When we bought the Blazer, it was a kind of joke. It was our first winter in our first house and the first time I found myself trudging up the big hill in the snow after my car refused the crest, I demanded an SUV. When Adam chose the cherry red, lift-kitted monstrosity, it was part abject goofiness, part inside joke. Caught between city lives we loved and the country lives we’d been born into, we were torn between being the sort of people who owned a vehicle like that and people who scorned people who owned a vehicle like that. It was reprehensible and hilarious, indulgent and embarrassing.
Montana was my home but not Adam’s. I had moved back after an abysmal post-college start in San Francisco, and Adam was the first Ohio-imported hire in the basement start-up I had helped launch. By the time we’d dated for three years, bought our house, and acquired the Blazer, I’d long since moved careers, marveling at his patience with his mentally unstable boss. When Adam finally confessed that he wanted a new job as well, we began to explore our options. We considered returning to San Francisco and, even though his selection of tech jobs was plentiful, I insisted we look elsewhere. That’s when we settled on Seattle.
Adam is the sort of man who keeps his expectations low. But he’s brilliant and filled with a bravado I can only fly in close company of. Despite his protestations, it shouldn’t have been surprising that after his first job interview, we were flown to Seattle. Not a week later, he was offered a job.
“No, no,” I wanted to say. It was only a suggestion. And, yet, I’d been looking for a way back into the world, out from under the safe, sweet, suffocating umbrella of my hometown. In retrospect, I might have spent more time considering the ramifications of moving across the country with a man I wasn’t married to, with nary a job prospect for myself. But I didn’t. Instead, I strapped on a familiar mantel of martyrdom and began to mourn our version of playing house. I wanted the city, but I wanted this, too.
There wouldn’t be any more nights perusing new recipes below the cheesy decorative culinary phrases painted on the kitchen wall. No more memories of immolating the caramelized fish underneath a non-functional microwave fan. No more mistakenly stashing the homemade chocolate ice cream in the fridge after too many bottles of wine. We abandoned the Weber kettle grill with which we’d spent hours trying to cook vegetables ‘en papillote’ in the middle of a rare, but insistent summer downpour.
But I didn’t have too much time to wander and wallow. Two weeks after Adam agreed to take the job I came home to find movers had boxed up the entire contents of our cheerful yellow home and secreted them away in a United Van Lines semitrailer. I sat in my empty living room and cried.
I wanted to leave very badly. And I didn’t want to leave at all.
# # #
The plan was to take the Blazer to Seattle and sell it there. We’d intercept the movers, unload, and I’d fly back, tie up loose ends at my job, finish selling the house, and drive my car out the following month. We would have preferred to sell the Blazer in Montana, where we figured the market would be more favorable for such a treasure, but the movers had a list of things for us to transport ourselves: computers, identification and tax files, cleaning products, valuables and jewelry. We packed our nicest clothes in order to celebrate our last weekend together for several weeks. I packed my ruby locket, the mezuzah my godmother brought back from Israel, and my favorite ice-pink shirt. Adam packed our computers, a box of essential files, and the box of bleach and ammonia and cleaning sprays.
The weather was pleasant for February, cold but dry. The Blazer wasn’t terribly fast, but we made good enough time that afternoon. We hoped to do our driving in two shifts — Missoula the first night and Seattle the next — and had started around noon. It must have been four pm or so by the time we traversed the brittle plains between Belgrade and Whitehall, making our way west via I-90.
There are five passes between Billings and Seattle: Bozeman, Homestake, Lookout, 4th of July, and Snoqualmie. I was busy cracking about the Blazer’s ability to get us over all five of them, how it would leave us stranded by the side of the road and how no one would pick up people in a truck with a lift kit. Adam assured me that the nice folks at the dealership had said the Blazer was fine. It had a small transmission leak, but nothing that couldn’t wait until we got it to Washington. And, to its credit, it handled the twists and turns of the Bozeman pass without a hitch. Still, I was a fool to tempt fate.
Homestake Pass wends its way into the continental divide like a rapidly narrowing tongue. I was taking my deejaying duties seriously, America and Billy Joel and Barenaked Ladies serenading us as we gained elevation. And then, Adam pulled over to the side of the road.
I looked up from my iPod. “What are you doing?”
“What’s wrong?” This time, I leaned over to examine the dashboard.
“It isn’t pulling.”
“What does the temperature gauge say?”
“Nothing. Everything is fine.”
“Well if everything is fine, then why won’t it go?”
“I’m not sure.”
I laughed. “I told you this would happen.”
We waited two more beats. He popped the hood, but made no move to get out, still puzzling the dash. I threw my door open and looked down to see flames shooting out from under my door.
“Get out of the car.”
“Get the fuck out of the car.”
# # #
In retrospect, I had enough time to grab my purse, even after we’d run, but I didn’t do it. I was paralyzed, flashbacks of my mom’s flaming Firebird two hundred miles east and twenty years earlier. If we had hustled, it might have been possible to unload everything from the car before the tires began to explode, one by one filling the canyon with a sound like cannons. But we didn’t know that then. Instead, we huddled at milepost 234 and watched the fire break through the dash, devouring all of my very favorite things. I blubbered and shook as the fire took my cell phone and my eyeglasses, my breath mints and my retainer. My books and my perfume. My clothes and his clothes and our cans of soda. We watched it consume the seats and the gas tank and the box of tax files. Our passports and our birth certificates and our computers. When the cleaning supplies caught fire, the flames began to glow blue, then green, then white.
Cell phone towers weren’t, and still aren’t, rife in that spot, just about a mile from the continental divide. My phone was on fire, Adam’s wouldn’t work, and no one stopped to help for a very long time. It wasn’t until the truck was half engulfed that someone offered to call for us when they got to town. It was another thirty minutes before fire crews from Butte passed in the eastbound lanes towards a break in the concrete median, another fifteen before we could hear them coming back west again.
By the time they got to work, the temperature was dropping. The water from the fire trucks froze the hill below and the once infrequent passersby formed a line of snarled traffic. As they rolled past, they snapped pictures or gave us the finger. Some stopped to chat. Adam was in good spirits, pointing out that he’d lost everything before during a robbery. He seemed full of adrenaline, full of assurance, the best possible partner for a catastrophe. He told me everything would be fine. But it didn’t feel fine. It felt like I was coming completely apart.
A highway patrol officer gestured us over to his car. The firefighters looked at us with pity as we passed. They nodded and asked me to watch my step next to the hoses. They told us it was the worst car fire they’d ever seen. “What did you have in there?” they asked.
“Nothing,” I answered. Everything, I thought. But I tried to stop sniffling. “Guess that’s why they call them Blazers, eh?” Rim shot. They laughed and I felt even worse.
The officer’s car was warm. I wanted to stay in there forever, but he only allowed us a couple of minutes. He gave us a slip with the record of the incident along with some advice. “Keep going,” he said. “Rent a car and keep going.” But by then it was 8pm. We were cold and exhausted. We had one wallet and a dying cell phone between us. We didn’t have toothpaste or a change of underwear. More importantly, I didn’t have a shred of identification. Even if I got to Washington, there wouldn’t be any way back by plane, train, or automobile. My driver’s license, passport, and birth certificate were somewhere at the bottom of the smoking shell being loaded onto the back of a Gilboy’s Towing truck.
We stuffed our two large selves in the single passenger seat of the tow. As the driver rolled down his window, we became acutely aware that we reeked of chemical fire. We began to descend the pass almost immediately. We had almost made it. The driver dropped us off at a Town Pump adjacent to a Comfort Inn and told us to stop by their yard in the morning. Inside the gas station we bought a notebook, a pen, two sodas, and a pack of cigarettes for my nerves. After the pockmarked teen rang us up, he asked, with no trace of irony, if we wanted a car wash with that.
# # #
No one could say that we wasted time on hysterics once we got into town. Sitting inside the gas station casino, we forged ahead with a Plan B. I called home to relay the news we were headed back to Billings the next day. We called the insurance company and began to make lists of losses while they were fresh in our minds. Stinking and bag-less, we were rented a room by a reluctant clerk at the Comfort Inn. We ambled to a bar next-door and bought enough alcohol to compensate for the wide radius left empty around us. We took much-needed showers, knowing we’d have to climb back into our acrid clothes the next day.
And morning came. I woke up with a burning throat, the memory of where we were and what had happened almost unreal. My hand shot out to Adam’s. He was, as usual, awake. We were safe. And together. But was the universe trying to tell me something? Were we embarking upon a colossal mistake? How would I know? What business did I have trying to embark upon a new life when I couldn’t even manage to maintain proof of my existence? What kind of person put all of their eggs in one basket? When I got back to Billings, wouldn’t it be better to just stay there?
We called a taxi whose driver informed us that, thanks to scanner traffic and our malodorous bar visit, we’d become unwittingly famous in the circles of Butte’s taxi community. We headed to the junkyard to wrap up with the towing company. When we got there, the boss asked if we were to blame for the leaking, smoking pile of shit they’d brought in the night before. Adam wanted to check to make sure the computers’ hard drives were completely destroyed and the boss waved us toward the corner of the yard with a look of disdain. As if it had been our plan to inconvenience him.
The night had brought an inch or two of snow, and our heap was barely recognizable in shape, color, or consistency. The computers Adam had worried about had fused to the frame of the truck. He sifted through the area where our file box had been. I hovered over the ashes of our bags of clothing, hoping to dig something out that hadn’t been destroyed. I still wonder if I rooted down far enough to find my locket or if my favorite black jacket might have been buried deep enough to escape the fire and the smell. In the front seat, I wiped away the ashes from the floor where my purse had been. A glint of metal remained from its strap. And then a piece of melted carpet and then something else.
I bolted back to the nasty manager, demanding a pair of scissors. Adam had returned to discuss something with him and call another cab. I flew back out the door and began to work the shears into the floor.
A couple of months before, Adam’s brother had given me a Hello Kitty wallet for Christmas. It wasn’t terribly practical, but I had tried to use it. Being tailored for a young girl, it barely had any room to store anything, but I had filled it in an effort to show my appreciation. And when I managed to pry what was left of it out of the melted floor, I sat down in the mud and began to sob. Though everything was singed and black, everything was there, thanks to the miracle of oxygen restriction. My cash and my credit cards, my license. None of it was usable and it all stank as badly as I did, but it was there. I existed. All thanks to a cheap toy. It was such a small thing, but it was my personal lottery. I wasn’t lost after all.
All we were missing were things. They hadn’t made us who we were. Losing them was a lesson in starting over. We still had each other. We still had a future. We still had a schedule. We still had a road west, which, eventually, we took. It took me two months instead of one to join Adam in Seattle. When I got there, he’d bought me a new purse and a new Hello Kitty wallet. And we started our life in our new home.
We still owe Gilboy’s Towing that pair of scissors.
Camille Griep lives and writes north of Seattle, Wash. Her work has been featured in The Lascaux Review, Bound Off, The First Line, and Punchnel’s, in addition to other fine journals and anthologies. When she’s not hard at work on her first novel, she can be found feeding stray cats, conquering her fear of car washes, or refusing to follow the recipe. She can be found @camillethegriep on Twitter or at www.camillegriep.com.
I enjoyed this piece – your inner struggle (stay vs. go) is well written and universal. I’m glad you survived! (And the picture is awesome!)
Really enjoyed reading this, Camille. A harrowing story, well told.
I love reading your stories Cami. I alwasy feel closer to you afterwards.