In another era, you had imagined that you might join a community choir during graduate school. You would take advantage of access to a gym, since you would be able to afford it. Now in graduate school, you cannot afford the gym, but pay anyway, and cannot access it.
Singing indoors with any non-household member is completely off limits.
So this is your exercise, hobby, and opportunity for socializing without a screen:
walking in a forest you hope doesn’t burn down.
In Flagstaff, the sky is blue like the water missing from the land. But it’s fresh.
“I do not know how to write fire,” you think, while walking to campus to get tested for the virus in between the class you teach and a training for tutoring. You jot these same words down in a digital note.
As if to remind yourself of what you don’t know.
At this moment, the West Coast aspires to cinders. California, Oregon, and Washington have sparked. Created embers. Reduced whole towns to ash. Later, you will nearly spell “whole” without the w, but that won’t feel inaccurate. Just premature.
Yesterday, the ninth day of this ninth month of the Gregorian calendar —2020— you learned that across your home state, people you love have evacuated their homes. As far as five hours apart, friends and family have fled fire or the smoke: from a farm outside Medford, from a farm in Estacada, from Eagle Creek, from Mt. Angel. A friend, her girlfriend, and the girlfriend’s young children fled thick orange air in Salem for Portland but the smoke followed. Scrolling through Facebook, you read several posts declaring Level 3 Evacuation—GO! or Level 1 and Level 2 and on standby. Your state is GO! or on standby.
You call your mother. On the phone with you from Portland, she keeps clearing her throat to dislodge the trees, houses, and wildlife in her lungs.
Tomorrow marks six months since you were last out in the world, last inside a food establishment without a mask. Last time social without great distance. Even on March 11, however, you held your breath, kept your body apart from strangers. You, your partner of three years, and two friends hugged tentatively with nervous laughter in a bar. Before you and one friend arrived, your partner and another friend wiped down the brewery table with Clorox wipes—and let it dry. All of you knew you were on the cusp of something. But not this. Not 194,000 deaths and counting.
For breakfast, the West eats fire. It washes its mouth with flame.
How to explain to yourself: you come from water, come from a blue and green city on a blue and green orb. And somehow, from a dust and pine land to the south, a land where your main local water body is an artificially stocked shallow pond, you read about flames in your state. See photos of smoke like fog like screen like blue sky gone away.
This morning, it took you five minutes to produce enough saliva to hit the minimum line in a surge testing vial. Just an inch. Megadrought in the American Southwest, reported the New York Times back in May. Your body knows no different from the land.
In Oregon, 60 percent of the Willamette Valley has been in the thick of moderate to severe drought. 97 percent of the state is in some level of drought, KOIN 6 reports.
To you, the word drought sounds like an echo through dry pipes.
Here in Flagstaff, you live next to a forest. You live next to forest. You live next to forest. You live next to tinder.
This forest is your antidepressant during grad school in a pandemic. Tonight, trees feel like threats, but you still sleep with your head toward them.
On Facebook, you hear from a friend who heard from a friend that Estacada city officials have been advised by the County Emergency Operations Center that firefighters have been pulled off the firelines and out of Estacada. Just twenty-eight miles from Portland, the fire is too dangerous to fight.
You see the city’s announcement. You follow the news. In southern Oregon, several hours to the south, Phoenix and Talent have disappeared.
Estacada, Estacada. Is Estacada still there?
You google Estacada again and again instead of doing homework, then click on the news filter. Watch a three-minute video taken from a news crew’s helicopter flight over Estacada. Or maybe it was a firefighter helicopter. Either way, you see barns burned down. Only metal remains. You see vehicles turned into metamorphic rock. Or igneous?
Although the air in Flagstaff has warmed with the sun, you shiver. Nothing can warm your bones.
In theory, you are a graduate student and teacher. In practice:
In Oregon, tens of thousands have evacuated. Originally, the governor’s office reports half a million, but later amends to 40,000. They register the same with you. Over 600,000 acres have burned. Later, this number will top a million.
Portland has the worst air quality of any major city in the world, and everyone posts about this on Facebook. Air quality index (AQI): 365. Hazardous. Gas mask time. At one point, Cottage Grove, Oregon, home of a friend’s mother, leads the world with a score of 600.
For context, the “Good” air quality index spans 1-50. There are five categories before Hazardous: Good, Moderate, Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, Unhealthy, and Very Unhealthy.
The EPA defines Hazardous as a “Health warning of emergency conditions: everyone is more likely to be affected.”
Two nights ago, your cousin evacuated your and his seventy-four-year-old aunt with dementia and her dogs and cats from her farm in Estacada. You learned that he took her to the home of his mother, your aunt’s former sister-in-law. On one of the many videos he captured of glow-bitten horizon and posted to Facebook, you hear your aunt in the background. “…Mary…well, you know Mary,” she says, navigating memory. You watch and listen to this video again and again. You don’t want to believe she could wonder if your cousin knows his own mother.
Drought and fire.
For months before leaving Oregon for the wealth and stability of graduate school, you tried to obtain unemployment assistance. Made the mistake of applying before Oregon created a separate application for self-employed/gig workers who might still be working but with a reduction in income due to the pandemic. You got stuck in limbo. Twice, you were dropped from the phone lines after waiting for two hours and eight minutes. Rumors and news reports abounded that nobody was actually filling claims or answering questions. Towards the end of a four-month struggle, you just wanted funds to help ward off a friend’s foreclosure.
Drought and fire.
Fire is a garden of flowers that sizzle.
Can a town named Phoenix rise from the ash?
Does a town named Talent possess the skills to bounce back?
To remain on top of grading, you are encouraged to grade five papers a night. For the last three nights, you have averaged nothing. Total papers to grade and total that remain: twenty-three.
Dinner from Il Rosso Pizzeria and Bar tonight. Ravioli and garlic bread. This twice-monthly meal keeps you going. The hostess who is the server who is the guard in the doorway-turned-lobby where only one customer is allowed to pick up at a time admires your name, first and last. You do not share that you named yourself. This month marks its one year-birthday.
You held off applying to graduate school until finding a new name. It took you two years.
In your cousin’s photos and narrated videos, fire glows through trees on horizon. An orb of flame that is not sun. Overhead, smoke is clouds are smoke is clouds.
The stuff of Zeus.
You want to comment, Beautiful.
But do not.
Wind has dropped. A GIS map shows Riverside and another large Clackamas County fire licking toward Estacada.
You do not ask your friend her address, also in the area. On Facebook, she has become silent. Your worry takes over. Does she already know the worst?
On your way home from a cookie run disguised as a grocery trip, your phone rings with a Sedona number. You answer, afraid your school is calling to tell you to perform your daily Healthcheck self-exam online. You haven’t in a week, not since receiving a red risk level. You’ve decided to only do it when you first develop symptoms since the university’s system has no memory for your previous self-exams and is weighted toward telling people they are fine if they haven’t worsened since their last check. Meaning, if you still have a sore throat and congestion and diarrhea, but these symptoms haven’t worsened since the last check, you’re good to be around others. Same with any other symptoms.
It’s a graduation specialist calling to check in on your fall term and ask if you’re experiencing any—you interject, say you don’t understand why you’re being called; you aren’t an undergraduate.
The graduation specialist says she knows you’re MFA and begins to talk about registering for spring. Again, you interrupt, on a rude roll. You registered already. You don’t add that this was a few months ago. She apologizes and says she should have checked, then hastens off the call, as you smooth your voice and say, thank you, thank you, thank you.
If she had remained on the phone to ask: Yes, you have concerns. You don’t know if you want to graduate. How can you focus?
At times today, Portland’s air quality index has hovered above 500. Your twenty-six-year-old brother tells you it hurt his chest to just walk inside from the car. He’s calling his boss about not going into work tomorrow.
Your sister and her fiancé drove to the coast last night for fresher air. Above 200, it was still among the worst in the world.
In 2019, the world’s most polluted city was Ghaziabad, India, with a yearlong average of 110, and an average of 235.9 in December.
The world’s most polluted country in 2019 was Bangladesh with an average of 83.3.
Your state’s numbers are in another galaxy right now.
Fire licks its chops. Smoke is Miss Congeniality.
On the phone, for the third day in a row, your mother tells you where your aunt is, forgetting again who told her first.
“It’s just the same old here,” she says. “Not doing much.” For six months, she has been mostly confined to the house. Now, she cannot walk the dog more than a block.
For twenty-four hours, firefighters and reduced winds have held two fires at bay within a mile of your aunt’s house. You don’t know this yet, but your aunt will return to her farm tomorrow, against everyone’s advice.
Into a tissue, you blow your nose. Spray it with blood the color of Oregon sky.
Then, as if nothing happened, your nose dries. Ready, and waiting, for the next fire.
Reece Gritzmacher is a nonbinary writer from Portland, Oregon. Their poetry has received an Academy of American Poets Prize, and their prose has appeared on Sundog Lit, KNAU, and genderqueer.me (some publications under a former first name). Currently an MFA candidate at Northern Arizona University, they are investigating the intersections of settler colonialism, queerness, and a missing creek. They are the nonfiction editor of Thin Air Magazine.
Tain Leonard-Peck writes poetry, plays, and short stories, and is completing his first novel. He is also an actor, monologist, and model. He paints and composes music, and is a competitive sailor, skier, and fencer. His work has been published in literary journals, including the 2020 Anthology of Youth Writing on Human Rights & Social Justice; TAEM; Sleet Magazine; The Elevation Review; Idle Ink; Crack The Spine Magazine; The Riva Collective; Molecule; Multiplicity Magazine; Czykmate; and others. He won Honorable Mention for the Creators of Literary Justice Award, by IHRAF, the largest human rights art festival in the world; was a finalist for #ENOUGH: Plays to End Gun Violence; and won the first place poetry fellowship to the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing.