Sunday, November 6, 2011

Barking at Lighted Windows

An actual fire in our actual fireplace last night, November 5, 2011.

Angie and I decided to test drive our fireplace last night after a year or so of not using it. And it was glorious. We purposely hadn't been using it because the last time we gave it a whirl the whole house filled with smoke and we ran screaming and rolling into the front yard, ducking and covering. So we decided we needed a chimney sweep. I thought chimney sweeps were extinct. But one day shortly thereafter we pulled into our driveway and a tall, gangly guy in a sooty top hat was leaving our neighbor's house. We stared in fascination. He was really wearing a top hat. His van was parked out front and it said "Chimney Sweep" on the side. We looked at each other quickly and then yelled over and caught him. The guy actually looked a little like a young Dick Van Dyke. We got his card and promised we'd be calling soon.

As it turns out we didn't need a chimney sweep. We just needed to open our flu. Or floo. However it's spelled. In France it's probably 'fleiu.'

Yesterday (and today, I think) the day was an out and out rarity in SoCal; it was cold. So as we followed our usual dinner extravaganza plans (we make a big deal over dinner in this house), we decided to give the old fireplace another shot. Only problem was we didn't have any wood. I suggested we burn our ugly patio furniture (which Angie calls 'antique' but I just call 'pathetic') but was quickly vetoed. So we drove over to our local Von's to get some firewood. They were out. Instead we had to look at manufactured 'slow burning' logs ("Up to Three Hours!"). But just as we were about to purchase one, a guy came out with a new shipment of good and true (I was feeling very Hemingway-esque at the prospect of a fire) firewood, which of course we bought immediately.

The fireplace, once we'd discovered the whole 'floo' thing, worked perfectly and was soon 'roaring' in the hearth. We finished our elaborate, nightly dinner perparations and all was right in the world.

There's something about a fireplace with a good, crackling fire that calms and restores. Growing up I never had a fireplace. My parents, thinking God knows what, purchased one of those small, fake, ridiculous, plastic fireplaces and had it installed in my childhood home. It was a huge source of embarrassment. It had some sort of wheel that spun with a red gel over a light in the back and made a kind of humming sound. The wood was a plastic mold and looked nothing like real wood. As an added benefit it put out 'electric heat.' Not much, a trickle of heat at most, but heat. Thankfully they put it in a small, back room in the house so unless you really looked for it, it was mostly out of sight and, thankfully, out of mind.

When I was living in Columbia, MO, I had a black, pot-bellied, wood-burning stove in the middle of my apartment. I liked that stove. Ostensibly one could cook on it, but I never did. I just stole wood from my neighbors and fired it up now and then and drank scotch and smoked a pipe in front of it.

But until now, I've never lived in a house (not counting the myriad places I lived while working as an actor up and down the East Coast) that had a fireplace.

So we got the fire cranked up and we sat down for dinner (thin burgers, grilled, on toasted ciabatta bread with turkey bacon and aged cheddar with thin cut potato fries). After, we sat on our new couch and the puppies leapt up and while my wife read a new cook book I'd just bought for her, watched television until it was time to go to bed. Norman Rockwell would have felt right at home.

I have lived a, shall we say, less than domestic lifestyle for the past three decades, occasionally on the edge of glory, occasionally on the edge of ruin. The deeply satisfying and tranquil scene in front of our newly roaring fireplace was as foreign to me as closing up a bar at 4am on the South Side of Chicago would be to an Ammish minister. And having closed a lot of bars at 4am on the South Side of Chicago, I speak from experience.

This whole 'rocking chair on the front porch' lifestyle gets into the marrow of my bones. It makes me reflective and docile. It allows any regret and resentfulness to seep out of me. It soothes a lifetime of unwarranted rage of perceived slights and over reactions and brings new meaning to living well being the best revenge. It takes the bark out of me.

And I like that. I like not being angry at some silly little thing in the past. And I'm just terrible at letting things go. Always have been. Part of a whole catalogue of character flaws. My wife has, through example, taught me many things but perhaps the most important is this new mindset. And last night as we sat in front of our snapping, popping fireplace it seemed to all come together in my mind.

All my life I've had a fascination with the lights in other people's houses. Driving down the highway in the middle of the night seeing the warm and inviting glow from a small house in the middle of nowhere, wondering how someone could have purposefully chosen to live such a life filled with mundanity, quiet, unassuming and peaceful. And the other part of me, the part sick with fatigue of driving too fast and gripping the wheel too hard and listening to the radio too loud, burned with envy over their chosen life, their calm and happy life, their foresight in choosing that life, that countenance.

I wrote a play years ago which was rather successful in an upstate New York regional theater about this very subject. It was called 'Barking at Lighted Windows.' When I was a kid our next door neighbors had a wonderful, patient and very smart dog named 'John.' And John and I would sit for hours outside, after it got dark, just the two of us, hidden in the bushes, staring and fantasizing about a big, old, crumbling house a few streets away. I thought it was haunted. We called it, the neighborhood kids, for no apparent reason, 'The Hockaday House.' I never saw anyone come in or out of the house. Of course I was young, maybe ten or eleven, and couldn't stay out too long, but I would covertly observe the house, hiding in the tall weeds in the vacant lot next to it, and try and catch a glimpse of any sort of paranormal activity. And as the night came, the lights in the big house would pop on in several rooms, first the downstairs and then the upstairs and then all over the house. I could see shadows moving behind the thin curtains. And as each light came on in succession, John would bark. Just once, as though surprised.

And one night a lady stepped out on the porch with two white mugs in her hands. She looked directly at John and I and called out to the dark, "Would you care for some hot chocolate?" The jig was up. I slowly stood up and walked over to the porch, the operation aborted. She gave me the hot chocolate. We stood in silence for a while and then I said, "I thought this house was haunted. I never see anyone come in or out." She said, "Oh, no. Not haunted. But I'm on disability and my husband is very sick these days." We drank our hot chocolate in the darkness of that mid-summer Missouri night quietly and then I gave her back the empty mug and went home, John at my heels. And that night lay in bed while listening to the alcohol-fueled, noisy disfunction playing out in my own home downstairs, I thought of that big house and that lady that gave me hot chocolate. I never again hid outside and spied on that big house. And John never again barked at the lights as they came on, one by one.

See you tomorrow.