My third semester at CSU, I lived off campus in the basement of a house on Myrtle Street, a couple blocks north of the university. Erma owned the house. She was an elderly widow seamstress who rented her basement out to college girls for $150 a month. It was a two bedroom with kitchen and living room, complete with fireplace and separate entrance in back. You had to know someone to get in on the deal, and fortunately for me, I knew someone who knew someone, and the girls there the previous year had all graduated so the house was available. My stand partner in orchestra, Becky, and I decided to share the apartment.
Becky was engaged to Mark (this is Becky whose wedding I sang at with the sleazy photographer) so she was gone every weekend to go to Denver to see him. That meant that I got the place to myself. Most Friday nights, I’d make a batch of chocolate chip brownies, and while chocolate chip chocolate ice cream with chocolate syrup melted over the hot brownies, I’d watch Dallas. Then I’d go into some kind of diabetic coma and sleep late into Saturday morning.
One Saturday, my boyfriend came to see me. I thought it would be nice to light a fire in the fireplace for us to enjoy. We loaded it up with firewood and I lit the kindling. Then when a little smoke began to come out the front of the grate, I remembered to open the flue. But it was stuck. Or I couldn’t figure out which way it went. Or I turned it the wrong way. It didn’t take long before the entire living room was full of smoke. Our eyes were burning and it was too hard to breathe to stay inside. After throwing open all the high, little basement windows, we evacuated out my back steps. Smoke was swirling through the window wells like the whole place was on fire.
“I better go tell Erma if she smells anything not to worry,” I said. Holding a deep breath, I dashed back inside and used the staircase that went up from our apartment to her kitchen, a passageway she had always encouraged us to use freely to come up and see her.
There wasn’t just a little bit of smoke upstairs. Her living room looked like a fog had settled in on a misty morning, but this fog was caustic and suffocating, like the whole forest was burning down. I found Erma in her bathroom, bent over in the sink washing her hair. I was so relieved she wasn’t in the smoke. “Erma, if you smell smoke, no need to worry. I didn’t open the damper right away, so a little smoke came in. It’s all okay.” Maybe I was understating it a little. But I didn’t want her to worry.
Her answer was muffled while she kept her head safely tucked down in her sink under the running water. “All right,” she said.
“I’m going to open a few windows, okay?” I got several opened and hoped the breeze from the cross draft would quickly blow the smoke out. I did what I could to help it along by fanning around the house with the newspaper.
Eventually the smoke stopped and cleared and we could reenter the building. Above the fireplace was a giant dried flower arrangement that came with the apartment. When I took it off the mantel, I found a white shape of the flowers clearly outlined on the smoked wall above the shelf. It was like a white shadow cast on a gray wall. Like an image forever seared onto a surface when a nuclear blast hits.
Erma never said anything about smoke. I hope she stayed in her sink long enough that it didn’t bother her. And from then on, I never again forgot to check the flue before I lit the match.
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