I make my coffee in the dark in order to prolong the delicious weight of sleep. The sun will rise soon but for now a thin tangerine light glows above Flat Top, where pitched roofs jut from the skyline and the radio tower blinks with red devil’s eyes. Yesterday’s flowers, the first of late winter, have already dropped yellow and purple petals on the sideboard. I move slowly to keep my dreams alive in my brain. An email, there’s always a dream email, with instructions I don’t understand. An institutional building with many rooms. Or I’m driving a car and can’t open my eyes. Lately, buildings have been falling around me, yet I emerge unscathed. I fill the electric kettle with water and, because the kitchen is dark, it overflows often. I grope for the plastic filter, the paper filter, the grounds. While the water heats, I scan our no-name canyon. The palm tree has grown. Some older, desiccated fronds have dropped overnight. I listen for our chimes. These new ones, the big boys, transform our tiny deck into a temple. Their ringing resonates and echoes in my marrow or maybe my dream-marrow. I scan the bottlebrush for bees. I’ve already heard the aggressive alarm of the bulbul, his deep blue head shaped like a pope’s miter. There’s a newfangled hummingbird I’ve never seen before, a thumb-sized blaze of orange with a red throat. I hope the black and yellow oriole returns soon.
Across the way, a tall house juts out on a promontory. It’s got views on three sides: north to snowy San Gabriel peaks, west to Flat Top, and south, into my kitchen. The tall house has been there for twenty years, as long as I’ve lived here, but only recently, since its owners painted it white, have I noticed it, and suddenly it’s all I see. Some time ago, on one of these dark mornings – a flash of color caught my eye. A light show, emanating from a picture window across the way. Garish, primary colors. Maybe cartoons or Fox news. The water in the kettle burbles and pops. Almost ready.
I vaguely know the folks who live in the tall house the way I vaguely know most of my neighbors. Sometimes, when my husband and I stroll by on the fire road, the family is out. A youngish couple with kids. The girl is an oversize baby, groggy with sleep or growth or milk-thirst, a protective hand on her mother’s breast. The blonde toddler in dirty yellow Crocs pilots his remote-controlled car off a cliff and shrieks like a Viking castrato. A small barky dog circles around the legs of a child-sized dinette. Crushed juice cartons and snack wrappers lay near the bins where the garbage truck dribbles them. A modern family. As non-threatening as they come. My husband Carl always compliments the kids and the dog. “Cute,” he’ll say. Or “Hi, cuties.” I practice a smile that doesn’t look like a scowl, but I’ve got a ways to go. Later, at home, when I try to replicate that smile in the mirror, it looks like I think something stinks.
A few minutes later, the coffee is coffee. The sun has risen a bit. The sky is more blue. The clouds, when there are clouds, grow dramatic, a bit tacky. The micro-climate of Mount Washington has two seasons: green and gold. On gold days, we perform outlandish rituals to the gods, hoping to compel the green times. With the magic words, storm watch, we dust off our raincoats, unused since last year’s few weeks of green. I ignore voicemails from my dad who recommends we stock up on cement bags. What does he know? He falls down when he tries to stand up from his chair. He leaves voicemails. Sometimes, Carl and I go into the yard in our pajamas, active dopplers ourselves, ears pricked for the suggestion of rain from a blustery gust. We spread our nostrils wide, testing the breeze for ozone or petrichor.
Boots is the name of a cat my mother-in-law left behind when she died late last year. One of eleven animals she left behind. Out of five African Greys, two Pomeranians, two desert tortoises and a Chihuahua, Boots was hands-down the handsomest, the least annoying, and also the hardest to re-home. A parrot society sent over folks to foster the birds with eyes toward adoption. Same with the tortoises and the poms and the little boss man. But cats. Cats are everywhere. On the streets. Overrunning shelters. Colonizing the foothills with feral intentions. Most people want fancy cats. Or kittens. Or what have you. I make the mistake of allowing a co-worker to give Boots a chance. The cat pisses and shits on the carpet, then barfs on top of that. He’s terrified of her husband and barely tolerates her kids. We can’t take Boots in – it’s been only a few months since our Siamese was attacked by two coyotes (one at each end – it’s hard to imagine but imagine it often we do). Luckily, my colleague found a new home for Boots with a relative who has no kids, no man, and a luxury condo in West Hollywood. In the calm, the cat is thriving. I’ve seen him napping on Instagram. That’s a nice end to an anecdote that begins with death, don’t you think?
Actually, the Boots story is mere preamble for what I need most right now. It’s not easy to buy snow boots when all you know is heat. Too light, too heavy. Too thick, too thin. Pleather or suede. Wool or plush. It’s a real Goldilocks situation and I have the Amazon boxes to prove it. Whenever we travel, there is a moment before we leave when I don’t want to go. I want to cancel everything, to stay where I am. I pour oat milk into my mug. To froth or not to froth? Clouds pile up behind the mountains now, white and gray and charcoal, like so much menacing fluff. The green season is on its way. Our hatches are battened, our supplies laid in. I check the beach cam for the anticipated storm surge. Just a young girl in dirty shorts sitting at the wave line, transferring wet sand into a pink bucket, then dumping it out and starting over. Nothing architectural going on. Probably a tourist. Probably no sunscreen. Probably a hot dog for lunch. I click off the cam. My therapist has warned me about this, worrying about things outside my control, projecting tragic histories onto innocent bystanders, although I’ve always preferred standers by.
I wander through the dark house with my hot drink, into my dark office. I flick on the salt lamp; its orange glow a bookend to the rising sun behind the house, and swipe open the curtains. The L.A. basin is the last place a fern garden should be, but we have one. It was designed by the previous owners, who left behind a numbered map with the Latin names of all the shrubs and trees they’d planted, a handful of which I have not murdered during my two decades here. I love the ferns – they, too, are transplants – and remind me of redwood forests in Big Sur. Hardy emmer-effers, they resurrected themselves after a heat wave air-fried them in one afternoon and turned them into a small grove of brown sticks. What’s fascinating about weather is it has no P.O.V. It has no intention, no desire. Insert Seinfeld shtick here. It does beautiful, awful things because it must. It’s pure chemistry.
Of the hundreds of emails that arrive daily, unbidden, in my inbox, less than one percent are from real people. I sift and scan and delete and flag them, hunting for anything worthy of reading past the subject line. This morning I receive one email from one real person. We haven’t communicated in over forty years. The message is in tiny font and is very long, but I decide to read it aloud to Carl. It’s that kind of morning. The real person who’s written the email, O, writes that he hopes I am happy. He realizes he was in love with me back when he was my college professor. (Psychology 101.) He is being stalked by a woman with whom he isn’t in love who is determined to ruin him. She might even be reading this very email to me, right now, so prodigious are her hacking skills, so persistent her desire for devastation. He has recently taken up creative writing and included some special attachments: a chapter about me, entitled “Hester,” and an essay about the Dissociative Mind. He is in trouble with the Texas state bar for something he says he didn’t do and needs a character reference. More information is forthcoming.
“Well,” says Carl. “That’s a big red flag.”
“That’s a minefield of flags,” I say.
“What are you going to do?”
I consider the pile of Amazon boxes in the corner. “It’s the Columbias versus the Uggs.”
“I mean about the email.” That’s how patient he is. “And I thought you were anti-Ugg.”
“I am. Violently. But they get good reviews.” I bring a box to the living room. “About the email? I don’t know.” I pull on the Columbias and stroll through the living room. It’s hard to imagine trekking through snow in pajamas, so I de-flannel and stuff my feet back into the boots. “What exactly are you doing,” asks Carl.
“Trying on snow boots?”
“You know you’re naked.”
“Not completely. What do you think. They have something called omni-grip advanced traction…”
“The shades are up!” The exclamation point in his voice is extra pointy.
“You don’t know that, Hester.” I love him for that.
“Not these.” I shake off the Columbias. “Too hot.”
I re-flannel, just for him, and try on the Uggs. “Oh, wow. This insole was built for my foot.” I pace the living room, pretending I am a feral cat in snow, weaving through a minefield of red flags.
I sit in the yard during lunchtime with a bowl of fish soup and some olive bread. The girl with the bucket reminds me of dreams I used to have, where great, gentle tsunamis push up against the glass walls of my beach house, the kind of house where the front is the back, and the back is the front. My therapist told me that bodies of water in dreams represent emotions, and that tsunamis indicate a great fear of great emotions. “What’s so great about emotions,” I’d grumbled, but later I remember other dreams where I dive into oncoming waves. I roll and plunge and breech and slap. I may have even laughed underwater, with deep howling breaths. Soon, I stop dreaming about water altogether.
The rain we’ve been promised finally arrives, tentative and strange. Its first sounds are intrusive, surprising. I think someone is breaking into the house. “Who’s there?” I call out. Metallic dings reply, striking the metal awning above the door and the gutters along the eaves. The ferns uncurl their arms, fronds welcoming, the perfect hosts. It’s been so long, they cry. Fat drops slap them like old pals. You look exactly the same. Then, the rain stops fooling around. If before it was drumming the shingles with impatient fingertips, now it beats the roof with its fists. Wind throws the trees into lovers’ backbends. Their limbs creak and groan with friction, brown bark stripped down to green and yellow underbelly, the flesh of the tree, in the onslaught of nature’s Flashdance, ridiculous and sublime. Soon, and for many days, it is drumming, dripping, sleeting, slanting and finally soaking through the roof and leaking into the attic and working its way through the ceiling of my office, where it soaks through the rug onto the hardwood floor. I’d heard the drip a few days ago. A little bloop behind me. I thought it was the ghost of my cat. Simon used to come into my office and give himself a tongue bath on the carpet. His bruiser footfalls made the floorboards creak and that’s what the drops from leaky ceiling sounded like. The footfall of a kitty finding the right spot to lick his belly. Now the rug is pulled back and water drips into a pot on the floor. Where is the logic in all this, I wonder. Cat ghosts and rainstorms and snow boots and red flag emails. The word unhinged comes to mind. I write back to O., and tell him I’m afraid I can’t help.
The deluge continues for thirty-six hours. A concrete canal becomes a raging river. Centuries old trees, exhausted, fling themselves onto cars and houses. The green grass surrenders and lies flat. The pummeling continues. Then the storm drains stop draining. Fire roads are submerged. Freeways become waterways, then tributaries, estuaries. Our neighbors in the canyon evacuate, packing children, pets, photos, sometimes anything within arm’s reach. In other neighborhoods, the gutters overflow, torrents breech curbs and sidewalks, then lawns and front porches. Front doors burst from their hinges. The rising tide crushes cheap garage doors like soda cans. Most of the furniture floats. Figueroa is gridlocked. And the water still rises.
The quiet that comes after rain is its own kind of sound. The sound of the absence of rain. A no-rain song. The conversation was just getting started, the call and response, the verse and the chorus. But now it’s gone, as is our electricity. When your house is somewhat isolated and your devices lose charge, you learn to enjoy the respite, the darkness. You already know how to make coffee in the dark. You become a cave dweller of sorts, playing scrabble and drinking whiskey, then reading in the few hours of daylight. The gas range still works – you’re not a complete troglodyte – and you manage hot food. Potstickers, grilled cheese. A vegetable pie about to go is much improved by cheese. Candlelight flickers and you have a primal urge to put your hands in the mud and make prints on the walls. You sleep heavily, bound not in animal skins but layers of wool and flannel and down and microfiber and thick knits. And when your circadian rhythm kicks in, and you awake early the next morning, you drag your stiff body and your layers and your blankets to the back door, where a beautiful lake of clear water laps the deck, whispering softly, come in, come in. The homes in No-Name Canyon have gone the way of Atlantis. They’ve become a mythical altar to plastic toys and storage pods and outdoor furniture. At the top of the hill, the white house stands on its promontory, overlooking the new lake. Through the window, primary colors scream red and blue.
Tracy DeBrincat’s short stories and poetry have appeared in a variety of literary journals, including Another Chicago Magazine and Zyzzyva. Her most recent short story Velociraptor was published in the fall of 2020 in OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters. Her first work of non-fiction, Letters to Myself the Younger, appeared in Vol. VIII of The New Guard and received a Pushcart nomination. Her first novel, Hollywood Buckaroo, received the 2011 Big Moose Fiction Prize and was published by Black Lawrence Press. Her award-winning short story collections Troglodyte and Moon Is Cotton & She Laugh All Night were published by Elixir Press and Subito Press, respectively. She lives in Los Angeles where she’s working on a new novel, Once Upon a Coyote. See more at tracydebrincat.com.
Morning Island Mist
Jane Turner Goldsmith is a writer and amateur photographer from South Australia. She has published a novel, Poinciana, set in New Caledonia and short-listed for a Commonwealth Prize. Her short stories have been published in various literary magazines including Overland, The Saltbush Review, and Echapbooks. She is currently completing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide, her subjects being The Essential Worker, Psychological First Aid, and the Composite Novel.