The Fire Phoenixes

I haven’t seen my sister Lola for ten long pandemic months. She called yesterday to invite me and my wife Jeannie over for a barbecue. On the phone she told me she has a new obsession and then hung up. Lola’s big on suspense and ten months is enough time for her to have created a small human, so I wonder what she’s up to. 

Lola is the sibling who inherited all the motivation. She put herself through college and manages retirement homes or whatever they call them now. Those places where unmanageable family members live. For me, after some minor delinquency and court appointed community service, I fell into the role of a fireman at the age of sixteen. Twenty years later, I’m still putting out fires. Covid has been good for Lola, she runs several homes now on the outskirts of Los Angeles. I suppose no one wanted to be the boss when so many were dying.

We arrive at Lola’s house vaccinated and giddy, our first social outing since the second lockdown. Her house looks fresh and cared for with newly painted trim and a plush lawn that’s so green, it looks fake. A mailbox, in the shape of a flamingo, adorns the street border. As we reach the front door, Lola flings it open, bumps knuckles and ushers us around the side gate to the backyard. 

“Greetings family,” she says, eyeing my weight gain, unsuccessfully covered by my T-shirt. 

Her husband Derek stands next to the barbecue, tongs in hand. He waves them in our direction and grins. I listen for the sound of a baby, but all I hear is a dog in the distance. I look around the garden for the child debris that seems to follow births: rattles, bassinets or plastic giraffes. Nothing, but an irate bird squawking from the rooftop. 

I flap my hands to shoo it away. 

“Don’t mind Attila,” Lola says.

Derek points the tongs at the roof. “One of our resident bluebirds.”

“Attila’s spouse, Hon, is around here somewhere.”

“Attila and the Hon.”

“Attila birthed five beautiful pale blue eggs.” 

They switch off talking, rapid fire, like they’re one brain, two mouths.

“Attila was a man,” I point out. “He was the Hun.”

“Hon like honey.”

“Not Hun, like the Hun.”

“This is it,” Lola claps her hands in excitement, “this is our new obsession. Birds!”

“Twenty-five days gestation, only one more week—”

“And we’ll be proud parents.”

Jeannie interrupts. “Bird watching is for the birds.” She barks out a laugh and slaps her thigh.

I stare at my wife. Have I lost my sense of humor? Was that funny?

“Oh, so sorry,” Derek clanks the tongs in our direction. “We’ve forgotten how to host.”

“We’re terrible. Drinks?”

“I’ll take anything, really I’m just happy to be out.” I do a little jig. “I forgot there’s a whole world out here.”

We’ve been isolated in our little box of paranoia for too long. In a way, Jeannie and I gave in and shut ourselves away without attempting to invent a new way of lockdown living. A human hibernation of sorts.

“Yes,” Jeannie shrugs, “whatever you’re having, Lola.”

“One anything and one whatever, coming up.”

Lola heads into the house. The picnic table is set for four, each plate carefully placed six feet from the other. We shuffle nervously. Normally I would have gone inside to help, but it doesn’t feel right anymore. I look through the window and see that she is using blue surgical gloves to transfer ice cubes to the glasses and cut lemons.

“So,” I say, “you’re bird watchers now.”

“We love the little devils. We get up before sunrise, four days a week.”

“Whoa, whoa.” I hold up my hand. “Before sunrise? Lola?”

Derek smiles proudly. “She’s the one who sets the alarm.” He pats his stomach. “Gotta keep the Covid Ten away.”

I suck in my stomach and Jeannie raises an eyebrow, twisting her smile into a smirk. Derek and Lola look incredibly fit, whereas my wife and I have gained more girth than the Covid Ten. In fact, I have nothing to show for my Covid hibernation except the fact that I watched Breaking Bad twice. In a row. A few years back, okay a lot of years back, I was in one of those firemen calendars, the hunky semi-nude ones that are sold for dog charities. 

“Heard you got your eyebrows singed in the Dixie fire.”

“More than my eyebrows.” 

I turn around and show him the scar on the back of my neck where an ember lodged in my collar and I couldn’t feel the burn because of raging adrenaline. The smell of burning flesh finally got my attention. Firemen are the good guys. We always get to be the good guys. We’re adored and revered, but sometimes we fail. Sometimes things go wrong,

The bird continues to screech. Derek whistles at him. He arranges a pile of briquettes on the barbecue, tonging them into a pyramid. He pulls out a pack of wooden matches and lights the stack. It ignites, but slowly goes out. He lights a dry stick and pushes it in the middle of the triangle. I don’t intervene, a man’s barbecue is sacred.

Lola returns with the drinks. They are fluorescent neon-orange stacked with ice cubes. She hands us out drinks and I lift the glass up to the light. 


I stare at it. “A what?”

“It’s Italian. Made from rhubarb.”

“I’ve never seen rhubarb that color.”

I take a sip and nearly spit it on their perfect lawn. Out of the corner of my eye I see Jeannie do the same, scrunching her face into a wrinkly walnut shape. I lift the glass to my lips and try to gulp it down without tasting it, avoiding Jeannie’s eyes. I choke.

“Slow down, cowboy,” Lola laughs. “We’re stocked.”

Lola and Derek stand next to each other, shoulders and hips touching. Derek holds up nine fingers, mimics drinking from a glass and swipes a finger across his neck. Lola laughs and gives him the thumbs up sign.

“What? What was that?”

“Derek just told me that you don’t like the Aperol.”

“I like the Aperol.”

Jeannie side-eyes me. “Right.”

“What was this?” I hold up nine fingers.

“Number nine is orange,” Derek holds up nine fingers again. “Orange.”

“Derek has synesthesia,” Lola explains.

“He does?”

“Do you know what that is?”


“I see numbers with colors. So nine is orange, eight is white, seven is yellow…”





“White’s not a color,” Jeannie points out.

Derek shrugs. “It’s just what I see.”

I look at Derek. Mr. Straight Laced Accountant sees numbers as colors? I can’t even hang a picture straight.

“Jeannie sees floaters when she looks at an orange sunset,” I say, “not a pink or red sunset, just orange.” 

Derek looks confused.

“Little peanut shaped object floating through my vision,” Jeannie says. “The doctor says they’re not detrimental, I just have to live with them. I’ve had them since I was five years old.”

“My mother remembers when I was a child, I always drew numbers with the same colors and I couldn’t stand to see them as black on a white page. I belong to a group of synesthetics and there are a dozen different types. A woman I know tastes banana every time she hears one of those high-pitched dog whistles. Another one orgasms when she hears the sound of a heavy chain being drawn through a wooden pulley, like on an old ship.”

“So, she hangs out in shipyards all day?” I ask.

“Unfortunately, most of them use metal pulleys. And recordings don’t work for her.”

“Sometimes I get migraines after I see my floating objects. Are your numbers and colors are harmful?”

“I consider it a gift.”

“Like a superhero power,” Lola says.

 Derek touches his forefinger to thumb and peers through the circle. He holds up three fingers, pats his stomach and flaps his hands up into the sky.

“That means, look, a blue bellied bird flying away.” Derek and Lola smile at each other. “Really, birds saved our sanity.”

As they’re telling us this, Jeannie steps behind them and flips me the bird. I cough and almost love her again, but then Lola and Derek see her and they all laugh together. Inexplicably, my nose stings and I turn away. 

Derek is still struggling with the briquettes. I step up to the barbecue and he reluctantly hands me the matches. 

“Damn coals are wet.”

Being a fireman gives me a certain amount of clout with civilians. “Do you have any gas? A can from your lawn mower?”

“Gas? I thought you were a fireman, not a pyro.”

“Just bring me what you have.”

Derek heads to the storage shed. Lola points to an intricately painted birdhouse hanging from the garage rafters. “Derek built that sweet little birdhouse. See how the trim matches our house? Atilla and Hon took seven days to build their nest. They pulled hair out of Chapo,” she points to their genuine Mexican mutt lounging on the deck. 

They adopted Chapo several years ago when it was trendy for Americans to adopt mutts from Mexico. As if the local shelters weren’t full. 

“He couldn’t even bask in the sun without them swooping down and tearing out a chunk of fur. So, we left them materials, dryer lint, chunks of my hair. I unraveled a sweater for them.”

I look up at the birdhouse. A piece of red yarn sticks out of the twigs. 

Derek returns with the gas can. I take it and splash a bit of gas around the base of the briquettes. I strike a match and hold it to the briquettes until they flare. A moment later, they sputter out, so I add more gas until the flames surge. A jolt of adrenaline hits me and I thrust the nozzle toward the flames pouring more until they jump higher. The fire bursts up in a blazing cone and licks the edge of the garage roof, spreading along the freshly painted trim.

Derek runs for the hose and sprays water on the flames as I bolt into the kitchen and grab the extinguisher, hoping fervently that Lola keeps her extinguisher updated. Sprinting back, I unlock the nozzle and hit the flames full force.

Lola screams and lunges to grab the birdhouse. I drop the extinguisher and tackle her, pulling her away from the flames. She keeps a hold of the birdhouse and the eggs roll out, one by one and crack on the asphalt. Attila and Hon shriek from the tree. 

Lola drops to her knees and fat tears run down her face. She stares at the partially formed chicks squirming on the pavement and vomits neon orange liquid onto the lawn. Derek hoists her up by the shoulders and hauls her into the house, still clutching the birdhouse. 

We stare at the disaster in front of us. Jeannie lurches to our car. 

I spray down the patio and roof trim before the sodium bicarbonate has a chance to harden. The lifeless bird embryos wash into a pile with their pale blue shell shards. I gently rub off the foam and carry them to the bushes. I dig a hole, scraping with my fingers and place them gently inside. Their dark unseeing eyes gaze up at me.

On the way home, Jeannie is silent. She stares out the window at the passing telephone poles. Periodically she inhales in three quick sniffs. When we pull into the driveway, she turns to me.

“Did you light that fire?”

“You saw me light it. Derek couldn’t light a fire if he had matches for fingers.”

“Did you light it so that it went out of control?” She enunciates the words. 

“On purpose? No, my god. Those poor little birds. I like birds.”

“You hate birds. You’re always throwing rocks at them.”

“They eat my vegetable seeds. Why would you think I did that on purpose?”

“You were jazzed. You’re still jazzed. After fighting a fire, you come home jazzed.”

“It’s called adrenaline.”

“I saw your face.”

“You’re accusing me of lighting my sister’s house on fire.”

She gets out of the car and shoves the door closed with a bang. Our house seems forlorn after the vibrancy of Lola and Derek’s. The paint has faded in spots. A cracked watering can and a hose with too many leaks lay scattered across the front garden. Withered roses lean against the porch, infested with mold and mealy bugs. Even the air smells of decay.

I reverse out of the driveway and hit the gas with a squeal of tires. I drive aimlessly until I arrive at Griffith Park. The gates are still open, so I head inside, accelerating around the corners as I wind up to the parking lot. 

When I first learned how to drive, I was amazed at the power I was given behind the wheel, flying down the road at sixty miles an hour. At any moment, I could choose to veer off the road and smash straight into oncoming traffic, or with a jerk to the right, I could crash into a tree along the highway. The possibility of life and death held in my hands. 

Native Americans say that man is inherently evil and we must strive to be good. Firemen live between extreme boredom and all-encompassing adrenaline. During those off times, I find myself wishing for something, anything, to break the tedium. Even a fire.

It’s dark now as I park and walk out to the wall, where I sit swinging my legs, looking at the glowing lights of the City of Angels. A sporadic breeze warms my skin. The darkness wraps around me and my heart beats sluggishly. 

  I imagine Lola and Derek setting their alarm, waking up before the sunrise and driving to the reservoir with a thermos filled with hot coffee, two pairs of binoculars, folding chairs and notebooks. 

The matches are in my pocket. I take them out and light a match. It flickers in the air and I blow it out. I light another and it burns down to my fingertips before I flick it away. 

There are two types of couples to emerge from the ashes of the pandemic. There are the ones who rise up out of the debris like a pair of golden phoenixes and then there are the ones like me and my wife. We are the ones who sunk into the mire, bruised and fearful. 

I used to pity Derek, the accountant geek. But now I know that he can see numbers as colors. I close my eyes and concentrate, what color would a five be? All I see is black. I open my eyes and light a third match. It sparks and I see orange. Ah ha, number five is orange. Except Derek said orange was number nine. Do everyone’s numbers match up or are they different? 

The next match, I toss into the brush. Dry leaves crackle. The fire spreads quickly, hitting a water bottle, flames shoot up, yellow and blue…still no numbers. The bottle bubbles, collapsing into a gnarled mess. A tin can label melts onto the ground, the acrid smoke stinging my eyes. 

Below me, the city lights expand and retract through the vapors as my blood pumps faster, and faster, surging alongside the spreading flames. 



Image: photo by Salah Ait Mokhtar on Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.

Laureen Vonnegut
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  1. Wow, a story that leaves me with more questions than answers. Have I walked out in the middle, or are all the parts there? Have I arranged them correctly and where do I go next? I don’t want to stop.


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