“Where’s mom?” I ask, reaching for a handful of tortilla chips.
“Oh, she’s outside burning the furniture,” Jack said.
It is football season, which means that our bedroom — on Sunday afternoons from September until the Super Bowl in February — has become NFL Central. Every Sunday, all interested family members (my son and I) pile up on the bed to watch the Carolina Panthers play. Then there is another game, and one after that on Sunday nights.
This weekend, Tammy decided that she had had enough. She decided that she would claim the guest room downstairs as her own space, a football free zone, if you will, a place where she could seek refuge on a Sunday afternoon and read her novels or work on new projects or anything else she wants to do. She decided that the couch would have to go, along with that maroon recliner, which reclines only if you use an adjustable wrench to work the broken handle and which has remained vacant for a couple of years, though the dog finds it a cozy place to hide from the new kitten.
She ripped up the carpet, too. She always hated that carpet.
If mom is burning the furniture, I suppose I had better put the game on pause and step out onto the deck to see what else might be in the queue, but all I see is a smoldering pile of ashes and the blackened metal remains of half a living room suite. I’m actually kind of bummed that I did not get to see the couch burn. First, that couch and I go back a ways and I did not even get a chance to say goodbye. Second, I have never seen a couch burn, so there is a certain novelty factor. Third, I’m a little curious why my wife has chosen today to become a pyromaniac.
I come back inside and bump into her at the top of the stairs. She smells like burning furniture, but looks happy.
“I burned up the couch that was in the guest room,” she says. “That hideous recliner, too. I mean, they’re just gone now.”
“So I hear,” I say. “What’s up? Or should I say, ‘What’s next?’”
“I’m taking over the guest room,” she says. “And I need more space.”
She needs more space. Believe me, I understand. The closets are so full, it takes two of us to press the doors closed — turn the knob to open one, and we risk a broken nose from the sheer force of stuff pushing out, like a dam bursting, unleashing a torrent of stuff. I know it’s dangerous. The shelves, all of them, are covered over with stuff. It is like kudzu, threatening to swallow the entire house by the end of the year. Something has got to be done about it, all of this clutter. There is no room left for anything, not in this house, no space for a hairpin, no place to put a pocketful of change.
When we lived in town several years ago, we would accumulate enough stuff — reach a certain density, a certain point of “stuff saturation” — and then we would have a yard sale. But now we live out in the country, where there is simply not enough traffic to warrant a yard sale. Now we either burn stuff, donate it, or take it to the dump.
But what about the small stuff, the knickknacks and artifacts, tattered shirts and non-functioning typewriters, boxes full of banners and bumper stickers and wallets and old magazines and cigarette lighters that haven’t sparked in 20 years? He doesn’t even smoke anymore! Why not burn that stuff, instead of a perfectly functional — well, a mostly functional — couch and chair?
Here’s why. We do not save these things because they have a practical use. We are not even saving them because they have sentimental value, not exactly. It goes much deeper than that. We save them because they provide a tangible link to the past, something tactile. Have you seen the movie “Dead Zone,” where Christopher Walken has a car wreck one night on the way home from his girlfriend’s house and wakes up from a coma years later to find that his mother burned all his stuff ... no wait, that’s not it. He wakes up to find that when he grabs hold of a person, he has the ability to see the future in rich and vivid detail.
For pack rats, it is just the opposite. Grab onto an old baseball glove, and suddenly you are whisked into a past so real and vibrant that you can taste the Red Man chewing tobacco in your jaw. Slip into your Fleetwood Mac T shirt, and there you are again in the backseat of a rusty blue Nova, drinking Boones Farm wine out of the bottle and speculating on the various rumors about this girl or that one. Was that Sandra in Jake’s Ford pickup? You’re KIDDING, right?
We all do what we can to hold onto the past, while leaving enough space for the present. I guess that burning furniture is just part of that reality. If the neighbors look at us funny, so be it.