Sometimes, I swear I can still smell the smoke.
Exactly two months and seventeen days after I became the legal owner of the farm, its kitchen exploded.
On the face of it, this might be a humiliating thing for a cookbook author to confess, let alone one who also once set her hair on fire during a cooking demonstration (accidentally, of course; but that's another story).
But I was not in the kitchen when it exploded, nor was anything cooking there. In fact, I hadn't even used the kitchen that morning. I had nothing to do with the fire, except that it took place in my childhood home, which I had so recently bought, "with financing," as I always say, "so creative I should have gotten a MacArthur." I had nothing to do, I mean, with causing the fire.
But a fire in your home turns out to be with you in a big way, for a long time. I had nothing to do with the fire, but it, it turned out, had everything to do with me.
Here's one of the first questions anyone who tells, in writing, a story faces: "How far back do I go? At what point do I start? " Readers (or viewers, if what you've written is a screenplay) love "in media res": beginning right in the middle of the action.
Well, then: an explosion. An actual boom. A sound familiar to one mostly from the movies, but rarely heard in real life, and startling in the extreme.
I was in the bathroom, having just put in my second contact lens, when I heard it, and screams, and a crash, breaking glass, from the direction of the kitchen, where the young men from Cota & Cota, Mike and Jerrod, were at work.
The house where this took place is rambling in its layout, added onto many times in its 200-years-plus. So when I ran from the bathroom into the central living room I met the Mike and Jerrod, rushing in from the other direction, flinging open the door to the living room. Behind them, and above them, as if chasing them, roiled whorls of greenish-brown, oily smoke, with an acrid, chemical stink. Everything was off-kilter in its extreme abnormality, confused, sudden and swift but simultaneously in stopped, slowed-down this-is-not-real time, because. What. Was. Happening. The smoke. The extreme pink of Mike and Jerrod's faces, the pink of a sunburn. What happened, I must have asked, what happened? I don't know, we were just – and then – The three of us rushed towards the front door, the same one which I'd opened to them maybe forty minutes earlier. I paused to fling off slippers, pull boots on over sockless feet, pull on long down coat, and there we were, outside in the bitter cold, a few inches of snow on the ground, and — my cat! I raced back in and turned to the right, the office/bathroom/bedroom side of the downstairs, away from the kitchen, there she was, standing over the heat vent with as much a puzzled "WTF?" look on her little face as a cat can have. I picked her up, ran back outside with her, and put her down on the snow.Then I thought of my laptop, on which were three years of work on what would eventually become The Cornbread Gospels. I was about to go back in again, but Jerrod said, "Wait, tell me where it is, I'll get it," and he did.
Mike: We were just… and then, boom!
Jerrod: I'm going to call the office on the truck phone...
The problem with writing in media res is there's always a back-story.
Here is the immediate back-story of that morning. It was January 17, a Friday morning, and it was cold. Minus 15 degrees: exceptionally cold, even for Vermont. The people from Cota & Cota had already thawed my pipes a couple of times, and the dispatcher, who I'd called a few days earlier, said he didn't know when they'd be able to return, they were backed up, "as you can imagine." I could imagine, and since I did have water in the bathrooms, still, anticipated several more days before I'd see them, since clearly they needed to do thawing for folks who had no water first.
I was therefore astonished to be woken at 7:30 a.m. by Mike and Jerrod pounding loudly at the door. I was also deep, hard fast asleep: I'd had an insomnia night the night before, and wound up getting out of bed at about 2:00 a.m. and writing until about 5:00 a.m. when I'd finally gotten back to bed and to sleep. So the first confusion of the day was not the explosion, but scrabbling downstairs unkempt and disoriented, wearing a pair of the long black Cudl Duds which served me both as pajamas and "base layer" (in winter, in Vermont, you don't call it "underwear", you call it "base layer") . If memory serves, I had a bathrobe over this, and maybe a blanket. I am sure my hair was sticking up like a woodpecker's crest. I had on ridiculous looking but very warm down booties, red, by way of slippers. Of course my contact lenses weren't in for I was wearing glasses, the ones in which, Ned always used to say, I looked like John Lennon or a young Bolshevik.
When, staggering down the stairs, I saw the yellow and red Cota & Cota can through the window, I thought, "Well, bless them, they did get here!" , immediately perking up up at the thought of not having to wash dishes in the bathroom sink. I didn't know Mike, who introduced himself, but Jerrod, a cheerful, amiable enthusiastic young man, had worked out here before, thawing pipes and, once, digging out a blocked well-pipe. (While on that job, he also exhumed small corpse after small corpse — mostly chipmunks and voles partially buried by Z-Cat on the lawn. "That cat," he'd remarked to me at the time, not without respect for her abilities, "Is a killing machine.")
; the other, Mike, who was shorter and less outgoing, was new to me. I was happy to let them in, if embarrassed at have been caught asleep wake up to a back out I was in the downstairs bathroom and the young men from Cota & Cota were in the kitchen, the usual pipe-thawing maneuver ( slithering into the tiny crawl-space below the kitchen and placing a heater called a salamander underneath the pipes) having failed. I could hear them. They had arrived at 7:30 I was putting in my contact lenses; the left first, then the right, as always.
It was my second winter there and the pipes had frozen, again, in the kitchen. Cota & Cota had already come out to thaw them, twice.
But every story has a back-story.
— I include memoir, screenplays, and fiction in the category —
The reason I'd been able to buy this particular house, one ridiculously beyond the means of a self-employed freelance writer, is that I bought it from Aunt Dot, who you've already met in Part One of these series (and in some earlier parts of this blog, like when I told you about how she beat the odds when everyone thought she was going to do, and dramatically did it her way). Aunt Dot was by this time far, far beyond knowing that she had a house, or selling it to me directly; it was done through her attorneys. I still couldn't have done it had not my mother co-signed the loan, and my brother agreed to the whole thing. And probably, internally, I couldn't have done it had I not believed that the book I had coming out at the time, which would eventually be called Passionate Vegetarian, was going to do terrifically well, no doubt better than its predecessor, Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread, because that although the later was a good book, PV was a one of a kind, magnum opus of a book, into which I had poured my heart and soul. (Was this latter series of assumptions correct? No. Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread has sold, to date, 280,000 copies. PV has sold