“How long did the contractors say you’d be out of your home, Mrs. Gardner?”
The fire chief asking me this question wears a faded sweatshirt and old blue jeans. I take in his sneakers and can’t help wondering if this is how he typically dresses for work. Later it will occur to me firefighters don’t spend all day in uniform. This would be uncomfortable, not to mention impractical. They change after the call comes in.
When I was ten and VCRs were new, my fascination with videotapes knew no bounds. I watched a movie in which firefighters were timed to see how long they took to don gear and slide down a pole.
In 1978 we called them firemen. And I didn’t think my house would catch on fire.
I lift my eyes to Kenny now—that’s the chief’s name, Kenny—and before I can answer him, he offers up a guess. “About six to eight months?” He does not flinch at the prediction.
I nod and think back to the afternoon we met, eleven yellow trucks clogging our street. When they’d first arrived, sirens pulsing, I asked Kenny, “Is this going to take long?”
He’d paused to look at me, puzzled. My cheeks flush with the memory.
It’s been two weeks and I’m standing inside Fire Station 34 handing Kenny a thank-you card, mint green party supplies by Paper Eskimo and two dozen cupcakes packed in white cardboard boxes. “You didn’t have to do this,” Chief Kenny tells me. He collects the boxes, places them on his desk. A party was the absolute least I could do.
“Yes,” I say. “I absolutely had to.”
Then I cry, which would’ve been embarrassing if he hadn’t seen me fourteen days ago, face streaked with sooty tears, asking do you think we can sleep at home tonight? Two stations of firefighters had stopped the flames but parts of our roof had been removed and the inside of our house was badly damaged by smoke and heat.
Kenny’s eyes were kind when he shook his head.
No, ma’am. Not tonight.
So we left our dogs with a neighbor and, reeking of noxious smoke we couldn’t yet smell, checked into a hotel. After a shower, I discovered a stink in my clothes so strong it made me shake. I shoved everything into the hallway and with nothing else to wear, crawled into bed wrapped in a wet towel.
Neither Bill nor I slept.
The next day, after a blur of arson investigations, solicitations from contractors, and interviews with public adjusters, we learned the following good news:
– We were not at fault.
– We had excellent insurance.
And the following less-good news:
Every item in our house, burned or not, would be inventoried.
We met with a woman named Cyndi—with-a-y-first-then-an-i—who wore a blue face mask and rubber gloves. Her own house had burned three years ago. A hard way into this business. She would comb every inch of our home recording a list of our belongings on her tape recorder. Each fork and shoe and book.
Pictures not yet put in albums.
Right down to the chewed No. 2 pencil under the dog’s bed (worth ten cents) and the single panty-liner in my bathroom vanity (also worth ten cents).
A company specializing in fire damage would dispose of that which could not be saved and, eventually, my family would be compensated for our losses. What could be salvaged would be brought to their restoration facility, then cleaned and stored during our reconstruction. The sifting would take weeks and we were advised not to be there as it happened.
It can be surprisingly difficult, Cyndi said.
I was not surprised.
Soon this stranger named Cyndi would examine the most private corners of our lives, whispering a household’s dirty secrets into her tape recorder.
At the Residence Inn happy-hour, I sat in the bar sipping complimentary Chablis. Everyone has junk, I reasoned. Literal. Figurative. There’s no way you have the worst stuff ever inventoried. To be certain, I created a mental checklist of everything I’d kept hidden in my nightstand drawer:
- One music box—top missing— that still played Unchained Melody, from the days of Ghost. Cleaner and cheaper than a pottery wheel.
- School picture-packets containing wallet-sized portraits of the kids. I’d been too lazy to cut and distribute them. Sorry, Grandma.
- One pair of toy handcuffs—a joke from Valentine’s Day years ago—used only once. When the kids found them, they ran around the front yard playing cops and robbers.
- Two bottles of edible body lotion, both almost empty, because Bill and I couldn’t decide which flavor we preferred: Strawberry Crush or Vanilla Bean.
- A World’s Greatest Mom trophy made from popsicle sticks onto which a little edible lotion had leaked. (Perhaps I was a better candidate for World’s Second-Best Mom.)
- One free battery-operated massager sent as a bonus after I’d spent more than fifty dollars during a Personal Party. (Hopefully Cyndi liked bonuses, too.)
- Two positive EPT tests stored in a plastic baggie. (From this Cyndi would discover I was nostalgic. Or gross. Maybe crazy.)
- One King James Bible.
I gulped more wine.
That night I tossed and turned. Complimentary Chablis came with a price. As I lay on the hotel mattress, visions of Cyndi danced in my head. What would she dictate into her tape recorder?
There appears to be significant corrosion on the batteries but her Bible looks practically new!
Daytime brought little comfort. Each morning I carted my family’s spare set of clothes to the hotel laundry room to be cleaned. The day after the fire, each of us had been allowed to purchase two emergency outfits and—after a shell-shocked dinner—we’d gone shopping at Kohl’s for the first time. We spent $300 and saved $750. Like magic, in a cotton/poly blend.
Every time I pulled a new pair of underwear from the hotel’s washer, I forgot how much money we’d saved. Instead I imagined Cyndi in my master bedroom itemizing my old lingerie. Would I be compensated for Victoria’s Secret panties bought in 1994? What if the elastic had expired before Y2K? Was the matching bra still lurking in my dresser?
During one such reverie, I heard from Bill who had stopped by our caution-taped house to pick up the mail. We liked visiting the mailbox. We missed our home.
We missed our before.
WHERE ARE YOU? he texted because we’re in our forties and type out words like the dinosaurs did.
HOTEL LAUNDRY ROOM I replied. To underscore my disgust, I added a frowny face.
The day prior, I’d discovered two pairs of men’s underwear that didn’t belong to us in a clean load I was folding on our hotel bed. One pair was pinstriped. Both were of the bikini-cut variety. Handling them was necessary and I longed for a set of tongs.
(Yes, this is the actual pair…)
After returning the undergarments to the hotel dryer, I spent a good half-hour in the shower and vowed henceforth to fold my family’s clothes in the laundry room so I might expedite the sorting of foreign items. The Residence Inn provided a table for this purpose wedged between two vending machines, one selling Cheetos for $1.50 and another offering single-use boxes of Tide for $7.00. (We weren’t in Kohl’s anymore.)
When Bill found me, I was matching up socks, a task made easier if your family has only eight pairs and is wearing four of them.
Behind him he wheeled an old Costco suitcase that had not been destroyed by the fire. It stank of carcinogenic smoke—so did he—but he grinned as he unzipped the front compartment.
A pile of the questionable contents from my nightstand drawer tumbled like a guilty thing onto the floor. My husband had crossed the caution tape for me.
I’ve never loved him more.
“Should we trash everything?” he asked and I nodded. “If we bury the evidence,” he said, “Farmer’s can’t reimburse us.”
We still have our savings from Kohl’s, I thought. And each other. We can rebuild.
I dragged a wastebasket toward the suitcase ready to discard my heap of shame. At the bottom of the can lay the pinstriped underwear, a lonely, empty husk. I wondered out loud what had happened to the other pair, if whoever had lost them could use a King James Bible, practically new!
“I guess someone else isn’t getting reimbursed,” I said. Then I laughed until I cried.
Because oh my God.
I absolutely had to.
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