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Short Story
3711 words
SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011

Heat Wave

William Luvaas

Some blame the greenhouse effect, others say it’s the hole in the ozone layer spreading across the continent, and some believe we’re sinking toward the molten core of the earth, having pumped all the oil and water out of the ground. The weatherman doesn’t give his opinion, just warns us we’re in for another scorcher: sixty-five straight days now over one-hundred-twenty degrees. A melt alert on the I-10: the fast lane liquefied between Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage. We hear how the AC conked out in an elder hospice in San Bernardino and with it the respiratory systems of three dozen old people. The federal government has just declared the first Regional Heat Disaster Advisory in history.

Diamond Valley Lake over in Hemet is depleted to crackled mud, and the Colorado River barely trickles over the line into Mexico; they say Mexican troops are amassed along the border to protect their “sovereign right to drinking water.” Riverside County Sheriff Harvey Barbur has given his deputies shoot-to-kill orders for anyone seen out in the yard with a garden hose. So we sneak out nights to hide our hoses. I stow my neighbor’s away for him, knowing Freddy won’t do it himself. The fat fuck wakes us up at five a.m. screaming how someone stole his frigging hose. All over the Southland there’s spontaneous combustion of compost heaps, inflatable rubber pools, and couches stuffed with poly foam, and the choir of St. Jude’s Catholic Church in Indio burst into flames singing “Nearer My God To Thee” when the foam lining of their choir robes suddenly ignited. I won’t go into accounts of kids parboiled in wader pools.

Organizers of the Democratic National Convention have changed the venue from L.A. to Seattle, not wanting a purple state delegation to burst into flames on TV. The Republican presidential candidate blames the epidemic of public nudity in the southwest “on eight years of moral laxity under the Democrats,” while the Democratic frontrunner has challenged his opponent to a debate in Vegas. “So the public can see which of us sweats more profusely—in sympathy with the suffering voters of that great region.” The Green Party nominee says we ain’t seen nothing yet. “Nature is flat pissed off.”

Myself, I blame it all on the devil, who’s grown keen and lively in the heat. What a lot of people don’t realize about the devil is he’s more trickster coyote than fallen archangel. Like a car full of teenage boys on a hot summer night out to fuck with things for the sheer joy of fucking with them. Right now he’s totally enjoying himself. Causing heat-crazed moms to kill their children and the control systems of jet liners to burst into flames as they approach LAX. No doubt the heat wave will decide the election in California. But will we vote Democratic because their candidate offered to share his sweat with us or for the Republican because she refuses to sweat or Green for threatening us with extinction?

I feel relieved to have lost my construction job. Can’t imagine framing houses under a sun so intense at midday that it roasts grasshoppers. My girlfriend, who works in real estate in Palm Desert, hasn’t sold zip in eight months. Her theory is the economic meltdown led to the heat wave. “Nature needs to feel secure, too, you know. Just like everybody else.”

“So you’re saying the recession caused the heat wave, right?” I ask.

“Like, duh! Obvious.” Her blond hair, which usually cascades down in curly combers, hangs limp over her ears; I wonder if the heat has fried her bananas. Naw, it’s just Angie! She never has let logic interfere with her thought process.

So I tell her my plan to buy a teardrop trailer and have Jake come out with his dozer and dig a hole in the sandy soil out back of our modular. “Bury her maybe twenty feet down and do a combo air and access shaft leading down to it. Natural AC down there. That’s why the prairie settlers did underground sod shelters. Earth insulation!”

“Like yuck! There’s all kinds of ants and spiders and snakes down there.”

“We’ll be deeper. They’re in the top layers.”

“And it’s killer dark.” She grips her elbows. “Like a grave or something.”

“Yeah—” I grin at the prospect “—time doesn’t exist down there. Won’t matter if you sleep day or night. We won’t even know which it is.”

On TV, they are showing National Guardsmen in sweat-soaked uniforms confronting an angry mob in front of a National Weather Bureau facility in Orange County. Rioters are inspired by Rush Limbaugh’s claim that the Feds dropped 500,000 tons of moisture-eating polymers (like those little polystyrene balls you find in potted plants at Home Depot) across the Southland in a cloud seeding program that went wrong; the polymers soaked moisture out of the ground and intensified our drought. I can hear Rush shouting from Freddy’s radio next door: “The Feds are cooking our babies in their cribs, friends. Believe it!” I step out on the porch and shout, “Turn it down, you fat freak.” Freddy launches back a string of invectives. Angie covers her ears. It’s gotten better, anyway, since Freddy and I stopped shooting at each other.

“The best thing about this whole deal,” I tell her, “we’ll be leaving Fat Freddy topside. We can do sex during the day again.” Angie will only do sex in the dark; she’s convinced Freddy watches us through bullet holes he’s blasted in the aluminum walls of our modular. She wears nothing around the house but string bikinis, drives me freaking crazy. “He’s probably got you focused in his binocs right now,” I tell her.

She flips him off. “All you think about anymore is sex sex sex. You really need to get back to work, you know what!” To Angie if y’r working, y’r mentally healthy; y’r not working, y’r messed up. She gestures towards Freddy’s place as exhibit number one. Fact is, there’s a whole lots of Freddys out here: sand rats, dried up old tumbleweeds blown into fall-apart trailers, hyper-tan old lizards whose skin is spotted with basal cell tumors. Rush lovers all.

“Did you ever notice all the major religions started in hot climates?” I say. “The devil showed up for the competition, then stayed on for the sex. Because hot is just hotter.”

She shakes her head and puzzles at me.

The city council of Gonewrong, Nevada, where temperatures in excess of one-hundred-eighty degrees have been recorded in local attics, have changed the town’s name to Goneright, hoping to appease the Lord. Water drips hot and fetid from the tap, they suspend summer school so naked teachers won’t have to teach roomfuls of naked kids, and people are shooting neighbors caught scooping water out of their swimming pools. Oregon State Troopers are positioned along the border to stop northward flight from California’s heat zone. Meanwhile, a crackpot state assemblywoman from Indian Wells has proposed a bill favoring the use of nuclear weapons to defend California—citing the Oregon Troopers and Mexican troops amassed along our southern border. Hearing the news, Fat Freddy marches nude out of his trailer, hooting and slapping his huge belly, which jiggles like an upright bowl of vanilla pudding, his little baggage hanging on like an afterthought down there. Sadly Angie misses the show, else she would sign up for underground living on the spot!

Generally though, we’ve gone apolitical, subscribing to the politics of misery. Can’t sleep in bed without developing nasty rashes, can’t sleep sitting up. A pair of jeans will chafe the skin off your thighs in an hour. For the first time I actually feel sorry for Freddy, imagining how he must suffer under all that flesh. Though maybe it provides insulation. Freddy’s way out ahead of us: living underground above ground. Stomping around naked, jiggling and blowing off steam. Rage is his air conditioning.

People have retreated to basements if they have one; we wrap wet sheets around ourselves and sit in front of the fan until we get a brownout, eat habanero peppers to open the pores. You’ll see whole families sitting atop SUVs in lawn chairs, tooting down the freeway, hair crackling behind them in the dry wind. Anything for a breeze. Angie and I take turns blowing on each other’s’ sweaty bodies. Her skin glows like some phosphorescent purple mineral in the heat. She says it’s the coolness inside her shining forth. She’s begun to make more sense lately. “You want to climb back in the womb,” she tells me. “That’s what this underground burrow thing is all about. Because your mother died when you were young and you still miss her.” Kind of stuns me, but I insist, “You have to do something; you can’t just sit out here and die. The way I figure it, hot air will sink down the shaft and meet the underground cool, and water drops will condense on the aluminum walls, there’ll be a channel along the bottom to collect them. Perpetual slow rain in the desert. Am I a fucking genius or what?”

“Now you’re really getting me hot, okay.”

Maybe she’s right: all I really wanna do anymore is sex. We crawl under the trailer—only place cool enough—and do it, feeling a trace of ghost refrigeration creeping up from below through the dirt against our bare backs. Away from Fat Freddy’s spy eyes, away from outdoor hell. Afterwards, I tell her about my dream to save the planet in my own little way. “Do things small. Do things smart. Not saying I’m Al Gore or anything—”

Friends whose AC still works invite us over for a cool air party. It’s the thing anymore! Like people in the fifties inviting neighbors over to watch TV. In that garbage-stink, fly-swarm hellzone, palm tree fronds sagging down trunks in exhaustion, these parties sometimes turn into orgies. Disaster always makes people horny. Mostly though we just lie about naked and sleep. Too heat-exhausted for sex. You’ve got to wonder how people of the Indian Subcontinent invented the Kama Sutra, hot as it was. Angie reads to me from a blog specializing in “cool air orgies,” which claims the mind’s erogenous zones are stimulated by heat. “That’s why children pee in the hot water of wading pools,” she reads.

“Bullshit. Hot as it is, we’d be peeing constantly. I’ve about stopped peeing. Conserving moisture. You know, we wouldn’t need cool air parties if we lived underground.”


By the end, birds fall dead out of the sky mid-flight. Crickets go dead quiet. The L.A. Times reports the first of the mass extinctions and notes that cockroaches and ants have become more active. We hear them gnawing at plates in the kitchen. San Diego beaches record such high counts of coliform bacteria that the entire populace is ordered inland off the coast. Nights, we hear the hordes shuffling toward us on foot—along roads become like the La Brea Tar Pits, chock full of overheated cars sunk up to the axle in molten asphalt. We envision massive social unrest once they arrive, pitched battles between locals and coasters.

Oddly, the heat wave doesn’t cross the border into Mexico. Temperatures of one-hundred-sixty degrees have been recorded in rugged ravines north of Tecate on the U.S. side, but Tecate townsfolk stroll the plaza in the evening cool, discussing the climatic disaster in El Norte, thanking God they live in Mexico, where they’ve learned to accept the climate and not attempt to bribe it with air conditioning and golf courses, thereby provoking the desert under their feet. “!Mira!” they cry, pointing north. “Desastre del sol.” What joy to be a Mexican “illegal” in the US, able to stroll back across the border at will, while gringos who attempt it are shot on sight.

We watch a sleep-walking weather forecaster predict hotter temperatures into October. Showing video footage of underground bunkers people have dug to escape the heat. “Look!” I cry, pumping my fists in the air. Fat Freddy stands naked out on our porch. “So what’s to celebrate?” he asks. I run out and embrace the smarmy bastard.

“We’re moving underground, Freddy! I tell you, it’s the call of the future.”

He and Angie stare dumbfounded at each other’s naked bodies.

“I think I’m dying,” Freddy says. “There’s blood in my urine.”

“Okay, that does it, people! I’m starting right now.” It’s my social duty to save Freddy from his obsessions. He’s given up Rush and gotten into mass suicide chat lines on the web—sado-necro-porno sites with names like CYANOSEX, BLOOD HIGHWAY, and WACO STYLE. Move over Jonestown. Dis-fuckin-gusting.

With Jake’s dozer out of commission, I start digging by hand, nights when it cools off to one-fifteen. Freddy’s no help and Angie’s in denial. But the hordes are coming, dead pets lie baking in the sun on brown lawns, we’re nearly out of water, remaining salt pines and eucalyptus crack open with explosive bolts midday, even the mesquite and cactus are dying, and the crisp bodies of dead insects crackle underfoot. It’s gotten damn near dire.

Maybe five feet down I hit gravel, sedimentary rock at ten feet—mudstone and sandstone. I drop chunks of it on the porch between Freddy and Angie, who’ve taken to sitting together bareass in the gimpy shade through blistering days. “See that!” I cry. “Proof positive that conditions were better here once. And can be again!”

“Yeah, in maybe two million years.” Freddy grins, Angie giggles. They’ve grown close, those two. My mom used to say, “We’re all bunkmates under the skin.” Those two sure as hell are. Soulmates. Both have lost weight from heat trauma and love to discuss—in minute detail—what it has done to their bodies. Freddy hoists his bowling ball belly in both hands. “Used to be I couldn’t even lift it.” Angie hoists her breasts. “Me either. I was twice this big before. No shit! Twice!” Shaking their heads in wonder.

No hope of carving out a large enough cavern to drop a trailer into, so I burrow into the rock a ten-by-ten cave, smoothing and polishing walls into which the cool of the surrounding earth seeps. It’s like going into a walk-in freezer. Moisture condenses on the walls. I salvage huge commercial AC ducts from an abandoned building at the edge of town and install them in the shaft leading down to the cocoon—my perpetual rain machine. My new plan: move the modular atop the shaft and cut a hole in its floor. Underground air will rise up the shaft and cool the trailer; condensing water will trickle down into collecting pans. We can crawl down there when we need to cool off, sleep down there, all three of us, like bears in a den. We’ll shelter there when hordes arrive from the coast. Though some say fierce Santa Anas roaring through the San Gorgonio Pass have halted their progress. Others say most have died of heat exhaustion. Now and again we catch a hellacious whiff of decomp drifting in from the west.

Angie begs me to fashion a hoist to lift Freddy up and down from the cocoon. “He’s really a nice person when you get to know him. He only hates other people because he hates himself. And doesn’t even hate himself anymore since we became friends.”

“So you’re friends now?” Shaking my head in amazement.

“Oh, get over yourself. I mean, it’s not like we’re doing oral or something. More like girlfriends killing time together.”

“You and Fat Freddy? Rush Limbaugh and the whole number?”

“He doesn’t like being called ‘fat,’ okay! Besides, he’s over that. Going naked has changed his political outlook. He admires you a lot. He calls you, ‘The man with a plan.’”

We jack up the modular and work an old trailer chassis under it, and Freddy helps me push it inch by inch over the shaft. Strong dude. “You can live with us,” I tell him, “but you’ll have to allow us our privacy.” A red tide floods from Freddy’s face down over his chest, genitals, legs. “Fine!” he says, “if you allow us ours.” It’s then I realize he and Angie are sleeping together. Funny, how you expect the hordes to arrive from the west; instead, they move into your house from next door.

Those two are quite happy with the new AC system and all. Me? I consider moving into Freddy’s trailer. Seeing Angie sitting in Freddy’s lap, toying with his dewlaps is more than I can handle. “You’ll have to permit me access to water. After all, I devised and built the damn thing.”

“Oh, get over yourself,” Angie says.

It’s cooling off anyhow. Meltdown over. Given that all the San Diegans perished in the flight from the city and real estate prices are dirt cheap, I consider moving over there. Maybe do renovation work. Freddy and Angie talk about starting a family. “Wouldn’t it be adorable: a bunch of cuddly, roly-poly little Freddy juniors running about with their Ipods tuned to Rush Limbaugh?” Angie claps her hands. I realize she has begun to put on weight.


I meet a gal in Palm Desert who insists this has all been a trial run. “The Supreme One is testing to see how resilient we are. Like North Korea. He’s smiling to himself.”

“Who’s The Supreme One?” I ask her.

She winks. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

Miranda has thick black hair that hangs to her waist, she dresses like a Gypsy, wears dozens of gold bangles that merrily clank and jangle on her arms. The moment I step inside her house to replace mirrors that have cracked in the heat, she tells me we’d better go ahead and get married while we still can. “What the hell!” I laugh. “I don’t even know you.”

“Sure you do!” she says. “Do you really think Freddy and Angie didn’t know each other? You think they weren’t soulmates from the very beginning?”

“Beginning of what?” I sputter. “How do you know about those two, anyway?”

She winks and tweaks my nose. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

I’m not half way through installing the first mirror when I see her standing naked in it behind me—but for gold bracelets and tattoos adorning her breasts, a dense embroidery of flowers, beasts, symbols across her belly and thighs. We begin a cool air orgy like the fantasy orgies written up on blogs. Unfuckingreal. Bangles jangle on her arms. We yip, nip and howl like coyotes that once roamed the hills. Afterwards, we lay together grinning up at the ceiling of her bedroom, on which condensation collects as it did on the walls of my sandstone cave. “So you knew this was going to happen before you asked me over here, I guess?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” She points to my visage tattooed over her left nipple.

We are married within a week. What choice really? Fate is fate.

Of course, Miranda’s right. When it comes, the great quake severs us from the rest of the continent. Earthquake weather: sere dog days of autumn that wrinkle the earth’s crust. It’s like instructions have been penned along the dotted line of the Nevada/Arizona/California border: fold and tear here. California and Baja slide into the Pacific like a great iceberg calf and begin floating towards Hawaii. California Nuevo finally becomes the free and sovereign nation it was always meant to be. Gentled by the Japanese current, we are island people basking in island breezes. Cuba invites us to form an alliance, with Australia and Japan! Big dreams. The ocean floods the Mojave and laps at shores of the Sierra Nevada. We stand at heights of Kings Canyon among the sequoia and look out at water stretching off to our east. Wind surfing off our “east bank” is some of the best in the world.

Angie and Freddy? I haven’t the heart to find out, but fear they were asleep down in the cocoon when the Pacific came flooding into the Great Basin. Their dreams of a family undone. I’d never imagined I was digging them a grave.

Luckily, Miranda and I were sleeping outside the night of the earthquake, our wedding night. After the dizzying rush westward into the trough of the San Andreas Fault—riding atop a tectonic plate that bobbed like a Boogie Board—we felt waters moving deep underfoot, heard them thundering toward us from the northeast. Miranda grabbed my hand and we ran to her dad’s old cabin cruiser parked on a trailer beside the house, clambered into it just as the first breakers rushed in, lifted and carried us away.

Moored now in the flooded canyon at the base of the old Palm Springs Tramway, like an Adriatic inlet, blue-green waters of the Great Baja Causeway separating us from the continent (just a line far in the distance). We’ve reinvented ourselves as ferry boaters, running tourists back and forth between Nevada and California Nuevo. Miranda reads their fortunes, and I warn them that her fortunes always come true. Of course they don’t believe me.

Sure, we have our problems: threats of invasion from the Feds, boat people arriving from the Pacific Northwest (“We could handle the rain,” they say, “so long as we knew we could always drive down to California and dry off”), ecofreaks who’d long assumed that when disaster struck we wouldn’t survive it and are depressed that we have. There’s still work to be done: bodies to bury, swimming pools to fill in, portions of our eastern slope that are sloughing off into the sea. In the pre-Nuevo days we worked, too, but never so seriously. Truth is, we’ve grown up some. All peoples must have a past, must be able to point back to disaster and say: See what we’ve lived through. Limitless as we were, we needed to define our limits and limit ourselves to them. Death of the California spirit, some say. I say, Who knows what wonders are yet to come?

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury