Putting Out Fires

Putting Out Fires

By Chris Erskine
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES ~ The little boy with the Creamsicle hair is beginning the first grade. He’ll be in Room 15, the note from the teacher advises a few days in advance.

“Please get a good night’s sleep the night before school starts and eat a healthy breakfast,” the letter reads.

“I always eat a healthy breakfast,” I remind my wife.

“I don’t think she was talking to you,” Posh says.

“Sometimes I eat two healthy breakfasts,” I say.

“You’re not listening,” she says.

More and more, my lovely wife uses the same tone of voice with me as she does with the kids. I think I deserve more respect than that, but I realise such things must be earned. She’s still upset with me from the other night, when I referred to the place we sleep as “the Lincoln Bedroom.”

“Why?” she asked.

“It honours a dead man,” I explained, and didn’t even get a smile.

So anyway, we really need the bird song of children on the first day of school. We need their strobe-like smiles and their shiny patent-leather backpacks to add some lustre to our dusty lives.

Such things will ease our entry into September – never my favourite month out here. Too dry. Like living in an ashtray. The vegetation is dormant or dead. Under foot, our grass crunches like toast. What February is to the folks back east, September is to me.

With the recent fires, which came within a mile or two of our home, the whole house smells like a cigar. I find it appealing, but others complain. I change the air conditioner filter and – no kidding – I find coal dust. And brownie mix, the stuff they spilled all over the kitchen. “We’re making it for the fire-fighters,” they said. It’ll choke you just the same.

We were housebound for days during the fires, never a good thing. If there were ever anybody ready to evacuate, it was me. I’d tied rockets to my ankles.

See, we have a 300-pound beagle that really ought to be living in a juvenile detention facility in Texas. We have the little guy, loud as Larry King. His big brother is back home, and he’s not exactly a monk either. Two days after the little girl went off to college, her big sister, the lovely and patient one, moved back home too.

So we have a full house again. A big, loud, joyous house – at least when no one’s screaming at each other. Parenthood is an extra inning ballgame, no question.

During the fires, we also added a couple of evacuees, one of whom was a parrot named Walter. Walter was 43 and in need of safe harbour for a few days.

I liked Walter. Like me, he was a few weeks past his prime. We bonded over discussions of prize-fights and Lee Marvin movies. As parrots go, he was an excellent listener.

“Know what I miss? The pop-hiss of vinyl records,” I’d say, and Walter the parrot would nod knowingly.

“Know what else I miss?” I’d say. “Hush Puppies.”

After several days at our house, the parrot began to change. I feared that, by the time he returned home, Walter would be reciting dialogue from Hannah Montana, which pretty much loops in our house, like some sort of drunk-driving announcement.

I feared that if he stayed too long, Walter would begin quoting Miley Cyrus, or worse yet Posh, who lately has taken to muttering “Oh Lordy” whenever something goes a little wrong with the washing machine, or some idiot politician says something lame about healthcare. “Oh Lordy,” she says, which I find sort of sweet and vaguely Petula Clark-ish. Yow.

(For the record, I’ve heard her mutter earthier things, but that was back before the bedroom became known as “the Lincoln Bedroom.” Good times, indeed. Sort of a golden era of intimacy, 1987-88.)

Anyway, by the time Walter left, he had picked up many of the expressive vocal arias of our children. He’d begun to whine more than he should and asked me for money two days running, something I just hate.

He’d even learned to stomp his foot and scream at the Dodgers. “Broxton, throw strikes!” he blurted one day. For his outbursts, I punished Walter, forcing him to watch every minute of Entertainment Tonight.

Poor guy. When the fires ended, his owner couldn’t get him out of here fast enough – who could blame her. I think Walter’s in parrot rehab now.

Oh Lordy – the prognosis isn’t good.

Erskine can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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