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First Heat

It was darker then

It was darker then

Heat is a moral exercise. Spending time with grandparents who heated their kitchens and living rooms with black cast iron stoves, a cold morning is a moral cleanse to match a physical one with water. There’s no need to knock the chill off in the morning when everyone will soon be gone. Might as well thrown in money and burn that. A little warmth from the stove and coffeepot shines out into the room all the colder for its Formica and dark half-light through the windows. For various reasons, I retain a little of this impulse still. Heat is ephemeral. It’s going to warm up anyway.

Last weekend a cold front moved through to no outward change but the temperature, and perhaps a little less smoke. Days remain powerfully bright and that otherworldly clarity autumn is sometimes capable of lets in warmth too: the air is colder but the sun remains strong. So each bright day has kept the brand-new modern-sealed house warm, picking up heat days when I’ve been home to open the windows late afternoons.

Thursday night tipped over. I was reasonably dressed and shivering a little even upstairs; that day I had turned on a burner and watched the fat blue flame flower waver and sparkle and punch out a heat blossom I leaned into. I’d be fine under blankets, but heat would be nice. I’ve been thrifty. I go to the thermostat ignored since May or June and push the little switch to HEAT.

One winter in a new house is enough to learn its metabolic noises, and after a few seconds I knew something was wrong. A cricket of a relay clicked in the thermostat, but there was no beat-later mezzo clunk from up above the top floor ceiling. Turn off the radio, stand beneath the intake register, listen: no growl of the exhaust fan, no airy rumble of gas in burners.

Goddamnit. Of all the things to have faced and keep facing over the past shitty, shitty month.

Things are different now. Even overtired, bleary from having worked too hard and written myself stupid, old habit’s furious panic lasts seconds, if that long. Monkey is too tired. Something may have been worked loose when I put the insulation in, back in July, a million years ago. A simple lightswitch fills my mind and I don’t take any special preparations as I put the stepstool beneath the attic door. If I need something more elaborate, I’ll come down.

It’s a climb without a ladder, not a bad one. Cold air pours down. A vacuous street lies ice flat through the gable vent, harder in the light, but not winter hard. I remember something about our attic in Texas, light from an old lamp, bare bulbs, coats nobody cares about hanging on suspended ceiling wire. In here, now, is bright and new, a single bare bulb from a built-in fixture. No cobwebs hang, the new insulation pearly white.

The furnace remains the same lowball unit, I realize now like the cheap stove in my New York sublet: the minimum 80% efficient now allowed, the chimney metal to resist the heat being thrown away. On a new place like this, why not a ductless heat pump? It wouldn’t have cost much more, there would be no need for ducts that are too small and direct most of the heat upstairs, and there would be air conditioning too. Why not at least a condensing furnace? Capitalism demands cheap upfront cost wins. I pay for the gas, not the builder–who went broke.

Hammered to a stud above the furnace is the switch. A regular household switch, there for code reasons I assume. It’s off. I switch it on. Click-thunk-whirrrr goes the furnace.

A few grey spots of fuzzy junk are all that’s changed since I was up here last. Aside from the temperature, and New York, and all the fear and expectation and wrenching ends and disappointments, it’s all the same. Summer’s heat is gone but echoes, like in my parent’s house. That kind of heat can’t be forgotten.

Down where people are meant to live, warm air rushes. Streetlights shine in the windows and cars purr by. Darkness seems whole and complete in autumn’s start line, so different from summer’s blur. Fall is a favorite season still, the heat a safety and a bigger gift than I know.


One comment on “First Heat

  1. At the self same time that I read these words in London, my own boiler (yes, we have our own word for that, too) also goes Click-thunk-whirrr….

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