Searching for Paradise
The fire was over but not long gone. The California Santa Ana kind of winds had blown through the town of Paradise with a blowtorch intensity, turning most homes to little more than cinder foundations and ash. I wasn’t coming home to Paradise in grief or depression, however, although I’d been born there so many years before. My parents had lived there went I went away and never really came back. They’d died there years before any whiff of the community extinguishing fire event might have been expected to take the place away.
I rolled my Jeep on past signs that should tell me all the reasons I shouldn’t be driving toward my parent’s home. Since those signs were not set up with barricades to keep people out, I ignored their messages. I’d come home from the war a few years earlier and no catalog of minor ills that might befall me was going to prevent me from getting to what I knew as the burned-out husk of my parent’s lifetime home.
My trip was to make sure that I got all the insurance money that might be due to me, as the sole heir of the place. The insurance adjustor should never be able to pick up on the fact that, once my parents were both gone, that I let the place go to the point it wasn’t even fit to be rented out. The house had been about to collapse into itself. And then had come the gift of the great Paradise, California fire. I was going to make tens of thousands on a chunk of property that was nearly worthless, even before the fire.
After some considerable searching, since the street signs had burned along with just about everything else, I found the ruins. Nothing looked the same. My mental images of the community I’d once lived in and then visited over the years was so totally different. It was like I’d come upon a Hollywood disaster set. But finally, in the early afternoon of a lovely California day, I found the place. I knew I was too late to encounter the State Farm adjuster. He’d already come and gone just days after the fire was finally put out. I was there to see the place for one last time and maybe sift through the ruins and find something of value. I wasn’t totally certain of why I was really there at all.
I got out of the Jeep, my German climbing boots crunching down upon cold dead cinders that littered what had once been a fairly neatly kept lawn when my parents were alive. I looked over the neighborhood scene before I approached the completely flat wreckage of the house. I was amazed to see a house here and there, dotting the disaster landscape, that was completely untouched by the flames that had consumed just about everything else. Many pine trees still stood, as if in surprise that they had made it too. The trees were the main hazard the road signs warned about, I knew. Big old pines with burned out trunks at their bases could fall at any time. The ‘Enter at your own Risk’ signs had made me smile, but I wasn’t foolish enough not to understand that there was a good measure of truth in their message.
The single cream-colored tent caught my attention. It was located about three foundations down the street from my parent’s place. I knew none of the neighbors, as it had been so very many years since I’d really gone away. I was surprised that a homeowner family would erect a tent nearby its burned-out foundation. What could there to find that would require remaining on site to chase after?
I turned my attention to the foundations of my own inherited insurance fortune. It wouldn’t be a lot of money, I knew, but enough to supplement my military disability pay for quite possibly the rest of my life. Having an artificial leg didn’t keep me from having a job to help out, but my post-traumatic stress didn’t let me keep one for long. Six years and twenty-three jobs later. The VA had pronounced my one hundred percent unemployable due to my inability to be subordinate. The shrink had almost grinned when he’d said: “You’re a naturally insubordinate man.” When I’d told him what I thought of his conclusion he had grinned. “See, you make my point,” he’d said. Instead of hurting him, I’d simply walked out.
I waded through the debris of the first floor, noting that some of the thick hardwood boards had not completely burned, which mean the basement might be somewhat intact. Using a blackened two-by-four, fallen in from one of the collapsed walls, I dug out the hole that had been the stairwell down. The way was finally clear, although it would probably take me days to work the timber’s greasy charcoal from my hands. I pulled my SureFire combat flashlight from my pocket. I never used it, but always kept it on me. It felt good to once again need the small tactical tool. It reminded me that I was really good at some things, unfortunately, not many of them were jobs performed outside of a combat zone.
I crept down like I might be clearing the basement of a suspected terrorist home in Iraq. The 600 lumens beaming out of my flashlight lit the basement up, but there wasn’t much to see. Most of the stuff mom and dad had stored down there had been kept in cardboard boxes. The cardboard had ignited and that was it.
My living foot hit a semi-solid object and a jolt of awful recognition slammed through my brain. I froze in place, moving only the flashlight to bring the broad beam to point down at my left boot. I’d encountered a body, and my whole being had instantly recognized it and reacted. I breathed in and out forcefully. It was a small body. Not human. Not a human part. I stood, breathing and working to relax. Finally, after almost a full minute my flashlight stopped shaking and I could pull my foot away from the body. I went down on my good knee, disregarding how my pants would be stained by contact with the burned debris on the floor.
It was a cat. A dead cat, laying on its side, its fur singed beyond belief. The cat had a collar. I worked to remove the collar without touching the cat’s body. It was delicate and dicey work, although I noted that the collar was a quality item. The thing was made of real thick leather, dotted with silver Concho pieces like it’d been made by the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico or Arizona. Finally, I got it off. I straightened back up to my feet. The collar made noise, as two metal tags beat themselves together. I saw that one tag was, thankfully, a rabies tag and the other had only a single word carved into it. The inscription read, strangely, “Paradise.”
“Who names their cat for the place they are living?” I said out loud to the empty basement around me. I shook my head and tucked the collar into my tactical trouser front pocket. My parents had no cat, and if they had it would have been long dead many years earlier. What was a neighbor’s cat doing in my insurance fortune basement, I wondered? It took me a couple of minutes to find a flat piece of plywood. I managed to get the cat’s body onto the board, then carefully hauled it upstairs and into the back flower garden that used to but up against the kitchen windows. I went to work on my hands and knees, digging into the soft loamy earth until I reached a good depth. I dumped the cat’s body into the hole without ceremony, filled the hole and stamped down hard with my boots to pack the covering earth tight.
I was nearly back to my jeep when a small kid crawled out from under it right near the driver’s door.
The boy stood up and looked at me with large round eyes.
“Mister, you’re more of a mess than I am,” he said, pointing at my mud-stained trousers and boots.
“Ah, I suppose,” was all I could think to reply.
A man’s voice came from behind me, “You from the Slater house there?” he asked.
I jerked around in surprise. I wasn’t used to being surprised from behind. I thought of the Slater house before I answered. My parents had live in the house all of their lives, and my all my childhood but the previous owners of the house still remained in their way. The Slaters had built the place so it would always be named for them.
“My parents, the Johnsons,” I said, pointing needlessly at the foundations.
“I’m looking for my cat,” the boy asked, “have you seen him?”
“Nope,” I answered, turning my head back to the small boy and watching his face closely. “What’s his name?” I asked, before realizing that there was no good reason to ask the question.
“Dad made me name him something I’d never forget,” the boy replied.
“So, you named him Paradise, for where you live?” I asked before I could stop myself.
“Hey, that’s pretty good,” the boy said. “Most people would never think of that. “So, have you seen him? He’s a Russian Blue with a great collar. He’s got to be around here somewhere. He’s way too smart to get burned in a fire. Mind if I look in your house?”
“Go ahead,” I said, glad that I’d found the body of his cat before him, and unconsciously clutching the collar in my pocket with my right hand.
The kid ran off to explore the wreckage, leaving the man standing near me.
“You found the body,” the man asked, his voice almost a whisper. There was no question mark to his sentence.
I pulled out the collar and held it out. The man looked back, but the boy’s attention was completely taken with pocking a stick into the debris of the burned down house.
The man took the collar. “He was, actually, a great cat,” he said, tucking the collar into his own pocket. “He’s the reason we’re still here living in the tent. The cat would have come home if he was still alive. He was that kind of cat. So, we knew. You buried him proper, I’m thinking. But we were renting, anyway. Have no place else to go just now.”
“You a soldier?” the man asked.
I didn’t answer.
The man pointed down. The pant leg covering the artificial ankle joint of my right leg was pulled up and folded over. I quickly bent down and fixed it.
“Marine,” I answered in a clipped voice. “Was. Long time back. What do you do?” I asked, hoping to change the subject.
“Builder, or at least I hoped to be,” the man said, looking all around. “Sure as hell going to be a lot of building needed here. But we can’t stay. The owner wants us gone by the weekend.”
“Paradise, Paradise, Paradise,” the boy was yelling softly in the distance, his pronunciation of the word very sing-songy but so poignant I wanted him to stop.
“How about if I come back in a bit and we’ll talk about some things,” I said.
The man looked at me strangely but nodded.
“What are your names?” I asked, opening the door to my Jeep.
“Robert Woods, and that’s my boy Peter,” the man said, walking toward me. I could see his right hand coming up to shake my own so I got in the car, started it and backed out of the driveway, only giving him a nod instead of a handshake.
I drove into the town center until I found what I was looking for, the Paradise Police office. The place was busy so I waited. Finally, I was first in line at the counter. A middle-aged officer with the initials K.D. on her ample chest looked at me with a tired smile.
I asked my question. “Where do they keep the pets or animals that have been turned in?”
I drove to Thomas Ace hardware on Clark. I asked the man there where they kept the dogs, even though I could a few barking in the basement. Without comment, he guided me off the sales floor and onto the back stairs.
“They’re all down there in the small storage rooms,” he said, pointing. “People had to leave them when they left. Sad story for most of them. We can’t feed them or keep them for much longer. Probably be put down. You’re welcome to whatever you can find. No paperwork. No Nuthin’”
I found what I was looking for in the fourth small storage room. A young male Cocker Spaniel. It didn't bark. It simply sat up and looked at me. I looked back. I read the message. He knew they weren't coming back, whoever ‘they’ were. He was looking but not yet longing. I walked slowly over to him and reached down. He didn’t react, except to continue to stare at me. I checked his collar. There was a name and phone number. I instinctively knew the phone number wasn’t good anymore. The name was “Spot.”
“What is it with these people?” I whispered in frustration.
“Hello Spot,” I said.
The dog didn’t say anything, but his tail moved marginally.
“Okay, you’re it,” I murmured, picking him. He didn't fight me.
The guy at the counter waved and smiled a big smile.
“Found one, I see,” he said. “Family brought him in and it ripped them apart. They’ll be so happy to know.”
I held the dog under my left arm and wrote my name and number as best I could on the clerk’s receipt book.
The ride back to the ruins was uneventful. The dog did everything right like he was afraid he would screw up his new situation. He sat in the passenger seat, looking straight ahead. I talked to him about my plan the whole way but could get no approval.
I pulled the Jeep back into the driveway. I could see Robert Woods trying to get Peter out of the Slater ruins. I went around to the passenger side of the Jeep and pulled Spot out. He made no move to disengage himself. I felt like he was some kind of special creature, but I’d never had a dog before.
I carried the dog toward Woods, and then set him down when I got close.
The dog stayed sitting like he’d heard my whole plan.
Peter saw the dog and came running, stopping when he got to his father’s side.
“A dog, a great dog, a real dog,” the boy said as if he’d never seen a dog before.
“What’s the deal?” Woods asked, his forehead creased with man wrinkles.
“The insurance company’s going to write me a big check in the next few days,” I said. “They’re going to get rid of me on the cheap. You’re a builder. You rebuild the house for the insurance money. You rent the house for what you paid for the other one. You live on the lot here until the house is done.”
I stopped, having laid out my whole plan.
“What’s the catch?” Woods asked, literally scratching his head.
“Oh,” I replied, shaking my head slightly. “The dog, Spot, you take him to help your boy search for the cat and then keep him.”
“I get the dog?” the boy asked, his eyes big and round, his voice one of wonder. “The real dog. The dog?”
“His name is Spot,” I said.
“What are you going to do?” Woods asked, still not buying into the deal.
The boy inched his way closer to the dog, finally reaching a hand out and gently grabbing one of its ears. The dog looked up at me as if to question the situation he was in. I smiled and nodded.
“Spot,” the boy whispered. The dog inched its way a small bit, closer to the boy.
“I went to school in anthropology,” I replied. “The study of man, but I got sort of sideline along the way.”
I didn’t mention that I’d become totally disenchanted with my fellow man.
“Degree?” Woods asked, but then smiled. “Yeah, you’re from officer country, no question. Butte College, about five miles from here. Lost half its teachers. Hell, you could work there if you had a degree in hopscotch.”
“We got a deal?” I asked, feeling like a perfect fool. There was not one reasonable thing I’d done since finding Paradise but I somehow felt like a million dollars. I would never see my insurance bonanza, and I wondered why that didn’t seem to bother me.
“I’m a naturally insubordinate man, they say,” I repeated the shrink’s opinion to Woods while I waited for his mind to take in the enormity of what I was trying to offer.
“Alright,” Woods said, massaging his chin with his left hand, “we’ve got a deal, but you’ve got to come for dinner once a week until the house is done. I don’t want to be doing it wrong or reporting all the time on the phone.”
“Okay,” I said, finally extending my hand out. I hadn’t been planning on living anywhere near the place but I also knew I wasn’t tied to any other place.
“And take this,” Woods said, looking over his shoulder to make sure he could see the boy hugging the dog to him. He pressed his left hand into mine. I felt the collar. I saw the shine of the Conchos and read the name again. Paradise. The boy was searching for Paradise.
Had I been searching for it too? I drove away from the house, the man, the boy, and the dog. My left hand was on the collar in my pocket. It felt warm to the touch. I felt warm, but I couldn’t explain that part.