The fires began the day of the appointment, and the repercussions of both events are making it difficult for Kate to breathe. To find some peace, she busies herself by preparing for her guests who are scheduled to arrive shortly. She washes the wineglasses and empties the ashtrays. She runs the vacuum and puts clean sheets on the guest bed. She pours a cup of coffee and walks to the front porch, where she can see the mountains burning north of the city, mushroom clouds of smoke that press against the atmosphere and cement into giant hanging anvils. To Kate the anvils represent a kind of punishment for her recent mistakes, and she would very much like to speak with whomever is controlling the system of ropes and pulleys. She would like to get this over with. Phil is lost. Kate’s directions make no sense, and the afternoon sun burns pink through the smear of the bug-splattered windshield. They left Tulsa yesterday morning, doing eighty across the flats of North Texas and through the scorched canyons of Arizona, finally arriving amid the filthy, breathing traffic of Los Angeles sometime around rush hour. It’s spring break for the kids, and Phil promised them a week in Southern California. He promised them Hollywood and the beach and Universal Studios, but money is tight and a curtain of fire is closing in on their destination, so he’s a little unsure how this will all play out.
“These street names aren’t even in English,” he says, straining to read the little blue signs. “What are we looking for?” Abby asks. Abby is sixteen and, according to what she told her friends back home, about one month away from celebrity. She said she was coming to LA to get headshots and a nice tan and maybe talk with some agents her cousin Kate knows, Kate being a pretty good actress herself. “San something,” Phil says. “San Rafael?” Abby asks. “No.” “Because I just saw San Rafael.” “It’s not San Rafael.” “It could be. You said it was San something.” “Cut it, Abby,” Phil says, riffling through the mess of papers on the dashboard. “Where are those directions, Claire?” Claire grabs Phil’s hand and redirects it back to the steering wheel. “Honey, keep your eyes on the road.” “My eyes are on the road. But it doesn’t do me any good if I don’t know where the hell I’m going.” Phil is an impatient man with the temperament of an ostrich, and in their twenty years of marriage Claire has learned to negotiate his fits with the caution of a zookeeper. She hands him the Subway napkin he scribbled directions on during lunch in Barstow. Phil glances down at the napkin, then back at the road. “San Fernando,” he says, suddenly pleased, as if remembering a song title that had temporarily escaped him.
“We’re looking for San Fernando.” They pull into a gas station. Claire and Abby run to the restroom while Phil gasses up. Miles, the youngest, climbs a small hill to get a better look at the fires. Miles is eleven and large, not fat really, just overinflated. Prior to arriving, he had no interest in this vacation; Los Angeles was not his first choice. His first choice was Alaska, where he knew a kid from his online geology club, a junior volcanologist who invited Miles on a three-day trip to the Chigmit Mountains, home of Mount Redoubt, the most active cone on the North American plate. Aside from the slight chance of being thrown from bed by an eight- plus magnitude earthquake, Miles expected very little from this trip, geologically speaking. But now, with this new, unexpected display of nature, everything has changed and suddenly LA isn’t so boring. “Dad!” he yells, pointing to the sky. “Look. Pyrocumulus.” “Pretty neat,” Phil says, capping the tank. He pulls his phone from his pocket and dials Kate.
He says they’re a little lost. He doesn’t see San Fernando but he sees a cement river, a truck selling tacos, and a billboard for a movie about robots. He asks if she has any idea where they might be, and, to his surprise, she does. She gives him turn-byturn directions and says to park on the street. Abby returns from the mini-mart, Diet Coke in one hand, a magazine in the other. “Was that her?” “Sure was,” Phil says. “Who?” Miles asks, crawling back into the van. “Your cousin Kate,” Phil says. “Do I know her?” “She was around when you were little. You may not remember her.” “I don’t remember her.” Phil closes the door and keys the ignition. “You’ll like her. She’s a real California chick.” He says this as if she were a type of exotic fruit. When her uncle Phil called two weeks ago to ask if he and the family could shack up with her for a few nights while they were in LA, Kate scrambled for a reason that wouldn’t work. She had a mental file of excuses for whenever she was asked to take part in something she found unsavory. It was stunning how quickly she remembered the dinner plans with an old co-worker who was leaving town, or the college friend she was planning to visit down in Huntington. But at seven a.m. on a Sunday, hung over and half asleep, she had nothing. So instead she said, yes, of course, she’d love to have them, and ended up committing herself to a weekend of entertaining family she barely knew. Kate’s father was the eldest of four boys. Phil, the youngest, worked for a senator in DC and was rarely around, appearing only very briefly with his family on Christmas Eve or Easter morning. One of Kate’s few memories of Phil is from the Christmas before she moved to LA, when she saw him slap a five-year-old Miles after the boy flicked a spoonful of mashed potatoes on their grandmother’s Nativity set.
Kate recognized that her cousin was being a little shithead, but the fury it unleashed in her uncle was something she hadn’t seen before. She watched Miles fall into a heap of wailing fat on the kitchen floor as Phil stood over him, threatening to knock his head clean off if he didn’t quit his goddamn whining and clean up the mess. An hour later the boy and his father were curled up on the couch in a postdinner defeat, and Kate remembers the entire day as one big complexity of feeling. Kate sees them approaching from the street, a cloud of ash swirling like fine snow around their heads. “We got dinner,” Phil says, holding bags from In-N-Out Burger in each hand, displaying them high and proud, like a savage returning with the severed heads of rival tribesmen. He hands the bags to Miles and throws his arms around Kate. “So good to see you, kiddo.” “You too,” she says. “You look wonderful, honey,” Claire says. “I just love your little house. It’s so cute. Abby guessed which one it was when we drove by.” Abby gives Kate a bashful wave. “Hi, I’m Abby. Not sure if you remember me.” Kate wraps her arms around her younger cousin. “Of course I remember you.” “Sooo . . . ” Claire says through an eager smile. “Give us the grand tour.” Inside, Phil and Miles tear through their burgers, while Kate walks Claire and Abby through the house. When they return to the kitchen, Phil tells Kate about the drive: the lightning storm outside Phoenix and how the Grand Canyon was closed because some animals accidentally fell in. “Can you believe that?” he asks. “No,” Kate says. “Good. Because I was making that part up.” He lets out a thick belly laugh that leaves Abby shaking her head in a kind of routine mortification. “Always the comedian,” Claire says, smiling at her husband.
Phil has close-cropped hair and some farm in the face. He reminds
Kate of someone, someone on television, but it isn’t until they’ve
started in on cocktails that she realizes that person is Glenn Beck.
After dinner Miles retires to the living room and flips through the
TV channels, finally settling on local news coverage of the fires. A
man with a field of white hair stands in front of a satellite map. He
explains that the fire’s erratic behavior is due to something called
coupled fire atmosphere dynamics, the result of the fire and the atmosphere
interacting with each other and creating its own microclimate.
“You guys,” Miles yells. “Come check this out.”
Kate, Phil, and Claire walk to the living room. “This is crazy,”
Miles says. “Basically what’s happening is that the fire is creating its
own weather patterns. I’ve never heard of anything like this before.”
Kate has never heard of anything like this either, but it makes perfect
sense to her now.
Abby enters the living room holding a doll that emits a piercing
wail from a tiny speaker in its back. “Mom,” she says. “Will you hold
this thing a sec?”
“Shut it up!” Miles says. “I can’t hear the TV.”
“You shut up, you fat turd!” Abby yells back. She hands the doll to
her mother, then fishes through her backpack for a bottle.
Kate looks the doll over. “What is that?”
“This is Baby Think It Over,” Claire says, rocking the plastic child.
“They give these to the kids at school. It makes them think twice
when they’re necking at some party.”
Abby finds the bottle and takes the doll back from her mother. She
inserts the nipple into the baby’s mouth and the crying subsides. “It’s
the dumbest thing in the world,” she says. “They act like it’s the same
as a real baby, but it’s not. I keep the stupid thing in a backpack.”
“I think it’s great,” Claire says. “It cries every so often and if you
don’t feed it or change the diaper, it sends a message that says you’re
neglecting the child. I think it really works.”
Baby Think It Over. Kate likes that. That’s clever. And such good
advice, too—applicable to so many things. Like how about Drunk
Driving Think It Over, or Cocaine Think It Over, or GettingImpregnated-By-Some-Guy-You-Met-At-A-Bar-And-Then-Aborting- The-Baby Think It Over. Do they make a doll for those things? She
guesses they do not. She’d had to think that last one over for a long
time. She stayed in bed for forty-eight straight hours thinking it over.
She drove to Bakersfield and back thinking it over. She thought it
over in the shower, beads of water racing down her belly and the sum
of her mistakes brewing inside. She was raised Catholic and knew
that, of all the unkind things she’d done in her life, this was the only
one that might not be forgivable. She worried that, when she finally
did meet someone she loved and wanted to have children with, she
wouldn’t be able to, that the judgment might come cold and swift,
something like: I’m very sorry, Kathryn, but you had your chance and
you blew it.
“Wanna see it?” Abby asks, extending the doll.
“No thanks,” Kate says.
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