- Today’s lesson is water, the universal solvent…
Diana’s voice reverberated off the wall, off the students’ faces, mostly brown and framed by shiny black hair. They whispered as she turned her back to check the thermostat. She was a “trailer teacher,” assigned to a different classroom every period. Without fail, every room they gave her was always too cold, or too hot.
She squinted, but couldn’t read the numbers through the thermostat’s tiny scratched window. With a thumb she wiped away a limn of grey dust, balled it up, dropped it. It fell like a spider ball. She looked again at the dial. It read seventy-three degrees.
- “Hell, she mumbled. Seventy-three. Feels more like fifty.”
Diana gripped her forearms and shivered to conclude her point. A strong urge came to smack the thermostat, but she resisted. If she was superstitious about anything, it was devices. She moved the tiny lever a fraction of an inch, almost prayerful. From somewhere behind the wall, the air conditioning unit clanked, shut down. She heard the liquid Freon swish in the tubes. Seconds later, the room was filled with the nose-wrinkling tang of fresh ozone.
Among other things, Diana knew about Freon. It was a registered trademark for a liquid refrigerant product made mostly of fluorine. Fluorine is an inert element, called a ‘noble gas’ by chemists, who should know. That means it resists combining chemically with other elements. It has a very low boiling-point. It is gaseous and expansive at room temperature, unlike water, which is liquid at room temperature but boils to gas and expands at two-hundred twelve degrees Fahrenheit, one hundred degrees Celsius.
Diana could tell you how Freon made air conditioning possible. Inside an air conditioning unit:
- A pump compresses gaseous Freon to liquification, then forces it through sealed aluminum tubes.
- A fan draws air from outside and pushes it around the tube surfaces.
- Liquid Freon in the tubes steals warmth from the air, turns to gas and expands.
- The Freon is then pumped back through the compressor to liquify again. The air that blows out the vents, its warmth stolen, is icy cool.
“…Air conditioning was one of the many innovations that brought humanity massing to Imperial County, a strip of land (mostly light yellow on the map shown) sitting atop the Mexican border half-way between Yuma, Arizona, and San Diego, California. In 1900, the Valley was all desert, too hot for most people: one hundred thirty degrees Fahrenheit in the shade summer days. People riding the dusty highway along the Mexican border between San Diego and Yuma at one PM could be struck down by the heat as they drove their horses, carriages, automobiles down the snaky canyon road. The Imperial Valley wasn’t a fit place for the slow or dull-witted.
“The soil was also condemned as barren, impossible, home only to the hardiest of scrub plants. A farmer’s nightmare. Luckily no farmers were interested in it. For the reason why, let’s ask a geologist:
“Millions of years ago the Valley was the bed of a salty inland sea. Then the climate changed. The sea evaporated, leaving the salt behind. The result—desert.”
“All this would soon change. In 1927, William Holt, an entrepreneur, had a new idea. He lobbied for and got Federal tax dollars for a project to divert a portion of the waters of the Colorado river, which flowed sixty miles to the east through Arizona and Mexico, into the Valley.
“Once the canals were dug and the water began to flow, teams of men with tractors broke through millions of acres of rock-hard sand, leached the deadly salt out of the earth, transforming the Valley (at a cost of millions) into a farmer’s paradise.
“In the 1930’s, the Oklahoma dust-bowl scourge drove people to the Imperial Valley by the truck-load. They sought work on the new corporate farms. And work there was, for BUD in lettuce and broccoli, Bunny-Luv in carrots.
“Today, nearly every type of fruit or vegetable eaten in the United States grows in the Imperial Valley: dates, cantaloupes, carrots, broccoli, lettuce. Over one-half of the nation’s carrot crop now grows in the perfectly sandy soil of the Imperial Valley.
“It’s still hot during summer days, but even in that inhuman season air conditioning makes things more liveable. On the other hand, winter weather in the Valley is excellent: eighty degrees Fahrenheit at noon, between fifty and sixty at night. By nineteen-eighty-five, over a hundred thousand people had come to live here in the Imperial Valley—’America’s Paradise on the Border’”
And just one of the hundred thousand was Diana Shawnesee, ninth grade science teacher at El Loci High School. She had only yesterday shown the filmstrip that told the story of air conditioning, tractors, and how they changed the Valley to her thirty-one Intro to Science students. Amazed their home was the subject of a filmstrip, they listened intently. Now Diana was about to impart something she hoped they would find equally amazing.
- Did you know that the human body, that’s your body…
She picked a chance to glance over Armando Palenque’s shoulder. He was taking notes. There was a blue squiggle of a doodle there also, writhing in the margin, looking like captured ozone.
- … Is made of almost eighty-seven percent water. Which is interesting, because the Earth—you remember the Earth, don’t you… Mister Gutierrez?
Mario Gutierrez looked up. “Damn,” he thought. “Picked. She don’t miss nothing.” He tried to palm the note he was passing, but still held it out, hoping Helena Vargas would see.
“Hey, Helena. Look. Take it before teacher gets it. Damn, she’s coming.”
- The surface of the Earth is actually less water than you, proportionally, being only approximately seventy-six percent water…
Thirty-one pairs of eyes, most of them chocolate brown, swung toward the back of the room, following the teacher’s neatly tan-cotton-skirted and orange-silk-bloused body, to watch Mario Gutierrez and Diana Shawnesee square off again. Before he could drop the note, she was there, deftly nabbing the folded paper.
- Thanks, Mr. Gutierrez. What say we discuss your literary proclivities after school, three p.m., room 276? Hm?
- Ah, Mrs. Shawnesee…
- Miss Shawnesee! At least get the marital status right before you submit your appeal! The case is closed, as they say in court. A place you are no doubt familiar with?
- No, Mrs. Shawnesse, I ain’t never been there.
- You’re just lucky then. If you have more to say, say it to Mr. Alvarez in his office.
- She indicated the door, her expression flat, mentally counted five, then softened her voice beckoningly.
- But if you’d like to stay…
Mario nodded his head vigorously.
“Okay,” he thought, “so what if the others think I am kissing ass? I went to Alvarez’s office four times this week. I go again it means suspension. Suspension and I can’t come to school, don’t get to see Helena… Helena…”
Who gave a damn if everybody in the class knew about him and Helena Vargas? She had these green eyes. It hurt his chest just to look at them. Some day he would marry her. He only had to prove himself. Which was hard when… what?
- Wake up, Mario! You know the rules. Now open your notebook. At least pretend to pay attention.
He nodded, a mock serious grin on his face, did an exaggerated search for a pencil. He looked in his pockets, his sleeve, under his notebook, under his fingernails, removed his shoe, looked there. Evangelina Avila laughed boldly. She was Mario’s accomplice in deceit, and liked it that way. He leaned over to ask Helena Vargas for a pencil. As he leaned he palmed her another note. This time she took it before Diana saw. Helena slipped the paper quickly into her jeans pocket.
- I’m borrowing a pencil, Mrs. Shawnesee. See? No pencil.
He held up his empty hands to her. Diana was deskside almost instantly, like Florence Nightingale with a pencil instead of a compress. Mario took it silently. She turned back and addressed the class.
- Anyway, what I was trying to say about you was: compared to the Earth, you are all wet.
The kids laughed. Even Mario did a little, more out of relief than anything else. He looked at the clock. It was twenty minutes before the bell.
“Time is it? Shit. Nine fifty-eight AM.”
“My name’s Jorge Gargas. That’s pronounced George, not hor-hay, got it? Goddamn tractor! Umph. Good thing these work gloves, else I’d a bruised my damn hand. I know, no sense beatin’ a dead tractor, but this whole morning don’t have much to do with sense, does it?”
“‘N overhead the big bleak sky. Blue. Not a cloud. About to crash down on me. Feel dizzy ever’ time I look at the big bleak sky. Immense, right? Immense.”
“Winter. Suppose a’ be the best broccoli season of the year. Now the damn tractor won’t start, ‘n the other one out in the yard idn’ even good for parts or nothin’. What’s it take to get a rigger out here ‘n give this field even one discing, never mind the two it really is going to need? ‘N I got three hundred in the bank? That changes things real quick, thinking about just three hundred ‘tween me and the shithouse.”
“Shoulda got out this pit I had the chance. Shoulda took that offer from BUD Inc. two years back. Offered me a middling price, but, no, not me, couldn’t sell Pop’s land, had to tell the guys in suits ‘no,’ so what do they do? Buy the Ryers, next door a this. ‘N now the Ryers live in El Centro Estates in a nice new tract home all paid for with that fine money from BUD. What I get? I get nothin’. ‘N sooner or later BUD’ll take this piece land for a song and whistle. They know it, too. Bank gonna foreclose me on that FHA second I got to finance this damn dead tractor some seed some hands to help out last year the year the frost hit. Frost, right? Here, in the Valley. Could you believe it, ice crystals on the green peppers and lettuce. Wrecked me good. Won’t be long ‘til BUD gets all ‘n everthang.”
- Shit, he said aloud, breaking the reverie.
He went into the house, shaking his head. La casita (the little house) was a four-room shack his father had built forty years ago. Place for his mama, Jorge’s abuela, to live ever since el padrone, the grandfather, died. Wasn’t too bad; the shack had electricity, running water from the canal, a roof that only barely leaked. Next to the casita was the old farm house, the real farm house. It had been empty for two years, since the people from the State of California came and stuck that red sign up on it, ‘unsuitable for human habitation.’ Now even the sign was pocked with holes, ready to be condemned itself, he thought with an ironic laugh. He couldn’t even go in there to look at the ruin any more, not since the second floor collapsed onto the first a while back.
His father was a farmer, singer, drinker, not an architect. Jorge knew it every time the casita wall creaked and buckled beneath his weight. “Good wind,” he thought, “whole thing blow over like a damned tumbleweed.”
He stepped over the concrete drainpipe that served as the front step, went through the door, kicked aside boots, books, dirty jeans, socks, paper plates, phonograph records. He didn’t know where they came from. He didn’t own a phonograph.
Now in the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator. As he did the metal strip fell off from inside the door freeing an economy-size container of mustard. The heavy jar landed hard on his booted foot.
He screamed, more from shock than pain, kicked the container away. It slid across the room, hit the wall below the counter and broke, splattered mustard and glass up the wall. He turned back to the refrigerator, found a can of Old Milwaukee. It was his second this morning.
“Well,” he thought, “hot for a winter day, near to eighty degrees. Beer goes down better than canal water; cleaner than canal water too. Least I think so. Them barnstormers fly over couple times a week spraying; I heard the stuff—di-meth—gets in the water. Kills ya outright. Faster’n beer killed dad.”
The room reeked of vinegar from the mustard. He fortified himself with another can of Old Milwaukee and went back to the living room. It would take at least a couple of hours for the smell to go away. He would need the other beer before then.
- Forgot to… close the door.
He went back into the kitchen, in time to hear the refrigerator sputter and go out. He smacked it, and again.
What was that? He heard a noise in the backyard and ran to the back window in time to see the Imperial Irrigation District truck peel down the ditch-bank road.
He ran to the front door, pushed the screen aside, and screamed after the truck,
- Son bitch! You took my power! You damn son bitch!
Muttering, his boots scraping the sand on the floor, he went to the couch, pushed the switch on the TV remote control, dropped himself down. He took a long pull on the beer, finished it. Where was the other one he just had? Oh yeah—in his other hand. He popped it open, looked at the TV.
Black screen. Damn. That broken too? He squinted, then remembered. Yeah. The power.
- Son bitch.
The last came out whispered, prayer-like. How long for things to be right again?
“Hell,” he thought. “Garbage to pile up to burn. No, tomorrow.
He went to the backyard, opened the grey Imperial Irrigation District box, snapped off the lead seal, found the orange plug that kept current out of his wires, and pulled it out.
“IID can’t keep electricity outa my house, not long as I got tools. once the TV set’s back to life, catch me forty. Tonight, hit El Pobrecito for a nightcap.”
- Hell. What am I doing in this dive? she asked herself, her lips moving silently. The ice in her drink rattled, thumping against her hand, and she realized gratefully that she could hear at last.
Then the ranchero music started again, up so high she squinted at David, face crunched in pain.
- Great place, isn’t it? he hollered.
- Great place to practice projection, she bellowed back.
- Oh yeah. You’re right. Sometimes my monsters get this loud, too. It’s like practice, kinda handy. I told you you’d like El Pobrecito. It’s my official hang-out. We two must be the only gringos here. You want another drink?
- No, thanks, I’m still finishing this one.
- I’m going up if you don’t mind.
- No, go right ahead.
“Why did I ever let myself get roped into a date with this red-bearded biker schoolteacher?” she thought. “At least he’s friendly. My first year in the Valley on an emergency teaching credential after all, and David is one of the few teachers at El Loci under fifty. Not bad-looking either, for all the strutting.”
She gave her drink one last swish, then set it down on a nearby table.
David came back toward her, a fresh bottle of cerveza Sol in his hand, with a wedge of yellow-green Mexican lime jammed in the lip. She pointed at the chunk of fruit.
- People say that stuff makes you sick. Is that true?
- What? The lime? Babe, what the beer don’t kill, my stomach does the rest. I’m not worried, he slurred.
She swallowed hard, trying to steady herself.
- Okay, but I feel crappy. This music is driving a hole right through my old head. Mind if I take a breather?
- Listen, I’ll walk out with you, cool?
- Lead on, MacDavid. MacDuffid.
Her giggle sounded choked as they pushed through the crowd, mostly Mexican migrant laborers in neat indigo jeans and cotton hooded shirts with stripes, running jackets, a few jeans jackets from the VIM store in Calexico. “This is definitely their place, not mine,” she thought, imagining how cool the air outside would be compared to the fetid swelter that reeked of corn fired in hot oil. They reached the door and thrust outside. Diana breathed in the dry night air, her head swimming back to the surface.
- God, I needed this.
- Yeah, the air is great in the winter. You know what I’d love you to try?
- Tell me.
- When we go on a call, you know, the volunteers, I’d like you to ride out with us. Just one time. Then you feel it rushing past, the wind. Like the hurricanes come. Charlie, the driver, really opens it up when we get out on Comacho. We go tooling past El Pobrecito, just there, have to be doing a hundred. That old truck can really move. Want to try it?
- Wouldn’t the other firemen mind?
- Normally yes. But in the case of pretty ladies, they tend to look the other way. Actually, they tend to not look the other way.
- I hear you.
Privately, she grimaced. Then there was a twinge in her gut, and the grimace became public.
- David, I feel really sick.
What’s the matter?
- I don’t know… bug? The lemon? Listen, can you take me home? I don’t want you to think I’m having a bad time or anything. It’s not your fault I feel this way. Also I really have to get into grading some tests. Would you mind?
He grinned, but it looked forced, and his boots scraped hard against the ground as he started toward the car. “Damn,” she thought. She didn’t want to mess this up, but she really did have to get home.
- Maybe we can pick up where we left off. Some other time. Right?
- Right, she said, relieved.
- Like maybe you could come ridin’ in the truck?
- Well, maybe we could go out for dinner? Say next week? Sound okay?
- Sure. Dinner’s cool. I’ll stop in to your room fifth period and we can set it up.
She breathed an inner sigh of relief.
A Mexican man, very drunk, staggered into Melcher, knocking him sideways. He was stunned for a moment, then snapped into action, shoved the man backward.
- Hey! Watch out where you’re going, you clumsy… !
Jorge Gargas reeled back from the impact of the gringo’s shove and insensate tirade. He fell down on his behind. Too drunk to shout at the gringo, too tired to get up and fight, all he could do was squint. So squint he did, his intense brown eyes boring into his red-haired adversary, twin pinpoints of brown fire.
- Who you looking at? Wetback? Snarled Melcher, wiping the thread of spit from his mouth.
Jorge did not answer. Sat on the ground, glaring up. “You stupid-ass gringo,” he thought. But he said nothing. Melcher, paling at the intensity of the Mexican’s stare, backed off. But when he saw that the man couldn’t get up, that there wasn’t going to be anything more dangerous than a stare-down contest, he turned and spoke to Diana, smugly and loud enough for the Mexican to hear him.
- What an asshole. You see him bump into me? Did it on purpose.
Later, after the harrowing ride home with the drunken red giant, after refusing four times his protestations (he only wanted to come in for ‘one more drink, goddamnit, that’s all’), after he peeled his old sun-weathered Camaro out of her driveway with a rip of rubber and gravel, grading papers, the Mexican’s face hung in her mind. There was something, something relentless, that… What? Impossible.
“Ah,” she thought, “Morning periods the best. Before classes, before the others wander in lazy and befuddled, alone with a hot mug of coffee, you can get lots done. It’s a magic time, something lyric gets into your blood, your bones.”
“So?” she thought. “I’m teaching school in a noplace town. Better than New York, land of Dad, the Bank, Terry my spacy brother. Poor Terry. That letter I got from him last week. Something about seeing a vision on the train. Jesus, he rides that train across the water every morning, back every night. Just like Dad did for forty-two years, until the heart attack, until the blood stopped, frozen like air in an air conditioner pipe. No wonder the visions. Not how I want to die, alone in that frozen city nowhere. Someday I’ll leave these bones and blood here, in this warm desert nowhere. This is my nowhere.”
Reaching for the coffee mug, she looked down at her hand. Somewhere in her mind the tunnel to the past opened. It wasn’t the first time, wouldn’t be the last.
Her father’s hand lay yellowed against the white hospital bedsheet. “Dad, you damn cold scaly fish,” came the voice in her head, “and too bad, too bad everything, too bad mom died when Christine was born. Was he different, warmer, before then? I couldn’t tell. I was too young to tell, I suppose. How many times do you tell a man you love him and get no response? Except for his hand, that last time, on the bed. Damn him, he knew he was dying. He wouldn’t speak. He could but wouldn’t. Just lay there, drawing long, slow breaths, the exhales like sighs punctuated by the click of the respirator.”
She remembered leaning over the bed, in front of the whole family, doing what Dad would never let anyone do when he was strong: hugged him. She crushed the sheets and dad and the plastic things sticking out of him to her chest. He didn’t speak. But his hand moved, slow, as if it could think on its own; it slid up her arm, then across, then rested in the middle of her back. Damn him, she thought. He could have said it too just one time, that one last time.
She took a hard gulp of coffee, plunked the mug down, let fingers bang over the keyboard. “That’s right. The coffee is good,” she thought. “That’s the main problem. The coffee is always good. It’s deception, one more seduction, one more thing to keep me trapped here where I am.”
“What a non-place,” she thought. “If I stay here, I’ll pass like wind over this hard patch of land called home. It’s an accidental home, true, but home’s home. Dad died, it was like being fired from a gun. Washing dishes, waiting tables. Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Montana, like a big piece of road with motels and EATS signs. Nevada, Arizona. Then I was here, pounding the pavement, pleading with district after district, give me a chance I asked them. How long was it? Three months? I found this place. It’s a job. Been worse.”
She stayed with it first because she thought the ground was too hard to spread roots into. But the sandy soil fooled her at first. Nobody told her broccoli big as her head came out of it, all anybody had to do was add water, fertilizer. Sun, too. There was plenty of sun.
“Those are the basics,” she thought. “Coffee, dirt, sun. Why not stay? The house in El Centro Estates is good, the mortgage payment’s low. Only one neighbor; a vacant lot on the other side only a bookmark for another. Nice high fence all around the yard in back so I can swim naked in the pool any time.” She always had a tan. And everywhere was the clank of air conditioning machines, keeping her happy. Everywhere Freon; it was a second kind of wind there in the valley, lyric wind. Even Sappho could have dug it.
She leaned back in the chair, looked over at the bulletin board. There was a new sign pasted there.
HEAD JANITOR WANTED
$11.50 per hour to start.
Inquire at Principal’s Office
“What a place this is!” she thought, and laughed, “Isn’t this the third time this year they’re looking for a janitor? Each time they offer more money. God!” she realized with a shock, “it’s up to eleven-fifty an hour, pays almost as much as I get! Maybe I should have been a janitor.”
“Hell, was dad right? Should I have majored in financial management? Right now I could still be in Manhattan, staring out the forty-fifth story at the river, or eating power breakfasts and trading junk bonds. Or working in the Bank at least, with Terry, sitting in dad’s old chair and seeing visions on the D train and staring at the sun. Like a mad dog.”
She was laughing to herself as the door to the teacher’s lounge opened. It was David Melcher, looking like a taciturn boy wandering down to a bleary-eyed breakfast in footie pajamas. He held the door with his booted foot and squeezed through, growling.
- Don’t laugh at me. What kind of bonehead leaves a TV cart blocking a door like this? Other people have to get in and out, you know.
She muzzled her laughter and went back to typing, keeping her voice flat when she answered him.
- Don’t look at me. I’ve been sitting here for an hour. It wasn’t there when I came in.
He glared at her.
- Well you saw Why didn’t you move it?
- Didn’t notice it. Probably somebody returned it while I was working.
- Oh yeah, you’re impervious when you’re working. I forgot.
He moved the cart and let the door close. David was always bitching about this or that, but usually cooled off quickly.
- You made fresh.
- Washed the pot out too.
- And there’s real milk.
- I stopped at Cook’s Market on my way in this morning.
- Now this is a cup of coffee.
- A factual statement.
He came and sat facing her, leaning into the desk. She typed a sentence and didn’t look up. She could smell his breath. He had gone on partying after dropping her off last night. She reserved comment; too busy.
- What you up to?
- Lesson plans.
- You do more lesson plans than anyone else I know. How many classes do you teach again?
- Seven periods. They offered me extra money to give up my break, so I took it. Now let me work, please. Classes start in what, five, ten minutes?
- Okay, okay. Sorry I said anything.
By the sink, there was a tiny desk. He got up and hunched at it. She wanted to apologize, but she did have to get these plans done.
David finished the cup of coffee, took the beeper off his belt, pressed the battery-check button. A burst of pings. David grunted, clipped it to the belt, sighed, left the lounge, the door slammed.
She wasn’t sure if he was pissed or not. A few moments later the faculty toilet flushed across the hall.
- Too much coffee, Melcher! she yelled and laughed.
She selected ‘print’ from the menu and made sure the paper was lined up right. The printer whined. Something outside the window drew her eyes. She squinted, turned toward the door again. How much could it hurt, just for fun?
- Hey, Melcher! You promised to take me along!
He stuck his head back in the door.
- What, you want to go on a call?
- Figure the volunteer firemen could show a lady a good time. What else is there to do around here?
David laughed. She added, solemnly,
- But you have to behave, okay?
David nodded with equal sobriety, a little boy, serious now in footie pajamas. The first bell started ringing.
- Hey, he said. Don’t be late to class.
He shut the door again, gently this time. Diana gathered her printouts, stuffed them into the folder marked PERIOD ONE. As she turned to leave the office, the window once again drew her gaze.
“Hey. Is that a cloud? No, couldn’t be.”
Stiff, Jorge took a slug of beer, swore quietly, piled doors, beams, empty paint cans, rotting cloths. He had been cleaning up the wreck of the old farmhouse for what? Three months? Garbage was the only thing left of a life, their life.
“No sense crying”, he thought. “Used to cry a lot. Alcohol been helping it stop. Funny. Time was I hated beer. Used to get mad when I drove out on the highway and saw all them migrants sitting around in the cantaloupes, taking a siesta con el Bud-weiser and talking. Yes, time was I wanted to yell at ‘em, ‘Assholes! Stop wasting your life! Stuff rots your brain out from the inside!’”
“That was all back when things was different, when it was Gargas padre y nino. Hard-working farmers, nice acreage, good crop coming in, big melons, new cherry-red Ford pickup. And my novia, little brown Carmela. Full-blooded Yaqui Indian, beautiful women, those Yaquis, hoo, and Pop’s strong arms and knowledge of the ground to get us through. Never thought he’d die, he was tough like a dry mango with no juice, just meat, never thought he’d die. It was like he was preserved.”
“Three years ago the night the Ford pick-up turned over in that ditch with Dad and Carmelita in it. Three years ago I put ‘em in the ground, in the church-yard behind De Los Santos, Now I got nothing else to turn to. So what the hell I wake up ever morning with a head big as that damn empty blue falling sky? What’s your brand, amigo? Whatever is cheap, amigo. Here’s one: twelve pack for dollar ninety five. Looks good.”
“Look this shit. Got doors, beams, empty paint cans, rotting cloths, all pieces of a life gone. Goes to show what they say’s true, you can go on living after you’re dead. Living in stuff.”
He polished off his fourth beer. The gasoline hit him with an acerbic tang as he unscrewed the cap and sloshed it over the pile. This one going to go up good, he thought, and lit the match. He threw it on, watched the fire start to gnaw at the corner of the pile. “Definite one-matcher,” he thought, “know it just from watching the way it starts.”
The flame grew stronger. He pressed his face into the wall of mounting heat. His shirt stuck to his body, but the heat felt solid, on his skin, real. If it would make a difference, in that moment he would splash gasoline on himself, thrown on a match, if only it would burn away the bad memories, clear away all the faces of the neighbors looking at his sordid house and fields, pained, pity or scorn brimming in their yellowing eyes.
The mounting heat blasted his face, dried his eyes. He blinked at the intensity of it, eyelids scraping painfully—too close!—then backed off a few feet. Now the flames reached high as he was tall. The voice in his head said “good fire. He stared into the blaze and drained the Lite.
He rubbed his eyes. His drunk mind drifted. “Yeah, Eye Bank. Frank the Cop said it’s ‘Cause of the Devil’s Runway, just outside Ocotillo coming deep off the San Diego mountains out of Jacumba where the freeway takes them sharp curves. City folks go flying, off the freeway, pitch to death in the ravine. Cars go fender-deep in the scrub. Frank said Ocotillo cops keep a look-out to find ‘em while they’re fresh. Ever’ time they haul some dead guy in with the organ donor section filled in on the back of his license, Eye Bank kicks a donation the police way. So many eyes in the El Centro Eye Bank. Frank said it got so they had to ship blind people in from out of town to have the operation, otherwise they’d waste ‘em—eyes only stay fresh couple weeks.”
A shortage of blindness. Jorge chuckled. Only in the Valley.
Hell. Time for a beer.
Mario Gutierrez watched the clouds roll and slide in the sky. It wasn’t really going to rain, was it? He pictured the sheets of water falling, fantasy-like, from the swollen sky. Then he pictured Helena Vargas and himself walking in that rain, the wetness making their black hair twist and curl, her long braids whipping in the wind. In his vision his hand surrounding hers, protecting her. “Don’t worry, Helena, I won’t let the rain gods get you…”
- Sorry Miss Shawnesee. I was just looking… it’s the clouds, they are…
Diana walked to the window slowly and looked out. She stared a long time. After a few moments, some other students stood and edged up behind her, trying to get a peek at the strange sight.
- It’s a bit unusual isn’t it? she asked.
- Will they close school? asked Mario.
- They might, Mario.
Diana smirked. In New York City they occasionally closed school on account of bad weather. In fact, planners of school calendars added extra days to each year’s calendar, with the assumption schools would be shut two or three days per year due to heavy snow. But here, in the Valley, they actually closed school on account of rain! Ludicrous and wimpy, she thought. But if you thought about it, there was some sense behind it: A large number of roads in the area were unpaved. A good rainstorm could flood them out so thoroughly that no schoolbuses could traverse them. Hence there were rain days.
- Do you know what makes rain clouds form? she asked her class, pointing at the dark sky.
Ignoring her question, they continued to gaze mutely out the window, eyes open with curiosity. Like children. “What the hell,” Diana sighed.
- Look, Mrs. Shawnessee. Smoke!
- No, that’s got to be fog, Mario. When warm moist air meets a mass of cold air…
- No, it’s definitely a fire. No, over there. On the other side of Heber. Must be a big one.
Mario pointed the billowing plume out to his teacher. She put her hand above her eyes as a bolt of sun slipped from behind a cloud. Yes. There it was, enormous and black, rising up.
- Isn’t that near where the gas refinery is?
- It’s near there, answered Hector Carrerra. My dad works for them. If it gets too close…
Suddenly shocked from her reverie, Diana bolted out of the classroom, down the dark hall, two doors, three… There was Melcher’s room. She knocked, then stuck her head in before he answered. His classroom was empty. Free period.
- Diana? asked David, in the middle of writing homework assignments on the board.
- You get a beep yet?
- No, why?
- There’s a fire out by Comacho road. Near the gas refinery. You better get the volunteers out there.
Before she finished the sentence he was past her, running out the door. Diana’s kids, who had run out of the class with her, followed, trying to stay in single-file, like Mr. Melcher taught them to. Mario and Helena Vargas walked hand-in-hand, Helena looking at Mario proudly.
- He spotted a big fire, she whispered to Evangelina Avila. He is a hero.
Paul Bering, Diana’s next-door neighbor, said he’d be glad to watch her class while she and David went out on the call.
- But since when do you go on calls with the volunteers? Paul asked.
David stepped in quickly, putting an arm protectively around Diana’s shoulder.
- She’s our first woman volunteer. Just joined the squad. It’s kinda like Affirmative Action. We’re all proud of her.
Diana nodded, officious, broke free of David’s hold and ran ahead, out the building, to his car.
- Dios Mio! screamed Jorge Gargas.
He rushed back from the canal ditch with a leaky bucket full of water. The fire swallowed the water and hissed but kept growing, the flames crackling gleefully, as if they were laughing at him. The old farm house was going up now, its dry beams sucked into the ball of heat and light; soon it would spread to the casita and he would he legitimately homeless.
- Dios mio! Dios mio!
He wept, helpless and lowered slowly to the ground. Facing the obtuse dark churning sky, he began to moan like a lost animal there on the grit, as what was left of his present and past was consumed. He rolled face down, rolled his arms around his head and wailed, louder now, for lost father, lost love, lost home. And dammit, swore the relentless voice in his head that condemned him for his sins even now, he also wailed for the unopened six-pack in the casita fridge he would never get to drink. Into his wail merged the sound of distant fire trucks, growing slowly louder.
As the two Imperial Valley Volunteer Fire Brigade units pulled into the dusty ditch-bank road, the first drops of rain began to fall. The firemen (and woman), as they unravelled their hoses and stoked their pumps and plugged their intake hose into the canal, turned their faces to the sky to receive the drops as they fell.
“It was amazing, as if God Himself was helping us put the fire out,” the Imperial Valley Press would quote Bill McKenna, one of the firemen, in tomorrow’s page-four feature about the fire.
The men hoisted the hoses and began to flood the blaze. Diana stood back. She didn’t know very much about putting out fires, but she did have a First Aid certification, so she decided to make a quick scan of the grounds, looking for injured. As she rounded the corner and went behind the ruined casita, she saw a crumpled man in soiled, greasy clothing. She ran to him, stood over him. He was not moving. As she bent over to take his shoulder, a wave of fear rolled up her arm. It was a memory, of Patrick Shawnessee, lying in a bed at St. Vincent’s Hospital, drawing long, last breaths, his hand moving up her arm…
- You okay? You okay? she shouted.
She nudged his shoulder gently. He rolled onto his back and she saw his face. She stared for a long time.
- You? she asked.
Jorge Gargas opened his eyes. Now it was his turn to stare.
- You? he asked, eyes widening.
- You okay?
He looked back at the burning house, as ripples of rain and streams of water from the hoses gradually did their work.
- Yes, he said. I’m okay.
They stared at each other then. Did Diana or Jorge begin to laugh first? The rain fell in blinding sheets (which would quench the blaze in minutes). She helped him up, verified, he wasn’t injured. The rain on his face looked like tears. Suddenly, a tug of impulse—she grabbed Jorge’s hand and led them to a shock of oleander on the far side of the casita.
- I don’t know how to say it. What I’m trying to do is apologize for what my friend said to you last night. It was really his fault. He had no right to treat you that way. He is a fool.
Jorge shrugged. He hadn’t even given her friend or the incident last night much thought.
- It ain’t my business, he said. Yeah, he’s rude, your boyfriend. But it ain’t my concern. You got to live with that, not me.
Diana took his hand again, raising her voice for emphasis.
- He is not my boyfriend. I have no boyfriend.
- No? he asked.
- No, she said.
Jorge looked into her eyes. Green eyes. He reached out and touched her hair. Red hair. Something about that, he was not sure what made him do it (no, Carmela’s eyes were brown as xochotl like mine, no, her hair was black as coal like mine), but still he shrugged, then shivered, as the cold rain penetrated his skin, and began to cry anyway, despite the iron in his stomach, into this strange gringita’s hair. His hands twisted helplessly at his sides as it all came out, all of it, lost in the rain.
Diana’s hand began at her side. It raised itself (no, get down) slowly, went up his arm, his shoulder, then coiled, serpentine, around his shoulder (please, I’m not ready!) to his back, flattened, pressed his sobbing body to her.
She thought of her father, turning to sand in a coffin three thousand miles away. Her hand thought of other things.
Jorge looked up. “Look that bastard,” he thought. “Wish I could do that.” The shadow of the crop-duster blew across his face. He recoiled as if struck. The shadow seemed to have substance, could reveal substance to him. The duster, oblivious to his musings, turned and began to spray its load of di-meth onto his newly-disced and planted fields.
He looked at the husks of his farmhouses, let his mind wander back to last week: the firemen finished killing the fire and put their tools away. They gave him the Red Cross phone number and drove off. He stood around, staring, kicking through ashes, blackened wood, glass. Two hours later, Diana came back in her beat-up Pinto. School’s closed for the rest of the day, she said, maybe tomorrow. Want to go have something to eat at El Pobrecito and talk? Sure.
They had an early dinner, carne asada y arroz amarilla, talked for hours over beer, coffee, more beer. Toward the end, she took his hand simply, matter-of-factly, and asked if he needed a place to stay. He nodded. Yes.
They went back in twilight with flashlights, dug through the remains of the casita, found all his clothing was burned beyond use. He told her, “don’t worry, Red Cross will give me money to buy a couple pairs of jeans and some shirts.” They left the house empty-handed, stopped to buy a six-pack of Bud tall-boys at the Circle K. Back at her house they sat by the pool, talking and laughing and sometimes crying together. Hours went by. The rain began to slow. Drunk, they swam naked, their bodies made ghostly by the smoky yellow light of the Holly Sugar refinery.
That was a beginning.
He kicked a clod of hardening mud. Now it would begin again. This time he had met a woman who understood about shadows, ghosts. She was haunted by the dead, like he was. It did not matter. This was about now and later, not the past. There would be a new little casita. It would be cheap to build, because they would hire laborers from Mexico to do most of the work. A little migrant family could rent it and tend the farm. Hard-working people. They’d be very happy to have a fridge, he’d stock it with food, install a shiny new washing machine. Seduced by aplliances, they’d work hard to keep the land going.
He thought of his new job. So I’m gonna be a janitor. Something I can do, pay be good. Then he thought about the house in El Centro Estates. A goddamn pool! Never thought I would get a place with a pool. And this beautiful woman with red hair to swim with.
He rubbed his hands over his new jeans, sighed. He looked up at the huge sky. It didn’t look to him like it would fall any time soon.
- Diana! he called and waved to her as she walked up the puddle-strewn ditch-bank road.
She looked over at him, small brown man in blue in the distance. She thought, What the hell am I doing, am I actually shacking up with this guy? Getting stuck in this nowhere now. Just a breeze.
But in answer to her own confusion, she remembered what she saw the day of the fire last week. Jorge’s eyes were filled with mystery, pain, need’s intensity. She sighed. Is there any use trying to explain how hearts work? she asked herself. It’s not like air conditioning. You can’t send away for the schematics. It just works.
“And so what?” she thought, “if there are rumors of problems with the school board, fueled no doubt by a jealous Mr. David Melcher! If I want to shack up with a destitute ex-farmer-turned-janitor, that is my business, isn’t it? Is it still a free country?” A chill went through her as she asked that.
- Forget them! she said aloud.
“This is what it’s all about. That’s why I am a teacher, Dad, not a goddamn arbitrageur eating power breakfasts. It’s no crime to bring some light into a dark world.”
“No,” she thought. “Tell the dead to shut up and go psychoanalyze themselves. But if the living want to talk some sense to me, they’re welcome to try. They can find me in my pool out back, getting a tan.”
Then she turned and walked the rest of the way to where Jorge waited, in his new jeans.