too many words by laura lemay


“…and in the South Bay, we have a three-car accident on southbound 85 just before Saratoga.”

South Bay! South Bay! The mother in the minivan fumed as the traffic in front of her moved exactly ten feet and then glided again to a stop. Why did they always talk about the South Bay and never what was going on where she was. “When are we going to get home, Mama?” the child in the back seat asked her. “Soon, Allie,” the mother replied, trying to keep her voice calm and her hands not so tightly clenched on the wheel as the clouds around them darkened. Looks like a storm’s coming in, she thought. I hope we make it home by then.

“On the Bay Bridge the metering lights are on and the traffic is backed up well beyond the maze…”

The top-notch executive in the convertible sports car made a split-second decision. He abruptly transferred his cell phone to his other ear, shifted his car into second, turned his head to check the next lane, steered with one knee and cut off the car next to him, all while simultaneously castigating his CFO for last quarter’s numbers. This gained him one car length’s position. The driver of the car he had cut off shouted something. The executive made a rude gesture out the window, and something fell on his hand and stuck there.

Curiously, he pulled his hand back into the car. Stuck to the back of his hand was a large piece of ash, an ash that might have risen from a log in a fireplace and then settled back again into the hearth.

He looked up, looked around. Fires were not unusual for this area, and a fire up ahead would explain the rotten traffic today. But there wasn’t any smell of smoke in the air, and the dark clouds ahead of them were rain clouds, not smoke. As the executive watched more ash began to fall all around them, falling lazily to the ground like grey powdery snowflakes and drifting in clusters on the hood of his car. “I have to go,” the executive snapped at his cell phone.

“In Napa County Highway 29 watch out for a ladder in the roadway. CHP is en route…”

The electrician’s truck wasn’t doing so well in this traffic, and he eyed his gauges worriedly as they creeped upward. His brother had told him just that weekend that the water pump was going to be a problem, but he had laughed. This old Ford had been nothing but rock solid for him for years, it would last a few more weeks. He had some good jobs down in the valley to do, high-paying jobs, and that would give him some money to fix up the truck.

He watched uneasily as the ashes fell heavily from the blackened clouds and not a car on the road was moving, not an inch. People all around him were getting out of their cars, faces turned toward the sky, holding their hands up to catch the ashes, pressing their fingers against them, crushing them in their palms.

“Highway 17 slows at the Summit…”

The electrician heard the first raindrops hit the roof of his truck like tiny marbles, tap tap tap. Then he saw one drop onto the hood, sizzle, and the vanish in a bit of steam. Another, larger, slapped down bright red on the sheet metal, rested for a moment, and then melted right through it.

“My God,” the electrician swore, crossed himself and slammed his truck into reverse. He accelerated backward, crushing the bumper of the car behind him, then shifted again and came forward. It was no use, he was trapped in traffic.

“Roadwork at Fillmore and Van Ness…”

The air was growing hot as the drops became a sprinkle became a storm, and there were cries and shouts from cars all around him. Molten raindrops pocked his truck; one came through the roof and melted through the seat next to him leaving a stink of burnt plastic and foam rubber. The electrician pressed his hands to his mouth and prayed.

“Traffic is stopped at the 101/880 interchange….”

In the executive’s car, the convertible top provided no protection against the rain, and the drops punched through again and again and again. The executive used his briefcase for a while to try and cover his head, but after a while not even the best quality leather workmanship money can buy could stop it.

“Nothing but brake lights all the way from 880 to the toll plaza on the Dumbarton Bridge…”

The mother in the minivan was in the fast lane, and she got out of traffic and drove into the grassy median, something that had only occurred to a few other drivers on the road. But there the rain had pooled in the ground and it was only a matter of a few feet before the tires overheated and melted and blew. She did not get far. As the minivan ground to a stop she got out of the front seat, pulled her screaming daughter out of the baby seat and curled up on the floor of the back seat as the storm pattered noisily down on the roof, sounding entirely like the big thunderstorms she used to remember when she was growing up in the midwest and had missed so much when she moved to California.

“And this just coming up on my screen, it looks like we have a major backup on the Sunol grade due to a rain of fire. CHP is asking people to use alternate routes. More weather and traffic every eight minutes.”