Friday, February 22, 2008

Where There's Smoke

Reading this post on Cheri’s blog the other day got me thinking about my own combustible youth, and I thought I’d share this story from my senior year at Smith.

I was taking a drawing class, and the assignment was “draw a pencil or an apple or your hand” (okay, I’ll just admit that I was bored and my drawing was crapcake.)

In the spirit of liberal education, I was making a valiant effort, though. I had my lap easel (I don’t remember what that is, but I feel certain I had one) and my pencils, and I decided to take a quiet hour before dinner to coax a masterpiece from my fingers.

My senior year at Smith, I had a coveted “single,” a room all to myself on the second floor of Northrup House. Northrup was an older house, mostly wood, with dark, creaky rooms and hulking corner radiators that banged all night in the winter. (Don’t start anticipating—there are no radiator tragedies in this story.) Each room came with a single bed (very inconvenient, that), a dresser with a big mirror, a bookcase, and a desk.

I lay on my bed, languidly sketching. The weak winter light illuminated my paper like in one of those Vermeers with the girl sewing. As time passed, I slipped into a serene groove, with my breathing and the gentle “shush-shush” of pencil on paper the only sounds. My apple or hand started to look half-decent. By the time we get to the nude ladies, I thought, they’ll be offering me a show.

And so it went, as the poet said, on mermaid’s paws, and eventually I started smelling Koo Koo Mitt (a nostalgic Smith aside: this was our favorite meal, chicken with sweet chili sauce—there was much speculation about the name, never corroborated) and thinking I should wrap it up and get ready for dinner. With a gentle sigh, I rolled off my bed and floated the two steps to my dresser, where I stood in front of the mirror dragging a comb across my unruly red locks while gazing into the middle distance.

Two things occurred to me pretty much simultaneously. The first was “What is WRONG with that Koo Koo Mitt? It’s really starting to stink!” The second was “Why is the middle distance so hazy, so foggy, so…”

I snapped to attention, and focused on my bed, which I could see in the mirror. It looked like my bed, alright—mauve down comforter, mounds of ruffled pillows, billows of smoke rising from the pillows…

“Ahhhhh!” I whirled around, vainly hoping that the mirage would have vanished. Nope. The billows of smoke were thicker now, swirling over the comforter. Without thinking too much I strode over to the bed and lifted the top pillow.

Orange flames curled around its edges.

“AHHHHHHHHHH!” That was the only sound I had available. There really was no time for other sounds. I don’t know how I decided to do what I did next; it was instinct. Had anyone stepped into the empty hallway of Northrup Second Floor in the next minute, they would have seen the following:

A red-headed girl with graphite all over her fingers and arms opens her door and steps into the hallway with a determined expression. She is carrying a pink, ruffled pillow. The pink, ruffled pillow is on fire. She carries the pillow straight across the hallway and through a swinging door to the “laundry room.” The quotes are there because the actual washing machines are in the basement, but the “laundry room” is for soaking handwashables in the deep basin, and then drying them on the available racks. (What the room is really for is making out with a UMass guy when your roommate is already asleep in your room, but I digress.)

If you were watching from the hallway, you wouldn’t have seen what came next, but you would have heard a tap being turned, water rushing, and the “FOOM” sound of a flaming pillow being submerged. Moments later, you would have seen the same red-headed girl emerge from the swinging doors, wet, blackened pillow in hand, cross the hall and enter her room, clicking it gently behind her.

If you pressed your ear to her door, you would have heard a brief silence, followed by hysterical, hiccuping laughter.

Here’s what happened: While I was dreamily drawing, I had kicked my mounds of pillows up over the reading lamp clipped to my headboard. Subsequent kicks pressed the pillows wantonly against the naked bulb. You get the idea. When I returned to assess the scene, I found my clip lamp had melted closed like the petals of a tulip in the evening.

But the pillow survived, Dear Readers. After it dried, I actually took the time to chop off the burned bits and sew up the new seams. It was a bit asymmetrical now, but it still worked. Hell, my head doesn’t know from rectangles.

But the first thing I did was call my friend Synthia, over at Baldwin House. Synthia and I have now known each other for 24 years, and she lives only a few minutes from me in San Diego. So we have a history. Part of that history is what she said when I told her the story of my fire—between gasps, that is. There was a stony silence. Then a slow, measured inhale, as if she was preparing to talk to a small child. “That’s not funny, Sam. Fire is dangerous. Do you know why they invented Smokey the Bear? People like you.”

Important life wisdom there. Which unfortunately for Synthia, she now has to be reminded of on a regular basis. Should she but light a candle these days she had better be ready to hear, “Do you KNOW why they invented Smokey the Bear? Well, DO YOU?”

And then there was my friend Carolyn. She had the single directly above me, though she had been blissfully unaware of my near-conflagration. She didn’t laugh, either. She didn’t even smile. She had only one thing to say:

“If the house had gone down, you would have been buying me a new stereo.”


Anonymous said...

And I bet no one in your house actually passed the middle-of-the-night fire drills! Could you get out in 5.6 seconds or less? And weren't you a fire marshall? Had you passed your rope test yet? Sarah

Sam said...

LOL, Sarah! :) I wasn't a Fire Marshall. I nearly killed myself each time we had to leave in the middle of the night.

And I couldn't have passed that rope test if my life depended on it. Thank goodness it was only a rumor that you needed it to graduate. ;)

Mary and Paul said...

I set a roll of paper towels on fire, way back when!

No wonder my mom was afraid to send me to college!


Marlene said...

It is why I have always called you the funniest person on the planet. Jacob speculated tonight on the possibility of making raisins, by drying grapes on the halogen lamp. I tried to give him a (less jocular) version of your story. Hey, what was the drawing like, by the way, or did it too go up in the flames?

Cheri said...

I had my lap easel (I don’t remember what that is, but I feel certain I had one) . . .

Each room came with a single bed (very inconvenient, that) . . .

My apple or hand started to look half-decent.

Hell, my head doesn’t know from rectangles.

Good stuff, Sam, good stuff.

Sam said...

@Marlene: The masterpiece still exists somewhere, in a box. I actually did do one decent drawing that semester. It was of a skull, and it was chosen for the end-of-term show. I know "skull" sounds kind of Goth, but actually it was just something that caught my eye when we took a class outing to the Natural History museum. ;)

@Cheri: Thanks, dahling. :) The rectangle line is my favorite. I had no idea I was going to say that. :)