Monday night, the last one in May, the Sox were laying a thumping on the Phillies, and the Blackhawks were pounding the Redwings, forcing Game 7 — more than enough to keep me up past 10:30.
During a TV timeout, I was in the front room on the phone when I noticed, peripherally, an odd flash in the hall. Light bulb blew, I figured. Ten minutes later there was another flash, this one preceded by a loud, angry buzz. A puff of smoke lingered near a double wall switch, along with an unmistakable electrical odor.
“Could this start a fire?” my wife asked.
“Not really,” I said, whatever that meant.
“We have to do something,” she said. “This could start a fire.”
“No it won’t. Take it easy.”
Damn. I just wanted the evening to proceed along its usual path — she heads to bed, I snooze in front of the tube, rally long enough to let the dogs out, brush my teeth, and slide into bed hoping not to wake her.
I went to the basement to throw the breaker for the offending switch.
“Okay, we’re all set.”
I resumed my slouch on the couch. “I’ll call Sheila in the morning.” Baird that is, the force behind Berube Electric who always manages to steer Frank Baird out our way before the sparks start to fly.
Laura hung around, drawn by the intensity of playoff hockey, which she’d never noticed before.
Ten minutes later, the switch buzzed again, flashed, and puffed out another acrid smudge.
Laura cursed. “Can you call Berube?” The emphasis on “you” sounded as if I’d somehow caused the problem — and I’d definitely better do something about it.
“They’ll never answer this time of night; just the machine.”
“You have to call somebody. What about the fire department: can you call Manny?” Estrella, that is, the chief in West Tisbury.
“What’ll they do?”
“We might have a fire.”
“But we don’t.”
“We can’t stay here like this. We need help.”
My cue, right? But I was flummoxed, and irritated. I hate electricity. I know nothing about it — always a good reason to hate something — and I’m scared of it. It can kill you. Plumbing, I’ll take a shot at. You screw up, you get a mess. But electricity…
“We have to do something,” Laura said, meaning me. “I’m not staying in this house tonight.”
“I can shut off the main switch, but the breaker should have already killed power to this switch. I don’t get it.” She wasn’t listening.
“Hey this is the chance I’ve been waiting for.” I’ve joked for years that torching the place was the only way we could afford to improve it. “We’ll get all the valuable stuff, the sentimental stuff, out and stand back and let ‘er rip.”
She didn’t bite. “Please call the fire department. Please?”
What was I waiting for? To avoid looking foolish because there was no fire? Having to admit that I couldn’t figure what was going on? Two days earlier I’d had an electrical triumph, running a wire through 190 feet of conduit and splicing it to the leads down to our submersible pump. Other than slicing my left thumb when I was stripping the wire with a jackknife, I was so pleased with myself that I’d kept eight inches of the wire as a memento. Was this payback, just rewards for a lucky do-it-yourselfer? No, no, I told myself, get real.
Finally, defiantly, I admitted — to myself — that hoping this would all go away was hopeless. It might even get worse.
“Okay… Okay, okay. I’ll call Communications,” I said. “But I’m not calling 9-1-1. This isn’t an emergency.” Was it?
Within ten minutes, Manny Estrella and a police officer appeared. No flashing lights, they just drove in.
I thanked them for coming out, which Laura doubled down. I showed them the offending switch and described its behavior.
“You got a screwdriver?” Manny asked. He removed the plate with the other three of us looking over his shoulder, rapt — though none of us knew what we were looking at.
“There’s your problem,” Manny said, pointing at a dirty switch. He pulled something out of a pocket and held it up to the switch. He shook it, then walked into the room and peered at it under a light, muttering.
He came back and now the gizmo shot a red laser at the switch. “See? It isn’t hot.”
We stared at the switch, trying to understand. I glared at it.
“Are we safe staying here, Manny?” Laura wanted some reassurance.
“You better have an electrician look at this,” Manny said.
“I’ll call ours first thing.”
“I can call one,” Manny said. “Just a minute.”
“Now? An electrician?”
“I know somebody.” Manny headed into the kitchen, pulling out his cell phone.
“He’ll be over in ten minutes,” he said when he returned.
While we waited, Manny demonstrated the laser gadget, somehow registering temperature remotely. He aimed it at a lamp across the room, and I watched the needle go up. Same thing when I asked him to zap one of the dogs. Cool. Then he went out front to wait for John. Cotterill, that is, an electrician in town and a fireman.
“I’m so glad we called,” Laura said. We? “Do we have to pay for this?”
“Manny comes out of our taxes,” I said. “But the electrician…”
John arrived and listened to our story, in triplicate. When he took my word for it that the breaker was off, I felt like a half-fledged electrician.
“So if it’s still shorting, it’s getting power from somewhere else,” John said. “Has to be. Is this a three-way?” That is, connected to another switch.
It came back to me. “Wait a second. There used to be a spotlight on the way over to the Little House, the place next door. Maybe this was the switch for it. I always thought it was dead.”
The house next door used to be the guesthouse to my parents’ main house, which Laura and I now own. To light the path through a stone wall between the two buildings, my folks installed a spotlight 60 years ago that could be turned on at one end and off at the other — a three-way switch.
“And there was a switch for it over there?” John asked.
“Probably. No…yes, there was. In the bedroom.” It was coming back clearer now.
“Can we check the breaker over there?” John asked.
“Sure. Well, actually it may be locked, but we can check. I used to know where they hide the key.”
The three of use headed over, through the wall, through the bushes. I was about to step up on the stoop, when John noticed a light on inside.
Odd… Oh no, the tenants. They’d just arrived that day, I’d seen them earlier.
We retreated. Back in our yard, I figured Manny and John would head home. But then I wondered aloud if I should wake the tenants and let them know, at least, about the problem.
“I would,” John said.
“I would, too,” Manny said.
I headed back over and tried to open the screen door, so I could knock on the main door. It was locked.
I rapped on a window until the bedroom door opened and a couple appeared, she pulling a robe around herself, he in boxers, apparently not modest about his substantial torso — or maybe just still asleep.
I explained what was going on, apologizing all the while. Manny and John and I squeezed into the bedroom to check out the breaker panel in the closet. The fellow with the belly explained that the lights in the bedroom had gone out, so he’d thrown the breaker a couple of times and they’d come back on for a second and then the breaker would flip again.
John looked at me and I looked at Manny and we all thought “so that’s it” at once. The breaker had done its job after all, only it was the breaker in the house next door, which used to get its power and water and inhabitants from ours. I thought it had been on its own for 20 years, but some kids never grow up.
We backed out, again apologizing, and Manny and John and I parted in the middle of our yard. I thanked them once, twice, told them what a comfort it is to have them ten minutes away, day or night, and asked John if he had a card, so I could track him down to settle up.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said.
“I’m not worried, but I want to. It’s almost midnight, and you’re out here helping us out.”
“Don’t worry,” John said. “Manny called me, and I came out.”