THE man who supplies the neighborhood with firewood is courted in December like a sportswriter in January with an extra pair of tickets to the Super Bowl. Everybody wants to talk - just talk, you understand - with this New Hampshire equivalent of an oil sheikh. The lines, as it were, are forming at his pumps. Scant supply and overwhelming demand translate into power, man. Wasn't it Machiavelli who said this when the castle turned cold and he was down to his last cord of wood?
Our power broker with his truckload of birch and maple is reserving his precious fuel for old customers only. Sorry, but any newcomer who came aboard his route, say, a mere 15 years ago will have to make do this winter with those pressed ``logs'' from the supermarket that burn weird blue and green colors, smell like an old frying pan, and throw about as much heat as a flashlight.
Our man does not look his part. Grimm fairy-tale woodsmen or real-world French-Canadian lumberjacks make you think of bull necks, wall-to-wall shoulders, and thighs like an oak. Our man is as slim as a rail, with a face like an underfed Buster Keaton - all sharp angles as if carved out of wood himself. He never smiles, even when being funny - certainly not when you're being funny. But his eyes stare with a kind of loneliness verging on hunger, as if he had just come out of the woods and is dying to talk.
As the logs are slowly stacked up in the basement year after year, a friendship of the New England sort has developed, full of unwritten contracts, unspoken words. Bit by bit, like one wood chip falling after another, the important and the unimportant details become known: that his family has lived on - and lived off - his woodland for three generations; that he has put two sons through college; that he loves raspberry pie.
Sometimes, if it falls on a Saturday, one son, now a banker, helps him deliver his wood. Over the years he has had a steady helper, a man his own age, who never says a word - just fills up his canvas hamper with wood from the truck, stoops under his load like a gnome, and when he reaches the bin at the bottom of the bulkhead stairs, piles up the logs as neatly as if he were building a stone wall.
This year our man came alone. His helper had gone. By way of unemotional epitaph it was mentioned that the helper liked to camp in the woods, even when the temperature fell below zero. He was the last of the true old-timers, our man said. He did not say he missed him, but he made you miss him, just as he made you feel a part of a family of other customers he casually spoke about - strangers you never met, and yet not quite strangers.
What an odd, unpredictable way to develop a community! - as immaterial as wood smoke spiraling up from a chimney, but just as real.
Fireplaces are notoriously inefficient. When you arrange the logs on the andirons for the first fire of winter, the flames rekindle a lot more than wood. One connects with the never-seen New Hampshire woods where they come from. One connects with the 20 or so years one has been performing this ritual on this hearth. One connects with the childhood of one's children as they stared, saucer-eyed, into their first fire ever - and one connects with one's own childhood, too.
Puff out your cheeks and blow on a spark, and you're all the way back to the first fire in the history of the race - a magnet of light and warmth in a dark, cold, lonely world.
And so, in their well-heated, well-lighted suburban homes, the customers wait for the woodsman to call, needing their firewood as they need their memories and their dreams.
A Wednesday and Friday column