I know the smell of death, the smoky death of a building, the rotting death of food gone bad and the pieces of home and hearth that have vaporized at 2000 degrees then reattaching themselves to different places in the house.
I am the first to see it, to smell it, to feel the burning in my eyes and lungs after the fire is out. The first to stand detached among the debris, the soggy water-soaked aftermath: The first to begin the plan of what to save, what to restore, and what to replace. It’s the things, the mementos, and the snippets of lives that I see with charred and melted edges. The decision of what to do next lies with me, and then I face the family.
“Sorry to meet you under such difficult circumstances”, I say. We’re going to take care of you”. I remember their faces, the grief, the shock and I know they don’t remember those first moments with me. Sometimes we cry together, sometimes we cry alone.
They don’t often die, sometimes a pet, seldom a person. But I’ve seen the outline of a woman baked into her bed, seen her next nights dinner defrosted on the counter, the soot-covered list of things to do and presents to buy and calls to make and I wonder why. She did not expect to die.
I think of how she would feel, my crew, taking her furniture to the dumpster, her next of kin looking on, not wanting her belongings. “She was a packrat”, they say as they leave. “Just set aside the dining room set, we’ll pick it up when it’s cleaned”.
They drive away and I watch them go. They didn’t care about who she was; content to have her life piled into a long open dumpster. It takes us days of sorting, inventorying… we touch what her life was: collections of statues, teddy bears, linens, photographs… her Bible… her clothes, all covered with the fire. We take our mementos, the house now ours to empty and disburse of its contents. We work in respirators and Tyvek suits to protect ourselves from the poison seeping from the soggy debris. The ceiling is on the floor. Long broken pieces of sheet rock, like misshapen platters, piled with eight inches of wet pink insulation. Like a surreal strawberry sundae, the soot and smoke becomes a morbid chocolate topping.
We make our way down hallways with shovels and trash bags. We don’t know what lies beneath the madness and sometimes we don’t want to know. It seems like rape and robbery all at once. The house was dusty; she wouldn’t have wanted us to see that, I bet…I wonder if somehow she’s watching.
I walk the long black path from doorway to dumpster, shouting instructions to the crew, the insulation finding its way out the door like pink fiberglass cotton balls lining the path. The artist in me sees the contrast of colors with the black, the burn, the grass, the pink, and the white gone gray suits of the crew. We are the ghosts that carry her soul away.
Her neighbors look on. They don’t know what to do. Someone has been placing the daily newspaper by the door but she isn’t coming back.
There will be nothing familiar when we are finished. Even the walls where she hung her pictures will be gone, the kitchen cabinets, the front door with the gouges from the firemen’s ax, all beyond repair.
And days later when finally we are through, I walk through the house, now nothing but two by fours and electrical wires on the inside. Like a long dead corpse, only the bones remain and they tell no stories.
In what was once the living room I pause, bend to pick up a piece of paper, but it isn’t. It’s a photograph, it must be her and I feel like she’s looking right out at me.
“I’m sorry”, I say, “Someone’s got to do it”.