It happened last week, when we flipped on the central heat for the first time since last spring. A faintly sulfurous odor filled the rooms, that odd scent from the attic furnace burning off the dust of its hibernation. Like the aroma of autumn bonfires, it smelled as if the year itself was being consumed somehow, and nearly spent.
Halloween’s passing tells us that the year is almost done. Last month, while hauling pumpkins to the porch, like so many cannonballs, for an autumn tableau, I was reminded of how much space Halloween takes up. It’s almost like having an extra house guest — the jack-o-lantern grinning indolently at the postman each day, the cardboard skeleton nuzzling us with his grim intimations of mortality.
In making room for Halloween, we learn all over again how to make room for yuletide, too. I know each October that a trunk stuffed with pumpkins points to larger accommodations down the road — the fat, frozen Thanksgiving turkey wrestled all the way home from the grocery, the Christmas tree that protests, like a kidnap victim, from the lot to the living room.
Halloween is the trial run for holiday crowds. Navigating trick-or-treaters prepares us, in a small way, for the throngs we’ll have to face at Christmas concerts, cramped churches and shopping malls.
My office window rests four floors up, overlooking a shopping mall across the street. During the Christmas season, I can look out at each day’s close and see the street clotted with commerce. The traffic twinkles like a holiday garland in the early darkness as the brake lights go on and off, an endless line of Toyotas and Fords, Chryslers and Mazdas stopping and starting their way into the parking lot for Macy’s, Sears, Dillard’s, Abercrombie & Fitch.
Seen from high up, the yuletide traffic seems almost lovely — until I remember that soon, I’ll have to descend the elevator, head to my car and join the traffic myself.
These days, luckily, the rush of the shopping season is yet to come. Over lunch the other day, I headed to the mall on errands, ending up in the home improvement section among the belt sanders, table saws and power drills. The displays cast their usual spell on me, my face glazed with the enchantment I always feel in hardware aisles.
The contentment I find near shelves of tools has less to do with the tools themselves than what they promise — the prospect, however illusory, of long, unbroken hours to do useful and satisfying things. The home improvement department was as quiet as a chapel that day, and it was easy, among the silent racks, to think of the year’s remaining possibilities.
But I know, in my heart of hearts, that the year is pretty much through.
The drugstore aisles, already blooming with tinsel and plastic holly, tell me this is so.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.