Long Beach in summer is like a tinderbox. Okay, the sea breeze takes the edge off the heat if you’re walking along the bluff or hanging out by the marina; but go a few blocks back from the beach, and you may as well be in the desert.
Seems like that to me anyway. The sidewalk’s melting my rubber soles. Breathing’s like inhaling a hair dryer. And my pale skin’s well on its way from pink to red, the Factor 50 wearing off.
The traffic is almost bumper to bumper, toxic fumes adding to the heat, everyone trying to hurry home for the July 4 holiday. No patience.
I don’t see the smoke until I am about twenty yards away. It doesn’t seem much at first, just a few plumes rising from a bush at the junction ahead. Walking closer, I hear the crackling, rapid, like jumping jacks.
And now I see the flames. They’re taking it in turns to leap, higher each time, some touching the billboards above the bush. It’s the furthest in a row of bushes lining the perimeter of the car park for a small shopping precinct – a strip mall, I think they call it – just a few convenience stores, nail salons, takeaways.
People stop to watch the flames. Two Latina women with children in strollers; a white guy in a wheelchair who looks like a Vet, lank white hair hanging down to defeated shoulders; and three African-American boys, just teenagers, wearing baggy shorts and T shirts. They’re all watching like it’s a novelty, a show someone’s putting on for them.
I stop too. No way am I going to get any nearer. It’s hot enough without walking into a fire, and I couldn’t avoid it without stepping into the traffic.
So, we all stand around, watching for what seems like a long time. I guess we’re waiting for someone to do something – or maybe for the fire to stop of its own accord.
As a general rule, I’m a public-spirited person. I don’t drop litter or let my dog mess the pavement – sidewalk, if you prefer. When someone needs a seat on a bus more than I do, I’ll let them have mine. But I’m a visitor here. This isn’t my city, though I come here often, and I don’t think it’s down to me to do anything. There must, I assume, be a reason everyone’s waiting. They must know something I don’t.
But then this guy walks across the street, heading for the spot where the flames are leaping and pulling up surprised when he hits the heat and sees what he’s walking into. He throws his hands in the air, saying something like ‘What the fuck?’ and ‘Isn’t anyone doing anything?’ I can’t actually hear him with cars still roaring past but that’s the gist of it, what he means is obvious from his face, and I feel like he’s telling me off as well as everyone else. So, I jump over this low wall and run across to a sandwich place and burrow through the spectators in the doorway.
“Anyone phoned for help?” I shout to the two people serving a short queue of customers. Everyone looks up at me like I’ve just been released from the nearest asylum. “Can I have a bucket of water? Have you got a bucket?” I say. It sounds amateurish, I know, but what am I supposed to do?
A tall, wiry man with olive skin, appears from the back and throws me a look like I’m an idiot. I’m guessing he’s the owner. He comes around from behind the counter, brushes past me without a word, lopes across the car park, me not far behind.
Phew I’m off the hook, I think. He’s taking charge. He’s looking at the fire, shaking his head. He’s pushing a hand deep into his pockets. Yes, he’s going to make the call.
But, no, he pulls out a fat, black remote, presses it, and a giant shiny motor parked nearby whirs and lights up like someone has kicked a sleeping dog. In a second, he’s in the driver’s seat, swinging the thing around and driving it across to an empty space further away from the fire. Then, out he gets, and off he goes – leaving the car doors clicking and lights flashing – back to his sandwiches.
So, that’s alright then, one less vehicle to worry about. And the what-the-fuck man is looking at me as if to say ‘What The Fuck?’ We are no nearer a solution here. The flames are getting bigger. I don’t have a bucket of water. And I don’t know if anyone has already called the fire department.
But someone has done it. I can hear a siren now. A fire engine appears, bellowing and hooting like a runaway train. It drives diagonally across the junction and judders to a halt alongside the fire. Three fire-fighters jump out in headgear and neat, navy uniforms. They’re toned and tanned and clean cut. Two of them take stock, pointing and discussing their strategy, not looking in much of a hurry.
The third approaches me. Do I look like I’m in charge? He looks like someone out of a 1980s TV series – Miami Vice or Hawaii Five-O – weather-beaten and Mediterranean.
‘What happened?’ he says.
I give him the headlines, leaving out the bit about the store owner and his car. I don’t want to sound petty now help is here.
He’s impressed by my accent. “Where you from?” he says.
“Er, Britain…. Well, Wales actually. Cardiff, in fact,” I reply. Actually, I’m not from Cardiff. I’m from Pontllanfraith. But I try to keep things simple when I’m in the middle of an emergency.
“I met some people from London, just the other day,” he says.
“Really” I reply, not knowing where to begin with that one.
The small talk is pleasant, but he really isn’t concentrating on the job in hand. And the fire is racing along the bushes now in our direction.
He jumps back, surprised by the heat. We see the three teenagers laugh out loud at us. I don’t blame them, but Five-O is furious and shoots them a fierce look.
“Hey, you think this is funny,” he shouts. And they give him some lip back, and one raises a finger. This isn’t helping, I want to say, but Five-O is marching back to his mates who are connecting hoses to a hydrant.
Three police cars arrive from three different directions, parking at angles facing the fire, blocking half the road. Traffic starts backing up, cars stretching as far as I can see in no time.
The firemen are making a show of getting on top of the fire now. Half the bushes are reduced to drenched black skeletons, sizzling and steaming.
The police have other interests. They’re talking to the store owner. He’s pointing at the boys. The boys decide it’s time to make themselves scarce. But the police chase them, tackling one, bringing him to the ground. Three officers drag him back to one of the cars and bundle him in. The other two cars set off after his friends.
The firemen are clearing up. They sweep the debris into piles on the side walk. I try to speak to Five-O. I start to say I didn’t think those boys did anything, but he waves a hand and turns away.
I decide it’s time to find my rental car.
The next morning, I go for an early run. It’s cool as I pound along Ocean Boulevard. The air’s moist and the tops of the towering palm trees are half hidden by ribbons of mist. The locals call it the June gloom, but this is Long Beach – gloom is relative.
I reach the beach path. It’s like a multi-lane highway – joggers, bikers, walkers, rollerbladers, almost bumper to bumper. I settle into my stride behind two women. They’re lean and tanned and talking about the merits of “really good” gynaecologists like everyone should hear. You’d think they were comparing restaurants, until they do compare restaurants, and I discover Schooner or Later does a “really great” brunch.
Time for a detour across the sand. I struggle with my footing in the soft mounds of grain. My knees aren’t happy, but I like the solitude. The only sound now is the gentle splashing of the waves. And I think of the fire and Five-O and the boy who gave him the finger – I can see his mischievous grin, naïve and fearless.
I follow the shoreline back towards the downtown skyline and my hotel. At the entrance, the air-conditioning hits me like an arctic gale. I shiver and rub my shoulders and start heading for the lifts. But the receptionist is waving at me and gesturing towards a police officer. He’s wide at the waist and leaning against the walnut-veneered desk like he’s weighed down by hash browns. As my eyes re-focus, I recognise him – he’s one of the burning bush brigade.
“You Rhys Davies?” he asks, saying the Rhys like rye with an ‘s’. “I need to talk to you about the incident yesterday,”
I’m sweating, droplets gathering on my nose and plummeting to the marble floor like drips from a leaking shower.
“I have to be at the convention centre in half an hour,” I say.
“I won’t keep you long, sir,” he replies, but with a hard look that says: I’ll take just as long as I like.
“Did you see what happened yesterday, those kids starting the fire?” he continues.
I jerk back half a step. “Who says they started it?”
“The guy who runs the takeaway, that’s who. He said they’ve been hanging around causing trouble for weeks.”
“But he was inside,” I mumble, visualising him appearing from the back of the takeaway.
The officer looks at his notes, frowns, flicks a page over. “Not what he says. He saw them throw a cigarette. We’ve charged two of them, but I guess you can’t help me one way or the other, if you didn’t see anything.”
I shake my head. “But – it – was – only – some – bushes,” I mumble, in a stuttering way, more to myself than him. But he’s putting his notebook away and starting to turn towards the reception door.
“Two of them?” I’ve registered the number now. “But what about the third boy?”
The officer stops. “You haven’t heard then,” he says, nodding grimly at a pile of newspapers on the reception desk. “He got himself shot.”
I look at the headline: ‘Police Pursuit Ends With Fatal Shooting Of Arson Suspect’.
I can’t think what to say. Where’s the what-the-fuck man when I need him? But the officer’s striding away now anyway, parting with: “Get to your meeting, sir. You have a good day.”
I watch him negotiate the revolving doors, his hips bulging with hardware, filling the triangular space. Outside, the sun’s burning through the June gloom. The officer says something to his partner who’s leaning against their car. The partner looks at me, nodding. He has a hint of a smile and what seems like a look of relief.
At my feet, the drops of sweat have formed an arc around my trainers. I sense the receptionist – Isabella – staring at me. I’ve stayed here so many times I know her name. I could probably recall the names of her children, if I really tried. Our eyes meet. Hers are watery. She shakes her head gently from side to side, releasing her tears. A mother’s tears. Another day. Another life that mattered.
Copyright Steve Howell (22.12.16)