The Smell of Fire

i know this will sound awful and -knock on wood- i really don't want it to happen but there have been times in my life when i wished that my house would burn down or, even better, be cleaned out by robbers. you wouldn't know it to visit me, but i am a spartan at heart. there is something life-affirming about releasing yourself from all your stuff. i used to do it all the time. my college classmates would gather around the dumpster to collect the junk i tossed out each semester. i went to work on a farm after graduate school and all i brought with me was 1) necessary clothing, 2) art supplies, and 3) my three favorite action figures. it's hard to describe how liberating it was. then i decided to become an illustrator. i bought a computer. it was much too expensive to throw away. pretty soon, i had several dozen more actions figures, a nice bed, a dining room table, a big comfortable couch. i enjoy them all but, every now and then, i feel trapped. my best escape is a state of mind; i try to have my things without owning them. (does that make sense?) it's only in the heat of the moment that i wish for arsonist robbers.

i don't want to endure an actual fire of course. i had a friend whose apartment burnt down. so, i've seen how traumatic it can be. all his action figures melted but, worse than that, his spirit changed. he used to curse all the time but, for several weeks after the fire, his language was kindergarten clean. it was so sad.

these paintings were commissioned by Cicada Magazine. they illustrate a short story, Mrs. Higgins' Heart and the Smell of Fire by Billy Lombardo. it's about the Bellapini family whose home is destroyed by a fire. it is actually a sequel to another Billy Lombardo story. that one concerned itself with the punk kid who saved the family from the fire. this story was about the aftermath. the Bellapinis are welcomed into the home of their neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Higgins. my favorite part of this painting is the change it represents between Mrs. Bellapini's state of mind on the street and her state of mind within the fire. (see the next painting).


during the chaos of the fire, Mrs. Bellapini has the presence of mind to rescue her family's hamper. i laughed when the art director described the scene because i didn't realize how brilliant it was. when my friends' apartment burned down, the first thing he needed was clothing and blankets. by rescuing the hamper, Mrs. Bellapini saved enough clothes for her whole family to wear for an entire week. i doubt i would've been so clear headed.

what would you save from a fire, i wonder, if your family were safe and you could only carry one thing? it's a good question to ask at parties. (i would save my sketchbooks.)


i liked this scene. Peter Bellapini and Mrs. Higgins' daughter walk to school together. she wants to say something to him but she can't find the words. Peter, meanwhile, watches the autumn leaves. they remind him of the fire.

my friend Shannon told me that it's lucky to catch a leaf. leaves were falling when she told me this. so, i grabbed at them immediately. it was harder than i thought it would be. she laughed until i gave up on it. a few years later, my friend simon and i decided to move to texas. he squeezed all of our stuff into his truck. while he said goodbye to his girlfriend, i ran around the parking lot trying to catch leaves. i caught five. i moved to portland, oregon a few years later. when i was there, leaves fell on me like rain. they landed in my hair and on my sweaters. i don't know why i'm writing about this. oh yeah! it's because i love falling leaves.


in the final scene of this story, Peter arrives at school. his classmates heard about the fire but they don't believe it. so Peter lets them all smell his shirt. the smell of smoke confirms the fact that Peter might have died but, by surviving, he is now the new schoolyard hero.

this painting reminded me of a night when my girlfriend and i were almost run over by a truck. and another night when i was gesturing with a pair of scissors and almost stabbed my best friend in the neck. it's strange, isn't it, how things that almost happen seldom really count? life gets back to normal pretty quickly... but, in a parallel universe somewhere, everything changed.

© 2004 rama hughes