A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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Big Sur, California. Yesterday on Highway 1, I drove forty miles of misted mountain roads, trusting myself and a senile Ford Bronco not to skid off any of the thousand-foot drops. I was spending half a summer afternoon to save an unwelcome stranger from getting lost.
The lumber company’s representative was the only person in Monterey wearing a suit — a long, red suit that suggested a long, slim torso. She had a soft handshake. “Mr. Gale? I’m Lydia Davis. Good to know you.” Her face was angelic and remote. And as always, when I meet an attractive woman, a question flared in my mind.
She lifted her tapestry garment bag. “I’ll just put this in the back, shall I?”
“No. It’s filthy back there.” I hung it in the cab. As I was rummaging for a clean towel to spread over her seat, she hopped in. “There’s dog hairs,” I said, but I liked her.
It was her first time to Big Sur, she told me. I didn’t narrate, just silenced the radio, wheeled onto the coast road, and let her look. As the buildings thinned out and green and gray landscape filled our windows, I remembered my first visit: awe and the immediate passion to stay.
The cliffs are so severely beautiful that most people can’t live here. Because it’s summer, Winnebagos and Land’s Ends waddle around the curves, fatly straddling the white line, as terrified tourists clutch the straps of their seat belts. Driving right through the sunset, making it to the Monterey RV site before dark, then struggling back down the next day to look again. Did you see that? mouths a fleshy face, squinting through a window that keeps in the AC. Many never imagine that they could do more than drive through.
And it’s true, they can’t. Every millimeter of this coast is owned, locked solid into the safekeeping of the few dozen of us who will not live anywhere else.
I thought the woman was staring at me as I drove, until I realized she was looking past my head at the cliff. The mudslides two springs back sloughed away eleven acres of forested mountainside here. Though the state rebuilt Highway 1, the treeless slope of rock and dirt remains, unrecovered and unrecoverable, a dark, grainy scar on the green range.
The Pacific crashes into mountains here, with no introductory foothills, few beaches. Highway 1, the only north-west road in Big Sur, dips and swerves like a roller coaster. First you’re flying up in the redwoods, breathing eucalyptus and fog; straight below are tiny coves and river mouths. It’s a descent you feel in your stomach. Then you’re skimming along the beach under a kaleidoscope of sea gulls. They scream around in circles. Whitecaps slap and hiss off the shiny black boulders, foaming back in swirls. Through the air, you feel the slam and push of tons of water pounding stone into sand. Echoes wash off vertical slabs of granite. You’re sliding down the razor of highway that cuts off California from the ocean.
“This is where I live.” After we’d lurched up the quarter-mile dirt driveway, I parked and let the Ford rattle and cough itself quiet. The buzz of insects and sunshine came through the windows.
“Wow.” She sat, staring at the bluff, the high point of my land and the property’s main attraction. Seeing her face, it was easy to feel proud.
We came here from Maui when Jaimie’s father died, leaving us this legacy. We put up the house while Jaimie was pregnant with Renee. I built it in one long story, new rooms straggling out from the main line as we added kids. I used moss-colored shingles so it would blend into the woods. Jaimie used to say it looked like a huge fallen log.
On this side, facing the road, I kept the windows small and few, so the tourists couldn’t peer in and so we could have more glass facing the ocean. In summer, when sunset lasts an hour, the colors light up my bedroom. In winter, I can fall asleep watching the late fishing boats, their diamond-and-emerald running lights moving across the blackness like constellations.
So we wouldn’t need central heat, I built two fireplaces, with bricks my friend Jack gave me from a big place that fell in the last earthquake. This house has no real foundation; it rests on a plate frame of four-by-sixes. I don’t expect it to be here long. “This is home,” I said.
It looked like a schoolyard, there were so many kids.
Milling around the sheds, straggling out of the house, leaving the screen door open, stretching like cats on the front porch. Renee, my oldest, and her boyfriend Leaf were back visiting from L.A., and about a dozen of her closest friends had come over to hear about the Real World. With my other two, and their buddies, there were quite a few faces turning to check out the newcomer. Some of the little ones trundled up to us. Kenshi, the baby, clasped my legs possessively. The others looked up with calm, curious eyes, like animals.
“Is he yours?” the woman said. Everyone asks that, because he’s got intense Oriental eyes, while mine are a vague, corn-country blue.
“My mother is Japanese,” I said. “She lives in Hawaii.” I realized there was no reason to have added that.
Kenshi hugged my legs more tightly. “Is she going to give me a bath?” He hooked an index finger in his mouth the way he does when he’s nervous.
“Ask her.” I stroked his head to encourage him. The boy was nearly four, and shouldn’t have been so skittish with strangers. It was my fault — he never saw anyone new, and the only woman he knew was my housekeeper Jan.
He ducked behind me, clinging. “It’s OK,” I said. “She won’t bite.” I disentangled his arms, making him stand up straight.
She squatted, knees cracking lightly, to meet his eye. “I’m just here for two days, OK? To help your Daddy.”
“And we’re glad to have her.” I nudged him. “Aren’t we?”
But the help I needed was no mere evaluation of my acreage. I felt as if the upper part of my chest held secrets from the rest of me. My gut was fine, my mind was clearly and cleanly confused, but in the cavern below my throat, shadows moved. Once, night fishing with Jaimie, I had shone a powerful flashlight into the black water. We saw the tip of something big vanish into a cave.
We shook the kids loose and went to talk about the trees. Walking to the bluff, we leaned forward against the slope, watching our footing in the loose, dusty soil. On top of the hill sixty acres of pine and redwood forest began, climbing in a ragged rise along the coast.
I let her walk ahead of me down the soft, sandy fire lane. The trees stretched up and around us, their thick green arms silencing everything except the ocean and wind. I stopped to remove my sandals. “It’s a good foot massage,” I told her, but she just stood waiting. So we went on, me padding behind, quietly reveling in the cool, silky sand. If she was moved by the drama of all the wild, straight trunks pushing into the sky and filtering sunlight onto their carpet of dead needles, she wasn’t letting on.
“So?” I said, finally.
“These look to be in excellent condition.” She spoke without turning her head, and her straight, blonde hair swung neatly with each step, brushing her shoulders. “The core samples came back looking good, too.”
The previous week, two lumberjacks in orange helmets had whined at my trees with a buzz saw and giant electric corers. They punched holes in a dozen trunks, scooped up soil in baggies, cut off several limbs, and drove their truck out over my lawn.
If the trees are healthy, it’s a blessing from the past. The last three years have been very dry, and most of the new brush has died. No one has a green lawn anymore, and although water isn’t rationed here as it is up in Santa Cruz, none of us cares to waste any. But redwoods find water better than we can; they reach hundreds of feet down, into the heart of the mountain. We water our gardens by hand now, and put up signs telling tourists not to start fires.
Mine is the only property in the county that can be logged — the lumber company found an old contract for Jaimie’s father’s land, and their lawyers jumped on it. In one way, it would be safe to sell the trees — it wouldn’t lead to development, and the company would have to replant every foot. In the long run, it would hurt nothing. But in the short run — say, the next hundred years — there’d be a sixty-acre gap in the curve of the coast. The fishermen would see it, and everyone in Big Sur would know what I’d done.
“Look,” I said. “You might as well know that I’m not committed to selling these trees.”
Her shoulders arched as if I’d poked her spine. “I can understand that.” She hiked the jacket down. “It would be a difficult decision to reach.”
It sounded as if she were reading from a script, as if Hudson Lumber trained them with role-playing. I imagined her leaning forward in a plastic chair, studying a video on Handling the Uncooperative Owner.
“I hope you’re not going to try to talk me into it,” I said. “I’ve had plenty of advice already.”
She stopped and turned, backing off the path. A fall of green needles framed her face. “Mr. Gale, that isn’t in my job description. I’m here to evaluate the lumber’s worth to the company.”
“Good.” But I didn’t believe her. Hudson Lumber had been writing me every month for two years about the “maturation date,” which was two falls ago. When I’d ignored a year of mail, the phone calls started. Politely sexy ladies, suggesting I please consider their offer. Men with hearty Canadian accents, bellying up to me, Bud, reminding me about the bottom line.
When it started, Jaimie was still alive, teaching health and phys ed at Big Sur School. But after two years without her, I began thinking: Hawaii in winter, Big Sur summers. I do landscaping, carpentry, even construction — whatever rich people need done. And rich people abound both here and on Maui. Only last month, when our housekeeper Jan decided that she was ready to apply to college, did I tell Hudson that they could come see the trees. I expected a fat, dusty businessman, I suppose, or a pair of greasy yuppies.
But Lydia Davis was as plain as a poppy in her bright red suit. As we walked again, I watched the backs of her knees move under the skirt. Pantyhose, in the August afternoon. The things some people do for a living.
She made a few notes in a round script, used her calculator, and said she’d come back the next day to take pictures. I decided that Renee could take her back to town.
We found Renee and Leaf holding court by the well, lolling seriously in a square of sun with dark glasses and tanning butter. The boombox by Leaf’s head was playing one of his band’s tapes, called Lyrics Inside. The other kids sat on logs and on the ground.
“Don’t they have sun in L.A.?” I said.
“Not like this.” Renee adjusted the shimmering ponytail on top of her head. “And the beaches have tar on them. It gets on your feet and you have to use baby oil to get it off. I discovered that by myself. I’m going to patent baby oil as a secret tar-remover.”
“No tar around here,” I said. “Or in Hawaii either.”
“Hawaii, Hawaii.” She saw I was with a stranger and sat up. “Hi, I’m Renee Gale,” she said. “My father doesn’t do intros.” They shook hands, the businesswoman looking hot and uncomfortable in her suit, my daughter gracefully holding up her untied bikini top with one hand. “What brings you to Big Sur?” she asked, as if I hadn’t been talking about the visit for a week.
The woman explained and handed over a card. I had never seen anyone give my daughter a business card before; the fact that she tucked it into her sunglasses case made me nervous. “I’d be delighted to give you a ride,” Renee said. “It’ll give us a chance to get acquainted.”
Where did she learn to talk like that? Then I remembered that her new job was in sales. Renee gave a few languid orders, and her friends scurried past me to clamber into the truck bed. Still in her bathing suit, talking pleasantly, she opened the passenger door for the woman, then jogged around to the driver’s side and slammed herself in. The truck dutifully started, then jolted down the drive, spinning dust and pebbles back at me.
I headed across the worn yard. The sky over my house looked like a fragile glass bowl. If touched, it would shatter. I moved carefully.
In the side garden, a few more peppers were ripe. I pulled them and announced that I’d make omelets for whoever was hungry, but only Kenshi followed me in.
The kitchen, on the north side of the house, is always cool and dim. As my eyes adjusted, the familiar shapes appeared: the pink, rusted Frigidaire with pineapple magnets, the aloe vera plants, my mother’s painting over the long redwood table. In every other house I know, people have photographs or calendars or maps on the wall — places they’d rather be. We have none, except for Mama’s huge, wild landscapes of Hawaii.
My mother, Eiko, uses crepe paper and oil and watercolor, building up worlds of texture and depth. People have offered a lot of money for her to reveal her techniques, but she laughs at them. “Nah, I keep this,” she says. “Is mine.”
Guarding her secrets, she makes maybe two pieces a year. She has sent us several, scenes of the peace-blue valley where I grew up. I wonder if the kids ever notice them.
I got down the heavy, cast-iron skillet from the highest cupboard. It’s harder to clean than teflon, but something about the slowness of it, slow cooking in an old pan, appealed to me that night. I melted butter over a low flame, rolling the pool around the rough black bottom. Kenshi hung on me as I whipped egg whites. “Don’t,” I said. “I’m busy.” But he clasped my knees harder, and for once I let him. He had so little, I thought — mother dead, the older kids always running ahead of him, me out half the time and not a model father when I was home. After I scraped the onions in the butter to soften, I picked him up and set him on my hip. “Do you remember Mama using this pan?”
He looked into my face with the unset expression of a three-year-old. “Mama,” he said. A giggle lifted out of him, then he sneezed.
“Cover your mouth,” I said, and wiped a paper towel across his upper lip.
From the porch, Jan called for us to let her in, her arms were full. Kenshi wriggled like a cat to get down, then ran to open the door, feeling important.
“Look!” Her long hair was tangled with leaves and her shirt was dirty, but she was smiling, triumphantly clutching six containers of blackberries to her chest.
“Small this year,” she said. “But sweet.” Sucking her wrist where the thorns had scratched, she eased past me to the sink. Her hands were covered with tiny bits of fruit, and inked ruby black in the creases. She washed them off and splashed her face, then put on a long apron that had been Jaimie’s, tying it tightly at the waist. She’s bigger than Jaimie was, tall and voluptuous, and stronger than some men.
I’m fond of Jan and have fantasized about us being lovers. But forty-four is twice twenty-two, and she was Jaimie’s close friend. Anyway, now she’s going to college.
Kenshi reached for the berries, glancing sideways to see if we minded. I stopped his hand, but Jan chose half a dozen plump ones. “That’s all till after dinner,” she said. “I ate about a thousand myself, and I want to make a cobbler.” He toddled away with his prize to sit on the porch and savor each blackberry.
“I heard you mention Jaimie.” Jan poured the fruit into a colander, heaping it into a shining black mound. “I try to talk about her to Molly sometimes.”
“Thanks.” I was dicing vegetables, a job I hated and always did as rapidly as possible. “I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do or not.”
“It feels right.” She swished the faucet over the colander, running silver-cold water on the black. “To help them remember her.”
Could I use her criterion for the trees? It did not feel right, certainly, to let them be logged. But it would feel right, with the proceeds, to buy a town house in Pukalani, in the new building near my parents. Ever since it went up, they’ve wanted me to invest in it; it was laughable until I thought about the crop.
My mother is eighty-one now, and tinier each time they send a snapshot, but besides painting she still does all the cooking, usually on her hibachi, and still grows orchids as lacy and virginal as brides. My father, seventy-six, says he never sees her sleep.
I visited them two years ago. Right after Jaimie died, I took the baby. Renee and Molly stayed here, because my parents’ house is a one-bedroom bungalow, and the guest room is a tent. Mostly we would congregate on the lanai, where Mama sat and held the baby as if she never wanted to do anything else. Her fingers were barely larger than Kenshi’s even then; now they’d be the same size, and wouldn’t he be thrilled?
It worries me that my children can’t swim, but the water’s always too cold here. The town house is near the ocean. Kenshi and maybe Molly could finish growing up there, with their grandparents and with real beaches and soft air. Renee’s beyond my call now: although L.A. is geographically closer to Hawaii, it’s really further away. She loves the city, and Molly is standing on tiptoe, looking over her big sister’s shoulder, ready to follow.
Renee left the June before last. One night, Renee and Leaf had spread a map across the kitchen table. “It’s a straight shot.” Leaf combed a hand through his short, shining hair. He meant to L.A.
“It is not.” Without looking I could see the stubborn set of Renee’s chin. She’s always been that way, ever since she was a baby. “Look how the line wiggles. Every wiggle is five miles of S curves. No way can we get a trailer down there.”
“Route 1 is pretty winding,” I said. “But if you go over to 101 it’s freeway. What happened to San Francisco?” I sat down, a glass of water for an excuse. I felt like an intruder.
Leaf and Renee exchanged looks of significance. “We think the scene is better in L.A.,” my daughter said in her new, self-mocking way.
“Did you talk to Jack?” I asked. Jack Baker runs the state park ranger service, and sometimes needs summer help.
Renee shook her head, her eyes dark. “We’re really going, Dad.”
“We’re not just running off.” Leaf has a mellow voice, very quiet. I never understood how he could perform in public. “I have a thousand dollars for the first couple of months. If I’m not working by then, I’ll get a day job.”
“A grand isn’t going to last past a couple of weeks,” I snapped. Still, I was impressed that he’d saved that much from painting houses. “Have you thought about a security deposit? And you need a car in L.A.”
“There’s a bus system.” Renee sounded sure, but under the table I could see her foot tapping.
“Can’t you just wait?” I pushed. “A summer working for Jack would help you save money. Leaf, you could make more tapes and send them down to L.A. first, and make some contacts. It seems crazy to run off right after graduation.”
“Graduation was a month ago, Dad. And we’ve already got contacts.”
Ten days later she called from Santa Monica to brag. Leaf had already made two hundred dollars in gigs. She’d met a woman who had a silk-screen shop and wanted her help. “That’s good,” I kept saying. “That’s great. That’s good.”
Molly came in as I was finishing the first omelet. “I’m starving.” She sucked in her cheeks to look like a famine victim. Always hungry these days, she’s starting to round out like me. “Get a plate,” I told her. “Hey, you remember Mama using this pan, right?”
She gazed at the skillet, rubbing her stomach. “I remember lots of things. Once in a while I use her curlers the way she showed me when I was ten.”
“Curlers?” It seemed an odd remembrance.
She took the spatula from my clutch and slid the omelet onto a black plate. “I have all Mama’s books in my room. I have her pocketbooks. I have the exercises her doctor gave her to do after she gave birth.”
“She saved everything,” I said. “Every drawing any of you ever did is in that wicker hamper in the bathroom. I used to try to make her throw things out, but she’d say, ‘You can’t get rid of that! That was from Thanksgiving!’ ”
“Yeah.” Molly chewed fast — too fast, I wanted to tell her. “I called Greyhound. It’s only sixty bucks.” Her big plan was to ride down to L.A. with her sister and stay for a few weeks. I’d heard plenty about the proposed visit, but it was the getting-back part that interested me.
“I suppose sixty bucks isn’t outrageous,” I said. “How long did you want to stay down there?”
“I haven’t decided yet.” Molly grated pepper onto her plate, her chubby, childish hands working the big grinder vigorously. “Don’t worry, I’ll be home by Christmas.”
Never have I been able to make decisions well. After dinner, I sat across from what used to be Jaimie’s chair. Where I used to sit and watch Jaimie make decisions boldly, unimpeachably. She could pick which state to live in, choose names for babies, plan menus, and select gifts from catalogs. But she could never let go of objects. Would she have held on to the trees?
I found a pencil and wrote on the back of Molly’s school notebook:
As I pondered the useless list, Renee and Molly’s friends traipsed in and out for the bathroom or the refrigerator. A bunch of them were spending the night at our campsite on the ridge: a fire pit, some log benches, a dammed, two-person pool in the tiny stream that shimmered down the side of our mountain. Eyes closed, I imagined how the spot would look surrounded by stumps. Would the forest ever come back? Who would water the saplings and weeds while I was away?
Instead of reaching a decision, I had a little nap. The list lay on my knees, and in my dream the inventory of pros and cons grew and grew, but I couldn’t read them.
Eleven-thirty our time was only eight-thirty in Hawaii, so my father was awake when I called. “Eiko’s outside,” he said, “playing with her flowers.”
“That’s OK. You have better ears anyway. How is everything?” This is code for: how is your health? Is anyone any sicker?
“Not too good.” A chair scraped, and I heard a little grunt as he sat down. “I feel OK, but last time I went to the doctor he put me on a diet.”
High time, I thought. My father is not your typical overcompensating haole, making up in the tropics for what he missed on the mainland. He’s still got dull pink skin and a Midwestern paunch. Back in Ohio, he was a tomato farmer. We moved to Hawaii for my mother’s sake after Campbell’s bought out his land. He avoids the sun and loves candy more than any grown-up I’ve ever known.
“What’s the diet?”
“Terrible. No meat, no chocolate, no cheese or even real milk. Just this soy stuff. I told him, I’m American, we don’t get milk from beans. He says my arteries are all clogged up. Could have another heart attack tomorrow, he says.”
“It sounds like you should stick to the plan.” There was an expensive pause.
“Your mother just walked in,” he said. “Honey?” Then more loudly, “Eiko!”
“Hi, honey!” My mother tends to yell since she’s been getting deaf. “I was in the yard.” I wah een du yud — the accent I grew up with. “I’m gonna clean my house. We got company tomorrow.”
“Oh yeah? Who?”
“Mori visiting from Tokyo. His first time! They’re renting a boat, go all over.”
“Sailing?” I was jealous.
“We’re going too. Show them the cove.”
“I was thinking of visiting, myself.”
“Yes? When?” The excitement in her voice felt like a reproach.
“Well, I was just thinking about it.”
“You will bring everybody?”
“Oh, no,” I said. “Just Molly and Kenshi, maybe.”
“He is going to school yet?”
“Mama! He started a year ago!”
“Oh, yeah,” she said quickly, hiding the forgetfulness. “You still got the girl?”
“Jan. Yes.” But how much longer?
“That’s good. They need a mama.”
“I know,” I said. “I know.”
Floating howls came from the woods — the gang and their dogs, baying at the almost-full moon. Midnight, I guessed, and went out back for a leak.
Urinating on the garden is supposed to keep raccoons away. I marked my territory and then stood looking at the night. The yard looked gray under the moon, and Kenshi’s tricycle lay across some pampas grass, quietly rusting. Beyond the staked tomatoes and two rows of corn, the land broke away, tumbling nearly vertical down to the water. Boulders lined the drop for several hundred feet, but the kids could skip up and down them as if they were stairs.
The ocean lay as shiny and calm as a pond, with only little ripples shaking themselves out in the puddle of moonlight. The girls and their friends would be dancing in it, I hoped, or walking and whispering among the trees.
Back inside, I went to check on my son. He lay humped up like a rabbit in his crib, his bottom high. Silver light spread across his Mexican blanket. Over his bed is a black-and-white scroll, Kenshi in Japanese characters, which my mother painted for me when I was little. His name is my mother’s maiden name, my middle one. A boy’s first name, so we saved it for the first boy, a gift from his grandparents.
When I was his age, I could see out the window from my bed. Outside, always, a huge camel rode forward in the wind. The camel was three palm trees, really, but arranged exactly like the head and hump of a dromedary. I never told anyone about the camel, never thought to any more than I would have pointed out the household furniture. But now I’m sure my parents never knew about it. I keep wondering what my children see that they don’t mention to me.
As I was going to put myself to bed, the screen door creaked open. “Dad?” Molly’s voice. She sounded spooked.
“It’s me.” I clicked on a light.
“There’s a fire.” She was sweating; there was a gray smear on her cheek. “I’m sorry. Paul and some other people started it when I was in here.”
“Put it out,” I said. “You know there’s no campfires.”
“No, it’s out of control.” Her voice cracked; tears were coming. “I’m sorry. What should we do?”
“Idiot!” I was dialing the fire department. “How could you let them do that? How big is it? What’s the fuel?”
“I don’t know. I told them to throw sand on it — it was spreading to the pile of wood when I left.”
The guy on phone duty sounded nervous, but he knew where my house was. He radioed my call. It would be ten or twelve minutes, he said.
Molly raced ahead of me up the hill. The bracken breaking under our feet was the only sound as we ran. As we crested the rise I smelled burning pine. The fire, still a quarter-mile away, glared against the blackness so that I had to squint. Running toward it, my wind gone, the air getting dryer and bright orange, was like rushing into hell.
People were shouting random orders and warnings. Smoke chafed my throat and made my eyes sting. Up close, the fire was as big around as a burning car, its flames a high and terrible column. Every leaf and blade of grass was illuminated.
“Renee!” I yelled. “Where are you?”
“Over there.” Someone prodded me. I stumbled a few yards, then saw Renee squatting. Her T-shirt was off. She was shoveling sand onto it with both hands. She lifted the shirt like a slingshot and hurled the sand onto the flames. Some boys were copying her, their faces worried, bodies moving fast. Each load of sand disappeared into the fire with a tiny puff.
I stripped off my own shirt and tossed it at her. “Get Molly and run back to the shed. Get all the shovels and rakes you can find.” She took off through the woods, grabbing Molly’s hand, pulling her along without stopping to explain. Thank God they could both see and run in the dark like deer; their feet knew the hill’s contours.
Leaf appeared in front of me. “I can’t believe it,” he panted. I could hardly hear him over the fire. “It was so fast. I can’t believe this happened.”
“Get to work. Smother it.”
Two girls stood staring into the blaze, rapt. “Clear the area around here,” I said. Moisture hissed out of the burning branches, and there was an odd snapping noise as the flames gulped air. “Pick up the sticks and logs.” One girl blinked and shook herself to start, but the other gazed at me with stoned eyes. “Get out of here!” I told her. “Go back to the house. Go home.”
As I bent over, sweeping up debris, heat scorched my face. We worked, sweating. The fire grew hotter, louder.
Looking for Molly on the hill, I saw a sharp, flashing red light. The firetruck veered off the road and straight up the incline, its headlights dipping and swaying. Before it stopped, people were pulling a hose through an acre of forest. Men I didn’t know or barely knew directed the heavy canvas hose and moved us away. Someone called a calm order. A gush of silver arched onto the fire, and steam rose like a geyser.
On my face, the acrid air turned humid. Two minutes later: they were hosing down the embers, little lumps of charcoal glowing between the splashes.
The night was dark again, and my eyes adjusted to the cool moonlight. Birds were chattering, confused, swooping across the sky like bats. When the water stopped, the silence was like a prayer.
Just after daylight I banged on the girls’ door. “Get your clothes on.” Neither argued. I led them out into the yellow morning, and although I was furious, I said nothing as we crossed the yard.
The smell of scorched, wet brush came up. I watched the girls’ faces change as they saw the area the fire had ruined. No bushes or grass for maybe twenty feet, and every tree on the campsite bore a black shadow. White flakes of ash still flew and our feet made soft crunches on the burnt twigs.
“I’ve never been so angry at you,” I said. “I was awake all night, trying to decide what to do, what to say to you so you’d get this. What you did last night was just plain wrong. For one thing, it was extremely dangerous — you’re lucky no one was hurt — and it tells me that neither of you is as mature as I’d thought. If you were little, I’d spank you, hard, and you know I hardly ever did that. It never occurred to me that I’d want to punish a grown child that way. If you were tourists, I might sue you. . . .”
“It was an accident!” Renee’s shoulders were tight, her arms wrapped around herself. “You’re acting like we did it on purpose!”
“It was an accident,” I said. “But a stupid one. This wasn’t just carelessness, like denting a car or losing your wallet —”
“But it wasn’t our fault! Some of the guys started it —”
“It may not be your fault,” I said. “But it is entirely your responsibility. You were in charge up here. Don’t you realize what could have happened? All of this could have gone up.” I waved at the trees, but I meant all the acres of pine and redwood, mosses and brush, even the mountain above our land, and the town. “You could’ve burnt the whole damned place down!”
“Well, we didn’t.” Renee held herself up to me defiantly. “And Lydia says you’re about to sell it all anyway.”
I could have slapped her. “Shut up and listen to me.”
Molly put her hands over her face. “All right,” she said, crying. “I’m sorry. We both are. I don’t know what to do!” She was sobbing the last words, hardly able to breathe. Never before had I been glad to see a child cry.
About noon, Jack Baker came over to see them. He was a volunteer fireman, and he knew the girls. At one time he may have even gone out with Renee, though he’s a little older. He’s gotten married recently, and grown a beard, and seems now more like my generation than theirs.
Although I said not one word in my daughters’ defense, no charges were pressed. Renee sulkily agreed to pay a five-hundred-dollar fine, of which I knew Leaf would give at least half. Molly offered to work at the firehouse every Saturday all summer. She didn’t mention the trip to L.A.
Jack was lecturing them hard. Renee kept her eyes on his face, listening, and I was fighting down my jealousy.
There was the sound of hard shoes on the porch. “Good morning!” Lydia Davis peered through the screen, holding a tripod under one arm and a black camera bag in the other.
“I forgot you were coming.” I stepped out, pulling the door behind me to keep out her cheerfulness. “We had some trouble here last night, a fire in the woods.”
“A fire? How many trees were affected?” She had a pencil behind one ear and careful makeup around her eyes.
I explained about the scorch marks and she looked relieved.
“Probably just bark damage,” she said. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Right,” I said. “Nothing for you to worry about. You didn’t ask, but no one was hurt.”
“I’d assumed not.” She went off to take pictures, and I sagged on the porch steps. The night had exhausted me. I didn’t want to go back inside, and I had no desire to accompany her.
My porch is undeniably crooked. The steps lean downhill a little because I used the wrong-size supports on one side, but it’s not so bad that I’ve ever felt the need to tear them out and fix it. We won’t be here forever, I’d always thought. Bracing my feet against the banister, I leaned back to look over my land.
Across the highway, all the green leaves blurred together like the background in an impressionist painting. You couldn’t see where any one limb ended or began. Even the bark looked gray-green, with black openings where animals lived. Had any squirrels or chipmunks died in the heat and smoke? I wondered if they’d known to run away, or if they’d tried to hide in their homes.
I remembered Renee’s closed, pretty face, her dismissal of the destruction. Disdainfully paying money as if she could buy back the earth. As if trees grew on money. That was what a city could do to a person. But Molly, I was sure, had seen what I saw.
If I took them to Hawaii, L.A. would lose its appeal. Molly could swim in clear, warm water; my boy would grow up strong and well sunned, hearing my mother’s stories of Japan. I’d take them out of school some days to go bodysurfing, and let them feel the surge of rolling water.
After maybe half an hour the woman reappeared on the path, squinting into the sun as she stepped cautiously down the incline. Her shoes, I could tell, were all wrong for walking. She waved at me sheepishly, then went to her little rental car, where she slid the camera off her neck and stowed her lenses. From the trunk she removed a neat, gleaming briefcase. She came toward me, her eyes fixed on the ground. When she was within a few yards, she looked up pleasantly. “Everything looks good.”
I made room for her on the steps. She set the briefcase on her knees, clicked it open, and withdrew some papers. She made a little desk of the case, and handed the papers to me. The leather felt warm. Clipped to the papers was an open fountain pen, a gleaming olive one with a wide nib.
Inside the house someone flipped through the radio dial: static, music, static, news. The breeze picked up, making the wind chimes ring a few light notes. I read the contract slowly, carefully, looking for surprises. There were none. I held the beautiful pen for a minute, admiring it, before I signed my first name. The ink flowed easily. Next came my middle initial. But then, instead of just K I wrote out both syllables: Kenshi. My mother’s name, handed down to my son, but not my usual signature, perhaps not legally binding. Hudson Lumber couldn’t force me to honor this agreement. Coercion, I could say later. Temporary insanity. Stress from lack of sleep, from the fire. The pen moved backward then; I made a line through both the names I’d written, then across the whole page.