Meg Kinghorn

Featured Non-Fiction Writer — Spring 2021

by Meg Kinghorn

By most standards, including the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA), there are four stages of a fire. These stages are incipient, growth, fully developed, and decay. The following is a brief overview of each stage.

Incipient—This first stage begins when heat, oxygen, and a fuel source combine and have a chemical reaction resulting in fire. This is also known as “ignition” and is usually represented by a very small fire, which often (and hopefully) goes out on its own before the following stages are reached. Recognizing a fire in this stage provides your best chance at suppression or escape.

Mark and I walked to the parking garage after a late dinner in the city. Our first Valentine’s day wasn’t actually Valentine’s Day but close enough that the store-front windows in San Francisco displayed frilly hearts, deep v-cut silky dresses, and short red negligees on impossibly thin mannequins. In 1990, I was twenty-three years old, as thin as I’d ever get, and as cool and calm as a twenty-three-year-old can be.

“Valentine’s Day is a couple’s holiday,” I said, “and we’re just lovers.” I may have made the comment in response to the window displays, or maybe in response to something Mark had said.

We had started dating again after our summer romance ended the year prior with me leaving a note on his car about how tired I was not being a priority to him. I’d not even really thought about him much after leaving the note. I worked as a staff accountant at a (then) Big 6 CPA firm in the city, I lived in an apartment two blocks south of Golden Gate Park, and I thought I had my shit together. He showed up unexpectedly in January to see me perform in a community theater musical. I snubbed him that night but accepted his dinner invitation when he called a few days later. The note was never mentioned. I continued to casually date a few guys I’d met at college and to go for drinks with groups of friend-zoned co-workers.

After dinner, we went back to his place. He lived in a townhouse with his brother and his brother’s Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Rambo. It always smelled like dog shit because they never picked up the turds Rambo left on the cement of the back patio.

The smell wasn’t as bad as I’d remembered, Rambo’s February turds not subject to the summer heat. Mark pushed what looked like a week’s worth of newspapers to the side of the round oak table and asked me to sit with him. He clasped his hands together on the table in front of him and tilted his head toward me. 

“I consider us more than lovers,” he said.

“Really?” I said.

Growth—The growth stage is where the structure’s fire load and oxygen are used as fuel for the fire. It is during this shortest of the four stages when a deadly “flashover” can occur, potentially trapping, injuring, or killing firefighters.

It was probably then, sitting on the padded fake-leather-trimmed-in-chrome kitchen chair, when I allowed myself to have feelings for him again, but internally I put some conditions around it. I wouldn’t get my hopes up because experience had taught me that I’d be disappointed. I decided I had expected too much during our summer romance. I wanted him to like me, didn’t want to be considered “high maintenance.” Instead of pestering him for attention, I focused on work and studying for the CPA exam. He worked the 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. shift at a grocery store, so he’d sometimes come to my place on his night off during the week. I’d spend weekends at his townhouse, trying quietly to wash the massive piles of dishes while he slept a few hours after getting off work, then I’d sit with him to watch some sports event on TV in the afternoons.

We started dating exclusively and quickly fell into a routine of domesticities. While not exciting, it worked because we made few demands of each other. By that fall “marriage” came up often during pillow talk, and I considered us engaged after he didn’t object to calling family and friends and telling them so. That November he gave me a diamond engagement ring for my birthday, proudly telling me he got it wholesale.

Fully Developed—When the growth stage has reached its max and all combustible materials have been ignited, a fire is considered fully developed. This is the hottest phase of a fire and the most dangerous for anybody trapped within.

You’ve been married just less than a month and your apartment building is on fire. It is in Oakland, over 500 miles to the north from where you lie next to Mark, in the guest room of your in-law’s San Diego home. You know it’s on fire because your father-in-law tells you so through the closed door. 

“You might want to get up and watch the news, I think your apartment building is on fire,” he says. 

You emerge to CNN’s broadcast of the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm. The images on the screen show your apartment complex, panicked faces racing past the camera, firemen telling drivers to abandon their cars and keep moving as flames lick the hills and buildings.

During the plane ride home, you pull out your notebook and start a list of things in the apartment in an attempt to retain some existence of the items that may be lost. You list the watercolor of Coit Tower painted by Mark’s grandmother. You wonder if it caught fire or if it was crushed in the building’s collapse. You think of the small crystal vase received as a wedding gift. You had placed it in the bathroom with a delicate bunch of tiny pink roses. It looked lovely and cheerful, grown up décor in a newlywed’s home. In your mind’s eye you see the fire reflected in the crystal’s facets, watch the petals wilt from the heat. You wonder what, if anything, will remain.

The real damage from a forest fire is rarely obvious. Forest fires create entrances for diseases and insects, staining the wood that could be used for lumber, and cause rot to begin and continue. When a tree is exposed to forest fire, the lumber value declines throughout the tree’s life span.

As you make your way to baggage claim, Mark grabs a Contra Costa Times newspaper. On the front page are pictures of the fire and a column of street names listing the addresses of the houses destroyed. Street after street with house numbers, and the word GONE. Some just listed the street name and GONE, every home on the block consumed. You scan for your neighborhood. Parkwoods Apartments. GONE. 

Mark drives wordlessly, surrounded by charred black hills and hot spots still smoldering, the air choked with the smell of burning pines and leaves. Your brain wrestles with the smell evoking pleasant childhood memories amidst the destroyed landscape. The car with your suitcase in the trunk is now everything you own.

On your list you jot another item: “‘Best of’ Notes,” referring to the handwritten notes you had written in high school to your best friend. For your twenty-first birthday she presented 50 or 60 “Best of” notes assembled in the pages of a photo album. You had laughed and cried when you opened the gift and read glimpses into a confused teenage head. Next you jot the words “writing/word processor.” Your words existed in a pre-laptop-era word processor, larger than an electric typewriter, bright letters glowing on a dark five-by-seven-inch screen. Everything you’ve ever written, every note taken, every draft started. Gone.

Decay—Usually the longest stage of a fire, the decay stage is characterized by a significant decrease in oxygen or fuel, putting an end to the fire. There are two common dangers during this stage. First, the existence of non-flaming combustibles, which can potentially start a new fire if not fully extinguished. Second, there is the danger of a backdraft when oxygen is reintroduced to a volatile, confined space. 

The Valentine’s Days after we married are not memorable. They were interspersed between typical American married life—jobs taken and left, homes moved into and out of, debts and mortgages obtained.

After the kids were born, we moved from California to Utah. Valentine’s Day cards consisted of flimsy white envelopes stuffed with cartoon-characters the boys carried home from school in decorated shoeboxes.

February 14, 2009 was the Valentine’s Day before our last. We went to dinner using a gift certificate for an Italian restaurant in Sugarhouse. Our friend Don gave it to us for Christmas and told us he’d already made our reservation for Valentine’s Day. Maybe he sensed something amiss. Maybe it was the desperate way I held his hand at the Christmas concert we attended together when Mark had to work late and had given Don his ticket.

We honored Don’s request and went to the restaurant Valentine’s evening. A door in the restaurant connected it to The King’s English bookstore. I sipped my glass of wine while browsing the shelves waiting to be seated. On an antique table staged with books in the fiction section I picked up a pamphlet for the Community Writing Center. I tucked the pamphlet in my purse while Mark left to take a business call in the car. 

Full disclosure: It was a critical call to take. As sales manager, he had allowed buyers to take possession of a manufactured home before closing. The deal went south, and his job was on the line. The call determined if he’d get fired or just get demoted. But I was so dried up at that point I couldn’t connect with or support him. Incapable of any insight or compassion, I offered none.

I’m not a big drinker, so when the couple of glasses of wine before dinner turned into a bottle, I was sloppy drunk by the time our dishes were cleared. Back home as Mark headed downstairs to watch SportsCenter, I retreated to my office, set the pamphlet for the writing center down on my desk, and grabbed pen and paper. 

I wrote, “I am afraid that I am lighting the flame that will bring all to a state of ash… but light it… I must.”

Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of fighting forest fires is communication. It is vital that the proper authorities be notified as soon as possible when a fire occurs. Obviously, a fire that is detected in its early stages will be much easier to extinguish than a fire that has been burning for some time and has only just been discovered due to lack of communication.

Another item on your list is a 1910 Webster’s Dictionary. As a child you would pull it out from the low shelf of the end table and heave it onto your lap. You would run your hand over the leather cover embossed with its golden title, cracked and wrinkled like an aged face. It smelled old and wise. When you left for college your parents sent it to you in a care package, delivering to you all those words, kept safe and orderly and well-defined on tissue-thin paper, cradled within the scaly spine five inches thick, a black landscape of brown veins where the binding dried and split over the years. After the fire you would try to replace it with an approximation from your father-in-law, a large green Black’s Law Dictionary. 

You make your way back to the site of the fire. You sneak past the yellow tape to investigate the apartment complex, taking photographs of the charred remains of the buildings. You find your car, a burned skeleton, just the metal chassis resting on four round rims. On the ground at the nose of the hood rests the four rings of the Audi emblem. You carefully retrieve them, glue them along with the now useless car key to the back of a shallow shadow box frame bought at the dollar store. You throw the rest of the keys on your keychain away.

You try to recall what you wrote about as you sat on the hood of your car, parked at a viewing spot overlooking the bay up in the Oakland hills. What did you think? Dream? Believe possible? What did you believe were your limitations? The fire quiets you, too painful to start writing again from scratch, too daunting of an analysis to attempt from what feels like the very beginning. You consider it a frivolous activity when you both had so much making up to do, so much to work back from. You abandon the creative part of you and glom on to what you believe to be your more important role as wife and co-earner. But it lingers, that hole, that missing piece, the question of who you are. And how you got to this from that, an identity swept clean.

A very small percentage of fires are started by spontaneous combustion of dry fuel such as sawdust and leaves.

Within a week of your return, you and your new husband hastily sign a lease on an apartment in the suburbs. You accept offers from friends and strangers. 

Sets of dishes, bags of used clothes. An old itchy plaid loveseat from Pat, the best man at your wedding. His wife tells you she wants it back eventually; it has sentimental value for her. You buy a coffee maker, a TV, a bed. Plastic bins for dressers and a card table and chairs for a dining set. That Christmas you can’t afford any holiday decorations, so a single ornament—a cherub angel—hangs from a tack on the bare white wall with an array of received Christmas cards taped below it. 

Little time is spent together in that apartment. Mark works nights at the grocery store, leaving at 11:30 at night, and returning home after you catch the BART train into the city. Lonely isn’t how you’d describe those first months of marriage, you were both shocked from the losses from the fire, both working hard to earn money. Married life feels very much like dating life, time apart during the week, a few lazy hours on the weekends crammed together on the itchy loveseat, watching some basketball game. 

If a fire escalates to a crown fire, human life always come first in firefighting; sometimes these fires are just allowed to burn until they run out of dry fuel.

Our last Valentine’s Day fell two weeks after my affair started. It was still my secret, and I was ablaze with thrill and terror and confusion. Mark and I were much more like roommates by that point, no recognition of the holiday, no hug or kiss.

I was surprised by the pain that caused. Maybe because of the contrast of my feelings with the other man. Maybe because being ignored validated ideas about myself I tried to escape—I was unlovable, undesirable, undeserving of care. I knew I’d have to confess soon; I knew telling lies compounded the damage I was trying to avoid.

The real threat to a species in the aftermath of a wildfire is the destruction of its habitat. As wildlife gradually return to their homes, they may find that the resources that allowed earlier populations to thrive are no longer there.

Nearly twenty years after the fire, you are no longer newlyweds. You are divorcing. You are once again stripped of everything except a few boxes of books and several black garbage bags of your clothes Mark packed and left for you in the garage. 

From a box, you pull out the Black’s Law Dictionary to evoke the feel and scent of that long-lost tome of the Webster’s. You run your hand along its cover, inhale its musty smell. The guide word at the top of the random page you open to glares at you. ADULTERY. 

Your marriage started and ended in trauma.

Meg Kinghorn is an instructor of Creative Nonfiction and Memoir through the University of Utah’s Lifelong Learning Continuing Education program and facilitates private writing groups and workshops through Salty City Writing Workshops. In Spring 2016, she was selected as a mentee in the AWP’s Writer to Writer Mentoring Program and has been an active volunteer through Salt Lake’s Community Writing Center facilitating writing groups.