Last night, I had my bi-annual dose of Being A Faculty Wife.
Because Otto is a nice guy and also because he likes to entertain and perhaps ESPECIALLY because his department will reimburse him a whopping $8 per warm body (woo! let’s buy the name-brand soda!), we hosted a barbecue for some of his students. I had my inauguration into this ritual last semester, and I have to say that at the time I found it quite amusing. Especially the part where the students who’d been around for the PREVIOUS gathering at his bachelor pad sat around saying things like, “Otto, dude, you have real furniture now! It’s nice,” and then another student followed up with, “But, wait. Otto, you have KIDS now? WHOA!”
So yesterday it was time to mix up onion dip and put out the deck chairs and open our home to a bunch of young people who all regard me as a possible side-effect hallucination of their final projects and hangovers. Because DUDE, Otto isn’t supposed to have a LIFE much less a WIFE. And yet here I am, providing snacks and sliced tomatoes to put on their hamburgers. WEIRD.
It was all going swimmingly. We’re in that brief but gorgeous window of weather here in Georgia where the pollen has let up a bit, but the crushing heat of summer hasn’t yet arrived. The kids all clustered out in the gazebo where the snacks were, and they chatted and drank Cokes and ate pretzels while Otto worked the grill and I alternated between bringing things out from the kitchen and telling one of my offspring to stop tormenting the other one.
(The kids, by the way LOVE student parties. We never put out bowls of potato chips for JUST THEM, you know.)
Often when I try to engage the students in conversation they seem perplexed, like, “Why is this ancient, sustenance-providing figment of my imagination trying to talk to me?” But they are polite, if confused, and usually after a while I give up and just bring out more pretzels.
One of Otto’s students vaguely remembered what I do from the LAST party we had, and so during a lull he turned to me.
“Hey, aren’t you a freelance writer?” he asked.
I looked around. There wasn’t anyone else there, so he really was talking to me. “Yep, that’s right,” I said.
“Yeah, cool,” he said. “You ever get to cover any really awesome breaking stories?”
I laughed. “Um, I’m not exactly a front-lines journalist,” I told him. “I mean, unless you want to count when I wrote about Miley Cyrus last week, which, well, you know. I’m mostly a blogger about non-crucial stuff.” He nodded and wandered away.
I wondered—ever so briefly—what it would be like to report on breaking news. You know, stuff that actually MATTERS.
Funny, but I had no idea I’d have the chance to do so before the weekend was out.
So, um, things had been rolling along for about 90 minutes when I went over to Otto to grab another batch of hamburgers. He was concentrating on flipping patties with great precision. He was In The Zone.
In fact, he was so in The Zone that he hadn’t noticed that the grill was on fire.
The grill. Was on fire.
From where I was standing, on his right, I could see a few small flames licking the OUTSIDE of the left-hand side of the grill. To MY right and forward was the gazebo full of students, and then to my right and slightly behind me sat Chickadee and Monkey, munching happily on cheeseburgers.
“Otto,” I said, rather quietly, I thought, given the screaming I was doing in my head. “Look. LOOK. We need to turn it off. Now. Right now.”
Otto looked and nodded. “Grease,” he said. “Let me just get these flipped.”
“Let you…? Wait. No.” As I watched, the wood “wing” on the side of the left side of the grill where we normally set dishes caught the flame. “Should I get the extinguisher? I’m getting the extinguisher.”
I ran into the kitchen and grabbed the fire extinguisher. When I came back everyone was still chatting and oblivious, and now flames were rising up out of the grill. Otto was STILL MOVING FOOD AROUND ON THE GRATE, so right before I pictured the propane tank exploding and killing him in front of his students and my children, I WRESTLED THE SPATULA FROM HIM AND KILLED HIM MYSELF.
I reached over and turned off the burners and handed Otto the extinguisher. He sprayed down the fire and that, of course, caused several students to look over and notice that hey, that thing’s on fire. A few SHHHHHHHHHP SHHHHHHHHHPs from the extinguisher and it was all over… for about three seconds. Just as Otto lowered his arms, the flames roared back to life, several feet tall, and that was when every muscle in my body began to tremble, but Otto was cool as a cucumber and hit the blaze again—more thoroughly this time—with the extinguisher, and then it was over for real.
I turned around, finally, to see all eyes on us, and my daughter TAKING PICTURES. To break the tension, Otto pointed her out to his students, cracking a joke that with a deck full of photo students, the ONLY one with a camera at the ready when it mattered was the 10-year-old. Chickadee flushed with pride and the students giggled nervously and everything was fine again.
The wood was charred and the metal side of the grill was bowed out and the paint on it peeled and cracking from the intense heat. We studied the carnage, looking for a clue as to what had happened, but it wasn’t immediately clear. Probably just a build-up of grease down below the cooking surface.
Neither Otto nor I had eaten, of course, because we’d been too busy fixing food for the group, so we worked out way over to the food table to fix plates for ourselves. I put some relish on a hot dog and put that on a plate, then headed over to a vacant chair on the periphery; and then while trying to balance the plate and move Chickadee’s camera case off of the chair I dropped the hot dog on the seat. Relish went flying everywhere, I felt my face reddening, and I picked up everything I could and went inside to throw my food away.
Then I locked myself in my bathroom, sank to the floor, and let myself shake and hyperventilate for a few minutes.
When I could stand again, I came out long enough to gather up the kids and tell them it was time for bed. Then I spent extra time upstairs with them, giving them lots of extra snuggles, and came back down and started cleaning up. I never really rejoined the party, which I guess makes me a lousy hostess.
Nearly everything was cleaned up when Otto finally did the “Are you okay? Is something the matter?” thing, and I tried very hard not to yell as I explained that Yes, something is the matter, we ALMOST BURNT THE HOUSE DOWN and more than that, we did it with a deck full of people and mere feet away from the kids, and SORRY, I FIND THAT UPSETTING. I ranted on for a bit, something about how I was glad he could recover so quickly, but I require a little more time, and he just stood there and took it calmly. Finally I trailed off when I got to the part about how I’d been afraid the tank would blow and he would’ve been hurt, interrupting myself to say that everything was okay, we were all okay, it’s alright.
Otto listened, and hugged me, and launched into an explanation of how propane can’t burn as a liquid so a tank explosion is really almost impossible. This was the love language equivalent of stroking my hair and feeding me chocolate, so I felt better and relaxed, a little.
But for the record I would now like to go back to “reporting” on inconsequential things, rather than on the time we almost burned up the deck.