By Vanessa Naylon
My best story takes place ten years ago in Globe, Arizona, in an ugly doublewide trailer.
Globe is a small town in the high eastern desert of Arizona, which means it’s chilly or even cold 9 months out of the year, unlike the low deserts of Phoenix, Mesa, and Yuma. Globe is part of a tri-city area with a total population of no more than 12,000. Check it out:
My parents (my mother and stepfather, specifically) had just bought a house there. More of a dirty doublewide tinder box than the site-built homes most of us picture when we imagine houses, their new house was a dumpy, smelly property they’d decided to buy before they even got inside to look at it.
This particular dump perched atop 5 acres of hill with impressive, expansive, serene mountain views to east and west, and almost no neighbors. The house itself was incidental. I personally didn’t think the sickening odor of cat (“cats” — definitely multiple cats) was incidental, but as a family we value the ability to see beauty where it counts.
We fixed the place up surprisingly well. Mom and I practically gutted the place, ripping out old carpet and washing and repainting the walls, putting everything just so. Mom is a fastidious housekeeper.
On the twelfth of June that year, she and I sat in the shade on our back porch, smoking the Virginia Slims menthols we smoked back then. We liked doing nothing but smoking and looking at the mountains, but it was too hot to stay outside. My stepfather was out of town for the weekend, so I worked in his office instead, editing his first book. Mom cleaned things up.
Later we smelled something odd, something faintly dusty. Arizona air often scores high in tests for “particulate matter” (dust and dirt). We sniffed the air in all the rooms, bewildered, and then agreed that it must be dust kicked up by the air conditioner, which we had never turned on until that day. We shrugged mutually.
“I’m going to the grocery store,” Mom said.
“I’m going to edit some more,” I said.
A while later, I smelled that smell again, stronger. And I walked into the living room to turn off that air conditioner, and I noticed that the ceiling was filling with dark gray smoke.
And that the back porch was glowing orange.
I learned a few things that day. One: never try to put out a house fire with a mixing bowl and water from the kitchen sink. You’re wasting time you could be spending deciding to carry outside, once you figure out that you’re supposed to run outside.
This brings me to my second takeaway: make sure to decide before the fire what items you’d like to run out of your house with, because you’ll never think of it in the moment. I left with the cordless phone — thanks, 911 — but without my shoes. My mother naturally knows exactly what she would have taken from the house as she fled. Unfortunately for me, she was at the grocery store, buying ice cream sandwiches that would be left melting in her car’s trunk once she returned to find her house smoking and collapsing.
But I can’t take credit for everything. Dedicated to cleanliness as she is, my mother had dumped our two smoldering cigarette stubs into a wicker trash basket. The embers must have slowly smoked the paper trash before working the entire porch into flame.
And that’s the beginning of my favorite story: how I learned about being happy.