Growing Up Gardnerville: The Summer Of ’96

Posted By on June 23, 2016

Growing Up Gardnerville is a series of vignettes and short stories, combining the moments we’ve experienced, heard about and imagined in this wonderful Valley. It is an indulgence of the memory, Twainian in nature: It’s how it happened, clouded by years of exaggerated re-telling. The series premiered in June 2014 with “The Lake.” The places are real, some of the events are too, but names have been changed to protect the innocent, characters have been melded together for the sake of brevity, anonymity and convenience and the timeline has been jumbled and folded over on itself to serve a more entertaining storyline. When you say, “This didn’t really happen,” you’re mostly right. But it did happen, to one of us, sometime, sort of, growing up in this incredible place we call home.

The Summer of ’96

Previous Installments: The LakeSemester Break

by Joey Crandall • 24 min read

“So what’s the big deal? I mean, I don’t get it. It looks like every other burger they make.”

Sitting across from me, Anne Marie Hazel took a big bite out of her hamburger, letting my question hang in the air for a moment.

“Basically,” she said through a mouthful, pausing to tuck the bite inside her left cheek so she could speak clearer. “It’s got bacon.”

She shrugged her shoulders and nodded for effect.

“And that makes it deluxe?”

Arch Deluxe,” she said with a grin. “Haven’t you seen the commercials? It’s like McDonald’s, but gourmet. It’s got a potato roll!

I shook my head, waving a cheeseburger at her. “I’ll stick with Cheeseburger Sunday.”

“You’re a nerd,” she said. “How many did you eat? Six? Was it six?”

“They’re only 39 cents each.”

“That doesn’t mean you should eat as many as you can.”

Yes it does. It’s like an open challenge to teenagers everywhere. ‘We’re selling burgers for as much as it takes to make them, and we want to see how many you can eat.’”

“How many? If it was more than six, I’m … I’m leaving this table.” She laughed, that wonderful laugh – a mix of surprised delight and buoyant glee. Halting, almost like a hiccup – only with a lilting timbre.

“Billy Tompkins says if you eat 20 cheeseburgers on Cheeseburger Sunday, they give you a free hot fudge sundae.”

“That’s not true .. How many did you eat?”

“It is true … Billy Tompkins said.”

“Billy Tompkins is lying. Tell me how many you ate.”

“Seven.”

“Ewww, I can’t believe you,” she took a sip of her soda and polished off her Arch Deluxe.

“And I can’t believe you’re moving.” The words were out of my mouth before I could weigh whether or not I really wanted to say them. And I didn’t mean them the way they sounded.

But there they were. They were true and they had robbed Anne Marie of her laugh.

Anne Marie Hazel had been my best friend since she’d moved into the house next door when we were in the first grade. She stayed my best friend when her family moved to the Foothills when we were in the eighth grade and now she was moving to New Mexico. On Wednesday.

“I mean, we just got our driver’s licenses,” I said, trying to recover the moment. “This was supposed to be the summer we actually got to do stuff, you know? Drive to the Lake and to Carson and …”

“And what? Play laser tag?”

“Yes … or no. I don’t know, I just can’t wrap my head around you leaving.”

“Yeah,” she nodded quietly, unsure of what to say next. Since she’d first told me she was moving several months prior, we hadn’t talked about it much at all. We dealt with it by not dealing with it.

And now that it was happening, neither of us were ready.

“You know what’s weird?” she said. “We’re trying to fit our lives into this moving truck, and it’s not working. Everyone has too much stuff. But, it’s like, the photos fit. Of everything I’m throwing away that won’t fit, I get to keep my pictures, because they’ll fit. And now I’m wondering why I never took more pictures. Because they’re all I get to take with me. They’re the only things I can’t just buy when we get there.”

I stared down at the tabletop, allowing the noise of the McDonald’s lunch crowd to fill the silence while I fiddled with the cords on my work apron. I’d been searching for the right words to say to her for weeks, and I just didn’t have them.

How do you begin to say goodbye when you don’t even really know what the word means yet?

So I didn’t say anything.

And she was talking about pictures.

“I should probably get back to work,” I managed a smile.

“Does your boss care that you eat at McDonald’s wearing that?” She giggled, pointing at my grey polo shirt while I looped the top of the navy blue apron over my neck and fastened my Wendy’s name tag in place.

“I dunno,” I said. “I don’t think he knows I eat lunch here.”

“Why don’t we ever actually eat at Wendy’s? We used to eat there all the time! Don’t you get a discount? I mean, we could have the Super Bar, every day.”

“Yeah, but it’s like, I look at that food all day. I don’t want to eat there too, you know?” I donned my navy blue visor, feeling my bowl-cut hair pop through and over the top of it.

Anne Marie laughed again.

“You look like Sideshow Bob,” she said, slugging me on my shoulder as we walked out toward our cars.


wendys96

The afternoon passed slowly from there. I worked the Wendy’s drive-thru window – frequently looking over at the high school and finding my thoughts drifting toward my friend – walking with her to class, coming to the Wendy’s at lunch and splitting a Double Stack and fries, hanging out in front of her locker during passing period – trying to comprehend the idea of her just not being around anymore.

“Do you want to drive up to the Taco Bell in Carson City after work?” Kyle Cooper was rattling the french fry basket around in the deep fryer. “Dale Knotts and a bunch of guys are heading up there. Maybe we could all go bowling afterward or something. Or they’ve got that movie where Sean Connery blows up Alcatraz over at Meadowdale, if you want to see that.”

“Nah, I’m not feeling that great,” I mumbled, punching an order coming through my headset into the cash register.

“What’s going on with you?” Kyle came over and rested an elbow on top of the Frosty machine. “You keep looking out that window like the high school stole your dog or something.”

“Did you know Anne Marie Hazel is moving?”

“Yeah, I heard about that,” Kyle scraped at a label on the Frosty machine. “Are you guys together or something? People talk, you know. No one knows what to think of you two.”

“No, we’re just friends. We’ve been friends for a long time.”

“But you like her, though, don’t you?”

“Yep.”

“Have you ever told her that?”

“Nope.”

Kyle winced. “Aw, come on, man. You have to tell her. What if you go your whole life wondering what might have happened if you would’ve have told her?”

I shook my head. “What good would it do? I mean, really, what is she going to do? Stay here? Let’s say, on that minuscule percentage of a chance that she does reciprocate the feeling, what’s she going to say? ‘Uhh … thanks?’ No way. It’d ruin things.”

Kyle wasn’t satisfied. “Ruin what things? She’s gone, man, like … well, when is she leaving?”

“Wednesday.”

“That’s three days. She’s gone in three days. She shoots you down, you’ve got to deal with it for, like, 12 seconds … ‘Reciprocate.’ Who uses words like that?” Kyle suddenly looked off in the distance past the high school. His eyes narrowed and he leaned out the window.

“Dude, is that smoke?”

He pointed toward the Carson Range, where a thick, black plume rose from a red glow, growing quickly in the driving wind. It was right about at the base of where Kingsbury Grade should be.

The next several hours were a continuous chorus of lights and sirens blazing their way down Highway 395 and over State Route 88 toward the mountainside – which was becoming obscured by smoke and an unsettling underglow.

The store manager turned on a radio, and Lloyd Higuera’s voice narrated the events of what we would come to know as the Autumn Hills Fire over the airwaves of KGVM.

The drive-thru window was crowded with employees as the fire ravaged the mountainside. Homes were lost. Residents of the area were evacuated.

We watched as the soccer field just outside the window began to bloom with the tents of firefighters from out of the area, rushing to the Valley to help.

From what Mr. Higuera was saying on the radio, it sounded like the fire was burning basically right in Anne Marie’s back yard.

I snuck back into the break room and punched her number into the phone.

“Hello?”

“Anne Marie?”

“Oh hey! Do you see what’s going on?”

“Yeah … are you guys OK? Is it near your house?”

“Not really. It’s down the road a ways. It’s windy, and my dad is nervous, but I think we’re OK.”

“That’s good … that’s good.”

There was an awkward pause.

“Well, uh, be safe, right?”

“Right,” she laughed. “I’ll talk you tomorrow, maybe?”

“Yeah, uh, that’d be nice.”

What news we didn’t get from Mr. Higuera was filled in by gossip coming from customers coming through the store.

Someone said something about gasoline and lizards and a couple kids a few years younger than most of us.

Declan Weathers, who wore his popularity so thick upon his sleeve that it bulged through his carefully chiseled biceps, pulled up to the pickup window in his black Jeep around 8 p.m.

He reached out and cooly rapped on the window, motioning for me to open up.

“Hey Declan.”

“Hey what’s up, man?”

“Did you want to order something? ’cause the menu is back there,” I gestured toward the electric reader board 30 feet down the lane behind him.

Declan looked to his left and right, ran a hand over his hard-gelled flip-front hair, and leaned toward the window. “Dude, give me a Frosty.”

“Just one?”

“Yeah, man … It’s pretty crazy about this fire, right?”

I nodded, punching the Frosty into the register.

“That’ll be $1.07.”

“No, man. Give me a Frosty.”

“I can’t just give you a Frosty.”

“Yeah you can.”

“No I can’t.”

“Just do it,” he grunted impatiently. “Man, I’ll tell people that you’re cool.”

I looked down at my apron with the crooked name tag, knowing my Sideshow Bob hair was flopping up and over the top of the visor.

“I’m not cool.”

He growled now, audibly growled. “Just give me a Frosty … like a small one. No one will know.”

“Is this like a Frosty stick-up?”

“You think you’re funny? You’re lame, man. Lame.

We stared at each other. Neither one of us were telling each other anything we didn’t already know.

“Forget it, man. I’m going to McDonald’s. You know Ben Barnes? He works there and he hooks me up all the time. With Arch Deluxes even. You’re …” Declan searched for the words. “You’re a loser!”

He fired his engine, spun his tires and sped away, running up and over the curb in front of him. I could see his silhouette pounding the steering wheel before throwing the Jeep into reverse, spinning himself around and roaring away from the restaurant.

I turned to see, Kyle, who had been watching from the grill, smiling broadly.

“What’s so funny.”

“Ben Barnes,” Kyle laughed. “He got fired last week when they caught him passing sleeves of Monopoly cups out the window.”

 

There was an art to cooking bacon.

More specifically, there was an art to cooking bacon without maiming yourself.

The bacon at Wendy’s came in thick slices, lined up like the planks of a picket fence on thin sheets of wax paper. You would flip the sheet over onto an empty grill and delicately pull the paper back without getting singed.

There was an art to doing it, and as of that afternoon, I hadn’t discovered it yet.

There was a poster on the back wall, with Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas, hands on hips, staring out at my futile attempts to peel back the wax paper from the grill. In big, bold, white lettering, it shouted: “WORKPLACE SAFETY IS A BIG DEAL.”

He wasn’t jovial like he was on the commercials. Rather, he scowled.

And, the more grease that splattered up on my arms, blistering my skin, the deeper those frown lines seemed to get.

“Hey,” my manager poked his head around the side of the grill. “You have someone out here to see you.”

Anne Marie was leaning up against a booth in the dining room, just a hint of a smile wryly stretching across her lips, nervously holding her left wrist with her right hand in front of her.

She bounced up upon seeing me, eyes brightening.

“Hey,” she said, her brows quickly furrowing. “What’s wrong with your arms?”

I looked down at my reddened forearms and chuckled. “I was cooking bacon?”

She laughed nervously and toed the tile floor with her sandal. “I like bacon.”

“Well, I don’t.”

“Maybe you’re doing it wrong.”

“I know I’m doing it wrong.”

“I hear they make pretty good bacon over at the McDonald’s. Maybe you should go try it out?”

“Shut up,” I laughed. “What’s going on?”

“I, uh …” she looked around the room. Several tables were occupied and a number of customers were loading up plates at the Super Bar.

Anne Marie was nervous. And sad. She could see me reading her face – a face I’d known through every emotion for 10 years — and she turned away.

My manager butted in from behind the counter. “Hey, take your break.”

We walked out to her Toyota Landcruiser – a hand-me-down from her older brother – and each took a seat inside.

“I’m going to miss this car,” I said. “You think it’ll make it down to New Mexico alright?”

“My dad has a trailer for it to attach to the back of the U-HAUL,” she muttered.

She stared at the steering wheel, unwilling to look toward me. She twisted the key in the ignition to turn the radio on.

Mr. Higueara was wrapping up the latest news on the fire.

“I just hate to think what that drive is going to be like going up Kingsbury Grade from now on … Heartbreaking.”

The soulful guitar intro of “Just My Imagination” by the Temptations played over the car speakers.

She drew a deep breath and exhaled. “We’re leaving tonight.”

The words hit me like a ton of bricks in the chest.

I started to speak, grasping for words. “But …”

She managed a laugh.

“It’s the fire – my parents are worried it’ll get to our house. Or that they’ll evacuate our neighborhood and we won’t be able to get away like we need to on Wednesday.

“We’ve been loading the truck all day,” Her head rested back against the top of the driver’s seat. “I’m exhausted. My lungs hurt from the smoke. It’s just … it’s just a mess.”

We sat in silence for a few moments. Maybe it was minutes. I wasn’t ready. Neither was she.

“What time?”

“Huh?”

“What time are you leaving?”

“Later, I think. Like, real late. My dad only wants to get the first leg done tonight while there’s no traffic.”

I nodded, not hearing or understanding really.

“I thought this would be different,” she said. “That I’d have more time.” She threw up a hand in frustration, “that it wouldn’t be in the parking lot of the Wendy’s.”

She opened her purse and rummaged around inside of it.

“I found this,” she produced a picture of the two of us – an old and faded Polaroid. We were sitting in the old willow tree that grew between our houses when we’d been neighbors. We couldn’t have been older than 6 or 7. I was holding a Voltron action figure and she was finishing off an Otter Pop. We were both waving at the camera.

“Do you remember that day?” she smiled. “I’d lived there maybe two weeks. I’d known you for about 10 days and I had decided without a doubt that you were the coolest human being on the planet. I would’ve followed you anywhere.”

I blushed.

She kept going. “You convinced me that we were two of the lion robot pilots and we had to climb the tree to take our place in the big Voltron super robot so we could save the world. And you had caught these three grasshoppers, and they were supposed to be the other pilots. So you brought them up the tree in your pocket. You had grasshoppers stashed in your pocket! But when you pulled them out, they scattered, and you lunged to try to catch them and you started to fall out of the tree.”

We were both laughing now.

“I’m grabbing onto your wrist, trying to pull you back up and all I remember just the absolute … I don’t know, the absolute terror, thinking I was about to lose the coolest person in the world.”

She brushed a strand of hair away from her eyes and tucked it behind her ear. “And the whole time, you’ve got your legs locked around the branch, only I couldn’t see it, and you’re just trying to pry my hands off your wrist … The more you pried, the more I panicked, because I didn’t know you were OK. Gosh, I miss that stuff.”

She wiped a tear from her eye and extended the picture toward me. “I want you to have it. I mean, pictures, right? It’s all I’ve got to give.”

The lump had risen so quickly in my throat I didn’t even realize it was there when I squeezed a weak “Thanks” past it.

I grasped for the words, what I wanted to tell my friend, trying to piece together what I thought I’d have another couple of days to figure out how to say. There were so many memories I had, so many of those moments I wanted to give to her.

But the words weren’t there.

Instead I just looked at her. And she looked at me. Straight in the eyes.

There are moments when time just slows down. The music on the radio seemed to swell:

A cozy little home out in the country with two children, maybe three.
I tell you, I can visualize it all. This couldn’t be a dream, for too real it all seems.

I gulped and began to lean forward. She leaned in too. Or maybe she was reaching for her keys.

There was no way to tell. I’d seen this scene so many times – on episodes of “The Wonder Years” and on “Saved By The Bell,” but I’d never actually been in it.

But it was just my ‘magination, once again.
Running away with me.
Tell you it was just my ‘magination,
Running away with me.

My wristwatch started beeping and, startled, my head jerked downward as I frantically fumbled at the watch to shut it up.

The hard bill of my visor, which I’d forgotten I was wearing, bounced off the bridge of her nose, instantly causing it to bleed.

“Ow!” she cupped her hand over her nose.

“Oh my gosh!” My cheeks rushed over with red heat as I grabbed at a couple napkins in my apron to hand her. “I’m so sorry.”

She grabbed the napkins and stopped up the trickle of blood. “It’s OK.” Both of her hands were occupied – one holding the napkins and the other pinching the top of her nose. She tilted her head back to try to slow the flow.

Neither of us were sure what to do next. But the moment was gone.

She started to laugh. I couldn’t help laughing either.

“I’ve … I’ve, uh, got to get back in there.” I stammered, shaking my head. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“No, no, it’s not like you meant to … You didn’t mean to do this to me right?” She gave me a shove, just like she’d always done.

There was an awkward, one-armed hug as she held the makeshift bandage against her nose.

Inside I was melting down. That was my chance, the chance Kyle Cooper had been talking about the night before, and I had bloodied her – for all I knew, the love of my life – with it.

“Come say goodbye when you get off of work if you get a chance,” she said.

“What time are you leaving?”

“I’m not sure. When the truck is full? Just try, OK? If I don’t see you, we’ll write.”

“Yeah, we’ll write,” I desperately searched for something, anything to say, to try to reclaim the moment. “Hey Anne-Marie?”

She peered over the wad of napkins. “Yeah?”

“Would you think of me?”

“What?”

I lost my nerve. “Never mind.”

“You quoted ‘My Girl’??” Kyle was indignant. “I said take a shot, man, not quote some movie from our childhood.”

We were brushing butter and garlic on strips of bread dough to be made into breadsticks.

“How did you give her a bloody nose?” Kyle sputtered. “How does that even happen?”

“It was my visor, I, I don’t even know why I had it on. It was a disaster.”

The time had passed slowly since Anne Marie had driven away.

The numbness I’d been feeling for weeks had given way to a searing pain of sharp and sudden loss.

“How did you leave it?”

“She told me to come say goodbye if I get off work in time. Then she left.”

“She wants you to try again, man. She wouldn’t have said that if she didn’t,” Kyle finished his breadsticks and started wrapping potatoes in foil to go in the oven as well.

“I don’t think so. It was just … You’d have to know us. It was just a way to not say goodbye now, you know? To delay it.”

“Nah, man. She wants you to come by.”

“I don’t think she does. After her parents see her nose, they probably wouldn’t want me there either.”

Kyle laughed out loud, but burned his hand on the open oven door, which quickly stemmed the outburst.

Before the dinner rush, I ventured outside with a mop and some rags to scrub off the heavy, fresh skid marks Declan Weathers had left on the curb with his Jeep the night before.

Under a pine tree in front of the restaurant, well on the outskirts of the tent city on the soccer field, was a fireman, sitting alone sheltered beneath its shade.

Soot blackened his face and his hair and clothes were soaked with sweat. His eyes were closed, but he didn’t appear to be sleeping.

I walked closer to him, and his eyes opened with my approach.

We nodded at each other.

“How’s it look out there?” I asked.

“It’s rough.”

I nodded. Of course it was.

“Can I get you a Frosty or something?”

He laughed, smearing his ashen face with a sweaty palm. “Sure, kid.”

I hustled into the store, filled a Biggie size cup and ran it back out to him.

He accepted it with a quick ‘thank you,’ then closed his eyes again.

I started scrubbing at the curb.

“I’m asking my girlfriend to marry me when I get home,” he offered, eyes still closed, apparently talking to me, though he could have just as easily been talking to the tree.

“What?”

“My girlfriend. I’m going to get down on one knee and everything,” his eyes were open now. He took a sip of the Frosty. “I mean, I don’t have a real plan or anything. I don’t even have a ring.

“The flames out there, kid, I’m not exaggerating, there are some as tall as skycrapers and they were moving so quick. I almost got overrun.

“I’ve never been so scared in my life. But I wasn’t scared of the fire, you know? All I could think, was what if she didn’t know how I felt about her? I mean, right then. What if she never knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her?

I could feel my eyes widen.

“I dunno.” I muttered.

“Who cares if there’s no plan, right? Who cares if I don’t know what to say?

He stood up quickly, brushed himself off and looked me in the eye.

“I mean, at least she’ll know how I feel.”

He jabbed me on the shoulder with his free hand and trudged back toward camp.

“Thanks for the milkshake, huh?”

“Thanks for what you do,” I called behind him. “And good luck … with your girlfriend.”

He raised the yellow cup in the air. “See ya ’round.”

Back inside the restaurant, I kept pulling the Polaroid Anne Marie had given me out of my pocket.

She’d said so much without saying barely anything at all.

And I hadn’t even begun to try to tell her how I felt.

How much the memories of our childhood meant, what she meant to me now. What losing her was doing to me.

Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” was playing over the restaurant speakers.

You’ll always be a part of me

I’m part of you indefinitely

The words unlocked something inside.

I pulled a ballpoint pin out of the cash register and looked for paper. There was none.

Napkin? Too flimsy.

Burger wrapper? Too metallic.

My eyes settled on the stack of trays below the counter, with their paper liners bearing a large images of the Spicy Chicken Sandwich.

I withdrew a liner, turned it over and put the pen to work.

The words poured furiously out of my 16-year-old heart – summing up who she’d been in my life to that point, and who I hoped she would be moving forward.

What was 1,088 miles and two years anyway? Just numbers, right?

We’d write. I could save up my money and buy us each pre-paid phone cards. We could call each other, maybe once a week. Maybe more.

It all seemed perfectly plausible.

I carried the liner around the dining room with me as I mopped the floor and wiped the tables – scrawling, scribbling, scratching out, rewriting. It started picking up grease stains and watermarks from the tables, but there was no turning back now. I filled up one page, went back and grabbed a second liner, proceeded filling it up as well.

I sat in a booth, watching traffic pass down 395, a line growing rapidly a couple blocks down the road at the McDonald’s drive-thru. I looked at the tree where the firefighter had been hours before.

Who cares if I don’t know what to say?” he’d said. “I mean, at least she’ll know how I feel.

I scribbled faster. I finally knew what to say.

I’d get that moment back, but this time my wristwatch wouldn’t interfere.

I’d take the letter … I’d hand it to her. No, I’d kiss her, then I’d hand it to her. Or I’d hand it to her and then kiss her … tell her to wait to read it on the way to New Mexico.

I signed it, with all the emotion I could muster, and read it over.

It was good.

Really good.

It wasn’t a letter at all. It was an opus. A living document. An admission of everything I’d ever thought about her, a revelation of everything I felt.

Maybe she’d frame it. Or keep it in a shoe box.

How to fold it though? Finger football? Tidy, little wedged box?

No.

This was a masterpiece – not one to be marred by folds and creases.

So I rolled it, first from the top, then from the bottom – Two scrolls meeting in the middle. I nodded appreciatively, thinking momentarily it needed some grander gesture. A flower, maybe?

I eyed the kale on the Super Bar before thinking better of it.

Instead, I grabbed a knife from the kitchen and neatly cut a length of cord from the waist of my apron – tying it around the scroll into the neatest bow I could manage.

“What is that?” my manager interrupted, poking his head out from his office.

I jabbed the scroll into my apron pocket, now swinging freely in front of me.

“Nothing.”

“Did you just cut your apron??” he steamed, pointing a finger my direction. “That’s coming out of your check.”

“I’m sorry …” I was caught red-handed. There was no sense trying hide what was happening now. I looked like a fool already. I sat heavily on a stool in front of the scowling Dave Thomas poster. “I don’t really know how to explain.”

My manager pulled up a stool.

I told him about Anne Marie. About the bike rides with playing cards clacking on our spokes, riding around the Gardnerville Ranchos as kids. About renting movies at the Video Connection behind the 7-11 and exploring the sagebrush jungles of the neighborhood greenbelts, hunting for lizards and grasshoppers. How we ate lunch together almost daily, at McDonald’s … while I was wearing my Wendy’s uniform.

“Come on, man,” he said. “Couldn’t you just go through the drive-thru?”

“I’m terrified of the drive-thru.”

“You work in the drive-thru.”

“That’s why I’m terrified of it.”

I told him about how Anne Marie was moving. How she was leaving that night. About the moment in the Land Cruiser earlier in the day.

“It was that girl who was in here earlier today?”

“Yeah.

“She’s pretty.”

“Yeah, she is.”

“You gave that pretty girl a bloody nose?”

“Not on purpose.”

“You should go.”

“Really?”

“You don’t know how long she’ll be there, right? You may never get another chance.”

I ran, slipping first on the freshly mopped kitchen tiles and then sprinting out to my brown 1986 Toyota Corolla.

As I turned onto Highway 88 and passed the high school, the mountainside came into view – ablaze and glowing in the summer night.

It was haltingly beautiful. And terrifying.

I thought about my firefighter friend, out there fighting the teeth of the fire so he could get back home and propose to his girlfriend.

I thought about the people who had experienced real loss in the fire – their homes, all of their belongings.

The closer I drew to the orange and yellow crevices emblazoned across the mountain, the smaller my problems started to seem.

The smoke grew thicker. The fire was still a ways away, but I swear I could feel the heat radiating from it – right through the open car windows.

I drove past Mottsville, which was blocked with flashing lights well down the road, and turned further down at Centerville Lane.

Mr. Higuera on the radio wrapped up the latest updates on the fire and went to music break, leading in with the acoustic guitar intro of “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” by Deep Blue Something.

You say that we’ve got nothing in common
No common ground to start from and we’re falling apart
You’ll say the world has come between us
Our lives have come between us still I know you just don’t care

I took a right on Foothill Road, driving straight toward the fire. I began to understand Anne Marie’s father’s desire to get out of town.

The closer I got, the more nervous I got. And the more nervous I got, the more I talked to myself – trying to practice what I’d say. Trying to anticipate how she’d react.

“This is surreal, right?” That’s what she’d say. I could see her saying it. Laughing. Smiling. Surreal.

Surreal is a funny word, though. It leaves open the door for anything and everything unexpected, and there was nothing out there on that June night that wasn’t surreal.

The mountain glowed in the distance high above her house, smoke billowing upward and outward. Small sparks of light floated aimlessly downward, circling and dying out into crisp flakes of grey ash falling like snow.

The piercing light was only broken by the dark outlines of the roof shingles.

The windows were dark.

The porch was empty.

No moving truck.

No Land Cruiser.

No Anne Marie.

Surreal.

I see you, the only one who knew me
And now your eyes see through me I guess I was wrong

I stood in the empty driveway, alone, lightly grasping the double scroll with its makeshift canvas ribbon.

I thought for a moment about turning around and driving for New Mexico. They couldn’t have gotten far. I would catch them by Lee Vining. Or Hawthorne. Or somewhere along whichever way they went.

I laughed at the thought of driving the streets of rural Nevada, and the slopes of the Sierra, shouting Anne Marie’s name out the window in the hopes that someone would answer.

Defeated, I trudged to the porch step where we’d talked for hours in past summers and sat down heavily.

A singular, fiery flake of ash fell slowly from the sky just above me, coming to rest on the scroll.

It ignited a warm hole in the grease-spotted paper, its edges glowing, then withering inward as the heat consumed everything I had agonized over in all of the hours leading up to that moment.

Startled, I dropped the scroll, now a lively intersection of soft flame – orange, grey and black driving toward each other as it burned, to the crumbling concrete at my feet.

I watched as it was completely consumed.

Gone.

And I said, What about breakfast at Tiffany’s?
She said, “I think I remember the film
And as I recall, I think, we both kinda liked it
And I said, “Well, that’s the one thing we’ve got”

At that moment, it started to rain. Hard – harder then I’d remembered it raining in years. Hard enough to eventually quench much of the flame rising from the hillside.

The heavy, thick drops tattered the remains of the scroll, washing it rapidly down the driveaway and into the street.

I watched in amazement, stunned at the utter and abrupt finality of the moment.

And with that, inexplicably, my wristwatch began to beep.

I laughed — because she would have laughed about it — removed the watch from my blistered forearm, laid it down on the porch and walked quietly back to the car – my footsteps punctuated with the heavy patter of rain on the pavement.

It can just be like that, young love. The declaration means everything in one moment. And it’s gone the next.

So what now it’s plain to see we’re over
And I hate when things are over when so much is left undone

Letters followed in the weeks to come.

Every few weeks, then every few months, then once a year or so.

Then not at all.

We never got around to saying goodbye.