40th Parallel, North
by Aalia Brown
The Colorado Front Range is dotted with small residential communities settled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. In 2012, a string of wild fires burned from June to August. The High Park fire was the second most devastating fire of the summer, burning over 135 square miles and destroying more than 260 homes. It took three weeks for the High Park Fire to be 100% contained. A little more than one year later, the same area experienced heavy flooding, a predictable aftermath of massive fire damage.
Lou says its time to leave the Front Range before it leaves us. I think it’s her excuse for wanting to leave me. We go to sleep every night in our beds, side by side. We almost touch, but haven’t crossed the twin bed divide in almost a month.
The fire station is a smooth operation, and whether or not I’m there in person it always runs well. When I was green we’d set out campfires gone wrong—orchestrated by European tourists drawn to the States for the open road and V8 engines. We’d tame grease fires in the kitchen, that sort of thing. In recent years the fires have burnt bigger. When lightning strikes in the forest and no one hears the trees rattle and shake with the flames, we get the call when someone sees smoke. It can be hours before we get the call—whole houses can disappear—and each time people begin to think that maybe it is just better to leave the mountain. The problem is, some of us feel as if we belong here, like this place is ours and that pretty soon we’ll have beat out this string of bad luck. It’s the sting of the call that makes living up here especially bad; maybe it’s your mother, your neighbor, or even your wife that calls to say that up beyond the ridge the prairie burns red again. For me it’s the call from the station, the call that springs me out of bed and into uniform, always before morning settles but after night has passed.
On Friday evening at the pool table Claude says, “You gotta take your life off the mountain, man.” He means I’ve got to move. He means to say I’ve got to take Lou off the mountain.
I’ve known Claude since junior high school; he grew up on the mountain. He’s never been one to tell me how to live my life. Claude’s mother is French and his father is from Galveston, Texas, which makes him something of an international motherfucker. His folks met on a bike tour in France where she was chasing some crazy Frenchman all over wine country, and Claude’s father was on the run from the taxman back home. They got into an accident on the third day; got all tangled up in each other’s bikes across a train track. After ten days in the hospital side by side Claude’s father’s legs started working again, and he shimmied off the hospital bed, crawled over to Claude’s mother’s side, and since he was already on his knees, the man proposed. Claude always says it’s a wonder that his mother said, “oui,” because she didn’t know a word of English and his dad couldn’t say “s’il vous plaît” or anything of the sort without laughing, the Texas twang tripping him up like a calf fresh on his legs.
Claude has been their go-between translator since before he can remember. After a quickie-do wedding, a baby born nine months later and another nine months after that, his folks met the mountain, and then divorced five years after that. Claude remembers the first big fire because his father says it burnt his Maman’s soul. Claude says that when it was put out she couldn’t take the silence of the trees turned to ash.
Claude’s father used to tell him, “Don’t ever marry a French girl, it ain’t worth the trouble.” He became suspicious of women. Scared that if they came up the mountain they’d just run down and back to France. Back when Lou and I first started having problems, I went to Claude’s house—which is really his father’s house—and kind of groaned about being married. It was taxing, I think is what I’d said, being married to Lou.
“Lou… that’s French,” the old man looked at me with a shade of sadness and he groaned too, an “oh boy” kind of groan.
“No Pops,” said Claude, “she’s from Cheyenne.”
“Nonsense,” he groaned again, “I’m telling you, that woman is French.”
All the guys and their wives or girlfriends used to be my neighbors. I’d see Claude on my way to work each morning, his car rumbling a short pace behind mine on the steep road down to town. On my way home I’d see Claude at the bottom of the hill, collecting his mail from the string of mailboxes across from mine. We worked different shifts at the station. Claude and I started as high school volunteers and the day after graduation became part of the crew. The most we did in those days was shine the trucks and string hammocks out back, and shoot the shit until we were called in for drills.
These days it’s all about education and prevention. At the station we’ve got a deadline to meet, by which the damage from the High Park Fire needs to be cleaned up. As much as we hate doing inspections of private property, there are some folks here whose actions verge on negligence, and for that they need a little bit of encouragement. Some people don’t take kindly to “the government”—as they call us folks in uniform—coming to their doors and saying that the burnt trees and cars and yards have got to go, else they incur a fine, God forbid their precious junk ignites the next fire.
The Last Man Standing, as we’ve come to call him down at the station, is Old Man Alvarez, the old timey keeper of a ten square foot convenience store across from the mailboxes. It isn’t so much a convenience store as much as a repository for the old man’s junk. At least it’s contained, we joke. He’s lived on the mountain going on sixty or seventy years—nobody really knows for certain— and runs a little shack selling matchsticks and car air fresheners from the 50s, on the same shelf as little cans of cut up franks that would probably bust you with botulism if you took a fork to one of those things. I think he fashioned the little place to reek the essence of a general store back in the day, to give the community up here a place to call its own. He’s up here for good, we all say, and it’s a miracle that the flames haven’t touched the place.
Over the years I’ve watched as all my neighbors slid down the hill into town, slowly, one by one. It’s always predictable by the talk ’round the pool table on a Friday night; first a man’s wife says the scenery isn’t worth the drive to town, and then when she becomes a mother, the fear of the fires become the motivation to nag her husbands into submission, ’cause the last one “came too close” or “felt too real.”
Even though he isn’t attached to any one woman, Claude left the house his father built long before the fires were so big. A few years ago one of the blazers scared the shit out of him, and as he tells it, he couldn’t crap for days. Didn’t wait to think his woman du jour wouldn’t be there when he returned, and even though he doesn’t have a family he picked up and moved himself off the mountain.
“I mean it, man, I was hurtin’ just thinking and worrying about what would be gone when I pulled up to the house,” Claude likes to say when he tells the story. These days he cracks up when he talks about how he left, and how he couldn’t shit. I believe every word he says, though it’s hard to imagine he was laughing at all back then.
Lou never comes to the bar on Friday nights. Lou disconnects the house phone for the whole weekend and stays at home. She spends the evenings cooking pasta, drinking wine and reading the I-Ching. Whenever she cooks pasta, it’s like the mushrooms absorb 80% of the wine. When she cooks pasta she adds tomatoes, basil, Kalamata olives, red pepper flakes. When I walk through the door after seeing the guys in town I say, “something smells good.”
“You’ve got a lot of nerve staying up here all these years, what with three dogs and a garden.”
I’ve become used to this routine, the angry attacks that come with the fires. Marriage is the biggest, most inevitable routine of them all. After I give Lou a hug, she shrugs it off in this way she always does. I tell her that the garden gives us that basil and those tomatoes. I say that the dogs can run for miles and nothing will stop them except maybe a coyote or a bear, and that her dream of having cattle came true because we bought land up here and not a house in town. The animals keep me company while she’s on the road, I say, while she’s dressing up the hot country star half her age that’s got half the country by its balls, half the year. I tell her that up here, we’ve got land for days and down in town we’d only have a backyard. We have cattle, for Chrissakes! I say.
“I’m not talking about that!” It comes out of her in an accusatory blur. She pulls off her apron easy, and leaves through the side door— the easiest way out of this routine we’ve made together.
With dinner nearly ready the kitchen is a lonely place to wait, so I keep time by turning the knob on the stove that controls the flame. I watch the blue ring widen and the bubbles start to itch the sides of the saucepan. I taste the sauce and smell the basil Lou’s set aside in a bowl on the table. The window in the kitchen shows the overhead lights flickering in a smudge of yellow where Lou sat.
I find the garage door open, and I take a seat on the floor. After a few minutes at her pottery wheel in the garage, after a few minutes of watching it turn, but never throwing, she says, quietly,
“Besides, the olives come from town.” It’s the closest thing to a reconciliation that I’ll get. She waits for me, or maybe just waits for the silence to settle between us before speaking again,
“Sometimes I think you’re married to the mountain.”
She takes her foot off the pedal and the wheel slows to a stop. The brown sludge that’s built up on her hands starts to drip down those small, familiar wrists and into her aproned lap. It’s a different apron than the soft red one she wears in the kitchen. This one is slicker, black and made of rubber. It’s the armor she wears when she’s got something on her mind, and the garage, with its spinning wheel, is her fortress.
Lou sighs and I know what she’s thinking before she breathes,
“It makes me scared that you won’t come down.”
It’s little things like this that she says, which make me think Lou’s going to leave soon. She reminds me about once a month that I’m doing a job no one really wants to do, fighting fire after fire, waiting for the trees to melt into ash, and then. We save lives, down at the fire station, I say. I don’t see why she thinks it to be a failure; we’re still here after all. I’ve done my job. Maybe it’s even honorable. Our house is fine. Old Man Alvarez still has his shop.
Sleeping with Lou in our two single beds, sometimes I’m not sure which half of me is failing, or why she’d ever want to leave. It’s a chicken and the egg situation, I think, which came first, the fires or the talk of leaving? I reckon it’s 50/50 most days.
The truth is, I’ve been living with fires for fifteen years. Alvarez has stayed up here for nearly sixty years and if that is any indication of the future, I doubt I’ll ever leave.
We got the call once again, two in the morning this time. The news was Stove Prairie, swollen with water. My headlights cut through the rain as I let my transmission roll me down the hill in the slow of second gear. The sound of crunching gravel turns to a hiss and spit when water is added to the country road equation, but now it’s too much water so all it sounds like is a flood. Next to filling my timecard with overtime there’s not much more we can do than hope and pray that the red range drains tomorrow, or tomorrow’s tomorrow. This time it’s water, at least it’s water.
Lou left with the flood. I begged her to wait; just wait one more day, I said. I said tomorrow again and again, and she said,
“If you don’t leave, tomorrow might never come.”