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The Guy Chronicles

Even the Sparrows Can't Fight the Fever

May 03, 2000|CHRIS ERSKINE

It is probably Southern California's most glorious season, the grass and trees green as spinach. The bushes full of pregnant sparrows.

Each year it goes like this. The male sparrows awaken and feast on fermenting berries. By the next morning, another batch of sparrows is pregnant. Relationships are shattered. Lives turned upside down. All because a couple of drunken sparrows couldn't control themselves.

"What are you looking at?" the little girl says.

"The sparrows," I say.

"Why?"

"No reason," I say.

The little girl and I sit on the lawn and study this fine spring day, watch the breeze lift the leaves, laugh at the squirrels.

Around the house, the chores are piling up like bad debts. But it is warm and getting warmer. The world is our hammock, soft and gently swaying.

"Dad, you don't look too good," the little girl says.

"Thanks," I say.

"Sure you're OK?" she asks.

"Come to think of it, I feel a little warm," I say.

In fact, I have spring fever. Caught it in an elevator Friday when the guy next to me sneezed.

"You probably have the chickenpox," the little girl says.

"Probably," I say.

*

Spring fever. Wives deny it. HMOs won't cover it. But here it is, plain as those sparrows in the trees. Plain as me collapsed on the lawn, unable to move.

"I think I need a nap," I tell the little girl.

"Me too," she says.

So there in the grass we snooze. Elbow to elbow, ear to ear. She has my dreams. I have hers. After an hour, we awaken, rested and confused.

"You awake?" the little girl asks.

"I think so," I say.

"What are we going to do now?" she asks.

"I think," I say, "we're going to install an ice maker."

"For Mom?"

"For all of us," I say.

For years, we have not had an ice maker. Or a garage door opener. The things that other families got in the '70s, we are just getting now. Here at Graceland, progress takes its time.

"An ice maker would be nice," the little girl says.

*

Thirty minutes later, we are in line at the hardware store, behind a woman in gingham overalls and a shopping cart filled with plants and flowers.

The woman in front of us wears the kind of tight patrician smile that hints that she's buried a couple of husbands already, all tough men. Tougher, even, than the little girl and me. Patiently we wait.

"I thought these begonias were on sale," the Martha Stewart impersonator says.

The clerk looks at the buckets of begonias, then at the register. Then she reaches below the counter for the sales flier. It's easy to be intimidated by a woman in gingham overalls. Not this clerk.

"Sorry, ma'am," she says. "The begonias are not on sale."

I sag a little at this news. Somehow, I just know that Martha Stewart is going to ask to see the manager, and some guy in shirt sleeves and a bad tie is going to have to explain to her that the begonias are not on sale. That perhaps she saw the begonias advertised by another store. That people often make that mistake.

"Is there a manager available?" the woman finally asks.

Several days later, we arrive home.

"Where have you been?" my wife asks.

"Register 3," I tell her.

In the entire scheme of things, installing an ice maker is an easy task. You find a water supply, run some copper tubing, attach it with a saddle clamp.

"Be sure to tap into a cold water line, never hot," the instruction manual warns.

Which is good advice for weekend plumbers like me. I can envision myself tapping into the hot water line, then wondering why the ice cubes are coming out slushy-warm, like man-made snow. I mark the cold water pipe with chalk.

"How's it going down there?" a voice asks from the house.

"Going great," I say, scraping my knuckles on some brick.

It is cool in the crawl space under the house where I attach the copper tubing. Things live here that I wouldn't want to encounter face to face, but they seem to scatter when I arrive. I wipe away some spider webs and plunge ahead.

"Dad, you OK?" someone calls down to me from the house.

"Going great," I say.

My pockets are packed with compression fittings and quarter-inch brass ferrules. Around my legs, there is 20 feet of copper tubing, wrapping my ankles like an anaconda. Every time I move, the anaconda follows. Tightly wound, this tubing. It reminds me of the kind they use to make stills.

"What are you doing now, Dad?" a young voice asks.

"Making moonshine," I say.

"What's moonshine?"

"Go ask your mother," I say.

I start to think about how nice it might be to have a new still in time for summer. Friday night barbecues. The Fourth of July. We'd be the only people on our cul-de-sac with our own still. It would be good for the neighborhood. Every now and then, a dad from down the block would stop by to borrow a cup.

"Mom says we don't need any moonshine," a voice finally calls out from above.

"What do we need?" I ask.

"An ice maker!" the little girl says.

"That's not very practical," I say.

"Well, that's what she wants."

Finally, there are no more instructions from above. I can hear the little girl on the floor above me, sitting patiently with the dog, listening to me work.

Through the floor, she serenades me, humming some dopey song she heard on Radio Disney. I answer her back with the sound of hammering and an occasional grunt.

"How you doing down there, Dad?" she asks.

"The still, it's almost done," I say.

"Mom wants an ice maker," the little girl reminds me.

"It's a still and an ice maker," I say.

"OK, then," she says. "Just hurry it up."

*

Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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