My smoke detector reminded me recently that I gotta get the house ready for Halloween.
At 12:52 a.m. Tuesday the detector in the hall outside our bedroom began to chirp. I recognized the telltale sound immediately. Well, maybe not immediately. Maybe after five minutes of groping around the hallway, rubbing my eyes and yawning.
Eventually my mind seized on four facts. Fact number one: The smoke detector was making noise. Fact number two: The house was not on fire. Fact number three: Given fact numbers one and two, the smoke detector battery must need changing. And fact number four: I was not dressed for battery removal work.
What I was dressed for was work in those weird underwear ads. The ones where they show a woman in lacy negligee playing a cello in the symphony orchestra. The copy under the ads reads something like "I dreamed I plucked my heart out in my Maidenform bra."
Well, I dreamed I was changing the smoke detector battery in my birthday suit. Except it wasn't a dream, it was reality, lukewarm reality. That was how the aluminum stepladder felt on my bare feet, as I climbed up to haul down the bleeping smoke detector.
This was not the first time I had been summoned to the scene of a squawking smoke detector. Once, in another house, the smoke detector started quacking right in the middle of a dinner party. Again I was not dressed for the occasion. This time I had too many clothes on, a fact that I did not comprehend until I was up on the ladder, lunging at the smoke detector, sweating and wishing I had not been so generous with the cocktails.
My experience with smoke detectors has taught me two lessons. First, smoke detectors may work quietly for weeks, but they break down at the most inconvenient times. This is a trick they learned from toilets. Second, avoid any smoke detector that uses batteries named after a planet. I once had to buy a battery that either had mercury in it or was part of a fund-raising effort to send a manned mission to the planet Mercury. For whatever reason, the battery cost a lot of money.
Now I own smoke detectors that use cheap batteries, the kind that also power transistor radios. This kind of battery has its drawbacks. When you snap the fresh battery into the smoke detector the alarm goes off and you go deaf, but only temporarily.
So when I had replaced the chirping battery in the hall with a new silent one, I was on my way to getting the house ready for Halloween.
Our batteries have to be juiced up for Halloween. That way we can have the ritual setting off of the smoke detector. In our house it works this way.
I tell the kids do not, repeat not, put the lid on the jack-o'-lantern. They obey. Until I leave the room. They put the lid on. The candle in the pumpkin begins to send out smoke. The smoke detector begins to wail. Then we know it is officially Halloween.
My experience with jack-o'-lanterns has taught me two other lessons. First, when carving ferocious teeth, start by drawing the outlines of teeth on the pumpkin with a felt-tipped marker. That way you end up with terrifying teeth, not just smiling gaps. Second, do not live in an artsy neighborhood. If you do, no matter how savage you make your pumpkin look, there will be some talented family down the street who has made their jack-o'-lantern look like Jack the Ripper. Then instead of having your kids cower in presence of your jack-o'-lantern, they will run down the street to look at "Sebastian's really scary one."
One more thing. Don't worry about your trash cans on Halloween. I have learned this the hard way.
When I was a kid, my buddies and I would switch the trash cans of everybody on our block. We considered it great fun. The day after Halloween we would watch as Mr. Heller tried to put his trash in cans that really belonged to Mrs. Neal. Those were simpler times. It was also a small town in the Midwest.
When I grew up and moved to the East Coast, I dutifully hid my trash cans every Halloween. I didn't have to. The day after Halloween I walked into the alley and noticed that no one had touched the trash cans.
A few weeks later I learned why. My timing was off. Out here the evil spirits may not mess with your trash cans on Halloween. But right before Christmas, they'll steal them.