Skunks and rabbits flee, blurs of fur, and deer panic as the fire comes through the forest. We’ve evacuated the valley, of course, just as ordered, because the fire is undeniable now. Others are rushing back to their cities, but we want to see this. I want to see this. We’ve parked on an upper hairpin curve on the road zig-zagging up from the valley; we’re sitting on the square posts of the guard rail. Soft shelves of clay gray smoke stack and shift above the bowl of fire. The view is terrifying and beautiful.
“A shame,” Keith says to me. “Really. How you’ll miss it.”
I nod. This is how Keith is, perceptive but not gross about it. We’ve come here to Arizona from L.A. for this July week as a test of compatibility, to let our non-office selves emerge and pray this isn’t too repulsive. This is a pivot point: behavior becomes less sparkling, lingerie becomes underwear, oily jasmine baths become are you done in there? This is a fresh coupling and Keith and I are still curious to and about each other. But I like him. He’s fit, trim, clean-cut, and kind.
I look through the binoculars. The fire closes in on my little cabin. How precious it seems now, its surely caulked logs, its tiny windows of thick, weirdly wavy glass. I used to summer here with my mother and my uncle. Recently, my uncle asked if I wanted the cabin and I said yes. He had the key ready for me, a single key on a leather lanyard. Uncle Nate is getting rid of a lot of his things since doctors at the veterans’ hospital found polyps in his colon. The bulk of what he’s accumulated goes to my mother, his younger sister Colleen. But she refused the cabin; her husband is allergic to pines and oaks and pollen and mites and ticks. So I took the cabin, happily. When I swung by Uncle Nate’s for the key, he was mowing his lawn, that pristine, emerald lawn. Across the grass he’d strewn the contents of a shoebox. I knew what he kept in that box: letters and photographs from France, photos of children on a vacant beach, as angels in pageants, in soccer uniforms. Uncle Nate shoved the shiny red lawnmower over the letters and photos, chewed them up with the blades. Eyes, hands, legs lay vivid on the lawn and the dew curled these tatters. Maybe Uncle Nate’s a bit mad as the cancerous polyps bloom inside him.
Flames flicker-tickle up the cabin’s back wall. Loud pops like gunshots sound. It’s not the window glass; I can still see the windows. Keith speculates that it’s sap-soaked knots igniting in the heat. I think it’s rusty hinges bursting from door jambs. The fire now crawls up to the roof. “I should be more upset than I am,” I say.
“Here comes that Sean guy.”
Walking towards us on the gravel shoulder is Sean Ortiz: slender Sean, his skin milky with a Latin undertint, with a cowlick that still flips up, a naughty horn. Sean’s father was a brooding Cuban, his mother a scold from Ulster. They battled rashly, in a flail and sputter, a drama of lisp and lilt. Sean slid out from under this and happened upon me in the pasture between our family’s cabins. I was toeing the circling shadow of a raven, my arms banked as wings. “My name is Sean,” he said. “I’m twelve.”
“I’m twelve too.” I flew right up to him and he flinched. “I’m Katy.” The raven cawed above us. We looked up as it intercepted an updraft and was lifted away. Sean asked, “Would you like to play?”
That’s where we began. We met each morning at an old dead stump. Sean was an uneasy boy; he had a fault in him and it welcomed risk. It also opened a ruthlessness in me, a cruelty I’ve since marveled at, and with it I coaxed Sean into foolish exploits: jabbing beehives or red ants’ nests, backflipping over piles of cordwood, siphoning gin into our juice pouches. If caught or hurt, Sean never told on me, though he suffered Spanish/Celtic insult and his skinned elbows and knees healed sluggishly. These were our summers: twelve, thirteen, fourteen.
“Do you ever come to Phoenix, Katy?” says Sean. “I’ve got guest rooms. And you can come too. What’s your name again?”
Sean’s shadow slants between me and Keith, is severed at the waist by the metal rail. I’m not sure why he’s here, if he wants something and what. This is pure chance: Sean here, me here, the fire here. The Ortiz cabin became Sean’s after his parents’ deaths: they tumbled off a bridge into a Utah river and their gold Lexus was oared into by a rafting crew weeks later, its interior choked with cattails and mud and bloated bodies. Sean detailed this to me a few nights ago when he stopped in. “What a coincidence you’re here.”
“Hello, Sean.” I emptied the bottle of red wine into an enamel mug and invited Sean to sit in a kitchen chair. Keith was still in the bedroom. I was in my lilac bathrobe. It was Keith who had spied a lantern coming across the pasture towards us. “Company,” he said and we fell away from each other and paused on the edge of the bed, cooling, subsiding.
“How are you, Katy? How’s your uncle?”
“He’s dying. Colon cancer.”
“That’s harsh, Katy. My folks are dead.” As Sean very simply told me about this, Keith opened the bedroom door. He’d put on a white shirt and khaki pants, though the pants’ fly was open. He noticed it, or my eyes flashing across it, and he zipped up: the sly chatter of the fly’s teeth. “This is Sean,” I said. “He has to go now.” I wasn’t too happy. I wanted Sean to go bounce his skull on some concrete. I knew that Keith and I would see him again; I knew he’d be lurking.
By the end of the week, an unquenched campfire let loose into the forest, skimmed through dry, unthinned brush. It was no threat to us here in the next valley until winds lured it over the ridge and it lingered there, an orange garland. Timid deputies in tan trucks knocked on each cabin door to tell us of the evacuation. We obeyed and joined the slight traffic. We watch now from here. The fire, liquid-like, swirls around the cabin’s frame. In our lazy haste and because I didn’t care to save them, we left behind the porch chairs, ugly wrought iron things (scrolled ribbons of iron, diamond weave). Uncle Nate would drowse in one of these iron chairs, his ruined legs warmed in the sun, the skin of his legs like melted brown wax. I imagine him there now: enveloped in flames.
My uncle was a combat pilot in WWII; in his Mustang P-51 he annihilated German platoons and convoys. He funneled his story into my mother; she became its curator, its interpreter.
On a cool, late April morning in 1945, Uncle Nate crashed in a French meadow. German gunners had split open his plane’s belly but Nate bailed out as it plunged from the sky. A flash fuel fire burned his pants up to the knees, singed his skin; his legs shattered as he collided with the ground.
“He never described the pain to me,” my mother said. We were unpinning laundry from a rope, filing stiff panties and socks into our plastic basket. Uncle Nate was nearby chopping wood; the bluish blade glinted in the sun. “Maybe there is no adjective for it.”
“And then?” I asked.
“A farm girl - she was maybe nineteen - dragged him in his bloodied, smoky parachute to a shelter she’d made, a trench capped by another plane’s wing, all of it camouflaged by dirt and moss. Imagine this girl, Katy. War thin.”
I imagined her: frail and brave and exhausted. I was ultra skinny as a girl and I pictured my own body as the farm girl’s body, as I urged the story on, and then, and then? And then the girl coated Uncle Nate’s burns with a gluey, numbing poultice of herbs. “Merci,” he whispered. “Merci.” He wasn’t dead; he breathed, he swallowed, he smelled the girl’s sweat.
Each summer, my mother gave me more and more of the story, as we peeled potatoes, shared chores. She showed me photographs of Uncle Nate from the war. Dark blond, a comma of hair over his brow. Chin at a cocky jut, hands bladed into his jacket’s pockets. The constant grin, a grin he’d preserved, mechanical and wily. In one photo, he’s leaning against his airplane, his brimmed hat askew, a buckeye and a cursive Or Else painted on the Mustang’s nose. This picture pulsed; Uncle Nate was all sex and muscle and danger.
“The girl brought him wine and bread,” my mother said. “He’d killed eight Germans. He was her hero. He lay in that damp shelter. Bloody, in pain. The bread was moldy, the wine was rot. Nate talked about Ohio. Of course the girl didn’t understand, but she liked the word Ohio. Ohio. It is a funny word.”
Cleveland, Ohio: where my mother and her brother were born. It seemed as foreign to me as I’m sure it was to that French girl. Cleveland, the fact of it, was mentioned in quick, slight spurts. When Uncle Nate came home from England where he’d recuperated in a neat, drab hospital, he relocated with his mother and baby sister to Pasadena. He jobbed in a boat shop, upholstered yacht cabins with textured white vinyl and brass brads. He hated it, hated the others employed there, pilots, soldiers, and sailors, nervous men hung between swagger and modesty. He quit and vanished. Weeks later, my mother got a letter from Egypt with delicate ink sketches of ibises and cobras and Nate’s insistence of his joy: he was with a local company constructing canals for cotton and lemon farms. This letter, yellowed and brittle now, is still saved by my mother, cherished. How Colleen adored her older brother, his utter inscrutability, his brusque dazzle. As siblings, they’ve had a continuous if now diluted love. Her heart hurt until he came home.
“He was this bronzed, California boy. Invulnerable, seductive. Never mind his wrecked legs, his limp. Daughters were locked up. He went everywhere in Cairo on a little red scooter.”
But I was less interested in his glamorous story than in the other, the story of the damp trench under a wing, Nate with his legs fractured and scorched, the French girl tipping awful wine into his mouth. The delirium. The shock. Through icy cold nights they cuddled; the girl warmed his ears with exhaled ahs of hot breath. They made love, the girl balanced and light above him, her filthy skirt lifted, her hips clutched by Nate, her knuckles in his teeth. These details were just recently deposited with me, from my mother, of course, when she flew down to L.A. from Portland after Uncle Nate’s diagnosis. This haunts me, this extra, despairing bit of the story: because its urgency was right and good. Then, a day or two later, a battered British van was honking and medics were carrying Nate away. The girl fled, frightened. Germany had surrendered, the medics told Nate. The war was over, they told him. They were jolly and crazed.
Who was this girl who’d rescued Nate? An orphan, a young widow? Nate would hear from her again, years later, after Egypt. After Egypt, Uncle Nate was low, slow, and cool; he prowled L.A. in a teal-colored Plymouth, spent his nights in jazz clubs. My mother was in crude puberty then and her brother’s return home added a rough, electric edge to it. Each dawn, he’d creep past her door and climb into the attic where he’d sleep all day.
“He reeked of beer and cigarettes and badness. He was terrible and wonderful. Then a letter came from Paris. Are you the pilot who? Do you remember a meadow where? Ohio, Ohio? It was written in sweet, tentative English. Nate answered: yes, here I am, glad you survived, merci. Terse, but not rude. More letters came and snapshots too: Marie’s children, her husband, one husband, then a second, her café with its green awning and pale cane chairs. But never a picture of herself. Nate kept whatever she sent in a shoebox. And then he began telling me about her.”
Nate soon curbed his late and solitary nights and he became a consultant (a neat title, California vague) for an irrigation firm. Suburban lawns needed water, the tick-a-tick-a-tick-a-trill of sprinklers. He thrived; he was loved. When his and Colleen’s mother - my grandmother - died, as if erased one Friday morning, he bartered for a pink marble slab and ordered Colleen not to cry. She didn’t; she was a quiet girl who caused Nate little worry. When boys came by to pick her up, Nate menaced them, sneered them down into quivering pups. The boy who became my father endured Nate’s inspection, passed that mythical muster; he was an Army recruit booked for Southeast Asia. I never knew him; he was killed by a bullet through his windpipe on his first patrol. My mother grieved, but not too hard.
“And then Nate bought this cabin,” my mother said. “For us. For you and me, Katy.”
Sean squints at Keith, then at me. It’s an ugly, slit-like leer and I wonder how he uses it elsewhere: with women, against men. And what of Sean’s world crimped by his eyelid rims, narrowed there?
The final summer with our families here in this Arizona forest, Sean and I were both seventeen. We were wholly new to each other every June: fleshy fillings-in, hair, acne, bone growth. But that summer, Sean had shed his boyishness, that grimy, dumb boy, had sloughed it off as if it were a false skin; he had a sudden shine to him, a slippery gloss. I found him squatting on the old dead stump. “Where’s your mother?” he asked.
“She’s not coming.”
“She’s getting married. She’s going to Oregon.”
I joined Sean up on the flat of the stump. My elbow touched his elbow. A brief bleat and blast came from the Ortiz cabin: Sean’s edgy parents. He groaned and jumped down. Around the stump huddled clumps of yellow wildflowers. Sean picked one and tied its stem around my wrist. There was trouble in this slight, slight gesture.
It was true about my mother marrying. She’d met the local news anchor - how I wasn’t sure, she was unusually unclear with me. I was already used to him from TV, his voice with just a hint of alarm as he narrated mayhem, mishaps, storms. He took me and my mother out for prime rib one night. We sat in a curved, tall-backed vinyl booth and though it was dim, I noticed Carl still had dabs of orange makeup on his earlobes and collar, still had powder in his brown hair. I didn’t like him. I still don’t. Carl was, and is, sincere, but it’s a television sincerity, as if cued. But my mother said that he suited her and that was enough and when the CBS affiliate in Portland offered Carl the morning host gig, Colleen packed up and went with him.
“So it’s just you and your crazy uncle,” said Sean. The shadows of ravens rippled across us; two ravens were tracing tight loops in the sky, higher and higher. “Right,” I said. “Later, Sean.” I skipped back to the cabin where Uncle Nate was knocking down spiders’ webs with a straw broom. “What Colleen’s missing,” he muttered.
“She settles.” He plucked bunched web from the bristles. “As if...”
“As if what, Uncle Nate?” I was suddenly, oddly mad. “As if what?” I banged out the door.
Sean and I came to the stump each day, as in usual, previous summers. But I wasn’t teasing him into idiotic tricks. We weren’t children anymore and this was obvious and it required something of our bodies. An inept seduction connected the days, the weeks: we became tongues and thumbs, swellings and wet clefts, and how cunning we were, or thought we were.
Evenings, Uncle Nate relaxed in one of the wrought iron chairs on the porch. Yellowish light from inside fell through the warped window glass and lay blurred on his neck and flannel shoulders. I brought him beer, cold brown bottles of it. He was quiet with me; he missed Colleen, her balance of him. One night I was very late getting back from being with Sean, but Nate was still on the porch, the yellow light like a cloak or cape. He grabbed my wrist. His hold was cool and damp. He skimmed his nose from my wrist into the hollow in the fold of my arm, inhaling. He smelled Sean on me, what of him that lingered on my skin. At least that’s what it seemed, this intake a stripe on my arm.
The cabins are now orange boxes, shells of fire. With the binoculars, I scan the valley: blackened, ashy and charred rubble, it will become another planet. What I recognize succumbs too: private thickets Sean and I claimed, shrubby nooks unknown to Uncle Nate and Alberto and Shirley Ortiz. And it is as though there are scraps - of what I had lost or given or traded - scattered across the valley, visible remnants.
“And what is it you do?” Sean asks Keith. Sean puts a foot up on the guardrail and leans into his knee. The dappled metal railing dully reflects his thigh, the hem of his fleece shorts.
“I work in the same office as Katy,” Keith answers. “In the next cubicle.”
Sean turns to me. “Katy’s a special girl, aren’t you, Katy?”
“Okay, Sean, I’m a special girl.”
“And who’s this guy you’re with, Katy?” Sean always spit a bit: it was his hysteria. Pinpoints of spittle speck my throat. “The next cubicle? That’s real romance.”
I easily ignore Sean, but Keith can’t. “That’s enough,” he says. “Now why don’t you go away?”
“Want to fight? Want a fist fight?” Sean pushes off the rail and does a boxer’s dance, pretends to punch Keith in the stomach. Keith is annoyed; it’s like when the candy machine in the employee lounge refuses him his Almond Joy, keeps it back by the tip of the dispensing coil, and he raises a hand as if to slap the machine. He raises a hand here, a gentle gesture to calm Sean. Sean, reacting, slips on the gravel and falls; his eyes widen and an ancient terror seeps in.
“Cut it out,” I say. Keith helps Sean up and reveals to him a scrape on his elbow, the blood beading there. And suddenly I know: Keith isn’t what I want. I focus on the cabin; it sways in the fire and the wrought iron chairs glow hot red, blushing red, and they crumble tenderly.
Jenny Steele's fiction is in current issues of diceybrown.com and Harpur Palate and her poetry can be found in Arsenic Lobster, Wavelength, Poetry Motel, The Lucid Stone, and The Curbside Review. She is a native of Arizona, where she continues to live.