The president of my Sunday School class was caught in the Gatlinburg, TN, fire last weekend. He saw a wall of flame rushing across the mountain—he said the air was so hot that the dry brush in the fire’s path spontaneously combusted before sparks even reached it, bushes and trees popping into flames one after the other in a series of quick explosions. The fire came within 15’ of their house, then turned and went around it, raining blistering cinders as they sprinted for their car. They barely made it out in time. Two of the three roads off the mountain were blocked with debris, and thick smoke boiled over everything. In the grocery store parking lot in the valley where they rendezvoused with their son and his family, the wind gusted between 40 and 80 mph, lifting one side of their SUV, and flinging shopping carts (and the steel corrals meant to contain them) against the cars.
I spent yesterday breathing third-hand smoke; the interior of the house where we’re putting together an estate sale had been scorched by a fire (from an electrical spark under a sofa) two years ago. The surviving contents were professionally cleaned and boxed by the insurance company, which paid for the full restoration and furnishing of the place, but the single female homeowner hadn’t been back in residence but months (and few boxes were even unpacked) before she succumbed in September at the tender age of 60 to a lifetime of chain smoking. We opened most of the windows (despite the cool drafts) to air out the place, which reeked. My uncle climbed up on a ladder to examine the HVAC intake vent, and found that the filter was not grey from dust but a nasty nicotine brown. He installed a fresh filter and saturated it with Febreeze, a treatment which he also applied to most of the living areas. I sound like a 20-year smoker myself today; breathing all that junk was miserable. Every time I blew my nose, I was convinced I would snort out soot. Despite the comprehensive house restoration, and the “professional” cleaning—they definitely didn’t sponge off the books--I had to wash the smut off my hands so often than my knuckles were bleeding by midafternoon. The cold air circulated chapped my lips thoroughly, so this morning during the early service “greet your neighbor” time I found that I couldn’t smile pleasantly without pain. But I considered the day a complete success—in almost exactly twelve hours of working flat-out, we sorted everything and started staging. We unpacked every single box. I actually thanked God for the house fire, because it undoubtedly cut down on the clutter—there remained over 50 purses, and more than 200 pairs of shoes. I hope someone with a sock fetish shows up weekend after next.
The books displayed a curious eclecticism. There were probably a gross of newsprint bodice-rippers with semi-pornographic covers, twenty years of the Southern Living cookbooks, Bibles with bookmarks, self-improvement and relationship guides, a hundredweight of textbooks on law and finance and banking regulations, shelves full of classical literature, and just about every work Ayn Rand had typeset. 90 Minutes in Heaven was next to an evangelically secular Stanford University Press book on how to debate creationists. Elsewhere were dime store angel figurines. Twee, delicate, and female, all of them. I loathe mass market figurines in general and representations of angels in particular. When an angel appears in Biblical accounts, he tells the human person or persons being addressed, “Do not fear.” Which implies that real angels are terrifying, and your natural instinct on encountering one is to want to hide under a rock, or bow down and worship. These pretty plastic ladies with feathery wings correspond to pictures of the Devil in a red suit with little horns, a smart goatee, and a pointed tail—and these silly, safe, cartoonish images seem to be the bread and butter of popular American religiosity. Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” doesn’t sit well with the “All Dogs go to Heaven” and Chicken Soup for the Soul mentality of the average nice modern person. Whether our late client evidenced this typical affinity was hard to tell, given the wide range of reading material she apparently enjoyed. One of the many results of doing estate sales (though it is not infrequently depressing) is developing a character sketch of the person who lived in the house, even without any photographs to guide me. It is my contention that your estate sale agent learns as much about you as your lawyer, your priest, and the IRS, and sometimes we find out more.