by HUGH GILMORE
Common sense told me not to go, but the lady had mentioned “an old Darwin” book, so I bundled up and left home on a frigid day hoping to go treasure hunting. Six steps later I slipped on the ice next to my car and fell flat on my back. Always a surprise. Got the wind knocked out of me and lay there stunned, contemplating the wonder of it all, especially the wonder of what would happen when I tried to rise.
I pushed myself off the ice into the snow and stood up and. My elbow hurt sharply and I’d wrenched my back, but my moveable parts followed commands, so I got in the van and headed off to Conshohocken, Land of Darwins.
On the scene: a freezing, nasty, enclosed-but-unheated porch. I could hardly bear to touch the cold cold books and had much trouble turning pages to check for edition, etc. Had to keep blowing on my hands. Books were ordinary. The Darwin was a sixth edition, with scuffed corners and a spine tear, but I bought it anyhow. Not much of a souvenir. The pain of my fall now made worse by disappointment.
Came that night, I couldn’t lie down without feeling bad back pain. Actually, lower rear rib cage pain. Slept in gritty installments.
Gimped around on Friday. Just as I thought things couldn’t get worse, the furnace died. I heard it shut off. Pilot flame was on, but furnace wouldn’t turn over. Just hummed. Our heating guru came at 4 p.m. He tinkered, lashed some parts together with cable ties, told jokes, shined his flashlight and said the parts place wouldn’t be open again till Monday morning. Before he left, he’d managed to get the heater running. He even did some on-and-offs and it came back on each time. So: toodles.
An hour later: Off. Pilot was out this time. I had the sudden realization that the ice outside was not satisfied with what it had done to me in the carport. It now wanted to move inside. Fire and ice are natural enemies, but now they seemed to be collaborating in pursuit of a common prey: me. I would have to fight back if I myself did not want to revert to the cold, motionless state that all mobile creatures are destined towards.
But, I’m scared to death of the idea of causing an accidental gas explosion because I have too much college and not enough knowledge. Kneeling before the heater, I took a deep breath. Didn’t smell gas, wished myself luck, and lit the Bic. I did not blow up. Mirabile dictu! I lit the pilot. Seconds later, the furnace roared backed to life. What a jolly little homeowner am I. Just so handy to have someone like me around.
A half-hour later the furnace kicked off again. No pilot flame again.
A quick look out the window confirms what I suspect: the ice field is moving closer to the house.
Three tries this time. Got the pilot lit. Mr. Competence. Just an ol’ Jack London survivor type.
My wife, Janet, is involved with the Stagecrafters Theater production of “Private Lives,” by Noel Coward. Tonight is opening night. We had to go. We left at 10 minutes of 8 and just made the curtain.
All through the witty repartee (on stage) I was thinking. Has my house blown up yet? Has the furnace gone out? Has my car been towed from the last-minute parking spot I chose, right beneath the Tow Warning sign of a local store (closed for the night, but sometimes snow emergencies bring out the meanspirits of tow truck drivers). But anyway, ha ha ha, hurray for Noel Coward. So funny, I actually forgot my miseries, including a very sore back, for minutes at a time.
Show over. Time for answers to my life’s mysteries. Car: ah, not towed. Home: colder than it should be. Yes: furnace off, pilot out. Tried to light it three times, unsuccessfully. Now smelled gas. Cowardly retreat up the stairs. Accepted the inevitability of having to sleep in an unheated house, wrapped in crushing ice.
Called furnace man and left message so he’d respond first thing in the morning.
Got the electric space heater, pulled another down quilt from the closet. Put on sweatshirt, sweat pants, knit cap and got in bed to read latest Europa Editions book I’m enjoying, “Mosquito” by Roma Tearne. (Set in sultry Sri Lanka.) I’m actually quite warm, but dreading waking up to a house where the temperature will be about 35 degrees by sunrise. I really should try to light the pilot one more time.
I did it! I hurry back upstairs, remove my sweatpants and sweatshirt and knit cap and extra quilt. Read a little more, fell asleep. Wake up an hour later, my back and ribcage killing me. When I lie on my side I feel like I’m lying on a brick, or have a baseball inserted under the ribs (take your pick). So it goes. The room is now too warm. The air smells like baked dust. I hesitate to tinker with the thermostat. I remove one layer of covers and try to get back to sleep, but can’t lie on either side without pain (and can’t ever sleep on my back or stomach). Why did I ever leave my warm home and walk on ice, just to buy a Darwin?
I lie on my right side, in terrible pain that I choose to regard as an opportunity to practice will-power-over-muscle-pain. I will the knot to relax. It doesn’t work, so I decide to simply accustom myself to the pain. That sort of works. I sleep an hour on, an hour off, till sunrise. Then I get up.
The furnace is still holding back the lusting ice. That’s good. Tenuous but good. I’ll take it over the alternative. My back hurts. I’m making coffee when the phone rings.
It’s the lady whose cold books I visited on Thursday. The lady I should not have gone to see on the morning of the ice storm. The lady whose mention of “an old Darwin” book made me risk the trip. The lady who set the fate that I should have a wrenched back and lose two nights’ sleep in motion.
She wants the book back. Her grown son, who lives in another state, wants to read it. He’s never read it. He yelled at her and told her she should not have sold it and she should get it back from me so he could read it.
Moral of the story — deduced from Robert Frost’s poem, “Fire and Ice” (“Some say the world will end in fire. Others say in ice.”): Between the slip on the ice and the failing furnace, I can’t wait for summer when it’s time to complain about the heat.
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