Trip Back From The Fires
Wally Humphries (Boise State University, US)
He walked up to the Boise airport ticket counter to check his bags. The agent instructed him to TSA. He mentioned he was a smokejumper and that his reserve parachute handle should not be pulled. She started to open his overstuffed pack and then ran a white oval cloth across part of the bag. “It smells like smoke from forest fires,” he said. She didn’t seem to mind and stamped his bag for approval. He thought there could have been a bomb and she would never have known.
He took an escalator downstairs and watched people in the full boarding area. They were all white, mostly business people in suites. He was in disguise and had no markings on his tee shirt that would lead people to believe he was a fire fighter, except for a dirty ball cap. He noticed a young woman with short blond frizzy hair walk over to three guys who had Fire written on their shirts. She had Department of the Interior on hers, and it wasn’t long before she latched onto them.
A free ticket announced over the PA. A gentleman with an English accent waffled on about whether to give up his seat, and then stepped out of line.
“I’m willing to give up my seat,” Smokejumper said.
“You’re willing to give up your seat?” the pudgy feminine man said.
“Yeah, for a free ticket,” in a tone that sounded like it wasn’t out of generosity.
The airline gave him two meal vouchers and he went upstairs to the food court. Several pizzas lay on a stainless steal counter waiting to go in the oven. “I’ll make you any pizza you want,” the pizza man said. “I’m not supposed to do that but you have to shake it up now and then.”
As he started to pay with a voucher, the pizza man threw a Stromboli on his tray. “No charge,” he told the woman behind the cash register. “It’s past breakfast and we’re going to throw them out,” he said. His African coworker gave him a questionable look. The Jumper tried to tell him that he wasn’t that hungry, then, realizing it was no use, he handed over the voucher.
He boarded the commuter plane at noon and got off in Seattle. At Borders he looked for books that held his interest. He read a few sentences from H.G. Wells, but put it down because he wanted something modern. McCourt came close, but he didn’t want anything to do with schoolteachers. He picked up the new version of A Clockwork Orange, and decided not to get it because he was still working on a similar book, 1984. But the main reason he didn’t buy anything was dyslexia made reading difficult for him.
He walked past a massive glass wall that looked out at the runway, and then sat down at the bar and ordered lunch and a beer. A woman in her fifties sat next to him. She was about the same age as his wife, but not nearly as pretty, and probably didn’t have as much money. She had chowder in a bread bowl and talked on her phone.
The bartender gave him the tab. “Do you take airline vouchers?” he asked the chubby blond. He placed the twenty dollar bill next to the coupon and walked towards the boarding gate. Just outside the restaurant, a voluptuous Arab lady with a diamond belly-button ring turned his head. He always thought about women.
He boarded his flight and sat next to a guy who mined in Guyana. The Jumper told him his brother-in-law was a miner in Nevada. “Master blaster,” he said.
The man drank Crown whiskey on the rocks, and the Jumper nursed a beer. The Miner talked about his twenty-seven year divorce, and then mentioned his Guyanese girlfriend. He talked about his armed security guard that protected him from kidnappers. He talked about his two-dollar-a-day maid. How if you wanted a baby, some woman down there would give you one. “They think nothing of it,” he said, “even if they got a boyfriend.”
The Miner pulled out a piece of paper from a small man purse. “I met this one in Linden. She’s from Chile.” He held the paper in the air like the Jumper was supposed to write down the phone number.
“A lot of AIDS down there,” Jumper said. “Guess you got to protect yourself.”
“Oh yeah,” the Miner looked at him and ordered another drink.
He ditched the Miner in Anchorage. The Jumper boarded another plane. A girl approached him and said he had her seat. Money fell out his pocket as he dug out the ticket. The flight attendant looked at his ticket and told him he was in B, not D. He blamed it on dyslexia.
The plane landed in Fairbanks. As he got out of his seat, a woman in her thirties turned around in front of him. “How’s it going?” She was beautiful with brown hair to the middle of her back, and freckles across her cheekbones. She seemed to be of Jewish or Asian descent.
“Do I know you?”
“I don’t know,” she smiled. “Aren’t you a smokejumper?” She said she was married to Jason whose last name got muffled over people getting their things out of the overhead binds.
“That’s right, your Jordet’s wife. What are you doing up from Anchorage? I thought he went back to school.”
“He did. I have a board meeting,” she said, and walked off the plane.
The Jumper gathered his things and recalled overhearing a prior conversation where she’d been asked by a friend, now that she’s married, does that make her not a smokejumper groupie anymore?
He got his bags, which arrived on the earlier flight, and then walked to long term parking for the government vehicle someone was supposed to drop off. He didn’t see the rig and called his boss who told him to take a cab.
“Most of the leaves have blown off the trees,” the cabbie said. They talked about fires in Montana and Idaho. “Do you have to go back?” the cabbie asked.
The Jumper hoped to be done for the year, and told the driver that his wife wanted him home in Idaho.
“Can you write the receipt for thirty-five?” he asked, and grabbed his bags from the trunk.
He entered the two-four-three combo and went inside the dark smokejumper building. Turned on the lights and looked at rows of nametags on a white board. Next to some names were personal remarks. Carroll and Weber scheduled for knee surgery. Ivan was on love hold because he was getting married.
He walked to his mailbox and grabbed mail. A business in New York City had trouble billing his credit card. It had been over a month and he worried the company would turn him over to a collection agency.
A card waited on his pillow that lay on the neatly folded bed. “Time to come home, Bear,” the card read. He felt sad, and the barracks room seemed empty without her; his wife was back in Idaho teaching college business.
He continued with his mail. A letter stamped with two red lips from Creations. He recalled her innocent voice and how she spoke to his loneliness. Like the Arab lady had done indirectly in his mind, or the one eating soup.
He threw the mail on the floor and pulled down the covers on his bed. Looked outside at the darkness and thought about fires he had fought in the Northwest, and the last week of seasonal work before he would fly home. And expected his wife to find out about his loneliness, and how he’d explain it, and what that might bring.
Wally Humphries is in his first semester as a nonfiction grad student at Boise State University, and works in the summer as an Alaska smokejumper. He is sent wherever needed – like the Northwest, where the essay took place. He cooks and cleans for his wife during the winter.