Inside the house, there are fireplaces to clean and a door that needs to be reset. But hold on. The holidays beckon. Time to Halloween the front porch.
"What are you doing, Dad?"
"Halloweening the house," I explain.
The little girl stands on the porch watching me. She is like a letter waiting for a stamp. Nothing seems able to move her. The little girl is no doubt paralyzed by her admiration for me, her father, a man of action and vision, in a suburb starved for such things. Poor kid, stuck here on the front porch, postage due.
"Here, grab this box," I say.
"OK, Dad," she says, hugging it like a grandpa.
One by one, we bring the boxes up from the little half basement on the west side of the house. Most California homes don't have basements, an oversight, I guess, in the building craze of the 20th century. Too bad, whatever the reason, for a basement is a man's land.
"I know there's another box down there," my wife says.
"Where?" I say.
"Somewhere," she insists.
Carefully, after every Halloween, I store away the decorations in boxes I snatch from behind the florist shop. They smell of roses and carnations and other near-dead things. I take them anyway. With free boxes, you can't be too choosy.
"I know there's another box," my wife says.
And each year, when I bring them back out to decorate, my wife insists that one is missing. Always, there's another box that I can't find, even though I label them carefully, with the giant Magic Marker. HALLOWEEN COSTUMES. HALLOWEEN PLATES AND DISHES. A few years ago, I gave up big cigars for giant Magic Markers, and have regretted it almost daily ever since.
"You should store them all together," she says.
"Now you tell me," I say.
"There's one box with tall things in it," she says, as if I have X-ray eyes.
With decorations, it always goes like this. It's worse at Christmas, but still the spousal pressure is relentless. I will spend 20 minutes looking for the missing box, then declare it stolen or swept away by flood, the explanation varies each year. In my view, it's a few well-chosen little lies that really keep a marriage going.
"You're not putting that up, are you?" she asks as I staple a cardboard vampire to a front-porch post.
"Of course not," I say, popping it in the forehead with another staple.
In truth, I am putting everything up. My wife, when she decorates, always leaves leftovers in a box, deeming some items worthy and others as too tired or tattered. I hang it all. I think it's less elitist that way. More of the America we used to know.
I tear off real spider webs and put up fake ones. I unfold vampires and witches first used 15 years ago. Almost all of my Halloween decorations are either cardboard or plastic, the two mediums I prefer to work in. It's an aesthetic you don't see much outside the design centers of Paris or New York. But here you do -- on a porch, in a suburb like any other.
With three thwacks of the staple gun, I hang a Frankenstein. With three deep breaths, I inflate a plastic pumpkin.
"Is that a giant orange?" the boy asks.
"Yes," I say.
"No, it's a pumpkin," the little girl says.
"Sure, go and ruin it for him," I say.
I explain to them that with my Halloween displays, everyone takes away something different. It's what sets it apart as true art.
"In reality, everything's a little abstract," I explain.
"Sure, Dad," they say, then one by one filter off to their e-mail or their cellphones, probably to brag to friends how fortunate they are.
"Can he play out here?" my wife says, setting the baby down on the porch.
"Why not," I say.
Unlike my wife, the baby blows kisses to me as I work. Everywhere he goes lately, the baby blows kisses to people. To grandmas at the grocery store. To the big Latino guy making crepes at the farmers market.
Of course, by throwing kisses around like that, he is diminishing their very value. But you try explaining economics to a 22-month-old who loves the world.
"How's this look?" I ask him as the porch fills with Halloween.
The baby sits on the porch watching me, him and that ever-present cocker spaniel, the world's first metrosexual dog. I love the dog, but he is obsessed with the luster of his own coat and skin, which he licks over and over again, like an actor preparing for a major part.
"You're clean now," I tell the dog. "Too clean."
"What about me?" the baby asks.
"You? Never," I say.
Out across the lawn, the birch tree is turning. In the north breeze, a certain chill.
And on the porch, the baby and the dog blink at me gratefully in the autumn sun. Happy for Halloween. Happy for little homegrown truths.