What a Gas

A lesson on finding what you need

By Maria Johnson

A dark green cylinder.

About the size of a football.

Says “Coleman” on the side.

White label.

Red-and-black print.

I know exactly what I’m looking for — a propane tank for a camp stove — and why.

The ice is coming.

Or so the forecast says.

My memory jumps to a little more than a year ago, when a weekend ice storm left us in the dark and the cold.

We didn’t have it as bad as many others did — our electricity went out Saturday morning and came back on Sunday afternoon. We were pure-T lucky that some parts of the city still had power and that we had enough gas in the cars to go and get McDonald’s coffee and takeout meals.

We brought them home — instead of eating across town — because the pandemic raged on.

Our wings were clipped. Twice. But we had a gas fireplace. And water. And batteries for our flashlights. And quilts and afghans stitched by long-gone grannies who lived when these conditions were closer to the norm — when winter nightfall meant kindling a fire.

We did as they would have done. We turned the sofa to face the fireplace and literally huddled with our hound and our loved ones. Our older son and his girlfriend were still here, stretching their Christmas visit because they were working from home, and they allowed “home” to be with us for a while.

We warmed Thai takeout — not very well — in a Dutch oven over the fire, under an open flue.

We read Sherlock Holmes stories aloud, by flashlight.

We went to bed early and rose with the sun.

In daylight, we drove — carefully, around downed trees and through intersections with stoplights gone dark — to a park. We stayed long enough to be dazzled by the sunlight dancing in the diamond woods — and to be scared into retreat by the gunshot pops and muffled whooshes of trees breaking and falling under the weight of their jewelry.

On the way home, I saw a friend striding, as she usually does, for exercise and joy, down an empty Lawndale Drive in a neon parka, her New England hardiness in full view.

We, however, were reduced to basics.

A walk.

A fire.

Some food.

And water.

Good health.

Good humor.

Each other.

When everything else fell away, it was easy to see what we had.

And be grateful.

It’s hard to talk about this — gratitude in the face of hardship — even with the pandemic waning somewhat. So many people in this country have died of COVID in last two years: 886,000 at this writing.

Eight. Hundred. Eighty-six. Thousand.

So many people have suffered and are still suffering with empty chairs and guilt and long COVID.

But I hear timid thanks leaking out in people’s stories these days.

Timid thanks for the hard stops that enable us to see that simple is OK.

Small is OK.

Dare we say it: better, even.

Maybe giving thanks is where this gets sticky. Thanks implies a giver with an intention. A purpose. A reason for the rattiness. We love a reason, don’t we?

But sometimes, I think, there is no reason. Bad stuff happens because it can. And will, inevitably, in this God-filled universe.

Sometimes we get caught in the jaws of life and don’t survive.

Sometimes, we do survive — for a while longer.

Whether we can scrape up any wisdom afterward is up to us.

Whether we can look around and see the doors that have been, many times, open all along — that’s up to us.

Take, for instance, the opportunity to buy a gas camp stove after last year’s power outage.

I saw it. And took it.

Bought a gas cylinder, too.

And stored it in the garage, separate from the stove.

But where, oh where, I wonder now, a year later.

We comb the shelves and crannies.

Then we look in insane places — as people who have lost things often do.

Could it be in the laundry room?

The pantry?

Your sock drawer?

Jeff searches the attic — the attic! — as I stand before the garage shelves that seem to mock me.

“OK, I know you’re here,” I finally surrender. “Just show me where.”

I take a breath and soften my gaze.

And there it is.

In a cardboard box, on edge, that I had clearly labeled like the spine of a book: “PROPANE GAS FOR CAMP STOVE.”

Ohhh yeahhh.

I had put the tank there, after several months of watching it get knocked over and roll around on the shelf, because it seemed safer that way.

I laugh out loud.

Because what I wanted wasn’t in the form I was looking for — and by my own hand, to boot.

     But it was there all the time.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine. You can reach her at ohenrymaria@gmail.com.

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