Growing up, I have dreams that my father sets our house on fire. When our house actually does catch on fire, my first thought is, Get the dog out.
Then, because this is the first time our house has burned down and we don’t know what to do, my mother and I enlist the help of a firefighter to perform a Laurel and Hardy routine on the front lawn.
The firefighter begins. “Who was inside the house?” We answer as a family. “We were.”
“Are you still inside the house?” “No,” we say. “We’re here now.”
“Who did you think was inside the house?” “The dog.”
The firefighter makes like he is going to run back in. “The dog is inside the house?”
“No!” We look down at Strudel, who looks back at us.
The firefighter is losing his patience. “Why did you think the dog was inside the house?”
“Sir,” my mother steps forward, her eyes as small as stars. “What is the right answer to this question?”
People drive by, their mouths in angel o’s, trying to make sense of the house with the fire in it. It is as absurd as a dinosaur, hurling its arms and legs through the eaves and gutters.
Two of the angels are a man and his daughter who float by in a car with a shiny hood ornament. He is hunched forward in a gentleman’s suit, and she is in a cotton candy coat. His hand reaches behind him to say, in one smooth gesture, Do not worry. When we get home, our house will not have a fire in it. I pick up a lemon-sized stone from the lawn and wonder whether to aim at the windshield or his face when a firefighter’s voice interrupts me.
“Why are you holding that alarm clock?”
Only then do I notice the small white box in my hand, its cord lost somewhere in the dark grass.
I shake it at him. “It’s mine.”
“You have to throw it out.”
“No, it’s fine.” I turn it over in my hands. It is gleaming.
He shakes his head. “You have no idea how deep that smell goes. Even something that small. You’ll wake up and your room will smell like fire. You’ll think it is happening again.”
I am the kind of person who worries about the feelings of a pudgy firefighter so I say, “I’ll throw it out,” even though I have no intention of doing so. “What can I expect in the upcoming weeks?” I say.
“Vivid dreams,” he says. “Absolute exhaustion.”
I say, “That doesn’t worry me.”
He and I watch the fire. It is so certain. Now and then it pauses to lick at something unseen or to shoot up a clot of red—a glowing, temporary heart.
“I can’t remember a thing,” I say. “Not one thing I had in there.”
“That’s typical,” he says.
We are allowed back in to the house at midnight to drag flashlight beams over the charred humps of our possessions. The firefighters assure us we lost everything. But explain the ceramic cat doorstop, arranged in an uncomfortable position yards away from any door and bizarrely intact. “Thank god,” I say. “The doorstop made it.”
My mother swallows something that won’t stay down. Her mouth twitches. Is she laughing or crying? I think laughing. “I don’t have any doors for it to stop,” she says.
Great-Aunt Sonya won’t accept rent, but every weekend my mother chauffeurs her to supermarkets all over the city. Sonya gets to use her coupons and ask the salespeople extensive questions about warranties and expiration dates. My mother gets bored waiting, so she fills out entry forms for various contests, only she uses my name.
I am half-sleeping as I hear the woman from Holiday Grocers on Great-Aunt Sonya’s answering machine. The woman trills through a list of acceptable photo IDs I can present when I claim my free ham: driver’s license, social security card, student ID.
I fall into a hard sleep.
It is my aunt’s kitchen, or the kitchen of the house we rented one summer. The counters are wide and smooth. On the one near the refrigerator, a chorus line of hams. Flanks flashing! Limbs to the rafters! Decapitated pink!
“Get ’em up there, ladies!” I have a cigar and a stopwatch. I am a coach?
I wake up hysterical, laughing.
Because I am in a family, I go to see my father.
His name is Sam so my name is Sam. People ask me if it’s short for something. I say it’s long for “Sa.” I say, His name is Sam so my name is Sam.
There is a beagle on the front lawn of his complex and it is no coincidence that, upon entering his family room, I find him studying a book on beagles, binoculars by his left hand.
I begin. “Hi.”
My father reacts to my voice not unlike people react to car alarms. “Why are you here?”
“I left my jacket in your car last time,” I say.
“So it’s not my jacket. It’s my friend’s jacket.”
He throws me the keys. “One of the losers you hang out with.”
“That’s right.” I try to catch and miss. “Even losers get cold in the winter.”
It is my jacket. For some reason I think I have less chance of getting it back if I am honest.
He positions himself in his easy chair. “How’s staying at Aunt Sonya’s?”
“Good, fine.” I nod.
“She getting on your nerves?”
I shrug, lean against the wall. “It’s temporary.”
“Temporary,” he says.
His apartment has not changed since the last time I visited. Maybe a few more dog portraits on the wall. A new frame for the only picture in the room not of a dog. It is a picture of my birth. Pulled like a skinned cat from my mother’s uterus, I am handed to my father, who before he even hears the whirring of the Polaroid makes this face: I have no idea what to do with this thing.
“You still working in that office?” he says.
“No. It was a temporary position.”
“Temporary again,” he says.
“Temping is an extended interview,” I say. I wonder if it’s true.
He doesn’t look at me. “In the meantime, you’ll have no insurance. You’re a real genius, Sam. The decisions you’ve made this year, hell, I’d hire you.”
We play a game, he and I. He says something like, The next time I see you, I am going to back over you with my car, and I sputter around the living room, knocking over framed pictures of Silky Terriers, American Mastiffs.
“Forget the jacket,” I say.
The game goes on, even after I leave. On the train ride home I lock a little boy in my stare. I say, You’re such a bad driver, you’d probably miss.
At home to the dark wall in Great-Aunt Sonya’s spare bedroom, I practice. You’re such a bad driver, you’d probably miss. Sometimes I laugh and laugh.
My mother and I spend a day dunking items worth saving into buckets of soapy water. In the end nothing makes it, and we are covered in soot. Soot smells sweet, like syrup. We drive to a diner on the boulevard.
“Smoking or non?” says the hostess.
When it is not filled with Christmas trees, it is a parking lot for a movie store, a dentist’s office, and a bakery. A man who works there breathes into his hands, says to the woman standing next to him that it is cold as balls and we should all take a train to Mexico.
As she charges through the makeshift aisles, my mother calls to me. “Are you sure they said free ham and not DVD player?”
“She said, Present photo ID to claim your free ham.”
“Damn. We entered you for a DVD in that one I think.” She pulls a tree from a dark mass, making a small sound of effort. “We have you in so many it’s hard to remember.” She lets the tree fall back into its pile.
I say, “Why didn’t you just enter yourself?”
“What would I do with a free ham? Give it to Strudel?” Strudel, our dog, would have no idea what to do with a free ham.
My mother halts at a ten-foot arrow of an evergreen. She calls to the man who thinks we should all take a train to Mexico.
“Do you have any with less of this?” She fluffs the lower boughs of the tree. “Less of this?”
“Less what?” he says. “Branches?” He counts a wad of money that appears to be all one-dollar bills.
“Yes,” she says.
He is still counting as he leads us to another tree about two-thirds as full. He thrusts his forehead at it by way of presentation.
My mother clicks her tongue. “No. Less. I don’t need all of that. Don’t you have any skinny ones?”
He pulls a tree from a dark pile, more skinny than full but still full.
“No,” she says. “Anything else?”
The man stops counting, a look on his face I’ve seen many times on people who try to talk to my mother.
“We have some dead ones in the back.”
“Now we’re talking!” She claps her hands together.
“I’m kidding,” he says. “They’re all dead. The rotten ones we throw in there.”
My mother looks into the extended yawn of the incinerator. Someone has painted a mouth and fangs on it. “Ouch,” she says. “Don’t you have a place where you put all the trees that people don’t want?”
He jerks his thumb back to the incinerator.
It is my turn. “My mom wants one that looks like a Charlie Brown tree. You know, from the Charlie Brown Christmas special.”
The man exhales a foul-smelling cloud. “What the feck is that?”
This is too much for my mom and me. It is the end of a long day and we have never heard anything as funny. I slump against a wall of cut trees, wincing. She holds on to my arm as her shoulders shake.
He is a big man, embarrassed. “I couldn’t decide whether to say ‘fuck’ or ‘heck.’” He tries to get us back on task, but we are already gone. My mom and I hold each other and shake. I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand.
“Feck,” I say.
Over the next few days I receive messages from area supermarkets; I have won a five-minute shopping spree, a bag of candy, and a hand massage. Finally, the woman from Holiday Grocers calls when I am home. She wants to know if I intend to claim my ham.
“Is that anything like claiming a child?” I am giving Strudel a bath and cooking spaghetti.
The ham lady is confused. “Sorry?”
“It sounds serious. Has my ham done anything wrong?”
“Ma’am, we’re open every day from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. You’ll have to present a photo ID when you come.”
“I know,” I say. “Passport okay, or do you need my birth certificate?”
The first time I understood a wrench I was five, kneeling in the backyard. The lawn gleamed with metal parts that, the box promised, if fit together correctly would yield a bike. My father, holding his ever-present cup of coffee, came to check my progress. I was taking too long or making a racket. He broke the handle off the cup when he threw it. That’s why my right eyebrow takes a break halfway through.
The bike was in the fire. The cup was in the fire.
My father studies different breeds of dogs and watches every dog show on television but has never owned an actual dog. Too messy. Too much to clean up. He and I have had the following conversation more than fifty times.
“You should get a dog.”
“Too messy. Too much to clean up.”
“But a dog might make you happy.”
“A lot of things might make me happy, Sam. That doesn’t mean I want them crapping in my house.”
Sometimes I say, “But a dog would be a good companion.” And he says, “A hooker would be a good companion. That doesn’t mean I want one crapping in my house.” We mix it up, he and I.
Now the manager of Holiday Grocers is trying to find me. He has left two messages, no longer mentioning the free ham. Instead, he is encouraging me to pick up a “special prize.” As if I have no memory. As if I am that dumb. I, who was too smart for college. I, who own no material good.
I know it is my home because all of my things are there. They are in a parade, a joyous, clanking thing moving endlessly past me. Look, there is my mother’s collection of jelly jars, tin lids raised at attention, and over there my grandmother’s handkerchiefs like starfish tumbling by. Roaring, the tiger’s head with a twanging rubber band held in place over my seventh Halloween. Playing cards, relish spoons, a float of motley tools—flatheads, jigsaws, pipe fitters. Who brings up the rear but my most cherished of all cherished friends, chest to the sun, extending one long leg to the sky and then the other. Kermit doll, you rascal, you green green green. Lovely indispensable things! I remember you.
“Read this for me.” Great-Aunt Sonya squints and hands me a can.
“Ah.” She hurls it back to the shelf.
“How ’bout this one?” She hands me a can of peaches.
“Better,” she says. “For what?”
She makes an angry spitting sound. “I hate peaches.”
“Go try down there.” My mother points. “I saw a sign saying two for one.”
Great-Aunt Sonya scuffles down the aisle and my mother turns to face me.
“You still haven’t picked it up? They are going to give it away.”
“I don’t really need a ham.”
My mother makes a motion like she is waving off flies.
“Sam, it’s a free ham.” She says this like she has said the names of several things I am not interested in—college education, marriage, career position. “Go and pick it up before they give it to someone else.”
Great-Aunt Sonya returns with more cans. “Why aren’t you wearing a coat?”
“It must be in the car,” I say.
She turns to my mom. “Why doesn’t she have a coat?”
My mom shrugs and shakes her head.
“Here, hold these.” Great-Aunt Sonya hands me the cans and tries to shake herself out of the arms of her coat. “You’ll take mine.”
“No.” I turn to my mom. “Please tell her no.”
Aunt Sonya insists. “Tell her to take my coat. She can’t walk around with no coat on.”
My mother’s eyes have red in them. “Take it.”
Great-Aunt Sonya cannot shake herself out of her coat. Her sweater is being pulled off in the struggle, revealing the small knot of her shoulder. She pulls while my mother pushes. The thought of taking her coat is more than I can handle. I drop one of the cans and bend to pick it up.
Finally, the coat is off. As my mother hands it to me, she whispers, “She wants you to take the coat so take the coat.”
“I have to run an errand.” I give Great-Aunt Sonya a quick kiss.
My mom panics. “On Christmas Eve? What errand?”
“I’ll meet you back at the house.”
Great-Aunt Sonya waves at me. As I reach the end of the aisle I hear her say, “I’ll bet she is going to meet a boy.”
This Christmas, I have done the unthinkable. Out of insurance money I have written a check for four hundred dollars and have received in exchange an earnest-looking dachshund. The dog has small inconsequential feet and a long brown torso. I bring it to my father’s apartment on Christmas Eve afternoon.
He is already tense and complains about his sweater scratching the back of his neck as he answers the door.
The dog takes one look at the apartment and begins hurtling itself against the walls and doorjambs.
My father holds up his cup of coffee as the dog runs laps around our ankles. “What is that?”
“For someone who reads so much about dogs, you sure don’t know too much. It’s a dog.”
“What is it doing here?”
His television is on.
“I told you I didn’t want a dog. Don’t you listen?”
“I guess not.”
“You get that from your mother. Sure as hell don’t get it from me. There are no dropouts on my side of the family.”
The dog ceases its assault on my father’s apartment. The look it gives me is clear: Get a load of this guy.
My father scratches at his neck. “I can’t believe you brought this thing into my house. You have no head. Where is your head? You’re just like your mother. Stupid. Where did all my smarts go? Where did they go?”
“Don’t know,” I say.
“Something must have translated.”
The dog stabs at its paw with a soft-looking tongue. I cannot think of why I brought it. I want to make a bed where it can sleep. I want to watch it eat. My father glares at the dog with such acute hatred it makes me tired.
“I’m pretty sure any anger I have comes from you, if it makes you feel any better,” I say.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Look, I’ll just take the dog back.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he says again.
He clenches his fist into a hard knot and places it in front of my face, shows it to me. I am not thinking. I open my mouth. He winds up and strikes. White for a moment. Then I taste tin blood.
“You can’t help what your parents give you. You hear that?”
“Speaking of,” I am slurring as I slip into my coat. “I have to run.”
“I oughtta pop you in the mouth for bringing this thing here.” His anger has blurred events in his mind; he thinks he hasn’t hit me yet. “You hear me? I should smash you in the face.”
I fix him in my stare so tight he can’t move.
“You’re such a bad driver,” I say. “You’d probably miss.”
I make sure I lean over the stretchy-necked microphone. “I’m here to claim my free ham.”
“Jesus.” The woman behind the counter is startled out of her magazine. “Do you have photo ID?”
“I think you’ll find everything in order.” I hand her my passport.
Her eyes narrow at the sight of a tanner me smiling into the camera. “I remember you.”
She disappears into the back to, I assume, gather my ham’s suitcase.
The sun slides down the oversized windows, dying. If you believed the sky, you would think it was warm outside, but it is cold. It is cold as balls.
Through the windows, I see a girl in a pink coat on a mechanical car pumping her fists and laughing. The man standing next to her is also pumping his fists. It is the same pair from the fire. I see them everywhere. They are so excited about the mechanical car that I feel my head coming apart. My head is coming apart. It will fall off in chunks like wood in fire. The ham lady will emerge and scramble for the phone. Managers will scurry down the aisle from the half-moon room above the cashiers and they will clutch themselves.
I look at my reflection for validation and am surprised at what I see: a small girl in her Great-Aunt Sonya’s coat whose head is decidedly intact. I touch my ears, my hair.
The ham lady returns with a vacuum-sealed mass of pink flesh that looks like it couldn’t do a decent grand jeté.
“This is it?” I am the kind of person who worries about the feelings of a puny dead pig so I soften my tone, but I am not happy. “Why didn’t you just give this to the runner-up?”
“What runner-up?” She punches in a few keys of the cash register. “You’re the only one who entered.”
There is a wordless moment in which we exchange control and she ends up looking smug.
“Oh well.” I lean over again. “I claim this free ham.”
She slides the microphone away from me. “Anything else?”
I look out the oversized windows, over the heads of the man and his daughter, to a point beyond my sight where a dachshund is no doubt chewing the interior of my car. “One more thing.”
I plead with her, I beg, but the ham lady wants to shoulder the ten-pound bag of dog food and will not take no for an answer. They hurt me, these small, brutal kindnesses. She holds the dog food and I hold the ham as we move toward my car. The parking lot is quiet. The sun has died, throwing up a feeble wrist of orange.
The dachshund jumps up in the window and startles the ham lady. “What is that?”
For the second time that day I say, “It’s a dog.”
“What’s its name?”
“Stanley,” I say and then realize, Stanley. Stanley because I don’t know anyone named Stanley. Because it doesn’t mean rise from the ashes, or anything, in Latin.
The ham lady holds the ham so I can reach my keys. A sweet smell hits us as I open the door.
“Eee-oo,” she says. “What is that?”
I heave the dog food in. “It’s fire.”
On my way to Great-Aunt Sonya’s, I park in front of our new/ old house. In the backseat on an underweight ham sleeps Stanley, the world’s least identifiable dog. The workers are gone but have left cigarette butts and coffee cups like place markers on the lawn. The doors we picked pose smartly along the back fence. They will have different shuts and knocks in them. The experience of entering the house through these doors will sound new. I will have to get used to it. The innards of our house are exposed; the bathtub is in the driveway, the sink is on the porch. Everything that is supposed to be inside is outside, but the parts are beginning to look like something—home, maybe.
“Free Ham” by Marie-Helene Bertino is from SAFE AS HOUSES, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award and published by the University of Iowa Press.
© 2012 by Marie-Helene Bertino. Used with permission by University of Iowa Press. It first appeared in North American Review.