The hills around Los Angeles have been burning for days. Ashes clog the daylight like insect-meshing, render the sun a bloodied, bloated mess, of a shade of red no one wants to see up there. The news reports warn, with practiced hysteria, and in terms they sometimes use to describe the movements of people, that the wildfires are slowly encroaching upon the city itself. I gaze out over the freeway from my hill, still golden, still dappled with California promise, as yet untouched from the blaze. In my hand, a pack of matches gathers weight every time I glance at it.
The implied mass migration of highway traffic has always suggested to me the occurrence of, and strangely ordered fleeing from, a terrible catastrophe; of late the effect has been especially pronounced. And yet, there have so far only been the symptoms of a fire somewhere. Actual flames remain as elusive as an itch. Ashes everywhere. When the sun goes down you don’t see the ashes anymore, but still they come, sifting in with the Santa Anas billowing out to sea, descending silently through the moonless dark, covering everything with an ancient stillness that comes with each struggling break of day, that comes with the strange knowing that by touching something you leave your fingerprints visible upon it. Maybe this is why everything looks untouched, the people more than usual.
I should be sleeping at home, preparing for another late shift at the gas station. Instead I find myself here yet again, standing on a hill and staring up at the fire planes dropping their payloads of violently bright powder over the flaming hills.
The thing about climbing a hill, sometimes, is that it isn’t about how high up you can get as how far you can feel the world drop away from you. These days, however, it’s a risk to be seen in a place like this: it was on TV recently that John McCain had stated he’d figured it all out - the wildfires in Arizona, and by extension, here as well, are the work of illegal immigrants after all. And so people get to wondering when they see a brown man these days. What, then, am I doing here? I like the view, for one. Maybe it’s just that I’m here to see some actual flames. Maybe I’m here to scratch an itch.
I shake the matchbox before opening it, an affectation. I lay the little red heads to the striking strip, take a deep breath, which for one such as me is the equivalent, always, of saying a sort of prayer, and then drag them bleeding under my thumb. Unborn flames cough and stutter in my hands, trying to make the nervous leap into life. My fingers become conductors, elemental, wedded to the ancient electricity of the earth. You can feel it. You can feel this thing.
Senator McCain says we start the fires. Could it be? I wonder if he knows how much energy it takes to scale one of these hills on an empty stomach or a sleepless head. And how much time. It took me the better part of a day to walk up here. It’s not as though we’re looking for work all the time, either, or, for those lucky enough to be able to do so, working as much as we can. I wonder.
I work nights at the gas station, at a discount. In return for part-time pay for full-time work, the manager doesn’t tell the cops coming in for their coffee about me. I’m at one of the stations in that cluster of lights right there, in fact, where I’m pointing. You can’t see it right now for all the smoke, but it’s where Sunset Blvd. starts to dip as it reaches Echo Park, as though in hesitation, before finally stumbling ahead to meet the roiling morass of Alvarado St. Sunset’s never the same street after that, though it keeps its name. A little like you and me, a street, when you think about it. Except I would probably change my name if I had to.
Working nights at a gas station is a lot like sleeping overnight at an airport. Eyes shattered with veins from too much bright light; lines of people forming, disbanding, forming again; someone barking something over the PA system: The ATM card’s not working. Pump release at Number 5. Do you still sell alcohol? Is it after midnight already? Your watch is wrong, I got five minutes till right here. Wake up, motherfucker, don’t you have a plane to catch? The constant sound of a phone ringing somewhere. Bright lights and faraway sounds. The black of night outside a sheer sheet of glass that holds your reflection as you try to peer through yourself and out into a world you hesitate to call your own. Nights forever tangled up in a fever of thoughts and dreams preoccupied with leaving, with wondering whether or not you even arrived in the first place…
I snap to when the bells over the door jangle. I stand up again, my body forever a question mark straightening into a Spanish exclamation point and then slumping back into uncertainty, all night, every night. Cops are in the store again, walking down the aisles, bowlegs and shorn fair hair. I plug the microwave in.
I give them free food because the manager insists on it, anything they want, just so they maintain their presence at the gas station, Serving and protecting. They drink their hot coffee and eat their hot dogs, and they take their time doing it, so they can linger as long as necessary to theoretically discourage any would-be criminals that it is probably not a good idea to even think about robbing this particular store. Besides, it pays to be on their good side.
“Get me a couple of those mean looking bastards there, those quarter pound anacondas,” says the cop-man staring into the hotdog heater, a little boy at an aquarium. I reach in with a pair of tongs and pluck out the pink, dried out sausages and put them in the microwave behind me. We watch the cylinders of meat through the glass of the machine as they start to rip and tear with the heat, the strange, alive-sounding squealing noises that accompany it. Just when they seem about ready to explode, I open the door and slap them onto the buns, slather the whole thing with the condiments the officer points to. I feel him watching me.
“You don’t mind touching those dogs?” he asks me. I look at him. “You a Muslim? Or the other whatchamacallit?”
I feel my lips catch against my teeth as my mouth starts to smile.
“I could guess, but it kinda depends on what’s in those dogs,” he says, squinting under the strain of his good humor. “They pork or beef?” He laughs. I smile obligingly.
“I’m nothing,” I say.
“Sure you aren’t,” he snorts, hitching his thumbs inside his belt. Legs splayed, he looks a caricature of balance, ready for some natural disaster, an earthquake. Maybe something else.
Some of the flames escape, but into a meager, insect’s length of a life, extinguished no sooner as the journey is begun. I strike another. Is this how it’s done? I suppose you have to keep at it, though. I suppose it is nothing if not a labor of love. The trick lies in realizing that a matchstick is just as fated as you and I, is just as chosen. You just have to wait and keep up the good fight, sweating your heart out until you have it in your hands, and then put it to use before it puts itself out.
Here’s how I picture it happening:
Finally one of the flames, The One of them, kisses the ground and then doesn’t just disappear like the others before it. Instead it lingers, tasting the first sharp tang of possibility, and starts to insinuate itself, its tongue, further along the dead, dry skin of reluctant earth. Then, suddenly it catches, and runs with it, escaping into the world, spreading down the hill… and that’s the point when you get to clap your hands of dust and lift yourself over the shotgun cracks of your weary knees; that’s when you get to watch it go, go, go, arms akimbo, legs parted one slightly in front of the other, a parent watching the fast disappearing back of her only-born at the first day of school, a god, a God.
In the give and take of police presence at the gas station, I can’t deny that my movements feel somehow validated under the cool blue hue of its steady gaze. I become a part of an establishment, the establishment. I start to belong in some crucial way. My uniform says as much, of course. In the projection-light of the man’s stare I become an extension of my work station, benign and dutiful, deserving of no less of his protection here than the cash register in front of me. How I secretly yearn for these moments after all! To be no longer just my own, at last.
“Student are ya?”
“Yes, officer,” I lie.
“What you studying?” He takes another huge bite of the dog, ketchup fringing his moustache. He licks the red muck out with a tongue as pink and strangely muscular as the meat he is swallowing.
“Tough, making ends meet.” He leans into the counter. I am amazed at the speed with which he has eaten both hot dogs.
“Sure. I mean, it beats living out in the desert.”
Even the insults are scripted, see. We’re all just trying to get by here. Detach yourself, detach yourself. The trick for me, my script, is to play along like it is a joke. This way the cop-man keeps his belly full, the store receives its protection, and the Good Life rages on peacefully outside.
And so I reign in the temptation to reach out and tell him, over the waterfall’s roar of the cappuccino machine, that it’s me. It’s me! Hey, remember last year’s fires in Valencia? That was my work too!
But that would be a bigger lie than even I am.
“Will that be all?” I say. They look at me, eyes as fair as their hair, exotic to me in spite of themselves. Little mouthfuls of white noise spill from their shoulders.
“Thank you come again,” one of them likes to singsong as he leaves. I smile, and make a pointing gesture at him, shaking my head. “Oh, you!” I seem to be saying. “You’re just too much!”
Yes, these precious few moments are when I feel at my most almost-American. I can just about taste it. It is such a rush, this feeling of belonging, that afterwards, after they are gone, it is all I can do to keep from acting outside of my duties as a responsible future citizen, a fully functioning near-member of society fulfilling a humble but no less meaningful requirement for the continued operation of day to day life of citizens with full-membership privileges.
I might start by ripping off a few of the late night customers. It is easiest to steal from the shy men who buy the porno mags. The men who have to additionally buy something else they don’t really want so as to deflect attention somehow from the monster that the magazine has grown to be in their heads.
“That’s eleven dollars fifty for White Chocolate,” I say loudly, quickly handing the man change for the twenty. “And the uh, Snickers bar.”
“Oh,” he says, staring at me uncertainly for a second before quickly grabbing the magazine in its see-though plastic sheeting and ducking out into the night.
I might steal a pack of cigarettes, a different brand each time. A cigarette expert is what I am slowly becoming. I’ve taken up smoking, along with the city itself.
Or I might sleep for a while. And this is also stealing, perhaps more so than anything else. Because sleep is less quantifiable a theft as money or products, and is therefore that much more devious in the eyes of the employer. The Bengalis at some of the other gas stations around call me and let me know the cops are snacking there. I lock the door and pull my cap over my eyes, ignoring customers if I choose to. We reserve the right. It is a tormented sleep, because I don’t even have class the next day to be sleeping for, having long since dropped out of school, like the others. Like the others, this now renders me Out of Status. With the school, ostensibly. But with America, mostly.
In the distance, the fire planes continue to paint the sky with alien-rainbow colors. The day starts to take on yet newer variations of eclipse-inflected light.
Suddenly I see someone else on my hill, coming up. I crouch down quick, but am afraid that I have been seen. Sure enough, someone is soon standing over me. I raise myself slowly and force myself to look at the man before me. Clinically amused eyes, blond hair tied up in a ponytail by what may or may not be shoelaces. He carries a backpack and holds a red canister in his hand: a professional. The red canister I instantly recognize as the kind you can only buy at gas stations, the kind I have sold to many a desperate motorist running in, cheeks flushed from the sprint down from the highway where they’ve left the lost sheep of their car stranded on the margin. He gazes at me levelly. Sees the matches in my hands. Smiles condescendingly. And moves on up the hill.
How much does my own gaze count? I realize with a start that the man is at the mercy of my deciding whether I had seen him or not, of my deciding whether or not to render him invisible, as invisible as I am.
There is an unfamiliar power weighted in my hands as I realize that I could be someone who reports a crime. Who goes to the police. I could be someone who makes a statement.
With shaking hands I strike another match and finally manage to catch a flame. I’ve been trying to all evening. But the flame goes out before I can bring it to the cigarette in my mouth.
I let the useless matchstick fall to the ground among the others collected there, and start to make my way back down slowly. It will be dark soon, before which I have to sweep the forecourt of the gas station, wipe down the pumps, and ensure we’re stocked for food and magazines before I can take my place at the register for the night. Besides, some revelations are best left where you find them, on a soon to be burning hill.