the short story project


Sheryl Adams

Absence of Redemption (Memoir)

            The sky was unusually gray at 7:00AM, October 9, 2017. Why that didn’t concern me I could only attribute to not having my morning coffee. In fact, it didn’t grab my attention until I opened the sliding door to the deck wide enough to allow Paris, my overly-plump kitty, passage inside. It was the whiffs of an already tepid breeze, absent the scent of the usual ocean mist, that finally signaled alarm. Who would be having a campfire in urban Sebastopol this early… or at all, but the sun’s red glow screamed fire. Part of my world was ablaze, but where?

            Paris needed breakfast. I slammed the slider closed and headed to the kitchen. I grabbed a can of cat food and scooped a heaping serving into her bowl, then flipped on the coffee maker, my mind still distracted by the startling vision of the sun. I stumbled around trying to coordinate coffee, cup, and creamer. When I’d finally finished the seemingly impossible task of creating coffee, I ambled to the safety of my recliner, grabbed the remote control, punched on, and pressed 7. I nearly dropped my steaming cup when the news anchor’s sober voice described, in dramatic detail, a fire burning just north of Calistoga. The Diablo winds had reached 80 mph, nearly hurricane speed. Other fires were bursting forth around Napa, Sonoma, and Lake Counties.

            I froze in my chair. The reports of the ferocity of the fires were spellbinding and impossible to fathom. The wind was menacing. The earth was parched in early October. Rain’s saving grace was absent.

            My thoughts immediately dashed to my friend Marion’s mobile home in Yountville, then on to Pam’s place in Napa. Having lived in a mobile home park years ago, the thought of a fire always made my scalp twitch with fear. One spark landing in dry grass would spell disaster.

            I felt lightheaded and realized my breathing was shallow. I grabbed my cell and dialed Marion, but the call didn’t go through. I searched for Pam’s phone number and pressed dial. Again, no connection. I sent emails. “Please, let me know if you’re okay!” There were no returned messages.

            How were so many fires even possible, while traveling at a menacing speed? Enormous flames were surging over the hills, down the canyons, creeping into neighborhoods where people were sleeping, totally unaware that they would soon be forced to run for their lives. What would be destroyed next? No one knew.

            Embers were flying aimlessly for miles, igniting new areas instantly and devouring homes. Hospitals were evacuated. A mobile home park in northwest Santa Rosa was completely engulfed in flames.

            I’d moved to Sebastopol from Santa Rosa only a few months earlier. Reality set in when I heard that everyone who lived a short distance north from my previous home had been warned of a potential evacuation. I called a previous neighbor … there was no phone service. I was terrified.

            When I could finally divert my eyes from the TV, I noticed my cup full of cold coffee. I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t reach my friends. I was frantic. My new home was too small to accommodate people. Tracking the travels of the fires was impossible as the wind kept changing directions, chomping down on virgin territory rapidly and violently.

            Hours passed, that turned into days of sitting in my recliner, paralyzed, calling people I couldn’t reach; emailing with no responses. Emergency crews of firefighters came from all over California, Oregon, Washington,  and other nearby states. Some roads were closed, and people were asked to stay away from Santa Rosa to minimize unnecessary traffic.  How could I sit in my cozy recliner not knowing if my friends were possibly displaced, injured, or worse?

            The Red Cross and other agencies were ramped up and engaged with businesses and the homeless. Shelters were opening for the displaced. Food, clothing, and necessities were made available. The outpouring of kindness was nothing short of miraculous, and I was sitting in my recliner, immobile. What in the hell was wrong with me?

            I finally reached Julie, a good friend who lives in Santa Rosa. She and her husband were not under mandatory evacuation, but were prepared none-the-less. I asked her what I should do. She suggested making a monetary donation if I could. Of course I could, but it seemed like such a meager contribution. I didn’t know who to contribute to, or how. I was getting more disgusted with myself as the hours passed. I kept thinking about my friends, needing to know if they were okay, to help in any possible way, but I still couldn’t reach them.

            I heard a report that the Santa Rosa Junior College was in jeopardy. I take a class at the JC Annex, and immediately decided to donate money. It was a small gesture, and it didn’t relieve my guilt, or feelings of ineptitude.

            I was determined to find Preme, my previous neighbor. She’s my age, East Indian, and frightens easily. I decided to drive to Santa Rosa. One more car on the road wouldn’t cause a traffic jam.

            As I walked to the parking lot, I noticed charred bits of paper, large and small, floating toward the ground. Every surface of my car was covered in tiny fragments of gray ash. I managed to clean the windows to safely drive. This became a daily routine until a week later when the air finally began to clear.

            When I arrived at Preme’s townhouse, I parked and went to her door. The blinds were drawn, and unclaimed packages awaited her return. I rang the doorbell several times but knew there would be no answer. I walked around the nearly vacant parking lot and spotted a fellow sitting in his truck. I was thankful to see him and asked if he was a resident. He said yes, and had only stopped by to pick up some belongings. He said that nearly everyone had left after losing gas and electric services. I tried to call a friend of Preme’s, but there was no service. As I was walking to my car, her son-in-law pulled up in front of her unit. I looked through the windshield and saw my friend. I was so thankful that she was alive and safe. I looked into her eyes and saw intense sadness … tears began to form in both of our eyes. We went inside and talked for awhile. It was such a relief to finally connect with someone close to me. She couldn’t stay in her townhouse as the power was still off, so she grabbed a few necessities before returning to another friend’s home. I hated to say goodbye.

            I few days later I still felt an intense need to help my community. I drove back into Santa Rosa and stopped at my credit union. They were accepting disaster relief donations. I stood in line for twenty minutes. When I reached the teller, I told her I wanted to contribute to wild fire assistance. She smiled and processed my offering.

            After returning home, I picked up my mail and found an envelope from the same credit union. I opened it and read a curt letter stating that they had not received my credit card payment for September. I was stunned as I knew I’d sent them a check. Why hadn’t the bank teller said something to me when I stopped by? Wouldn’t my account be flagged? It was a Saturday, and by the time I’d returned home they were closed. I tried to call, but couldn’t reach anyone.

            My heart was sick. Not only had I inadequately given my best to those who were suffering, but shamed by my bank as well. I was a useless friend, and now this.

            Sunday began miserably. I was warm and comfortable while enjoying my morning coffee, watching the news that only reminded me of what an awful person I was. People were still homeless, everything they had was gone, and quite possibly their jobs. I had finally reached most of my friends, and while a few had been displaced, most were back home contending with food that had spoiled in their refrigerators, some still without gas or electric services. There was little I could do for them. Most were a distance away and nearly impossible to reach. No one was in the mood to be entertained.

            Within the following week, most of the fires had been contained, which didn’t mean they were out, just under control. Nothing was back to any semblance of normalcy. The shock had begun to fade, but stark reality was setting in. Schools had postponed classes, and businesses were trying to start functioning again, if only by their boot-straps. People were trying to find temporary housing, obtain food and clothing, furnishings for rented properties, dealing with insurance claims, FEMA, and other agencies.

            Monday morning I got cleaned up early and went to the credit union. It happened that the manager was at the information desk, so I waited, their letter in hand. When I finally had the opportunity to speak, I handed him the scathing notice I’d received, and told him that this was no way to treat their loyal customers, even if for some reason a payment had been accidentally delayed. He made a phone call and verified that my check had been received, but due to the fires it had not been posted. I told him I’d stopped at the bank on Saturday to make a contribution to their recovery fund, and wondered why the teller made no mention of the late payment. Wouldn’t my account have been flagged? He apologized and said he would have a talk with the teller. While I was very distressed by the letter, he seemed equally disturbed. He stepped away to make a copy. When he returned the original to me his hand was trembling. His face was moist with perspiration I hadn’t noticed earlier. He did admit that I wasn’t the first person who had brought the matter to his attention, and apologized.

            I won’t say that I felt good when I left. I had vented my frustration, and was pleased that they did have a record of my payment, but my discomfort went much deeper. I still carried the shame of not helping the people I love.

            Nearly two months had passed since the fires broke out, and were finally extinguished. I wanted to think that all was well, and that life had begun to return to normalcy. The reality was that people were still displaced; thousands of homes had to be rebuilt. Businesses and jobs were lost, and would hopefully be resurrected. Hearts were broken, and lives had been lost. The tragedies were still fresh in people’s minds, whether we experienced them directly, or remotely, as I had. We were still asking how things could have been different, but we’ll never know all of the answers. Hopefully we would eventually heal and accept that life can, and will, go on … at least for those who survived.

Author’s Note:

Tubbs Fire – Reference From Wikipedia

Excerpt – Main article: Tubbs Fire

The Tubbs Fire started near Tubbs Lane in Calistoga on the evening of October 8, 2017 and burned at least 34,000 acres. In the Fountain Grove area numerous homes, the Fountaingrove Inn, the historic Round Barn, and a Hilton resort were destroyed.By October 14, the death toll from this fire alone had risen to 20. By October 20, the Tubbs Fire had become the most destructive wildfire in the history of California. This was later surpassed by the Camp Fire (2018).

A filing by PG&E to the judge overseeing PG&E’s probation for the 2010 San Bruno fire said that the Tubbs Fire may have started with privately owned equipment on private property for which PG&E was not responsible.

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