The sky hung bizarrely brownish and heavy below a pink teacup sun, like a portent of the outer space invasion Mark Englander had always imagined as a boy.
‘But you are coming?’ he asked his wife.
‘I’m on my way,’ Billie said.
Mark breathed into his phone. He didn’t trust her with the things he wanted. Years of their arguments filled the silence.
‘I’m coming. Stop digging up the dead bodies.’
He was stung. He wished it was for his sake she was driving flat out from Los Angeles to Santa Rosa early Monday morning. Billie needed to get something from her art studio and there was no time to delay. If it was so important, Mark nettled, why hadn’t she taken whatever it was with her last year when she walked out of their marriage?
‘I should have,’ Billie replied, ‘it’s my fault.’ He knew that her conciliatory tone meant shut up, please. Mark pictured her clenching her jaw and fluttering her eyelids in the childish way she conveyed exasperation.
‘Well, haul your ass. They’re saying the roads will close. I won’t wait for you forever.’ That was a lie.
‘Hang on a sec,’ Billie said. Mark heard car horns blaring in the background.
He lingered on the line. Standing barefoot in his bathrobe at the end of the driveway, Mark scanned the blurred contours of the valley below his property, the Tulsey’s avocado orchard spreading up the rise to meet the lawn and the edge of the swimming pool. Billie’s studio building partially blocked the view, perched on the slope among stone terraces they’d planted with rhubarb, sage and roses during happier times. The breeze wafted a tang of charred wood. Evacuation warnings were in effect.
She sounded distant. He pressed the phone to his ear.
‘I’m going as fast as I can, okay?’
Billie might arrive too late, he considered. Would he still be here, holding down the fort? For ten years they’d been lucky, blessed, even. The fires had missed them by miles.
‘It could be nothing, Billie,’ Mark said, softening. ‘This could all be for nothing.’ He paused. Did he really want to reprise her rejections face to face? ‘Okay, how about this. Tell me what you want from the studio and I’ll get it for you. I’ll ship it. Whatever you want.’
Billie did not reply. Did she still mean to exclude him from her precious sanctum, her atelier, the private domain of her secret trysts? What did it matter to her now?
‘Fine. I’ll be here.’ Mark hung up the call. He deserved better, he reminded himself. She hadn’t even asked for his help, yet here he was offering, practically begging to put himself at her disposal. Her stonewalling always demolished his resolve to distance himself and drove him to make pledges and perform dramatic feats of service. He and Billie were separated now, and he hadn’t learned a thing.
Mark plunged a wooden spoon into a pot simmering on the stove. His belly grazed the oven door. He’d grown a little voluptuous in his retirement. Funny, women didn’t seem to mind. Maybe it was because of his money. But for the first time in his life, he felt like some kind of commodity. It took turning forty-nine and balding to make him hot shit.
He sucked in and tightened his belt. No, this wasn’t the way. He ought to give Billie a taste of what she was missing.
One word from her, and he was already rearranging his life. Do what you were doing, he admonished himself. Before the winds changed, he’d been perfecting his bolognese recipe. Two reductions in, he wasn’t about to abandon it. It was an intense sauce, and it violated no small number of the dietary restrictions that had once held sway in his house. It had to be reduced four separate times: you browned the meat and sofrito, cooked off the milk, then reduced the wine, then the tomato. The secret ingredient was a bit of fowl liver. Liver was the sin-eater of organs, so naturally the flavor could be a little overpowering. But people’s palettes had become so bland, so abstracted from nature. He dipped the spoon into the pot, brought it to his lips and blew on it. Billie had stopped tasting his recipes years ago. He and his cooking had lost their allure.
Before she renounced meat and dairy, he’d once prepared a beautiful meal for her, a pheasant with pancetta and chestnuts. The raw bird looked like a newborn. Its skin was translucent and a ridge down the center cleaved the narrow lobes of flesh. He reached into the neck cavity and pulled out the kidneys and heart. It smelled of field and shed and shit and there were bits of congealed blood. He’d held the cold bundle in his hands. God, was that what a miscarriage was like? So much lifeless protein.
But he was moving forward, now. Dating and reaching out to friends. Being neighborly. He would take a batch of the bolognese to old Shirley Tulsey down the road and a couple jars of his plum jam. He poured himself a glass of Zinfandel and tipped the spoonful of sauce onto his tongue. Unbelievable. The sexiest thing to have ever happened in his kitchen.
Mark stepped across the flat stones in his yard in baggy shorts and beat-up suede loafers with collapsed heels, holding aloft a bottle of good Zinfandel and a basket of food. The grass was parched and crunched underfoot. The surrounding hills were sparse for neighbors, but the Tulsey’s was within walking distance. He called ahead and sure enough, Shirley hadn’t left. Just as he expected. Stubborn old bird, like him. He wanted to feed her and make sure she had what she needed to ride it out for a few days. It was his pleasure to help – every good deed was a small broken piece put back into this shattered vessel of a world. But some inner gremlin poked him in the ribs and demanded to know how he had managed to become this florid, ineffectual gourmand, and why he wasn’t doing more to fix the world. Your little good deeds, bucko? They’ll never be enough.
The mantel of smoke cast the valley in a warm apricot hue, like the filters Billie used in her photographs. The day was gorgeous. His home was gorgeous. He had plenty to offer any woman. He had prosperity and vigor and had already made modest contributions. A network security device for a bank. Prestigious publishing credits in the field of evolutionary biology. And his bestselling, star-reviewed book, Extinction in the Anthropocene, ‘a mordantly funny, pop-sci romp skewering human choices while delivering hard facts.’ He was spiritual to boot: a sporadic congregant at his synagogue and a student of Iyengar yoga. Women loved an eccentric. A free spirit. A polymath, if you like. The world still needed men like him.
Behind Billie’s studio were cords of blue gum logs he’d piled around last winter. He’d intended the logs for mulch but now they were sprouting. Billie always wanted the trees gone. They weren’t native and choked out the oaks and ferns and the little delicate understory things. But he thought they were stately, and they gave lavish shade and long stripes of orange bark. They were the same, he and the trees, personae non gratae, and defending them was defending himself. As long as Billie fought him, they were still connected. After she left, Mark finally took an axe to the trees, felling them on bare dirt. Billie was right. They had no regard for their surroundings. Now, the little sprouts looked like renewal but God forbid they root and grow, never having learned to share.
Mark made his way along the rutted dirt path dividing his property and the Tulsey’s. Before the smoke settled in, he’d picked nearly fifty pounds of Italian plums from a pair of ancient trees at the edge of the avocado orchard. They were moss-covered and arthritic, silvery with age and regal as war heroes, and laden with fruit the size of Canaan grapes. They must have been someone’s favorite thing to have lasted this long. He roasted the plums to bring out their exquisite flavor and color. Oh, the syrup! – Billie would know the name of that magnificent color.
Shirley’s shih tzu Sampson greeted Mark at the door with a snaggletoothed underbite. He’d had surgery and could no longer bark, like a chew toy with a busted squeaker. Sampson beat his tail furiously and tangled between their feet. Mark kissed Shirley’s sagging cheek and handed her the basket of food.
‘Poor Sammy. I worry about him,’ Shirley said. ‘He goes behind the tractor and Jeremy can’t hear him.’ Jeremy was her orchardist. ‘I step on you all the time, don’t I, baby?’
‘Be careful around Jeremy,’ Mark flirted. ‘Those plums are an aphrodisiac if I ever tasted one.’
‘You stop it.’ Shirley swatted him but her mouth curled with satisfaction. She was a sweet, distractible old lady and a sharp wit. Mark enjoyed her company and visited often, now that Billie was gone. Shirley settled him in the sitting room with a cup of weak, warm tea. He eased into a faded armchair and Sampson jumped into his lap. The local news droned from the kitchen.
‘Forty mile-per-hour gusts and low humidity are making conditions extremely perilous for fire crews. We spoke to Commander Morales about what to expect in the next hours and days of this late-season blaze.’
‘Does Sammy stink to you?’ Shirley asked. ‘Give him a sniff. I wash him but his face gets all tear-stained and smelly.’
Mark frowned and tipped Sammy from his lap. Shirley was seventy-six and did her best. She could barely keep up the housework let alone the property, and refused to hire help except for Jeremy and a distributor who sold Tulsey’s Premium Avocados to the region’s posh grocers and restauranteurs. Though Mark wasn’t sure how much she listened, Shirley let him complain about his marriage with the patience of a mother. He didn’t see how someone as housebound as Shirley Tulsey could be such a busybody. Since George died five years before, gossiping kept her vital, like a finger plugging a wound.
Shirley cocked her ear to the news. ‘I’m fireproof, anyway. We got through Creighton Ridge in ’78 and Cow Mountain in ’81 without an eyelash out of place. George said we’re not leaving, and by George, we didn’t.’
‘Many residents have voluntarily fled. All are advised to comply with evacuation orders due to the erratic nature of this fire. Despite challenges, Commander Morales maintains a positive view: increasingly intense and frequent fires spells job security for many.’
‘I heard this one was started by Satanists,’ Shirley said.
‘Didn’t they say unattended campfire?’
‘Maybe Satanists left it unattended.’
Mark felt too relaxed to trace the junky vortices of Shirley’s analysis.
‘You remember my friend Eunice,’ Shirley went on, ‘who lived in that big A-frame over the rise? Well, she no sooner moved to Calistoga to one of those ‘over sixty-five’ communities than her house burned to the studs. Eunice is okay –’
‘But not fireproof.’ Mark shook his head in slightly exaggerated sympathy and stood to take his empty teacup to the kitchen. Shirley raised her voice to cover the distance.
‘She lost everything. There was something like a hundred and fifty houses and only two left standing. She collected, you know, those ugly plates and teapots with the kittens, and she was just gutted about those plates. Well, I gave her some necessities and some money and I said to her, honey, you have your life and if those teapots go to cinders instead of you that is A-okay with me.’
Mark poked his head from the doorway with the bottle of Zinfandel. ‘Shirley, mind if I pop this?’
Shirley rose to fetch a glass but Mark waved her away and poured wine into his teacup. He drank responsibly and never in the morning, but Billie was on her way and the day had taken on a thrilling indeterminacy, like the candlelit power outages of childhood. Mark scratched Sampson’s backside to avoid his face and let Shirley carry on.
‘Well, you wouldn’t think any good could come of it, but Eunice found her missing wedding ring still lying in a dish where the bathroom used to be. Imagine! Said her house was see-through as lace panties. The place to her left wasn’t even singed.’
Mark felt so sorry for people. He’d driven with Billie to communities like that. She took pictures at the sites. He’d seen whole neighborhoods go up. So bland they’d never catch your eye, suddenly ablaze, everything solid perforated by thousands of points of light. He and Billie drank gas-station coffee and waited at motels for daybreak. They’d walk along side streets and see cars with melted tires nestled on the ground like sleeping animals. Brick chimneys absurdly erect and purposeless, having outperformed the houses they had warmed. A burnt hospital bed pushed up next to a chain-link fence; underneath, a drinking glass still full of water. People sifting the ashes for their treasures.
Billie always said rule number one was don’t glamorize destruction. Places like the Rust Belt, these destroyed towns – they weren’t just empty sites to gaze upon for gratification and pleasure. Billie wanted to show people living in them. She talked to the residents and fire crews. She argued with Mark about the ethics. For her, it was personal. Given the state of things, he gently suggested, maybe it wasn’t so bad they couldn’t have a child. Billie locked herself in the car and cried all night.
Mark swirled the wine in his teacup and his mind wandered to Billie, driving north. He felt a knot forming in his solar plexus. What was so goddamned important? What was worth coming all the way here for, if not for him?
‘What would you take with you, Shirley? I mean, if it came to that?’
‘Oh. Well, Sampson, of course. Pictures of George. Did you hear? Now they’re saying some activist group’s out there protesting the fire and waving guns. Just what we need –’
‘You’re not worried at all?’
‘Heavens, no. They’re just young –’
‘About the fires?’
‘No, honey. I’ve lived here almost all my life.’ Shirley bent down to pat Sampson, capering at her feet. ‘Besides, smoke’ll getcha before fire, right, Sammy? We’ll just kick back and enjoy the view.’
Shirley’s house was large and outdated with a peaked, timber-frame picture window overlooking the orchard. The rooms inside still retained an air of haphazard activity and little heaps of artless clutter. George and Shirley had been foster parents for a number of years. Pictures of George as a young man aging to an old man lined the staircase.
‘And where else on Earth would I go?’ Shirley laughed.
‘Billie would have liked all this drama,’ Mark said, gesturing out the window. ‘She’d want to photograph it.’ Maybe that was what she was coming to do, it occurred to him.
‘Oh, dear,’ Shirley clucked, stroking Sampson, who’d installed himself in her lap and gazed up at her worshipfully. ‘How is Billie?’
Billie had always treated Shirley with forbearance, nodding patiently through the minutiae of George’s or Sampson’s ailments or the avocados’ verticillium wilt. Billie didn’t open up the way Mark did. She didn’t get close.
Mark shrugged. He didn’t know. He looked her up online sometimes. He wanted to see that she was okay. He wanted an indication that she felt sorry for how badly she treated him. That she missed and still loved him, was failing at life without him, and had broken up with her lover and realized he was a shitty artist and a schmuck. Mark wanted no one for her to ever measure up to him again.
Shirley chuckled. ‘I never understood it. What happened with you two?’
Mark sighed. He’d claimed his marriage troubles were unremarkable, but in truth he’d been too hurt and embarrassed to be specific.
‘It’s not good, Shirley. Even on dates, her voice is still in my head. ‘What about all these facts, Mark? Rate of glacial retreat! Population explosion! Do you have any idea what’s in that burger?’’
Here was a fact. Elephants, monkeys, dogs, dolphins, giraffes. Animals that grieved. Mark grieved like a dog. Waiting at the door, not grasping the finality. Clinging to the notion that the one who left would certainly return.
Sampson leapt off Shirley’s lap and ran around the room trying to bark.
‘She asked me to open our marriage.’ Mark mimed a dagger to the heart.
‘Whammy,’ Shirley said, softly.
‘Actually, she informed me that it was already open. She blamed me. If I only gave her more space. ‘Don’t talk to the neighbors,’ she’d say, ‘I don’t want them to know. Why did you tell your parents about the miscarriages?’’
‘Oh, honey. I didn’t know.’
Shirley’s sympathy was vinegar to his sodium-self-pity, and it boiled over.
‘She thought I didn’t understand her need to dedicate herself to art and causes. Like I was some kind of hedonist consumer. Who cooks animals!’
Now that he’d begun, he wouldn’t be able to stop.
‘How could I ever have an interest that didn’t add to the problem? I spent years of my life trying to make Billie’s day perfect so she might be in a good enough mood to love me. I’d ask myself, what can I do to get a hug like the cat got, just for sitting on the rug? It was hard not to laugh sometimes. There I am on the therapy couch, desperate to be treated like the cat.’
Mark drained the wine in his teacup and poured himself another.
‘She’d lock herself in the studio. I’d go down to the basement at night and scream into a pillow. She couldn’t see that I was grieving, too. Let’s try holding each other for twenty minutes tonight, I’d say, like the therapist recommended. I begged her to stop trying. It was killing her. After that, Billie saw death in everything. It’s the end of the world, Mark, and we’re just dumb, sweaty animals.’
A familiar anguish clutched at his throat, the aching insistence to explain everything, explain the whole goddamn universe if he had to, to give anyone who would listen his side of the story so resoundingly that it choked out hers. Mark took a deep breath. Slow down, buddy. He had a captive audience – he’d try a more rhetorical approach.
‘Here’s what happened to us. Imagine two lovers,’ Mark began. ‘You and George. Over time, two lovers establish a memory system between them. You knew what George knew. When you lost him, you lost a part of your brain. Now you have half a brain. You have no choice but to evolve, to compensate for the loss. You follow me?’
Shirley nodded, slowly.
‘But evolution’s messy. It doesn’t work like a Swiss watch. It works like an argument between the lovers. And it goes on for eons. One lover says, ‘I want this, this, and not that.’ The forces of evolution–’ Mark listed them on his fingers. ‘You’ve got reproduction, genetic variation, competition and survival. Take the giraffe. Giraffes have the highest blood pressure of any creature in the world. That was not the original plan.’
He was hitting a stride, commanding attention. He felt his natural showmanship ignite. It was like his book tour again, before all the mess with Billie.
‘Female giraffes preferred certain traits over millions of years, and so all giraffes grew taller and taller and their necks and legs got longer and longer. The rest of the giraffe’s body had to adapt to keep it alive. They developed unusual blood vessel walls. Their entire vascular system works like compression socks. They have special mechanics to keep them from passing out when they lower their heads to drink. Still with me?’
Shirley was scratching her neck. She frowned and glanced at Sampson, now lunging and pawing at the door. It was time for Mark to bring it home.
‘With humans, it’s our mirror neurons. They shouldn’t be so powerful. We aren’t ready yet for all this complexity.’ Mark stretched both hands toward the view out the window and spread his fingers to convey the mind-blowing grandeur of his determinations. ‘That’s why people hear fire! and go grab their guns. We’ve never, ever lived in harmony with nature or each other. The lovers are still making demands, but we haven’t yet adapted to what we’ve already chosen.’ Mark paused here for effect. ‘You see? Nature lets us choose. The grand design isn’t top-down. We don’t have compression socks on our neurons yet. The giraffes are way ahead of us.’
Shirley struggled to her feet. ‘Sammy! Stop that. Sammy, come.’
Mark dropped his arms to his sides. Shirley wasn’t listening. She was just waiting for him to finish to attend to the dog. This encroachment at the very summit of his exegesis dismayed him absurdly. He was bloviating, and Billie didn’t want him. He was a damn burnt chimney.
‘Sammy, what the dickens is the matter with you?’
A sharp noise from outside startled him. Someone was pounding on the door and shouting.
‘Sonoma County Fire! Is there anybody home?’
The firefighter standing in Shirley’s doorway looked like a teenager, though his neck was thick and his arms were pleated with muscle.
‘Sir. Good morning,’ the man said in a deep voice, incongruous with his appearance. ‘Are you the owner of this property?’
Mark stuck his hand out. ‘Mark Englander. It’s my neighbor’s place.’
‘Angel Hernández. Is your neighbor at home?’
Shirley joined Mark in the foyer. Mark lived alone, beyond the orchard, he explained, on the adjacent property. He peered past the firefighter to the distant juncture of Shirley’s driveway and the road, where two engines were stationed. Eight or nine uniformed men clustered at the rear, appearing to take orders, then dispersed toward the perimeter of the property.
The radio clipped to Angel’s belt emitted muffled snores. ‘Are you aware of the evacuation warning? You folks need to leave before the roads close.’
The smoke appeared to have thickened since Mark arrived, rendering the orchard indistinct.
Shirley sniffed. ‘Is it that bad?’
‘Ma’am, we’re here to protect your property in the event a fire does threaten your residence. Waiting around exposes both you and my team to a great deal of avoidable danger.’
‘In the event?’ Shirley seemed confused.
‘I can’t leave,’ Mark said. ‘I have to meet someone.’
Angel reached into his jacket and unfolded a tattered map. ‘This is the projected pathway.’ With his finger, he traced a line from their area to the location of the fire. ‘All signs point to this warning will be an order in less than an hour. Ma’am, have you followed any standard precautionary procedures?’
Shirley stared at him blankly.
‘Have you packed a bag, arranged accommodations?’
‘I – I made tea.’
‘It’s okay, Shirley, I’ll help you,’ Mark interjected.
Angel turned to Mark. ‘Sir. I need you to go home. Go home now and prepare to evacuate. I’m going to give you a checklist. Do every single step. When we have things here squared away, we’ll come check on your house. And you better not be in it.’
Say there’s no fire and she makes it. Then all this was for nothing. Or, there’s a fire and she can’t make it, and now he has bigger problems than he could imagine.
Mark was pinioned in place, clutching a dishrag. He wasn’t one to tidy up while cooking. That morning he’d used every pan and splattered sauce and let papery garlic skins drift like poltergeists across the marble countertop. He usually cleaned in a manic frenzy late at night. But here was a dilemma: should he wipe the counters now, or later? He consulted his printout of evacuation instructions. Shut all windows and doors, leaving them unlocked. Remove curtains. Move flammable furniture to the center of the room, away from windows and doors. Shut off the air conditioning, shut off gas at the meter, turn off pilot lights. Leave lights on so firefighters can see the house in smoky conditions.
Mark carefully draped the dishrag over the faucet’s swan-like neck.
And that was just the ‘inside’ checklist. He’d have to tackle it room by room. At the very least, he wanted Billie to be able to rest in comfort when she arrived. Which chairs were nonflammable? Some part of her still cared for him, he was sure of it. He would see it in her face.
Mark dialed Billie’s number for her ETA. No answer. She ought to be less than ninety minutes away. Bad reception? He set aside the notion that Billie might have screened his call and left a voice message. ‘Hi, it’s getting pretty smoky. Better step on it if you can.’ A few minutes later, he received a text reply: can’t talk right now be there soon. you can leave I have keys.
Billie had taken only her cameras when she left and sealed the studio like a tomb. Even at his loneliest, even if he could have without breaking in, he had no desire to enter. It was like peering into her psyche, a vault where Billie claimed she felt most like herself. He was afraid he would go looking for a fragment of himself in there and wouldn’t find a trace. Mark left the evacuation checklist on the countertop and set out across the lawn, beige haze shrouding the surrounding mountains like strips of gauze. He tasted charcoal.
He didn’t have keys. But now, he wanted in. What hung on her walls? What hid in her files? What was she coming for? He’d never known what she wanted, how could he guess now? If he knew what to save, would it make any difference?
Yes. It would.
He’d break in. He gripped the lock and inserted two fingers in the shackle. With a hammer, he pounded the fixed end until the lock body released.
He pushed open the door and breathed in the stagnant atmosphere. There was the beat-up Herman Miller chair where she’d let him sit and read when he brought her lunch. There in the corner was the bank of top-of-the-line printers. Adjacent, the heavy wooden flat files, the cockpit of oversized computer screens where she edited images and the old leather couch where he’d dozed.
Mark took a seat at one of the computers where Billie had conducted her affairs, both business and extramarital. He idly turned it on. Password protected. The image on the home screen was a smoking volcano. Mark recognized it as a film still from a documentary. La Soufrière, directed by Werner Herzog. Billie said it was the entire inspiration for her work. It was about the imminent explosion of a Caribbean volcano, decades before. Herzog interviews one of the island’s three remaining inhabitants, rousing the man from dusty, tattered sleep to ask why he hasn’t evacuated. I am here because it’s God’s will, the man replies, I am waiting for my death.
That’s me, Mark thought, soporifically rooting through his wife’s files as catastrophe lapped his heels.
But the volcano doesn’t erupt. The film ends with a Wagner opera, drumroll, a crescendo, and Herzog’s helicopter hovering over the smoke. He’s completely flummoxed. Can’t understand why the volcano didn’t explode. Mark could still recite the director’s last lines, delivered in a brooding, German monotone. There was something pathetic for us, in the shooting of this picture, and therefore it ended a little bit embarrassing. Now it has become a report on an inevitable catastrophe that did not take place.
On the wall above her desk hung a large print of a house with flaming windows that looked oddly animate. It could be his house in a matter of hours. Billie’s prints were all large-scale images of land degradation, things like desertification and salinization from over-quarrying. She documented ‘the devastations of earth.’ With Mark’s generous financial support, Billie’s work had gained a wide audience. She would do anything for the right picture, travelling internationally to locate shoot sites. An industrial sand pit she once scouted in Croatia was blanketed in snow overnight, making all that catastrophic damage look like a ritzy ski resort. She’d had to wait several days for the place to look more miserable. Mark bailed her out when she landed herself in jail on trespassing charges, twice.
Pinned to the far wall was Billie’s collection of Polaroids. Mark stood in front of them and let his focus drift. There were too many to zero in on any single image. Billie would add and remove pictures and the mass shapeshifted like a cloud. It was her ‘shadow work,’ as she called it, but the pictures were lovely, cheerful fragments of home life. Roses, clouds, trees, Shirley and George smiling, Sampson, zags of light patterning the kitchen. Occasionally, Mark saw himself or an attractive dish he’d cooked, but he had learned not to count on their presence and Billie would relocate or remove them without mention. He wasn’t sure what the pictures meant to her. In truth, the collection was Mark’s favorite of all her work.
He studied a snapshot of George and Shirley seated side by side on the sofa. George with a half-smile, petting Sampson. Shirley leaning into him and staring straight into the camera, lips sealed as if trying to repress a private joke.
How he missed Billie. He wanted to lie on the couch and weep. How could he take just one thing? He’d have to take it all. He unpinned the photos one by one. He found an empty box and began filling it with loose snapshots. He couldn’t look anymore, didn’t need daily reminders of her absence.
Some nights when he dreamed, in rushed the barbarian hordes. Last night, he dreamed of taking photographs of restless seabirds searching for land. It was a good dream, he thought upon waking. A good dream sent to the wrong head.
Don’t wait for an evacuation order. Patrol your property and monitor the fire situation. Place a ladder at the corner of the house for firefighters to quickly access the roof. Leave lights on for navigation in the smoke and dark.
Mark left the studio with the box of snapshots and stopped at a cabinet in the garage to retrieve a bottle of Armagnac. He raised the bottle to his lips, breathing in the scent of vanilla, dried fig and chocolate. He continued moving through the evacuation task list, pausing to check his phone for road reports. Closures to the east. Billie still stood a chance. He set the box of photos in the front seat of his car and slipped his phone into his overnight bag. He hoped Shirley was okay.
His eyes stung. Mark pulled his T-shirt over his nose and mouth and coughed into it, then yanked it off and tied it around his face. Connect garden hoses to outside water valves or spigots for use by firefighters. Fill water buckets and place them around the house. He heard it faintly at first, then louder, the blare of a European ambulance: the hi-lo siren of a passing patrol vehicle that signaled the evacuation order.
He returned to the kitchen for ice-water and Armagnac. There was one thing left to do: gather flammable items from the exterior of the house and bring them inside or place them in the pool. Mark checked around the backyard and saw deck chairs, awnings, patio umbrellas, pool equipment, recycling bins, propane tanks. He didn’t care what happened to any of it. He flicked on the pool lights. Wind rippled the surface of the water, now pearly and dusted with ash. Mark wheeled a freestanding grill to the edge of the pool and pushed it in. Water sloshed over the tiles as it sank. He gathered the cushions and flung them in, heaved in the deck chairs, patio furniture, garbage bins and pool floats. Any potential fuel, everything made of wood, fabric, foam or plastic. He gazed at the reef of his submerged possessions, newly exotic in the blue depths. Hot, lethargic and headachy with smoke inhalation, he slugged a mouthful of brandy, peeled off his clothes and hurled himself into the water.
He rolled onto his back like an otter and hugged a pool noodle to his chest. He felt cleansed and tranquilized in his wavy grotto. If he missed one thing in those first months after Billie left, it was that the tears came so easily. He cried not just for himself, but for everyone. He’d never been more raw, his big, stupid heart spatchcocked on the kitchen butcher block. He gazed at the sullied sky, the sun as red as wrath.
Billie’s decision was to go chase a big life. Why couldn’t she chase him? He was big. He was huge. He wanted her to explain what he could not. She used to rebuke him for beginning every explanation at the beginning. Mark, I just want a simple, straightforward answer, she’d say. I just want to know why the music has to be so damn loud. You don’t have to start at formlessness and void.
Flakes of ash stuck to Mark’s skin. He barrel rolled in the water, the warmth of the brandy spreading into his limbs. So he was given to a little interpretive profligacy. So what. Billie had once called his life’s work pocket science. It’s all a joke to you, she’d say. You’re not helping anything. We’re not going to make it, knowing us.
You mean all of us, Billie, or just us?
Mark knew what he wanted to tell her now. It was fluttering just at the edges of his mind. He had to start at the beginning. He would make her understand.
Now the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. God breathed and life came to be, and the earth was wrath and volcanos. Volcanos churned out carbon dioxide that got trapped inside rocks. Bacteria produced nitrogen and plants processed light and gave off oxygen. Nitrogen stabilized oxygen; oxygen supported complexity. The ocean was infused with salt and carbon dioxide by rivers carrying dissolving rocks, trapped by algae that released dimethyl sulphate when they died, which seeded clouds in the atmosphere that reflected sunlight and rained fresh water over land and sea and formed the lungs of the planet.
Are you with me? Now. Picture you and me. Not like we are now, like we were. When we were happy.
Two humans in the image of the creator walked naked in the Garden, a universe of beauty, order and goodness. They were given full insight to God and all creation. God invited them to choose this universe freely, but instead they rejected God to figure things out for themselves. They realized their mistake and were ashamed. God discovered this, and in infinite mercy banished them from the Garden and gave them what they chose, lives of labor and toil and searching for their creator. Stupid people admire Eve for choosing knowledge but she gave up the Light of the World for a trick in a tree.
Mark was losing his train of thought. Fatigue overtook him. He felt like the last man on earth, suspended weightlessly between water and air, sensation and oblivion.
So. The Garden. No, after that. He closed his eyes for the briefest nap and then it occurred to him. What he knew and Billie didn’t. The problem was that we could choose.
‘Mister. Mark. Mister Mark.’
But what kind of God lets us choose?
‘What the hell?’ Angel shouted.
Mark thrashed in the water. Angel’s face glowered at him from the edge of the pool. Mark groaned and rolled over to exorcise the eerie image. Angel’s radio crackled to life with bleeping and orders wreathed in static. He turned and stalked away, hunching over his radio.
‘Occupant located at residence. Intoxicated but unharmed.’
‘– Repeat, Hernández? Occupant is with you?’
‘Affirmative. Fucking asleep.’
Mark batted away the noodle and dog-paddled to the edge of the pool. He clamored up the ladder, plucked up his damp clothes and dressed hastily. He was dehydrated and drunk. He looked around – nothing in the immediate vicinity was visibly on fire.
Angel resumed shouting. ‘You want us to leave you here? Is that what you want?’
‘No.’ Mark rubbed the sting of smoke and chlorine from his eyes. ‘I was waiting for my wife.’
‘We’re trying to fight a fire, here. If someone’s unaccounted for, we have to divert people to search and rescue while we’re trying to put out a jillion-acre fire.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Mark heard the beat of rotors. In the distance, a chopper with red and white blades dumped a sheet of water over the orchard.
‘Get your head right. We’re not here for your personal life.’
Mark looked to the driveway for Billie’s car but saw only his own car and one engine.
‘Look. I get it,’ Angel said, more gently. ‘But pull yourself together.’
Mark shook himself. ‘Okay. Thank you for coming.’
‘Thank your neighbor,’ Angel said. ‘She said you’d still be here. I almost left but she made me drive over. Her place is toast.’
He turned, and there was Shirley carrying Sampson, a bandana tied over her nose and mouth, muffling her voice.
‘Billie called me, honey.’ Shirley said, pulling down the cloth. ‘They turned her around. She tried to call you, but you didn’t answer. She was crying her eyes out. You’d better let her know.’
‘Are you okay? Oh, Shirley.’ All along, he’d thought he’d been doing her a favor.
She nodded. Sampson’s barks looked like an old man’s silent sneezes, his little body convulsing with excitement in Shirley’s arms. ‘I said goodbye to George.’
Mark walked to the edge of the lawn where he could see the far corner of Tulsey’s Orchard, whipping with red flames under billows of greasy, umber smoke.
Angel clapped once. ‘Champ! Let’s go!’
Mark tried to comprehend what was expected of him and turned toward the driveway.
‘No way,’ Angel said. ‘You come with us.’
He let Angel herd him aboard the engine with Shirley and another firefighter. The interior smelled of sweat and nylon and was cluttered with radios and flashlights, spiral cables and straps, and rows of cushioned seats that looked as if they might eject passengers in a crash. Over the rumble of the engine’s ignition, Angel bragged to the other firefighter, who seemed like a new recruit. ‘Man, I knew it. Chief was against my aerial approach from the start and wanted a slice of my butt.’
‘Wait!’ Mark cried.
‘No, no,’ Angel began, but Mark had already thrust open the door and leapt to the asphalt. He sprinted along the driveway to his car and scooped his bag from the passenger’s seat with the box of Billie’s art.
When he settled back in his seat, he dared not look Angel in the eyes. Angel shook his head. ‘You need to get your priorities straight.’
The engine pulled onto the road and picked up speed on the route out of the valley. Mark’s phone screen was clogged with missed calls from Billie. He thought about what to say.
‘Good,’ Shirley said, gesturing to the box in Mark’s lap. Mark looked at her with curiosity. ‘Billie told me on the phone. She’ll be so relieved. And happy that you’re safe.’ A smile twitched on her lips and faded.
Mark gathered her bluish, pale hand and held it tight in his. When he filled the box with snapshots he’d been thinking only of Billie, but now he realized that he had managed to save a few images of George.
What else had Billie told Shirley? Mark imagined Billie rifling through the photos and wistfully remembering her life with him. It wasn’t too late to salvage what was still worth keeping.
Angel was carrying on with the other firefighter in the front of the engine, about how they would get orders to do one thing while another thing went on burning. You’d never dream so many things could happen at once. Then suddenly, the wind would shift and the fire would blow elsewhere; they’d seen it happen.
He could meet Billie on the coast in a few days and hand her the box himself. The ocean air would be fresher. They could have coffee. Take a long walk at Portuguese Beach, and he could show her the spot from his dream where seabirds wheeled over the coves.
His phone screen lit up with Billie’s number.
‘Mark?’ Her voice sounded distant. He heard wayfaring noises in the background, at some park or gas station. ‘Where are you? What happened?’
He peered out the window at the flashing scenery, the burnished hills and trees, the midmorning light as rich as dusk. He thought of his pathway to Shirley’s through the orchard, the wooded umbra alongside the trees. ‘I’m with Shirley. We’re evacuating.’ It sounded extraordinary. Like they were leaving Earth. For several moments, Billie didn’t speak.
‘Shirley told you most of it, I guess,’ he finally said. ‘I don’t know about the house. I grabbed the Polaroids. The shadow work. It’s with me now. It’s safe.’
Billie didn’t answer and hung on the line, as if waiting for something more from him. ‘The Polaroids?’
They were not leaving Earth, but driving to a suburb somewhere with a motel and a mall. Billie would never look for him there, or anywhere. ‘Yes. What –’
‘That’s all? I mean – thank you – is that all you got?’
Mark gripped the phone. He’d chosen wrong.
Author’s note: Thank you to Bradley Cohen.
Image © Bob Dass