Smoke Gets In My Eyes - Ellen Brodsky

Smoke Gets In My Eyes

This article is part of the PPSA Online Magazine
by Ellen Brodsky
Volume 8 Number 2 - Fall 1995

I almost bought a hatchet last winter. This may seem unremarkable to you, but for me, standing in Wal-Mart, looking at what could have the been the largest display of hatchets in the Western world marked a personal crossroads.

It started when I moved here from New York City in '93. I moved because of family considerations, not because I wanted to leave the East. In fact, I had no intention of ever giving up being a New Yorker. I was just going to be one somewhere else. So I did not expect anything about me, except my scenery, to change.

When I first saw my new apartment, a charming adobe with a kiva fireplace. I envisioned cozy, romantic evenings at home drinking cups of hot chocolate, maybe even roasting marshmallows, while outside I let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. I did not think about the utility bills for a place where the heat and the oven are electric. In New York, heat is included in the rent; a fireplace is a rare luxury. In Taos, the nights get so cold no one can afford to stay warm without a fireplace or woodstove.

My first electric bill was $138 during a particularly warm month. Susan, the building manager, told me it was the highest bill in the complex. Until then, I had not used the fireplace often. I was out most nights and I didn't really like hot chocolate or marshmallows.

Eight days later, I got the flu. For more than three weeks, I rarely left my bed. My life consisted of sleeping, reading, watching television and (because I had nightmares of a four-digit electric bill) making fires. By the time I recovered, I had begun to resent my fireplace the same way I once resented the New York subways.

For one thing, fires made my home filthy. Soot and ash accumulated on my hands, over the hearth and everything nearby more rapidly and more pervasively than any New York grime. The woodchips littered the floor, got caught in the rug and turned into splinters. Then, if the wind blew in the wrong direction or a log rolled too close to the screen, the smoke forced me to open doors and windows in the middle of a January night when the temperature was 12 degrees. As my eyes burned and my throat constricted, I wondered: With all the hoopla over second-hand cigarette smoke, how healthy could it be to burn four logs (each hundreds of times larger than one cigarette) for six hours in your living room?

Finally, fires were a nuisance. They took time to build, more time to heat the room, and I had to drop whatever I was doing every half-hour or so to stoke or to add another log. I couldn't even leave home with the fire going, so it was tough luck if I needed something from the supermarket that evening. Once the fire was extinguished, I had to clean out the hearth before making the next one. But if I put the ashes in the garbage, they could smolder and set the house on fire just when I thought it was safe to go back to the supermarket.

After I got over the flu, I ran into Susan on my way to the garbage dumpster. "How's it going?" she asked. "Have you been making lots of fires?" I told her that as far as I was concerned, central heating was one of the most underrated inventions of the modern era.

"You might want to get yourself a little hatchet," she said. If you cut your wood up into smaller logs, you might find it easier."

"You must be joking," I said. What would I, someone who could barely tell the difference between a tree and a bush, do with a hatchet?

Not long after that, I was in Wal-Mart, searching for a barrette. I could not find one designed for anyone over 12. I was becoming nostalgic for the discount stores all over New York that stock a great selection of hair accessories. Finally, I gave up. On my way out, I came across the hatchet display. There were big hatchets, small hatchets, hatchets with wooden handles, hatchets with covered handles and more. I stood there trying to console myself with the thought that maybe Taos doesn't have great barrettes, but where in New York could you find a selection of hatchets like this? This could be a sign from God that I should buy one, I thought. I decided on a medium-size one that would give me a moderate workout.

As I pulled it off the shelf, I caught a glimpse of myself in a nearby mirror. I looked ridiculous, like some fresh-off-the-boat immigrant trying to hard to look native. I put the hatchet back on the shelf. Maybe I wasn't quite the New Yorker I used to be, but I wasn't going to turn into Paul Bunyan just like that. After all, spring was not far off. Wouldn't God prefer that I spend a few hundred dollars to save myself from splinters, second-hand smoke and all that extra vacuuming?

I left Wal-Mart wondering what someone like me was going to do with her hair in a place like this.

Last Updated 11/12/95.© 1996 PPSA