Water over the Dam

Posted by on Sep 7, 2005 in Dad, Just for laughs | 0 comments

She went outside on the deck to have a quick smoke, but that’s not how she caught the houseboat on fire. After all, she had the whole river as an ashtray, so there was never a smoldering butt tossed in the trash or even in the bottom of one of the RC pop cans left empty on the deck table. I never asked her why she lingered so long over the cigarettes, but I understand the lure of resting under the shade of the sycamore and oak that overhang the dock, scanning the opposite bank to find out what the neighbors are up to, and waiting to see if the flotsam drifting slowly by is a tree limb, a snake, or maybe a turtle. If she had seen a snake that day she would have headed back inside for her gun to shoot it, so most likely Catherine didn’t spot one that morning.

I guess I should explain that Catherine is my Dad’s live in girlfriend, although I cringe when I speak it out loud. Dad will be 91 this month, with health problems that likely preclude any physical relationship between them, but Dad manages to be just charming enough to keep her there, cooking, cleaning, and mopping up after his accidents, without paying her a dime. Not that she’s the world’s best housekeeper or cook, but Dad’s standards have dropped in more ways than one since my Mom died in 94. She’s not what you’d call a genius either, but Dad brags on her strong points to everyone who’ll listen, mentioning her fishing abilities, then praising her extensive health care experience, “She wears one of those things around her neck. You know, like the doctors use,” he confides in his booming stage whisper. She sits nearby, a grin etching yet deeper trenches into her weathered face, testament to her years of river life.

On this particular morning her paramour was off in the pickup truck. They didn’t take away his driver’s license and cancel his insurance till some years later, after the second, or maybe third accident. She saw the black smoke rolling out of the door before she smelled it, and with the acuity of the panicked, she immediately raced into the inferno. The pan of grease she had left forgotten on the hot burner was ablaze and had engulfed the lower cabinet, blinds and the microwave. Using her lightning quick wits, Catherine grabbed the pan and ran with it across the living room, out the door, onto the deck and threw it over the railing into the Green River. Turning back, she realized that she had caught several items on fire as she passed them with the boiling oil, so she snatched up burning chairs and seat cushions and lofted them over the side too. Being boat furniture, the cushions were made to serve as floatation devices, so naturally they bobbed along toward the Rochester Dam like a war-ravaged armada. Frenzied, she returned to the stove looking for more items to throw into the convenient fire extinguisher, but found that while many things were melted, there were no more flames, only the choking smoke.

While she was assessing the damage, the phone rang. It was one of the neighbors across the way wanting to be the first to spread the news about the flaming fleet headed for the dam. By late afternoon the story had spread 30 miles and more in each direction on the air raid siren like gossip network that is unique to small communities of people. Months later when I came to visit, the cabinet, microwave, rug, and blinds had been replaced, and I helped hang the dry cleaned draperies back at the windows. I listened to Catherine and Dad’s recounting of the tale, and found myself amazed that the boat was not burned to the waterline and surprised that she came out without even a singed eyebrow. “Dad”, I said helpfully, “I’m going out today and get you a smoke alarm”. My father, the former fire chief, scowled at my suggestion. “We’ve got one of those dang things,” he replied, in an annoyed voice, “but we had to pull the battery out.” I held my tongue waiting for the reason I knew would follow. “That contraption just about drove us crazy. It went off every time Catherine cooked a meal”.

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