The Fire Inside

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.

Dumb.

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?”

“No.”

“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.

“WOO!”

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.

98 thoughts on “The Fire Inside

  1. That would make a great entry for Erma Bombeck’s contest, which begins Dec. 2017. Great story — good intentions. I did a sacred burning of journals 37 years ago in a journal. It was so liberating. But, didn’t count on it snowing and the next morning, New Years Day, the yards in the neighborhood were covered with the ashes of my journal life.

    • If memory serves, the Bombeck contest wants a much smaller word count. That my problem; when I start a post, it just keeps going and going.

      But now I need details of this journal burning. Journals are private, so why burn it?

  2. Once again you’ve brought laughter to what started out as a rather gloomy morning. I wouldn’t be concerned about not have pioneer skills while living in 2017. You’ve already mastered the truly important jobs that will get you through the next few decades. Let me know when you’ll be available to put your skills to use at my home. I could use a fridge clean out, have some laundry at hand, and definitely would benefit from a reworking of my filing system. Not to worry – I have an indoor fireplace at your disposal!

  3. 😂😂 this story is amazing and made my day. Reminds me of the many blunders, I’ve done with my son. This is one of those memories worth retelling over and over until Alex says, “really, dad?” At this point he should be 22. 😂😂❤

  4. I’m laughing too hard to say anything clever. I mean, I’m really laughing. Your posts always make me smile, but I’m beyond smiles. I think I’m even snorting. What else can I say? Oh, seriously, my parents grew up in East Orange. East Orange was different in the 1930s and 40s than it is now. Glad Ellen has a better job, that Alex likes 6th grade, and that you, you, will never try to transport yourself through a chiminea time machine to the Pioneer Days.

  5. OH Mikey!
    For some reason this really reminded me of a story you could have told about your dad. So maybe you’re a little like him after all. 😉
    When we moved to the country 15 years ago, I was excited to get a “burn barrel,” none of those fancy chimeneas for us. I soon found out like you did, that burning paper isn’t nearly as fun as it sounds, it doesn’t always burn like you think it should and eventually I ended up with half burned paper which was more of a mess than before. Because you can’t really shred charred paper.
    Don’t feel bad!
    And I’m happy you are enjoying your house husband/author role once again.
    To your bright future!

      • I’m reading your reply to my comment and wondering what on earth is he talking about. Has he finally “snapped?” lol
        Then it hit me, when I said country, you thought I meant Country. As in the United States. Nope. I was born here. I mean moving to the rural area oustide a city. That country. Where the deer eat any bush, flower, or tree you try to grow in your yard, the possum, skunk, and raccoons are frequently seen flattened on the road, and you can spend days without talking to another soul. 🙂

  6. Thanks for an afternoon laugh! Need something burned? Call me. I build fires just for fun – Ok not since my pal Mark, seven-years-old to my eight, and I stole matches from my parent’s house, piled sticks up in the alley and lit them on fire, over and over ’cause we truly sucked at building fires. Still, the neighbor called Mark’s mom and ratted us out. Trouble-City when we got home. But, truly, I can build one heck of a fire!

  7. Yes , Great read , It’s so true about the old timers and how we are losing all our ‘practical’ skills , I often think if the garbage didn’t get picked up for a month the place would look like a garbage tip and all hell would be breaking loose !

    • I hear you, Software. But, if I may play devil’s advocate, just how “practical” is it to build a campfire these days? Personally, I would never trade my laundry skills for the ability to survive in the wild.

      I would, however, trade quite a lot to make sure the garbage was picked up at regular intervals.

  8. Oh my God. That was so funny. My sides hurt. *Sigh, gasp for breath. Still laughing. Gotta get ahold of myself.*
    Well, I’m glad that the house husband thing is working out, Mike. If it means more time for the blog, I’m all for it. Thanks for the outrageous laugh. *Phew* Ha ha ha.

  9. I loved this essay, Mike. So relatable. I am working part-time now and have taken on the laundry and I swear that chime is audible only to dogs. I really need something more roaring, meaty and fart-like. Anyway, I love the idea of purging bad experiences in the chiminea, but it is obviously wrought with challenges. Favorite line? “The smoke is too thick to see what she is hacking up but it sounds green.”

    • I have to admit, I was fond of the idea that something “sounds” green.

      I am, however, troubled to hear that your washer is not singing at the proper frequency. Perhaps you should train a dog to do your laundry?

  10. Pingback: Sunday Blog Share: The Fire Inside | Myths of the Mirror

  11. And now I’m remembering my all time favorite chore as a kid. Burning the trash in an open incinerator can. We all had one at the back of our property. We left a 200 year old house with 5 fireplaces to build a new construction with 0 fireplaces. (lots of reasons there). When the first firewood scent hits the neighborhood, I get a little envious. But it passes. I keep seeing those outdoor fire pit things at Lowe’s, Home Depot…I just look the other way. Such a fun read…thanks to Diana for sharing.

    • I hear you. I loooove the smell of wood burning in a fireplace.

      I can’t imagine that burning garbage would have the same thrill. I can personally attest that burning paper wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.

  12. Sadly I can envision this story playing out in my backyard only too well. In fact I believe it has happened on a regular occasion. Except we can cook burgers over our fire pit.

  13. We have a chiminea too, but I keep putting my husband off from using it as he burns everything in site!! I know what you mean about the thick smoke too, it is not pleasant! Your unfortunate story did give me a laugh though! 🙂

  14. As a writer, who at some stage is going to have tons (and tons and tons) of bits of paper in your future, please consider another option: A plastic bin (big enough to contain said tons), tear up the paper and toss it in, swirl it in enough water to cover it and let it swirl (just like in a washing machine), and swirl and swirl – until it looks like you’re making craft paper. Then you can put it in the compost bin, lay it over weeds …
    Please.

  15. This is one great story! By the time I got to, “If we lived in pioneer days we’d be dead in an hour” I was in stitches. Count me in as a reader, and thank you!

  16. I cannot stop laughing! Great story! Found your story by Diana Wallace Peach. Diana is the pathway to all good stories. Bless her heart.

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