Safe As Houses
University of Iowa Press
Marie-Helene Bertino
“Free Ham”

“Free Ham” is from Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut collection SAFE AS HOUSES (University of Iowa Press).  The collection won the Iowa Short Fiction Award.  Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Pushcart Prize Anthology XXXIII, The North American Review, Mississippi Review, American Short Fiction and elsewhere.


Huffington Post Books said of the collection:  “The stories in Safe as Houses are quirky and hilarious, but also tell honest emotional truths. It is exceedingly difficult to manage the emotional distance this kind of storytelling requires. Bertino handles her narratives with masterful care. Each one is a literary gem.”


Bertino said this about the origins of her story:  There were many things I didn’t know about house fires until I was in one.  My friends and I were at my mother’s house getting ready to go to a rehearsal dinner for another friend’s wedding.  An electrical surge in my mother’s art studio tore through a flimsy power chord.  This triggered the fire that spread quickly.  My only conscious thought was: get the dog out. I worried she would get spooked and run right into it.


When we were safe on the lawn, we watched the house delete itself.  Later that night, in clothes we borrowed from the neighbors, we showed up to the rehearsal dinner, late and reeking of smoke.  Smoke smells sweet, not unlike syrup.  That was one of the many things I learned about house fires.


Another was that they move so fast you barely have time to get out. You know the popular question – if you were in a fire and could save only one possession, what would you grab?  Your laptop?  Your photo albums?  My answer is: you don’t have time to save anything—run!  Immediately after a fire, the shock is so perfect that you can’t remember any items you’ve lost.  In the weeks that followed, our lost possessions revealed themselves to me in visceral, brutal dreams that are apparently common for fire victims.


It is 8 years later, and my mother and I will still pause in the middle of a story at the mention of an object from our past.  “Oh right!” We slap our foreheads, remembering.  “That’s another thing we lost in the fire!”


I had never read a story about the fallout of a house fire that contained all of these unusual details.  So I wanted to write one.  I remember my family and I laughed a lot as my mother navigated the journey of rebuilding. (Grief is rarely a straight line.)  Which is why this story was originally called, “House Fire – A Comedy!”

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