Twenty years later, he was driving like a maniac. And just as he put on the brakes, he remembered, of all things, the words of maternal advice. Classic ones too. “Matt,” his mom had pleaded with him, “who in this country picks a wife before they pick a major?”
And then he remembered the town hiring him and the words of Botelho, his DPW guy, the one who could map you every last manhole on a piece of fish and chips paper. He came to the christening in the big Gloucester church, the one where they stashed The Saint for the Blessing of the Fleet. Brought him and Lainie fiddleheads and sweet mollusks from the salt marsh. “What’s this? You gonna be the youngest great-grandfather in town history. No great-great-grandfather.”
Matt had laughed at them. But he wasn’t laughing now. He was separated, on the way to being divorced. Three thousand miles from home and stuck in a land of smoke. The Great Divide burning up. The very place he’d run to so he could clear his head, lost in holy athletic sweat under the big pure skies.
He put so much pedal on the metal he nearly missed the airport road. He squealed around the hairpin turn, burned rubber, turned heads, and finally parked. He left his brother’s flatbed zigzagging the neat yellow lines of the lot. Unlocked. Did they tow out here? He went under the sign that said Thunderhead Valley Airport and charged at the automatic doors, and they whooshed open. To anyone watching, it would have seemed like the door-moving force wasn’t a sensor in the terminal walls; no way, it was the bullish zeal spilling from the man entering. He was way early, because he was too hepped up to stay away. To read or sleep or anything. Breakfast had been a handful of Cheerios. Twelve or thirteen tiny little Os.
He blamed the smoke for keeping him inside. Away from the kayaks and canoes and glacial crags and precipices. All that was going to sweat him clean again. Boil it out of him.
Inside the four trailer walls he had pissed away time, priceless to all mortal beings, in acts of insipid mind-fucking. Among them the Maxim quiz, one of those “how many women have you slept with?” things where you check off boxes. He came up so far in the loser category he felt not even in a category. Preloser, the white space below the type.
He paced the floors of the trailer and tried to read his brother Steve’s stupefying treatises on the mountain bluebird. That’s all there was—and zoology textbooks. And caffeine pills. The professorial bastard didn’t even drink real coffee. Matt followed his brother around the meadows when he checked on his bird boxes, maniacally penciling mating data on his clipboard. The smoke drove them back. Back to the trailer filled with Steve’s stuffed ducks and mad professor monographs. Matt’s skin felt like it was buffalo jerky.
And then he’d started dicking with the internet. Again. Just like at home with Lainie.
Another plane buzzed. One of the private turboprops that sound like pissed-off horseflies. Some rancher hotdogging above, galloping the polluted heavens in his Cessna. Matt rushed past the raging glass-encased grizzly bear and bellied up to the Sky West counter to check on the flight.
Matt hadn’t met Liv online. He knew who he was looking for, and he had found her online. He searched for her on the days when even the spectacle of aerial firefighting couldn’t distract him from himself. He purposely located himself away from the computer, setting a chair by the biggest window in the trailer and staring up at the fire show, the big yellow tanker planes swooping onto the lake, alighting like monster bugs and gulping tons of water, then swooping up again and disappearing into the mountainous smoke. Each time he’d look to see if the lake was being drained away, if the waterline on the pebbly shore had receded, and then another pontooned yellow-belly would appear out of the boiling sky and plunge and drink. On and on, without end, the air so noxious he couldn’t open a window. Instead he opened a beer and threw on all the lights because he couldn’t stand the morning looking like a night in Hell, and if his crazy, fucking brother had told him the truth about the Big Sky—that for the whole summer and into the fall it would be the Big Chimney—he never would have crossed the Appalachians.
The actual moment he’d met Liv had been a couple of decades ago, in a crowded function hall. The band was alternately mawkish and honking and bawdy. The air conditioner was on the fritz. Everybody was mopping themselves and he had to take a break, so he stepped outside, where even the help was unbuttoning to let the night breeze at them. A woman in a black waitress uniform brushed his bare wrist, swept into him just like that. It was an accident; they were coming around the corner at the same time, exactly. But when he smelled her and looked at her he felt it was no accident at all—they had been drawn and pulled together as surely as if they were objects in space, or tongues of flame licking at the same lone twig. They held hands and started walking, before they even spoke—toward a stand of trees and a parked car. Her hips were as high as his and they kept swaying into each other. She had keys and unlocked the car and he climbed inside with her, not hesitating, not equivocating, because at that instant yes and no were gone from the language. There was only a preverbal something, the same pull that had thrown them around the corner now threw them on the backseat.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked.
She laughed a laugh that was bottomless and didn’t flinch. “Of course I know who you are.” She raised her long arms and undid her hair and let the jungle of it fall all around his face. She toyed with his boutonniere and, quick as a pickpocket, took him out of his cummerbund.
Afterward he went in and danced with Lainie, hating his own hands as they pressed against the swirling bridal satin, staining it with the unforgiveable. Even after the dance, when he put the hands to his face he breathed Liv and not Lainie. And Liv was still all over him, embedded in every tuxedo stitch, when they raised the last glass of champagne. The band struck up and Lainie bustled them off to the limo, clutching at him like a hurt sparrow and fretting about needing sleep for Acapulco.
She was clueless. He vowed to keep her that way.
Liv never happened again, and no one else did either. It was twenty minutes of her, that was it, but as permanent on him as a full-body tattoo. Twenty minutes that spewed its ash on twenty years. And put a padlock on it too. He shut Liv inside himself and stayed as faithful to Lainie as a guard dog. Fighting for his altar vows—fighting with none other than himself as the sworn enemy, the betrayer. Worse, the infidel.
When the kids were old enough, he lost his grip on his job. The town let him go and the summer stared him in the eye like a grinning gargoyle. “Go somewhere,” Lainie said. “Please.”
“Even when you smile, I see the snarl,” Lainie remarked, as she helped him pack the big duffel. When he threw in a winter coat, she got this baffled look and dragged the coat back out, saying, “Why would you need that?” The idea was he would go out west and help Steve build a road. Two days after he arrived, Lion Creek lit up like a bonfire. Soon it was a blaze the size of Rhode Island, and the inside talk all over the valley was no amount of tanking and hosing, no amount of cutting and digging, nothing but nothing in the realm of human endeavor could do squat. In the end it would be the winds and the cold and the snow—a long time coming. As for Steve’s road . . . it was all they could do to check his bird boxes so he could keep the feds from pulling the grant money. By the time they got to operating the rented backhoe, around midmorning, every breath they took was like something from the exhaust pipe of an ancient Mack truck. The rent on heavy equipment was expensive. Steve sent the backhoe back.
Big Steve with a PhD was no different than little Steve had been in the sandbox. Unbearable. Losing a backhoe no different than losing a toy train. He popped serial tantrums and academic shit fits, whining about the blown summer and badgering Matt at every turn with his theorems and profundities and pontifications, as if Matt were a captive freshman in BIO 101.
Did Matt know there were turtles whose shells could withstand the impact of hundreds of galloping wildebeests? Steve did, and rattled on about it, shrieking like a human aviary. Did Matt know that 63% of the diet of Chinese mantises are male mantises? Was he aware of the two-hundred-year-old whale still swimming around with a harpoon in his flanks?
“Now answer me this. Who do you think is the better Western artist—Russell or Remington?”
“To me they’re all the same, Steve. Pictures of cowboys and Indians and buffalos.”
“That’s because you don’t see as well as you used to. Did you know your vision peaks at eleven years of age?”
Matt Googled and ogled and eventually located Liv on one of those white-pages sites for the desperate. She had crossed a state line, but in all those years hadn’t gone far. She was still in the land of lobster traps, still in fallout range of the Pilgrim nuclear power plant. Married, divorced, married, divorced, available. In a big hurry the emails and IMs got so hot he felt he could smell them. And now she was aloft in the Delta system, probably taxiing in Salt Lake, zooming three thousand miles to come see him. “Smoke?” she’d said to him, her cellphone voice licking his ear. “I won’t mind it. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
Liv specifically asked him not to meet her at the gate—to meet him in a coffee shop or bar (in the valley airport they were one and the same)—so she could stop at the powder room and tuck in her this and that. He passed through the lone gift shop, running a knickyknacky gauntlet of every possible manifestation of moose and bear in dolls and dishware, stuff worse than Hummel, worse than the Franklin Mint. And then he entered the Grizzly Grill, whose motif was ferocious bear rugs and vintage bear-kill photos affixed to knotty pine walls. At this hour there were empty seats all over the place. He chose a strategically direct view of the entrance but some distance back, so they could emerge for each other, gathering steam with every step she took. At his back was a liquor shelf and taps, but the formica tables, diner sugar shakers, and stale-bacon smell said breakfast place, so he ordered a huckleberry stack just to buy an hour, and unless there were big tailwinds it would be that and even then some.
He didn’t take a bite; it wasn’t his stomach that wanted attention. All he did with the flapjacks was fork a few berries and push them this way and that in the sauce, watching it cool and dull and thicken into a purple paste.
But Matt wasn’t the only one watching. And now there was a new smell in the room, startling and toxic, not the kind given off by a puddle of sugared berry glop or old bacon grease. And then a voice, a man’s, from a corner he’d thought unoccupied. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave the restaurant and the airport property. You can take your food with you, but only if you go now. Right now. In a minute they’ll announce the evacuation on the PA.”
Matt didn’t need to ask why. The smoke rolled in like tumbleweeds. His first thought was some skillet flare-up in the kitchen. But by the time he reached the main entrance, the plumes were dark and big and stampeding over the ticket counters. In the open air, if you could call it that, he felt his throat seize as the smoke poured into his lungs. He spun around in the murk, not sure where he’d left the flatbed. If this was all the visibility he had, what was it like for the pilots coming in?
He got himself out to the lots and behind the wheel and hightailed it down the interstate, in shitless awe that the sky-blocking incineration in his rearview mirror was something that would live in history, along the lines of a Mount St. Helens blowing its top. He saw an expanse of flame and blackness tall and wide as a tidal wave. It had swept down a mountain, burning all the timber in its way, and was churning toward a cluster of tract homes that bordered on one of the runways.
Matt switched on the radio, normally a wall-to-wall band of Top 40 country, and got the official word about the forest fires shutting down the airport, with no word whatsoever about when operations would resume.
As it turned out, the sky became such a boiling cauldron even the tanker planes were grounded, so nothing much remained in the firefighting arsenal beyond the prayers issued daily by the governor. Matt and Steve burrowed into the trailer like moles running from an exterminator’s fumes. Each day became a gift from the prevailing winds.
By cellphone, Liv reported she had been turned back at Salt Lake. Maybe it was the molten air choking the signal, but Matt thought he heard something new in the dusky fuck-me voice. A crackle or cackle, a streak of whiny dissonance every now and then. Its effect was like a zigzag of lightning in an otherwise velvet sky. Next she emailed him new pictures of her, close-ups in which the light or the shadow or something seeping from inside her had changed what the camera now saw. He discovered pouches and blotches and even a neck scar. Matt brooded about what two decades had done to Liv, what crumbled from the sheer force of gravity, and he wondered if she had recently undergone surgery.
In the accompanying text, she brought up the subject of flying out again. She asked for dates and times.
“Ask the governor,” was all he typed back, “or the Farmer’s Almanac.”
The weekend came, and Matt and Steve rose early to attend a memorial service for fallen firefighters. The fires raged so wildly the authorities held off picking a church location until the evening before, when it was known which communities the winds would spare for twenty-four hours. It had been eighteen days now since they’d received that weird call from the sheriff s office, a recorded advisory recommending that everyone in their district temporarily evacuate homes and ranches. When they pushed the prompts to say no, an official envelope appeared in the mailbox the very next day. It asked for copies of dental records so their remains could be identified if charred beyond recognition.
Even before that, Matt and Steve had been squabbling over everything—what to eat, who should drive—their bickering so ceaseless it took on a permanence, the new normality of how they talked to each other. Matt was at his wit’s end with the academic one-upping. Nothing Steve did rankled his ass more, and Matt said so—repeatedly—but what he said had no effect whatsoever. On the way to the church, a flash breakout in a pasture stopped the highway traffic dead. The two of them sat there, watching the golden fields give way to scorched earth and the hapless volunteer teams running and driving this way and that, caught in such a struggle with their equipment they couldn’t catch up to the sprinting blaze. In the frenzy, some of the locals began acting as citizen cops, straddling the yellow line, waving their arms and whistling, frantically trying to detour vehicles over an old wagon path.
“I’ll tell you what’s going to happen to us,” Steve proclaimed, as though he were the great Darwin predicting the next phase of travails for the species. “It’s going to be like the jellyfish and the salmon all over again.”
Matt rolled his eyes and had a murderous urge to just lean on the horn, hard as he could, as much to blank out his blowhard brother as to attack the snarled traffic. Only Steve could turn a flatbed passenger seat into a lectern with a gilded Latin seal.
“More from the man who talks out of his colon,” Matt said. “Blast away.” But Steve’s beak was high in the air and his lips were pursed—hard and tight as little bird bones—and he cawed the story of how this Irish salmon farm was set upon by billions of jellyfish, a vast mass of red in the Irish Sea, ten square miles and thirty-five-feet deep. “Pelagia nocticula,” Steve announced, “popularly known as the mauve stinger. They wiped out every last pen of salmon in three hours. Hundreds of thousands of fish, just like that.”
Mercifully, the traffic began to inch ahead as Steve broke into his trademark shit-eating grin, the telltale sign he’d got to the crowning moment of his analogy. He swept his hand across the dashboard, indicating the choked highway and the rest of the length and breadth of the valley. “I’d say that this time we’re the salmon and the fires are the jellyfish. And we all know who wins. As far as the planet is concerned, our main value will be as nutrients in the timber cycle.”
Matt watched the needle strain toward 10 mph. “If you’re finished,” he told his brother, “why don’t you change your underwear?”
What shut Steve up at last—although only for two hours—was all the hymning and praising that burst forth from the overflow church crowd. The pastor began and ended his remarks with gratitude to Heaven on high—for keeping the fires of Hell at bay so the congregants, at least on this morning, could fill their lungs with the succulence of sweet air and “shake the rafters with sorrow and song.”
Afterward, they all gathered in a field, just across from the church, for a white-dove ceremony to honor the dead firefighters. The pastor called the grieving families to the front of the crowd, and when they had all formed a circle, he stepped back and a dark truck pulled into the field, slow as a hearse. The truck stopped and an old barrel of a man came around from the driver’s seat. He lowered the gate of the truck and, using a furniture blanket, eased off a crate that had three solid sides and one wire-mesh side. The passenger door of the truck opened and out stepped a woman, decades younger than the man and sturdy as a barn beam. Her hair was the color of oak furniture and it was set in tight waves, the standard perm Matt had seen in every aisle of every store he had entered since coming out here. The dress she wore, blue with white dots, seemed cut to flatter the fullness of her shoulders even more than the curves in front, and there was something about the shoulders that drew Matt’s eyes and held them as she stood quietly in the field, the crate at her side. Far behind the woman, forested hills jutted out of the flat plain, spewing curls of smoke. But the smoke seemed oddly inconsequential, as if the shoulders had pushed it so far in the background there was no smell, not even a wisp of haze muting the sky.
At a signal from the pastor, the woman knelt beside the crate, grasped a handle on the mesh front and thrust it open. A dove fluttered out, beat its wings in place, and then burst upwards. Matt had assumed there would be a single dove for each firefighter, three in all, and when the third flew out he looked away from the crate, expecting the pastor to take over with an obligatory torrent of closing remarks.
The torrent, however, came from the crate. Dove upon dove emerged, such a blizzard of them the crate itself began to seem as magical—for its sheer capacity—as the copious white-bird fountain shooting into the blue sky. As the doves exulted in their escape, they moved more like dancers or skaters than rockets. They wheeled and swooped and traced elliptical figures, flying low as well as high, before they finally massed and soared up and out of sight. Through it all, the crowd and the wind stayed hushed, and the beating wings were so audible there was something powerfully musical about them. It affected Matt more, much more, than the written music he had heard in the church. For an instant he even shut his eyes—an instant that didn’t escape Steve, who nailed him about it on the way home.
“They weren’t doves, you know. Not real doves. Do you think white doves let out of a crate would survive in nature? What you saw were albino homing pigeons. They’ll be back for supper.”
Late that night a cold front invaded the valley and next morning the temperatures being recorded were record lows for the August/September cusp. The chilled air molecules put a clamp on new fire activity; the entire radio band chortled about it, suddenly swamped with new ads for back to school gear. There were even a few doorbusters for snow blowers and battery minders. Matt opened his computer and found just-arrived emails from both Lainie and Liv. He knew how he wanted to answer them: a toss-off for Liv and anything but that for Lainie. She stood for two decades and three children, and Liv not even a night. But in the end, any email would only be email, not shoulders that diminished fires, not white doves or even albino pigeons that wrote hymns in the sky.
He found himself itching to get the road project going again, and then when everything froze to feel the high mountain snow crunching underfoot. He started making plans to go deep in the back country, well after the bears had dug in for the long snooze. It was a bracing day, such an excellent one he even felt civil toward his brother, whom he decided to treat to an evening meal that would be special and well prepared.
Besides the improved cuisine—of all things a fat chunk of salmon clawed from the crust of the freezer—it was dinner as usual with Steve. Walmart-ware for service, paper towels for linen. He clammed up and filled his face while Steve railed about giant climactic dislocations causing a stampede of walruses on some remote polar island. Matt pictured thousands of them trampled, their endless tusks bleaching in the cold sun like tombstones.
There had been a question in Lainie’s email, the kind that hooks you, and long after midnight Matt hit the send button on his big speech:
What was the breaking point? What was the starting point of the breaking point? This is not an answer, there could be no answer, this is just a reply. Don’t think of it as us. Think of it as two wine glasses. Fine crystal, Irish, Austrian. They clink together for a thousand dinners. Ten thousand. Then one of them breaks, no reason, maybe right inside the dishwasher, not even moving. What happened? Nothing happened. Nothing but a normal cycle.
A week or so later he was notified of a package from her, and he drove in for it. The winter coat she had refused to pack. As he draped the hooded thickness of it on a hanger, he got stuck on his own question, something it was suddenly crucial to know. Was she trying to keep him warm? Or was she sending him off into the cold?