Ten years ago you got four, maybe five fires a season, but that month alone there’d been ten. Global warming was to blame. Some insect had moved north and killed off the Douglas fir.
When lightning struck, those dead trees burned right away. A healthy, living tree was harder to ignite.
Most fires were small and insignificant, in remote, unpopulated areas. Now the three dotting the mountains over the Methow Valley had merged. Five thousand acres sorched, then seven, then ten. The sky dulled, the haze thickened, all views obscured, even from the Lodge, up at 1,800 feet.
Guests were disappointed. Every morning there was an updated smoke map posted on the front desk. After studying it intensely, many checked out. The business group that had booked months in advance complained, asked for a discount, or better yet, free drinks, then went on with their seminar. They were there to talk about trends in resort properties, where the market was hot, and where it had cooled off. Right on schedule, three times a day, they showed up in the dining room, wanting to be fed. They looked out the insulated floor-to-ceiling windows at the valley. Those who’d been there before remembered the green sculpted hills, and the trees lining the river bank around the bend and out of sight. Now there was only the smoke.
Jordan had served in that dining room for the past three years. She was lucky. Valley kids didn’t have many chances for a paycheck. Summer was high season. When the forest wasn’t aflame, families came to raft down the river, or put their little ones on gentle, old horses to be led around the paddock. When the kids got shunted off into any of a number of Lodge sponsored activities that were well supervised – never mind that episode before Jordan’s time when the camp counselor lit a joint and shared it with whomever of his young charges was brave enough to try – Mom and Dad could drink champagne at the spa, or whatever mindless pastime appealed to them. Winter was quieter. The few families that came were excited at first. They pretended to know how to cross-country ski, and to enjoy the freezing sleigh rides, with bells on the horses, no less, but then the thrill of snow and icicles quickly wore off and voices turned high and whiny. Then there were the hard-core athletes, skinny men and women of all ages, who carbo-loaded at breakfast, skied twelve miles, collapsed in their soaking tubs, and took over the bar until it closed at two a.m., by which time Jordan was long gone, down the winding road to her grandfather’s ranch, and the back room she’d occupied since the age of eight, ten, when her parents went down in a tiny plane on their way to Montana.
As a young person in the valley, she was one of a dying breed.
Many left for Seattle. Then the recession hit, and it made more sense to stay home. Now the city was in the middle of another building boom, thanks to Amazon, restaurants and bars were really picking up. Jordan often thought of joining them. Her grandfather said over his dead body. His name was Pete Parsons. He had no use for liberal thinking and big government ways that was rife west of the Cascades. Once, Jordan sought to enlighten him. She pointed out that it was, in fact, the rural counties in the rest of Washington State that received more federal tax dollars per capita than in the Puget Sound region. He wouldn’t hear of it. This country was built on self-reliance, not government control. Jordan remembered a time when her grandfather could discuss just about anything calmly – except certain boys she might be interested in, or a local initiative to limit access to handguns. But over the last year or so, his mind had stiffened as badly as his arthritic hands and his words were always short and cross.
“You really should take him to a doctor,” Trevor, her on-again-off-again boyfriend said.
“He’s been. Nothing to say. Just getting old,” Jordan said. That wasn’t entirely true. Dr. Nate, as he was called, had suggested to Jordan in private that her grandfather’s memory problems – forgetting where he put his keys, or what day of the week it was – might be completely normal for a seventy-four-year-old man, but bore watching. He didn’t have to use the word Alzheimer’s. Jordan had been considering it for a while.
They were on Trevor’s porch. His parents’ home sat high on a hill. Their view wasn’t as good as the Lodge’s, especially now with all the smoke, but stirring enough. Trevor’s father sold real estate, big parcels to rich people from the city who wanted weekend getaways. He single-handedly had turned the valley into a vacation retreat which made some people happy and enraged others. Jordan’s grandfather was one of the cranks.
Those pinheads, coming out here in their fancy SUV’s. People like that, who don’t get their hands dirty, wrecking the whole damn place.
Anyone who owned a restaurant or pub loved having them, though. Money was money, and it didn’t matter where it came from.
Trevor sipped his beer. His was tall and broad, a basketball player who’d tried football and dislocated his shoulder the first semester at college. That had set a bad tone, he lost interest in his classes, dropped out after two years and came home to do essentially nothing. Finally his father thought to teach him the basics of real estate, starting with property appraisals. There were some appraisers who played ball, and some who didn’t. You had to know who was who. Same with mortgage bankers. Since the crash, they’d gotten awfully fussy about checking a person’s credit right down the bone. One late utility bill could throw the whole deal. Trevor was soon desperately bored. He took to riding his dirt bike over his property, which worried his mother and made his father say he needed a good kick in the pants. Then Trevor had the smart idea to apply for transfer to another school, out of state. He’d been at WSU in Pullman. Party central, he called it. Majoring in business was easy, but he felt if he continued he’d end up working for his father, which he couldn’t stand. He was bright, and had good test scores. He put an application in at Stanford. In his essay he said his time off had been spent learning the ins and outs of his father’s business, which he loved, but soon realized that true success in life must be founded on completing his education. He got accepted.
Jordan knew his going to California would probably be the end of them. That was okay. When she struck out on her own, it would be better to travel light. Her dream was to go to Seattle and act, or recite free verse in coffee shops, or anything else that would let her pretend she was someone else, from anyplace else where people’s boots weren’t always dusty, the sky held the promise of rain not drought, and the noise of traffic filled the deadly quiet she had come to hate, except when the wind blew, because that was the sound of longing and thirst, which she knew so well.
“I hear they might have to close Highway 2,” Trevor said.
“Fire jumps the road, they won’t have a choice.”
Highway 2 was one of the few roads through the mountains. People liked it better than I-90 because it was more scenic, except now, of course.
In the distance the sound of a forest service helicopter cut through the gray air.
“You’ll be stuck here like everybody else,” Jordan said.
“Nah. School’s weeks away. It’ll all be under control by then.”
It had already been a month, and the burn area was growing every day.
“If you say so,” Jordan said.
“You just don’t want me to go.”
“Sure I do.”
“You’ll miss me.”
Trevor lit a cigarette.
“As if the air’s not bad enough,” Jordan said.
“Tell Grandpa that.”
Pete Parsons looked upon smoking as inalienable right, along with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He’d smoked for fifty years, and said he never felt better. He coughed constantly, especially first thing in the morning, long, syncopated hacks that made Jordan cringe. Sometimes he couldn’t catch his breath and wheezed so roughly Jordan was sure he’d hit the floor. His fingers were yellow, the walls of their ranch home stained and streaked. The smell was in Jordan’s clothes, her hair, and deep in her nose. No air freshener lifted the stench. And now, with the fire drawing near, the smell of his cigarettes, rather than being blended or masked, only became sharper and more vile.
Trevor finished his cigarette, and dropped the butt into the top of his beer can, where it made a quick, satisfying hiss.
“Gotta go. Meeting the guys in town,” he said.
He stood up. Jordan did, too. She went on her way.
As she drove down one side of the valley and up the other to the Lodge, she thought about the wrangler who’d asked her out. Dwayne was the real deal, the kind of guy her grandfather loved. He’d been around stock animals all his life, grew up right there in Central Washington with a stint in Iraq – another thing that would win him points with Grandpa (which Jordan actually called him), and seemed gentle and kind. The horses loved him, at any rate, as did the petrified riders he took out on the trail. And he sang at the cowboy camp dinners the Lodge put on twice a week. He had a deep yet twangy voice made for country music.
Jordan hated country music. All that cheap sentiment over and over again.
Grandpa listened only to right-wing talk radio, which she couldn’t stand, either. She already had enough hate in her heart without being encouraged to carry even more.
A week later she accepted Dwayne’s invitation.
His idea of a first date wasn’t exactly as she hoped. She imagined a white table cloth at Yvonne’s, the Valley’s finest. Yvonne herself frequented the Lodge. She was from California, the Bay area, though with ties to L.A., too. Short and slim, she had the energy of a rushing bird in the bush. Peck-peck-pick-pick.
Dwayne cooked for Jordan himself, instead. His place was small, a one-bedroom cabin in the woods with the sound of the river through the open windows, and of course the smell of smoke. His kitchen table was covered with a red and white oilcloth. It belonged to the Lodge, one of many used on their popular cowboy camp dinners where guests could travel either on horseback, or in a horse-drawn wagon, along the creek to a quiet, green clearing and eat steaks, beans, corn, some sugary dessert, and listen to Dwayne strum his guitar and sing songs of the old west. The plates were borrowed, too, the same blue speckled tin used by those rich, bored guests. Jordan had worked a number of those dinners, herself. She studied people from the shelter of the cooking shed. The adults looked at their watches while Dwayne sang. The children fidgeted, then broke free from the picnic table and ran around.
Jordan politely ate her fried chicken, paid many compliments, and thought herself an idiot for expecting anything fancy. Then she felt bad for denigrating Dwayne in her mind. She wasn’t used to anyone doting on her, she decided. No one ever had. Except her dog, Larry, a fat yellow Labrador who looked at her with vacant, loving eyes. She felt bad when she remembered him. He died the year before.
As to Grandpa, well, he was a case. Not exactly the doting kind. Dwayne wanted to know all about him. As Jordan predicted, they were kindred, if as yet unmet, spirits.
Yes, he’d served his country, Korea, to be exact. And he’d been married over thirty years, until his wife died. Dwayne was fascinated by the idea that Jordan had been more or less raised by her grandfather. Did she remember her parents at all, he wanted to know, with a suddenly sappy expression which suggested he’d had too much beer.
Not really, she said, although she did. Especially her mother – Pete’s daughter. Watch out for that old fuck, she’d say with a laugh, a beer in hand, a sway in her hips when Jordan’s dad was in the room and they were alone. Which they usually were, in the cabin at the end of the property. Grandpa, in his grief over his daughter’s death, tore the cabin down.
Dwayne reckoned her in that moment, a child with no memory of Mom and Dad, and found himself deeply moved. He kissed her cheek gently, as if she were about three years old.
Jordan spent the night. She knew beforehand that she would. Dwayne must have known it, too, because he made it a point to mention that he’d put clean sheets on the bed. The sex left her cold, though Dwayne seemed to enjoy himself enormously. Maybe it was gratitude, Jordan thought, that made him clutch her so desperately. He fell asleep right away, and she lay awake a long time. Just before she finally relaxed enough to drift off, it occurred to her that he might be in love with her.
The white flower in a glass at breakfast proved her right. He said he’d loved her from day one. Jordan didn’t understand. She wasn’t the kind of woman men fell in love with. When she said so, he looked baffled. He had a dish towel slung over one shoulder. For a moment it looked like he might go down on one knee.
“Do you doubt me?” he asked.
She shook her head. He placed the flower behind her ear. He danced her across the tiny room, and held her a little too hard.
He drove her home, and came in with her. He introduced himself as Jordan’s boyfriend.
Grandpa was delighted. He’d never liked Trevor.
“Maybe now I can marry her off,” he said with a chuckle, exhaling a plume of smoke, followed by a wrenching hack.
Dwayne turned red.
“Don’t worry. He always jumps the gun,” Jordan said.
Grandpa waved her away. The wooden arms of his plaid easy chair had smoothed to a high shine. The whole room was like that, old and worn. Every time someone came to visit Jordan saw it in that unflattering, miserable light. The carpet was stained black in places. The curtains were missing a number of hooks, making them droop across the sagging rod. In the kitchen, where Jordan opened a couple of beers, the linoleum had lifted in several places, and was cracked in others. As a child Jordan seldom thought of the house and how it looked. Then, it was just a house. Over time she grew to hate it, particularly the way it smelled, not just of smoke, but something stale and damp, even though the climate was for the most part fairly dry. She knew the house would be hers one day. Grandpa said so often enough. Whenever she complained about how it looked he’d say, When my time comes you can fix it up any way you like. Then you’ll quit your griping. Jordan liked to think she had an eye for decorating and design. When the Lodge was renovated just the year before, she asked the consultants a lot of questions. The ones who took time to answer taught her a lot. If she had her way, she’d knock down the wall between the kitchen and the dining room to make one open concept space. A bright paint color on the walls would do wonders. And no more drapes, slatted shutters were the thing. All of this assumed that she could live there with the memories. The memories she denied and which took pleasure in burning through her defenses.
Grandpa talked to Dwayne about the fires. They were still raging, every day seemed worse than the day before. The Lodge would have to close if the wind shifted enough. No sooner had one blaze been killed off than another – always from a lightning strike – took off. Men were coming in now from all over the west to fight. Their trucks lined the winding mountain roads. The faces of the men going up were clear and tense. The faces of the men coming down were sweaty and smudged. Jordan thought they were thrilling, those men. Fighting fire took a lot of courage, certainly a lot more than raising cattle or singing cowboy songs.
Jordan went out into the yard to be alone with her thoughts. Grandpa and Dwayne were getting along just fine. Like a house afire, Jordan thought, then felt stupid. She was not an original thinker. She’d been told this before.
You’re as dumb as a fencepost, Grandpa was fond of saying. What passed for affection from some folks was a true mystery. She could count on the fingers of one hand the people who had been truly nice to her.
One, her mother. But not her father. He wasn’t mean, just absent. He worked on a fishing boat out of Seattle. Her parents argued about it. Apparently her mother didn’t like the long time away. You could ranch with my dad, she said, then immediately took it back. Jordan’s mother always wanted to leave, and move to the other side of the Cascades, and never got the chance.
Two, Lorna, the housekeeper at the Lodge. She was a cheerful waddler, with arm flab that swayed. Sometimes Jordan went with her to make sure the maids had done their job right. When they didn’t, Lorna said, Well, I’ll be a son of a sea cook! Lorna was from Wyoming, and had never seen the ocean, she said. Once, when Lorna found Jordan crying, she said tears were drops from the river of Heaven, whatever that was supposed to mean.
Three, Sandy, the bartender. He was down to three fingers on one hand. An accident with a skill saw when he’d had one too many. Too many, two few, get it? It didn’t slow him down one bit. He made a mean margarita, Jordan’s favorite. Once, when she was done for the night, she leaned on the bar, which was made of a single plank of fir, and told him she hated her life. Lots of things you can hate in this world, but not life, he said. She had so much to drink, he told her to come home with him and sleep on the couch, as she hoped he would. Grandpa was being particularly difficult at that point, and she needed some time off.
Four, and last, Trevor, no longer on-again-off-again after he heard about Dwayne. His final text message to Jordan said, Good luck. You’ll need it.
As Jordan listened to Dwayne talking to Grandpa in that run-down excuse of a living room, she experienced a savage twinge of regret. She’d had those twinges before, many times. She knew it would pass quickly enough.
Five days later, on a back porch at the Lodge as the fire smoke swallowed the daylight and stung their eyes, Dwayne put his arm around her. She tensed. She’d kept to herself since their first night, and wasn’t used to him yet. He didn’t sense it. He leaned in closer, and gently brushed her hair from her face.
“You are a quiet little thing, aren’t you?” he asked. He smelled of sweat. He’d been out on the trails all day with guests, and hadn’t showered yet. Jordan noted how much one man’s sweat smelled like another. Grandpa wasn’t the keenest bather, and he was often ripe.
She shrugged in response.
“See what I mean?” he asked. He kissed her. “Not that I mind, see. A talky woman can get on your nerves.”
“That would be a tragedy.”
“Did I do something to tick you off?”
She shook her head.
They sat and smelled the smoke.
A siren sounded from far down the valley.
“Another evacuation,” Jordan said.
“Where are they going to go?”
“Dunno. Wenatchee, I guess. Maybe as far as Yakima.”
Indian names, as if calling a town after a tribe could make up for anything.
“You know, you should get your granddad packed up, just in case,” Dwayne said.
“He won’t go.”
“Might not have a choice. Police have the authority to move anyone out of the way, if they deem it necessary.”
Jordan could tell how much Dwayne enjoyed using these official sounding words. Maybe he’d practiced them in front of a mirror. Once again, she scolded herself for not being fair. She studied his profile. It wasn’t bad, except for the earlobe. He told he’d once worn a small gauge, then decided it didn’t suit the rest of his image, so he removed it. The lobe had stretched the way it was supposed to, and now sagged stupidly.
You’re a hard one, Miss Jordan. Which teacher had said that? Someone left over from the old days, who didn’t believe in unnecessary kindness.
“You’ll need to set him a good example,” Dwayne said. “If you like, I can help.”
“Help what? Pack?”
“You don’t need to do that.”
“Look, I know you’re just putting on a brave front.”
“What do you mean?”
“With your granddad. Trying to cover for him, you know.”
“No, I don’t know.”
“His mind. He’s not all there.”
“You’re probably used to it. But I couldn’t miss it for the world.”
Jordan grew uneasy. She flexed her toes inside the tips of her comfortable black shoes. She’d had to buy them herself. The Lodge had supplied the uniforms the wait staff wore, a blue top and khaki pants for breakfast and lunch, and black shirts and black pants for dinner.
“What did he say?” Jordan asked, after another minute. The air was thickening.
“Stuff that just didn’t make any sense.”
“Like what you’re like in bed.”
The sound of someone crying in the kitchen reached them. Probably Adele. She was a souchef and had boyfriend problems.
“I knew he was talking about his wife. She died a while back, right?” Dwayne asked. His arm was still around her.
Jordan edged out of his embrace, and stood. She held onto the smooth wooden railing, hoping to meet a splinter or a notch. Dwayne continued to sit.
“Anything else?” Jordan asked.
“Huh? You mean your granddad? Oh, the usual nutty stuff. He said Nixon was doing a great job.”
A few moments before, Mount Robinson had been visible. Now it was gone. The smoke was coming closer. To her left, Jordan could see it flowing into the valley and up the opposite rise where her house was.
“Look!” Dwayne was on his feet. Flames had topped the rise from the other side. They were orange, not yellow, as Jordan thought they’d be.
It’s time, she thought.
Barry Johnson, the Lodge’s manager called up to them from the outside landing.
“We’re closing up! Best get a move on!”
Dwayne and Jordan went down the stairs. Dwayne offered to drive Jordan home, and stay until she and Grandpa were on their way to Wenatchee. Jordan said she didn’t want to leave her car at the Lodge.
“I’ll follow you, then,” Dwayne said.
“What about your place? You better go get yourself cleared out.”
He nodded. She could see that he hadn’t really been thinking about that. His devotion to her was astonishing. Also annoying. He’s just trying to latch on. Probably can’t stand being alone, she thought, although she had no specific reason for believing so.
He followed her down the winding road from the Lodge, then turned left at the stop sign. Her house was to the right. When she arrived, Grandpa was at the kitchen table, working his way through a bottle of whiskey.
“Know what that imbecile told me? That we had to go. Damn fool. Still wet behind the ears, that one,” he said. Jordan thought he was probably referring to the new Sheriff’s deputy, Matt Finch. He was a year younger than Jordan. They’d been in school together.
“He’s just doing his job,” Jordan said.
“As if there’s any way I’m gonna leave the house I built with my own two hands and let it burn!”
“Nothing you can do, Grandpa.” Jordan knew for a fact that the house had been standing when Grandpa bought it.
“The hell you say!”
Grandpa poured himself another drink, and lit another cigarette. A siren sounded further down their road, sped past their property, and went on, distorted and elongated. Grandpa put his cigarette on the corner of his glass ashtray and missed. The cigarette rolled onto the table. He’d had quite a lot to drink, Jordan saw. She put the cigarette in the ashtray. It stayed this time.
He went on grumbling. She found his vial of sleeping tablets in the medicine cabinet, prescribed at her request during a phase when he was particularly active and bothersome at night. She dissolved four of them into a fresh glass of whiskey and gave it to him. He drank from it willingly. Twenty minutes later, his head was resting on the table. He snored. She packed her things. She had little. She included a photograph of her parents. She did not include a necklace Grandpa had bought her for her birthday some years before. She thought about stripping her bed, then decided that the flames, when they came, would do away with the whole structure.
The place where he’d taken her against her will, her frozen silence signaling acceptance. And which it was, really, when you didn’t fight back, or struggle, or utter a single sound.
But fire made noise. It whooshed, and sighed, like an old man gone in the head and a girl desperate with loneliness and self-hate.
Well, this is what it all came down to. A pile of ash where a nightmare once stood.
She’d have to line things up, though. They’d want to know why she left without him.
He told me to go. He saw that I was afraid. He’d said he’d be right along.
And you didn’t argue. You just went.
I never argue with my grandpa. I wasn’t raised that way.
And then there’d be a pause, time to consider the situation. Grandpa’s mental state might come up.
Your sense of obedience is admirable. Yet the fact remains that you left an old man with memory problems alone in the path of a fire. Didn’t you think he might get confused, and not know what to do?
He wasn’t confused at all. He was very clear. He told me to go and be safe.
Then she’d cry to demonstrate the depth of her loss. She’d offer the hope that he did make it somehow, and just hadn’t checked in.
The burned out shell of his truck was there. It’s not likely he left on foot.
Maybe someone came and got him. Maybe – oh, I don’t know!
Or perhaps none of this would happen, because the fire would take everything out, the valley and the hills and anyone who would ask questions. Maybe they would all be gone.
Only she would be left to stand on the beach for the first time in her life and watch small stones roll in the surf, where the wind lifting her hair was fresh and strong, and carried the smell of water and salt, not smoke.