Spring 2000, Volume 17.3
M. L. Archer
Of Many Colors
M. L. Archer, born in the wilderness of northern Idaho and, now living near San Francisco, sells prolifically in fiction and nonfiction. Her Civil War novel, The Young Boys Gone, was published in the United States, Canada and Germany. She taught "Writing for Publication" and does consulting on creative writing.
The phone shrilled in Chuck Warren's large kitchen where, in his easy chair, he relaxed over Sunday's fat San Francisco Chronicle, the only decent paper to take even here on the warmer side of The Bay. The phone's ringing again overtopped some renewed wailing of sirens. Idly he lifted the receiver. "There's a huge fire in the Oakland Hills," Lawrence's, his neighbor's, voice crackled out over the phone, "and maybe it's into Berkeley. We can see it from here." Lawrence hung up and Chuck slammed down the phone. In youth, if not trapped in school, every time the fire siren had taken off in their then small scattering of houses in Contra Costa County, he and his chums had chucked anything, as if it were yesterday's ball game, and had raced or bicycled to the fire. No laws against that over forty years back, as laws dictated against even a breath now. Old Chadwick, the fire captain of then, knew them each by their weights, shadows and the number of hairs on their heads; he didn't care if they followed the fires, though once he'd yelled, "Don't even think of hindering us!" But that was the same Old Chadwick whose baritone deepened the singings in church on Sunday mornings and who always requested, "Shall We Gather by the River."
Outside, in the ambush of heat on his parched dwarf lawn he looked northward. Lawrence, arun out his front doorway, pointed southward. Oh my God! South, past the University, past the tower of the Claremont Hotel, it looked like Hiller Highlands and entire hills of homes flamed like hell itself, in breathtaking colors, somber, beautiful and brilliant, amidst distant, stunning sounds. What a fire! All rich go-getters on those hills; they could rebuild; it wasn't like the flatlands burning. No, a rich man's mementos were as treasured as a poor man's. Oh God, if he could only speed to the fire, squeeze near its turmoil of firefighting men, suck in the fire's heady and macho smells, feel its heat on his face, hands and body! He could almost taste the longing for that. But— One could not do that, should not do that. He wasn't a lad any longer. Were flames female or male, or the cores of both?
"That is some fire!" Lawrence's voice shouted. "I've never seen the likes of it. And I saw a spreading fire once in the hills above Malibu." He nodded. Over poker once, Lawrence had described that fire. There was no time to talk now. But they would chew over this fire for days—later; it was of that magnitude and amassing every second. Poor souls downstream of this hot wind! "I'm getting my cameras," he shouted in Lawrence's direction. This would be an historic, though tragic day.
In what once had been Jarnail's room, till in the way of daughters nowadays she'd left home, out of a closet drawer he seized up his Minolta and his camcorder case and he slung their straps like bandoliers across his shirt. Outside the house, the bare spot atop his head would scorch! From the hallway coat closet he dug out his straw hat and slammed it onto his head. Thank God this morning he'd dressed in crinkle-cotton! No polyester on him! A helicopter gave tongue and chuddered overhead. Newsmen probably. Back outside, he was too distant to see homeowners fleeing or to hear the snap, crackle and uproar of the fire, or not many of its sounds anyway, beyond the sirens and the helicopter; he could just see the colors, black smoke footed with crimsons, grays, rubies, scarlets, tinges of purples even and some colors he'd never set eyes on before. He snapped still photos, ran the camcorder; neither stills nor videos could ever capture an inkling of this fire; the only capture of a single fragment of its emotions would be to paint it in oils; his art class might be intrigued with the painting, if he could ensnare anything at all. With the cameras abump against him, he waved at Lawrence and at Wilson and his wife on their lawn across the street and he ran into the house and deposited the cameras on the white, living room couch. Today, Tamara, checking out her mom's new retirement roost in Denver, couldn't gripe in her wifely way, "Sweetie, damn it all, don't deposit anything but your rear on that couch!"
From the garage, he hauled a junk table and six already-stretched canvasses to the middle of the front lawn and hurried out his easel, his brushes, paints and already-mixed mediums, with their sharp, potent smells of lacquer and turpentine, and, back on the lawn, he threw paints, brushes onto the table and jiggered the mediums in among them and jerked the easel to up and started squeezing out reds onto his palette. As always the smell of turpentine nearly prickled the hairs on his neck. This fire was so massive, so cataclysmic, there would be photo books on it, probably even film documentaries and docudramas and maybe even museum exhibits. "It will take the firefighters, from all the cities around, at least two days to put it all out," Lawrence yelled at him. He nodded. Terrible! Terrible! He would send money to the shelters which would spring up; donate to the SPCA, who would tend the lost and singed pets. But for now, with nothing he could do for anyone, he would paint. He squeezed out a speck of black and a blob of white and faraway the rooftop of a two-story house, near the crest of a rise, sprouted reds. He would paint that victim, imperial in its denial of the flames, its pains; he'd strive to capture its not yet having a hint of its ultimate fate, that despite its solidarity as it sunned there, it could never win against such fire and wind. He would have to limber up his imagination as the scene mutated every minute; he could only hope to grasp hints of the colors, the chaos of turmoil, the immensity and not the actual burning of this house. But—imagination. Wasn't that what painting was? On a canvas he charcoaled in the house, some flame contours, a few trees and shrubs; the painting must be mostly flames, with the house an unknowing witness to insignificance and impotence, and the flames depicting the abandon, the joy, the beauty, the wonder, the magnificence, the strength, the eternalness of nature and be the flames which would someday consume him, for he'd already told Tam, "When I die, I want to be fast-gone, cremated." and as a good wife of many years she would carry out his wishes. If he got as lucky as a fifty million dollar lottery winner, he might capture at least a flicker of that cremation. Oh God, he was just an amateur; he would never be able to paint one-fifteenth that well. The lawns and streets near him swarmed now with a hodgepodge of tones of voices, shoutings, moanings.
He scrimmaged colors on the canvas and an extraordinary, irrational happiness filled him like a shout, as it always did when he painted and the urgency of the fire's flames leaped and sunk and leaped again in his throat. This was like his first wild and free, bareback, stallion ride, at age ten. He would not even stop for lunch. Paint filled a hunger. These rousing colors filled a hunger. With each brushstroke something in him felt released, yet heightened, one of those dichotomies of life. This was his first fire to paint. The reds, the crimsons, the rubies leaped and jostled about on the canvas, as more helicopters chop-chopped overhead and sirens chorused. Gradually the lawns and the streets emptied as families went inside, probably to watch the fire on TV. Lawrence came back out. "You can see it much better on the TV," he called over. "The cameras bring it right to you."
"No thanks." He squeezed out more Acra Red. "This view is the one I want." Old Chadwick was long gone now; at about his own twentieth birthday, he'd gone to Chadwick's funeral and all the volunteer fire department had sat together at it.
Too baking to paint another second, he stopped, hooked up the hose, turned the water on himself and, flinching at first under the gush of cold water, soaked even his canvas shoes. Only a madman would be out of an air-conditioned house and in this heat. Pray God he didn't die of heatstroke. Ah, he'd be cooler for a time!
Back at the easel he painted and painted and still the fire crimsoned more houses and trees. It was shocking, shocking! At three o'clock, with his clothes soaked with both more water and more sweat, he knocked off and ate a ham sandwich and drank two Cokes. Usually he had to curb his painting to an hour on Sunday afternoon and two hours in his Thursday evening class, but today he could paint into dusk and who was to care? He would not even listen to radio to hear how the firefighters were doing; that would distract him.
He hurried back to his painting, this one his fourth canvas of the fire. He had never sold a one of his paintings nor would he. The feelings of painting were not for sale; it wasn't like selling medical insurance to growing and medium-sized businesses, which wasn't too bad a job for five days a week, mostly selling to longterm clients, who phoned him to renew their insurance. He had all his paintings here in his garage and he looked at them sometimes, as some went over their slides of vacations and such. Most of his paintings were of beautiful landscapes and of some fragment of the good life.
By jingo, so far he had had a good life and he expected it to be good most-always; no complaints; except that he and Tam had never had any boys to roam the hills as he'd roamed, but now there were no hills to roam anymore; even back in his hometown, especially there, houses shingled the hills. And his only daughter headquartered far away now, in New York, since she'd become an airline stewardess. They never should have encouraged Jarnail on that.
In six paintings he tried to capture an essence of the flames. In some of those houses lived owners of the businesses who'd purchased insurance from his company, like Bernard Schear, who owned huge furniture-manufacturing businesses in the LA area, but Bernard would have ample replacement insurance on any of his two residences; the fire insurance companies were large and well underwritten; as devastating as all this looked, they wouldn't go bankrupt.
When he cleaned his brushes and stowed his easel and paints away, the fire still convulsed over a widening area and smoke further blackened the sky. Firemen would be there days, even stopping the fire, much less mopping up.
The flames writhed over still more houses. His stomach jerked. God damn, so busy painting the beauty and strengths of the colors, he hadn't seen the ashes, the heartbreak! What could he have been thinking of? People's lives were being ruined; there might be a pileup of deaths. While deep in painting, he should have thought of that. Food! Hillsides of the saved would need food this very evening.
In the kitchen, he yanked peaches, salmon, pears, tomato juice, diced beets, creamed corn, jams, tuna off Tam's canned food shelves.
The hunger nudged at his stomach. After he took these canned goods to Lawrence, who probably already knew where to take them, he must go out for dinner, but distant from here; all restaurants even near here would be swamped with refugees from the fire; he would circle down to Willow Park on the golf course near Castro Valley; that restaurant wouldn't be packed except with golfers, who seldom paid much attention to anything but golf anyway. Well maybe they'd paid attention to this immensity of fire.
Back from Lawrence's, he flipped on the TV. Oh my God, the fire laid waste to a much vaster area than he'd seen or imagined— in Berkeley, almost to the Claremont, that historic, white, wedding cake of a hotel—in Oakland, down into the Rockridge area! It might even take the University.
Would they blast a fire break? To save hundreds of homes. If he knew a drop of water about fighting fire he would go as a volunteer, but he'd probably just get in the way, no matter the times as a child he'd watched picayune fires being watered out by nonprofessionals. Fire on the screen climbed a house and moisture dewed his eyes. What had he been thinking of, painting, when he should have been praying it'd be put out fast, when he should have been writing checks to relief agencies and collecting blankets and giving up half of his and Tam's clothes, his camping cots and the extra bed to the shelters? How could anything so beautiful, so useful as fire be so destructive, take lives, ruin lives, save lives, add comfort, be good, be bad? Like love? Like children? Like insurance? Like food, which filled you and made you fat? Like all?
Two days of soul-shattering talk-on-the-fire later, "people dead…close to four thousand houses burned…", "…three hundred apartments…" and his hauling of spareables to the block collection point, Lawrence stopped him as he stepped out of his car, just home from an hour's work. Lawrence bit his lip then said, "Didn't Bernard Schear do some business with you? Well, he died in his home in the fire."
"Oh my God!" He flung his briefcase onto the lawn, abutting the driveway. "Poor Bernard! That good old man."
"Burned to a crisp." Lawrence clenched his thin lips. "Will have to be identified by teeth fillings. But from all accounts it's him all right."
"Oh my God!" Poor other people! Poor Bernard! "Thank you, Lawrence, for letting me know," he said. He picked up his briefcase and opened the garage door and with the briefcase hurled down on the junk table, he collected his fire paintings. They still shone wet, still smelled tantalizingly of paints, of medium. These were the best paintings he had ever done. He had colored in the beauty, the splendidness, the primitiveness, the joy, the rapacity of a tidbit of that fire.
Using his largest garden clippers he cut the larger canvasses in half and cleaned the paint from the clippers.
He carried all of the canvasses and the pieces of them out to the nearly-empty garbage can, which nudged the side of the garage, and he flung them in.
He walked back into the garage. One painting had been really good—for him! Maybe he never again could paint anything so true to his vision. But fraudulent—fraudulent! He cleaned paint from his hands and smelled the tantalizing smells of paint medium and of fire, as ghosts in the garage.