Two years ago we left the landlocked hubbub of Denver for this laid back coastal town, dreamed of a life more peaceful, slower, quieter, smaller. Tonight it will become dangerous, fast, loud, enormous. A giant is about to pick up our photo of beach-town life, strike a match, light the corner.
Yet no amount of disaster planning could have prepared us for this: Grampa does not have his extra pants.
My husband, Dale, and I live in a tiny Spanish bungalow in Ventura, California, and it only has one wee bathroom. That’s not why Grampa usually brings extra pants when he stays with us, but sometimes it’s why he’s glad to have them. If he needs to pee and someone else is using our only toilet, no telling if his bladder will hold out.
Grampa is an 86-year-old Korean-American from Hawaii. He has this laid-back Hawaiian charm, lives on island time, always laughing, treats everyone he meets like an old friend. He’s six-foot but limps on two bad knees with the help of a trekking pole. His smile is infectious though he’s missing his front teeth. His dental implants broke a few years back, and here’s one of his non-Aloha qualities: push him to do anything before he’s ready and it’s surprising how loud this sweet old guy can shout. But he finally let me make an appointment for him to consult an oral surgeon.
On Monday morning, December 4, 2017, Grampa calls to double-check when his appointment is.
“Grampa, it’s in an hour and a half! I thought you were on your way.”
“Oh no! I’ll come right there.”
He comes straight from a donut shop, one of his favorite spots, which explains the missing teeth. It also explains why he doesn’t have his overnight bag, the one with the extra pants.
A younger woman used to live with Grampa. I never knew what they were to each other. Friends? Lovers? Mutual caregivers—her keeping house, him providing room and board? At 46, she was eight years younger than me, young enough to be his actual granddaughter—unlike me, his adopted son’s daughter. He asked her to marry him, several times. She always said no. Still, after she moved in with him, he stopped hoarding. Shrank down his floor-to-ceiling catastrophe of newspapers, encyclopedias, boxes, coins, exercise equipment, and a mannequin. He ate more veggies than donuts. Smiled more, despite his missing teeth. For six years, I never questioned their relationship. Whatever works.
Last summer she died. Now he often stays with us at our diminutive home in Ventura because we hate to think of him alone two hours away in Downey. We have no spare bed, only the couch, but Grampa’s not picky. Sometimes he prefers the wood floor. Tonight, he’s sleeping over after visiting the oral surgeon.
I’ll admit I’m a little too proud of how practical I am in a crisis! Calm, organized, capable. And I’ll admit, a little excited, addicted to adrenaline after a traumatized childhood—bounced from house to house, person to person, never certain where I’d be living next weekend, next month, next year. When events swirl out of control, I control the only thing I can: me. I lead, because following is uncertain.
The three of us are relaxing on the couch, my top button popped after too much cherry pie à la mode (Grampa’s favorite) watching Grey’s Anatomy, when the power goes out around 9:00 p.m. No big deal. Dale and I put on headlamps and hand Grampa a Maglite so he won’t crash on the way to the bathroom.
Santa Ana winds are rocking our windows tonight, and we figure they knocked out a power line. Dale and I step outside for a look. Our little city is pitch-black. Minutes later, Dale says, “I’ve never seen the moon so red.” Then we spot it: smoke drifting across the face. “Maybe a transformer blew and started a fire.”
Half our neighbors pour into the street with us, to watch a hill two miles away develop a corona like the sun. It’s the Thomas Wildfire, though we don’t yet know its name.
“That can’t come here, can it?” I ask a neighbor I’ve never met.
He gives me an “oh honey” look and says, “If it comes over that hill it can.”
I speed-walk away without another word, back to our house. Don’t run. Running would feel like panicking.
Dale and I agree to pack “just in case.” Stumble through the dark by the light of our headlamps to decide what to save. Laptop, phones, research for my novel.
Grampa, who never met an idea of mine he didn’t contradict, says, “You worry too much.”
“Grampa, I’d rather look like an idiot than find out we need to flee and not be ready.” Journals, photo albums, that portrait of great-grandma wearing the bell-shaped hat with flowers.
Grampa keeps grumbling, “The fire won’t come here. This is a city. There are hydrants on every corner.”
“Grampa, the fire’s close. Winds are 50 miles-an-hour. One ember and it’s over.” Jewelry, souvenirs from Alaska, Grandma’s Japanese silk paintings.
Grampa won’t shut up. “If the city burns down, there’s something wrong with your fire department.”
Dale whispers to me, “He’s just trying to make us feel better.”
“Well, he’s not.”
“Hey Gerald,” Dale says, “why don’t you eat more pie and ice cream before it melts?”
That shuts him up. Passports, financials, Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.
Dale wants to start loading.
“Just one minute!” I say. “If you rush me I’ll panic. If I panic I’ll forget something.”
I do a ten-second inventory, then we pile the SUV to overflowing: think Clampetts with hard drives.
The fire lunges closer. Flames devour ten houses on a hill six blocks away. The burning homes seem to float in midair in the dark. White flakes waft on warm wind like snow.
A distant BOOM! makes me jump. “What’s that?!”
“Propane tanks,” Dale says.
Around midnight, I tell Grampa, “Why don’t you get some sleep? We’ll wake you if we need to leave.”
Soon he’s snoring on the couch, while we start round two of packing: clothes, shoes, toiletries. Deciding what can burn. I’m all for downsizing, but in a marriage we’ve accumulated symbols of a life together. Not life itself, and yet…I glance at Grandma’s translucent orange vase, Dale’s certificate for his black-belt in Aikido—from the dojo where we met. No. The risk of breakage seems greater than the risk of burning.
We leave suitcases by the door. Because there are still six blocks between the blaze and us. Because firefighters are fighting right up the road and we need to believe they’ll win. Because it’s 2:00 a.m. and we’re spent. Anyway, we can throw them in the car in ten minutes.
Will we get ten minutes? Can Grampa move that fast?
Nothing left to do, Dale and I stare at each other across our bed. “I don’t want our house to burn down,” he says. I try not to picture it.
Dale’s snores join Grampa’s. I keep watch, can’t sleep, afraid I’ll wake surrounded by flames.
I go outside, stare at the blazing hillside. Our next-door neighbors, an older couple, sit in their car, staring too. He steps out and hands me an enormous pair of binoculars. The hidden bones of houses are exposed, flesh peeled away. I hand his binoculars back. The night is silent, nobody driving The 101 after 2:00 a.m., crackling flames too distant to hear, though we smell the smoke. I feel 100,000 Venturans stare into the glowing dark with us.
Back inside, the lights come on and the fridge whirs to life, startling me.
I return to bed, prop myself up on pillows next to Dale, and scroll through social media on my phone. I’ve posted a photo of the burning hillside on Facebook. My feed fills with comments:
- Please be careful!! Flames can jump a mile away…
- The fire has flanked Ventura City Hall & several structures around it are well involved in fire. Getting closer to the downtown area…
- 26,000 acres and 0% containment. PLEASE get ahead of it and just evacuate.
Half of Southern California is awake and online. I compare my friends’ warnings to local news. Reach across the comforter and gently shake Dale, try not to startle him.
“Honey, it’s time to leave. Half the city’s on fire. My friends on The Avenue evacuated and got stuck in a traffic jam. The mandatory evacuation area is four blocks away. The fire department says resources are stretched too thin to expect a knock on our door.”
Here’s how I know it’s as bad as I think: Dale doesn’t ask questions, just says, “Okay.”
I call my dad.
Before I can speak, he blurts, “Are you all right?”
“We’re fine, but we’re evacuating.”
“Come over here.” He’s at his girlfriend’s house in Oxnard.
Dad’s always terse on the phone, disaster or not, but I’m relieved he considers helping us a given.
I walk to the couch, lay a heavy hand on my sleeping grandfather’s shoulder. “Grampa, time to leave.”
“Okay.” He stopped arguing hours ago when smoky haze filled our living room. Since he didn’t bring his overnight bag, he’s ready to leave the moment he rises on wobbly knees.
We finish loading in ten.
I don’t turn for one last look at our home. That’s like saying we’ll never see it again. We drive fifteen minutes to Oxnard. It’s about 3:30 a.m.
We carry too much crap to my dad’s girlfriend’s door. Looks like we’re moving in. They’ve only been dating six months. We’ve only visited twice. I can’t meet her eyes.
“Why’s Grampa with you?” Dad asks.
I explain over the blaring TV.
Dad’s watching news, stats on the fire at high volume, newscasters using words like: disaster, fleeing, danger, homes, burning, devastating, terrified, evacuate, panic, traffic jam, trapped, burned, destroyed, zero-percent containment, acres—30,000, I think…The numbers change fast. I want to scream, “Shut it off!” But I don’t.
Dad’s girlfriend (odd word for a woman in her 70s) makes coffee for us, and I can’t hide my dismay at this act of kindness. It’s 4:00 a.m. and I’ve been up all night. I don’t want caffeine. I want to at least pretend to sleep, in the guestroom bed, which she makes while I watch. I try to keep my thank yous effusive but not obsequious.
Does this kind lady understand why Dad is so eager to make us oatmeal for breakfast at 8:00 a.m.? He loves being the hero. Does she notice that, when I beg to sleep in, he only changes the offer to 8:30? We’re bit-players in his drama now. He loves me, I know, but if a moment comes when I have to admit to him that what he gallantly bestows might be different from what we actually need—it’s going to be awkward.
I hug him. Then everyone hits the sack…sort of.
I sit up in this strange bed, mesmerized by the glow of my phone in the dark, watching our fire spread across the Internet, hundreds of homes going up in an insanely beautiful blaze of crimson and gold. I’m just nodding off when Dad bellows that breakfast is ready.
Grampa needs the toilet, but someone’s using it. By the time his turn comes, he calls out from the bathroom for help. Wants to know if his son has extra pants.
“Gee, I’m sorry, I don’t, Dad.” My father turns to me, “Why didn’t he bring clothes to stay with you?” Frowns at me like his father has lost his mind.
Dad’s girlfriend offers Grampa a bath towel. Then she and Dad switch out her dining room chair for another chair, because the dining chair has a cloth seat and why risk my grandfather staining it? The oatmeal’s getting cold. Dale silently hands me a pair of his jeans. He’s short and chubby while Grampa’s tall and thin. Grampa’s belt holds up the pants, but his ankles stick out, like a kid in hand-me-downs. He accepts this new look with a chuckle of gratitude. That’s the island way.
On TV, the fire closes in on Main Street, where Dale works. He’s a jeweler at a family-owned shop, which now sits one block from the blaze. Dale sees tears in my eyes, pulls me into the guestroom so nobody will see. I gasp for air, take a deep breath, stop. Refuse to go down that hole. Our eyes say what we cannot: We’re in our fifties. How will we start again?
After two nights, Grampa drives home to Downey, while Dale and I return home to Ventura, our seaside town now smoky as an episode of Mad Men. The sun’s a red disk. Our house and Dale’s workplace stand unharmed, but the fire has pulled our sense of security out from under us. Ventura sits along the Pacific Rim, right on the San Andreas Fault, so I’ve always pictured running from a tsunami or riding out an earthquake. Never a wildfire. I grew up in SoCal, but in the flatlands where wildfires never venture. Don’t know how to reframe my life around this threat.
The hills are black. Dozens of houses have vanished, left charred outlines like some homicide scene.
The air tastes like cancer, but we’re staying home tonight. Because it’s still here. I can’t stand feeling like a refugee in someone else’s house. I think about actual refugees, chased from home by war or famine. This makes me want my own bed even more.
I’m scared to sleep. What if the wind changes?
I cough for days. Try not to think about the chemicals in household goods: plastic in refrigerators, formaldehyde in couches, paint, insulation, propane. Outdoors, we’re robbers in white masks stealing time from an uncertain future. Indoors, our 1925 house is no refuge: half the original windows remain, and ash creeps through gaps, piles on sills, dusts our floors.
There’s a run on air purifiers, and it takes another week to deliver ours. The sensor turns angry red when the air is toxic—even a month later. But the ashtray smell dissipates.
It took four hours to pack, but takes four weeks to unpack. Where did this picture used to go? Where did I file these before?
There’s one casualty: a tiny ceramic angel my grandparents put in my room when I was a baby. I return her to her shelf. The butt of her white nightgown has broken off, but like me, her front looks unchanged.
The fire takes nearly six weeks to contain, and six months to burn itself out. It destroys 1063 structures, costs billions in damage, leaves hundreds without homes. I can’t complain. But I do.
For weeks, I stay indoors, pacing, on alert. For weeks, I can’t sleep, yet can’t stay awake enough to work. One day I escape to LA, where the hazy air usually reminds me of Soylent Green but now tastes like an oxygen bar.
Our neighbors used to tease, “Just another day in paradise.” Now the President declares paradise a disaster. The Thomas Wildfire is the largest in California history, for now: 440 square miles. (The following year the Mendocino Complex Fire will surpass it at 455.) But I tell Dale, “It feels pretentious to say you and I survived a disaster. We were just disaster adjacent.”
We hug a lot. But then we always did.
I’m grateful Grampa didn’t die just because he came to visit.
One day I call to invite him back. “Don’t forget to bring Dale’s pants.”
“Remember, you borrowed Dale’s pants?”
“Sorry, this darned compressor’s on.”
I shout, “Bring Dale’s pants!”
I scream so loud surely the neighbors can hear, “BRING DALE’S PANTS!”
“Man, I must really be losing my hearing.”
I’m ready to give up and buy Dale new jeans. Instead I try harder: “BRING…DALE’S…PANTS!”
“Oh. That’s right.” He laughs his big Hawaiian laugh, “Ho ho ho.”
Come 2020, Grampa will turn 89. He often suggests any day he survives old age is a good day. I laugh with him, because neither of us is getting out of that disaster alive. The best we can hope is to control our bladders as long as possible and, just in case, keep a spare pair of pants.
Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her writing has appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, and 50-Word Stories. She’s a winner of The Moth StorySlam and performs for many storytelling shows in L.A. Cara lives in Ventura, California.
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