Ambient and Isolated Effects of Fine Particulate Matter

On Thursday the sun rose red and stayed red, and stared at us red and red through the shifting candlewax layers of sky. We sealed the windows and cancelled gym, and forbade the children to leave until their mothers came for them, and through lunch period they pressed their noses to the glass and left smears of rainbow oils there. Before their faces and ours the bloody halo crept through the silhouettes of our buildings, picking its way down the foothills, stealing hot and infected towards the wide soft swathe of nothing that had once been San Francisco.

In the early afternoon the children left in bunches and tangles, clusters of heaving minivans like lifeboats. We gathered in the teacher’s lounge and stood with our hands wrapped round our one o’clock coffee mugs and said quietly to each other and ourselves the air quality numbers in the neighborhoods to which we would be driving through the greyness: Montclair and Emeryville, San Antonio and El Cerrito, one-eighty-five, two-seventeen, two-fifty, two seventy-one.

Some of us had masks, and some did not. Some had the wrong masks—the flimsy kind, thin and cotton, with no wires at the top to mold over our noses and cheekbones—and we discarded these in the wastebasket, a growing pile of white leaves. Those who did have the right masks put them on and looked at the others with invisible mouths, invisible lips. There were no spares.

The school was a good school. The neighborhood was a good neighborhood. It was in the Oakland hills, and it perched over the Oakland flatlands, their density and cement and graffiti and barred windows, like a pale and decorous vulture. On its borders there was a cemetery, and the cemetery was Oakland writ small: the graves dappled down the hill, and at the top were great marble monuments, pyramids and temples and fountains, and at the bottom flat stones sunk into the grass. As children we had come to these stones and sat upon them and had picnics for our birthday parties. We had stared up at the angels of the rich, and they had stared sightlessly down at us. Beneath them, we had wondered, were the rich staring, too?

Now we stood by our cars in the teachers’ parking lot and prepared to pour ourselves down the stooped hills and into the low concrete mazes we called home. Our phones were already alight with emails: would the children have school tomorrow? Would they have school next week? Would they be allowed to re-take their tests, re-write their essays, would there be extra credit? We drove through the grey and the deep grey shadows of the trees. Surely, wrote the parents, even if the district forbade the schools to open, the SAT preparation night would not be cancelled? The college essay preparation night would not be cancelled? Through the dust gathering on our windshields we watched the streetlights shudder into life ahead of us. They knew the property values of this good neighborhood, the parents did not say. They knew the price of this good school.

We sat at our kitchen tables and listened to our husbands read to us in rough voices news articles about what had happened in Paradise. Fathers had run back through fire for their daughters. Families had stood by the side of the road praying for their cars to start up again with the heat beating at their faces. Dogs had survived, and not survived. We closed our eyes and tried to see it, but there was nothing behind our eyelids, only colorlessness.

On Friday the schools were closed all day. Those of us with masks pulled them on and walked out to buy bread, and fruit, and fish for dinner. Some of us hovered in the grocery store by the tall white shelves of bottled water; the great drought was a memory less than a year old. Many of us still had buckets under the faucets in our bathtubs, so that nothing should be wasted. In the grocery store we looked at the water and saw the plastic, stacks and stacks of it like shark’s teeth, cylinders huddled together, as if the water were afraid of loneliness and afraid of touching. Those of us without masks stayed home.

The parents began to write new emails: they would not be coming to the college essay night, they said. They would not be coming to the SAT preparation night. Their lungs were weak. Their chests hurt. They had been getting over a cold; now, they could not get over it. They could not breathe. They could not breathe. They could not breathe.

They were leaving Oakland, the parents said. They were driving to their cabins in the mountains. Some of their children were coming with them; others were staying behind. They would return when the air was clear. They would return, once the fire had ended. They would come back to the city once it had made itself clean.

Many of these families had cabins in the mountains. They would ski there in the winter and swim there in the summer. This was the great mountain range on which storms broke and died, the mountain range that had made a desert of Nevada and Utah when the world was younger; these were the mountains in which the Donner Party had sat under snow and ice and eaten the meat from each other’s bones. They were covered in blue lakes and green forests. If you walked into these forests, late at night, you could look up and see the whole Milky Way spilling herself from horizon to horizon, under billions of miles of clear and shuddering sky.

Whereas it was not possible to do this in Oakland even before the fire.

The newscasters began to ask when the smoke would clear. For each other they had no answer. The fire, it seemed, would need to die, or the wind would need to change; no scientist knew when either event would come. They cut to their reporters, wide-eyed young women mouthing muffled news through their own masks in front of a blurred horizon. The cool red circle of the sun stared at us through the television.

Schools were closed again all next week. The district told us they would open after Thanksgiving, regardless of air quality. The children could not miss school forever, said the district. We hunched into ourselves over our laptops at our kitchen tables and shuffled and re-shuffled our lesson plans. We walked up the avenues to run errands and ducked into buildings softened to haze. Beside and behind us moved the people of the city, their faces wrapped in blue masks. When they held the doors of BART trains for us and counted dimes and quarters next to us and put our groceries in paper bags their hands were deep brown and tan, scarred and freckled and wrinkled and calloused, but their faces were all paper-blue, pastel blue, as blue as the sky.

Beside the BART station a woman sat down on the ground and began to cough. A crowd gathered around her almost immediately, a clot in the streetflow, and watched her cough until her inhales rasped and sizzled. One of us asked if anyone had called a doctor. The woman said, in between coughs, that no one should call a doctor. She would be healthier without a bill, she said. We watched her until the light changed, and then we dissolved into passers-by, pushing beside her, through her. The smoke hung heavy overhead, and the train roared above like thunder.

The classrooms were emptier on Monday, and the students’ voices sounded too loud inside them. They did not seem to wish to speak. When we asked them questions, their answers trailed off into silence. When it was time for gym class, they ran laps around the inside of the theater, the only noise their sneakers thumping over the red carpet, up onto the creaking stage. It took us nearly half the period to realize two boys had gone missing; when we went to look, we found them on the lawn above the library, looking down the hill from which the previous month they had been able to see the whole San Francisco Bay. One of them was holding a joint in his hand; as we came up behind them, he dropped it, unlit, and began coughing hoarse and wispy into his elbow. Half an hour later, when his mother had appeared at the gates in her minivan with her face tight and plastic and afraid, he had still not stopped coughing.

The smoke began to press closer. The sky began to settle lower each morning. It had been difficult to see down the hill; now, it became difficult to see across the street. We woke each morning to a fine layer of grey on our cars, on our lawns. If we stood outside long enough, we found ourselves shaking grey out of our hair. The older women among us told jokes about old age; the younger ones said nothing, but cut their hair short, so that in the thick tangles of their ponytails and braids and curls the colorlessness no longer collected so clearly.

We wondered if the students would ask about this. Some of us even prepared lectures on the topic, clinical or comforting, biological or historical or philosophical, depending on our fields of expertise. But the students were coming to school less, now, joining their parents far from the city in tens and twenties. Those families without houses in the mountains continued to email us, more frantic each day. The district would cancel school again, they said. The district had cancelled girls’ tennis, and football. The district did not know when the fire would end. What was our plan for the children to keep their GPAs? What was our plan for the children to keep their scholarships?

Some of us, the ones who lived near enough to the good school in the good neighborhood, took the bus home. On the bus, we began to notice, the people sitting next to us had grey in them. On their hair, in their clothes, of course, like us; but also not like us. The skin of their hands was grey, and their eyes were grey above their masks. They said nothing to anyone—not the bus driver, not the teenage boys shouting dirty things from across the aisle, not the tired-eyed woman asking them for money. None of us saw the grey people leave the bus; our stops always seemed to come before theirs did. We did not mention the grey people to each other. We did not even mention them to our husbands. But we did not forget the way they looked, how they stared at the city rushing by out the window, as if it were invisible, as if there were nothing there at all.

The parents, from their cabins in the mountains, posted photos of the tall frosted pine trees, of their sons or daughters skating out onto mirrored lakes. In these photos the sun was yellow. The light it cast was as white as the snow.

It became difficult to see across a room. It became difficult to see our hands in front of our faces. We drove to school with our headlights on and watched the soft dust fall onto our windshields. In the teachers’ lounge we took to grading essays in brighter and brighter colors: purple, green, pink sparkling gel pen, as if we were the teenage girls we had once been. It did not seem to matter. We picked up each piece of paper when we were done and shook it, and watched the ash on it settle to the carpet. The writing below was empty of all color. Even the black printed ink was faded, as if it had been sitting in a room forgotten for many years.

That weekend, one of us had a date, a concert in San Francisco. We wished her luck. The local news did not report from San Francisco any more; sometimes they would drive out to Treasure Island and turn their cameras west, and we would watch the lights of the Salesforce Tower, visible through the haze for a few silent seconds and then gone again. No one had seen Coit Tower since the fire began. There was no word from the tech companies, though we sometimes still saw their buses, employees-only, easing slowly down the streets from our homes towards the South Bay. We saw no one at their windows; but then again, we never had.

A student who we had thought long-gone, one of the earliest to flee to the mountains, showed up in school on Wednesday. We said nothing to her, but we wondered: her face had gone pale as chalk. When she was asked a direct question, she answered in a voice so soft no one could hear her. One of us, who had advised her on her college essay and who knew something of her troubles at home, went to go find her during lunch. She was not sitting with her usual friends, who were huddled on the curled brown lawn slipping bites of sandwiches under their masks. She was standing by the gates, staring at the red eye of the sun. She was not moving. She was not wearing a mask. She was breathing slowly, shallowly, and the grey had settled into her eyelashes and the folds of her coat.

The woman who had gone into San Francisco did not come to school. When we called her cell phone, there was no answer; not even her answering machine picked up. Instead, there was a thin, rustling static, which, when we listened closely, sounded almost like voices.

That night, watching the news from New York and Washington, we did not recognize the sun in the sky behind the newscasters. It was not that it was yellow, or that its light was clear and good. It was that there was something foreign about these things; it was that these things did not belong to us. This sun had never come to our city. It was not Oakland’s star.

The next day the district cancelled classes again, and said this time they did not know when school would start up. That morning, as if by prearranged signal, we cleared our classrooms. Those of us who had children paid them a few dollars to help with the heavy lifting; the rest of us labored alone, unpeeling carefully taped posters and art projects, wiping stray ink from the whiteboards, packing pamphlets and textbooks into cardboard boxes that we piled in front of the gates and carried one by one to the trunks of our cars. Our children crawled under desks and unstuck cracked old gum from their metal undersides, laughing through the small blue masks we had fit over their faces. Somewhere in the midst of this cleaning one of us found a few others in the teachers’ lounge, and said what each of us had already known: she had called her grown-up daughter, who lived in New York, and there had been no answer. No answer from her brother in Boston or her parents in Los Angeles. The television had ceased to broadcast national news, statewide news, reality shows, soap operas; even the radio carried no voices. There was only the quiet whispering of the ash.

We appeared to each other in the courtyard like ghosts, silhouettes bursting into color and then fading again. We carried each other’s detritus and swept each other’s classroom floors. When we were done, a little before noon, we gathered by the gates, and clasped each other’s hands, and kissed each other on the cheek, lips touching thin blue cloth touching skin. We told each other how very good it had been to work together. Then we let go, and went to our cars, and rolled up the windows, and listened to the low cough of our own engines.

At home, around half past one, I startled: I had forgotten my favorite book at school. I said this to my husband, though I did not know if he was listening, and I tied my mask back onto my face. Then I drove up through and through the greyness, past the BART station and the cemetery, into the winding hills. The streets were empty; I did not even have to use the teachers’ parking lot. I unlocked the gates and walked down across the lawn, around the library, and into the building which housed the classroom where I had once taught.

My book was on my desk, just where I had left it. I picked it up, went into the hall, pulled my keys from my purse and locked the door of my classroom behind me.

When I heard my key click, I heard another noise, coming from the classroom next to mine. It was a soft sound; if I hadn’t been listening for the lock, I would never have heard it. It was not a sound of breathing or speaking. It was a soft rustling, like dry leaves. I took a step to the right and put my hand to that classroom’s doorknob—it was not locked—and eased it open, and put my eye to the crack.

They were there, all of them, every child whose parents had taken them away to the safety of the mountains. Each of them sitting at attention, with their faces faded as old newspaper. None of them were wearing masks. At the front of the classroom was the woman who had gone into San Francisco, and she was speaking, or trying to speak; her mouth was moving, but she was making no sound.

I opened the door just a little further. None of them moved.

I pushed it fully open and walked into the classroom. None of their heads turned. I said the name of one of the students; he did not look at me. I reached out to my fellow teacher and touched her hand, and I watched as her body shuddered and swirled and fell in clouds of soft fine greyness to the carpet below.

They stood, then, the Oaklanders who had reached the mountains, the Oaklanders who had escaped the smoke, the Oaklanders who had left our city for the higher ground without looking back. They stood and they pressed towards me, reaching out their hands, drifting through the desks and the chairs, and when they touched me they burst into grey, three of them at a time, five, ten, and I began to cough, and could not stop coughing. They would not stop coming. They would not stop dissolving, and yet they would not stop coming. I felt buried, buried under them, under their ash and their silence and their unceasing, limitless want. I felt like the city, vanished into endless softness. I felt like the sun.