‘God Set the Valley on Fire’
By Amanda Robbins
“You shouldn’t talk about people like that,” a gruff voice said behind us.
I turned just in time to see the man emerge from the darkness. I don’t remember what he looked like, but I remember that his voice matched him perfectly.
And just as suddenly as he appeared, he continued on down the street, body slowly melting into the deepening dusk around him.
“That was your conscience speaking,” I said to my friend as everyone else was still consumed in laughter. “That was your Jiminy Cricket.”
I turned, hoping to catch one last glimpse of him before he was too far down the street, but it was too late. We jokingly confirmed with each other that we had in fact all seen him and that he was real, but in my head I decided he was a wandering spirit. He was doomed to be the moral gatekeeper for the disaffected hipsters in their gentrified ’hoods; doomed to wander the darker, more abandoned streets of LA until the city itself crumbled into ruins.
I didn’t grow up in LA; I grew up near it. And that’s the Southern California story, isn’t it? I was born and raised in a desert suburb northeast of LA. The eternally bottle-necked Getty Pass lay between me and downtown. I would never say LA was my hometown, but I’ve spent enough time there for my stomach to turn as I pass certain street corners or for an unexplainable sense of calm to fall over me when I see a building rising up at the end of a street. The sprawling city holds a million memories I can’t quite access.
Aug. 29, 2009
“Are you going to the valley?” His clothes were baggy and dirty, his hair matted under a grimy gray beanie. “Do you have family there?”
A friend had his arm firmly around my waist as we tried not to fall over with every sharp turn and lurching brake.
“The valley is burning. It’s gone.”
He was addressing everyone on the metro. Though it was dark, the eerie orange glow from the hills was visible almost everywhere in the city. The air was thick with summer and smoke. The lights on the bus gave everyone a sickly pallor and I didn’t even want to think of what we looked like — five pale kids from a small town trying desperately to feel natural in the city.
“God set the valley on fire.”
We nodded, exchanging glances, as the smoke billowed from the mountains just like it did every August we could remember.
Jan. 1, 2010
“She wants us to come visit,” he said, running his hands through his hair, fingers catching on clumps of curls and hairspray. We’d slept through the day and missed the first sunset of the new decade.
The receptionist in the lobby of the Children’s Hospital asked us if we were her parents. We wished we’d said yes, just for fun.
In her hospital room, we had to wear surgical masks. I was struck by how swollen her delicate face had gotten in this bout of rejection. I’d known her since I was small and she’d always been sick. She was my hero — living life gloriously through a lung transplant, dancing at concerts in dusty fields, laughing until she cried, driving all night in no particular direction.
I could hear the respirator, I could see the IV flowing into her veins, I could see her heartbeat on a monitor. And she was still smiling. We played cards, ordered 1 a.m. Thai food and told stories until her special privileges could no longer warrant our presence.
When we left the hospital, we took a wrong turn and got lost in Silverlake, Echo Park, Glendale, Pasadena … I have no idea how we got to where we got, but Los Angeles was sleepier than I’d ever seen her. We drove the vacant 110, downtown’s skyscrapers leading us onward like a landing strip, pointing us to home. I could feel the weight of everything on my shoulders, yet I was joyful. I could hear the breath of Los Angeles, I could see her heartbeat on a monitor.
Now every time I pass the Children’s Hospital, a knife twists in my stomach. I wish I could still go to the receptionist, be given the opportunity to lie and say I was her parent (just for fun) and don a surgical mask to see her.
LA isn’t really a beautiful city, but my eyes are trained to watch the curling patterns of steam spewing from smokestacks near the train tracks. I’ve grown accustomed to the greasy black that settles into crevices. I’ve learned to see the greatness in the thronging crowds of Saturday afternoons. After living in a suburb and moving to Orange County, Los Angeles reminds me what reality looks like. It reminds me that strange men on the metro live out full lives; it reminds me that spirits, whether living or memory, walk the earth.
I didn’t grow up in Los Angeles. But I may as well have.