Pas de Deux

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I have a thing about fire. Ask my ex-husband. The first time I had some money of my own, I put in a fire alarm system. He wouldn’t pay for one because he said, “Houses don’t burn down in Scarsdale.”

I already had an escape ladder, three fire extinguishers and a plan, sort of. We had one staircase and four small children. Of course I was insane during those years. This did not escape my husband’s notice.

“You’re crazy!” he would say.

He said it on Christmas Eve of 1963. It was the first Christmas all of my children were out of diapers—and I thought they were in need of a couple of pets.

“You’re crazy!” he said.

A golden retriever puppy and black and white kitty awaited me in the next town and after the children were asleep, I set forth on a snow and ice-packed road. As I neared an intersection, the car hit a patch of ice and pirouetted three hundred sixty degrees–slowly enough so that I could imagine my husband’s wrath if the car and I were totaled while on an unapproved mission.

My husband looked almost as irate when I returned and told me I needed to see a psychiatrist and then added, “but I’m not going to pay for one.”

A couple of hours after the pets were bedded down in the basement playroom and the presents, assembled and wrapped and I had joined my husband in bed, I heard my elder son’s voice in the hall calling to his older sister.

By now, everyone was awake except my husband. I threw on a robe and accompanied the two littlest down the stairs to what was to be much excitement and confusion. I suggested they just play with the pets and not unwrap presents until the sun came up and their father came down, but instead I put a medley of Christmas songs on the stereo to muffle any sounds that might penetrate the second story of our unburnable house.

As each gift was exposed, I took the paper and stuffed it into the fireplace. We were expecting guests for champagne at ten, others for dinner at four, and my husband would be in a far better mood if the nitty gritty of Christmas was out of sight upon his descent. I checked the damper. It was open. I lit the papers and, hurrah, the flames leaped up and out, Aargh, above and beyond the screen, scorching the mantle.

Not open.

I gathered my flock into the front hall and called up the stairs in the tone of someone announcing a delightful surprise.

“Fire,” I sang.

Pajama bottoms flapping, my husband sped down the stairs and into the living room; he had never moved this quickly before. By now the flames were subsiding while the smoke collected around the perimeter of the ceiling where it left a gray mark not to be painted till spring when we ‘d saved enough money. He opened the damper, the windows, the door, groaning, and shaking his head in disbelief.

Who could blame him? It wouldn’t do much good to explain –although I tried, and, in the telling, had a laughing fit–to the delight of the children and the mystification and disgust of their father who didn’t like laughing to begin with.

“You one crazy woman,” he pointed out without a verb.

Tears rolled down my cheeks, and I collapsed on the stairs while the children held the animals and danced.

My husband, a man of few words, muttered one of them several times, “Shit,” he said again and again, stepped over my body, climbed the stairs and disappeared into the bedroom.


My present husband builds a great fire but is on the surly side when one is requested. “A fire? We don’t need one and the kindling’s up in the corncrib,” he often says.

This time, the day after Christmas, he said, “Hell, the Abernathys won’t be here long enough to make it worthwhile.”

No question it would make the Abernathys feel welcome, something he was not entirely keen to do. I persisted and once logs, kindling and newspaper were perfectly piled and tucked around one another, he could hardly wait for the Abernathys to arrive and forthwith praise his flames.

Than he disappeared. As the Abernathy’s car came down the driveway, I called his name twice. And again. He didn’t answer so I did the sensible thing—I lit the fire. He had said it was good to go. Wonderful! The wood responded immediately. So gratifying. Flames leaped up and out, Aargh, above and beyond the screen.

My husband materialized—his face redder than the fire—choking out half his barracks dictionary. He bounded to the kitchen—he had never moved this quickly before—grabbed some oven mitts, returned to the living room, thrust his arms into the fire and moved the damper to the open position while shouting the other half of his marine-polished vocabulary in my direction.

Smoke filled the living room, somewhat disguising the scorched mantel, then moved up around the ceiling perimeters of several rooms where it left gray marks not be painted till spring when we’d saved enough money. We opened the front door to assist its departure only to discover the Abernathys standing there wreathed in gray. They coughed. We couldn’t invite them in or leave them on the doorstep and since the fire still smoldered we couldn’t go out for Chinese.

As I waved goodbye, I heard my husband, a man of many words, mutter one of them repeatedly before he disappeared into his office. “Shit,” he said again and again and again.

La plus que ça change, la plus que c’est le même–mot.

The image

9 Responses to “Pas de Deux”


  1. 1 Yvonne Perry September 24, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    Your story reminds me of my fire stories. Like you, I have several of them. One nearly took my hand, but the funniest one is about my children.

    It was cold outside and my son was playing in the backyard. He wanted to warm things up a bit. When things heated up a bit too much he came running into the house with this terrified look on his face.
    “Mmmmmommy?” I could tell something was wrong.
    “What is it?”
    “F-f-f-fire! Mm-m-momie!”
    “Tell mommy what happened. You aren’t in trouble, just tell me….”
    He didn’t have to. I looked out the window to see the playhouse engulfed in smoke. I ran out of the house, grabbed the hose, and ran to the rescue. It was only a matter of minutes before everything was under control, but my daughter has been mad at her brother ever since for melting her plastic stove; dishes, play food, and all.

    Yvonne Perry
    http://www.right2recover.com

  2. 2 Jared D. Vineyard September 24, 2007 at 7:13 pm

    Ah, fire stories. I managed to light my folk’s house on fire when I was supposed to be dogsitting back when I was in college. I lit a candle on the wall that fell into the couch. The couch went up, the wall went up, the living room ceiling was starting to burn. Luckily, I managed to put out the fire before the whole house went up. The worst part was that it was Mother’s Day. I had to write my mom a nice poem and present her with flowers before letting her see what remained of their living room. The good news was that because I scrubbed the house so thoroughly to try to get rid of the ash that covered the house, the insurance company waived the deductible. My folks got a brand new couch and matching love seat, the whole house repainted (which she was planning on doing herself that summer), and paid hotel time with dinners. It turned into a much bigger Mother’s Day present than I could have afforded.

  3. 3 Nikki Leigh September 24, 2007 at 10:17 pm

    I was just talking to my brother yesterday about burning CD’s (his tech ability includes email and ebay :). So, when I mentioned burning CD’s – he was quick to remind me that he shouldn’t be allowed to burn anything. He’s in his mid 30’s and we still hide the matches 🙂

    Nikki Leigh
    http://www.nikkileigh.com

  4. 4 Jessica Dockter September 25, 2007 at 5:54 am

    That is a great story. There is a reason people have “things” about them, they might not learn why for years or they know right away but no matter what, it is always there for a reason.

    Jessica Dockter

  5. 5 Kathy Holmes September 26, 2007 at 5:37 pm

    LOL! Great story. Reminds me of when I left my first husband and tried to light my first fire in the fireplace of my new apartment. The room got all smoky and I realized I hadn’t opened the flue correctly. All I could do was yell out, “If you hadn’t been such a jerk, I wouldn’t be in this predicament.” 🙂

  6. 7 Lynn Voedisch September 28, 2007 at 1:20 am

    Your husband is one strange bird. Glad mine listens to me. (most of the time.)

    One typo. You call them the “Abernathy’s” standing on the doorstep.

    Other than that, great story.

    Lynn Voedisch, author of “Excited Light”
    http://www.xanga.com/bastetmax

  7. 8 sky November 4, 2007 at 9:01 pm

    lol…you are dangerous! 😉

    so glad you are no longer with the grouch who hated laughter!

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