I get transferred to Jamestown, 22 hours on a bus. You get nothing but peanut butter sandwiches, bumpy warm milk and an apple the whole trip, which we gotta eat wearing handcuffs and we stop off at four different prisons. Two guys puked, one guy got the shits, and one guy got stabbed. The guy who got the shits is the one who got stabbed because it leaked out all over the seat onto the guy next to him. I couldn’t shit for two days after that. You got no control over your body. You can get sick, or get a hernia or get shingles or a headache. Lots of shit can happen to you and in here you are in the system and the system is your boss. And it screws up all the time. Like somebody made an error and got my time screwed up. They think I’m in here for eight more months. But I got potential here. There’s the potential of fires.

I’m signing up for some rehabilitation programs and lots of exercise, doing steps; and get this, it’s what you have to do to get in the fire-fighting program. I’m going to try out. I am going to be the opposite of what I am. I am going to get my sorry ass in shape and drive into the forest in a truck and march in the rest of the way when there’s no road. I am going to swoop down upon fires on ropes from a helicopter. I am going to get right up close and feel the insides of my lungs get hot. I’ll wear the big fire boots and aim a hose or whatever at flames and watch them leap and sizzle and I am going to kill those flames. But even better than that is that I figure we have to get trained to do all this. And that means we’re going to need fires. Practice fires. They’re going to need somebody with experience to start the fires we’re going to learn to put out. I’ll volunteer.

How many convicts can you fit in a fire-fighting truck? How many minutes do you have to get your gear ready when you get out of the truck? I can tell you the answer to these questions because I took the test and did all the running and steps and pushups and cherry pickers and fucking passed.

I get transferred to the fire camp at Mt. Bullion, which is in the middle of the Yosemite National Forest, which is famous but they should call it the Poison Oak Forest, that’s what the guys in the camp think on account of all the poison oak we all get, which spreads every time they do the laundry, like a big rash we share. Poison oak is spreading all over, I tell my sister, Veronica, in a letter and she writes back that the lesson here is “teamwork” and “universal consciousness,” and I don’t feel like calling her for a while. We do special projects four days a week and one lousy day a week we do fire-fighting training. I call Mom and Dad. When Dad gets on the phone he just says “Nick, Nick, where are you? Are you out there?” and he cries, which he does a lot since he got Alzheimer’s.

“Aren’t you proud,” said Mom when I tell her I passed. But I wish I’d never done it. It’s exhausting. We do these walks and runs everyday now, and we’re welding and riveting aluminum bleachers at the Mariposa County Fair Grounds, not even getting to do anything about fires yet, and they aren’t even real fires, it’s training. Training consists of cutting fire lines, safety and CPR, where you breathe into a disgusting giant doll, which my sister Veronica tells me is probably infested with diseases like TB and thrush and herpes and toxic microbes and pneumonia and the common cold.

I’m one of the guys trained to work a McLeod, which you say like Mick-cloud. It’s for scraping the fire-line to the soil. It is weird to work on dirt with a word that sounds like a cloud.

Our hook-line order goes like this:

If there’s trees, chain saws come out first and cut the trees, then the two pullers come out and pull them away from the burn, and then the pulaski’s swing this pick-ax looking thing and pull out tree stubs and roots and I come up behind and take it down to the bare minimum soil. The swamper gets to sit in the front with the captain and has a radio. The rest of us are in the back of a red CDF crew fire truck. We’re the direct attack crew who are initially called first on a fire to start getting a line around it. We even may have to help do a hose lay from a supporting fire engine. Our crew trucks don’t have fire hoses. If there’s a lake nearby, then they got helicopters that scoop up water in what they call a Bambi Bucket, also known as the Down Under Sling Tank.

Mom was all worried, “You’re the first ones out there? Oh Nick, it sounds so perilous.” She calms down a little when I tell her I’m getting paid. I don’t tell her we’re getting paid a dollar an hour.

The actual fire part, the hope of fire, that part is cool. When fire season starts we’re told we can be on the road for a month at a time. Fire season. It sounds like a holiday like Halloween, the Fourth of July or Christmas. Fire season is starting soon, in March or April. But this training? This is shit. They don’t even let us convicts start the fire, they got a fire expert for that. I would much rather be sucking down brewskies with Max and watching the Big Spin or even sweating out in the sun at a swap meet or even working at Sunset Memorial. Our crew stayed in camp yesterday and detailed our CCV truck, which means Crew Carrying Vehicle. CCV should stand for Career Criminal Vehicle since most of these guys keep coming back. Even with the time I’ve done, I’ve never picked up the prison slang such as homie this or homie that, you feel me, you know what I’m saying, that’s all you dog. I don’t even have a tattoo yet.

I finally get in touch with Max and tell him to call the Big Spin people and I’m waiting to hear if we get to do the show. Bunny is having the baby any minute now. I wish it was my kid.

I get to my first real fire. We all step on each other and the whole thing does not work like it did in training. We do three fires in two days.

As I am writing this, black soot is coming out of my nose. Black crap comes up when I cough, smoke goes right through the shroud and goggles. We are out there, really doing the job and when I talk to my sister, Veronica, she says, “Good. It’s about time you did something useful.” I tell her I want to get transferred to the kitchen.

*** ***

“We’re all gonna die, I can feel it,” I tell Hoppin-Dots and the other guys.

My friend Hoppin-Dots, who is the third Pulaski, has started calling me Sunshine. Every time we go to a fire I tell Hoppin-Dots, “This is it, brother, we’re all gonna die, I can just feel it.”

I say this again and again and he says, “Okay, Sunshine. Let your radiance shine forth.” I guess I can always see the worst-case scenario.

The past few days we are clearing big fires. Planes are dropping red fire-retardant on us; we lay flat down and hold our helmets. This time we got helicopters dipping into the lake with their Bambi Buckets to dump water on the fires. A lot of animals are fast enough to get away. The deer get away. But I’m seeing lots of little dead things, snakes, squirrels, rabbits, and there’s not time to do prayers, and the other guys will think I’m weak. But when we see a curled-up, burned-up baby bear the size of a two-year old, its fuzzy brown fur singed off in a few places so we can see the baby pink blistered skin underneath, and its arms stiff like he’s reaching out to hug his mother, the guys all lose it. They stop, you can hear them sobbing through the protective gear like it was a human baby—you know a lot of these guys have babies at home—and I think about Bunny having the baby I wish was mine. And I think, What kind of an asshole starts a fire and kills things and endangers guys like us, to put them out? And I remember I’m that kind of an asshole. The guys are looking at the baby bear, and Hoppin-Dots bends down like he’s looking for life but there’s no breath and no pulse. I think the smoke is mainly what killed it, and we all stand around the bear and with its pink-brown nose it looks almost like a fire-damaged toy that’s part bear, part human baby, and it’s almost peaceful with its eyes closed and it has eyelashes, long ones.

Back in Maryland, by the train tracks, I found dead animals, sometimes curled up like they were sleeping. When I lit fire to a shack or pile of twigs, I put the animal on it, cremating it, like a decent funeral. I didn’t say a prayer. I didn’t know any prayers, I still don’t, but I always said something, read whatever sign I saw, or what was on a piece of cardboard lying there. Once I read the cardboard box that said “Andy Boy Broccoli Fresh,” and another time, “No Trespassing” and “Jack Daniels Old Number 7 Brand, quality Tennessee sour mash whiskey.” Once I went home to get a poem to read, a poem Veronica gave me, she Xeroxed it from a book, Walt Whitman. Well I read that once.

I want to read something over the little bear, but it’s too smoky to read any labels on our gear, and there’s no books or boxes or signs to read so I decide to start talking on my own. At first I try to think of what Max would say. Something he read in a smart book and then I think how I can make up my own words. I don’t remember it exactly but I make a prayer. I talk about how all life begins innocent and new and how this little life came upon the earth in the forest and how it saw only beauty everywhere. It sniffed berries and blue air and walked in baby feet over pine needles and leaves and moss and slept under God’s moon and God’s stars and shooting stars and how he never made a wish on one because he did not wish for anything, he had everything, and never hurt anyone, or premeditated anything and loved his mother and wished, I guess he did wish for something, wished she would find him some more honey because he had only tasted it once. I say how he loved sticking his nose in flowers and scratching his nails against the trunk of a tree like a scratching post and how life, all life, when you are innocent, is beautiful and there is smoke and fire and danger in life and we are on this earth to wish upon stars and love the moon and planets and ocean and trees and all living creatures and make it a good place to live because we will not be here for very long. It might seem long on a long night in the camp when guys are coughing and snoring and you can’t sleep, and it might seem long when you are doing shit you don’t want to do, like laundry or kitchen work, peeling potato after potato after potato, you didn’t even get to the carrots yet, but it’s not long, we are like a little match burning for a few seconds. Norman Mailer, who I found on the book cart, writes about this in his Naked and Dead book, on the very first page, how in a few hours some of them were going to be dead, but think how a whole life is just a bunch of hours, a lot of hours if you are lucky, all the guys are quiet except for the sobbing but then comes a bear. A huge bear, and her fur is smoking a little and she stands up on hind legs and she’s not cute and she’s sees the baby and she roars over the little thing and boy, do we have to cut out of there, slowly, walking slowly backwards like they tell you to and I hear Dots on his Walkie Talkie telling the captain we got a situation here. She is sniffing the baby and pushing it. And when it does not wake up, which I would have it do if I was making up this story, she looks pissed as hell, roaring and she charges and I am thinking, Please don’t let her rip off an arm or kill me, I will stay clean if I live, but then she looks up because the helicopter is buzzing. The helicopter is closing in with the Bambi bucket and Dots says it’s going to drop right behind her and then we tear out of there because the Bambi bucket holds 700 pounds of water. So we are running southeast and the next thing you know we hear the water pounding onto the earth and thank God they are saving our sorry ass lives.

I do not see the mother whooshing by in a shwoosh of water but I hear her wailing, and water washes up over my boots and it feels like shit to be all wet and then I see the baby whoosh by.

Maybe I used to be innocent, before I was four, or five, before I stole Veronica’s silver dollars and lit fires. I sleep under God’s moon and God’s shooting stars and I swear if I see one tonight I will make a wish.

We are still working by night, we’re cutting a line around the perimeter of a fire and I see all the crews on the hillsides with their head lamps all lined up as they cut line and it’s magical like fireflies or lanterns from a magical movie and I get a high good feeling looking at the lamps and I think how this is better than working in the kitchen. I want to call Max and tell him this, that being clean can be beautiful, that it has soul and heart and that there is something invisible that connects us all together like Veronica was saying, a universal consciousness. Being clean hurts, too, as the night progresses and when I get a break the air smells like heat and wood and smoke and it has a dark smell to me, not like the orange smell I remember when I lit fires. My arms ache and I got a sprained ankle along with some other guys. We’re all hurting but we’re all hurting together and trying to drag trees out of the way and put dirt in front of the fires, we’re all here in hell, putting out hell, and we made this hell by hurting people and hurting ourselves and the hurt in body parts is how we are paying back our debt to society.

The smell is getting hotter and helicopters are coming in with more water and I have to get back to work. My friend Dots says to me, “That was some fuckin’ beautiful shit you said Sunshine.”

I don’t see any shooting stars, but I make a wish anyway, I make two, and maybe they seem like stupid wishes, but I wish I were out of here and I wish I’d win on the Big Spin.

And this is nothing, our captain is telling us, just wait until fire season starts.

*** ***

Fuck fire season. I asked to get transferred closer to home. My ankle is fucked up big time. My hernia is popping out big time, and I never mentioned it to anybody so I could get this firefighting gig. I ask again to get transferred to the kitchen.


My friend, Hoppin-Dots, says I’m just too polite to be in here. So is he, a real educated guy, in here for dealing drugs, but he did not take them, he’s clean.

“What are you going to do when you get out?” says Dots.

“Oh I plan to win,” I tell him and he asks me what and I tell him the Big Spin and he hits his leg and laughs really hard and I say, “It’s not a joke, I already got the ticket and all I have to do is go on TV,” and then he’s quiet like a man thinking and he says, “Nick, You could win big, but you could win small. You need a plan, an alternate plan.”

“I like my plan,” I say. “It has a positive outcome. You make it sound like I’ll lose.”

“There is a difference between a plan and a dream,” he says. “I know about real estate. That is tangible. That’s what I’m doing, some investments. It’s clean. It’s legal.”

I think how there was a time when I’d rather burn down a house than fix up a house. You see the results of your work almost immediately. Okay, I admit it, I’m still a firebug, but I’m in recovery.

“I guess I choose to dream,” I say.

And he says, “People like you, you cut through the bullshit and you tell good stories, you got a gift. I hope you win, Sunshine, or you’ll be telling stories on the street for a nickel.”

At least that’s something.

Laren Stover has published three books: a taboo-breaking novel, Pluto, Animal Lover; a finalist for the Discover Great New Writers Award, The Bombshell Manual of Style; and Bohemian Manifesto. She is a fellow of Yaddo and Hawthornden, and a recipient of The Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation Grant for fiction and the Dana Award. Current project: A fictionalized memoir in the voice of her brother; he has been incarcerated on and off—mostly on—since he was 17.

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