The Hoseman Cometh
The squirrels Sunday were in stampede upon the roof. Don’t know what that was about. I mean, the squirrels are always scampering around on the roof. But generally they’re not in great noise about it.
Maybe: a celebration. That they could even be on the roof. Because ten months ago Sunday, nobody was on the roof. Because there wasn’t enough air up there. Squirrels, in their druthers, will move through the air—trees, wires, roofs, etc. But, in the fire, the squirrels stuck to the ground. So did the birds. Because the air had gone wrong. Restlessly moving in my rounds about the house, I, for hours, disturbing little clouds, of ground-bound birds. Flying no more than a foot off the ground. Because the air—their world—had gone bad on them. All, was fire.
There were a lot of sparrows in residence that day. In flutter. A foot off the ground. No sparrows Sunday. Though they should be coming back about now. Done with their annual summering up in Canada. Though they don’t have to come back. Just because you live in Paradise, doesn’t mean there will be sparrows. Joe Ben, she lived less than two miles east of here, but she didn’t get many sparrows. And she could be kinda cross about it, too. Why should you get all these sparrows? She’d complain. And I, almost none? Where, in that, wondered she, is fair? We found out, in the fire, where is fair. Found out: sometimes: fair doesn’t exist.
Joe Ben painting her outhouse Sunday. Her house didn’t burn in the fire. But everything around it did. All the homes of her neighbors. Her pines. Her oaks. All her yard. She’d spent years, cultivating a magical acre of landscape. All gone. She couldn’t live in it. What the fire had done. So she moved to the coast. And because the coast is expensive, she moved into a little house (she first called it the Christmas ornament, it’s that small, but recently she has upgraded it, to the mini-chateau), that doesn’t have a bathroom. Instead, she has an outhouse. Which Sunday she was painting. Though she calls it a bathhouse. So it will feel more like that. Than an outhouse. She’s long been fascinated with medieval life, she reminds, and it’s pretty medieval, living in one structure, and traveling out to bathe, and waste-recycle, in another. So that’s what the fire, did to her. Blew her back five hundred years. Also, the fire, made her name, now, Joe Ben. Because she’ s drowning. You think a person, can’t drown in a fire? You think wrong.
Maybe the sparrows, heading here south, are remembering this as a place of fire. Where sometimes you can fly only a foot off the ground. Because the air has gone wrong. And so they’re deciding: let’s not go there. We can winter somewhere else. The place, it was there when we left. True. But maybe it’s not there now. Maybe there was more fire.
I can understand that thinking. But it would be good if they could understand mine. Which is that they need to come back. Because everything here needs to be how it was in the fire. The wildlife in this town is all out of whack, it’s been that way since the fire, no one is as they once were; the only constant is that the people who were here on this land in the fire, they are here still: the squirrels, the jays, the crazy woodpeckers, the feisty little crest-heads, the doves, really in mourning, now. The sparrows, they were here too, then; and so, they need to be here now.
I turn on Radio Paradise, which a couple years ago moved from Paradise to Borrego Valley, which is why it didn’t burn in the fire, maybe get some music to juice me along in this thing, which I don’t really want to write, I’d rather lie prone and yearn to the oblivion of sleep, but it’s an almost cut my hair thing (“we will now proceed to entangle the entire area”), gotta do it, and some woman is there in a monotone “Utopia”: “it's a strange day/no colors or shapes/no sound in my head/i forget who I am.” Because everything is connected.
The hose gives me a hard time when I go out to water the blue dawn, flowering nicely now, also the drift roses, and the peppers. The hose hates it when I screw on the rainbird sprinkler head. “Get that thing off me!” it shouts. “Sprinklers are useless in the fire! Leave me raw and ready, or go to the brass nozzle—we’ll high-pressure all those ember fucks that come arcing in out of the black of burning Frank’s!”
“Hose,” I tell it, “get a grip. It’s okay today to water the plants. We’re not in the fire. Look around. Do you see any fire?”
“Yes!” it shouts. “You crazy fuck! It’s everywhere! Look over there!”
I look over there. Well, yeah. The hose has a point. Because the paint store, it’s flaming mighty high. Rocketing fire across the street to toast the crow-roost pine. Firefighters in the alley are ripping the swamp cooler off the Subterranean Rat Dog Warren; cooler caught fire. In a little while, the firefighters will be gone, and then that car in the lube-man lot will take fire. And I’ll carve up my arms crawling through the deer-hole in the chain-link fence separating this place, from that, with the buckets of water, to get at it, the fire, because that car, in flames, the hose, even with the high-pressure nozzle, will find itself, furious, unable to reach. And then, will come the no-more bucket-toting. Because the town water will be gone. With the car still burning. And I. Then. With nothing.
When, after the fire, several days on, the water came back, all over town the hoses sprang back to life, furiously spitting. They were so angry. They had been fighting so hard—so hard!—until: no more water. Deprived of their water, there in the fire, the hoses had collapsed, into unconsciousness. Only to awaken again, days later—to this. All of it. The town. Gone. The whole town. Twisting and spitting, writhing furious serpents, the hoses come back, to the not to be. Like that hose alongside the ruins of the concrete house across Foster: wailing: house all gone! When I’d fought so hard! For, with the hose knocked out, the fire to that house had come dancing in through the roof. Burnt all the insides. Watched that house burn for hours. Did I. Concrete house. Like this one. Concrete bleeds heat from the inside of a house, to the outside. That’s what it does. That’s what the McClelland man said. Why a concrete house can remain cool, come summer. But this wasn’t summer. This was November 8. And into November 9. Did that house burn. The concrete of that house, it couldn’t bleed it out fast enough, the heat of the fire. Months later, days it took, to bring the skeletal concrete remains of that house down. Jackhammers. Singing their song.
The day the water came back, I walked the streets. Hoses, everywhere, come alive. The people of the hoses, days gone. When the hoses had gone silent, starved of water, there was still town. When the hoses awakened, days later, water again running through them, the hoses now ready again to fight the flames, the town was gone. The fire had taken it all. The hoses, enraged, in agony. Twisting, writhing, spitting. All gone. Too late. Nothing to be done. Water pouring from a main in what had been the ceiling of the collision shop. Pouring water on a vast canvas of melted paints, like Jackson Pollock had stepped giggling from the flames, to abstract all over the floor; howling, fire, demon. That shop Sunday wrapped in a huge white shroud. Presume because it’s bubbling with toxins. People in the Andromeda Strain suits moving in and out of the great white tent. Such things, they are just normal. The way it is. If the tent were not white, but instead of gay colors, it would be kinda like an oversize Renaissance Faire tent. Harkening back to the medieval days of yore. When there were the tournaments. Maybe Joe Ben. Drowning there in the outhouse chateau. She could get her one of these tents. The festive kind.
Radio Paradise now pouring forth Waterboys. “November Song.” Because everything is connected: “meet me on the mad parade/when the midnight bells are chiming/we'll dress up as the harlequin and the clown/pile up all the wonders that we've made/in a tower too tall for climbing/and we'll burn the damn thing down.” Hey Joe Ben. Lookie here. We’re in the music. Harlequin and clown. The tents towers too tall for climbing. The town burned down.
Nikolai Tesla saw:
There are four laws of creation. The first is that the mind can not conceive or mathematically measure the source of the whole bewildering and dark plot; in that plot fits the whole universe. The second law resides in expansive darkness, which is the true nature of light, of the inexplicable, and is transformed into light. The third law is the need for light to become the matter of light. The fourth law is there is no beginning or end, the three previous laws always take place, and creation is eternal.
This is Real, but sometimes it’s hard. Like, we’re in the second law, here, and still: the expansive darkness. Darkness at noon. Day for night. They say, of the day for night, there in the filmmaking, that you can’t shoot the sky, in day, to make it look like night, because it just really won’t look like night; it won’t look real. Yeah, well, those horse’s asses, who say that: they weren’t in the fire. Because it was day for night then for sure. “In most shooting circumstances, the sky at night will be brighter on the horizon and very dark in the actual sky. If you’re shooting day for night, there’s really nothing you can do to simulate this nighttime occurrence other than do a lot of post-processing which will take forever and likely look terrible.” No. Wrong. It’s easy. Just shoot in the fire. The “actual sky,” it will be “very dark.” The sky: smoke. Endless thick black smoke. The “very dark.” While “on the horizon,” it “will be brighter.” The brighter: that is the fire. The flames. Coming to take you away.
Now on the Radio Paradise there’s a song, “Drive,” from out of Apocalyptica. Because everything is connected. And that’s what in the fire people did. Drive. Drive! Drive! From out of the apocalypse. Some of them did, anyway. Others, on the drive: they didn’t make it.
I talked with a lot of the body-searchers, when castaway in the maroonment. The people working up here then, they wanted to talk. They were expending all this titanic energy for Paradise, but there were no Paradise people around. All the Paradise people were gone. Usually, I was the only one, they ever saw. None of the searchers had ever searched for anybody, anything, in anything, like this. The guy from Plumas, been at it 45 years; after this, he said, he would retire. No more. He could no longer sleep in the bed with his wife. From the kicking in the sleep. The screaming. He needed to sleep away from her. So she could sleep in peace. For him. There was no peace. There’s fire in Plumas tonight. I think of him. I think of everyone, in all the fires, everywhere. The guy who said, “after a while, everything looks like bone.” And then the bones came for him in his dreams. The fire captain who’d come up from the southland; 35 years in urban search-and-rescue. “Cremated remains,” he says. “That’s what we’re looking for. Like ashes in an urn.” And his face wet. Silent tears. Such things, they, then, were just normal. The way it is. Every day, grown men, in tears. How could they not? Anyway: necessary. For that is how life here begins. With the tears of all the people through all the ages time-tunneling back to form the oceans from which life sprang. Eternal recurrence. Sometimes the body-searchers would find bodies unburned. Usually elderly. Heart failure, maybe. Or smoke inhalation. Smoke inhalation, probably. For smoke inhalation most often how people die in a fire. Before the flames ever come to them. They’re thinking now it was smoke inhalation that took the 34 divers who burned in the bowels of the Concepcion off Santa Cruz Island. That brings it back. Talk about trapped in a fire. Smoke inhalation is not pleasant. He says. As he lights another cigarette. You can get a taste of it, if when out by the camp fire—the pleasant kind of camp fire, not the Camp Fire that was the fire—and the wind shifts, and drives a good load of smoke down your lungs. You can hear in one of the 911 calls a woman as she dies of smoke inhalation. If you haven’t listened to it: don’t. Just trust me. It’s not like those people on the boat passed peacefully from sleep across the River Styx. No. They passed first. Through “smoke inhalation.”
We all feel fire more now. In the Faceborg fire tubes, closed, open only to the burned, the burned open themselves to those who elsewhere are in fire. All over the world. When a couple weeks ago that shanty town in Dhaka in Bangladesh was lost to fire, the fire tubes people were right there. Hopes and prayers. Then a guy came in and harrumphed that maybe there were too many people living too close together there. Everybody else shut him down. Because none of that mattered. What mattered is their town burned down. And so they were us. Didn’t matter that they might be poor. Like we were poor. That other people maybe thought their town was stupid and unsafe. Like people thought our town was stupid and unsafe. And that’s another thing: Trump people. Some people think you should disassociate yourself from Trump people. Cast them off. Well, I burned in the fire with a Trump person. And I will never cut that person loose. Ever. It’s a The Defiant Ones thing. Ever.
Maybe some of these scrub jays voted for Trump. I don’t know. I’ve never asked. Our relationship is not on that level. Such things don’t matter. I do know they were having quite the nice Pleasure Valley Sunday, and that’s what I want for them, that’s what I want for all of the burned. All over the world. Friday I brought back for the jays from the unburned lands a special extra hefty jumbo fun pack of peanuts in the shell, and all day they spent feasting on those. Except for those they buried. Which was a fair amount. So they’ll be there. When comes a fire. I used to tease the jays, about burying all those nuts. Lighten up, I’d say. It’s not like there’s going to be a famine. As long as I’m here, the peanuts will continue to flow. But they knew better. And, now I know, too.
Northern Star Mills, down in Chico, that’s now mostly where their nuts come from. Since the feed store across the street over there, though unburned, stands mute, as to whether it will reopen. And we can’t wait. Me and the animals. The pricing on the nuts, there at Northern Star, it is not consistent. It depends on who is ringing me up. Recently a ringer told me the price had spiked to $2.50 a pound. Apparently there was some peanut shortage out there or something. But then Friday at the register were the northern stars who know me as the damaged fire man who lives across the street from the Paradise feed store that won’t reopen and who buses down to Northern Star for the feed for the birds and the squirrels. And so, somehow, the peanut shortage, it had magically abated: that day, the peanuts were $1.29 a pound.
Early on after the town reopened, and I’d fixed on Northern Star as the place most likely to feed the people once fed by Skyway Feed, I arrived one afternoon to find they were out of the five-pound bags of Volkman squirrel-mix to which the wee gray beasties here had already avidly adjusted. I stood there in front of the empty shelf. Paralyzed. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t come back with nothing. A northern star glanced my way as he strode by, then stopped, and came back. I think I was putting off a lot of smoke that day. I explained the situation. And he opened a bag and then began cruising the open bins, scooping from them various seeds and nuts, dumping them promiscuously into his bag. “We’ll just make our own squirrel mix,” he said cheerily.” “But they’re all different prices,” I protested. “Don’t worry about it,” he said.
See, in this world, there are people who are kind, and there are people who are oblivious. And it’s not constant, it wheels: for nobody is always kind, as nobody is always oblivious. We all blink on and off. Like the stars when they twinkle when there is not the day for night of the fire in the sky, blotting them out. But, always, there is more of the kind, than there is of the oblivious. Even if only by a little bit. I firmly believe this. And you will not talk me out of it. Ever. So don’t even try. Like, that’s how I paid my rent Friday. The oblivious, they oblivioused. But then arrived the kind.
Moving the sprinkler to the plant people in the back, I look across the alley. Below me, the hose is cackling. “You’re looking at the building that the day after the fire you thought the fire was in there, because you thought the corner of the building was giving off heat. But you figured that since none of the firefighters were alarmed about this fire you thought was in the shop, they knew the fire was in the building, but had determined it was no danger, and so you wouldn’t worry about it either.
“You were fucking out of your mind!” the hose roars. “Thinking it would be okay to have the fire in the building! And anyway, it wasn’t even the fire! It was the heat from the sun! That’s what you were feeling! Every time the sun’s rays fell on you, you thought it was the fire! Your brain, it fucking fried in the fire! And that’s why you need to listen to me. Because I’m the only one who has any sense around here.”
“I am listening to you,” I tell the hose. “So, break, give me, please.”
“Then get that sprinkler head off me!” the hose bellows. “I need to be ready, for when the fire leaps Pearson and torches that pine!”
“Hush, hose. You had nothing to do with that pine. You’d been knocked unconscious by then. No more water in you. It was the fire engine spider that crept up the alley and took care of that pine. After the fire gnome had come.”
“But I’m ready now!” the hose howled. “I’m ready this time!”
Silvo the Silvanian, fire cat, he gets annoyed, when I talk to the hose. A lot of what I do annoys him. If only because it’s new, and different. Cats hate that. They want everything that they become accustomed to, to always stay that way. If there is Change, it is, by definition, Wrong. Formerly Silvo the Silvanian was one of the nine semi-ferals living in the alley over yonder and cared for by the paint store woman. Where his name was Crossing Guard. But then the paint store burned down. So now he lives here. And I’m not like the life that once was. I’m life different. I talk to hoses and shit. You think people had a tough time in the fire? Tens of thousands of cats came through the fire, and nearly every one, is today in life different. And not much liking it. At all.
Shortly after the end of maroonment, when the town was again open, I was in the shower, when I heard a rather savage pounding on the front door. Before getting in the shower, I had affixed to the front door the usual sign, reading: “In The Shower. Out Very Soon. Come On In.” So, whoever this was, with the pounding, s/he was not of the normal people. I wasn’t concerned that the pounding meant the fire had come back. Because I didn’t understand yet that the fire is eternal. When, betoweled, I went to the door, I found on my porch an angry man. Behind him, idling in the road, was a big white pickup truck, hitched to a flatbed trailer, piled with a motley assortment of goods. The angry man told me he’d burned in the fire, and the truck and the trailer, that was all he had left, except for a vintage Cadillac, which the lube guy had told him he could park in the lot next door to this place. He had done that, he told me, but then he had noticed a hole in the chain-link fence.
Yes, I said, that’s the deer hole. The deer go through there to sleep in the lube lot, because it’s good deer shelter there, quiet, with grass, nobody can see them. All that’s in there are five fucked-out cars; the lube guy stores fucked-out cars there, until he restores them. He had fifteen fully restored cars, the lube guy, off somewhere else, but they all burned in the fire. His only cars that didn’t burn, they were the five, as yet unrestored, fucked-out ones, in that lot. Because the fire thought stuff like that was funny. And also, in the fire, the deer hole was real useful to me, because I crawled through it, with the buckets, to toss water on the fucked-out car that kept flaming. Until finally the fire gnome arrived. And put the fucked-out car fire dead out.
But the angry man didn’t want to hear about the glory of the deer hole. He had decided it was a menace. Transients, tweakers, he told me, would crawl through it, and then maul or make off with his Cadillac. It wasn’t likely they’d make off with it, I told him. The lot was chain-linked all the way around, and gated and locked at both ends. The gates and the locks were in fact something of an issue, there in the fire. When the fucked-out car took fire, I ran across the street to the lube man, who was doing the hose man in front of his lube shop, and I told him the fire had come to the fucked-out cars, and so I needed him to unlock the gate, so I could get in there. But then he went Eeyore on me. “It’s probably all going to go anyway,” he said mournfully. And then he turned away. So that’s why I went to the deer hole. And no transients or tweakers ever crawled through there, I told the angry man. In all the years I’d lived here. Only deer. And me. When there is a fire.
But the angry man couldn’t hear. All he could do was anger. He told me he had wired the deer hole shut. That’s why he’d pounded on the door. To let me know that. And to ask if I’d keep an eye out for the transients, tweakers, and other roving marauders, who would be coming for his Cadillac. But he was too angry to leave me any contact number, before he rolled off,
This guy was a new experience for me. We didn’t have people like that up here, in the maroonment. People living in fear. Roiling with negative waves. The people here in the maroonment had come here from all over the world, and they had come here to heal. That’s what they were about. And that’s what they did. It was a special time. And it seemed like we would all be special. The burned, evacuated to the unburned lands, a lot of them, then, felt that too. We’d lie awake, deep into the night, my fire companera and I, and talk across the maroonment, on the messenger, about how it would be. When the town reopened. The fronts and the barriers and the walls and the barricades and the masks that people put up and put on, all those would melt away. The kind, it would be uber alles; we would all be softer, gentler; of the healing. Someday I’ll go back and listen to those. It will be hard. Joe Ben was meanwhile occasionally sounding the cassandra, telling me I was setting myself up for a fall. It won’t be like that, she said. People, they will go back to being themselves. And, mostly, I know now, she was right. But not all the way. Because a lot of the time, it is softer, gentler. If only a little.
The angry man, he was a harbinger, of the people going back to being themselves. Around the same time, in a tube, I came across a woman who, when she had been a DA and a probation officer, had been a horrible, vicious, cruel person—hundreds of people are today doing tens of thousands of years in cages, because of her. But now, since she’s retired—you want to talk about associating with Trump people!—she is somehow accepted in civilized company. And there she was. Whipping up tsunamis, of negative waves. About the fire. Bitching about this, criticizing that. The damn town wasn’t even open yet, and already she was grinding people. Blame-casting. Jihading. Factionalizing. No! I thought. This is the old way! We don’t have to go back there! But of course we did anyway. Same ol’ same ol’. But I know it doesn’t have to be that way. Because I lived another world. And my fire companera and I, in those nights, we saw it continuing. We could feel it. As, yes, it will continue. Someday. Not in my lifetime, of course. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I have looked over.
After the angry man left, I thought: I have some wire cutters around here somewhere. So I went and found them. And then I went out there and cut the wire that the angry man had put over the deer hole. Because nobody is sealing that deer hole. Ever. Nobody. The deer need that hole. And so do I. For when there is a fire. The fire next time. When that comes, I, like the hose, aim to be ready.
Saturday I walked down to the Inferno. For the pizza. The Inferno man these days parks his pizza truck in the little parking lot of Skyway Antique Mall. Which didn’t burn in the fire. But it’s been silent, these many months, as to whether it will reopen. Like Skyway Feed. While waiting for the pizza, I wandered round to the front, to see if it had broken its silence, put up on the door, maybe, a sign, of some kind. Announcing its intentions. And lo: it had. That is the sign you see here now. That reads: “Not Open Yet. Keep Checking Back. It Is Happening.” Well now. Signs of life. I circled the building. I was determined, to make Boo Radley come out. And, in the course of things, he did. And said the plan was for the store to reopen in about 20 days. So, by the first of October, then. This man and I, we had the hug. Because that’s what you do. When you burn in a fire.
I know that a lot of the time it seems like we will never get out of the dark. It will always be darkness at noon. Day for night. Like the fire took it all, and the town is just dead. Because it was hurt so badly. But I think maybe that sign is more true: “Not Open Yet. Keep Checking Back. It Is Happening.” Not happening, yet. But it will. In the meantime, “we work in the dark; we do what we can.”
It’s like the Paradise High football team. Preparing for the first game of the season, they practiced in the dark. But they didn’t know it was dark. Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times columnist, came down to watch the team work out. At Om Wraith Field. Take a look at that name. And then try to tell me everything’s not connected. Plaschke, puzzled, that we were all in the dark, sought out the guy with the keys to the lights. Paul Orlando. Why is it dark? Plaschke asked. “It’s dark?” Orlando said.
One of the players told Plaschke: “You have to understand, we’ve all run these plays since we were ten years old. We could do it with our eyes closed. Nobody notices that it’s dark. Even though we’re not in our houses that burned up, we all feel like we’re home.”
Now Radio Paradise is staging an Elephant Revival. Joe Ben, she’s always liked elephants. “Down To The Sea”: “small town living/she swears soon that she's leaving/and I've said it myself/over and over/I found her in the ocean from the bottom of a town/nearly drowned/she'll make it eventually/down to the sea/and the mess we made was history/in the dirt I'll be/I wait patiently/in the dirt we'll be/oh we'll be.”
That’s what the town is. Mostly. Now. Dirt. With the burned all scraped away. Dirt. Red dirt. Red dirt girls. Because everything is connected. And Paradise High won that game. By a lot. I don’t think the other team even scored. Because it had to be that way. Because sometimes, it has to be a Frank Capra movie. Like when in the maroonment PG&E said it planned to have the whole town lit again with electricity by January 1. And I decided it needed to be by Christmas. And also the town then needed to be open. And there needed to be a public Christmas tree. And all the burned, they would gather round it. Like a Capra movie. Because sometimes it has to be a Capra movie. And it happened. Just like that. Just like it also happened, for us: Apocalypse Now.
It’s like in The Misfits. Which is anyway what we all are. Rosayln, she is there for the animals. Like all these bodhisattvas. Up here still. For the lost and lonely fire cats. Winter coming on. Need to bring them in. From out of the cold. “God bless you, girl,” Gaylord says. And Rosalyn asks: “How do you find your way back in the dark?” And Gaylord says: “Just head for that big star, straight on. The highway’s under it. It’ll take us right home.” Yeah. Like that.