“How did it come to this?” is admittedly a question I have asked out loud more than once.
But this was the first time it was at 3:00 a.m. on a freezing cold April night as I feverishly try to turn the frosted-to-the-metal knobs of an ancient Weber grill that has been dragged beneath our last really healthy peach tree in a desperate attempt to prevent the fully opened blossoms from being blasted by Jack Frost’s nose.
“No, it’s his finger; your nose,” I remind my sleep-deprived, rapidly-losing-body-heat self, then mutter, “I wonder if Jack Frost can feel his fingers,” to no one in particular (other than Jack himself, who has clearly taken up residence in the top branches of the tree and has at least one of those fingers pointed straight down at me). Then my senses become all-too-temporarily alert and I scream to the Heavens, “because I sure can’t feel MINE!”
I turn and see the Christmas lights shining brightly on the other side of the house and think, ‘So this is how it finally ends.’ They find me here at dawn, frozen to the more-reluctant-to-budge-than-my-prom-date dials of an ancient Weber grill, and the coroner says, “There isn’t even any food on the grill,” to which the ambulance driver replies, “I’m not surprised—Look! He still has his Christmas lights up.”
“No,” I scream to the phantoms of death and noisy transportation, “those lights have not been up since Christmas! All of our lights came down on the ‘right’ day—Epiphany; when The Three Wise Guys showed up close to a month late because they refused to stop and ask for directions.” Jack up in the tree is the only one listening. And he just gives me the Frosty Finger as I slowly realize that my right hand may now be as stuck to the burner knob as the burner knob is stuck to the mounting plate. I like how that sounds in my head so much I enter La-La Land full-on singing…
“And the mounting plate is stuck to the face plate;
The face plate is stuck to the hinged lid;
The hinged lid is stuck to…stuck to…”
The smell of leaking propane gas brings me back to the frozen earth (the lucky opposite of smelling it in a closed room). I yell “No smoking, Jack!” up into the tree, turn, and see those “blessed” [not my real word] lights again, and remember. “Christmas. It all started with Christmas…”
Christmas Day. It was 75° F, the ridiculous center of the most ridiculously warm winter in recorded history. I lied and said it was too hot to run the oven just so I could cook the turkey out on the grill and drive the neighbors’ dogs crazy all day long. One walker almost took out a bed of garlic when their big Weimaraner caught the scent…
“You were good to me on Christmas,” I say to the grill that is trying to overcome me with fumes now that it has my right hand locked up tight in its Arctic grip. “You didn’t try and kill me then; my hands were nice and warm; the lights were up at the right time of year…”
You could not call what had precipitated this sad scenario ‘a late frost.’ It wasn’t even close to late. Our ‘last average frost’ is May 15th—weeks into a future that I am starting to think I might not be around for. (“Local man found frozen to grill. Still had his Christmas lights up.”)
We didn’t realize the warm winter we were enjoying had our Precious Plants imitating one of those runaway clocks that used to show the passage of time in old movies. First the hydrangea greened up and we thought “That seems a little early,” and then the last two surviving peach trees burst into full bloom…
OK—a peach tree and a half. The blooming made clear that all the trees we already knew were dead were still dead, revealed that two more had joined The Choir Invisible, and that the one right by our front door was half dead. Or half alive. (Or, as the Engineer’s version of that joke goes, they made the glass too big.) Either way, it looked like the old Batman villain Two-Face: one half of the tree covered in beautiful flowers, the other half gnarled, twisted, and heading out to kidnap Robin again.
But the flowers were beautiful, and 1.5 trees would still provide a lot of good, sticky summertime eating. Then came the weather report.
“Well folks, winter doesn’t seem to realize that it’s technically been over for a while, as we’re looking at lows in the 20s tomorrow night…”
“With cloudy skies!” I rise and scream at the weather-guesser on the television, “Cloudy skies and windy!”
“…and crystal clear with no wind, so if you’re one of those eager beavers who put your tomato plants out early because it’s been in the 70s for the past three weeks, you can kiss them goodbye!”
“…and you can kiss THIS goodbye!!” I yell at the television just as my wife comes into the room.
I turn to her and say, “No time for that now, Lois. I have to string Christmas lights in the peach trees!” I was thinking of adding, “Good thing so many of them are dead,” but that would have been mean, so I didn’t. (But I did think it, which is probably why I ended up staring into a moonlit sky so bright that I could practically see the frostsicles moving slowly up my right arm…)
And not just any old Christmas lights. Modern, energy-efficient, cool-to-the-touch Al-Gore-approved LEDs would be useless for preventing blossom loss; you’d just be able to see it better. No, this called for the last working strings of the old goyishe lights from my childhood—the big incandescents that burned hot and made electric meter dials race around like greyhounds. And no subtle cascades of star-bright white, either; we’re talking bulbs of garish red, orange, blue, green, and white with the occasional flecks of (probably lead) paint missing for that extra classy effect.
I ran an extension cord out to Two-Face and managed to get the lights near every blossom. But the other tree was all the way on the other side of the garden, and I had already used up all the good bulbs that were left. Thus the ingenious Grill of Death. Drag the gas grill under the other peach tree, turn it on ‘low’ around 10:00 p.m., and all should be well, right?
Instead I wake up at 3:00 a.m. and realize something’s wrong. (I don’t have a Spider-Sense, so it must have been my Peach Power that was tingling.) Sure enough the flame had gone out; the grill was cold and dead. And because I was poorly dressed for this expedition and now inhaling large amounts of unburned propane, odds were getting better that I was going to join it…
…Until I finally realize that if the grill is already cold, this is no longer an emergency. Well, it IS an emergency, but it’s one of those emergencies whose deadline may have already long passed. So I disengage from the grill, drag my frozen bones back inside, warm up my hands, heat up a pot of water, go back out and pour it on the frozen controls.
Finally—movement! I’m able to turn the dial off, let the gas clear, and relight the grill. But in the morning, it’s cold again. There’s plenty of gas still in the tank, and I’m starting to think that whatever gas did get used up overnight only managed to increase my carbon footprint exponentially and didn’t help the poor flowers, which don’t look too good the next morning. Neither do I at that point, but they look worse, which is saying something.
Oh well, at least I can say that I tried. And that I know what it’s like to chat with Santa’s Sprite as you’re slowly slipping into a cold-weather coma. Can’t wait for the next cocktail party to bring that one up…
Then a few days later a dog-walking neighbor goes by and mentions, “I see you got your decorations up early this year,” and I realize that the goyishe lights have been brightening both the darkness and daytime since the night of Ice Station Peaches. I unplug the lights, but these flowers don’t appear to be dead yet, so I wisely decide to leave the unlit lights in the tree for a while.
The mystic ‘last average frost date’ of May 15th passes (What? If it freezes after that you get your money back?), and my wife says, “You think you can take those lights down now? Or maybe park a few abandoned cars out there to enhance the effect?”
I take the hint, go out…
…and find about six dozen perfect little baby peaches nestled safe in their goyishe-incubated branches.
Normally you find your Christmas presents UNDER the tree, but I’ll take it. ❖
This article was published originally in 2016, in GreenPrints Issue #107.