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Schoolhouse Social
A life-like adventure from Cheeseburger Brown
The Old Gilford Schoolhouse

It's the last night of summer. We sit around a bonfire in the yard, drinking home-made red wine and watching Popsicle spin. "Circles! Circles!" she squeals as she turns in place, finally skidding over like a drunk and lying in the grass, giggling.

"Birds!" she says, spotting a dense squadron flying south. "Bye bye, birds!" she calls, waving at the sky.

The air is very still. The sun illuminates a wide blanket of smoke that hangs in a canopy over the back of the yard, and the yard next to it, and the yard next to that one, too. The neighbourhood smells like hot wood, thanks to us. The sky is purple.

Littlestar is taking great pride in stoking the bonfire. She rakes the edges in meticulously, placing new scraps of wood just-so. The core of the blaze is blue with the rage of an angry fire nymph, struggling to escape from a section of thick oak. The blue fire pours out of a surrounding crown of orange fire like a geyser, turning to bronze sparks in the air and then feeding the ribbons of yellow and white smoke. "Moke!" comments Popsicle, pointing at the plume.

"That's one hot fire," says Littlestar.

"It's perfect," says her mother, drawing her plastic garden-chair closer and hugging a blanket around her shoulders.

"It's not blue because it's hot," argues her brother, Slozo. "It's blue because of some weird chemical in the wood. I've seen hotter fires than that, and there weren't any blue flames," he claims.

Littlestar ignores him. "Let's roast marshmallows," she says.

The sun dips below the horizon and a chill comes on. We shuffle closer to the flames. Popsicle continues to run around the yard, talking to the dogs, picking up snails, turning in circles and falling down. She is temporarily mesmerised by a passing airplane, and then resumes rolling around on the grass. If I have only done one thing right in this life, it is providing this field for her to play in, impossibly careless. She's one and three-quarters years old and all she knows is joy.

The fire cracks loudly, sending up a blossom of embers.

"So, how did you find yourself invited to the Schoolhouse Social?" joshes Slozo, touching his mother's shoulder.

"What do you mean? I live here," she frowns indignantly.

"I was just joking around," snaps Slozo. "You don't have to get all defensive." As an afterthought he adds, "I live here too, you know," as if this has any bearing on anything.

And he does. Yesterday he bought an inflatable bed and set it up in the disused slanted corner of Littlestar's studio. He said he was tired of sleeping on the couch and therefore being awakened at Toddler O'Clock every morning. He tidied up the studio and the drawing room while he was at it, which I for one felt was worth his keep. The drawing room has been a mess since we moved in.

Slozo had been living in a boarding house in downtown Toronto, but he's had his fill of harassment from prostitute housemates and a psychotic landlord. Since he's earning most of his bread from us, renovating our cottage for sale, it just made sense for him to crash at the schoolhouse. He still does a couple of shifts a week at a downtown bar, however, so he has to be driven back and forth. The GO Train does not yet reach us in little Gilford.

Slozo and Littlestar's retired mother lives here too, like she was saying. She lives in the finished basement with Old Oak, watching crime dramas on an HDTV the size of a wall. But Old Oak is up at the cottage tonight, making ready for the final burst of refurbishment before putting the property up for sale. The HDTV is off, because we're watching Fire TV tonight. "Caveman TV," Littlestar calls it.

Littlestar hands out marshmallows as Slozo hands out sticks. Popsicle wanders over and shows us a scrap of waste paper she's found blown into the yard, and then proceeds to attempt to tie it around her teddy bear's loins like a diaper. "Uh-oh, poo-poo," she then declares, laying the bear down and removing the paper again. "Bye bye, poo-poo!" she sings, tossing the paper aside. "You brie!" she informs the bear, meaning he is "free" to go.

"Are you changing Bo's bum?" I ask.

"Yeah," she says matter of factly, hugging her bear and kissing the top of his head. "Bo poo-poo."

"Ah, he went poo, did he?"

"Yeah." She pauses for a moment, and shifts her shorts. "Uh oh, poo-poo."

"Did you poo your pants?"

She considers this, and decides answering truthfully may result in a curtailment of her outdoor playtime. "No-o-o," she says slily, edging away from me. But she is caught up against the firepit, unwilling to get too close. "Wire hot," she notes with tredipation.

Slozo brings over a scrap of cardboard we were going to burn and lays it down as a sort of homeless-man's changing table. Littlestar passes me a diaper and I perform the operation I know so well now, bidding the soiled diaper adieu as I fold it up and toss it aside. I slap on the fresh one and declare, "You're free."

"I'm brie!" cheers Popsicle, leaping up and beginning to hop in place.

Darkness comes, and I carry Popsicle up to her in her tiny loft. Her eyes are struggling to stay open as I recite to her the sacred sleepy rhyme of nighttime, a nonsense string of words passed down from my Great-Gramma Frankfurter to her daughter to my mother to me. I put on the first volume of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier as lullabye, and climb carefully down her ladder.

I stop to admire Slozo's tidying work. Nice! A whole new quarter of schoolhouse is reclaimed from disorder.

I stop again at the bottom of the steps outside. A mouse lies on a patio stone, its seemingly intact insides spread out from its belly like an anatomy slide. Schrodinger sits by and preens, gurgling at me for attention and congratulations. I pet him and kick the carcass into the bushes. "Bye bye, mouse."

I cross the field. The moon it up, and bright, a Cheshire smile in the velvet.

Littlestar hands me a cup of wine. The fire rages. Slozo is listening to his mother describe how she broke off the tip of her tailbone in a German DP camp after World War II. "It just came right out," she said. "I was so confused. I didn't understand where it had come from."

She had fallen off a swing which had been set next to the sharp spikes of a broken tree-stump. She'd tumbled off the swing, implanting the wooden spires into the small of her back. When they hauled her off she left behind a lot of blood and a tiny piece of broken pink bone.

"What did the doctor say?" Slozo asked.

"I was in a DP camp, Slozo," she explained, rolling her eyes. "There weren't any doctors to see. At least, not for people like us."

The mindset of a war-weary European -- so far from our experience here and now in paradise.

It becomes cold but no one wants to go in. No one wants to stop watching Fire TV and shooting the shit about nothing. The moon canters toward the horizon, leaving a million bright stars in its wake. I drink more wine, and Littlestar squeezes my hand. All around me, the silhouette shadows of my trees exude their wet, nighttime stink.

Isn't this why I am alive?


Schoolhouse Rock | The Sweet Funk of Revenge | Ode to Littlestar | HuSistock

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CHEESEBURGER BROWN: Novelist & Story-wallah Cheeseburger Brown
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