Yellow of the Sky
It was something like the time – only a few years ago, though I was barely grown then and wore a flower in my hair – that I’d tried on sunglasses at Gethsemane Second Hand, and they had set a film of soft yellow over the ceramic mice and knitted baby hats and boxed jigsaw puzzles, and all the other unhomed knick-knacks I examined. And it was something like the time I had fallen asleep at four o’clock the afternoon following an all night solo Dr. Who marathon and woken up to the last remnants of sun on the horizon, and everything was lit up just for a moment in the eery pressing glow of light getting in one last flare before the earth snuffs it out. And it was sort of like the world had gone to sleep and woken up to some other world where the sky and all the objects beneath it bled into one another, soaking each other into one big swampy soup, and even the air was yellow with it.
I leaned out over my balcony and looked down at the sandy plastic floor of the kiddy wading pool with a little built-in curve of slide and the potted periwinkles all wrinkled and desperate for water. No children played. No couples strolled. The only sound was the electric hum that fills the gaps between noises.
I noticed I was pushing and pulling on my glasses, bringing them up and down my nose in a rhythm that felt a little too close to frantic. Stop it, I told myself. Be rational for goodness sakes. But a part of me had already donned a starched white lab coat and was studiously working on a list of words like apocalypse and biological warfare.
So the knock was a relief this time.
Tom would knock a certain way on the wall that separated his balcony from mine whenever he could hear me moving around out there. It was our secret knock, which he figured was tapped to the beat of “Stuck In the Middle with You.” I didn’t hear the resemblance, and I didn’t ever do it, either. It was not an ideal situation, in my opinion, living next door to my ex, and I was not inclined to knock any sort of greeting, humorous or otherwise, on our shared wall. The last man who had lived there had been a heroin addict with no front teeth who had minded his own damn business, no knocking on walls.
But it was the only low-income housing in town, and when the food court at the Coast Spruce Mall had shut down for good and Tom lost his assistant manager job at the A&W, he had been forced to take the first apartment on offer.
I grabbed the balcony rail near the wall and leaned over to where we could see each other, dry flecks of peeling blue paint sticking into my T-shirt and crumbling under my hands before tumbling to the yard below like a mess of giant pencil shavings.
“Tom,” I croaked, this having been the first thing I’d said that morning, “what’s going on with the sky? Why is everything yellow?”
He was looking smug, so I knew he had the answer. Otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered asking, since I was usually the one with the answers, and he was the one who didn’t waste any time wondering about things. If he didn’t know why things were yellow that day, he would have been on his way to Barton’s Gas right then for a pack of cinnamon gum and an extra long pepperoni stick, not wasting time wondering about it.
He leaned an elbow on his side of the rail, cocked his blond head at me and narrowed his eyes. “Forest fires.” As if the words were delicious to him. “There’s three separate fires burning over in Ladston and the smoke rolling in is making everything hazy. They’re evacuating homes on the north side, but everything south of Siskin Lake is still fine.”
I nodded, relieved because it was a hot, dry summer and forest fires could now replace all the more terrifying words on my list. I mentally jotted it down beside the now crossed-out nuclear meltdown, just below change in Earth’s orbit spiraling planet closer to Sun. Still, though, I didn’t like the heavy feeling that this yellow sky was hanging just above my head, ready to drop.
“Siskin…” Tom pretended to muse, drumming his fingers on the rail. I could always tell when he was pretending to muse because he never thought out loud like that. He liked to have whatever he was going to say thought out ahead of time, so he could say it just right. “Good swimming at Siskin,” he went on, furrowing his brow in a masquerade of thought. “Ali’s parents just got back from camping out there, and they told her you can see the smaller fire right across the lake. They said when they were leaving this morning there was a helicopter just coming in to start putting it out.”
I waited for him to get to his point and he waited for me to get it on my own. The problem was, I wasn’t very good at getting points, so we tended to spend a lot of time in silence, each of us waiting for the other to speak.
We stared at each other, and I could hear his two obnoxious pet pigeons cooing inside his apartment, and in the stillness it seemed like the sound was coming from Tom. They were doves, he always insisted, not pigeons, but I knew they were dirty birds someone had trapped in a parking lot and given to him.
So we stared, and the pigeons cooed like gargling ventriloquists, and the yellow air filled our throats, until finally I got it and blurted, “Let’s go to Siskin Lake and watch them douse the fire,” as if it had been my idea all along.
I dodged through the parking lot toward Tom’s old forest green Subaru. Tom always laughed at me for the way I moved, either in crowds or around cars, because I was always dodging or darting. But I had learned to move swiftly like this, whisking my body from here to there at all kinds of odd angles in a bid for survival. It wasn’t easy being the mousey type.
It was one thing to be short and stocky, full around the middle and taking up as much ground as a taller person would. But it was another thing entirely to be short and skinny. When you were short and skinny, you were barely there at all. When you were short, skinny, and quiet, with long, limp hair and wire rim glasses, you faded so far into the background that no one could see you standing there. I was so short, so skinny, and so quiet that I risked being trampled or run over everywhere I went. And so I dodged.
Tom pulled open the door for me because it was rusty and didn’t always move the way you wanted it to. This time it swung downwards before swinging outwards and Tom had to use both hands to set it in place. When I sat down he tried to reach in and pull the seatbelt across me, but I swatted him away.
“Get out of here, weirdo. I’m not a child.”
“You didn’t bring anything,” Tom said as he tried the key in the ignition. It took a few sputtering turns to get the engine going. “How about a bathing suit? Or are we skinny dipping, baby?” He grinned wickedly.
“I don’t want to swim. I just want to see them fight the fire.”
“Yeah, but, Zofie,” he coaxed, “it’s Siskin Lake. It’s beautiful.” He turned onto Hazel Street, heading for the Hazel Street Mall. “You know, I’m not driving us out there just to see some stupid fire. I want us to have fun, Zof, like we used to when we were together. It’s not about a goddamn fire; it’s about being together.”
He parked in front of the mall and I waited, again, for his point. I didn’t understand why we were going if not to see the fire. I didn’t know what kind of fun we could have way out of town at Siskin Lake that we couldn’t have hanging around our own neighborhood like we always did.
“Come on,” he pleaded, heaving the passenger door open again, “Walker’s will have cheap bathing suits, and I know you love shopping there.”
Walker’s was a discount department store and the only chance someone like me, who worked part time at a donut shop, had at buying anything brand name. And I did love shopping at Walker’s. It wasn’t that I cared much about labels, but walking out of that store with a shirt or hat that I knew was not designed for donut-baggers made me feel mischievously rich.
The sizes in Walker’s were never in order from large to small or small to large. You had to dig your hands into the racks until you were up to your elbows in spandex and polyester, and any garment on a hanger marked two might really be a fourteen. But Tom sifted patiently through them all, checking the tags and mumbling to himself.
“What are you saying?” I asked. “I can’t hear you over the noise.” There was a sale going on, and I was having to dodge around again to keep from getting bowled over.
He turned to me with a sheepish smile, holding a bright orange bikini. “I said you’d look hot in this.”
“Who cares?” I took the plastic hanger and plopped it back on the rack. “Who am I hoping to impress in some skimpy bikini? With the fires, we’re likely to be the only people there.”
“Zofie…” He put his hand on my arm. It felt sweaty, and he looked like he was pretending to muse again, so I shook him off and circled the rack to have a look at the suits on the other side.
“How about this one?” He held up another bikini.
“Ick, too sexy. Too tiny.”
I whacked him with the bathing suit I’d just decided on and headed for the changeroom. It was a one-piece, black and plain, with a high-cut back that left plenty to the imagination. Tom hated it but wouldn’t tell me why.
“It’s just not what I was expecting,” he said.
The car didn’t have air conditioning, and I turned my window crank round one way, then the other, trying to get it open enough to have a cool breeze on my face but closed enough to keep from getting big gulps of smokey air, which had begun to taste like ash as we headed out of town.
“That’s never gonna work,” Tom said. “Just roll the window down and suck in that smoke till you’re used to it.” He chuckled. “Too bad you’re not a smoker like me. My lungs are loving this!”
We were the only car headed north on the whole entire highway; I felt like we were Thelma and Louise driving right off a cliff, except no one was chasing us. Why were we headed straight for the danger while others got ready to flee as the fire swallowed up their homes and black smoke suffocated the yellow sky that had threatened to suffocate me? Maybe I was doomed to always make decisions like this one, decisions that could only end badly but seemed to be the only option at the time.
Tom turned on the radio and we sang along to “Bad Moon Rising,” just the right song for driving right smack into a fire. We were on a straight stretch of road with no other cars around, and Tom closed his eyes as he sang.
“You’re a lunatic,” I said.
“Karaoke, remember? Who was it – Everett?” He scoffed. “That guy can barely keep up with the songs, he’s so slow reading the words. He can’t even read, that guy.”
Yes, Everett had sang it, poorly, two nights ago at Gensou Karaoke, the Japanese karaoke cafe with rooms to rent so you could sing in front of only your friends while the lyrics popped up over images of swaying palm trees and beaming Japanese girls on screens built into the wall. Afterward, you could go into the lobby and buy Cream Soda or purple bubble tea and have your picture taken in a Purikura booth, which turned your picture into stickers covered with colorful cartoon hearts and animals. Everett had wanted his picture taken with me, which sounded fun, but just as the machine snapped he had grabbed me by the shoulders and kissed me full on the mouth.
When he saw the kiss sticker, Tom had acted annoyed. He had told Everett it looked stupid and that he had ruined the picture. Then Tom’s girlfriend, Ali, had gone into the Purikura booth with a guy none of us knew who was there with another group. Tom had gotten really angry then. I could see it in his mouth because he always pushed the left side of his lips together when he was angry – just the left, as if he had a cigar sticking out the other side.
Now, as I watched the empty highway wind on ahead of us, listening to Tom sing along with The Traveling Wilburys in the soft, wavering voice of someone who doesn’t really know the words – singing about how everything was alright – I wondered about Ali. I wondered what she looked like today, two days later, and whether she was alright.
Tom sang “Blowing In the Wind” next, low and sweet. I liked listening to him, and I liked the way his hair curled above his ears and the gentle way his head moved with the music.
He had been doing “Brown Eyed Girl” that night when Ali slid close to me on the padded bench and asked me the question I had hoped I would never have to hear.
“Zofie,” she had whispered tight against my ear. She had been drinking earlier that evening, and her breath was as thick and palpable as if she’d pressed her cheek to mine. “What was he like when you were dating him?”
Brown-eyed, I had thought immediately, nervously. Talkative. Faithless. Mustached. Working. Grey shirt.
Anything but what she wanted me to say.
But the liquor had loosened her lips, and she’d answered for me. “He hits me sometimes.”
Okay, I had thought. That’s okay then. Because at least sometimes was better than most of the time. Just like when I had been with him and told myself that most of the time was better than all of the time. Now I wondered what Ali looked like today because I knew what it was like to go home with him angry. Did she have a black eye, bruises? Had she tried to cover it up with thick foundation? Even I had gone overnight from tomboy to the girl who wears far too much makeup.
I could have warned her, I knew, but instead had imagined him loving her far more than he’d ever loved me. Maybe I had missed the point.
“Shit.” Tom whacked the steering wheel with the heel of his hand, making me jump and turn away from him. “That was the wrong exit; now I don’t know where the hell we are.” He pulled over. “There’s a map in the glovey, see if you can find which exit goes to Ladston. Shit!” He hit the wheel again.
I ran my fingers over the map, searching for the Ladston turnoff and Siskin Lake, my glasses sliding down my nose on a trickle of sweat. I found it, one exit behind us. I guessed we had both been daydreaming and missed it.
What had he been thinking about? Probably not all the mistakes I had made in our relationship: my unintentional coldness, my inability to understand his advances, my silence. Yet here I was – not a liar, exactly, but a concealer of truth, pretending the day was fine when I couldn’t stop wondering what he’d done to her.
When I looked up from the map, his face was over me, glowing with the yellow that had invaded all things, the corner of his mouth turned up on one side and a bit of white teeth showing through.
“Zofie, I was just thinking…” He stopped, putting on a long, fake muse.
“You were thinking what? For goodness sakes, Tom, finish your sentences.”
“It’s not so bad taking a wrong turn now and then.” He put his hand on my shoulder and did this tickly thing I’d always hated. He was looking right into my eyes with some sort of goofy look I couldn’t place. “It happens all the time to the couples in the movies, doesn’t it? They make the best of it, though.”
“Yeah,” I said, “and then the backwoods psycho comes along with a machete and slaughters them, if they’re lucky. If they’re unlucky, they get to go back to his lair for a round of torture first. Come on, quit being weirdo-starey-guy and let’s get out of here before someone cuts our faces off to make masks.”
It wasn’t until we were back on the highway that I got the point. By then it was too late to let him kiss me, or even to wonder if I should.
Here the sky was deeper and lower, and stepping out of the car was like stepping into the glow of a steady flame. The afternoon heat stopped us in our tracks as we headed for the lake, so we changed course for the washrooms and got into our bathing suits.
His swim trunks were navy blue with a drawstring and sat extra low on his hips. Above were the dip of his belly button and the blond fuzz of his chest, two parts of him I remembered down in the tips of my fingers. But I didn’t want to want him now.
As we walked barefoot through the grass, to the crest of a small hill overlooking Siskin Lake, Tom turned and winked at me. “I thought you didn’t want a sexy bathing suit. Guess you can’t win ’em all, Zof.”
And suddenly, I saw it. Across the lake, in the middle of a small mountain, a great plume of white smoke rose and expanded, dissipating into the sky above. A white helicopter descended slowly until it hovered several feet above the lake, low enough to dip what appeared to be an orange bucket hanging from a line into the glittering water. And I saw, too, why Tom had taken me here: he wanted us to be together again.
And I wanted him. I wanted him without the hitting. I wanted him smiling and singing “Blowing In the Wind” with his eyes closed. I wanted him with his big, hard hands tied behind his back like a prisoner.
After dipping its bucket in the lake, the helicopter circled the fire, little jets of water spraying out from the bucket to wet the surrounding forest. Then, it flew directly into the rising smoke like some suicidal insect, hovering for a moment before releasing its water into the very center of it all. The water didn’t look much like water, but rather like the shining silver of a mirror hanging solid and suspended in the sky before it vanished, completely and without warning.
“Like a moth to a flame,” Tom said as we watched it descend for another scoop of lake water. He was saying it now, I knew, because he had thought of it when the helicopter was flying into the smoke but had been chewing the words around like cinnamon gum until he was sure he had them just right. Then he turned to me. “You’d come back to me, wouldn’t you, Zofie?”
“That depends,” I said. The air felt smokier and every breath seemed to come with a mouthful of ash. I could barely get the words out. “How’s your anger these days?”
His silence was no surprise to me. I had caught him off guard, I thought, and now he was preparing the perfect answer. But it appeared I had missed the point again because when he did speak, it was as if I hadn’t asked anything at all.
“Remember when we went to the wrong address for that Christmas party? And there was a party going on there, too, so we stayed anyway?”
“Yeah,” I laughed, “and we were so under-dressed! Everyone was in their party clothes and wondering, ‘Who the hell are these bums eating all the fancy cheese?’”
“And remember when I took you to that Ethiopian restaurant for your birthday, and it was so spicy, and we had to eat with our hands?”
Yes, I remembered, but he had it wrong. We hadn’t gone there for my birthday; he had taken me out to make up for getting physical the night before.
“I knew you would love it, though.”
Yes, if nothing else, there was that: he knew me well. I might have been short and skinny and barely there at all, but Tom could always see me.
The helicopter was in the smoke again, releasing another solid-looking length of water. Somewhere below the treetops was an inferno only the pilot had laid eyes on and it was trying to ignite everything in its path. And the cloud of smoke rose unchanged as the helicopter went down for more water, another futile attempt to tame the beast we couldn’t see.
More than anything now, I wanted that damn fire out. They were getting nowhere with the dinky little bucket and it was driving me mad. As I watched Tom smile against the ash I was choking on, sucking it all in like it was nothing but a cigarette, my frustration spilled out of me and I shouted, “Oh, come on, just put it out!” into the glowing air.
I realized I needed to get out of the sun. There was a playground behind us, and I sat down in the strip of shade offered by a metal slide.
The helicopter continued in its circle: dipping, spraying, dumping, round and round like a dog in a spirited game of fetch, its determination far greater, I thought, than its impact would ever be. But after a while, it appeared that the smoke was thinning. Tom turned to grin at me — “Look at that! Your shouting worked, babe!” — and I maneuvered myself further under the slide, knocking something off the edge as I went.
The lake was quiet, and I could hear the hum that fills those silent gaps growing louder.
Then, all of a sudden, Tom leapt to his feet, and he was yelling, “Oh, shit, Zof! Wasps!” and I was on my feet, too, banging my head with a metal thwang on the edge of the slide, and we were both running, but Tom was running for me. He made a move to scoop me up in his arms, but I popped him a good one on his cheek and shouted, “I’m not a child, weirdo!”
So he grabbed my hand instead and we ran screaming down the sandy shore and threw ourselves off the dock and into Siskin Lake. All the way under, all the way down.
Under water we were different – silent, cheeks too bulgy, eyes too gaping, hair fanning out from our heads like waving fronds of seaweed. Under here we didn’t know each other any more than we knew that the sky was yellow or that Walker’s was having a three day sale. We were just two uncommon creatures with hands like flippers and little bubbles slipping from our noses.
When we came up for air the wasps were gone, but the smoke was thick again. It stretched to the sky like a desperate hand reaching for rescue, its wispy fingers grabbing at the thick air. It didn’t seem to have gotten the point yet: there was no rescue, but neither was there annihilation – just the steady movements of a helicopter and a bucket, going round and round.
© 2015 Clara Pratt