Every morning I drove by it and watched the sheep's foot pressing the ground into the ground. There is a new bypass being built, the only bypass and it's on the road on the road to my house. The people who live here, we don’t know why it is necessary. There aren’t that many of us driving, and none driving through. We wrote to the paper about it for months and the developers wrote back. They wrote back that we are stubborn.
And it’s true: we like the roads the way they are; they are the roads we learned to drive on, and we always brake in the same places, we always pass each other on the way to town, on the way from town, waving. We want no difference in our lives here. We want mostly to be left alone; we do not welcome newcomers unless they marry in, and still they will be new, even with children and grandchildren, tainted to us by this partial life lived somewhere else.
The developers don’t understand and we don’t make the effort, speeding up to pass their trucks on the highway, talking about them at the post office in the mornings, the trip for the mail made into town after ten, after coffee. In the parking lot at the post office we wait for Post Office Bob to turn the red light on outside: the mail’s ready. Waiting, we talk. Waiting, we hug each other and ask after those of us who are sick, those of us who are well, those of us who have gone, who have returned, different. Waiting, we read the paper full of our letters, full of pictures of us and stories about us, the slow news day every day.
And so the developers dig out trenches, they truck in gravel, they take their lunch breaks and go home to where they live, where they live away from here.
At the post office in the mornings we don’t talk about it, but we are worried for the day when it is done, when it is real. There will be a ramp on the Grade Road to board it, four big curving lanes, petals, concrete.
As a child, I learned to read smoke. Smoke from a distance, directionality of the flames. I was terrified of the smoke rising in the distance every summer, up, up, up; a swirling plume, the sign of firestorm.
When I was growing up, before I had left and before I had returned, the volunteer fire department was all we had to keep us safe, and it was enough.
Donny Marshall saved our house once, with his dad Sammy standing by his side. They parked the fire truck between our house and the flames, the yellow paint bubbling up, erupting as fire licked it, crackling as my sister and I held onto our mom’s hands and cried.
Sammy Marshall laughed at our mom as she stood in front of him, sobbing, the smoke thick and woody. “Judy,” he said, “Why are you cryin’? I’m not gonna let your house burn down.” He drained the water from our pool as the embers swirled higher and higher, as our dad watched from his perch on the roof, his stance sure on the old shingles, putting out spot fire after spot fire as the embers landed, smoldered.
Donny Marshall worked at the grocery store across the street from our house. He used to give me and my sister slices of cheese to keep us occupied while our mom shopped. We would stand by him at the meat counter nibbling the yellow squares into the shape of a house, into the silhouette of our cat. Our hands weren't clean but we were with good people, we were in a place where it didn't matter.
When Janie was nine, she broke her leg, badly. I ran to her and held it up as straight as I could, though her foot was facing the wrong way and she was crying, laying down there on the ground. Our mom ran across the street to tell Donny what had happened and when she did he took off at a dead run to see Janie, to help her.
For six weeks after the accident, Janie stayed in a hospital bed in our living room. She could not walk. She could not stand. She had physical therapy appointments and doctor’s appointments and we did not know how to get her to them, but Donny came when we called, any time that we called, with the backboard from the volunteer fire department. I remember him lifting her onto it, a rag doll, and carrying her to the car where he laid her gently on her back onto the seats.
Once, when we were little, our mom drove us through the neighborhood she grew up in. From the back seat, we saw where her grammar school was, a car dealership. The street she lived on no longer new, the houses looking shabby. The fence my Poppi built still there.
This was the place she told us about when she told us the stories we loved to hear, the stories about her life on Tortuga Avenue.
The story about taking care of the dog who knew German, of it taking off after that squirrel and my mother not knowing the word for “stop.” The story about overflowing the bathtub, terribly, when she was babysitting and talking on the phone with a boy, our Nana running down the street that night carrying every bath towel in the house to our mom. Our Nana and our mom laughing, cleaning up the mess.
It is the real place for the stories we heard; it is not quite as we imagined in these stories about our mother, stories about what it was like to grow up in a neighborhood, with other kids to play with, in a neighborhood where you could ride bikes on the sidewalk. This, something we had always wanted. This, not the thing we had always thought of.
We talked about it later, though we did not know what to say.
Where we used to get sugar cones of ice cream on Fridays after school there are now open trenches, there is a new stoplight. They've demolished the Frosty to build the new road. The big concrete frog that once stood outside is missing, really missing. I read about it in the paper, the theft of it in the night, the hiding.
There are different people living here now.
We spend our summers gauging the dryness of the brush as we drive from place to place, the brittle yellow fields a thing I’ll miss when I finally leave this place, the color of the grass in summertime something I have never seen anywhere else.
The sheep’s foot has pressed the grass into the grass into the dirt. In the field where the bulls used to stand and watch traffic on the road, the soil is now woven through the land, matted. These are places where it will take more than one spring to grow again, to become like we have always known again. The bulls will not be back.
Not knowing another life, a tamer life, I have grown up in a place poised always for disaster, our police scanners on when we hear the borate planes overhead. We know the buzz of these planes and hearing it we run from the house, breathless, waiting. On the deck we crane our necks and watch them, low and loud, retardant staining a line down their bellies. From here, the borate drops into the flames, the pilots careening low over trees already lost, pulling the nose up as they enter the plume of smoke.
On our deck, we watch them fly to the places they fly to, pray never here. On our deck, we see the red-orange mark. A scar, a saving grace. We stay there until their east-bound image is crowded out by the oaks and manzanita pressing closely in on us, the contrail all that is left, the encroachment a blanket pulled tight against the rest of the world, a camouflage. This brush, this impending disaster.
In textbooks I have read about serrotiny, the necessity of flame for growth. The cones of pines must be roasted, burnt, dropped into flame before they will release their seeds on charred earth, a clean slate. In the place where the horrible fire was when I was a child, the new pines are just now growing. Twenty years later, they are as tall as me.
The houses there once, gone; there is the place where the fire jumped the road, ourfirefighters surprised by the ingenuity of flame. For the people who lived there, seeing flames leap from canopy to canopy to their shingled roof, it will never be safe again. Land left for the lodgepoles, for the bull pines. Serrotinous things, we are not.
There are some things we know by living in this place our whole lives. There are some words we have learned for the things we comprehend, for the things that happen. Those who are new don’t always understand; they lean over and whisper questions in our ears as Donny and Sammy cook their chicken-in-a-barrel, as we tell them not to swat the meat bees away. They want to be shown the wooden flume, unaware that we still take our water from it, snow melt to drink during the summer months. Yes, we’ll take them, asking as we walk if they know how to tell poison oak from anything else, but never to our favorite place.
When I was little and had cried my mom would take me into the bathroom and wash my face for me in cool, cool water, with a rough washcloth, pulling like a cat’s tongue.
In our old house, the house that my dad grew up, the house that I grew up in, we were always having fun, but things were always breaking, always coming down. Doing my math homework at the kitchen table one night a huge panel of drywall fell from the ceiling. We had seen it coming. For months the bubble in the latex paint had grown with the rain, each inch in the gauge reflected in the swelling on the ceiling. Each night we watched as Dad stood on a chair and poked a small hole in the skin of the leak, by day growing and growing, a foot in diameter, creeping toward the doorway, pushing towards the coat rack. The cold water drained out into the mop bucket as we slept, the crisis averted.
My mom fell through the deck once, her legs dangling there in mid-air, my dad rushing out, letting the screen door slam shut, to lift her up. My sister and I helped her put Band-Aids on the cuts.
For years we tried to sell the house, the house that almost burned, the house my dad grew up in, the old gray Victorian behind the nursery with the field full of Sammy Marshall’s cows out back.
The owners of the grocery store where Donny worked almost bought it, once. I grew up with their son and one day, when we were both in fifth grade, he came over to look at my room to see if it could be his.
The realtor told us to leave the house, to let her show our home to our friends. We went across the street to the grocery store parking lot and sat in the old delivery van eating candy bars and watching them move from room to room.
In the family flower shop when I was little I watched my dad take branches from one tree and fix them to another. A better root system, a sweeter fruit. An operation. I’d seen him make cuts like these before; he’d let me be in charge of putting the purple PVC glue on the sprinkler systems we rigged up each growing season, the pipes housed in concrete boxes sunk into the ground. In the winter we wrapped the boxes in blankets, hoping on the nights when it was coldest that what was inside the boxes wouldn’t freeze.
Dad held the branches carefully, and I watched, quietly, matching cuts to cuts, the glue on each half a suture. Watching me watch him, wanting to know all he knew, he told me the glue was special, full of nutrients, a lunch for the trees.
These new people, they want the bypass as if the tar-patched Grade Road is not good enough, is a clogged thoroughfare. We can all fit here but we have to wait. We have to be patient like we always have been, pulling our cars to the edge of the road when Sammy Marshall drives his herd to summer in the high Sierras, the cows plodding along, knowing the place they need to go. The cowboys and their dogs follow behind, all the boys I grew up with whooping and hollering, waving at me from the saddle and tipping their hats.
Months before coming home the summer of the bypass, I will wash my face in the sink at night and smell the scent of forest fire, smoky, sweet, hot like home. It’ll be winter in Illinois and I’ll hold my hands to my face, put down the bar of soap, let the Mississippi River water swirl at the drain, each lather a little less of the layers built up, the scent memory in my skin, wishing to be back.
Lately I have dreams that I am walking on that deck gingerly in the summertime, stepping only on the places in the boards where nails have been pounded in, evidence of struts, the structure underneath. I’m as old as I am now and walking towards the lavender bush in the backyard with a pair of shears, wanting to cut the flowers and bring them back with me. The hibiscus has dropped red blooms into the swimming pool, staining the water, the fingers of pink spreading slowly, their pace picking up with the wind.
I understand why my old boss at the museum is distrusting of those who leave, of those who let their upbringing slide right off them, shed skins like snakes as we count the rattles.
I want to tell her I am the one who has come back. Again, and again, as my body leaves the trail, as I rinse and dry my cheeks.
At the end of the summer, my sister and I go down to the construction site and watch the concrete trucks and the asphalt trucks layering and layering, the view of the city over the rise on the old road gone now. We drive home with the windows down, quiet in the Northern California evening, yellow grass, thunderheads building in the high mountains, a west-lit sky.
First Publication: Catch Literary Magazine, 2009