Do You Smell Something Burning?

The third time my apartment caught on fire, I barely dressed to leave the building. There were all sorts of problems with that apartment. I don’t think the owner, a Polish guy named Jerzy, was ever up to code on the wiring or the plumbing, or the gas lines. He didn’t speak much English, but he knew enough to leave the city and come up here with the trees and all the fires they can cause. It was probably good that I left that place, though everything I had went up in smoke. My piano was charred, and one of the firemen outside told me that he had heard the strings on the piano explode as the fire broke them. To hell with that piano, I thought. It had a dead note anyway. I walked down the darkened road to a bar wearing only my robe, underwear and sneakers, waiting for the cold air to bother me. It was late and the regulars were good and drunk, probably ready to stumble to their cars and swerve back to their resentful wives. Nobody said anything to me, except the bartender. “Where are your pants?” she asked me.

“They burned.”


“I’ve got money in my robe. Can I have a pitcher of Bud?”

“All for yourself?”

“Look, my clothes and my piano are burned. I’m wearing only a robe in November. I’m going to go back to my place and root around through my belongings after I drink this pitcher, because I’m not going back there sober. That’s not a problem, is it?”

“No, that’s fine,” she said while laughing as she walked down to the other end of the bar to wipe up a spill. When I came back to my building there were a few firemen milling around in the front. I walked down the neighbor’s gravel driveway to get to the back stairs of my building, and I was in. It would have been nice if some cherished item I’d always wanted to pass on to my son had been spared, but fires are not nice. Anyway, I had lost that cherished item two fires ago. It was a can of army-issued spreadable meat my grandfather had given my dad when he returned from the war in the Pacific. My own dad told me he almost ate it one time during a snowstorm that blocked the roads and knocked down the telephone lines, but he wanted to save it for the son he might have someday. It’s a shame I had to lose that can. I found it in the closet of my first burned-out apartment. It was in a box with a pile of my college newspaper clippings. All of my articles were opinionated and absurdly titled. The meat bubbled up, popped its can’s sides and spilled all over “Board of Regents Plots Hostile Takeover of Students’ Lives,” and “University President’s Wife Has Butter Face.” Fires always leave their victims in a daze. Questions like, “Where will I live?” and “What will I wear?” give way to ones like, “What about all those frozen pizzas?” and “Oh no, where’s my turtle?” People always rebuild. We find new homes and clothes, eat a few fresh pizzas and grow new turtles. The Salvation Army is a great place to find some clothes to get you through a few days of post-fire beer drinking. I got this kick-ass long sleeve Foreigner t-shirt after my second fire. I met a girl the first night I wore that shirt. We went out for a while, but she broke it off after she found out that I may have been a contributing factor in badly burning two buildings. If there’s anything to be learned from my experiences, I haven’t learned it yet. Things burn. It’s the same if you’re talking about toilet paper or 100-proof vodka. You can’t fight nature. Why should you try if you can’t win? My bad luck will follow me right up to the gates of hell just to make sure I go inside.

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