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Fiction

Aftershocks

by Jane Ciabattari

You asked how we met.

It was a raw night in January. I had stopped at the Viper Room near closing time. A cold martini in my hand was all that stood between me and the fog on Sunset and the steep walk home to my empty apartment. I was hoping to get drunk enough to ask Tess the bartender to get something to eat after she closed out the register.  Tess was nearly six feet tall, with blonde hair cut short on the sides and rising into a wing-like wedge on top. She had an independent streak. On her vacations she would take off for Baja on her own and come back with tales of strange creatures adapted to extreme conditions - black jackrabbits that evolved on remote islands, sea turtles that glowed in the dark.

The last of the River Phoenix tourists had headed out around two, after gathering on the exact spot on Sunset where he had OD'ed that fall, staring at the sidewalk as if the chalk outline of his body were still there. It was past closing time. I was grateful to Al, the manager, who seemed preoccupied, because it gave me extra time with Tess. She was telling me about her plans to visit the Galapagos Islands when the floor began to move. I reached out to grab the bar and ended up hitting the floor with a spine-jarring thud.

Fuck. The third martini.

Next I remember a series of violent upward jolts, as if some manic gnome with a jackhammer was working away from deep in the earth's core, shattering our surface with savage glee. I felt the rattling feedback from beneath the floor on my tailbone. Bottles crashed to the floor. Tess screamed. The beams in the ceiling creaked. Bits of plaster sifted into my eyes. Instinctively I curled up with my back against the bar, as if that would make any difference when the ceiling collapsed and we were buried alive. And still the shaking didn’t stop.

I had a sudden surge of regret. It was a mistake to move west. Here I was, on the disintegrating edge of the continent, and who cared? I thought of my folks back in New York, drinking coffee and reading the Times about now.  My most recent ex-girlfriend Cyn was probably headed out to lunch in Brussels with the other E.U. bureaucrats, faced with nothing more consequential than the choice between moules frites and poulet. And here I was with strangers. I didn’t really know Tess. She was a fixture in my landscape, like the billboards on Sunset, the coyotes and rattlers and second-rung starlets further up in the hills.

Finally it stopped. There was an eerie quiet.

"Everyone okay?" I heard Al the manager's raspy voice from the darkness. 

"Stay where you are, I've got a flashlight behind the bar." The floor crunched as he walked past me.

"Here we go," Al said. He painted a pathway to the door with a heavy-duty flashlight.  I got to my feet carefully. Tess tiptoed slowly through the broken glass and grabbed my hand. 

“Hey,” I said. I put an arm around her.

There was another jolt. The last of the bottles fell off the back bar and the ceiling groaned.

"Out! Now!" Al shouted.  I ran, head down, to the side door, pulling Tess behind me.

Outside, Los Angeles was profoundly dark. No street lights, not a single glimmer in the hills behind us, darkness in the valley below. In the flashlight’s glow I could see jagged breaks in the sidewalks and the parking lot. Dazed people wearing white terrycloth robes filed out of the hotel next door. Al handed me the flashlight and began ushering them to seats along the concrete dividers in the lot. Then he brought out cases of beer and Evian water for Tess to distribute.

I didn’t understand then that there could be an afterward to this catastrophe, that it could have a before and an after as clearly defined as the fault line born in the violent moments I had just survived.  I sat on the curb in a daze, floating in some limbo between drunkenness and terror.

"Hey, Martini Man,” someone behind me said. The accent was vaguely southern. I turned the flashlight in her direction. A girl knelt on the ground, her arms around the neck of an Irish setter. The dog was clearly spooked, tongue out, eyes showing a lot of white.

I recognized the girl. She had come into the bar with the dog earlier that evening and asked for a Miller Lite to go. She had a lean body and good skin and long hair like the rest of the wannabes, but her coloring was special. Her eyes were large and dark brown, and her hair matched the dog’s mahogany colored coat. I felt like reaching out to pet the dog. They were striking, both long-haired, delicate, skittish. Instead of a collar the dog wore a sort of harness. The girl chatted with Tess, then turned to me and said, "They won't let me stay in here with my dog. Health department." She said something under her breath as she took the jumbo-sized paper cup of beer from Tess, who chuckled. After she was gone, Tess told me the girl had just moved into a building a couple of blocks away, and she needed the beer for the guy who carried her piano up three flights of stairs.

"I can't believe it," the girl said as we sat in the rubble in the darkness. "This is my second night in town from West Virginia. Everyone warned me about this place.  I wanted to get into movies, or get my dog into movies. I haven’t even unpacked and bam, this is the Big One, right?  Do you know what time it is?"

I turned the flashlight on my watch. "Almost five.”

“Are you from around here?”

"I'm from New York."

"Broadway,” she said reverently. “Soho. Times Square." She stood up. "I wonder how bad it is,” she said. “Hey, I’m Deb.  This is Stella. You know, Star. Would you hold onto her?”

“Sure,” I said. “I’m Chris, from Christian, not Christopher.” Shit. Dumb comment.

“Okay, Chris.” She took my hand and wound it into the dog’s harness. “Sit,” she said.  The dog sat down beside me. I put my arm around her and rested my head on her warm furry neck. She was panting and her heart was beating fast. The girl slipped across the street. She had an athlete's walk, easy and relaxed, solid through the shoulders.  She climbed into a beat-up Toyota, drove in a soft U-turn to the curb, reached across and opened the door on the passenger side.

"At least we can listen to the radio," she said. 

"Caller, you're on the air, how's it looking there in Northridge?" the announcer was saying.

"God, it's terrible. I can see several fires down the block. The building next door collapsed, I can hear people screaming. Can't someone help?"

The dog was fidgety.  I stood up and walked her around. She was strong enough to pull me along behind her over to the doorway of the Viper Room, where she peed. I hoped Al didn't see.  Then she trotted back over to our original spot and sat watching the girl.

A waiter came to the edge of our encampment in the parking lot and said food was being served in the hotel lobby.  I glanced around for Tess.  She was in a huddle with Al. The two of them took off up Sunset. She was wearing stiletto heels, and he didn’t seem to realize what a struggle it was for her to keep up with him.

The dog was hunkered down next to me, her head between her paws.  "Come on, girl," I said in an encouraging tone. She wouldn’t budge. I pushed on her hindquarters and after a few low growls she got to her feet and danced over to the girl, her tail waving behind her. The three of us drifted along with the hotel guests. The girl kneaded the dog's neck and shoulders. She had the harness bunched in her hand.

"I do this to make her feel secure,” she said. “She's young, she's scared, and she's out of her element.”

"Where did you get her?"

"My brother and I were breeding Irish setters. She was the best of the last litter before he...." She stopped abruptly. "I think there's food over there.”

There was. Scrambled eggs and bacon, platters of fresh pineapple and strawberries. After we ate we settled onto a couch in the lobby. I shut my eyes.  When I woke up I heard the girl saying, "He jumped out the window.”

"Who?"

"My brother. He'd been feeling depressed for so long. I thought a weekend in the sun would help. It was a nice hotel. We were on the sixteenth floor."

"What happened?" I asked, still groggy and disoriented.

"I went down to the coffee shop. He was sleeping when I left. When I got back he was gone. He ran. Out the window. There was glass all over the bedroom floor. Just like this."

She stood suddenly and headed toward the lobby doors. 

"Wait," I said. "There could still be stuff falling."

"And what could you do if the glass fell on me, Martini Man?" There was a chuckle somewhere in her voice that told me she wouldn't mind if I came along.

"You're like him a little," she said when we got outside.

"Who?"

"My big brother."

"Depressed?"

"No, gentle."

She started running down the hotel driveway toward the street. I followed.  Everywhere I looked, the streets had buckled. Trees and houses were hanging over the edges of the hillsides. We were tied together now, survivors who had crossed some threshold into a foreign universe.

In the sharp early morning light, Sunset looked more tawdry than usual. I suggested we walk up the hill to check on my place. I lived in the apartment equivalent of an office cube - - a front door, a couple of square rooms, a modular bathroom and kitchen probably molded in one piece and put into place with a click. I had a bed, a table, two chairs, my computer set-up, a hideous orange couch I got from someone moving out upstairs. There wasn’t much damage. My computer fired up with the battery. I hadn’t lost any files.  The television set was still in its box on the floor of the closet. I couldn't afford cable.

So we went over to check her place. It was the top apartment in a Spanish-style building, distinguished by French doors that led to a patio with blue and yellow tiles on the steps and a couple of giant yuccas that had fallen over in the quake.  Several broken terra cotta tiles from the roof lay on a rusted wrought-iron table. Inside, she had a bed, a table, a chair, a black spinet piano with its own adjustable bench and lots of boxes that had ended up scattered around like giant dice thrown by a giant.  I helped her straighten them out. 

She sat cross-legged on the bed. I took the chair.

“So, are you an actor?”

“No, a writer.”

"Scripts?"she asked.

"One liners. Garbage. Stupid jokes for state legislators who want to warm up the suckers before they ask for money. At least my name wasn’t on them. I had a chance to show a few one-liners to Jay Leno. He passed.”

“You can’t give up, all you need is one break, right?”

“Not exactly. My business is all about being in the club or out of the club. Sucking up is not in my nature.”

“I hear I’ll have to go to a gazillion auditions, wait tables, tend bar,” she said.

“True,” I said. “I could have tried harder.”

But I didn’t wish I had tried harder. I wish I'd had more fun. I’d been grinding it out for nearly two years, with little to show for it but rent receipts.

"I should go home, " I said when it began to grow dark.

"Don't," she said. “She’s frightened. You make her feel better.”

We talked about our families. Her parents had met on a political campaign, divorced when she was five. Her mother was a grade school teacher, retired now to Florida.  Her father, she said, was a fixer. The sort of Washington middleman who could connect a Taiwan lobbyist with a Congressman who could write legislation about pirating videos.  She didn’t say anything more about the brother.

I told her my mom was a midwife in Woodstock for awhile, my dad tried making documentaries, then they ended up back in New York where he was a dialect coach and film editor and she worked for a pediatrician.  If someone was sick, she could always make it better.

“Any brothers or sisters?” she asked.

“A sister.  Molly.  Twelve years older.  She ran away before she finished high school.  She took the family beagle with her. Last I heard she was in Nepal.”

“So you’re the safe one, huh.”

“I guess.” When my parents were my age they were on the verge of losing Molly and coping with a new baby. Me.

The electricity came on around seven that first evening. The girl made us peanut butter sandwiches. We drank warm beer and before long we were lying side by side on the bed. We kept our clothes on, even our shoes, in case an aftershock hit and we had to get out of there in a hurry. The heat of her body got to me. I ran my hand along her check and she rolled into my arms and held on tight. I wondered if I should kiss her. But she was hanging on to me like I was a raft. Oh, no. Not another orphan. My older sister used to call me a sob magnet. "Toughen up or you'll be every girl's best friend,"she said. Not that her own choices were so great. She was attracted to guys with tattoos and dangerous inpulses.

I jerked awake around four a.m.. The bed was shaking. The girl was crouched in the corner of the room with the dog pulled up against her.

"It's just another aftershock," I said. I reached out to comfort her, but she pulled away.

“We’re going to die for sure this time,” she whispered.  I figured if I kept talking, it might calm her down. “It’s almost twenty-four hours since the big one, and that was the worst,” I said softly. “I don’t remember how long aftershocks can go on. Days. Maybe even weeks.” Maybe the earth was always shaking, making minute adjustments to outer stresses and inner roiling, until one day the pressure built up to the point of no return.

"I've got to get out of here," she said. She pulled on a sweatshirt and headed out to the patio. I turned to the dog.  "Shhhhh, girl," I said softly. "Shhhhhh.” She leaned against me and I patted her and pulled up the scruff of her neck in long strokes and coaxed her onto the bed. After awhile I went back to sleep. When I woke up the sun was in my face and I could smell coffee.

"Hey," she said. "The papers say it was 6.6, a record quake. Do you take milk? Sugar?"

"Black."

"The paper says the epicenter was in Northridge. Where's that?"

"In the Valley."

"What valley? I just got here, remember?"

"The San Fernando Valley. Over that ridge.”

"Listen, the paper says 'For many survivors, home no longer seems safe. Some find comfort in loved ones. Others consider leaving.' What about you?"

I heard the dog's nails clicking against the tiled floor.

"Time to go out again?" I asked. I didn’t want to think about leaving L.A.. Where would I go? What would I do?

"You take her,” she said. “I've got to shower.” She wove my fingers into the harness. "Hold on tight," she said. "She doesn't know her way home."

I walked the dog toward Sunset, trying to steer her clear of the broken places. When we got back the front door was ajar. I pushed it open. 

"Hey," I called.  I took the dog into the kitchen and filled her bowl with water from the faucet. "Hey, anyone here?" No answer. I knocked on the bathroom door. Silence. I opened the door.  It was steamy, but empty, one purple towel on the floor. I checked the bedroom.  I looked at every window, just to make sure she hadn't run and jumped. Nothing. I stood on the tiny balcony three floors up and looked over to the spot where she had parked.  Her car was gone.

The dog was pacing around looking wary.

“She’ll be back,” I said. But she wasn't. After awhile I left her a note with my phone number and address and took the dog home with me. We ate some leftover pizza that had thawed in the freezer while the power was out.  I fell asleep early. Later, in the darkness, I felt the dog licking my face. She was whining. Then I heard a series of high-pitched yips. Coyotes.  They seemed to be moving fast. I listened until they had faded into the distance.

I thought about the night my girlfriend Cyn had told me over dinner that she wanted me to move to Brussels with her.

“Why?” I asked. 

She pursed her lips and went into one of her sulks. First thing the next morning, as I was drinking coffee in my boxers, two of her girlfriends showed up and moved her out of the apartment, casting dark knowing looks my way. I figured they were thinking Cyn had wasted two years of her life on me. She was so busy getting a sympathetic audience to her little drama that I never got to explain that I asked why because I thought we were doing okay in New York.

The next morning the newspaper put the death toll at forty. Some of the freeways were still closed. Where could the girl have gone? I took the dog to Duke's, my usual morning spot, and discovered their no pets policy. I ordered takeout eggs and coffee and sat on the curb to eat. 

"Hey, gorgeous dog." Tess was wearing sweats, and her hair was damp from a morning run. She seemed relaxed, friendlier than when she was behind the bar. The dog reared up and put her front paws on Tess’s shoulders and licked her face.

“Where did you get her?” The dog pranced around her in a circle.

"She belongs to that red-haired girl who came into the bar the night of the earthquake.”

“Yeah, I remember. Southern belle.”

“ She took off without her dog. If you see her around, call me.”

Tess sat on the curb while I wrote my number down on a corner of a takeout container. The dog put her head in Tess’s lap.

“I’ve never seen you here before,” I said.

“I usually have breakfast in the late afternoon. The bar was closed yesterday so I got to go to bed with the rest of the world. That was some night we had. Ever since I moved here it’s been one thing after another. First the fires, then the riots, now this. I’m about ready to go home to Chicago.” She gave a loose wave and jogged off.

Back at my place an hour later, just after I set to work on the computer, a strong aftershock hit. I grabbed the dog by her harness and pulled her under the doorway away from the windows. She wormed her way out of my grip and ran under the bed. Another one hit, hard. I dropped to the floor and edged in alongside her. She started licking my face. Finally it seemed safe to come out.

That afternoon I took the dog to the beach. She headed into the breakers and I threw her a piece of driftwood. Each time she brought it back to me she shook water in a halo around her body. I got a beach towel from the car and dried the long hair on her chest and ears. She licked my face with her rough tongue in long slow strokes. I sat with her in the last sun of the day.I wound my fingers into the dog's harness and stroked the silky hair beneath her neck.

I thought of Beau, our beagle. He liked to lie on my feet while I did my homework. He liked to sleep under the piano while Mollie practiced. He’d come to his feet with a sudden bugle call when she hit a clinker, but essentially he was a sedentary sort. This one was an athlete.  I envisioned jogging along the beach with her. Across freeways. Up hills.

The girl showed up at my door around noon on the third day after the earthquake. "I wasn't sure I could find you," she said when I opened the door. She was pale and serious.  I stepped aside and let her in. The dog came trotting into the living room from my bedroom, where I had set her up with a series of soccer balls to nose around the walls for fun, and perched next to the couch, eyeing the girl. The girl let out a cry and went to the dog and knelt to hug her. I thought the dog was cool for not going to her first. 

I sat the girl down on the orange couch and brought her a glass of water. She leaned over the dog, murmuring,

“Where were you?” I asked. I couldn’t keep the edge out of my voice.

“I drove all day, half the next night,” she said. “I kept thinking of the time my brother dyed his hair purple and insisted I drive with him to New York in the middle of the night to see David Bowie. He was a fly-me-to-the-moon, you-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be kind of brother. When he crashed, nothing worked.”

She was silent, stroking the dog. “I was falling asleep at the wheel. I checked into some motel. I couldn't sleep.  So I drank a load of coffee and drove back."

She stood up. "I’ve got to get home.”

"I'm not letting you go anywhere."

"Are you trying to save me from something?"

“What about her? I can’t believe you left her here."

"You really are some Mr. Fix-it. Coming here was his dream. He saw her with her own television series, like Lassie. So I did it for him. Now I just want to go home." She buried her head against the dog and sobbed. Their hair mixed together, two heads with that unusual mahogany red. For the first time I wondered if she had dyed it to match.

"She was more his dog than mine," she said softly. "She was the last of a litter of six. Every time someone came along to buy her, she'd sit on my brother's foot. In the end he couldn’t sell her.  I've never seen him love a dog like that."

"But that didn't stop him," I said.

"You don't understand." She reached out and touched my arm.  "He was sick."

"I think you and Stella would be safer if you both stayed here tonight.”

"I don't know if anything can make me feel safe."

She seemed near collapse.  I got her a blanket and she stretched out on the orange couch and fell asleep almost at once. 

I sat at my computer for a few more hours, working, with the dog curled up at my feet.  At one point she stood up and put her head in my lap.  “You’re a beauty,” I said, rubbing her ears.  Her tail thumped on the floor.  It struck me that maybe the worst was over and I was on the other side of something. On one side was the time before I could remember ever seeing her, when I only had a fragment of an image somewhere in my imagination, a sense of being able to love someone.  And then there was now. 

Before I went to bed I adjusted the girl’s blanket. Her skin was so fair I could see her eyes moving behind translucent lids. She was lost in sleep, daring to dream at last, struggling to knit up the fragments of all that had ripped apart.

She was gone the next morning. She left a note. She was headed back to West Virginia. She wanted me to have the dog. That’s how her brother would have wanted it, she wrote.

We’ve been together almost six years now. Stella is going on sixty in dog years. She has a little arthritis in the lower back and hips. I feed her glucosamine in her dog food.  We’re regulars on the curb at Duke’s.  Everyone stops to ask, What kind of dog? How old? Or just to say, What a beauty.  Tess spends a lot of time with us. She comes and goes.

Sometimes I think about the girl and her dead brother. I wonder about her mother, too. And her father, the fixer.  Such a fucked up family. 

I never tried to find her. I figured Stella and I would both be better off without her.



Jane Ciabattari' photo

Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collection, "Stealing the Fire." Her short stories have been published in VerbSap.com, LiteraryMama.com, Ms., The North American Review, Denver Quarterly, Hampton Shorts (which honored her with an Editors' Choice STUBBY Award), The East Hampton Star, and Redbook, which nominated her story "Gridlock" for a National Magazine Award. Her story “Payback Time" was a Pushcart Prize "special mention." Her story "How I Left Onandaga County," appears in the anthology "The Best Underground Fiction" (November 2006,Stolen Time Press) and also was a Pushcart Prize honorable mention. She serves as vice president/ADD THIS:membership of the National Book Critics Circle and a blogger on the NBCC board blog, Critical Mass. The North American Review, Denver Quarterly, Hampton Shorts (which honored her with an Editors' Choice STUBBY Award). www.janeciabattari.com