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Author Bio

imageSpanish translation



Walter was supposed to be picking up their wedding invitations in the Marina when the trembling began, but instead he was stuck at work in the Tenderloin, and the cheap old construction there  vibrated so violently it was like the building itself was attempting some kind of vertical thrust.  “Is this an earthquake?” Walter shouted to the two women who had also stayed past five, and they glanced at him as if he was a moron and then returned immediately to a wary regard of the offices, apparently trying to determine whether they’d be sucked downward or shot into orbit.  When the quaking stopped, both women wordlessly gathered their bags and descended the stairs, Walter hurrying after them so as not to be the last one out; really, he just wanted to get home to Claire.
            On the street, the stoplights were off, sirens had already begun not terribly far away, and the collection of the drunk and the drugged who frequented Hyde and Eddy eyed Walter with their usual hunger, calling to each other in words he could not quite hear.  His colleagues had vanished as if through an escape hatch, the pavement still seemed to be shaking, there was the smell of something like gunshot, and broken glass glittered up and down the sidewalk.  At his crummy car, the veneer of the wall of the nearby pharmacy had peeled from its edifice and was now touching the driver side door.  He squeezed in, locked the door, and twisted the key in the ignition.  The car started!  He was out from the curb and the wall, turning onto Hyde, people ambling from their stations on the sidewalk as if to greet him or seek his assistance, and he kept his foot on the gas and at the first unlit light turned on Turk and joined a row of obviously frazzled traffic.  So this was an earthquake.  He thought it had lasted about fifteen or twenty or thirty seconds.  Was that long?
            It was past the middle of October, just past his twenty-eighth birthday, and he and Claire had moved here only a month ago.  He wasn’t liking it so much but he wasn’t hating it either.  Their corner of the Upper Haight had a lot of skateboarders fueled on crack, and his nonprofit fundraising job was in the city’s worst neighborhood, and the grit was beginning to get to him.  The past few weeks, spurred by a visit from Walter’s New Age-y sister, Claire had begun to fret about living in an earthquake zone, and he had to keep telling her to stop worrying about it, that that kind of thing rarely happened, and when it did, almost nobody even felt it.  But he’d felt that.  And now he was so rattled he was completely blowing off picking up their wedding invites, almost as if he was blowing off the wedding itself, but he had to get home to Claire.  If she had felt what he had just felt, she would be freaking out.  Yet maybe it was nothing.  He kept looking discreetly into the cars around him, trying to discern how the locals were taking it, and everybody was staring fixedly ahead, as though they were riding through a heavy storm or some kind of white-out.  Four blocks up and there were still no functioning traffic lights, and it was easy to think that lurking within and beyond the grim apartment buildings was some kind of general free-for-all.  At least it was broad daylight.  If he could get home before dark, he ought to be fine.  He flicked through the stations on the radio, the car’s electricity a miracle in a city apparently without any power, but he didn’t yet know where the news stations were, and the jumble that was coming out as he tore through the channels was a mélange of histrionics that he could not piece together.  What the hell was the Cypress Freeway?  The Bay Bridge he understood, though he still often confused it with the Golden Gate; it wasn’t like they’d been using either one.  And the Marina…the Marina was burning.  He knew he should stop and try to call her, to assure her he wasn’t there, but being out and about in this particular questionable neighborhood didn’t seem like a good idea, and who knew if the pay phones worked, and did he even have change? 
            When the car crested the last of the hills and he could see the outline of the Lower Haight, he sighed and wiped the sweat from his face.  Even if his car broke into pieces, he was close enough to walk.  This was almost exciting if it wasn’t so unnerving.  An earthquake! He kept focused on the road, on the weirdly polite traffic, everyone seemingly taking care not to slam into each other at the open-season intersections, even though you could tell they all just wanted to get the hell home.
            Haight itself appeared to be its usual party, though for some reason people were looking at the sky.  He took the turn onto Clayton and in a few short minutes was parking in his regular spot to the side of their apartment at the top of their streetcorner.  He was practically out of the car before the motor stopped running, slamming the door locked, racing up the street to their entry, taking the eight steps two at a time, jamming his key into the lock and tearing the door open.
            “Hello?” he shouted.  “Hello!”  Even though the apartment was barely two rooms and a tiny kitchen.
            Silence.  Frantically he looked for a note.  “Hello?  Hello?”  The phone on the wall was dead.  Where was she?  He jumped back outside, where everyone was looking at each other with the same uncertainty as they’d been looking at the sky, people shaking their heads as if they couldn’t quite believe it.
            “The Bay Bridge,” someone said.
            “And the Marina!”  Someone else was pointing with one hand while dazedly cupping the back of her head.  Down beyond Haight in the far distance they all could see black smoke rising endlessly into the still sunny sky.
            “Has anybody got a portable TV?”
            Walter and Claire had one friend in the neighborhood, an avuncular poet who lived four doors down on Frederick.  Could she be there?  He knocked on the door.
            “Come in,” he thought he heard.
            He opened the door into the long dark hallway off of which on either side were anciently wall-papered rooms, each with a hodgepodge of furniture.  It was a huge apartment, a bit dilapidated, a bit shabby, with separate closets for the toilet and the sink and shower, peeling paint and paper, and metal chains dripping from each overhead light fixture like strings of thrift shop jewelry.  Out back was the park, more of a dog walk, a downward slope between Clayton and Cole dotted during the day with rushing commuters and young mothers camped out with tiny children, and at night with the homeless and dealers reclaiming their long-held posts.   Sometimes the fog was so thick you couldn’t see any of them, and sometimes the park was so empty it was like the hill had grown suddenly steeper and flung everyone down into Cole Valley.  It was a place that at the same moment could feel very romantic and very dangerous, and sometimes he loved living there and sometimes he doubted he could stand another minute of it.
           At the end of the dreary hallway he found Claire, sitting on Miles’s sofa, her eyes red-rimmed, her hand clutching wadded Kleenex, looking so much like the girl he’d met when they’d both been hospitalized in the same psychiatric unit nine years ago, that he had to touch the wall for a moment to keep his balance.  Miles sat in a chair next to her, hunched forward.
            “It’s you,” she said.  She shot up from the sofa and they reached each other in the center of the living room.  Their hug was fierce, like maybe they were two people who’d thought they might not see each other again.
            “You were supposed to be in the Marina,” she said.
            “I was running late,” he said.
            “I’m afraid I’m out of alcohol,” Miles said.  “I was in the Organic Foods buying arugula, and I just came right home.  Who do you think I should call about class tonight?  I really think I should call someone.”
            The three of them stood there looking at each other as if they weren’t sure who any of them were or where they were or both.
            “All the phones are down,” Claire said, wrenching her exhausted Kleenex.  “I couldn’t call anyone, though I was on the phone when it happened.”
            “Maybe we should try to buy some alcohol,” Walter said.  “Do you think any place is open?”
            “I have class in half an hour,” Miles said.
            They walked back up the long hall and out onto the pavement.  The light was beginning to decline.  People sat on stoops fiddling with portable radios.  They descended the hill to Cole, where several unshaven men were grouped around a car atop which sat a battery-powered black and white television.  The bistro and the dive bar and the chi-chi restaurant across the street were all locked up tight.
            “What’s going on with the Series?” Miles asked the guys.
            “Dunno.  It ain’t on the air.”
            They all peered closely at the television.
            “The Marina is on fire,” one of the guys explained.
            “You can see it from the top of the street,” Walter said.
            The guy glared at him.  “This here is better.”
            Miles led them down Cole toward Haight.  Various small grocery stores were already shuttered, the sun was clearly setting and it was almost getting a little cold.  Along the street couples and families were funneling back into their buildings, looking over their shoulders one last time to make sure the ground was still there.
            “You sure this is a good idea?” Walter said.
            “It beats being without any hooch.  We’re gonna need some hooch.  I knew I should have gone for the liquor first.”
            “I told you something like this was going to happen,” Claire said to no one in particular.
            Walter was still wondering what the hell arugula was.
            There was a line outside of the first open liquor store on Haight, people standing carefully alone or in pairs as if they’d been delegated their particular spots.
            “You three together?” a muscular guy in a T-shirt with its short sleeves rolled even further up asked.
            “Yes,” Walter said.
            “Normally we’re only letting two in at a time.  But you three look all right.”
            “Thank you,” Claire said.
            “I wonder how Bruno is doing,” Miles said.  “God, I wish I smoked.”
            They peered down the street at the ZamZam Room, where the maniacal little man in the bow tie usually was bellowing at unwelcome visitors, “The tables are closed!  The tables are closed!”  He only ever allowed bar seating, and you had to have your money placed just so on the counter for him to even take your order.  The ZamZam was as dark and closed up as everything else.  Across the way some guys were hammering in plywood over the large glass window of a bookstore while a group of the Haight’s great unwashed stood around watching through a haze of their own smoke.
            “It’s like a beach in hurricane season,” Claire observed unhappily.
            “Okay, you three,” the muscle guy said.
            They were led into the candle-lit shop.
            “Choose quickly,” the guy behind the register said.  “A lot of people are waiting and we don’t want any trouble.”
            Somehow all the prices had been removed from everything, or maybe they’d never been there in the first place; Walter could not recall shopping here before, but the enterprise reeked of opportunism and a general indifference to the plight of humanity.  They chose a bourbon and a vodka and two six packs that were still cold and took them to the register.  The guy held each item up as if weighing it.
            “Fifty-five,” he said.
            “Fifty-five?” Walter said.
            “Fifty-five,” Miles agreed.
            “Dollars.  Cash only.  Exact change if possible.”
            They mustered the fifty-five, and Walter and Miles each took a six and a bottle.  They began to hurry back up Cole.
            “God it gets dark quick,” Walter said.
            “It’s seven-thirty.  It’s supposed to be fucking dark,” Miles said.  “Now if I’d been in the liquor store like I was supposed to be, and not buying fucking arugula, none of this would be happening.”
            “I wish they’d given us bags,” Claire said.  “I wish we’d been more ready for this kind of thing.”
            “Me, too, my dear,” Miles said.  “But it’s a hard thing to want to get ready for when it almost never happens.”
            The long street seemed longer than before.  Now only the sketchy elements were out, wearing their grimy wifebeaters and torn jeans and sneakers that looked like they’d been run over by lawn mowers, passing forty-ounce bottles of beer, looking up and down the street as though they were expecting something to happen or deciding whether they had to be the guys to start it.
            “The last big one was 1906,” Miles said.  “Everybody knows that.  Light a cigarette, will you?”
            They stopped and Claire quickly lit a cigarette and they continued, keeping Claire between them like she herself was a packaged good that needed to be protected.  Were there really no other women out on Cole?  There were really no other women out on Cole.
            “Shit,” Walter said.  “Fuck.”
            They were walking not too quickly so as not to attract attention.  They were walking as if they belonged there. 
            “I never canceled my class,” Miles said.
            “I’m pretty sure it canceled itself,” Claire said, and took a long drag on the cigarette.  Ahead gangs of young men were tensed on various stoops as if waiting to be released into the street.  They scowled, they glared, they rubbed their knuckles like they were desperate to unleash them into fists; their bare arms had more than tattoos, scars from knife or bottle fights.  It all reminded him of the Tenderloin, where he felt that wherever he stepped something might go off underfoot.
            The first group they passed said nothing; from the second group came a typical wolf whistle; a third group tossed a bottle that crashed right behind Walter’s left heel.  They kept walking.
            “You should hang with us,” someone called after Claire.  “We’ve got more stuff than what they got, and stronger too.”
            “We got everything,” some other guy said, tugging at his crotch.  “And that’s not accounting for what we really got.”
            “Nice,” Walter said.
            “Shut up, Walter,” Miles said.
            Before they could reach the next test someone rose and stood in the center of the sidewalk, as if to welcome them.
            “Are we crossing?” Walter said under his breath.
            “Yeah, we live over there now.”  Miles reached his arm across the back of Claire to Walter’s shoulder and hustled them both into the street like it was a frontier river that had to be forded.
           “Faggots,” the guy standing on the sidewalk said.
            They were all breathing a bit hard as they stepped up onto the opposite sidewalk, where it felt hotter and darker than it should have been, an airlessness closing in and sealing them off from the rest of the neighborhood in not a good way.
            “That’s the thing about Cole,” Miles said bitterly.  “There’s never enough light and for the longest while there aren’t any cross streets, like somebody forgot to put them in.”
            “Hey!”  Claire pointed with her cigarette.  From up the street a cruiser was wandering toward them, its spotlight almost pinning them to the sidewalk.
            “Well, what do you know,” Miles said, “there is a cop when you need one.”
            It coasted past them and turned onto Haight before they could even begin to count on it.
            “Guess that was that,” Walter muttered.
            “It’s not like we could have flagged him down,” Claire said.  “Is it?”
             “Probably he’s off to stuff that is already happening,” Miles said.
            “Outstanding,” Walter said.
            They started walking again.  Why this side of the street had no one on it was a question no one wanted to ask, but at least this side met a cross street.
            “Cigarette’s almost out,” Claire said.
            “Light another while you walk,” Miles said.
            She lit another while they walked.  They weren’t more than five minutes from all the commerce of Upper Cole, but in the distance there appeared to be only a few flashlights and lit candles and other strange small wands of brightness.  Perhaps too there was a fire in a barrel, but it was impossible to tell from this distance whether it was even contained.
            “Once when I was living in New York I was walking around about three a.m. and I saw this fellow lying behind a parked car,” Miles was saying,  “and his head was sticking out like an extra tire, and I thought I wonder what he’s waiting for.  Then he jumped up and came right at me and I thought Oh he’s waiting for me.”
            “What did you do?” Claire asked.
            “I ran like hell.”
            “Are you saying we should run like hell?” Walter said. 
“Not yet,” Miles said.  “If we do, though, we don’t separate.  We don’t lose each other and we especially don’t lose Claire.”
            “And I won’t lose you,” Claire said.
            Twenty feet ahead two guys loomed on their sidewalk.
            “Now,” Miles said.  “Right up the middle of the street.  And try not to drop the booze.”
            They ran out into the street and up it, Walter running his voice like a siren, Claire laughing, Miles grunting, trying to say Why are you screaming, boy, but not able to get any word out, he was older and a heavier drinker than he intended.  Back in the apartment he would ask him, and Walter would say, I don’t know, it just came to me, but right now they were all still running, running wildly in their little pack and yet trying to match each other’s pace, not daring to look to see if they were being chased.  At Frederick they veered as one and launched themselves uphill, Claire no longer laughing, Walter still screaming or shouting or whatever it was he was doing, Fuuuuck, Fuuuuck, a warning of derangement to anyone who might dare approach.  All the way up Frederick they ran, to Miles’s door, his key already out, and then the door was open and they scrambled in and he slammed it shut with his back and they fell to their knees in the  dark hall, gasping, laughing or choking, who could tell.
            “Hooch all accounted for?” Miles managed.
            “Hooch all accounted for,” Walter said.
            “My dear?”
            “Here,” Claire said.
            “Well, then I guess we are all in for the night,” Miles said, throwing the dead bolt.  “Anyone care for a drink?”
            “Why,” Claire said, still catching her breath, “why didn’t they chase us?”
            “Dunno,” Miles said.  “I guess sometimes crime isn’t worth the effort, even if it’s stupid marks like us.  God I wish the World Series were on.  You guys don’t play cards, do you?”
            Through the dark Claire and Walter looked at each other.  They hadn’t played cards since the hospital in Philadelphia.  That was a long time ago, when they were just getting to know each other, when they were both heavily medicated and the circumstances weren’t ideal, and most of the memories weren’t pleasant.  These unwound along the lines of lovers who had cruelly jilted them and parents who didn’t trust their teenagers not to harm themselves, and they must have been right because both of them had attempted suicide.  But that was years ago when they were entirely different people.  Damn that was a long time ago.
            “Not really,” Claire said finally about the cards.
            “Not at all,” Walter said.
            “It’s too dark anyway.”  Miles picked himself up, dusted himself off, and the three of them bumped down the dark hallway.
            “Because I’m such an incurable romantic,” Miles said, “I have candles and matches in the kitchen.  And there’s a gas stove if all else fails, though that’s probably not a good idea.”
            “Do you have a radio?”
            “Not portable.  I ain’t that well prepared.”
            In the kitchen they felt around in the dark, found and lit candles, tried the phone on the wall.  Still dead.  Miles reached quickly into the freezer and broke free some ice, and soon they were drinking bourbon on the rocks and sipping beers while sitting in the dark living room with the big window looking out onto the silent park.
            “What about aftershocks?” Claire said.
            “Oh, they’ll come.  But the worst is past, my dear.”
            “What do you think is going on out there?” Walter asked.
            “General mayhem, that kind of thing.  We can read about it later.”  Miles stood, so suddenly it startled them.  ‘You know what’s true?  We never ate.  And there’s got to be some food thinking of spoiling in there.  I wonder where that arugula got to.”
            They trooped back into the kitchen with the candles.
            “I’m sure I’ve got some salami and mustard and bread, too,” Miles said.
            Walter was thinking of all the stuff in their fridge just a few doors up, but that was right next to a crack stoop, likely an entire crack den though he never glanced past the stoop, and even then his glimpse was so quick he never saw anything.  He could hear them though.  Late at night if he ever had trouble sleeping he could really hear them through the shuttered glass door of his and Claire’s apartment, Fuck this shit and This is some good fucking shit and What are you looking at, shitfucker, and sometimes he lay tensely just waiting for them to crash through on any mission they imagined they might accomplish there.  He and Claire had bought a nice sofa and chair and ottoman, which they secreted within their always closed Venetian blinds, but everything else was salvaged from garage sales or already outdated technology.
            They picnicked on the living room floor.  Maybe it was midnight.  Every now and then they could hear a shout or a scream or a shrill laugh from the dark park or even from up on Clayton traveling down through the park to them like missiles or grenades, sharp sporadic noises that exploded near them when they least expected it.  The beer was almost finished and the bourbon was half done, and soon they would lose the sensation that this was just some kind of crazy adventure they were on.  Miles burped deeply and got up from the floor.
            “Well, kids, I’m gonna retire.  I suggest you two stay put and make yourselves comfortable.  In the morning this whole thing will look a lot different.”
            “Thank you,” Claire said.
            “Yeah, thanks,” Walter said.
            The three of them embraced and Miles wandered up the hall.  In a moment the toilet flushed.  “The crapper works!” he crowed.  “That is a very good thing.  Help yourself!”  They could hear him moving on to the little room with the shower and sink, humming to himself and turning the faucet.  “Never mind!” he called.  “The water is done.  God damn earthquake.”  He padded back down the hall and shut himself into his room.
            They lay on the one sofa, a little narrow but they managed.  He could feel her heartbeat gradually slow, and perhaps his own as well, as if maybe they had the same heart or were having the exact same reaction.  He wondered what about them was truly the same, and if they’d be the same people after tonight.  Wasn’t something like this supposed to change you?  Could something really change millions of people all at once, or did only some people change?  Maybe it only changed the people who needed to change.  Did he need to change?  He just wanted the night to be over.   At the crack and roll of the first aftershock Claire jumped up and lunged at the closest doorway.  Walter stumbled after her.
            “I want to go home,” she said.
            “When it’s daylight.”
            “I mean home to the east coast.”
            “Oh, Claire,” he said.
            “This sucks.”
            He persuaded her back to the couch, and the next time they woke the kitchen lights were on and a radio was playing somewhere.  It was still dark out.
            “See?” Walter said.
            “I wouldn’t mind flying home right now,” Claire said.  “If there was a plane, I’d get on it.”
            They sat listening to the radio.  It was now three thirty-eight a.m.  The airport was closed.  Hundreds of people were believed dead.  Except for emergency personnel, no one was to report for work tomorrow or the next day.  Power was being slowly restored to all parts of the Bay Area, with the exception of the Marina where it looked like rows of townhouses had literally had their first floors taken out from under them.  Rescue efforts were still ongoing.  Water would be, for at least a while, in short supply.  In the Tenderloin people had been hailing cars and holding the drivers up at gun point.
            Walter rose quickly from the couch. 
            “What are you doing?” Claire said.  “I want to know what’s going on.”
            He grudgingly sat back down on the couch.
            “You know, I forgot to tell you,” she said.  “I was talking to your sister when it happened.  Evelyn.  And I described it.  And she told me just to get out so I hung up and got out.  But that must mean they know we’re all right.”
            “It ought to,” Walter said.
            “That was dumb to go out for the alcohol.”
            “We needed it,” he said.
            “I suppose we’ll never get those wedding invitations,” she said.  “Maybe it’s a sign.”
            “Oh, we’ll get them,” he said.  “If not from there, then someplace else.”
            “Maybe we shouldn’t get married.”
            “It was your idea!” he said.  He tried to gather himself or stop himself, whichever it was.  “Do you not want to get married?” he asked as gently as he could, trying to will himself from not seeing how she had proposed to him, responding to his question of what she wanted for last Christmas by extending a downward-turned hand, its ring finger lifting ever so slightly.  “Are you serious?” he’d said, still thinking of how she’d recently moved out to pursue another guy, and wondering how her infatuation with that jerk had transformed within a few months to Hey, Walter, let’s get married.  How the hell did these things happen?  “Of course I’m serious,” she’d said.  “Then call your mother,” he’d said.
            “At least the invitations haven’t been sent out yet,” Claire said.
            “What is going on here?”
            “I don’t know.  I just know we can’t get married right now.  People have died.  Everything is really unstable.  It’s not right.  Can’t you tell it’s not right?”
            “Then we’ll leave,” he said.
            “We will?”
            “I promise,” he said.  “We only moved for my damn job.  I don’t even like it here.”
            “I did,” she said.  She looked mournfully at the floor.  “Except for the earthquake weather.”
            There was no such thing, he wanted to say.
            “I read a poem just the other day about earthquake weather,” she said.  “It begins with She’s talking to herself.”  She looked up at him.  “And it ends at She’ll slip right in and make you breathe wrong.”
            “And the she is the earthquake?” Walter said.
            “Hard to say,” Claire said.  “Maybe.  Or maybe it’s a real she.  Or maybe it’s both.”
            “I never got poetry,” Walter said.
            “I did.”
            They sat in silence, immobilized, as if waiting for the next aftershock or the next shock, the next crush who might lure her away, the digital electronic clock on the sill blinking its erroneous noon or midnight time, the sky stuck on dark, the earth for the moment seeming to tilt more deeply on its axis.  He could feel it all breaking apart right under him, and he knew he should not dare even the slightest gesture, that he ought to remain completely still.
            “So,” he said, taking a deep breath, “are we getting married or what?”
            “What?” she said.

Note:  two lines are from the poem, “Earthquake Weather,” by August Kleinzahl     Spanish translation

© 2014 Fred Leebron

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Author Bio Fred Leebron

Fred Leebron's novels include Six Figures, Out West, and In the Middle of All This.  His stories have received a Pushcart Prize and an O. Henry Award.  He directs writing programs in Europe, Latin America, Roanoke, Charlotte, and Gettysburg.