I / FROM THE STREET, we cannot see the fire, only the smoke. It is full-bellied, bearing down on us / hiding the ripple of flame we know is at the fenceline. We know this before the fireman tells us.
“OUT!” he says. “We told you get out!”
We do not really hear him, his voice at a pitch that does not quite register. We are dreaming / still half-asleep / in love with the sirens, not in a Greek way, but in a way. We are clustered / a chorus at the door. My father is unshaven because it is Saturday afternoon. My mother has four small dogs in her arms. My brother, the youngest, did not perceive the frantic knock even though he was just in the next room. He does not explain this. We know it as we know anything by inference / as we know that smoke in the throat equals fire at the fenceline. It makes sense to us, but not the fireman, whose anger flares in the reflection on his mask. Foolish! We are foolish.
“The FENCE,” the fireman says. We are in trouble. We did not listen / hear. We should have known better. He is fully armored and we are in pajama pants / t-shirts / slippers / the flip-flops my father always warned me against wearing to school because What if there is an emergency and you have to run over broken glass? Through the white / black / gray smoke behind the fireman, we see the shapes of other firemen, our eyes following the long trail of hose that leads into the backdrop, where there is a shadow play onstage, titled “Trying to Save the House.” We watch / breathe / choke.
“GO!” says the fireman.
II / I hear the sirens through the phone / taste the smoke in my father’s voice when he says, “It was almost a tragedy.”
“The dogs didn’t even bark,” my mother says in California.
In Cleveland, I fan myself with a vocabulary workbook, pages fluttering to bucolic, febrile, interpolate. It is August, dread month of back-to-school commercials / unairconditioned classrooms. When my father calls, I am printing syllabi. Sometimes they are charred at the edges / bifurcated by a black seam, a virgule per the vocabulary book. They radiate heat.
In California, my parents do not know when they will be able to return.
“But the house is okay?” I ask, weighing the word for its connotations.
They don’t know. When my father describes how close the fire came, he makes a zipping sound that I hear as wind. It’s always windy in our little valley town, good for flags / kites / windmills, bad for ponytails / umbrellas / small children holding balloons / wildfire containment. Or maybe he means how the fire zipped down the hills as though undoing the back of a dress. Or how we zipped out of there.
“They’re going to call us when it’s clear,” my mother says.
“It was jumping the creek,” my father adds.
“It was not,” my mother says, though we all know by now not to trust her on the details.
The phone goes back / forth. I know the youngest is there / listening the way near-teens listen, as though preoccupied with something else. He will have the dogs, and from this, the whole scene manifests: my father’s truck / the parking lot of the elementary school / leashes tangled on the floor.
“White smoke?” I ask, “or black?”
“White,” says my mother.
“Blackish,” says my father, “slash gray.”
“We’ve got to go,” she interjects.
In Cleveland, I carry the syllabi upstairs and arrange them in two stacks on the desk. One set for Advanced Placement, the other, smaller, for freshmen. I sit and staple. Months from now, I will learn that the copy machine can do this for me. I have just moved to Cleveland from Miami (“Florida,” I have been clarifying, unsure why I am concerned these Ohioans will think I mean Miami University, which is in Oxford, Ohio). I am untethered. My heart lives in California, but my body has been in Cleveland / Miami / Saint Louis / Austin. My mind, lately, has lived in literature: Sula by Toni Morrison / Homer’s Odyssey / The Collected Poems of Mary Oliver / Joan Didion’s Where I Was From. This is why, in Cleveland, heartsick for California, I am thinking about Shakespeare. When I taught Shakespeare to the freshmen in Miami, I used to say: “At the end of a tragedy, everybody dies, and at the end of a comedy, everybody gets married!” (insert joke about marriage here—ha ha ha—and then we’re off to discuss the way Shakespeare highkey shades Petrarch during the balcony scene of R+J).
I like the phrase Almost-Tragedy as a third genre (fourth, if you count the Histories). I prefer it to the sloppy insensitivity of a comedy / the untenable conclusion of a tragedy. We are lucky. Two months ago, huge swaths of Santa Rosa were swallowed overnight by columns of fire, the images on social media Biblical in nature. We are okay / if the house going is the denouement, at least we will be alive to live with it.
III / THIS FALL, THE FRESHMEN ARE READING Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, which begins: “It was a pleasure to burn.” In the book, houses are fireproof, so the firemen, having nothing better to do with their time, are tasked with burning books. The title refers to the temperature at which paper burns. Most people read Fahrenheit 451 as a cautionary tale about the consequences of censorship.
Mostly, though, my students are interested in the protagonist Guy Montag’s strange relationship with the seventeen-year-old Clarisse McClellan. They hate Mildred, Guy’s acerbic wife (though we flirt with reading her passivity as resistance) / they hate Beatty, Guy’s blustery boss / they are unimpressed by the spider-dog-robot. They tolerate Faber, with his lengthy monologues / abstruse allusions because he (at least) seems to have common sense. They decide Guy is a bore, which we turn into a conversation about the power of the everyman / a creep, which becomes a meditation on the role of young women to catalyze social change. But they long for Clarisse, who disappears on page 29. They expect her to come back; she does not come back. They are unsatisfied when asked to think about her “role in the text” / her “relationship to society.” They do not want to compare and contrast / list / trace patterns / make predictions. They want to know what has happened to her. They make much of the line: “Once, long ago, Clarisse had walked here, where he was walking now,” reading it as a sign that she has escaped her oppressive society for a new / more fulfilling life. They like the idea that someone can remain in a place even after they have left it.
For all their obsession, my students can never remember how to spell her name, so it comes out Clarille McConaughey / Clarissa MacCarthy in their essays. I am impressed with what they are able to infer from the smallest embers of text. Bradbury describes Clarisse’s eyes as bright with “the strangely comfortable and rare and gently flattering light of the candle,” and a student analyzes how this image helps Montag realize that fire can “give as well as take.”
By the time we finish with Fahrenheit 451, it is late October / wildfires in California are still a concern. I think of fire every day because the scammers call, again / again, their frauds spiking reliably in the weeks after a big blaze. By December, FEMA releases a public announcement warning Californians to “Beware of Post-Wildfire Scams.” They identify five scam genres: fake offers of state or federal aid / phony housing inspectors / fraudulent building contractors / bogus pleas for post-disaster donations / price gouging.
Certainly, these scammers would agree with Bradbury on the notion that fire gives. “We accept donations via GreenDot or money order,” they say when I answer, “or you can give your credit card information directly.” They never leave voicemails.
The scammers are clever. They spoof local area codes. Their caller IDs tease me with names that ache of familiarity. There are towns in the 707 (Santa Rosa / Mendocino / Vacaville / Dixon / Vallejo / Trinidad / Eureka), the 415 (San Francisco / San Rafael / Tiburon), the 510 (Oakland / Fremont), the 559, the 408, the 916. Although I am in Cleveland, my phone still registers to California (707). Every call brings me to the past / home more deeply.
IV / A FEW DAYS AFTER MY FAMILY RETURNS to our house, my mother sends two photographs.
“We are having a debate,” she says, “over whether or not it jumped the creek.”
In the first picture, a close up taken from the side of our house, long / untouched grasses obscure the view. It is clear where char stops / growth begins, but the creek has no lines in this scene. I study the picture again. I am in love with the sky’s unhazy blue. My mother’s head / a shadow in the lower-right corner makes my heart burst.
The second picture is an aerial clipped from a local news site. The hills are inky / draped in jewel-tone necklaces of flame-retardant. The house / the creek is somewhere in the blurred background. I see the prison, lighter gray than the subdivisions. I recall inmate work crews mowing fields every summer / scattering gravel along the highway shoulders to prevent lit cigarettes from catching.
When we first moved into our house, the realtor made a point to inform us that the fence was new because the old one had burned down the year prior. After we moved in, I woke often from dreams that our house was on fire. The nightmares lasted for months / years. I don’t know when / why they stopped.
As a teenager, I learned what a controlled burn was. I learned how to check the air quality alongside the weather. I remember a high school boyfriend who wasn’t allowed to come outside on red days / magenta days / maroon days.
While I was in college, the fire alarm in my dorm building went off every night for two months because of a faulty wire. I started sleeping in my boyfriend’s room / fell in love.
At some point, my mother taught me:
White smoke means grassfire.
Black smoke is a car accident / explosion / plane crash / house.
Gray smoke is on its way to burning out.
V / THE FALL SEMESTER ENDS with The Arabian Nights. My students like the nested structure; we work hard to keep track of details. Like careful detectives, we trace subtle changes in Shahrazad’s narratives. At first, her stories are always about good / powerful men betrayed by women / djinns. As in any good tale, people are rewarded / punished, and as in any good English class, we talk about what this means.
A common punishment in the text is blackening one’s face with ash as a sign of shame. This is preferable to other punishments. An incestuous couple is turned to char. People are transformed into stone / locked in jars / thrown from rooftops / cut into pieces / transformed into animals. We can imagine Shahrazad’s husband Shahrayar enjoying these endings; after all, he has murdered three-hundred women before the first tale even begins. Shahrazad, at risk of going the way of the others, must supply entertainment / instruction if she is to stay alive. The latin term for this is dulce et utile.
Shahrazad is clever. Slyly, she shifts the focus of her stories away from good / powerful men and onto good / powerful women. My students’ favorite moment comes from “The Second Dervish’s Tale,” in which a king’s daughter defeats a demon in an epic, three-page shapeshifting battle that ends with both the daughter / demon becoming columns of flame. Though the daughter defeats the demon, leaving him “a heap of ashes,” she dies in the process.
Her death is different. It is not a punishment. Instead, she has chosen to sacrifice herself / protect the others. We see Shahrazad in this / are moved in a way we have not been moved previously.
While many of Shahrazad’s characters die, she herself remains in a perpetual Almost-Tragedy. This is what prompts us to return again / again. At a certain point, my students begin to wonder if Shahrazad’s storytelling is about more than dulce et utile. What, we wonder, do her stories say / mean to her? We begin to read all the ways in which she uses storytelling to escape her circumstances / return to places / people she must love.
I understand Shahrazad’s urge, though I do not share her urgency. Here / in Cleveland, I write myself home. For a few weeks after my family’s own Almost-Tragedy, smoke clings to the insides of our house, mothy / dense. I know it as I know anything by inference / as I know that in California, my mother opens all the windows / the youngest drinks in the breeze / my father watches the hills turn over to green again. The dogs are playing in the creek, muddy up to their chests. I follow them along the fence. It leans to one side like a slash. Behind me, the curtains are billowing through the windows / rising into the air like applause. The creek is full-bellied. It is winter / merely an interlude in which the sun is a hesitant spotlight / off to illuminate another stage. Once, long ago, I walked where I am walking now. There is smoke of some color on the horizon. I think about what this means.
ARIEL LEWIS‘ short stories and essays have appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, The Literary Review, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. She lives in Cleveland, Ohio, where she teaches Upper School English at an all-girls independent school.