by jkatejohnston

14 April 2015

Dear Max,

Let’s just get the happy ending out of the way: Five big firemen in a lit-up truck came to the house in the early morning dark, but there was no fire. And we didn’t even have to feel foolish. They said we were right to call.

One of my favorite parts—and I’m going to be working this into conversations for years to come—was when the head fireman said, “Your house was pretty easy to clear. You don’t have that much stuff.” How Zen of us, and how misleading. We may not have much stuff, but what we do have is in an impressive state of chaos.

But back to the beginning. It was a little before five. I was sitting in the living room in the dark, drinking coffee and writing a diary entry about how wonderful and right and unpopular I am. (It was about the Amazon Scouts publishing program.)

The filter on the fish tank went off. A few minutes later Enzo called from his bedroom. I went in there, and he was asleep again, but his white-noise machine was changing from high to low to high. I went back to my diary. Then Teresa said, from the bedroom, “What’s going on?” I walked back there. The digital clock next to our bed was blinking, and not just zeros, as it usually does when the power goes off. It was blinking dots. It looked strange.

Then we smelled melting wires. Electricity gone bad. I wanted to call 911 and get out of the house. Teresa kept telling me not to panic. We both got dressed. We walked around the house, sniffing and sniffing. It was spreading: living room, bedroom, Enzo’s room: sizzle-sizzle-singe.

“Should we unplug everything?” said Teresa.

“What if we get electrocuted?”

Teresa called 911 and then put Colin on his leash. I woke Enzo up and said, “Everything is fine, but just in case, we’re going to go outside now.” I carried him out to the living room wrapped in his sleeping bag. He said he had to pee. We told him he could pee in the yard. I went back to his bedroom and felt around in the dark for clothes and shoes. He got dressed, and we all went outside.

It was dark. Teresa took Colin a little way down the street so he wouldn’t get too freaked out when the fire truck came. Enzo and I huddled in the driveway under the sleeping bag. I showed him the big dipper, partly hidden behind two tall palms. The stars were starting to fade.

“Do we have insurance for my Fish Sniffer?”


“What about all the library books?”

“I think the librarians would understand.”

The pavement was cold. Where were the firemen? I thought about mothers and children in war zones, leaving their homes forever, huddled under blankets, wondering what was going to happen next. I thought about how lucky we are and how fragile everything is. I thought about our dear hundred-year-old house with God knows what kind of quaint, adorable wiring.

The firemen pulled up in a huge ladder truck. I told the head fireman what happened. They went in. Enzo began a propaganda campaign to skip school: he’d be way too tired, and besides, how could we even get to school with a fire truck blocking the driveway?

After about twenty minutes, the head fireman came out and told me the house was clear, but we were right to call. They could smell what we smelled, and it wasn’t good. We went back in the house, and Enzo gathered up emergency supplies: Colin’s dog food bowl, some granola bars, a headlamp, a nearly-spent bag of Doritos.

The firemen turned off the breaker, said to call an electrician and left. We improvised an electricity-free breakfast and morning. I took Enzo to school. Teresa scheduled the electrician, and then she had to leave.

The house was quiet: no fish tank with its faint burble of running water, no refrigerator humming and then shuddering off. I walked around the house, sniffing the outlets and listening to the quiet. I looked in the fridge, remembered that I should keep the fridge closed, then wondered if it might be my duty to eat the ice cream sandwiches in the freezer before they melted.

I have to go to work now, but I’ll tell you the short version of the happy ending.

  1. The electrician said it wasn’t our fault.
  2. It had nothing to do with having about ten appliances plugged into every outlet using power strips and surge protectors.
  3. We don’t have to have the house rewired.
  4. A squirrel chewed on the cable that carries power from the alley to the house.
  5. SMUD is going to fix it.
  6. We’re not hysterical females.
  7. The bad smell wasn’t the wires in the walls, it was surge-protectors doing their duty and dying in the process.
  8. Our luck is holding.