The Bonfire

 

I was usually the first one to get up. It was around eight o’clock as I slid my feet over the side of the bed and let the cold raise goose bumps on my naked form. I glanced over at Terry and watched her slow breathing as her chest moved the blankets up and down. Moving toward the bathroom, I looked in on Julianne, twelve years old and approaching teen age, then I checked on Josh, age eight, his blankets askew, his mouth open, looking as if he’s about to say something.

The bathroom of the old Victorian was so small; people in the 1890s couldn’t have spent a lot of time in there. It must have been do your duty and get out. I shaved, showered, struggled into a pair of jeans, and went down the staircase. I thought to myself that this house definitely doesn’t belong here. It’s located on the main drag in Lynn, MA across the street from the Ingalls Elementary School. The house at 234 is anachronistic. It seems as if Dr. Who, the PBS time traveler, dropped it down on Essex St. which is slowly becoming a Lynn slum.

Passing the living room, den, and dining room, I went into the kitchen to make my first cup of Mr. Coffee. It’s a holiday, Thanksgiving. Armed with coffee, I went into the living room and turned on the TV. The Macy’s Thanksgiving parade had just started. God, I’ve watched this since I was a kid: the bands, the babes, the previews of Broadway musicals, the huge balloons, commentators reading drivel from teleprompters, singers badly lip synching their latest hits. Crazy? Yeah! But I love it.

Josh and Julianne came down about ten o’clock.

"When are we going to Uncle Joe’s?" Julianne asked.

"As soon as your mom gets up and gets her act together." I responded.

As if on cue, Terry came down in her bathrobe, yawning.

"Come on, guys, let’s get some breakfast." She said.

The coffee smell permeated the house. I stayed watching the parade as she prepared cereal for the kids.

My brother Joe lives in Northwood, NH about an hour and a half drive from Lynn. The entire Carmody clan minus my younger sister Marianne had been gathering for at least six or seven years at Joe’s for Thanksgiving dinner. This year, however, Marianne had driven in (sans husband Brad) from Ft. Wayne, Indiana with her son Ian who was around Josh’s age. They had arrived Tuesday and were staying at brother Dave’s in Londonderry, NH.

After breakfast following much fuss and delay, we packed up the car with Terry’s world famous (well they should be) chocolate chip cookies, assorted kid paraphernalia and set out to pick up Nana Carmody. The matriarch of our family lived on the other side of Lynn about four miles away. She lived in a red bungalow that was built in 1955 about a year after my dad died.

"All set to go?", Nana asked.

"What! No hug or kiss?" A typical Nana comment.

"Sure." Giving her the requested.

"I have a few things for Marianne in the bags over there. Would you put them in the car? They’re Christmas presents. It will save me from mailing them."

Mailing them – was she kidding – it would have taken a truck to get them to Indiana. Between the car trunk and Terry holding some between her feet in the front seat, I loaded up the ‘few things" and got Nana in the back seat with Josh and Julianne. After the fight about who was going to sit next to the window (Julianne being the eldest got the window going and Josh the ride back), we finally set out.

It had been an unusually dry November and today was no exception: sunny, a light wind, and a cold 34 degrees. We got to the NH line tollbooth in less than an hour.

"Dad, are you going to try to beat it?" Inquired Josh.

"Watch, lad." I responded.

This was a game we always played at tollbooths. I approach the tool basket, throw in two quarters, and gun the accelerator before the light turns green. It sometimes sets off an alarm that blares until the coins find their way through.

"Go dad!!" Yelled Josh as the horn blared then suddenly stopped.

"What juvenile savage amusement." Was Nana’s only comment.

"He’s your son." Responded Terry.

"Hey, Nana." I asked, "Remember the songs you used to sing to us when we went on a long drive somewhere." I commented.

At that time, she had four kids ten to three and you can imagine the headache of driving and keeping them under control. Ma had been an excellent pianist in her youth and been gifted with a lyrical alto voice. She started singing "Restes Avec Moi" a French-Canadian hymn. I joined her on the harmony. Then the many versed "Come On Papa, Hop In Zee Motor Car". Not to be outdone, Julianne and Josh performed a rousing version of "Eentsy, Weentsy Spider".

Suddenly, "Look, here they come!" I pointed.

Huge eighteen-wheelers were bearing down from the south bound side of the highway. They were crammed full of Christmas trees from Maine and Canada to various MA cities and towns. We could almost smell the pine. The mood in the car shifted immediately as I started singing "It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas".

Everyone joined in and we ended up singing Carols all the way to Northwood.

Northwood is typical of New Hampshire small towns: quiet, sort of quaint, drowsy but not out of touch. Northwood has drug problems like everyone else.

Driving through town, Terry remarked.

"Why are so many of these houses for sale? I’d give my left arm to live up here."

"The grass is always greener, you know." Nana answered.

"Huh?" said Julianne and Josh together.

"The grass is always greener in the other fellow’s yard," said ma, "It means sometimes you think everybody like your neighbors are better off than you. But if you look into it carefully, you find out other people have the same problems as you, sometimes bigger ones than you have."

I put my quarter in. "You know, you look at this area and it appears idyllic, the perfect rustic country life. We live in the city and you yearn to live in the country. The folks who live here want to move to the city."

"Why?" asked Julianne.

Terry answered this one.

"Well, where we live, it’s noisy and smoggy, and crazy; lot’s of excitement. If you want a pizza, you just walk down the street and get it or have it delivered. Here it’s not so exciting, but, if you want a pizza, you either make it yourself or drive 20 miles for one."

This, the kids could understand.

We finally got to Joe’s and parked in the driveway. Across the road was a forest. You could see houses on either side of Joe’s. However, they were fairly spread out and not on top of one another like in Lynn. Kid, Joe’s black mongrel, greeted us with a bark and wagging tail. We gushed over him for a few minutes, especially Josh, then we unloaded the car and headed for the house.

Joe’s wife, Linda, waved from the porch and we went through the usual litany of greetings. Joe and Linda’s home was small by our standards. We have a three floor, eleven room Victorian. Theirs is a two-floor ranch with smaller rooms.

As I mentioned earlier, my sister Marianne had flown in from Ft. Wayne with Ian who is bit younger than Josh, and minus husband Brad, a true Hoosier. We make him nervous. Brad’s sullen, almost antisocial, not used to the din created by the Carmodys. We could turn a wake into the atmosphere of a Shriner’s convention or a rock concert. Two of us together are a crowd. Gather the whole family and you have a tower of Babel. Brother Dave, wife Rhonda, kids: Adam, Jill, and Derek in descending order live in Londonderry, NH and had the shortest traveling distance to Joe’s. They were always unfashionably late and arrived an hour later.

I forgot to mention Joe’s two kids, Joy Marie and Shawn. This particular year, my octogenarian Uncle Bill and his new bride, Alita, were among the invitees. The conversation was chaotic.

Joe cornered Dave and me.

"Let’s go out to the barn for an adult libation and I’ll show you what I prepared for tonight’s bonfire."

Joe owned a few acres of land and, out back, there was a cleared area and a small barn that used to house a horse. In the barn, he had a propane grill on top of which were two covered pots. One held a venison stew, another, mulled cider. On an adjoining table were an assortment of munchies and bags and boxes.

"Jeez, Joe, with the dinner you and Linda prepared, how are we going to have room for this?"

"You wait, it’ll be so cold for the bonfire, you’ll eat this stuff and your words." Joe answered.

It’s been a family tradition for years that a bonfire followed Thanksgiving dinner at dusk. Joe usually invited fifteen or twenty neighbors to attend since most of them contributed toward the blaze. This year, the stack was over twenty five feet high and consisted of the following items and donations: wood from a dilapidated barn, a twelve foot long rabbit hutch complete with metal screening, cleared brush, fallen tree limbs, an old sofa, and, the piece de resistance, perched on the very top, was another couch on which was seated a venerable scarecrow complete with clothing, wide brimmed hat, and a corn cob pipe sticking out between his straw lips. I climbed the pile and placed an empty beer can in his hands. It was now complete. Joe arranged several lawn chairs around the fire to be.

"What’s your poison?" Joe yelled.

"Another beer." Dave

"Vodka with diet Coke." My choice.

I forgot to mention, Joe had a well stocked bar in the barn, God bless him. We stood at the barn door. The temperature was around thirty early this afternoon and we knew it would drop to the twenties by evening. For a change this year, there was no snow on the ground. Last year, there was rain and it took two gallons of gasoline to get the fire going.

Glasses raised, we toasted each other and broke out into our favorite drinking song in three part harmony; Dave as Tenor One, me Tenor Two, and Joe as Baritone.

"Prends un petit coup, c’est agreable...."

Suffice it to say, the song tells of the joys of a little drink now and then and the perils of overdoing it. On a festive occasion like this, I’ll risk the perils.

"Tom, can you come in now, we need you to carve the bird?" That was Linda. Sometimes I think the only reason I’m invited is to disjoint the turkey.

Let’s talk about Joe’s turkey. He had raised a few this year and saved the prime specimen for this dinner. Fully dressed out, it weighed about 35 pounds. He didn’t have a roasting pan big enough so went into town to borrow one from Northwood’s only restaurant. Even so, the bird spilled over the side of the pan and barely fit in the oven. I can imagine what time he and Linda had to get up that morning to begin roasting it. It wasn’t tall but sure was wide. Took five loaves of bread and a couple pounds of potato dressing to stuff it; enough to feed every Carmody ever born.

The fun part of carving is sampling and slapping the hands of others that dare to sneak a piece. It took over twenty minutes to cut the beast. Meanwhile, the table was being set with the rest of the feast – traditional fare and plenty of it.

After dinner, we watched football and bet quarters on how various plays would enfold. This is a tradition started by Uncle Jack, not a real uncle, but so much a family friend that we adopted him.

The sun went down and our excitement heightened. Uncle Bill, still in the throes of octogenarian marital bliss, left early with Alita. The kids were dressed up warm and we all went outside. Joe had strung a set of floodlights around the perimeter of the bonfire. Not for the first time tonight, a worry gnawed at the back of my mind. It had been so dry for weeks but now there was no wind, not even a breeze. Oh well, another drink was forced upon me under extreme social pressure and all troubled thoughts vanished.

Fifty feet away from the bonfire was an assortment of brush and small lumber. We would use this if necessary to keep the blaze going. Neighbors trickled in, grabbed beers and wine, and selected viewing spots. The kids hung out by the edge of the woods, plotting – something that also gave me apprehension, remembering what I did as a pup.

"OK, let’s get started!" Announced Joe.

Joe prepped the fire by tossing in a gallon of gas, soaked a tree branch with some, ignited it with a match and threw it into the pyre. It let off a WHOOOOSH that sent everyone backwards. The flames teased the wood for only a moment, then climbed the stack and engulfed the scarecrow perched on top. The cigarette I stuck in his ear ignited and a steady stream of smoke arose.

"Josh, don’t get too close!" I yelled too late as Josh ran over to me. He had already burned his finger – a good object lesson until Terry appeared.

"Can’t you watch him for five minutes without something happening?" Probably won’t be the last heard of this.

The wind picked up almost imperceptibly at first, then increased and gusted. The fire had reached its peak, sending thousands of sparks upward – and then outward, blowing toward the house and woods across the street.

"What do you think, Joe?"

"I think we’re in deep doo."

Nana Carmody was watching from a window and was oblivious to the sparks that rained down onto the roof.

"Should we call the fire department?" Someone asked.

"See that fellow staggering toward the fence? He is the fire department." Said Joe.

At this point, the ladies were beginning to work themselves into a lather; just what we needed. So far, the sparks were small but all it would take is one good-sized ember to start trouble. All we could do was stand by helplessly and keep vigil over unfolding events. The kids were running around, unknowing. The rest of us sobered up to mild concern – then panic. Still the fire raged on, fanned by the wind.

Joe got the hose out of the barn to wet down the roof of the house. No sense trying to put out the fire. It was too far-gone and a small stream of garden hose water would have little effect except to generate more sparks and a lot more smoke. Now, larger embers were landing in the woods. We watched them fall, praying they’d go out. Nana Carmody watched on with a smile on her face. The house was safe temporarily as long as Joe applied a steady stream of water to the roof.

"Joe, should we call any fire departments from adjoining towns?" I asked.

It’s a holiday night. By the time they got here, they could probably save the cellar."

Linda yelled at Joe that he shouldn’t have started the fire. Don’t you love Monday morning quarterbacking?

"Do something!!!" She screamed.

"I’m doing everything I can -------- what the heck?"

We all held our collective breaths. Abruptly, the wind died down to a zephyr. The sparks changed their flight path from horizontal to vertical. Suddenly, the bonfire stack imploded, and, with one last burst of sparks, fell to the ground in glowing embers. No one said anything. We all looked toward the woods. Nothing could be seen in the darkness. No sparks, no embers. We stared in silence for about a half-hour until somebody cheered. That broke the ice and we all cheered except Linda who was expecting the gates of hell to open at any moment.

"Joe?" I queried.

"Right. Drinks all around."

We circled the fire like Dr. Seuss’ residents of Whoville on Christmas morning and went from murmured whispering to raucous chatter in a matter of seconds. Only Linda continued to pout but we were used to it.

"Joe, I gotta get the brood home. It’s an hour and a half drive."

"Sure thing."

I rounded up the kids, Terry and I packed the car, and I drank three cups of strong coffee, while Nana Carmody wondered what all the commotion was about.

We got Nana home in one piece and by the time we reached our driveway, the kids were sound asleep. Julianne woke up enough to make it upstairs on her own. I carried Josh up and put him to bed.

I made Terry and myself a rum and coke with a twist and we sat in the living room. I lit a cigarette.

"Tom?"

"Yeah?"

"Look at your shirt, dummy."

I glanced down just in time to see the hole burning through.