Small American Fires

Years from now, she will remember the ash that followed her. The cities charred and smoldered behind her, plumes of smoke like storm clouds in the rearview. The air was dense and syrupy with car exhaust and ash, vermillion sunsets like something out of science fiction, electric and strange. Wildfire tinged each grapevine in the Sonoma vineyards, boiling the grape juice on site and disrupting the ferment. In every cabernet bottled that year, the faint edge of smoke cut through like rot.

Reports of the wildfires occupied news headlines for weeks after. Atlas, Cascade, Sulphur. They named the fires like animals, a new one to report each morning. Investigations ongoing, the news anchor said gravely, the satellite images in stop-motion swirls, gray pixels dancing behind him in delayed flurries. Strong winds. Human carelessness.

Carelessness, she thought. That’s all it was. Accident. But some fires started on purpose. Forests knew self-cleansing better than anyone. It was programmed into their DNA—like the way a mother knew the sound of her infant’s cry with her body. The way children thrilled to water like a second home.

The day she left, highways clogged with minivans and Explorers, traffic bottlenecked and stood still for miles of the Interstate. She took local roads, navigating unpaved gravel streets that rattled the Datsun. All those empty houses of evacuated towns, like the set of a film. The kitchens in Sonoma and the living rooms in Mendocino reduced to rubble. All those places left behind.

The Datsun stalled around Fairfield. Miles and miles of cars, helmed by drivers with white surgical masks, breathing their own wet breath. Stopped behind a Chevrolet, she thought of a Ford she passed back near Petaluma, a boy in the passenger seat. He stared at her not unkindly, and she was startled by the wide spotlight of his gaze. As if he’d been watching her long before she noticed. As if he’d always seen her, and everything else, all of it, from the beginning to the end.

The Datsun idled in the driveway, the afterthought of dusk lingering pink toward the west. For a moment, she’d contemplated reversing, driving away, but there was no money for a hotel, barely enough money for gas. The empty light clicked on as she’d exited onto Del Monte, pulling the Datsun sharply into the hairpin curve of the exit ramp, as if she had no choice, as if the car were driving of its own accord.  

He’d left the front door unlocked, as if he knew she would come. Strange, how they still knew each other’s habits. Inside she did not glance at the walls, where empty frames reflected the light back. Instead, she followed the trail of lights down the hallway, into the studio.

He didn’t turn around, but he knew she was there. She could tell by the way his shoulders stiffened. She surveyed the work. There were twelve of them: almost identical, lined up along the wall, postcard-sized canvases. Covered in charcoal, smeared with orange and yellow. Some were like bonfires, color ravaging darkness; others were subdued, on the verge of extinguishment. They aren’t getting worse in order, she said.

It’s wrong to view them as a progression, he said. Disaster is rarely so straightforward.

She watched his hands move across the canvas, charcoal working deftly across the page. His hands—artist’s hands, she thought, hands that made things.

I’ll give you gas money, but you can’t stay here, he said.

Because you don’t have room for me?

For you. For anyone.

I’m different from anyone, she said.

I think the house burned down, she said.

You think.

I know, she said, and she did. It was something she could feel.

Like you know anything anymore, he said. Like you don’t spend every weeknight drinking yourself stupid.

We both have ways of forgetting, she said. Some of us indulge. Some of us hide the pictures.

I wasn’t planning to stay, she lied, and she turned back to the door. How can you stand it, she asked him. How can you make art when the world is up in flames like this?

It was all his hands knew how to do anymore, he told her. And she could say nothing. After all, what had her hands ever done?

She missed him too, she’d wanted to say. She thought about it as the Datsun trundled into the highway ramp. She missed the look of bewilderment when he’d lost his first tooth, the puddle of blood and bone cupped in his outstretched hand. She missed the smear of vanilla on his nose after he ate ice cream, how his hands had always been a little bit sticky. She missed his fears, arbitrary and assorted: the dentist, the bike without training wheels, slides with covered roofs. The way he’d stayed away from the pool, even when the other children loved to swim. Another one of his routine aversions, she’d thought, and had beckoned him to the water. Don’t be scared, she’d said. There’s nothing to be afraid of.

How he’d decided to be brave when she wasn’t looking. How wan he looked after, the pale spotlight of his face, still round with baby fat.

In the hurry to pack up that morning, nobody had noticed the woman with the gallon of kerosene who stood on her front porch. A lit match like an act of creation, the crackle of her unmaking. By the time the house was entirely engulfed in flames, she was forty miles east and the firefighters wondered about the house that had caught flame on its own—an anomaly, some called it, a gas fire, lucky no one was hurt. Lucky the resident wasn’t home at the time. Did anyone still around know who she was?

She knew she would not come back. She would stop for gas when she was far enough away. Tahoe, she thought, or further, even, Reno. Or maybe she would keep driving until she disappeared like a speck on the horizon, and keep driving after that, too. She could never be far away enough, until she arrived somewhere new, somewhere the smoke could never follow her.