When Do We Worry

Kimberly King Parsons

2017 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest Runner-up

When my wife was still my wife, a wisp of smoke from the Altadena fire drifted up and over the foothills of our neighborhood. We’d seen this before—small brushfires often flashed in the basin—but my wife seemed concerned, distant. When she put the babies down to nap, I turned off the TV. Alarmists ran the local news—fresh outbreaks were reported on the hour, glorified containments on the half. We ate our lunch with the windows open. We watched the curl of smoke rise and fade, turn from black to purple to white.

“This makes me twitchy,” my wife said.

She lit a cigarette, stretched to hold it out the window.

I coughed and gave her a look.

“What?” she said between drags. She screwed up her mouth to aim her exhaust outside. “I’m not doing it in the house. Not technically.”

“It’s fine,” I said. A siren wailed, faint and far away. “Firefighters have got this. They’ll be in the bar by happy hour.”

She pulled at her lip. “OK,” she said. “They’re handling it.” She pointed toward the foothills with her cigarette. “Bet those boys get some ass tonight,” she said.

It was a Saturday, and we had Saturday things to do. We planted azaleas in clay pots by the back door. I held up different ends of the couch while my wife stuck bits of rubber under the legs. We corralled the kids in the kitchen with the baby gate, sat at the table and pulled apart the newspaper. My daughter was teething, drooling and mouthing her fist. The boy pushed a lone roller skate along a perimeter of linoleum.

Then the Santa Anas started blowing hot—kicking up grit, pulling the kids’ little clothes off the line, whipping through our Japanese maple.

“Fuck,” my wife said softly, looking out the window.

A steady procession of traffic began to roll out of our subdivision. There was a tumult of sirens from the south, helicopters in the distance. It was dark enough then to see an orange glow beyond Hastings Canyon.

I doled peas and carrots onto sectioned plates. I tore cold cuts into tiny pieces. My wife sidled up to me, put her hand on my hand.

“OK,” she said. “When do we worry?”

“Not yet,” I said. We’d seen thicker plumes, darker plumes. “Doomsayer,” I said, and tapped her nose.

“Doom,” my wife said. “Dooooom.”

She bent down to light a smoke at the stovetop. I said nothing.

She didn’t eat—instead used her plate as an ashtray, carrying it with her from room to room. The kids threw food at each other and I swept up, rinsed the dishes. We did bath time, pajamas. When they were asleep, we sat on our deck and drank cold wine from jam jars. In the canyon below, a man mounted his roof and soaked his shingles with a water hose.

“Crazy,” I said.

“Maybe not,” my wife said. “Maybe you should be doing that to our house.”

She went inside and came back with the baby monitor and the radio. Her chest was rosy. The newscaster was carrying on about conflagration.

“We could make a vacation out of it,” she said. “We could be in Vegas by midnight.”

“Hold on,” I said.

“Check into somewhere nice. Not nice nice. Medium nice. Get one of those hotel sitters for the kids. We could play Bingo.”

“You mean Keno,” I said.

“Keno!” she said.

My wife hates Vegas. We both do.

“Listen, dove,” I said, “we evacuate if they tell us to.”

She tied her bright hair into a knot at her neck. It unwound. She tied it again. The kids have grown up to look like me—thick-limbed, nothing delicate about them. For the boy it’s one thing, but my daughter was robbed.

“I’m talking about precaution,” my wife said.

“Wake the kids for no reason? Pack our photo albums and your jewelry and ride off into the night?”

She shrugged. “It’s not no reason.” She touched her mouth, pulled at her scarlet eyelashes.

“Listen,” I told her. “Stop worrying. I’m in charge of us, OK?”

But I wasn’t.

Later, we’d learn that a disturbed man sleeping on the slopes above Eaton Canyon had started a small fire, sprayed hairspray on a pile of brush and torched it. It was such a dry summer, never mind the accelerant, the wind. Everything blew apart. The man tried to stomp out the embers, but eventually he ran away from the mess he’d made.

“I gave it no further thought,” he said tearfully on the ten o’clock news.

The fire spread to Kinneloa Mesa and outwards, jumped from one house to another in a ragged half-moon, but it didn’t make it to our neighborhood. Not even close. It was over even before we hit Barstow, before we checked into the Luxor and ordered up a shrimp cocktail. My wife changed into her blue dress, but we were too road-weary to go downstairs. We paid the sitter for showing up and sent her away. We slept with the air conditioner blasting, frigid under unfamiliar sheets. The babies were barricaded by pillows, their little cot pushed into a corner. In the still-black morning, the boy woke up crying, confused about where we were.

Coming home was the hardest part, driving back into our neighborhood with the rest of the cowards. The sirens had stopped and the smoke was dissipating. Our house was exactly as we’d left it.

Giving up was my wife’s idea.

• •

When I pick up the kids, my wife answers the door frazzled, red-faced and hectic. She’s still in her tatty bathrobe, smoking, her hair kind of crusted up like she isn’t expecting me. She trails behind us all the way to my car. I offer the boy shotgun but he always refuses, lets my wife put him in the backseat with his sister. Once she’s checked and checked their seatbelts she talks at me through the open door. She leans over the passenger seat and says, “No trans fats. No scary movies. In bed by ten, please. Ten! Teeth brushed. You have to watch them do it. Check that the brushes are wet. Check with your finger, please, not your eyes. No more cavities.”

She drops my girlfriend’s name, thick with disapproval. She mentions my daughter’s bedwetting and the boy’s widening pores.

“My kids are stressed,” she says, touching her mouth, scanning the dashboard. She looks down her street, my old street, through the windshield. “My kids don’t need the competition.”

Sometimes she slams the car door so hard all of our ears pop. Other times she barely latches the thing. It sucks wind while I drive down the row of familiar houses, neighbors on their porches, people I used to know out mowing their lawns. The sound is annoying, a whistle that gets louder the faster we go. The kids start complaining, begging me to fix it. I could pull over somewhere, try to jerk the goddamn thing closed from the inside, but I won’t. I’ll drive all the way home like that.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter