Friday, March 8, 2013

Cathedral, Part II

He awoke, startled.  Framed by utter night the figures 2:54 beamed at him.  His ancient fan whirred weakly somewhere, vainly churning the stale air of his quarters.
The doorbell rang.  Again, Jake supposed.
He put on some clothes, put a hand through his overlong hair and stepped out of his room onto the moonlit courtyard, carefully locking the door behind him.  He shuffled barefoot across the rough concrete toward the alley door.
It was a woman, a girl really, and she was very pregnant.  She looked at Jake through a veil of black hair and said nothing.  He ushered her in, grabbing the clipboard where biographical data of new guests was recorded.  She waddled through the door and sat at one of the tilted, wooden tables of the comedor, just beneath a mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  Jake shut and locked the door behind her.
Small and dark-skinned, her features would have been frail.  Were it not for the pregnancy she would have been slim, too.  She said that her name was Maria Teresa Rivas Flores.  She was born in El Tesoro, Honduras on July 15th, 1976.  That made her nineteen years old, but Jake knew that dates and names changed like the weather among the destitute; whatever suits the occasion.  She looked younger than nineteen.
Her pregnancy was the one thing certain about her.  Since she was no more than five feet tall it appeared that she was about to give birth to some monstrous thing that would split her in two.
“Have you ever been here before?” Jake asked in slow Spanish.
She remained silent for a moment, looking at the floor, as if in a daze.  She had actually failed to ever look him in the eye since he opened the door.  He was about to ask her the question again when she responded.
“When were you here?”  The questions were standard.  Checked against house records, the answers aided in discovering if the person had been thrown out for something like drinking, which resulted in being thrown out for six months, or fighting or using drugs, both of which resulted in banishment.
As Jake noted this on his clipboard, his stomach turned violently with the diarrhea that he couldn’t shake.  As he waited out the cramp, a drop of sweat rolled down the slope of his nose and splattered the word ‘diciembre’.  Suddenly she was touching him, her hand on his sweaty, trembling fingers that gripped the pen.
“Estas enfermo.” You are ill.
When he looked up, she was staring at him.  For a moment Jake stared back.  Her face was marvelously unaffected by the pregnancy; thin and brown with a clear complexion.  Her eyes were large and indian black.  She didn’t smile.
The moment ended when a fly, buzzing fiercely, darted into Jake’s ear.  Sandra and his bowels were forgotten as he swatted the fleeing insect.  When he looked back at her, she was finally smiling.
“One more question,” he announced, smiling as well, his stomach settling.  “Why have you come to Casa Maria?”
Her smile faded.  “My patrona fired me because I was too pregnant.  I cleaned her house and cared for her children.”
Jake made a notation, nodding.  He had heard many excuses for losing the same job.  Sometimes they were true, sometimes the girl had stolen or the wife thought her husband had found their servant too attractive. 
Jake left her in the comedor and went to fetch her some sheets and a pillow from the laundry room.  Once in the volunteers building he became curious and, instead of getting bedclothes for the girl, he trotted down the hall to the office, where the records were kept in an old shoe box on the director’s desk.
He rifled through the index until he found a three-by-five card titled “Rivas Flores, Maria Teresa.”  She hadn’t lied about her name, apparently.  The front of the card carried basic data.  She had been born on the first of August 1978, and so had just turned seventeen.  He took her lie in stride and didn’t stop to ponder her motives.  The people who came through Casa Maria sometimes seemed to lie for no reason or simply for the sake of lying.  Jake was beginning to think that it was a form of protection; concealing your true identity, name or age.  These people had virtually no possessions.  Possibly this moved them to guard knowledge of themselves, the last thing that could be taken from them.  In fact, for all he knew, the name was a lie; a false name that she had memorized for shelters.  Or, perhaps, she had lied the first time and was now telling the truth.  Or she had lied both times. 
Jake flipped her card over to see the entry date.  She had come to the house on December 17th, 1994.  He read the explanation of her arrival. 
It was a brief note.  He read it a few times before putting the card back.  He grimaced as his stomach churned again.  He sat down and absently clutched his abdomen with one hand and wiped sweat from his brow with the other.  After a minute he remembered the bedclothes and stood before heading out of the office towards the laundry room.
Scenes relentlessly coalesced in his mind, one after the other.  Like a man bleeding to death he could not stop the flow of images caused by the note on her entry card.  He saw the menacing faces of the men in a dark alley at night, hovering over her.  There was no sound in the fantasy.  At the end, men walked out into the intermittent light of a flickering street lamp, the knees of their pants smeared with dirt, their crotches stained with blood. 
Jake found her just where he had left her, sitting by the door, as silent and still as something dead.  She looked briefly at him, then at the sheets, then away.  He explained to her how to go up the stairs and into the women’s dormitory.  She said gracias, took the pillow and bed linen and awkwardly ascended the stairs.  Walking towards his room down below Jake stopped and turned to watch her reach the top of the stairs.  She glanced at him before stepping carefully into the shadows of the dormitory.
Jake retired to his own room and went back to sleep, adding his dreams to the others, good and bad, that welled up out of the rooms and dormitories like water evaporating.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Cathedral, Part I

Jake looked out from behind the serving table at the sea of dark faces and felt nothing.  He was conscious only of the unrelenting heat and the sick tide of recycled breath. The lone light bulb that jutted down from the center of the ceiling flickered once.  Here and there people crossed themselves.
“Trastes?” Jake called, lifting up his clipboard.  Two Guatemalans who had come the day before volunteered to wash dishes.  He got their names and asked for someone to clean the bathrooms, the floors, the dining room.  After a few minutes all the assignments were taken.
“Quien quiere orar?”  Jake asked them.  Who wants to pray?
Rosa Maria Chavez, an old, pious, crazy woman, led the prayer.  She asked for work and food and faith.  The room was still, her words fading quickly into oblivion.  When she was done Jake served the first plate of rice, beans and tortillas.  As he progressed the room came alive with the exuberant voices of those sitting and eating and the sometimes hushed tones of those still in line.  When he was done Jake made himself a plate with two tortillas he had hidden away, just in case they ran out, and the remnants of the rice and beans. 
He sat down with a Salvadoran guest named Antonio Perdomo.  He wasn’t using his two weeks to find work in Juarez.  Like many Central American guests he only wanted to rest before throwing himself against the increasingly impermeable barrier of fences, water, mountains and automobiles that guarded the American border.
After that, the night shift wound down as always.  Guests carried out their tasks and Jake reviewed them.  He took in a family from Veracruz and explained the rules to them.  At nine he called for mothers to take their children to their rooms.  “Ninos a dormir!” he cried from the center of the courtyard and watched to see that all those under twelve went up the stairs that led to the women’s dormitory and the family rooms on the second floor.  At ten he sent the rest of the guests to their rooms and locked the black metal screen  of the guest entrance that looked out onto the alley behind Casa Maria.  It was pitch black out there.  He closed the heavy wooden door, locked it and turned out the lights before retiring into volunteer quarters.
By ten thirty he finished the bed list; designating where every guest’s bed or stretch of floor was on a photocopy of the floor plans and revising the roster that now registered some eighty names. 
Instead of leaping into bed at this point, Jake began to make coffee in the kitchen.  He poured water into a battered aluminum urn and waited outside while it boiled.  It was torture to boil water in that small kitchen during summer.  He didn’t know how the cooks stood it.  The two heats, the kindled stove and the ebbing swelter of the day, were a stunning combination.
He stood in the central courtyard and listened to the diminishing sounds of the house.  All of the rooms and dormitories were full.  In the men’s dorm there were four men on the floor.  People spoke in hurried, hushed tones, as eager to say what had to be said as they were to get to sleep. The troubled susurrations of so many dreams were like the sound of distant ocean waves crashing against the rocks of the world.
Water sizzled on the stove and roused Jake from his reverie.  He went back into the kitchen and dumped the coffee grounds straight into the boiling water.  He turned off the stove, let it simmer for another minute, and struggled to breathe in the heat.  Then, with a rag ro hold the metal handle, he took the coffee pot and a mug into volunteer quarters and sat down in the front room.  He picked out a book from the rather weighty selection on the decrepit, swaying bookshelves while the grounds settled to the bottom of the urn and the aroma filled the room.
He had come, prompted by a priest who had become something of a mentor for Jake his final year in college.  Not that Jake had undergone a conversion of any kind.  He had never been more or less than an almost fallen away Catholic.  He had never considered himself completely fallen away because he didn’t bear the Church a grudge or feel any anger.  At the University he had gone to Mass every now and then, like some people went on and off Prozac or Zoloft.  There was something about the smell of candles, the dim lighting and the near silence of so many people that recharged some kind of mystic battery inside him.  It wasn’t that he worried about an afterlife or his own fate. Rather, Jake wanted to think that things were not as they seemed, that there were imperceptible currents of mystery running beneath the frozen exterior of reality.
After Jake drank nearly the entire pot he put the book back on the shelf.  He hadn’t read a word.  The coffee buzzed in his head like an irritated wasp.  He went back to his room, turned on his fan, and lay on the bed.  None of the rooms in the house had good ventilation and some had none at all.  Lying in his room at night, the heat dissipating slowly, he felt like he was suffocating and his body became sticky with sweat.
Even with kinder weather Jake couldn’t have slept much, since he was the only volunteer who heard, or admitted to hearing, the doorbell from the confines of his room.  At two or three in the morning, nearly every morning it seemed, someone rang the doorbell and Jake, shoved out of bed by a reluctantly Catholic conscience, put on a shirt and shorts and stumbled bleary-eyed across the patio to the double portal that opened on to the street, beyond the comedor.
Usually, however, the doorway was empty.  Jake would open the heavy wooden door and stare out through the black iron screen at the silent obscurity of the back street.  It was both frustrating and disturbing.  It enraged Jake to think that some drunk or a conspiracy of kids might be ruining his chances of getting a good night’s sleep and he considered not answering the door anymore.  But he never gave up because every once in a while he opened the door to a single mother with five children or a refugee from some hellhole in Central America.  It would unnerve him to think that this time he had almost not answered, that he might have left them on the doorstep, waiting for help that would never come, like an unanswered prayer.
Lying there, trying to sleep, he thought enviously of all his friends from college, starting their careers or going on to graduate school.  Some volunteers were really invigorated by this job, fulfilled by these people, brought closer to God.  Some stayed for years and you could see how they bloomed in this slow hell of other people’s suffering.  They clothed themselves in agony and smiled, as if they had some great secret.  Jake had nothing.  Surrounded by walls of ineffable suffering, he was a naked man in a cathedral of meaning and purpose, his wordless prayers rising with the heat and escaping into space.
According to the work schedule, Jake was supposed to serve breakfast in the morning.  Once more he would have to stand before the people like a priest at an altar table and serve up the daily bread. Lying there, he dreaded the thought of that dirty, groping, needy sea of human flesh, their faces either blank or animated by desperation.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Smoking Mountain, Part IV

Suddenly Mark was standing over me.  “Wake up.  Tim, wake up.”

There was smoke in the air, all around us.  I sat up feeling as if I had died and woken in the land of the dead, or in some Dantean level of Hell.  Voices wandered through the thick smoke.

“Did I fall asleep?”

“Well, if you did it was only for a minute.”  Mark was taking the orange plastic safety cover off his shovel, revealing the razor-sharp edge.  “The hotshots got up a minute ago and started cutting line around the fire.”

“Mark, I need some help.  I think I’ve got a huge blister and the back of my foot is just killing me.  What can I do?”

He rummaged around in his shirt pocket, pulled out a strip of something and tossed it to me.  It looked and felt like hairy duct tape.

“Moleskin.” He said.  “Take the cover off and put it over the blister.  It will adhere pretty strongly.  Then put your sock and boot back on in a hurry, so your foot doesn’t swell.”

I stood quickly after following his advice, excited now that I would finally get to work.  No more climbing.  I removed the safety cover from my own shovel.

The two of us followed the sounds of tools clanging and scraping ahead and discovered the fire line.  It verged off the trail to the left, skirting the edge of the fire.  The trail served as a fire line itself, the fire unable to jump the strip of bare earth to the dry leaves and grass beyond.  Thus, the fire was, for the moment, trapped in the V created by the trail and fire line.  Our intention would be to close that V and surround the fire.

We walked a short distance along the scoured stripe of soil until we found the Mormon Lake crew.

When hotshots ‘cut line’ they attack the earth, in single file, with chainsaws, pulaskis, shovels and rakes.  The chainsaws go first, circling the fire, cutting limbs and roots and even felling small trees in order to clear a path.  Those carrying pulaskis follow, chopping and prying at what is left, removing large obstacles and digging up roots and grass with their picks.  Shovels come next, scraping all the detritus of this assault away from the fire, leaving nothing but exposed soil.  Rakes come last, taking care of details, making sure that the line is wide enough and clear of all flammable materials.  When the fire, separated from more fuel, reaches this line it dies there, leaving nothing but charred earth.

The line we followed was a foot wide.  The hotshot we found was a middle-aged black man down on his knees with a little, yellow, plastic hand-rake in one hand and a small paintbrush in the other.

“Hi there.” He said without looking up.  “Name’s Quality Control.  Work’s up ahead for you boys.”  He waved the little hand rake up the line.  I thought it was cool that people had code names, like G.I. Joe.

Quality Control was several yards behind the last shovel bearer, whom we could see in the smoke ahead of us.  Mark and I filled this gap.  I put on my goggles.  The smoke and the dust was so thick I took off my helmet, peeled off the sweaty bandanna that I had worn under it and tied the wet cloth over my face.  It stank of sweat and hair.

We went to work, prodding and scraping the soil and stones below.  With twenty people ahead of us there was little work left, though Quality Control, who had slipped back a few yards since our arrival, stayed busy, touching and brushing the line delicately.  He reminded me of a baker finishing an expensive cake.

An hour passed like a dream.  Smoke rolled above and all around us.  The flames were at times right up against the line and as high as my knee.  The heat was fierce on my face and noticeable even through my protective gloves.  Every now and then I was startled by a sudden sense of certainty that the fire was all around us, that we were trapped.  But I continued stepping up the line.  Somewhere ahead, lost in the smoke, chainsaws screamed.  The rushing whir of helicopter rotors briefly burst through the din of the fire and the clatter of our tools.

Up ahead, people began to pass a message down the line, from person to person.  Though few of us were more than six feet apart, the message had to be shouted.  I watched the hotshot in front of us bellow at Mark, his lips moving extravagantly.  Then Mark turned to me.

“They say you should only put dry cloth over your mouth.” He yelled. “To breathe through.”


“Because the hot air will steam your lungs through wet cloth!”

Steamed lungs, I thought.  It sounded like a dish in some Chinese restaurant. Steamed lungs of dugong.  Maybe a Norwegian meal.  I pulled the bandanna down around my neck, found a new one in my pack and put it on.  Quality Control bumped into me.

“Lift ‘em up and put ‘em down, kid.” He said, never taking his eyes off his work.  “The work’s that way.”  He gestured in the familiar manner toward the wall of roiling smoke into which Mark had disappeared.

Following the furrowed path I soon found Mark, who was diligently scraping dirt.  I did the same, grimacing in pain every time I swallowed.  I assumed it was the smoke I had inhaled while changing bandannas.

The ground became hilly and, following the line, Mark and I sidestepped up and down the rises, wordlessly slashing at the terrain with our now less-than-razor-sharp tools.  The smoke cleared up some, as the hotshots began to cut farther away from the flames for strategic reasons I didn’t hesitate to ponder.  Glancing up occasionally, I could see smoke-shrouded figures at the front of the line, chainsaws shrieking in their trembling hands.  Behind them, helmeted men and women swung their tools, gouging the earth and gelding the fire.  Mark and I made up the near end of this line.  Quality Control followed at some distance, but never out of sight.

Mark tapped me on the shoulder.  I looked up.  He was pointing up the line.  Brian, Manny, Chad and Helen were coming our way, pulaskis in hand.

Sedona crew is gonna move off the line.”  Brian shouted a little louder than necessary.  He continued in a lower tone.  “The Mormon Lake crew is about to join their line to the Flagstaff crew’s line and close this side of the perimeter.  We’re going to the helicopter landing to unload supplies.”

“How’d the Flagstaff shots get ahead of us?” I creaked.

“Same way the Prescott crew got up.” Brian replied without looking at me.  “By helicopter.”

“Mountain’s getting kind of crowded.” Mark said, smiling like well-educated, middle class men like him smile when forced to spend time with inbred folk like Brian.  We moved out.

I was a little disappointed.  As tiring as cutting line was and as much as my joints ached, I wanted to keep going.  Instead I was being demoted to loading lackey.  And I had the strange feeling somehow that it was my fault.

We walked up the line, behind the hotshots.  Soon we could see the Flagstaff crew, their blue helmets bobbing up and down in rhythm with their tools.  They were only ten yards from connecting their line to Mormon Lake’s.  We walked along behind them for a while.  They were cutting a fair distance from the fire and lighting backfires inside the perimeter, igniting the pine needles and undergrowth with spitting flares.  For a few moments we were enveloped in smoke as the backfire exhaled all over us.  Still, I could see the black earth of the fire line to my right and the occasional pair of legs, clad in Nomex, and I followed them.

When we emerged from the smoke the Sedona crew was still together.  Led by Brian we departed from the line and set out into the ‘green’, the unburned area outside of the fire’s perimeter (the burned sections were called the ‘black’).  The fire line, clean enough to eat off, arced away beneath the trees.  The ground burned beyond that thin stripe.  For a long while we could still distinguish the whine of chainsaws from the general roar of the raging mountaintop.

“Just how big is this fire?” I asked.

Without turning back, Helen said, “Brian talked to Doug over the radio.  He estimated about forty acres, but there are-“

She stopped speaking when Brian came to an abrupt halt and raised one hand in the air.  He appeared to be listening to something.  A few seconds later I heard it as well — a growing buzz that threatened to become a roar.

“It’s coming from there.”  Helen said, pointing above the trees forward and to the left of us.

“Let’s take cover.” Brian said.

Manny, Chad and Helen needed no further instructions.  They sat down against the trunks of nearby trees, facing away from the noise and towards the fire.  Mark and I looked at each other and at Brian.  Grumbling, he led us to two other trees and told us to sit down, facing in the same direction as the others, with our arms over our heads holding down our helmets and our knees drawn up.

The noise increased as he spoke, drowning out his words.  I wondered hysterically about what the hell was happening.  I didn’t have time to figure it out.  There was a loud whoosh overhead.  Disobeying Brian’s orders I looked up.  A C-130, which I recognized from my eldest brother’s photos of his days in the Army Rangers, flew low overhead, toward the inferno.  The treetops swayed.

We got moving again.  Helen explained to Mark and I that planes dropped flame retardant on the fire, but occasionally they missed their mark and dropped thousands of gallons of pink foam on firefighters.

“The new stuff they use won’t kill you, but if you get hit it could knock you down and cause an injury.”
There was a new spring in my step.  It was worth leaving the fire line to nearly get bombed.  In my mind’s eye I saw myself; one man on a blazing rock.  With others, I struggled to master an unleashed force of nature.  Overhead, helicopters and planes buzzed and hovered, attacking and reforming to attack again.  I was proud to be a human being, a member of such a brave, sturdy race that we dared to defy the very forces of nature that had created us.

Brian decided that we should stop and eat.  None of us had eaten during the entire ordeal and it was past noon. 

Everyone began to ask questions and discuss what they heard as they pulled fruit, sandwiches, MREs, and water out of their packs.  Doug had apparently been put in charge of the fire by the District Fire Chief, which was why we hadn’t seen much of him.  There were sixty fire fighters on the mountain with several helicopters and a C-130 attached to the operation.

As everyone else chatted I was having a hard time swallowing my food.  My throat ached.  The crumbs I managed to swallow felt like shards of glass caught in my esophagus.  I said as much and asked if it was due to smoke inhalation.

Helen shook her head, chewing on a government issue frankfurter.  “You probably steamed your esophagus.  Did you have a wet bandanna over your mouth?”

I nodded.  “But I took it off after a while.”

“You got lucky then.”  Manny interjected.  “Much longer and you would have steamed your lungs as well.  Then you’d be in bad shape.”

Mark looked at me as if he had just heard that I had cancer.

“What’s going to happen to me?” I asked hollowly.

The professional fire fighters laughed out loud at that, choking on their food.

“Nah, man.” Brian said.  “If you’ve made it this far, it’s probably no big deal.  You’ve got a sun-burn in your throat is all.”

I was so relieved that I forgot to be dazzled by Brian’s eruption of vocabulary.

“It’ll go away.” Helen said.  “But it’ll be hard to eat for a day or two.”

We continued chatting for a few minutes, eating and staring out at the terrain.  The fire was a few hundred yards behind us but we could still hear it.  A hundred yards ahead of us, according to Brian, the trees ended and a clearing dominated the South end of the plateau.  There the supply helicopters would soon begin to descend.

Eventually we moved on and set up camp near a decent landing spot.  Manny, Brian and Chad unloaded the helicopters as they came down.  Helen, Mark and I organized the supplies and base camp.

By sunset the fire was contained, caught inside a boundary of fire line, bare rocks and flame retardant.  Not far from the camp, pink flame retardant had been dumped on open ground between the fire and the edge of the plateau.  Squads of hotshots took turns walking over this Martian landscape that glowed at dusk like the embers of the fire they had extinguished.

That night, in one of many paper sleeping bags flown in by the USFS, I bedded down beneath a pine tree just two hundred yards from the dying fire’s futile glow.

I awoke.  Pine branches shuddered above me in the early morning light.  The wind blew gently, cautiously returning to the scene of the crime.  Brian whispered my name.

“Get up.  And wake up Mark.  After breakfast gets here you two are going on patrol.  Get your boots on.”

I laced up my boots with a smile on my face, noticing that it took Mark just a little bit longer to rouse himself.  The resilience of youth.  I had that, at least.  I felt wonderful, though I was filthy, covered in dust, smoke, ashes and sweat.  Nascent cramps whimpered in my legs and back and shoulders.  But my head was clear, as if something heavy and dark had been purged from my mind.

The distant sounds of helicopter rotors beating the air brought a smile to my face.  Breakfast was served.  Before heading to camp I walked across the Martian surface and looked down upon Sedona as the Sun burst into the sky.

For a moment I felt a connection with the vortex hunters.  If you were unbalanced enough to believe all that garbage, this was good place to be crazy.  God knows, it was a great place to be a fire fighter.  And, after all, it wasn’t such a bad place to be a janitor.

That reminded me of the toilets.  There would be a lot of dirty bathrooms down there by then.  I wondered how long it would take them to get me off the mountain. 

The Smoking Mountain, Part I
The Smoking Mountain, Part II
The Smoking Mountain, Part III