From the collection Safe as Houses by Marie-Helene Bertino
University of Iowa Press
I hear the Iowa Workshop is a place where you go to become a writer, at least one of them. Okay, one of the most prominent. It seems to me that the overwhelming rule is, to be a writer; you have to attend the Iowa Workshop. To be honest that’s the vibe I get. Which is fine, whatever works?
Ms. Bertino needs no help with her writing. “Free Ham” is laugh out loud funny, memorable, and kept me up late at night wondering just how she did all of this in twelve translucent pages. She tells the story of a family in a wild crisis that can only be solved by waiting it out, or spending time together while the house is being vetted for smoke damage.
A fire ravages their home and puts our heroine and her mother in Dutch, their dad repairs to a temporary living situation; all combined this is both funny and tragic. When the fireman asks cheeky questions about the members of the family who might still be in the house, repeatedly, Mom asks, “Sir,” my mother steps forward, her eyes as small as stars. “What is the right answer to your question?” I laughed and laughed. While on leave from their smoky but bucolic existence, Mom and our narrator, a kind of precociously amped up version of Max Fischer stay with Great Aunt-Sonya, and this is where the rubber meets the road. The details fall like gold coins from a slot machine, and I urge you to seek this story out. To find out how to win a free ham, address inquires to Ms. Bertino, she has one tucked up her sleeve.