It started simply, with a wish: “I wish every word was as fun as ‘kumquat’.”
“That’d be fun,” I replied.
Later that week, when I needed a paper towel but couldn’t immediately recall the word for what I needed (or, I did, but I also thought of the word “napkin,” and could not quickly enough reconcile the tension between one word and the other to designate what it was that I was asking for, precisely), I said: “Could you hand me a—that—a…please, hand me a ‘kumquat,’ please.”
I asked for a kumquat and got a paper towel.
A few days later I proffered the right item (a receipt we’d need to make a return) when all I heard was, “Do you know where the ‘kumquat’ for the shirt I bought yesterday ended up?”
It’s been nine months. It seems as if every 10th word we say to each other is “kumquat.” Kumquat means “love;” it means “no”; it means “blowjob,” “pizza,” “tired,” “sad,” “not-it,” “your turn,” “book,” “car,” “nerd,” “shower,” “nap,” “dinner,” “phone charger,” “gas,” “not now,” “dog,” and so much more. It’s never confusing, what one of us means when the other says “kumquat.”
The bag of kumquats my coworker gave me on Friday on the way out of the office has sat on the counter all weekend. Neither of us has discussed what it would mean to eat them, or to throw them out, or to give them away. But we’ll have to sooner than later. I hate to think what would happen if we just let them go moldy and bad.
The sun did not rise today. Or it did rise, but didn’t see it. Couldn’t tell. The smoke is thick—thicker than it’s been for weeks. It’s also overcast, supposedly. That’s what the weather report says, anyway. What it is is hot. The weather report says it’s in the 90s, but it feels hotter. Is it humid? Or is it dry? Yesterday conditions were dry. Today, I think, they are humid.
What I can see is round-the-clock red glow down the street. The fire station on Canyon Road must have been upgraded to a field station. Last week the glow was yellow, when the station served as a makeshift pantry. I went to see what was on offer and left with a box of baked beans and three boxes of macaroni and cheese.
“Enjoy it while you can,” said the volunteer who greeted me on the way out. “Wheat isn’t growing. No more mac ‘n cheese.”
Tomorrow’s high is going to be 93, says the weather report. Smoke quotient will be at 5 again. No progress has been made on the ORWACA mega-fire, and conditions are supposed to worsen by the weekend, when the smoke is expected to merge with a volcanic ash cloud coming up from the South Pacific. The weather report says they’re talking about adding a lettering system to the smoke quotient scale to designate even worse air quality, accounting for factors outside of forest fires. In this case, volcanic ash.
The clock says it’s 11am. It could be 7pm. The smoke quotient today is 4C. I could see into my neighbor’s yard, which is something, but I’m not supposed to be outdoors for more than 10 minutes because an atmospheric river is dumping inches of acidic rain all around us. According to this e-mail, we’re not supposed to eat any food we grew ourselves outdoors if we didn’t harvest prior to Monday.
My houseplants are dead.
I said earlier that I could see into my neighbor’s yard. That wasn’t true. My neighbor doesn’t have a backyard. We have small patios.
Today’s weather report said that world bee populations are increasing, reversing a trend that’s been observed for at least a decade. Because no one really understood bee colony decline to begin with, it’s not totally understood what’s behind this reversal. The high today was 97. Smoke quotient was 4A.
The constant glow down the street went from red to purple. I don’t know what that means. The news says that the ORWACA mega-fire has grown. Smoke is at 5C. It’s 101 out. My neighbor came by about an hour ago and knocked and knocked. I didn’t answer.
We’re being evacuated. My neighbor, who is sitting next me on this bus, is telling me that he came by earlier to tell me that we were going to be evacuated. “I was sleeping,” I lied. “Well, no matter. Here we are,” he says.
This is my neighbor’s second evacuation, I’ve learned. My watch says it’s 10am. My watch stopped working weeks ago. I tap on the glass, expecting nothing to happen. Nothing happens. There’s an announcement. We’ll be on the road for three, possibly four hours. No stops. We are to keep the windows closed as much as possible. We are encouraged to sleep. Someone asks where we are being taken.
We were each given a shortwave radio. There’s nothing to listen to, though, except for the recorded messages coming from FEMA. At night, someone somewhere sends out old episodes of “Coast to Coast,” so that’s something.
My neighbor hasn’t been seen for days. No one knows when he was last around. His cot and his things are all accounted for. The last thing he told me was that the fires and the smoke were all a cover. A cover for a sunless sky. He said that the sun had not been rising for months now. “We’re being lied to,” he said. “There’s no more sun.”
The camp loudspeakers are playing “Walking on Sunshine.” No one seems keen to finish their lunch. Today is a can of pineapple chunks and a chunk of summer sausage. The summer sausage had a sticky film on it, which was a chore to remove, but once it was off it each bite was salty-minerally good. When the song ends, people just sit and stare. Some get up and throw the remnants of their food away. I ask the little girl next to me if I can have her pineapple juice. She slides the tin in my direction.
The little girl has taken a liking to me. She brings me cuttings from a plant that grows nearby; it thrives in dry, rocky soil. The leaves are heart-shaped and variegated: some are a transparent milky white, some are a velvety, fuzzy black. She also brings small piles of flint and turquoise, which she says is food for the plant.
No one is bothered by the expanded playlist we get with meals now. The rotation includes, “Here Comes the Sun,” “Good Day Sunshine,” and “Soak up the Sun.” The temperature has hovered around 103 for weeks now, the smoke quotient around 4B.
Today’s FEMA report brought new information: the ORWACA mega-fire is 51% contained. It’s been 52 weeks since the fire broke out. Smoke quotients have been hovering around 2B. Temperatures remain high, but seem to get above 100 only occasionally. I saw a bee today.
Rubén Casas is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest.