The skin on my thumb is worn and beginning to blister. It has been pressed hard against the metal edge of the hose since noon, desperate to make water come out faster, make things wetter. Everything drips: my jeans and T-shirt, the lawn, the trees, each leaf, the BBQ, the faded blue patio furniture, the pots with plants, the pots without plants, the beige stucco walls, and now each wooden roof slat. Even my toes splash in lukewarm puddles within my socks.
It is day six of the Santa Anas, and Southern California is ablaze. I am being swallowed up by glowing orange skies, by tips of enormous flames that snap into the air, by helicopters swooping in with red elixir only to be devoured moments later by black smoke, and by the pungent smell of acres upon acres of burning chaparral. The winds are aggressive and fickle. And while we all squeeze our eyes shut and choke on the caustic air, white ash flutters down like snow on the lower half of California.
My wife, daughter and the things we packed are safe at a hotel as I stand alone atop my roof equipped with nothing but a garden hose.
Danielle and I moved to Trabuco Canyon soon after her father died. We were living in an apartment in Oceanside. A tiny shit-hole of a place we had been renting since our first year of med school at UCSD. The ink on our degrees had not yet dried, and we were already unpacking into a brand new house in a gated community. A brand new house on the rim of a canyon that runs wild with sage scrub and artichoke thistle. The fact that the back of our property ran seamlessly into the rugged canyon, fenceless, made up for the fact we were subscribing to a cut n’ paste lifestyle. At least that’s what we told each other.
Danielle and I had always said communities with quaint names and cookie-cutter housing went against everything we believed in. We called ourselves hippies with educations. But never having money before, we started thinking more about value, investments and what “made sense.” The price was impeccable and Trabuco Canyon was centered between our two hospitals. Our scientific logical minds couldn’t ignore all the advantages. And really, it is impressive what people will compromise for leak-free ceilings, ant-free countertops, and a washing machine that didn’t require a Zip-lock bag of quarters and a wasted Sunday afternoon. I all too easily put the flower-child on hold and got caught up in adding “home owner” to the growing list of titles that followed my name.
At first, caught up in the newness of this foreign life, we barely noticed the oversized Hummers that crowded our streets and the boob jobs that strutted our sidewalks, and we didn’t keep count of how many times we drove past our house because it looked just like the twenty-three that came before it – isn’t there a rosebush I was supposed to watch for?
Danielle and I were immersed in our residencies, mine up at St. Mary’s and hers down at Saddleback Memorial. The jobs were intense, the traffic even more so, and after a twelve hour day it was nice to return to a house that smelled of lemon cleaner and pumped air-conditioning that could give the devil a cold.
There is a string of firemen standing fifteen yards past the back of our property line. Before taking their post, they had promised me no promises. They said I could stay until they gave me the command to go. They would stay twenty minutes after that. I wanted to put my faith in them, in their heavy jackets, their shiny trucks, tanned faces and strong jaw lines. But I’m up here watching a red monster eat its way down the far slope and into the bottom of the gorge without hesitation. And as the embers and flames shoot into the black sky like missiles, the fire quickly making its way back up our side of the canyon, I am able to see how small the firemen really are. How thin their hoses. They stand motionless, each in his own pose. Plastic army men my daughter lined up to guard the house from wild animals.
To my left, I see the silhouette of my neighbor, Sam Garvin, standing atop his roof. He raises his hand, slow and deliberate. And I wave back. Although he looks as if he’s waving goodbye, I tell myself he’s saying, “It’s okay. I am here too. And tomorrow when this has ended, we’ll meet at the mailboxes and trade stories of the things we saw and how close it almost got.”
The view to my right is blocked by an over-sized avocado tree, but I know that Guy Millsap is there, and his teenaged son Clayton is with him; two hoses are better than one. And on the other side of him is Steve Gullet and beyond him is Travis Miller, then Randy Yost, Michael Steiner, Gary Vidro and Karl Johannsen. All of us staying until the end.
In 2003, Danielle became pregnant with Lily. If good pricing, advantageous location and the need for escape from Pine View Apartments was the reason we bought the house, raising a child in a safe, easy neighborhood was the reason we decided to stay.
Once the idea of a child entered the conversation, Danielle was certain that she wanted to raise our family in this house. I, on the other hand, had already come to despise the place: its sterile cleanliness, muted colors, and predictability. I was seeing upwards of twenty patients a day, each with their own ailment, and Danielle was delivering plenty of other people’s babies. And while we were busier than we had ever been, somehow I had more time to dwell on the fact that the only difference between me and Guy Millsap was the color of our minivans and the length of our ties. The novelty of newness had worn off, and the frequency in which I brought up the subject of moving was as routine and predictable as the sprinklers that watered our yard. Every night. 9pm.
“We’re going to get pregnant and then it’s not about us anymore,” Danielle had said over penne with pesto and Caesar salad with pre-packaged dressing. That was the night “counseling” was first placed on the table alongside the blue and green dinnerware.
“I’ve put up with four years in this place.”
“Put up with?”
“Wasn’t it just an investment? Something temporary?”
“We’re not twenty-one anymore.”
I stuffed a forkful of lettuce into my mouth as if to literally cushion my next sentence. “I hate to say it, but how long have we been trying? Maybe it’s not supposed to happen right now.”
Danielle placed the blue cloth napkin on her half-eaten meal, pushed her chair back, but didn’t start crying until she was on the couch.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean it. Just frustrated.”
“We’re going to get pregnant,” she said. “And when we do, the world is going to try to screw up our child. We have to do everything we can to make things easier.”
“I’m not saying let’s live on the beach in Costa Rica, or in a bus outside Golden Gate Park, I’m just saying I —”
“I know this isn’t your dream house. But it’s safe, it’s clean, it’s normal. It’s where we should build a family. Can’t you alter your ideals just a little?”
So we stayed. And one month later, I awoke to the sound of Danielle throwing up spaghetti noodles and spicy meatballs. I knew then, as I held her hair and rubbed her back, that she was right. It was time for me to swallow some of myself for the greater good.
The Santa Anas, and the fires they drag along like unruly children, are a yearly occurrence like I imagine tornadoes in Kansas, hurricanes in Florida, or canceled flights in Chicago. As with anything, we become desensitized to what becomes routine. Three years ago, the fires threatened our canyon, but even then it was only something we watched on the news while folding laundry. We may have complained about our ash-covered cars, but I never considered getting out a ladder to climb onto my roof. Always plural and somehow always feminine, the Santa Anas were just an annoying band of invisible gypsies that stumbled through our yard then attacked other places like San Diego, San Bernardino, and Malibu.
The first ember lands on the roof over by the chimney. It’s the size of a golf ball and pulses red and orange. I scamper over to it, slipping with each step, and blast my hose at the thing; it is alive. It goes out immediately, and my heart is racing. I swing back to the canyon and watch for the next shot as the wind swirls and howls all around me. Another one lands on the lawn and I wait for the whole yard to go up in a burst of flames and then for the house to catch, and then the city, and then the earth. But instead, it fizzles out right away.
In the back of my mind I see Danielle and Lily as they play a game or watch TV in the hotel room. I hear Danielle’s words as I kissed her in the driveway: “Don’t you dare be a hero.”
But there is red, there is heat, there is the sound of the world ending, and I can no longer see the line of firemen.
On Lily’s fourth birthday we had a party for the neighborhood kids and their parents. I rented a large inflatable pool, filled three coolers with cold drinks, and barbequed hamburgers and hot dogs while Danielle made potato salad and brownies.
“Great burger. Hey, you have to come by and check out my new deck. Just finished this week.”
“Sure,” I said, humoring Dave who lived across the street. I was always being asked to come by and “check out” this new car or that new fence or TV or dog or wife. “Definitely,” Danielle said, “In fact, I’d love to get the name of the builders.”
I pressed down hard on a burger that sizzled against the grill.
“Oh super, are you thinking of building one? It would really spruce it up back here.”
Spruce up? I took a swig of cold beer. “Eh, I don’t think—”
“We’ve been thinking about it,” Danielle said. And that was all Dave needed to begin the tale of the miracle wood-worker he found, the highest quality stains he used, and he even mentioned something about a rainforest in Paraguay. “Best wood on earth.”
I was about to counter his story with my equally impressive diatribe on how this house was just “temporary.” We weren’t going to spend too much time “settling in.” How it was really just a stop-over between college and our “real house.” But one of the little Burke twins, Rhonda I think, the one with a birthmark on her face, came running out the back door yelling something about Lily slipping and, “The blood! The blood!”
When I arrived at Lily’s side, she was on the kitchen floor hugging her knee close to her chest. Her leg was cut and a single drop of blood had made its way down her shin in a crooked path heading for her ankle. I kissed her on the forehead, put a band-aid on her knee, and she spent the rest of the party sitting on the grass re-telling the story, about how she was running in the kitchen with wet feet even though she knew she wasn’t supposed to. Each time the crash banged louder, the ouchie hurt worse, and the blood squirted farther.
When I returned to the adults’ table, they had already changed topics; Dave was going on about Mrs. Reinhold’s yapping dog and Danielle was diagnosing Randy’s father’s cholesterol problem.
I can no longer see Sam Garvin on the roof next to me. Because he has left or because the smoke and the late afternoon have thickened I can’t tell. I can also no longer be sure if the moisture that drips from my arms and face came from the hose or my pores. The heat doesn’t come in waves, but rather pulls and slaps and pushes with the churning wind.
I hear yelling from down below and take comfort that the firemen are still there and that their yells are not of panic or desperation. Their voices are serious and all sentences are commands.
I shift my weight for balance and turn around to face the front of the house, my back now against the chaos. Besides the low ceiling of smoke and the ash that continues to press downward on the earth, there is a certain calmness. There is no orange in this direction, and I squint my eyes to see how far I can make out the peaks of roofs, the chimneys that poke up like stubby fingers, and the rounded tops of trees. I stand this way for only a moment to remind myself that in some parts of the world, things still appear as they always have.
But I know that one of those rooftops belongs to Dave, and it is no doubt still adorned with that expansive deck, stained with a water-resistant almond brown. I wonder if wood from Paraguay burns any different, if the ash is just as white, and then I think that I hate the whole damn thing. The winds, the fires, the houses, and how so much depends on it all.
The phone call had come at 10:30 this morning although the news had been running on all three TVs since eight, and trips into the backyard to see how “things” were shaping up began at nine. Danielle took the call; we were put on “voluntary evacuation.”
“Aren’t we all on voluntary evacuation every day of our lives?” I joked.
Danielle was already in the office collecting empty boxes. Granted, the flames looked closer than they ever had, but I still had a hard time taking all the hub-bub too seriously.
“Can you help me, please?” Danielle stood in the doorway holding two empty cardboard boxes.
I rose from the breakfast table and took one of them from her hands.
“You grab all the important stuff out of the office,” she said. “I’ll go around the house getting the picture frames.” Her eyes were dry and focused.
“Good idea, honey. We’ll be okay.”
“Please, just get the pink slips, birth certificates, the diplomas, everything in the bottom two drawers.”
Maybe this is how it works. Maybe the universe has to force some people to make the change that they won’t, or can’t, enact themselves.
Danielle had made a “Must Pack” list the night before. We lay in bed and watched the newswoman talk of wind strength, of inadequate numbers of trucks, and of fatigued men. There was a map on the screen next to her and a flame symbol over certain cities. The bigger the symbol, the bigger the fire. Danielle didn’t like the size of ours; it sat over the newswoman’s shoulder and I joked about her blouse catching fire. But Danielle didn’t laugh; she was going room by room in her head listing the items to be saved. I didn’t ask her why some things made the cut while others were expendable.
I began emptying files, form after form, the tiny print getting smaller and smaller. Certifying, declaring, proving that we were who we said we were, we’ve done what we’ve said we’ve done, and we own what we say we own. I thought of the years of work on the hard drive, the digital files of photographs, and how none of it was backed up. I put the box aside and began unplugging and disconnecting.
“Don’t forget our wedding album. Top shelf,” Danielle said, her voice sweeping past the open door.
I grabbed the album, put it on top of the files in the box and began carrying the many components to the computer out to the car. I passed Danielle and Lily; they were on the bottom steps. Danielle knelt, holding Lily’s hands. There was a smaller box by her side and all I heard was “…all of your favorite things.”
After the computer was safely in the backseat, I returned to the office and stood in the middle of the room, hands on my hips. I didn’t know what was proper “save” material. Was it the most expensive things? I looked to the cabinet that hid the $3000 stereo system wired to every room. Was it the thing most difficult to replace? I looked to the afghan draped over the back of the rocking chair that my great grandmother had knitted. It was for my great grandfather when he went off to war, though he never returned to use it to warm his arthritic knees.
“Why are you just standing there?” Danielle’s forehead was sweating. “I’ve got all the pictures from downstairs and put your Hendrix guitar in the trunk.”
I put my hands around her waist and hoped she’d slow down. I wanted to comfort her. I wanted to make sure Lily didn’t understand how scary this really all was. And I wanted to pack only what was absolutely necessary to survive.
And frankly, for all I cared, the wood-slated roof could fly off like a Frisbee, soar past the coast, and skip like a flat rock across the Pacific. And the walls of this house could explode into the air, a hundred different colors like Disneyland fireworks, crackling to the ground and entertaining thousands.
Upstairs it was more pictures in frames, jewelry in boxes, and music albums in crates.
Out in the driveway, I saw Rebecca next door, she was also packing boxes into her trunk. I smiled, and she said, “Got all the right paperwork? Your insurance policy?”
“What insurance policy?” I joked, but she didn’t laugh. Down the street, two other trunks were open. While the sky burned gray and rained white, the whole gated community was stuffing as much junk into their expensive cars as possible. If only Lexus had come up with a truck strong enough to tow a house, we’d all be hooking up the hitch.
Moments later, I kissed Lily and buckled her into the front seat. Like Danielle, she was scared but not crying. “Love you, sweetie. See you soon.”
I held Danielle’s hands.
“You got everything out of the filing cabinet, right?”
“It’s all there, honey.” I kissed her on the lips.
“And the computer? There’s nothing important on any disks somewhere?”
“Baby, we got it all. Computer, the pictures and the jewelry, your mother’s ring, all of it.”
A callous, prickly smell permeated our conversation. The smell of things not meant to burn.
“And you’re going to water everything down then come right to us?”
“I’ll be there before you know it.” Helicopter blades chopped my words. “I love you. Maybe take Lily for ice cream after you check in?”
“I love this house. But I love you more.” She squinted her eyes into tiny slits as if trying to see through my thick skin and heavy eyebrows and hardened skull to what really lay within. “I know how you get. Don’t you dare be a hero.”
“I love you. I’ll see you soon.” I kissed Danielle again and waved to Lily with a smile. She waved back and kicked her feet against the dashboard.
“The keys to the safety deposit?”
“We got it all, honey.”
“Dani, please go. I’ll see you soon. Everything we need is in the car.”
And then she did go. And as I watched the rear window, filled to the roof with boxes, get smaller and smaller down the hill, I realized how ridiculous it was that everything we needed could fit into the back of a Nissan. Yet somehow we had become so adept at making our 3,000 square feet appear too small. Even in the intensity of the moment, I recognized the relief of seeing the stuffed car. We were paring it down to the essentials.
I swear, if the fires didn’t carry the roar and the heat and the anger, if instead the flames whispered and tip-toed with a gentle smile across the fenceless line and into our backyard, I would open the back door, grandly sweep my arm across my body and welcome them in.
“Take it all.”
With my hose still trickling off the roof’s edge, I lean over to see a fireman standing below me. His jacket looks too large, and light catches and reflects off the sweat on his face.
“Sir you have to go. We can’t have you here any more.”
Like my daughter hours earlier, I do as I am told without so much as a word. I leave the hose draped across the peak of the roof and make my way down the ladder as the man holds it with both hands.
“You have to leave immediately. We’ll do what we can, but for your own safety…”
I jump the last two rungs and land with a splash. He is blackened and wet and looks like the firemen I’ve seen on TV. As if he exists only as a fireman, without a house and a family of his own, without weekend trips to the beach or a favorite baseball team.
“We’ll do our best to save your home.” Even his words are a TV drama. And before I turn to run into the house, possibly for the last time, I open my mouth to at least tell him my name. But he hits my shoulder with a hard pat and turns to run back to the other men.
The view from the ground is much worse. When entering the ocean, the waves never seem bigger than when you’re knee deep. I know the keys to the van are on the hook by the door to the garage, which is already open. I make for the back door across the wet cement and the crackling scream behind me is nothing like the waves. There is no rise and fall, ebb and flow, crash and peace. The wind’s cry and the fire’s yell are even and continuous.
I swing open the back door, throw my wet body inside, and slam the door shut. The sounds are muted, but still present. But unlike outside, the air is still. I make for the garage door, but as I plant my left leg and push, the wet sole of my shoe glides across the tile and I land with a thud on the kitchen floor.
I’m paralyzed for a moment, clutching my lower back. I see the X-rays of fractured vertebrae. It could be my L3 disc, or maybe L4. And I know the firemen are not returning to the house. Nobody is. The walls moan above me, and I watch to see if they’ll melt like wax before my eyes. After the initial panic subsides, my ears screaming with the pumping of blood trapped within them, I check and find that nothing is broken and everything moves as it should. And what I realize is that this is the same view my daughter had a year ago. Sitting on the kitchen tile, cringing in pain and looking up into the vaulted ceiling of the dining room and into the den.
The inside of the house is still while the world crumbles all around it, and then it rushes over me like the moment before fainting. First in the base of my stomach. Then a wave rolls up into my face almost blinding me. My fingers try to grab a handful of tile as this new awareness hit me with a distinct clarity and terror:
We packed the wrong things.
My fingertips go numb and my shoulders chill. The realization carries a doom that curls my ribs inward.
The boxes that jammed their cardboard corners into the back of Danielle’s car, and the trunk that had been forced closed. It’s all filled with the wrong stuff.
What we should have packed is the dent in the cabinet door where Lily cut her knee. What should be sitting safely in the trunk of my wife’s car is the carpet from the fifth stair and its stubborn wine stain. The night Danielle and I came home from the theater and did it right there on the stairs, at each other like horny college students. What needed to be at the top of Danielle’s “Must Pack” list is the dented patch in the living room wall with the paint that doesn’t match the rest of the room no matter what angle we stand. Rainy day baseball in the house, who knew my daughter had such an arm. How do you pack the air between the love seat and the couch where my mother and Danielle’s mother exchanged tales late into the night of gone but not forgotten husbands?
We got it all wrong and now it’s too late. The walls and the floors and the ceiling and the history and empty space they embrace, this is what needs to be saved. Home to Christmas parties, family gatherings, movie nights, waffles for dinner on TV trays. This is where we’ve eaten and laughed and fought and played. This is where we breathe.
I rush to my feet and grab a screwdriver from the drawer. With my wet soles still scrambling for traction I run upstairs, the wind whistling through vents and bringing bitter smells. I drop to my knees outside Lily’s room and grab for the doorknob. My hands are shaking but I loosen the first screw quickly.
Two years ago, Lily had taken her new paints, grew tired of blank flat paper, and had decided that her doorknob needed color. On the outside, she had painted with her tiny three-year old fingers a flower, yellow and three shades of brilliant blue. She had turned the inside knob into a purple octopus, never mind its eleven legs, that ran off the brass and onto the door.
I was on my way upstairs when I caught the two of them purple-handed. Danielle on her knees next to Lily, both of them with a paintbrush in hand and guilty grin on their faces. It was then that I realized I had not lost Danielle, with blue paint on her forehead, to Trabuco Canyon. Her need for Scotch-guarding the couch and buying napkin rings did not make her any different than the girl who went to anatomy class barefoot or got high with me in the library parking lot.
Lily put the finishing touches on the last tentacle, and we all agreed to keep the bright flower and its cephalopod companion and let our blueprint stray, if only slightly, from the twenty-three houses that came before ours.
Twisting the final screw loose, the blister on my thumb scrapes across the screwdriver and tears open. Clear fluid drains into my palm and a flap of skin the size of a penny hangs loose from the end of my thumb. For such a small area, the pain is immense, and I wrap my hand in the wet belly of my T-shirt and pry off the doorknobs with my free hand.
I skid down the stairs and use the last rail to fling my body around the stairway, down the hall, into the garage, through the door of the car, and I’m making a right out of the driveway when I finally land with a thud onto the seat.
Fire trucks lay strewn about on sidewalks, driveways, and front yards. I can’t see anything but black in my rearview mirror and my headlights don’t illuminate more than heavy white and gray ash. But I know the canyon, the house, and the fires are behind me. And I know my wife and daughter are in front of me. And the doorknob, with its eleven-legged octopus, sits beside me.