The Smell of Smoke

The Smell of Smoke May 18, 2016


When I first smelled the smoke, I thought it was the neighbors’ fireplace. Someone nearby has a wood stove; when the weather gets chilly, they burn logs and apparently trash. But the weather was not chilly that night. It was warm. We had all rickety unscreened windows open, propped with chair legs to keep them in place.

This is the wreck of an economically depressed industrial town, as I’ve written about many times. It gets so you make up excuses for the stink of burning things. But the smoke just got thicker and smelled worse, like burnt plastic. It was stinging my eyes. I shook my head and cursed the stupidity of anyone who would burn plastic in their fireplace, on such a warm night when all the neighbors had their windows open.

Then I heard the sirens.

When my daughter and I came out of our house, the smell was much worse. We saw a plume of black smoke rising from the next block. We ran to get a closer look, as one does; Rose with pure excitement at seeing the fire engines, and I with the sort of nervous voyeurism that always accompanies an emergency. Of course, you shouldn’t go and gawk, but of course you do. You always do. And indeed, half the neighborhood was there. I passed a woman standing on the corner in her bath robe and a man who was busy explaining he’d come from Lawson Avenue, a mile away.

By the time we got close to the burning house, it had collapsed in on itself. There was nothing left but a pile of black timbers and the smoke, an opaque column of smoke the size of a house. Firefighters were on the porch next door, forcing the front door open.

“Those are the helpers,” I told my daughter. “They’re going in to make sure everyone gets out.”

But there was no one in that house. The firefighters threaded a gigantic hose through the door and out an upstairs window, to soak what was left of the ruined house next door before the fire spread. In this neighborhood, the houses are sometimes so close to each other that the eaves overlap; a fire could get out of hand quickly and take out the whole block. Rose and I watched as the sun set and the smoke got thicker.  By the time we left, the black plume against the ecru evening mist had become a purple plume against a black sky, shot through with the glare of blinking red and blue emergency lights. Every streetlamp and porch light was crowned with a halo. A hazy ring surrounded the moon. The stars were barely visible.

A van pulled up as close as it dared to the crowd. I saw a gaggle of preschoolers all holding hands in a line with their teacher. She asked if the whole street was closed off, because one little girl lived nearby. The children’s expressions were the same as my daughter– fascinated, not afraid. Later, a delivery car pulled up. One of the pajama-clad neighbors had ordered a pizza to eat while she watched the fire.

I explained to Rose that whoever lived in that house had lost everything, and we’d have to do whatever we could to help.

Rose said that, if the family had children, then the children could have her old purple jacket.

We went to bed with the windows still open. In the morning, the whole house stunk. Our bedsheets and hair stunk like melted plastic. The neighborhood was saturated with the smell of fire.

The news reports came in. The house was an abandoned building that had been condemned and put on the city’s interminable demolition schedule. Arson was suspected. This was the fourth such arson of a derelict house scheduled for demolition this year. The fire chief was quoted, all but pleading with the arsonist to stop. He tried to explain that the arsonist was not helping the city, if that’s what he thought he was doing. He informed the neighborhood that we’d all been exposed to asbestos, and that the cost of cleanup would be double the cost of the eventual demolition. As if money means anything when your city has no money. As if arsonists cared about the cost.

The burned out wreck is still there, a month later: a pile of charcoaled beams between two scorched houses.

In the mind of God, the sinner who burns a house is no different than the sinner who had his house burned down. He has mercy enough for both. Think of that.

(Image via pixabay)

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