It’s hard to see the damage from the road.
The house belonging to Deb and Chuck Bell sat up on a hill in Port Matilda. The lone vantage point offered by the pavement makes it appear that the entire structure quite literally went up in smoke, evaporating on the spot in the wee hours of Jan. 8.
Obviously, this is nonsense. A home does not just vanish without leaving a trace. There is too much clutter, too many memories accumulated over the course of 35 years to be devoured in one sitting by even the most ravenous of flames.
To get a better understanding of what happened, you have to go around the optical illusion and up the driveway, where it becomes readily apparent that the Bell’s residence has not been dissolved, but leveled.
What is left has passed beyond the influence of firefighters and become the purview of archaeologists, a pile of charred remains — metal beams, scraps of carpeting or rug, a lone plastic bowl — that with some effort could possibly be reverse-engineered into a working approximation of what life might have been like here four weeks ago.
This is what a fire leaves behind.
“I want to go home — and I can’t go home,” Deb Bell said.
She is settling for a reasonable facsimile. For the Bells, a short walk across the street is all that spans the distance between past and present. Chuck Bell’s uncle is letting them stay in the small property he owns on the adjacent lot, where a resilient patch of white paint on the wall hints at a sense of decorum that was until quite recently, minimalist at best.
I want to go home — and I can’t go home.
This was a condition of the deal, the lone bargaining chip of a person who is not used to accepting help but is in no position to fend off its advances. The Bells would accept the hospitality — but only if Deb Bell could spruce up the place as a substitute for the would-be rent money that already going toward their mortgage.
If first impressions are anything to go by, it seems like an equitable trade, the end result of which is like somebody opened the shutters and allowed sunlight into an otherwise dark and dusty room. The walls have been painted a pinkish pomegranate color, popping nicely against a set of armchairs purchased from Goodwill and couch that was supplied by the Bells’ daughter.
“When I was painting that stupid wall, it was the best therapy I could’ve had,” Deb Bell said.
She was asleep on the couch when the fire started. They don’t know for sure what the source of the blaze was, but Deb Bell suspects that it might be related to the collapse of their porch roof, which had buckled under the weight of snow and sleet several days earlier, possibly cracking the chimney mortar.
Everything happened quickly. Chuck and Deb Bell got their visiting son and two dogs out of the house. If she had been thinking clearly, her wedding bands or cellphone might have also survived the ordeal.
“You’re in a daze,” Deb Bell said.
The speed at which they have managed to rebuild some semblance of home is surprising at first glance but banal by the second. After all, Deb Bell is a crafter — and crafty people are accustomed to making something out of nothing.
For more than three decades, she and Chuck have been the guiding force behind Beyond Angels, a group devoted to helping others. As far as job descriptions go, this is about as broad as can be, so instead it might be easier to consider the group as an inventory of good deeds.
Chuck and Deb know everybody and they do stuff for everyone.
They’ve donated fuel, made Christmas gifts for children, bought groceries for people, experience that has made them both uniquely suited and ill-equipped to deal with their current predicament.
“I’m a giver and I’m not a receiver and I don’t know how to receive,” Deb Bell said.
There may well be some truth to the notion that it is better — and easier — to give than to receive. Nichole Kibler certainly doesn’t seem to be having any problems.
Kibler was one of the driving forces behind a 31-basket bingo that will be held at 5 p.m. on Feb. 4 at the Port Matilda Fire Hall in support of the Bells. As many as 15 local families have donated items to the cause, supplemented by contributions from local businesses like Weiss Markets and JC’s Barber Shoppe.
“Chuck and Deb know everybody and they do stuff for everyone,” Kibler said.
Chalk it up to the perils of living in a close-knit community. Help enough people and there’s a fighting chance that when the time comes, they’ll want to help you back. While the Bells appreciate the outside support — a GoFundMe effort was set up for them — they don’t want to be dependent on the kindness of neighbors.
Chuck and Deb Bell have been married for 42 years. Together, they have begun to chart out the next phase, whatever it is that comes after limbo. Deb Bell would like to eventually purchase a mobile home and set it back up on the hill.
“Maybe this is a fresh start,” Deb Bell said