Ode to a Fireplace

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As a renter, I couldn’t very well ask my landlord to install a wood-burning fireplace in our first floor duplex, so I settled for electric. I found a lovely traditionally-styled fireplace with the most realistic electric flame, and a fantastically large mantel, just perfect for hanging stockings and garland upon. I was delighted, except, it was massive and it came in two boxes, assembly required. I was feeling confident and determined, so I bought it. I pulled my van up to the front of the store and waited for my boxes. An employee, a middle-aged man, wheeled them to the curb on a large cart and told me to fetch my husband from the driver’s seat to come load the boxes, because they were too heavy for me.

“It’s just me,” I cheerfully replied. “Can you help?”

He craned his neck to see that the driver’s seat of my van was, indeed, empty. He looked momentarily confused, then replied, “Nope, sorry, store policy. All I can do is bring them out here to you.” He paused for a moment, sizing me up. “You’ll never be able to get these in there on your own, they’re too heavy. Why don’t you go get your husband to help you and come back? We’ll keep it up front for you.”

You could tell he was pleased with his suggestion and satisfied that he’d earned a gold star for exemplary customer service, but I immediately became defensive and shifted into militant feminist mode, something I was getting good at post-divorce. Whatever was I doing, trying to do something like this on my own without my trusty husband? Why hadn’t I consulted with him before making this purchase? Where was my head, I’m such a little scatterbrain!

Of course, somewhere deep within my brain, I knew he was only trying to tell me this required two people to lift, and I would benefit from a helping hand. Not his, of course, but someone brawny, like a husband or a really fit friend, whatever their gender identity or relationship status. But the way he put it, especially so soon after my launch into singledom, was really a bit much and it got my back up. I was getting a little frustrated. I only wanted a fireplace so my holidays would be pure and my children would have the most love their single-income mother could provide. Besides, why couldn’t a single woman purchase this fireplace? What if she had no friends or family in the area? Should she be denied this beautiful item simply because her upper body strength was inadequate? Why can’t store employees help load large or heavy items? That’s a terrible store policy, and one I would write a strongly-worded letter to Lowe’s management about, posing those very questions.

I took a deep breath to calm my mounting anger, just like my therapist showed me. “It’s really just me. Are you sure you can’t help?”

“No, sorry.”

But he didn’t look sorry, and, what’s worse, he continued to stand on the curb and watch me struggle to get a grip on the mammoth boxes. I assumed that was so he could laugh and shake his head with an “I tried to tell you,” when I failed and needed an ambulance. Because he did nothing but watch me, he’d have all the pertinent details when he called them: “Basic white lady, mid-thirties, a bit chunky, no husband, too stubborn to call someone to help her.” Maybe that was the Lowe’s policy for heavy items – to stand by while customers caused physical trauma to their person loading stupidly heavy items into their cars. Or perhaps he just enjoyed watching angry women struggle. The determination I felt earlier was bolstered now by the need for validation. And for vengeance.

“I. Do. Not. (grunt) Need. A. (strangled grunt) Man. To. (Oh, Christ!!) Load. These. Flipping. (oh, my heart is exploding) Boxes.”

As I shifted and maneuvered and tried desperately to find a grip that conveyed confidence, I mentally ran through my contact list for a possible hospital pick up, because I was pretty sure I had just herniated a disc or two. Still, there was no way I was giving Smug Sidewalk Man the satisfaction of seeing me admit defeat, no matter how crippled I became. So I carried on like I had things well in hand.

With one final, Herculean heave, I hoisted that enormous box into the back of my van and collapsed on top of it, victorious. As I rested on the first box, I heard him say nonchalantly, “Don’t forget this one. But, be careful. It’s heavier.”

“Jesus wept,” I muttered under what little breath I still had as I squeezed out a couple of hot, bitter tears of my own. Me and Jesus, crying in the van. “Bloody hell. Where’s the humanity?”

To my surprise and utter amazement, I successfully loaded that second, much heavier box into the van, sliding it on top of the first one, still stained from my tears. I couldn’t believe I’d actually lifted the boxes off the curb and into my van. I imagined I’d developed super-human strength in the face of adversity, the way some women are able to lift cars off their trapped toddlers. Staring down the patriarchy, I had summoned my strength and lifted the seemingly impossibly-heavy-for-a-singular-woman boxes. I tried to stand up and gloat, but I was close to needing an IV and a Hoyer lift, so I settled for teetering cautiously around to the driver’s side. There I paused and said sarcastically to my new nemesis, “Thanks for your help.” I wanted to say something else and wipe that cocky expression off his face, something scathing that would haunt him for the remainder of his days. Something he would recall on his deathbed, when asked if he had any regrets. “Only one,” he would strain to whisper. “The fireplace lady. I shoulda helped.” But I had no energy to pluck a wounding retort from my brain, sure as I was it was prepping for the upcoming stroke.

“My pleasure,” he returned. Then he tossed out good-naturedly, “Good luck putting it together.” And he laughed his way back into the store. – excerpted from the essay, “Ode to a Fireplace,” by Heather Idell, copyright 2017.

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