Thursday, December 15, 2005

Burning Down the Store

Burning Down the Store
Kate Haas

“What did you torch tonight?” Bruce inquired as I walked into the office at 9pm.

“I hit Safeway again,” I replied, nonchalantly.

“Oh? How did the fire start?”

I smirked. This one was really clever. “Well, you know the barbecue they have out back, with the chicken? Someone had stacked up some old boxes right next to it, and that cardboard got just a little too close. The whole thing went right up. By the time the fire truck got there, the flames were up to the roof.”

“Ooh, good one! I’ll have to try that sometime. There’s that barbecue over at the Farmer’s Market where they do the sausages. Maybe tomorrow night I can work something out…”

“Good idea, Papa!” I approved, in my best imitation-Simon voice.

Parents-turned-arsonists? Can it be? Should someone be calling Child Protective Services on these unrepentant pyromaniacs?

Not so fast, Smokey. Yes, each night another spot around town (preferably a grocery store) goes up in flames, but only in the latest installment of the bedtime story demanded by our oldest child for over a year now.

It started one night when Simon requested a story about, “a duck, a frog, and a big red fire truck.” We live near a park with a duck pond, and several blocks from the firehouse, so it wasn’t difficult for Bruce, who was on bed-time duty that evening, to come up with a tale in which the firefighters came to the dramatic rescue of our pond’s “Duck Island” after a carelessly thrown cigarette ignited the dry grass.

The next night it was my turn to put Simon to bed. After going through the ritual of discussing the day’s events and reciting, “Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite,” Mr. Baby propped himself up on one elbow, eyes agleam and instructed, “Now Mama, tell me a story about a duck, a frog, and a big red fire truck.”

And that’s the way it’s been, ever since. A duck, a frog, and a big red fire truck. Over the months, these characters have taken on distinct personalities. The duck and frog, a couple of jovial pals, spend most of their time lolling around on Duck Island, looking for bugs, playing their banjos, and sniffing the air for smoke.

When not disporting themselves at the park, our heroes can generally be found visiting their fire-fighting friends up at Engine Number Nine. The fire station is a festive spot, with barbecues, birthday parties, sing-a-longs, and cookie-making (chocolate-chip preferred) taking place on a regular basis.

Naturally, all frivolity ceases when the fire alarm goes ring-a-ring-a-ring! (well-executed sound effects are received with great appreciation), and the fire fighters slide down the pole and leap into the truck, (accompanied by the duck and the frog - who keep mini-boots and hats on their own special, low hooks at the station).

Of course, the nature of each night’s episode varies depending on the identity of the evening’s Sheherezade. Bruce’s stories are laced with magic realism: the fire truck flies through the air; opportune rainstorms conquer improbable blazes, and so on. (Literary query to self: can I really invoke the term, “magic realism” about a story whose basic premise is a talking duck and frog?) My installments tend to be more prosaic, generally ending up with a good meal back at the fire station.

No matter the peripheral details though; the main event of each episode must be the extinguishing of a fire. And somewhere along the way, grocery stores became the preferred scene of the crime.

Safeway burned from the aforementioned barbecue spark. A fire started in Fred Meyer when the electrical wires in the refrigeration unit malfunctioned and ignited the egg cartons. The baker at the Daily Grind was up too late at a birthday party and fell asleep on the job while the bread was in the oven. You can imagine the resulting smoke and flames. People need to get to bed on time to prevent that sort of thing. At New Seasons, someone dropped a lit cigarette in the paper towel aisle, and - whoosh! - the flames hit the roof. Now, if that person hadn’t been smoking, it would never have happened.

(It’s difficult to resist the temptation to moralize, especially when Simon agrees so heartily with our pronouncements. This is the kid who yells, “No helmet! Not safe!” at every foolish cyclist he sees).

After a few months of this, we started asking Simon if he’d like to hear any other kind of story. This suggestion was roundly rejected. Eventually, Bruce decided to jazz things up by introducing some new characters. “Ramblin’ Bill” was the first to join to duck and the frog. Bill is a tall, shaggy fellow who wanders around town, frequently turning up near the river to hunt for tadpoles. He lives in a big house on Belmont street with “Pogo Sue,” a Pippi Longstocking type who gets around on her pogo stick, though she and Bill have a red wagon to use for grocery shopping.

The duck and frog saga has been going on for over a year. It’s getting harder and harder to think of new ways for fires to start at grocery stores, although Simon doesn’t seem to mind when we recycle plots.

Now and then we wonder whether it’s such a good idea to pander to his appetite for tales of fires or, if by telling stories in which no one ever gets hurt and everything swiftly returns to normal, we’re failing to teach him about fire’s true dangers.

But each night, when he turns to us and says, “Now, tell me a story about a duck, a frog, a big red fire truck and Ramblin’ Bill and Pogo Sue,” with such confidence in our powers of invention, all we want to do is make him happy.

That, and get him to sleep.

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