This takes place back in December, and actually precedes the story Retirements that I posted here on New Year’s Day. I couldn’t not comment on the fires that had such an enormous impact on both Westwood and Oceanside, and thereby on all of the Brodies.
Wednesday, December 6, 2017
The first indication that something was wrong came at 5:12 am, 48 minutes before my phone alarm was due to sound. Instead, my phone rang. Insistently, it seemed. The ringtone was the theme from the old TV show Hill Street Blues. Kevin was calling.
I was instantly awake, adrenaline flooding me, dreading news of some family disaster. Pete grunted and rolled over, pulling the pillow over his head. I answered, “Hey, what?”
“You probably shouldn’t go to work today. There’s a fire up by the Getty and the smoke is blowing right over UCLA.”
Not what I was expecting, and I was momentarily confused. “What? The Getty is burning?”
“No, the fire’s still east of the 405.” Kevin was outside; I could hear wind whipping past his phone. “Most of Bel Air is being evacuated.”
“Holy shit. Including your house?” Kevin and my sister-in-law, Kristen Beach, owned a house in Bel Air that was originally Kristen’s and a condo in Westwood that was originally Kevin’s. They spent weeknights at the condo and weekends at the house.
“Yeah. Everything between Sunset and Mulholland, and the 405 and Roscomare.” Kristen’s house was not far north of Sunset, on a cul-de-sac called Ashdale Place.
“Can you get to the house?”
“No. It’s okay. There’s nothing there that we can’t lose, and I doubt the fire will make it that far south. I hope.”
“Where are you?”
“At Sunset and Bellagio, directing traffic. Anyway, it’s smoky as hell out here. Your asthma would flare up in a hot second. You need to stay inside, regardless of what UCLA does about closing or staying open.”
“Okay. Be careful.”
“I will.” He hung up.
I dropped my phone on the bed in front of me. “Well, shit.”
From under Pete’s pillow came a muffled grunt. “Huh?”
“There’s a wildfire across the 405 from the Getty. They’re evacuating half of Bel Air.”
He scrambled to a sitting position, which sent the pillow tumbling to the floor. “What?”
I repeated what Kevin had told me. “He says I need to stay inside.”
Pete sniffed the air tentatively. “I’ll check outside.” He swung his feet to the floor.
Our yellow Lab, Ammo, scrambled to his feet. Pete hurried down the stairs ahead of me and edged through the back door. He returned in a few seconds. “Jesus. The smoke is terrible.”
“Can you see flames?”
“No.” He glanced down at Ammo, who was dancing around his feet in anticipation of a walk. “I guess you have to go out, buddy, but you won’t want to stay long.”
“Do you need a filtration mask?” We had a box somewhere, bought for times when the outdoor air quality would affect my asthma. Like today.
“Nah. I’ll breathe through my shirt.” He hooked Ammo’s leash to his collar, and they eased out the door.
I got a whiff of smoke and tried to think. Even if we stayed home all day, Ammo would need to relieve himself several times. Inevitably, the smoky smell would insinuate its way into the house. I went upstairs and closed the doors to our bedroom, the guest bathroom, and our office/second bedroom, then dug into our hallway linen closet and found the filtration masks. I carried the box and two beach towels downstairs with me, and stuffed one of the beach towels along the bottom of the front door. It was well sealed with weather stripping, but I thought it better to practice an overabundance of caution.
Pete and Ammo returned in just a couple of minutes, Pete coughing and Ammo snorting and pawing at his nose. Pete said, “It’s getting worse.”
I held up the second beach towel. “While the back door is closed, let’s use this.”
“Good thinking.” He bent to unleash Ammo. I passed him to shove the towel against the door, and sniffed. “Ugh. I can smell it on you.”
“I’ll take a shower right now.”
“I closed all the doors upstairs. Let’s keep them closed.”
“Right.” He trotted upstairs.
I went to the living room with a banana and orange juice, turned the TV to the local news station, and gasped at the sight of the entire hillside along the 405 in flames. It looked as if drivers were headed into the mouth of hell. I grabbed my phone and began to text – first to my supervisor, Dr. Madeline Loomis.
Hi Dr. Loomis, I’m going to take a sick day. Pete went outside and says the air quality is terrible.
She responded immediately. Yes, I’m watching the news right now. I haven’t heard what the U. plans to do but can’t imagine they’ll hold classes.
I wasn’t so sure about that, but answered, Let’s hope not.
Indeed. Take care.
My next text was to Ali Fortner, who lived with her wife, Mel Hayes, about a mile southwest of the Getty. Hey, are you smoked in? You’re not going to work today, are you?
We’re smoked in here, but our current job is in Pasadena, so I could go to work. But I might not be able to get back home. If the fire jumps the 405, we’ll have to evacuate.
OMG. Surely it won’t.
Dunno, but I don’t want to leave Mel here alone to handle that by herself. I can send Drew, Melissa, and Amanda to the job. They all live east.
Drew, Melissa and Amanda were three of Ali’s employees. Sure. Keeps the client happy and you out of danger. Kristen’s house is in the evacuation zone.
Shit, that’s right. Were they there?
No, at the condo. Kevin’s on traffic control at Sunset and Bellagio.
Poor Kev. You’re staying inside, right?
Oh hell yeah. If you all have to evacuate, come here. Keep us posted.
My next text was to Liz. Are you awake?
Of course. Jon was called out for traffic control. He’s at the 405 on ramp at Wilshire.
You going to work? I’m not.
Probably, unless the U cancels. Fingers crossed. I don’t wanna go out in this.
I texted Kristen next. Talked to Kevin a while ago.
Yeah. He told you about the house?
- He thinks it’ll be okay.
We’ll see. Fire’s entirely out of control right now.
Yeah, I’m watching TV. Awful.
You’re staying home, right?
Yup. Already texted Dr. Loomis.
Pete trotted down the stairs, rubbing his hair dry with a towel, and stopped short at the sight of the burning hillside. “Holy shit. What are they saying?”
“It’s out of control. Ali said they have to be ready to evacuate. I told ‘em to come here.”
“Yeah.” Pete dropped onto the sofa beside me. “You should probably go to your dad’s for the rest of the week. Take Ammo with you. That way neither you nor he has to stay cooped up, and I don’t have to go outside with him here.”
“Great idea. But that’ll leave you without a car.”
He waved that off. “I shouldn’t need one. I’ll call the neighbors if I have an emergency.”
I called my dad as I watched a Breaking News notification crawl across the screen. Santa Monica-Malibu Unified District Schools will be closed today.
My dad answered, “Hey, sport. I just turned on the news. How bad is it?”
“Terrible. Can Ammo and I come for a visit?”
“Of course. What about Pete?”
“He’s gonna stay, in case Ali and Mel have to evacuate. They’ll come here.”
“Okay. Will you start out now?”
“Um – I’ve gotta shower and pack. I’ll leave within the hour, I guess. I’ll text you.”
“Okay. See you in a while.”
Forty-five minutes later I was on my way, heading west on Santa Monica Blvd. I wanted to avoid the interstates until I was as far south as I could go on surface streets. I turned onto Lincoln Blvd. – the Pacific Coast Highway – and headed south.
It was a gorgeous day for a drive, if I didn’t think about what was behind me. Once I got through the rush hour mess around Long Beach and made it to Seal Beach, I relaxed and enjoyed the scenery. Sunset Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach…until finally I hit Dana Point and had to join the 5. Capistrano Beach and San Clemente zipped past, then I was in Camp Pendleton and nearly home.
I dropped from the 5 onto Mission Avenue and zigzagged my way through town. When I got to my dad’s, he was waiting on the front porch with a welcome hug. “Hey, sport. Have you had breakfast?”
“Ammo has. I haven’t.”
He grinned. “Then we’d better rectify that. Blueberry pancakes?”
While Dad cooked, I called Pete. “Hey, we made it. How is it?”
“I haven’t been back outside, but from the TV it looks terrible. Sam texted and said that UCLA is holding classes this morning.”
“I know. Her professors emailed to say they were canceling classes. I bet UCLA will concede to common sense before noon.”
“I hope so. Is the fire still east of the 405?”
“Yeah, so far.”
“Good. Stay inside.”
“I’ll have to water the garden at some point, but I’ll wear one of these masks.”
“Okay. Love you.”
After we ate and cleaned the kitchen, Dad and I took Ammo for a long walk. Back at the house, we both got Cokes from the fridge and parked ourselves on the sofa, the TV turned to the local news channel. Dad opened his laptop and I texted Kristen. Did you go to work?
Yeah, but now they’re sending us home. You’re at Dave’s?
Yup. Watching the news. There are fires up by Sylmar and Santa Clarita, too.
Have you heard from Kev?
About an hour ago. He was still at Bellagio.
I spent the rest of the day glued to the TV, between walking Ammo and checking my work email on my phone. UCLA announced that classes were cancelled for Thursday. That was good news for me; I wouldn’t have to use a sick day tomorrow.
Dad made a late lunch/early dinner – shrimp and grits, my favorite – and we bucked tradition by eating in front of the TV. I couldn’t look away.
At about 6:30 that evening, Kevin called. I put him on speaker so Dad could hear him.
His voice was raspy. Dad said, “You sound terrible.”
“I’ve been breathing smoke all day. This must be how dragons feel after torching villages.” He coughed. “They brought us masks eventually, but they didn’t help much.”
I asked, “How is it?”
“Zero percent contained, but it hasn’t jumped the 405, and I don’t think it will. Several houses have burned. The Getty is running its outdoor sprinklers full force.”
“I guess they have filtration systems to keep the smoke out.”
“Yeah.” I heard him moving around. “I’ve gotta take a shower and get the smoke smell out of my hair. Just wanted to let you all know everything was okay.”
Dad said, “Take care of yourself.”
“Yes, sir. Jamie, you stay there.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Friday, December 8
I spent Thursday alternating between watching TV, jogging with Ammo, and helping Dad paint the guest bathroom. The Skirball fire in Bel Air, as it had been named, wasn’t growing, but wasn’t under control yet. Schools all over west LA and Santa Monica were still closed.
I woke on Friday to a text message from UCLA, reporting that classes would resume today. I texted Dr. Loomis to tell her I wouldn’t be in; she told me not to worry about it.
I climbed out of bed and threw on some clothes. I heard Dad’s shower running, and decided to let Ammo do his morning business in the back yard. We’d have time for a long walk later. I unlocked the back door and stepped onto the patio – and stopped cold.
I smelled smoke.
Ammo, fortunately, didn’t prolong the elimination process. I hustled him back inside, where I found Dad on the phone, worry painted across his face. He was saying, “Are you coming here? Sure, that works. Okay. See you shortly.” He hung up.
I said, “I smell smoke.”
“Yes. That was Jeff. There’s a fire spreading out around Bonsall. The farm is under evacuation orders.”
“Oh, no.” Jeff and Val, and my teenaged nephews, Colin and Gabe, lived on two acres in the hills of East Oceanside, not far from the border with Camp Pendleton, on the curiously named Sleeping Indian Road. They were just under two miles from the town of Bonsall. “Are they coming here? What are they doing with the animals?”
“The boys are coming with the dogs. Jeff and Val are taking the cats and goats to the clinic.” Jeff was the large-animal veterinarian at Miracosta Animal Hospital, which he owned with his best friend from vet school, Ben Khaladjian.
I said, “I’ll get out sheets and blankets for the boys.”
Forty-five minutes later Val parked at the curb in front of the house. Dad and I helped her carry in boxes and bags of personal belongings, their jumbled contents speaking to the haste with which they were assembled. Ralphie, Jeff and Val’s yellow Lab, greeted Ammo joyfully. Phoebe, their border collie, joined the butt sniffing fray, and the living room was suddenly overwhelmed with canines.
Only Colin was with Val. Once we had everything inside, we gathered in the kitchen. Dad asked, “Where’s Gabe?”
“Helping at the clinic. Some of their patients are being dropped off as people evacuate.”
I asked, “What did you do with the goats?”
“They’re in the largest dog run at the clinic.” Val went to the kitchen and retrieved a bottle of Coke. “I’ve gotta get back. Colin?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Colin was scrunched between the kitchen wall and the dining table. He looked miserable.
“Behave. And try not to worry.” She planted a kiss on his forehead. “At least one of us will see you all this evening.”
Dad walked Val out. I asked Colin, “What’s going on?”
He dropped onto the sofa. “Gabe is an asshole.”
Hoo boy. “What’s he done?”
“He keeps asking questions. What will we do if the house burns down? What will we do if the barn burns down? Do Mom and Dad think that the fire will reach us? He won’t stop.”
Colin was near tears. I sat down beside him. “Everyone deals with danger in their own way, Col. Gabe’s way is to gather as much information as possible. Your way is…different.”
“Gabe didn’t want to stay at the clinic. Dad made him.”
“Your dad understands better than anyone your need to get away from your little brother.”
I put my arm around his shoulders, and he leaned into me. I hugged, then released him. “What are you working on for school?”
He sighed. “I have math and chemistry homework, and exams next week. I have to study.”
“Then why don’t you? It’ll take your mind off everything else.”
“Yeah, I guess.” He dug into the backpack at his feet and began extracting notebooks.
I said, “You can study in Dad’s office, if you want.”
He looked up at me. “I’d rather stay out here with you.”
“That’s fine, too.” I activated the closed captioning on the TV and muted the sound. Ralphie and Ammo settled at our feet; Phoebe sprawled in the center of the braided rug and promptly went to sleep.
The rest of the day dragged by. Colin eventually fell asleep, curled against the arm of the sofa. I tried to read, but couldn’t concentrate, since I was continually sneaking peeks at the TV screen.
The second time Dad came in from walking the dogs, he was shaking his head. “Jamie, it’s getting worse. Not that I want you to leave, but you might be just as well off at home at this point.”
“I’ll talk to Pete this evening and see what’s going on.”
At dinnertime, the only family member to arrive from the veterinary practice was Jeff. Colin had moved to the kitchen table, where he had homework papers spread out. Dad let Jeff in the back door and I heard him greet Colin, then he came into the living room and dropped onto the sofa, his head falling back, face pointing to the ceiling. “Oh. My. God.”
I said, “Are Val and Gabe staying at the clinic?”
“Yeah, they have air mattresses in my office.” Jeff lowered his voice. “I told Gabe that he could come with me if he could keep his mouth shut for five minutes. Five minutes. He couldn’t do it.”
“Colin was really upset when he got here.”
“I know.” Jeff sighed. “Yes, Gabe is thirteen, but he has to learn to consider the feelings of the rest of the family. Right now he’s like Val’s youngest brother. He barrels ahead with whatever he’s thinking, regardless of who else is listening.”
“I told Colin that Gabe was dealing with stress by gathering information.”
He huffed a laugh. “Yeah, I suppose there’s some of that.”
I nodded at the TV. “From what I can tell, you all are safe so far.”
“Yeah. We should be okay.” He rubbed his eyes. “A bunch of horses up at San Luis Rey died.”
The facility at San Luis Rey trained thoroughbreds. Hundreds of incredibly expensive racehorses lived there. “Oh, no. They weren’t your patients, were they?”
“No, they have their own vet. But I’m going down to the Del Mar Fairgrounds tomorrow, where the horses and other large animals are being sent, to help their vet out.”
“Are Val and Gabe at the clinic alone?”
“No, Ben and Carrie are both there.” Carrie Olmstead was Jeff and Ben’s newest partner. “We’re overflowing with people’s pets. The waiting room is full of dog crates.”
“Think anyone will get any sleep?”
After dinner – Dad made Manwiches, one of our favorite comfort foods – I called Kevin. He answered, “Hey.”
If anything, he sounded worse than yesterday. “Hey. There’s a fire out at Bonsall. Jeff and Val are evacuated, and we’re getting some of the smoke. If it’s no worse there than here, I might as well come home.”
“It’s still terrible here. The fire isn’t growing, but the air quality is in the red zone. I can’t imagine why UCLA held classes today.”
“Because it’s the end of the semester and there’s no time for makeup days. Were Santa Monica schools still closed?”
“Yeah. Right now the plan is for them to open on Monday, though.”
“Okay. You sound awful.”
“No shit.” He cleared his throat. “Today was my last day of traffic control, though. Patrol will handle it from now on. They’re starting to lift the evacuations.”
“Is your house okay?”
“Yep, it’s fine.” I heard Kristen’s voice in the background. “Gotta go. Kris has a pan of boiling water for me to stick my face in so I can breathe steam for a while.”
“A poor man’s sauna. Go for it.”
We signed off. Dad said, “Still bad up there?”
“Yeah. Kevin sounds like he’s been gargling glass shards.”
I called Pete. He answered, “Hey, how’s the farm?”
“Safe, so far. Jeff and Colin are here this evening. I just talked to Kevin. The air quality here isn’t great, but he thinks it’s probably worse there.”
“Yeah, it’s still awful. Stay where you are. Maybe tomorrow it’ll start to improve.”
“Have you been getting lots of work done?”
“Sure. I’m caught up with grading papers, and I’ve been cooking all day. Now I’m glued to the TV.”
“It’s a fascinating psychological phenomenon, this inability to look away.”
He huffed a laugh. “Yeah, I’m sure there are hundreds of studies on it already. Ammo’s doing okay?”
“Oh, yeah. He, Ralphie and Phoebe are having a grand old time. This house is not big enough for three dogs. I don’t know how we managed it, growing up.”
“You were smaller back then. You didn’t take up as much space.”
I laughed. “Yeah, okay. Sleep tight.”
I hung up with a sigh and looked around the house. The dogs had grand-old-timed out and were slumbering on the living room rug, each having staked out his or her favorite piece of it. Colin was back at the kitchen table with his homework. Jeff was in Dad’s study, talking to Val. Dad was in the shower.
I retrieved my book – Quid Pro Quo: What the Romans Really Gave the English Language – and tried to ignore the flickering TV screen.
Saturday, December 9
By Saturday morning I was afflicted with a serious case of cabin fever. After breakfast, Jeff and Colin headed for the Del Mar fairgrounds, and I decided to brave the outdoors long enough to drive to the YMCA. It was in the direction of the fires, so the smoke would be worse there, but I’d only be outdoors between the car and the building.
Even so, by the time I got to the Y my lungs were reacting to the smoke. I hustled inside and showed my membership card from the Santa Monica Y, then took a puff from my rescue inhaler before I went to the pool.
After an hour of swimming laps I felt considerably better. Once I was dressed I decided to stop by the veterinary clinic, to see if I could help.
I was greeted in the waiting room by a cacophony of barking. There were at least thirty small dogs, all crated, lining the walls and bench seating. Denise, the receptionist, was on the phone, a finger jammed into her free ear. She was saying, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Steele, but we are overflowing. No, ma’am, none of the evacuations have been lifted, so no one has picked up their pets yet. I wish I could help, but we simply do not have room. Okay. You’re welcome.” She hung up and rolled her eyes at me. “Hey, Jamie. Can you believe it?”
“No. This is crazy.”
“Tell me about it. And that woman is upset because she’s going on vacation, and the kennel where she was going to board her dog is full. She’s not even one of our patients.”
I started to reply, and the phone rang again. Denise said, “Val’s out by the dog runs. Go on back,” and answered the phone.
I went through one of the exam rooms – also containing crated dogs, these two considerably larger – and encountered Ben Khaladjian, Jeff’s partner, studying an X-ray mounted on a viewing box. He turned in surprise. “Hi, Jamie. I didn’t realize you were in town.”
“Yeah. The air quality is far worse in LA than it is here. I thought I’d see if you needed any help.”
“Nah, we’re okay. All the techs are in. We’ll have to pay some overtime, but it’s worth it.”
“No kidding. I’m gonna say hi to Val, then.”
“Okay.” He turned back to the X-ray.
Val was in an oversized dog run, hip deep in goats, scooping goat chow into dog dishes. Gabe was wielding a garden hose, cleaning out the back half of the run while the goats were occupied at the front half. I said, “Looks like everything’s under control.”
Val straightened up. “Yeah, we’re managing. What are you doing out and about?”
“I went to the Y to swim. Hey, Gabe.”
“Hey, Uncle Jamie.” Gabe turned off the hose. “Are you going back to Grampa Dave’s?”
“Yup.” I raised an eyebrow at Val, not knowing whether I should offer to take Gabe with me.
She considered for a minute then said, “Okay, Gabe, you can go. Colin can spend the night here tonight. Get your backpack.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He hurried in the direction of the offices.
I asked, “Is he behaving?”
“Better than yesterday. We’ve been running his little ass ragged, which has helped considerably.”
“Good.” I coughed.
“Uh oh.” Val frowned at me. “You need to skedaddle.”
Gabe reappeared, hauling a backpack. I said, “Skedaddling. See ya.”
As we drove west, I noted that Gabe was more subdued than usual, and he didn’t look my way as he spoke. “I miss Colin.”
“Gabe, listen to me. When Colin asks you to please stop saying something, you’ve gotta do what he asks.”
“I wasn’t saying anything bad. I was just speculating.”
“Yes, but you were doing so at a time when the entire family was under enormous stress, and your speculation was only making things worse. When your parents tell you to keep your mouth shut, you keep your mouth shut. Period. No arguing.”
I held up a finger. “See what I mean?”
He slid down in his seat, pouting. “Yeah, okay.”
By the time we got to Dad’s, I was coughing again. Dad shook his head at me as I came through the back door. “You shouldn’t have gone out.”
“I’ll be fine, now that I’m back.” I used my inhaler again and took a deep breath. “See?”
“Uh huh.” Dad turned to Gabe. “Hey, pal. Do you have homework?”
Dad pointed to the kitchen table. “Then get busy.”
“Yes, sir.” Gabe plopped into a chair with a dramatic sigh and started rooting through his backpack.
I went to the living room and called Pete. “How is it?”
“Still nasty, but improving slightly. What’s going on there?”
“Jeff and Colin are at the fairgrounds tending to farm animals, and Val’s still at the clinic. I stopped by there on the way home from the Y. You’ve never seen so many dogs in one place at one time.”
“You went out? Why?”
“Because the only exercise I’d had for 24 hours was moving from sofa to kitchen table. Anyway, I brought Gabe back with me.”
“You shouldn’t have done that.”
“What? Picked up Gabe?”
He snorted. “You know what I mean.”
“I was outside for a total of maybe two minutes. Besides, the smoke is blowing more in the direction of Pendleton than toward town. I’m fine.”
“I’m going to come home tomorrow. UCLA has already reopened.”
“If it’s considerably less smoky there…”
I said, “It’s not less smoky enough to keep me here. You can drive me to work. You’ve been keeping the smoke out of the house, right?”
“Of course. Let’s see what it’s like here tomorrow morning before you set out.”
I rolled my eyes, not that he could see me. “Okay. I’ll talk to you this evening.”
Sunday, December 10
After deliberations and consultations, I started in the direction of Santa Monica on Sunday at 11:00. I retraced my steps, leaving the 5 at Dana Point for the PCH. I stayed on Lincoln all the way to Arizona Avenue this time, where I turned right and headed home.
When I got out of the car my initial thought was, I should have stayed at Dad’s. The air quality seemed significantly worse to me here. But was I going to mention that to Pete?
I let Ammo pee against the garbage bins, then he bounded up the steps to the back door ahead of me. Pete let us in and hurriedly re-stuffed the beach towel along the bottom of the door. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” I showed Pete my inhaler, from which I’d taken a puff as Ammo peed. “It hasn’t left my side.”
He kissed me hello then surveyed me with a critical eye. “You look okay…”
“Good grief. I’m fine. What’s going on here?”
“As you can probably smell, the fire isn’t out, but it’s 85% contained. All the evacuations have been lifted. What’s going on in Oceanside?”
“Jeff and Val are still under evacuation orders, but the containment percentage is growing and the fire itself doesn’t seem to be spreading.” I dropped my duffel bag on the landing of the stairs that led to the second floor, and snagged a Coke from the fridge. “Colin and Gabe are speaking civilly to each other again, so Val took them to the beach this morning to play Frisbee and burn off some energy. So to speak.”
“Maybe they’ll be allowed home tomorrow.”
“I hope so.”
Monday, December 11
Asthma is a bitch. This time, she won.
Pete drove me to work on Monday morning, dropping me at the back of the library building, as close as he could get to the front door. I hustled inside, only to find – to my deep dismay – that the first floor smelled like smoke.
Dr. Loomis apologized when I went to her office to say hello. “We couldn’t keep the smoke out on Friday. Every time the door opened, it rolled in. I’m afraid it’s gotten worse over the weekend.”
I said, “My office has been closed since Tuesday evening. It should be fine in there.”
And it was. I kept the door closed but unlocked, and posted a note. Come on in. I was fine until 11:00, when I had an appointment with a grad student in the first-floor research commons. I should have suggested moving to the third or fourth floor, but it didn’t occur to me.
I ate lunch in my office, Liz and Kristen joining me, and felt better afterwards.
But then it was time for my reference shift. On the first floor.
Liz was concerned. “I can handle reference by myself. You should stay up here.”
“Nah.” I took a puff from my rescue inhaler. “I’ll be okay.”
But I wasn’t.
When Clinton appeared at 1:30, he frowned at me. “Jamie, should you be here?”
Liz poked me in the shoulder. “See?”
I waved them both off. “I’m fine.”
“Hm.” Clinton wasn’t convinced, but he didn’t argue. “The word of the day is amphiptere.” He bowed and walked away.
Liz read the definition. “A winged serpent found in European heraldry. A type of dragon.”
I chuckled. “Kevin said last week, after his first day on traffic control, that he knew how dragons must feel. Breathing smoke all day.”
“Exactly.” Liz studied me. “Your color isn’t right.”
“What? My color is fine.”
“No, it’s not. Take a deep breath.”
I pulled my shirt up over my lower face and inhaled deeply. Or tried. I didn’t get far. My attempt produced a coughing fit. “Damn.”
“Uh huh. Why don’t you go to the ER before you fall over? Save an ambulance charge?”
Liz picked up the handset on the desk phone and punched in a number. “Hey, Kristen. Would you mind coming out here and escorting your stubborn brother-in-law to the emergency room? Thanks.” She hung up and gave me a smug look. “You won’t argue with her.”
I sighed, to the best of my ability. “Fine.”
Kristen appeared, her purse already slung over her shoulder. “Do you have your wallet?”
“Then let’s go.”
I meekly obeyed.
Unfortunately, we had to cross campus to get to UCLA Hospital. By the time we arrived in the ER, I was considerably shorter of breath than I had been when we started out. I sat down and tried to breathe while Kristen took charge, and was soon in a cubicle, donning a gown and allowing an IV to be started.
The nurse attached a nasal cannula for oxygen and adjusted the flow. “The doctor will be here in just a second.”
Kristen smirked at me. I stuck my tongue out at her.
A short, young guy in scrubs appeared at the end of my gurney. “Mr. Brodie? I’m Dr. Waverly.”
He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. I said, “Hi.”
“So, your asthma is kicking up?”
He reached into his hip pocket and produced a notepad and pen. “When were you first diagnosed with asthma?”
What? I knew how this was supposed to go. Treat first, ask questions later. I said, “I was
He made a note. “Uh huh. How frequent were your attacks as a child?”
Oh, shit. I remembered now. Back in 2012, when I’d been here with a cologne-induced asthma attack, this guy had been an intern. He’d tried to take an extensive history then, too. But if he was the doctor now…
Kristen, bless her, took over. “He’s having an attack now. Why the hell does it matter about his childhood?”
Waverly’s tone was condescending. Major mistake. “Establishing a history of the disease is essential to understanding the current problem. Ma’am.”
I’d have laughed if I’d been able. Kristen said, “Oh, for fuck’s sake. I’m going to find someone who knows what she’s doing.”
Waverly said, “Now, wait just a minute…”
Fortunately, I saw another familiar face walk past. I mustered all of my remaining breath and squeak-hollered, “Eric!”
Eric Padilla, Los Angeles Fire Department paramedic/firefighter and one of my ex-boyfriends, stopped and turned. “Jamie? Is it your asthma?”
I said, “Yeah,” and pointed to Waverly.
Eric was obviously familiar with Waverly’s tactics. “Ah. Be right back.” He hurried away.
Waverly glared at Kristen. “As I was saying. How frequent were your attacks as a child?”
“Three, four. Times. A year.” My ability to speak was diminishing. I seriously needed a nebulizer.
Eric returned with a woman, tall and imposing, with flaming red hair, already slinging her stethoscope from around her neck. “For God’s sake, Jim Bob. You’re gonna let him die while you ask him questions? Get outta my way.”
Waverly was incensed. “This is my patient.”
“Not anymore. Mazeroski wants to see you.” She stuck the bell of the stethoscope on my chest and grinned at me. “Hi. I’m Dr. MacMillan. Breathe.”
I breathed. Waverly stomped off. I was vaguely aware of Eric and Kristen introducing themselves to each other. Dr. MacMillan straightened. “I’ll get a nebulizer. Be right back.” She disappeared around the curtain.
Eric was saying to Kristen, “He’s a moron. He’s already flunked the internal medicine boards twice. He’s gonna kill somebody someday.”
I said, “Not me.”
He laughed. “Not today, anyway.”
“What are. You. Doing here?”
“Restocking the unit. Usually we do that at County, but they were out of saline and D5 today.”
Paramedic jargon. If I concentrated, I could interpret what he’d just said. Instead I waved my hand at Kristen. “Kevin’s wife.”
“So I understand. Small world. Cody Mendoza is my partner now.”
“Oh.” Cody Mendoza, another LAFD paramedic, was the boyfriend of Jill Branigan, one of Kevin’s fellow West LA detectives. “Cool.”
Dr. MacMillan returned with the nebulizer setup. “Hanging in there?”
I grunted. She set about attaching the mask to my face. Eric said, “Gotta go. Jamie, feel better. Kristen, good to meet you. Tell Kevin I said hello.”
Kristen said, “Will do.”
As my lungs absorbed medication, Kristen called Pete. He showed up a half hour later, shaking his head. “I knew it.”
Kristen related the details of our afternoon, so I wouldn’t have to, then checked her watch. “Gotta get back to the library. You are not coming back to work this week.”
I attempted a protest. “But…”
Dr. MacMillan was in the cubicle, checking my IV settings and making notes. “She’s right. You may return to work when the air quality index falls below 100. Not before.”
I sighed. It was getting easier to sigh. “Yes, ma’am.”
Kristen left, and Pete perched on the stool that she’d been occupying. “You should have stayed at your dad’s.”
“I know.” He rubbed my shoulder. “Lucky thing Eric was here, huh?”
“Uh huh.” I asked Dr. MacMillan, “Is his name. Really Jim Bob?”
“His first name is Jim. Jim Bob is the only nickname he has that I can repeat in polite company.”
“Gonna have that. Tattooed on. My chest. No Jim Bob.”
She laughed. “Sounds like a plan.” She handed Pete a sheaf of paper. “Discharge orders and prescriptions. Who’s your PCP?”
“Good. Make an appointment with him ASAP when you get home.”
“Can I go?”
She gave me a look. “Your peak flow is only at 72%. You know it has to be over 80. I’m just getting the paperwork out of the way.”
She said to Pete, “I bet he’s a handful.”
Pete rolled his eyes. “You’re not kidding.”
I said, “Hey!”
She laughed and lightly smacked the bottom of my foot. “Behave. I’ll be back.”
The air quality in the basin remained lousy, even after the fires were contained. The semester ended before the air quality index dropped below 100, so I didn’t go back to work until January.
It occurred to me that, after we moved to New Mexico, my asthma should improve to the point of vanishing.
I was eagerly anticipating that benefit.