The Men from Paradise
by Rachel Howard
They came that November, while the embers still smouldered, and that December, when the rains finally fell. They brought their pit bulls, their shepherd mixes, their rumpled tabby cats on leashes; they drove rattling Hondas with black plastic Hefty bags for back windows, and camper vans. They backpacked everything they still possessed – clothes, tent, torn orange tarp – and hitched rides down the I-5 and over the 20. Slept in shelters and in the alley behind the laundry mat and with cousins in the trailer park. A few slept under the tarps, strung between oak branches off the creek trail. They brought airplane-sized Jim Beam, and rolling papers, and hypodermic kits; they brought phones programmed to call long-lost sisters and bitter ex-lovers and beloved meth dealers. Some brought wives or girlfriends, babies or young children. The school rolls overflowed with new names; more teachers were hastily hired. The men stayed one year, then another. Paradise was ash. Where else to go?
One man stood in my yard, considering the remaining trim to paint on an October day. This was two years after the fire, after another summer of red flag warnings and hazardous air, the rains still elusive but the maple leaves fluorescing. This man’s name was Phillip, left alone by the boss to finish the job; he was making $17 an hour, which made me feel both better and worse about the $30 an hour my job paid me. I had tried to paint most of the house myself, to save money, but the upper reaches proved perilous. Philip removed his hat and wiped his brow and considered the rotting planks. His head was shaven and a tattoo on the scalp read One Step at a Time. Phillip was tall and his eyes were small and his face was boyish, except that he was missing teeth. Something about this kind of man disposes me towards obsequious cheer. “Be back in an hour!” I sang. Philip said he hoped he’d be finished by then.
“Not my favourite kind of job, trim painting,” he added.
“It’s tedious,” I agreed.
“That’s it,” Philip said. He seemed to be turning over the word. “That is it. Man, I get bored.”
We stood beneath yellow birch leaves and a blue sky, no more flakes of ash swirling, but still the scent of smoke from the Dixie Fire floating through.
“I used to do all kinds of stuff, handyman stuff, back in Paradise,” Phillip said. “I liked that better. Had a real good regular clientele.”
“Oh, you came from Paradise?”
Call me a hold out for flesh and blood reality. In this age of computer-screen interaction I never pass on the chance to hear such a story face-to-face. I crave it.
“Lost all my tools in that fire,” Phillip said.
I dropped my heavy purse on the dead lawn.
“You think the skies here were bad this summer, you should have seen it that day,” Philip said.
“You had to escape?”
“I barely made it.”
“Oh man. What happened?”
“Well” – Phillip rubbed the back of his head like a child coming clean – “I was playing Xbox.”
“A little relaxation with my housemates before the workday, you know? Then I got the evacuation notice on my phone.”
“So I go check on the old man in the house out front, my landlord. Get him all packed up and on the road. He’s eighty, disabled guy, you know.”
“That was good of you.”
“So then I come back to the Xbox. My housemates were like ‘Nah, we’re not leaving.’ So we’re playing, you know. And then the power cuts. And I swear to God, the sky turned to midnight. At ten in the morning.”
“An hour and a half, bumper-to-bumper. Two lane road, that was the only way out, you know?”
“I’ve seen the footage,” I said.
“And outside it’s black as fucking midnight.”
I was looking at the stubble of Phillip’s shaved head. I wanted to rub it, to trace the permanent blue ink proclaiming both addiction and abstinence. Because who among us can live without one addiction or another? Who among us isn’t thumbing the controller, hanging on for a win, as the propane tanks explode and the houses flame like blowtorches?
“I’m glad you made it,” I said. And then Phillip and I each returned to our individual tediums, and to our cravings, every moment, for escape.
About the Author
Rachel Howard is a writer of fiction, personal essays, memoir and dance criticism. Her debut novel, The Risk of Us, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April 2019.
Detail from Paladin27: Playing Gears of War 2 with Shane, 2009 (Flickr).