My husband, Erick, knows a lot of stuff. He can, for instance, recite the Periodic Table of Elements. He can also imitate the call of a Carolina Wren and hum the Overture from Prince Igor. If you ask him, he’ll tell you who won last year’s Super Bowl, the 1998 World Series, and Formula One Driver’s Championship. He can differentiate between a Barque and a Barquentine, conjugate the familiar form of 80 irregular French verbs, and recall whether 1986 was — or was not — a good year for Chateauneuf du Pape.

Unlike the alpha male stereotype, Erick never gets lost. His brain has a built-in compass that allows him to say, with the confidence of experience, that if he’s been to a place once, he can damn well find his way there the next time. He amazes me by remembering the different uses for bowlines and sheetbends, the most efficient tire pressure for long-distance traveling, the difference between a house sparrow and a house finch, and the punch line of jokes, which he can tell in flawless dialect.

Photo: Duncan Laws (Flickr)

But when it comes to building a fire, Erick knows squat.

Fortunately for him, I grew up in a family that would, just for the fun of it, pack 20 miles into the Rocky Mountains on horseback, catch brook trout in a wilderness stream, and cook them for supper over an open fire. Our childhood home in northern Ohio had two fireplaces, which glowed all winter, and a couple of woodpiles 3 by 30 feet long. The ability to build a good, lasting fire was as necessary to membership in my family as shooting a clay pigeon or winning at ping pong. The skill came down to me in my genes.

But Erick doesn’t get it. He appears to be listening intently when I tell him one more time why his putting a match to three stacked logs and seven wadded-up sheets of the New York Times creates only flash and ash. His approach to fire building is the same as to Christmas shopping: Stall as long as possible, charge into the fray at the last possible minute, grab whatever is at hand, and beat a fast retreat, hoping it works out for the best.

It seldom does.

It occurs to me that I might help Erick comprehend the Zen of fire building if I explain the process in terms I’m sure he’ll understand. “It’s like making love,” I say. “A fire has a feminine nature—sensitive and whimsical. You can’t just pile on and expect sparks to fly. You have to be attentive to her nuances and build momentum slowly to create the right atmosphere.”

I demonstrate how to place a log, cut side up, at the back of the fireplace — a buttress to support the structure-to-be. Then I make a twisted wick out of half the obituary page and tuck it beneath a small teepee of kindling, which I lean carefully against the backlog. “Just one small piece of fatwood is all it takes,” I explain. “A little pleaser to get her attention, warm her up so to speak.”

I strike a wooden match and wait, allowing the suspense to build and the flame to affirm itself. Then I touch it to the wick. He slips his arm around me, and we watch in silence as the first wisp of smoke curls up the chimney, the first tiny tongue of flame licks the length of the dry sticks.

It’s best to use a gentle hand,” I say, as I position two smaller logs against the backlog, taking care not to undo the progress I’ve made. We are in this together, the fire and I, and I don’t want to spoil the ambiance. “You have to start small,” I say softly. “Tease her a little to get her in the mood.”

I love it when you talk dirty,” he says, nuzzling my neck.

You may have to fan her a little — like this — until you’re sure she’s hot.”

Choosing my moment, I blow gently at the base of the flame, wait a minute, blow again.

He blows in my ear.

Ah, now she’s receptive,” I say. “Hear that happy hiss, that little pop and crackle? That’s her way of telling you it’s time to take her to the next level.” I poke gently with the fire tongs, enjoying a burst of sparks. “She’s eating it up,” I whisper. “She wants more.” He kisses me softly, his mouth tasting of pancakes and maple syrup.

I add a larger log, and then another. We wait, our shoulders touching, our interlaced fingers holding tight in anticipation. For several long moments, nothing happens; then suddenly, all the logs ignite with a fwoop! Even I am impressed.

All the way up the stairs to the bedroom, Erick hugs me to him, kissing my ear and whispering compliments — on the logic of my method, the brilliance of my metaphor, the symmetrical spread of the flames — while inside my head the voice of Henry Higgins whispers, by George, I think he’s got it!

On the following Saturday night, the temperature drops into the 30s, and in the morning I linger beneath the quilts, listening to the thud of logs from our wood shed as Erick stacks them on the hearth. I hear the squeaky lid of the kindling box, the rustle of newspaper, the scrape of the drawer where we keep the matches. With pleasure I anticipate our Sunday morning together — mugs of strong coffee and the New York Times crossword in front of a crackling fire.

But when I shrug into my bathrobe and descend to the living room, I find Erick on his hands and knees happily stuffing wads of the Travel Section between two large logs with not a stick of kindling in sight. He grins at me, and for the first time the thought occurs that Erick may know even more stuff than I thought.

Can it be that his persistent failure as a fire builder is all part of his plan?

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  • Dede Woods September 9, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    I am honored to personally know the author!!! I can hear your voice in the article, Susie! Loved the theme and the whole article!
    XX Dede

  • b.elliott September 4, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    What a lovely bit of writing!

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen September 3, 2011 at 7:24 pm


    Welcome! We should place this under SEX and Libido. Thanks for the great writing and the marvelous erotic tale.

    Dr. Pat