Transitioning back to my house husband role was easier than expected.
The new high-tech washing machine that Ellen bought turned out to be cooperative and friendly. It even sings a little song at the end of each load, which is far more pleasant that the roaring, meaty farts offered up by the dryer.
I cleaned out the refrigerator — throwing away the squishy things that were supposed to be crisp and the crispy things that were supposed to be squishy.
And I reworked Ellen’s filing system; that is to say I “filed” and created a “system.”
After removing the old and unneeded documents from these files, I found myself with a stack of paper about four inches high.
My son, Alex, stopped me on my way to the shredder. “Don’t shred them,” he scolded. “Burn ’em!” This idea seemed slightly psychotic, but Alex quickly clarified: “Burn ’em in the chiminea!”
“Oh,” I replied. “That’s right. We have one of those.”
For those not in the know, a chiminea is a semi-portable chimney that lets you have a fire outside but doesn’t let you use that fire to make burgers. To put it another way, chimineas are dumb. Unfortunately they are not obviously dumb. A chiminea’s dumbness doesn’t reveal itself until after you lose the receipt.
Ellen and I bought this big, dumb thing for sentimental reasons. We both grew up in houses with fireplaces. We loved those fireplaces. Since the house we now live in doesn’t have a fireplace, we bought the chiminea thinking it would help us to recapture some fond, childhood fireplace memories.
But here’s the thing: all of those fond, childhood fireplace memories were indoors. On the days Ellen and I wanted to build fires (very cold days), we didn’t want to build fires in the chiminea. Because the chiminea was outside. And it was very cold out there.
Building a fire in the chiminea when the weather was warm didn’t make much sense, either. We didn’t want a fire when it was warm. Unless we could use that fire to cook burgers. And chimineas don’t cook burgers.
So I dumped the chiminea in the far corner of the yard and sort of forgot about it.
“I have stuff to burn, too!” Alex exclaimed.
Last year, Alex was a fifth grader. It was not a happy year. So he dug out all of his fifth grade homework assignments, quizzes, and art projects and added them to my pile.
Alex’s enthusiasm was contagious. Suddenly, I wanted to collect crap from my past and burn it. And the first thing to go was my NJCU employee manual.
Ellen got swept up in the pyromania, too. She dug out every scrap of evidence that she taught middle school in East Orange. That job was — hands down — the worst job she had ever had.
Suddenly my four inches of burnable paper turned to eight inches, then 10, then 12.
This was getting awesome.
I dumped the stacks and stacks of paper in the chiminea. As I did so, the idea of owning a chiminea began to make sense to me. A chiminea fire is not for warmth. It’s not for ambiance. And it’s certainty not for cooking burgers. A chiminea fire is a way to metaphorically purge an unpleasant past. It’s a way to celebrate newfound good fortune.
And good fortune has smiled upon my family lately. Alex really likes being a sixth grader. Ellen loves her new teaching job. And I am crazy about my new role as a freelance writer, author, and house husband.
Ellen and Alex perch on lawn chairs. I light a wooden match. I am impossibly giddy.
“To our bright future!” I announce.
Ellen and Alex let out a “WOO!” as I touch the flame to a paper’s edge.
Within seconds, we’re engulfed by smoke.
“Gah!” Alex yells.
“Holy crap,” Ellen sputters. She begins to cough.
“Dad? Dad? Should we call the fire department?” Alex asks.
“No!” I wheeze. “I have it under control!”
Ellen’s cough turns into a nasty uncontrollable hack. The smoke is too thick to see what she’s hacking up, but it sounds green.
“It’s OK! Everything’s OK!” I say as brightly as I can. But it’s hard to be chipper and dizzy at the same time. “Give it a minute. The wind will shift.”
“My eyes hurt,” Alex whines.
“So do mine,” I shoot back. “But you don’t hear me bellyaching about it.”
“I’m outta here,” Ellen says between hacks.
“No, don’t go yet, Sweetie!” I squint through the smoke in the direction where I assume she’s standing. “You have to stay! This fire is a metaphorical purging of…”
But I am interrupted by the slam of the side door.
Ellen’s exit gives Alex ideas. “Can we go inside?”
“We can watch the fire from inside the house.”
“We can’t leave a fire untended,” I say. “And, hey, this was your idea. You’re staying out here with me.”
This is not good parenting, I know, but, in my defense, my brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen.
So Alex and I sit in the lawn chairs, gulping stray patches of air that look a little less smoky than usual. Alex coughs. I cough. The wind doesn’t shift. And when the wind does shift it makes no difference at all.
“This is fun, right?” I say.
Alex does not indulge me. I faintly begin to wonder if he’s unconscious.
“Okay. Get the hose,” I say.
For the next hour, Alex and I squirt the chiminea. We didn’t need an hour to put out the fire – not by a long shot – but squirting things with a hose is fun.
The air clears. Night falls. Stars flicker in the sky. I still need to make lunches for tomorrow. Alex still needs to get ready for bed. But we stay put, still squirting away.
“You know what your grandma always used to say?” I ask him.
Alex knows where I’m going with this: “’If we lived in pioneer days, we’d be dead in an hour.’”
And, man, it couldn’t be more true. I can do laundry, clean, and keep files organized, but when it comes to anything rugged, every ounce of know-how goes up in smoke.
“All hail your pioneer father!” I boom. “I build a fire in a metal box and nearly burn down the neighborhood. If we were on the Oregon Trail we’d be eating each other by lunchtime. And we’d be eating each other raw because I can’t build a fire.”
Then we laugh. Killing brain cells through smoke inhalation makes everything seem funny.
“To our bright future,” I say. The fire is out, the sky is pitch black, but bright it surely is.