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That Thing Called The L.A. River

Categories: NER Classics

By James Brown

James Brown’s essay “Fire” appeared in NER 23.1:

The Santa Anas die down as I approach Los Angeles and I ease up on the wheel. I take a deep breath. But I know it’s only temporary, this calm. I know better than to let myself relax. That thing called the L.A. River borders the last stretch of the freeway into Burbank, and I look out on it, the dirty water, moving sluggishly through the narrow concrete channel that contains it. Over the rush of the cars I try to imagine it as I was told it used to be, a real river, filled with trout and salmon and lined with sycamores and willows instead of chainlink and barbed wire. But I’m not successful. I think about my brother. I think about my sister. We are children down by that river on a day very much like this with the wind blowing lightly and the smell of fire in the air. I’m nine years old, the youngest, and we’re passing a bottle around, a bottle I’ve stolen from a grocery store nearby. My sister points to the sky.

“Look. Look,” she says. “Snow.”

Only they’re ashes. Ashes are falling. Ashes are everywhere, and in the sunlight they appear white, almost translucent. My head is spinning and I laugh. My brother laughs. I can hear us all laughing as we look to the sky, opening our mouths, catching ashes, like snowflakes, until our tongues turn black.

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