Celia stood at the patio door, staring at the pink haze beyond the ridge. Her white cotton nightgown billowed with the cool air from the floor register and she sipped from a tumbler of iced tea, the glass slippery with condensation. The cellphone on the table buzzed.

“Nana C,” her grandson said without even a hello, “I don’t think you’re safe there.”

Celia sighed. “I’ve lived in this canyon a long time; if I left every time someone threw a cigarette butt out the car window, I’d never get anything done, Jeremy.”

“I saw it on the news,” Jeremy said. “This fire blew up over night. It’s moving fast.”

Celia made a “Pffft” sound. “The news—they make everything look big and fast.”

“I’ll come and get you.”

“I could get a ride with a neighbor if I wanted,” Celia said, “but no one here is going to leave.”

“I’m worried about you.”

“I appreciate your concern, Jeremy, I do. But I know what to do. This isn’t my first rodeo.”

After she finished her tea, Celia went to the kitchen and took five ghost peppers from a basket on the counter. She carefully chopped them into small pieces. She took the bowl into the bedroom and tossed a handful of pepper into the far corner. “Fire repels fire,” she chanted. “Hestia, goddess of the hearth and its fires, protect this home.” Celia repeated this ritual, moving clockwise through the rooms until she reached the enclosed porch.

By midday the smoke obscured the ridge. Jeremy is right, she thought, this is moving fast. She changed into denim overalls and a T-shirt and braided her shoulder-length gray hair into a single plait. She put on her straw hat with the large brim and a pair of coral-colored rubber clogs. The sky was yellow-gray with haze. The copper willow leaves on her kinetic motion sculpture whirled in the wind. She breathed in the smell of smoke and sage and singed meat.

Celia pulled the garden hose over to the empty swimming pool in the backyard and turned on the water. Then she went to the garden shed shaped like a barn and dragged a thick rope made of hemp to the pool, squatting to push it into the shallow end. When the water just covered the rope, Celia turned it off. Dry pine needles and dead bugs floated on the surface.

Looking up, Celia saw her neighbor, Hal, coming around the corner of the house. The gray hairs on his arms were matted down with sweat, and his sky blue T-shirt was dark and wet under the armpits and where it was tucked into the waistband of his Levis. The worn ridges of his belt showed that he’d recently tightened it up a few notches.

“I came over to tell you I think you should border, but I see you have the same idea,” Hal said. “As soon as you’ve soaked the rope, I’ll help you put it around your yard.”

Celia rested her hands on her hips. “How many times have we done this?”

“Too many. Too many.”

“Seems like we’re at it more often, though, now.”

Celia waved at two men with athletic builds who were positioning a rope where the back of Celia’s property met theirs. “Neighborhood has changed,” she said to Hal. “So many young people.”

Hal laughed. “We were young when we moved here, too.” His laughter turned to coughing. “I don’t know how many more fire seasons we can do this.”

Celia walked to the edge of the pool. “If we don’t get on this, we won’t have to worry about that.”

Hal took off his shoes and rolled up his jeans before climbing down the pool ladder and wading into the water. He hoisted the rope onto the deck, straining with the wet weight of it. Then he put his hands on his knees and arched his back to stretch.

Hal and Celia didn’t talk as they pulled the rope to the edge of Celia’s yard, a xeriscape of rock and drought-resistant plants: aloe, prickly pear, mugo pine, sedum. Celia played out the rope, keeping it from tangling as Hal laid it along the border, making sure it didn’t touch the ropes edging adjacent properties. Hal placed the end of the rope around a Mojave kingcup cactus in the corner and rubbed his palms.

Celia took his hands, red and roughened by the rope handling.

“Let me put some aloe on these.”

Hal shook his head. “Too much yet to do. I still have to bury a snakeskin by the front door.”

Celia clasped Hal’s hands in hers. “You go, then. But be careful digging in this heat. I buried mine last night after it cooled off.”

Celia had just finished her lunch and another glass of iced tea when her doorbell rang. She opened the door to find Hal, his face flushed and sweaty.

“Look at that idiot.” He pointed across the street. Celia stepped out onto her front porch and squinted. Details were hard to make out in the haze, but she could see the neighbor—Caleb, she thought his name was—standing on a ladder propped against a bungalow, watering the roof with a hose.

“What the hell is he doing?” Celia said.

Hal wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. “I tried to tell him he’s wasting his time, but he just started spouting statistics—what percentage of houses are saved by roof watering and clearing brush from the house and, oh, I don’t know what all.”

Celia waved her hand as though swatting at a fly. “Statistics,” she said. “Like I’m going to stop doing what I know because someone with a calculator tells me different.”

“He’s putting us all at risk by not bordering,” Hal said.

Celia pursed her lips. “I’ll go talk to them. They just moved in; they don’t know.”

“Don’t bother. You can’t tell him anything.”

Celia coughed, then spit. “Maybe we should just border their place ourselves—that is, if anyone has any spare rope.”

Hal took a few steps back and looked at the sky behind the houses. The thick haze had taken on a glow the color of Celia’s clogs. “No time.”

Celia felt her skin chill in the hot hair. “Tapping?” Hal nodded. Celia exhaled.

They walked to the driveway. Celia placed her hands on her hips. Hal did the same. The two of them began to move their feet in a sort of jig. They tapped down the driveway and into the street, the black asphalt dull in the haze. Across the street, Caleb turned around on the ladder. The arc of the hose drifted from the roof as he watched his neighbors move synchronously. A few minutes later, the college students who lived in the ranch next door to Caleb came out of their house and began tapping their way down the driveway. One of them waved to Celia and shouted: “Is this right?”

“You’re doing fine.”

Door after door opened and people came outside. They hopped and stomped their way to the street, some hesitantly, some with practiced skill. A mother in Daisy Duke cutoffs and a tank top held the hands of a toddler wearing only a diaper. The teen who lived with her grandmother in the mid-century wore ear buds and tossed her head as she tapped. A woman in a skirt suit and heels waved to Celia. The polyamorous family at the end of the street held their arms around each other’s shoulders as they tapped. Soon the residents of nearly every house along Deer Park Lane were gathered in the street stepping to the beat of a silent drum.

Celia sashayed over to a tanned man wearing bright plaid pants and a polo shirt. “Did you plan to golf today, Nick?”

Nick shrugged his shoulders and grinned, embarrassed. “I was hoping—but then I looked outside and realized I wouldn’t be able to even see the green.”

Celia frowned. “Seems like such a waste of water in this drought.”

“It’s mostly reclaimed water.”

“I didn’t know that.” Celia watched another man in golf attire coming over to talk to Nick, his tapping more of an awkward skip. She saw Hal talking to Lucia, who’d just finished studying to become a paralegal. Celia was on her way over to congratulate Lucia when Caleb jumped off the ladder and dropped the hose without even twisting the nozzle to shut off the water.

“Are you all crazy?” he shouted, walking across his lawn to the sidewalk. Everyone stopped talking, though their feet continued to move. Caleb waved his arms, gesturing to the sky behind the houses on Celia’s side of the road. “Can’t you see how close the fire is? A spark could land on any one of our roofs right now, and if it isn’t wet down, it will catch fire in seconds.”

One of the tappers closest to Caleb—a middle-aged woman wearing blue cotton scrubs and white runners with thick soles that made no noise when she tapped—made her way to where he stood on the sidewalk. She continued to clog, hands on her hips, as she spoke:

“You see all these houses? You see they’ve never burned down? Tap your feet.”

Caleb scanned the crowd. “Don’t any of you get it? You’ve just been fucking lucky!”

A man in a sleeveless T-shirt with a Harley-Davidson logo pointed to Caleb’s boat shoes.

“Tap your feet.” His voice was scratchy from cigarettes or the smoke in the air.

The crowd quickly picked up the phrase, chanting together:

Tap your feet.

Tap your feet.

The tappers began to pump the air with their fists as they continued to chant: Tap your feet.

Someone grabbed for Caleb’s arms, as though pulling a wallflower onto the dance floor, but he shook her off, walked quickly into his house. A few minutes later, his garage door opened and he backed his car down the driveway, honking the car horn repeatedly as he slowly continued into the street. People gave way, tapping. As the car stopped while Caleb shifted from Reverse to Drive, the Deer Park neighbors swarmed it like ants to a drop of syrup. One of the tappers began to bang on the rear window with his fists. Another joined in, and another, pounding on the hood and the trunk as they continued to chant: Tap your feet. Celia heard the rush of the engine as the car accelerated, people tapping in double-time to get out of its path.

When the car disappeared into the distance and the haze, Celia realized she had clenched her hands into tight fists. She lifted them up to eye level, looking at them as though she’d never seen them before. She felt her breath catch in a way that had nothing to do with the smoke in the air. Hal was beside her then, gripping her shoulder. “Don’t think about it now,” he said. “You have to focus.” He quickened his step, and Celia matched his cadence. They continued to tap, the neighbors moving almost as a single organism, the thickening smoke and the hypnotics of synchronous tapping making them unable to tell when afternoon turned to dusk. Wheezing from exertion and bad air, Hal reached for Celia, and she reached for the person beside her—a man wearing only boxer shorts and runners—and he reached for the person beside him.

All along the street, neighbors clutched one another as though forming chorus lines, holding each other up as the sky grew orange and black. Sparks from flaming trees popped and sprayed over the houses on Deer Park Lane, lighting up the sky like fireworks, while neighbors danced into the night.

 

Cover Art by Sarah Hussein

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Lois Melina
Lois Melina

Lois Ruskai Melina is a retired educator, avid rower, and passionate fan of women’s soccer. Her essay collection, The Grammar of Untold Stories (Spring 2020), is forthcoming from Shanti Arts. The title essay was a Notable work in Best American Essays 2018. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Blood Orange Review, Best of the Net Anthology 2016, Colorado Review, Chattahoochee Review, The Carolina Quarterly, and others. She lives in Portland, Oregon where she participates in the Corporeal Writing community founded by Lidia Yuknavitch.

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