I sink deep into Ted’s couch and am taken against my will back thirty years to the duplex townhouse looking down on the freeway. The one Sam and I rented in 1969 after our house in Santa Cruz burned down.
Just when we think we are so special. So smart. So lucky. Sam is on his way to a Ph.D. in Literature; I am scheduled for interviews to become a public school teacher. Dad’s wedding check buys us a very hip little sports car, a Fiat Spyder convertible, British Racing Green. We live in the guesthouse attached to the garage of a popular Professor. He pays us to proofread his novel and baby-sit his kids. We are included in faculty dinners after abalone expeditions. His wife takes me under her wing, offers to come teach me how to bake the New England sandwich bread she packs in her kids’ lunches. Harriet is a solid 5’11”, towering over the dough as she kneads and punches it into the required consistency.
“Now, your turn.” She is confident I’ll catch on.
I step over to take her place at the counter. My kneading originates from a point between my chest and my chin, about six inches above the counter. I try to bully the dough the way she does; it’s a farce. I glance around for a step stool; I lack leverage. Worn out with squeezing, I step aside so she can finish up. She chatters about baking bread from scratch since she was a little girl. Chop wood. Carry water. Take notes.
After the fire, these rooms are reduced to a six hundred square foot pile of smoldering stuff we used to care about. The walls are still standing, but blistered and black. My Mother’s first batch of original oil paintings claim a spot in one of the layers of stinking rubble. She left them with us on her return to Spain. Her charred canvasses curl like French crepes.
The floor-to-ceiling shelves of classic writings are now soggy blackened globs of pulp. They have toppled into a jagged heap of literature. Humpty Dumpty.
We don’t have a thing to wear, literally. Word spreads to the clubby Lit Department, and good-hearted people stop by with bags of things you pass on to strangers when you hear they’ve been vanquished. I am grateful for the warm sweat pants, already broken in on jogging trails by faculty wives. My eyes light up when I see Levi’s under a stack of Penney’s T-shirts. I am a contestant on a game show, creating outfits from a sack of clown clothes.
In her hurry to rejoin Don Diego Manuel Gomez de Esperanza, Mom also left behind the VW Squareback she bought in Germany, shipped to New York, and drove across the U.S.A. We had agreed to sell it and send her the money. Luckily, her insurance takes care of replacing the blown out windshield. That’s the only damage to her car. It’s been parked outside, buffered by fog. Our precious sports car, garaged against the rust, is incinerated. Insurance doesn’t cover blowing up our own car, so we keep hers. We need transportation to get me to my first job interview. I have two weeks to find something to wear.
During the interview, the screening committee asks me about the fire. I guess I need to talk about it. I haven’t spoken out loud since the limp hoses were reeled back onto their drums, and one of the big sweaty firemen told us we were lucky to be alive.
“We expected to be pulling corpses outa here,” he says.
“Thank you for coming,” I whisper. That is all the voice I have.
I spend the morning staggering around the yard with a shovel and a broom, going through the motions of ‘cleaning up.’
We tour the Salvador Dali landscape of our former digs. The rotary telephone is solid again now, after melting into the silverware drawer. Fire-sharpened timbers have pierced through quilts and mattresses and are lodged in the dog’s favorite spot under the bed. Clothes are welded together in the closet. My beloved Navy Pea Coat is slumped over my leather boots, until we poke it with a curtain rod. Then it disintegrates.
The stench is everywhere and deep. Burnt wet carpet. Burnt wet books. Burnt wet upholstery. Grotesque bricks of fabrics and nasty plastics. High on the kitchen counter, two scorched and petrified loaves of New England homemade bread.
We set up cauldrons of soapy water and form an assembly line, trying to wash things back to normal. We start with things that still have their original shape. Dishes and glasses. Lamp bases. Belt buckles. We scrub and rinse. We dry and let dry, but it is futile. All afternoon, neighbors help us shovel our household artifacts into the bed of a pickup truck. One of them, a Chaucerian scholar with lamb chop sideburns who had survived the bombings of London, mercifully hauls it away to the dump.
At about noon, the fog lifts and people begin to arrive at the scene of last night’s commotion. They walk, jog, and push strollers past our barbecued house to see for themselves. A surreal parade of vicarious victims. Speechless, I stand out by the curb, leaning on a rake, listening.
“We saw the sky, it was nearly four in the morning, and we wondered if it was the Wilson’s place, but they’re the section north of here. Thank God it wasn’t the Wilson’s.”
Adrenaline now gone, I collapse. Post traumatic flu. Fire sweeps through my head, throat, and lungs. I climb into a charity nightgown, all cotton with a rip at the armpit, and crawl into the day bed of the landlord’s writing trailer. I linger in a smoky delirium for fourteen days.
The sauna-building dream careens and loops: All the trips the husbands make for lumber and hardware to ‘do it themselves.’ The measuring, the sawing and hammering, the revelations and the banter. Bringing in the wood stove, connecting the pipe. Declaring the project complete. The grand opening. The maiden voyage. Voila!
“Ooh, the redwood is spicy, the carpentry fine,
The night dark and brisk, stoke it up! Bring the wine!”
The four of us finish the wine at about midnight. We’ve been sweating and dripping and drinking and giggling. We retreat to bed, toasted, and go into separate comas for a few hours while waves of heat from the wood burner continue to rise up the tin chimney and hover in roof beams, blocked from reaching the cold night air by a botched incision through the roof.
“The house is on fire,” I tell myself quietly, not wanting to frighten Sam and the dog.
“The house is on fire,” I repeat firmly, slipping out from the blankets to investigate further. No smoke, no flames, no heat.
“The house is on fire,” I chant as I check the trash basket under the kitchen sink. No smoke, no flames, no heat.
“What’s going on?” Sam inquires from under the quilts.
“The House Is On Fire! Get Up! Get Out!”
He and the dog meet me in the kitchen for a wild-eyed nod that we should all get out. We still do not know we are engulfed in flames. It is the deafening roar that quickens our exit.
A deep-throated growl grows strong and relentless. A terrible new sound suggests that something is sucking the oxygen out of the rooms. The windows hold out as long as they can and then implode.
“Grab something and GO!”
“But I can’t swim!”
“Don’t worry! The fall will probably kill you!”
The doorknob leading from our kitchen to the landlord’s front porch is not hot. I scurry the few steps across the landing, barefoot and shaking, clutching my yellow nightie around me as I knock knock knock on the big front door. “And say, is Mabel coming out tonight?”
Two adults, two young children, and an aggressive Airedale need to be told the house is on fire.
Knock, knock, knock. Then bang, bang, bang. Push the buzzer and bang at the same time.
I can hear footsteps from the Master Bedroom running down the long hall toward me. Breathe. Just let them know the house is on fire and they need to get out. Grab a robe and a pair of shoes for each kid and let’s go!
Harriet opens the door and starts howling even before I tell her the house is on fire.
For an instant I feel a little superior. I’m surprised she panics so easily. I have been calm and levelheaded. But there’s no time to gloat. She runs bucking and squawking down the hall to save her family, so I give the Fire Department a call.
“Get off the phone! I’m calling the Fire Department!”
“I’M calling them! Hang up!
Now we both hear sirens and the rumbling of fire trucks.
“They’re already here! Take the kids across the street!”
She rouses her children and drags them past the arriving battalion of heavy trucks. I grab a couple of stuffed animals and flee. Now I understand why Harriet made such a fuss when she first saw me. She could see what I could not: a backdrop of flames shooting up and out my door right behind me, mad for oxygen, gobbling the night air. Roaring fireballs are still erupting, cutting through the red blare of the dense fog bank.
I notice her husband, the professor, barefoot in boxers, several rungs up a ladder leaning against his house. He is wetting his roof with a garden hose as the west side of Santa Cruz wakes up to watch the sky explode.