The smell of fresh mowed grass like that number two buzz cut he used to get back when he was a teenager. The way he used to float in them clothes, large tee-shirts and baggy shorts. They never quite fit him, back when he was a kid, he said.
He figured he could disappear into his clothes way back when. The other kids in high school were those of doctors and lawyers. They’d all be married and expecting children by thirty-two, he said. But his parents were different. They never quite fit in. He used to blame ‘em for it, back when he was as skinny as a twig, trying to figure out his own place in that world of sprinklers and ice cream trucks and manicured lawns. Used to float in them clothes like embers in the wind, he said.
He drifted through life for a time like that. He never dreamt of walking his dog or having a two-car garage. But their dreams started to change, too, he said, once the sunsets got swallowed up by the smog. That was the first year the real fires began. The biggest festivals were called off. Kids’ soccer games were cancelled, too.
Because of the fumes, he said. No more orange slices or orange creamcicles or neighborhood pools. The air became toxic. Can you believe it, he told me, sitting there at the bar at the end of the night, people used to trim and shape their bushes outside their homes. They used to be proud of a front lawn, it used to be something people did. I told him I couldn’t serve him another whiskey because he was drunk. He told me he didn’t need another whiskey anyway.
He said they used to send their kids outside with a water hose and let ‘em run wild. They used to give ‘em squirt guns and water balloons and all the rest of it, he said, running after each other from one lawn to the next, chasing airplanes flying high up there in the blue, and white the contrails above pristine lawns of Dogwood Acres or Cedar Ridge or Heritage Hills or Primrose Farms. He asked me if I remembered that time of suburban pastures and trimmed hedges and perfectly green lawns.
Everything we were supposed to want was so easy back then, he said. We used to fly flags outside our homes and have those musical doorbells. People used to bake cookies for their neighbors because they saw it on TV shows.
He asked me if I believed in the chicken or the egg. He said we used to be convinced that a country was something to believe in. One of the other regulars said Amen from the end of the bar. We used to fly flags at half-mast when something bad happened, he said. Then the Big One came and it stopped meaning anything. The flags were at half-mast all year long. A single ember, he said. That’s what did it. The wind blew in from the high country on the Santa Anna winds—the Devil Winds, they used to call them. He said they still do. People used to ash their cigarettes outdoors. Go figure, he said. He told the regular at the end of the bar the same story of how it all started.
A single ember, he said, floating down from Chino Hills. They used to have a good basketball team, he said. Ignited the Klopfer Farm and Creamery down, that’s where it started. Cows running with their tails alight. The cracked earth didn’t stand a chance, he said. That night he looked up at the singed sky and at the armies of choppers and airplanes, and he watched that fire burn. The sky was alight. The red fire retardant floated down like a mist, down onto the land like some kind of chemical monsoon.
It killed all the grass, he said. So much for the lawns. Find me a single patch of green anywhere in the county. Then he asked me if I remembered it, the smell of rain on the land. I told him I think there’s still a word for that.