Safe as Houses by Marie-Helene Bertino

Marie-Helene Bertino, the winner of the 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award, reads from her debut short story collection, Safe as Houses, published October 1 by University of Iowa Press. 

Free Ham

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.

Yes, laughing.


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?”

“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.