaneously a martyr on behalf of the cause of cosmetic improvement as well as a heroine for defeating the shed filled with blank-eyed dolls and black widow spiders.
Mother and Dad couldn’t bring themselves to punish me. How does one begin to discipline one’s daughter for over-using her imagination and causing the destruction of a verboten shed? What could they possibly say? “Don’t ever do that again?” Uh, okay.
But they did keep an eye on the spoons — and the water bill.