“Did you remember to leave water for Samson?”
My wife is like a teacher in the movies, the ones who make important announcements right when the bell has gone and kids are already mentally unplugged from the class and pushing through the doorway. She will tell me to turn right after we have passed the exit, or ask about the dog’s water when we are a mile from home.
“Yes, a giant bowl beside his little round bed.”
Samson is a wire fox terrier who has the standard personality for his breed: impulsive, mercurial, assertive and dominant. When he walks with me he pulls the leash hard and I’m sure he thinks I am the one being taken outside, at his discretion and pleasure. I buried wire mesh into the ground below the fence line to stop him from escaping. The squirrel and chipmunk population is recovering now that Samson can only look out to the fields while he faithfully digs, his spirited but unsuccessful attempts to run away. His inbred outlook on life contradicts the objective facts: he has food, love, exercise, four balls, one rope toy, and frequent car trips. He’s like a depressed person who lives in an idyll.
We left Samson alone that night so we could celebrate ten years together. Nine years married and one year blissful. Samara wanted to eat Indian and I wanted Italian so we went to a Hungarian restaurant because the compromise was easier than the fight, even if it left us feeling like we’d won bronze medals instead of gold. The Hungarians prepare hearty meals that stick. You never leave feeling hungry. Also, the wine somehow floats on a dumpling-and-schnitzel dinner, rendering me far more intoxicated than a pasta entrée or naan bread, so that is compensation for the third-place finish in another one of our matrimonial events.
“Do you want the fireplace or the window?”
“Samara, you know I’d rather have a view. You need the heat. I’ll sit by the window.”
“Are you sure. I remember last time you complained about a chill.”
“Yes, I am sure.”
We spoke formally, even for a couple in their forties who escaped the speech mannerisms a few years behind us (my slightly younger colleagues at work, all in their late thirties, insert “like” into every natural or unnatural pause in their speech and end most sentences with an uptick in their voice, as if everything is a question rather than a declaration). We never swore, or talked during sex, and often used new words just to see if the other person knew them.
“I think I will have the same as last time. Do you remember what it was?”
Samara does recall her last meal here. She tests me to see if I remember, one of her many measures to gauge marital vital signs. Her vegetarian diet divides us at meals, especially dining out; we eat as if we are listening to different music in the same room.
“I do not. Why not try something new?”
“Maybe I will. I do favour something novel once in a while, although I can’t give up the dumpling permanently.”
I could give up anything permanently if the result is a better life. Dumplings can always be replaced.
We ordered wine and vegetarian appetizers and talked in neutral subjects, about such things as whether the driveway should be repaved and how large her performance bonus at work was likely to be. I was bored and decided to poke.
“What do you think might happen to Samson if something happened to one of us?”
We often talked about the dog like we did about our niece, whose parents had asked us to intervene because she had problems at school or with boys or with body image and they could not act alone, unconvinced that parenting did not need a committee or a village.
“Do you mean if one of us died? Or if we split up?”
“Which is preferable? Just kidding, Samara. Clearly if one of us died then the dog remains with the living.”
“Samson doesn’t really have a preference one way or the other. As long as he’s fed and walked, his life is about chasing small animals. His focus is not us. We are his servants. I’m sure he sees us as such.”
Samara and I pushed our conversation around the dinner table for another hour. Her plate contained the grains and grasses that fed the animals who appeared on my plate. Long ago we decided that culinary détente required civility at the dining table and we held our rations in two freezers—his and hers—with a rule that the carnivore freezer remained in the basement and the herbivore one sat in the kitchen.
Unlike teenagers I see in public, who congregate but do not communicate, everyone on their own device and wired into the Matrix, we never let our phones intercede in our conversations, even with each other, so when my phone started ringing, and then her phoned chimed a few seconds later, the two ring tones rendering an electronic row-row-row-your-boat syncopation, we simultaneously paused then answered the calls.
Her head nodded up and down, affirming she understood the same information I was getting in my conversation and my head nodded back and forth, denying the consequences.
“Our house is on fire!” My wife said it loudly, almost gleeful in her intonation, although some people who hear disruptive news will react in a countervailing emotion, as if to douse the severity.
“Yes, I heard it too. Samson is okay. He was taken out of the house by a neighbour. That was Laverne on the phone. Who were you talking to?”
“Laverne’s wife. You know they have separate lines.”
We paid the bill and drove to our house. The maple lined boulevard hid the glowing fire from view until we’d almost pulled into Laverne’s driveway three houses down the street. Laverne leaned against his truck, holding Samson’s leash tight until we’d parked and got out. The dog shot towards us and randomly selected my wife to run to.
“Oh my god Verne. Thank you so much for saving him!” She knelt to kiss Samson, who spun out of her grasp and ran to me. I gave him quick pat and he sat down and looked at the fire.
“Jesus, when did it start? Any other houses catch fire?”
I felt that by asking questions I could deflect any emotions simmering from dinner.
The fire started thirty minutes after we left for dinner and was still going when we arrived, although the initial bonfire had diminished to a late night campfire.
I talked to the fire chief while my wife went into Laverne’s house for a drink. He told me that the hoses would stay on the house until morning and that I should expect smoke, fire and water to destroy almost everything we owned. We do not have a fireproof safe, so the jewelry melted and the cash was ash.
“I know it’s pretty bad. I’ve been to a lot of these fires and I can tell you that folks have a hard time recovering. But you know, sometimes it can be a new start. A few months ago we got called to an inferno that took down a monster mansion and the guy laughed the whole time he watched it burn and collapse. Said he’d just went through it with a video camera for insurance and now he could finally replace some of the things he hated.”
My wife and I sat up all night with Laverne and his wife watching the firefighters. We sipped whiskey and beer and wine, talked about other people who’d recently suffered setbacks. The firetruck’s hoses shot water into arcs illuminated by the fire, as if my house was a nighttime fountain for lovers to attend, and in fact dozens of people watched from their lawns. By dawn the black smoke had changed into a misty grey fog and one truck remained to put out any hot spots.
We stayed another day with Laverne and then the fire marshal took us into the safe parts of our charred house to salvage.
A house burns at different frequencies: metal, wood, paper, cotton, copper, oak, drywall, brick have unique ignition temperatures. My wool suits burned at 230 degrees Celsius, her nylons ignited at 532 degrees; the leather sofas started burning (212 degrees) just before my suits but after the oak dining room chairs started charring (150 degrees). As we walked through the coals we’d kick anything obtruding. I stubbed my toe on Samson’s cast iron food bowl, which outlived my gold wedding ring that had melted two hundred degrees sooner. I didn’t find the ring but every day after I came home from work I’d unshackle myself from its obligation, tossing it into my nightstand drawer and since the entire second floor’s interior had incinerated, I knew the ring was gone.
In the front hall closet I’d hung dry-cleaned shirts I picked up right before we went out for dinner. Somehow they’d survived, insulated by the closet’s location. They smelled like smoked fish and I wouldn’t wear them again. My wife found a tapestry she’d stored in the basement, still tightly rolled and tied with twine, put away after we argued if it was appropriate to our decorating scheme (she in favour, me against). A few curls along its edges marred the rug, but she figured these could be repaired, although I suggested the repair costs exceeded the rug’s replacement value.
Of course, every intimate memory captured in primitive storage—photos, marriage license, letters, journals and diaries—disappeared, like an unprotected external hard drive accidentally wiped clean. I always joked that the marriage license wasn’t legal since our marriage took place in Quebec and the province wasn’t really part of Canada, but now I felt relief that I didn’t need to be funny anymore.
In the basement we found that the freezer containing the meat had withstood the fire. The fire marshal opened the lid and marvelled that the Angus burgers still had frost in the zip locked bags.
“I’ll be damned. Who needs a fire proof safe. You could just out all your valuables into a freezer.”
“I could cook these on the coals upstairs.” My wife glanced at me with her lip slightly curled. I called this her “dog face” that she only made when she got mad at me.
A week later the insurance company asked us to remember every item in every room and complete a comprehensive inventory spreadsheet, with estimated values, before they started compensating us for losses. We’d been living in a hotel with two double beds, which the insurance company did pay for, and we’d bought a few clothes to get us through the two weeks we were off work to sort out and start a new life.
“Let’s do two spreadsheets. You do one and I do the other. Then we compare so we don’t miss anything.”
Her idea made sense, but two hours into it we discovered that our recollections differed by fifty thousand dollars. How could she think we had owned an expensive cappuccino maker when I remember her getting me an inexpensive one for my birthday; the spigot used to make froth never blew enough steam to do anything but stir the milk. Then why did I forget the Movado watch she bought me for our fifth anniversary? If I’d put it in the freezer I might have remembered. Maybe the discrepancy measured something, maybe it was an abstraction, a metric representing fidelity, or loyalty or friendship. We finally whittled the difference to nothing, figuring we were better off screwing the insurance company rather than battling for cognitive supremacy.
Three weeks later our claims adjuster released funds to our account and we met with an architect to start the rebuilding. Here was our chance to reinvent ourselves, at least structurally, with bricks and mortar and lumber, but we could not agree on whether it should be board-and-batten or cedar siding. We could build a new home that looked nothing like the other one, but the adjuster told us that we had to keep the same footprint and build the new house on the old foundation. My wife wanted to replicate the interior furnishings as much as possible, but I thought why not start new inside as well? The fire marshal’s story about the man who saw a catharsis in his home’s destruction had stuck with me.
“I think you have a good chance to create something beautiful.”
The architect didn’t smell our acrid relationship.
A day later we received the report from the fire marshal explaining why the fire started. It was the barbecue and a mirror. My barbecue and her mirror. I charred steaks and burgers on the gas grill (she did not want her vegetables to ever touch the grills) and used a can hung underneath it to catch fat drippings. The can had filled and overflowed with congealed fat on its sides like candle wax. The morning before we went to our last dinner together, she had decided to paint our bedroom and took a large mirror off the wall, brought it outside to clean and leaned it against the porch post beside the fat can. On that hot, clear afternoon the sun reflected off the mirror and shot a laser-like beam at the can for five hours, raising the temperature high enough to ignite the fat and start a fire in the barbecue, fuelled by the meat I accidentally pushed over the grill onto the burners, perhaps when I was inattentively sipping scotch. The old wood porch posts beside the barbecue burst into flames like matches and lit the house.
“You burned down our house?”
I looked at the dog and replied.
“We burned down the house.”
She scrunched her face, took in a deep breath, then exhaled a declaration. “I’m going to stay with friends for a few days. And I’m taking Samson.”
I turned to Samson and whistled. He stared past us. He hadn’t settled into the hotel yet and sometimes sat on his haunches for a long time, looking at the wall, not willing to commit to his temporary home.
“For how long?”
“Until the ashes turn to dust,” she answered.
Samara put the leash on Samson, who didn’t look back at me. Perhaps he was dreaming about slipping under the fence, chasing a squirrel brightened by the afternoon sun. The bugger wouldn’t even wag his tail when she opened the door, refusing to yield to my childish cooing.
I poured a scotch and called room service and ordered a steak with Caesar salad.
“Char it on the outside and keep some colour in. And add extra bacon to the salad.”
Header photograph: By SpeedyEJL (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons