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QUAKE a novel
By RUDOLPH WURLITZER
Two Dollar Radio Copyright © 2009 Rudolph Wurlitzer
All right reserved.
Chapter One I WAS THROWN OUT OF BED. THE MIRROR FELL OFF THE WALL AND shattered over the dresser. The floor moved again and the ceiling sagged towards me.
It was dawn and I was in the Tropicana Motel in Los Angeles. There was another trembling through the room and what sounded like wires snapping and windows breaking. Then it was very quiet. I lay back on the floor and shut my eyes. I was in no hurry. There was a high prolonged scream by the pool and then a splash and another shorter scream. I stood up and raised my arms over my head and tried to touch my toes, an early morning ritual I never perform. The wall next to the bed was moving as if it was alive and I walked into the bathroom.
I sat down on the edge of the bathtub. The door banged open in the other room and a lamp crashed to the floor. A small man in black silk jockey shorts crawled towards me. His black hair was parted in the middle and there was an oblong birthmark the size of an ostrich egg on his left shoulder. He managed to crawl to the doorsill of the bathroom before he collapsed. After a long moan, he began to cry.
"The ceiling fell in on me," he whispered. "My hips are crushed. My leg is broken and something bad is happening inside. You got to help me."
He propped himself up by the door, his eyes full of rage andshock.
"I'm room six," he said. "Next door. The phones are out. It's going very fast. I figure it for an earthquake. I'm scared, man. It's going altogether too fast."
Blood was forming on one side of his mouth. His head tilted back. Then he threw up in short violent spasms. When he was finished he wiped his mouth on the back of his wrist and looked up at me again.
"It's going to be a long day. But if we're not dead now we probably won't be. I'm hemorrhaging or something. I'll wait here. But don't forget me. You forget me and I'll come after you. Everything is in my wallet. Room six. I got credit cards."
He sank down to the floor and put his arms over his head. He had curled in on himself like a baby. He was very still. I knelt down beside him. He was dead. I stepped over him and walked to the bed. I couldn't find my pants and I pulled off a sheet and twisted it around me. Then I went outside. There were no lights on and I could hear the dial from a portable radio being twisted quickly from station to station. The cabins were arranged on two landings around three sides of the kidney-shaped pool. The open side faced Santa Monica Boulevard where a broken water main squirted a stream twenty feet in the air and a telephone pole swayed forward, as if about to fall across the length of the street. The cabins were a faded blue and white and the brown plywood doors were chipped and smudged from banging suitcases and prodding boots, the law and otherwise. It was a reasonably priced, almost cheap motel, plastic and transient. Except for me. I was becoming known as a regular. I had fallen in three months ago from New York and was waiting for my money to run out. Then I would either borrow more or cop some and take a ride somewhere else, San Francisco or Vegas, it didn't matter. I wasn't above panhandling, spiritual or otherwise, movie extra, weekend carpentry or genteel smuggling. But New York was different than L.A. It had taken time for me to get it together, to get used to a different set of rituals and corruptions. But all that didn't matter right then. I walked over to the diving board on the cabin side of the pool and crawled out to the end. I wanted to sit on the most precarious space available, as if to prove to myself that the event was already over. No one was around except for a body across the pool huddled beneath a bath towel on a yellow chaise lounge. It was suddenly very peaceful, as if the earth had never trembled at all. I lay on my stomach over the length of the board, my arms hanging over the water.
A foot rubbed against my ankle at the end of the board. "Either let me in or give me the fucking key."
I looked up at her torn white sneakers with one pink toenail visible and then at her faded blue jeans. Two inches of her round stomach were exposed between her belt and pale orange tee shirt.
"You're not Jerry," she said. "I thought you was Jerry."
I twisted around to face her. A few feet behind and to the left of her a barefooted fat man in cuffed brown slacks and white undershirt took two steps out of cabin seven, then a quick third, and considered the dawn. A small haggard woman in curlers and an open blue dressing gown that exposed one deflated breast stepped slowly after him. She was crying and scratching her hip with one hand and trying to put the other arm around him. He shrugged her off, preferring to fold his arms across his sagging chest and swing his head back and forth like it was loose on its pivot. The girl on the diving board kicked my leg.
"You look like you're in shock," she said. And then again. "You look like you're in shock."
I looked up at her. Her heavy breasts more than filled her tee shirt and her neck was short and crouched between her shoulders like she was about to snap. Her features were arranged in a strangely geometric order, a kind of precise oasis between her wild brown curls sticking straight out from her unusually small head. She was around eighteen.
"Did the ceiling fall in on you?" She prodded at my foot. I began to suspect that she was not altogether in control.
"I got out all right," I said. "Nothing happened."
She stepped back and stared off across the pool, her arms folded across her breasts. She seemed unable to move one way or the other. A young man in a brown and gold flecked business suit, without shirt or shoes, stepped briskly out of cabin twelve. He cupped his hands around his milk white face and shouted across the pool.
"7.6 on the Richter scale and you should get off the diving board. Did you hear what I said? 7.6 on the Richter scale."
He walked off to the side of us and stood near the office. The girl dropped her arms and then slowly raised one hand and gave him a slowly rotating finger. He stared open mouthed at her, the back of his wrists braced girlishly on his hips. Two stout, whitehaired women rushed out of cabin twenty-three and leaned over the iron railing above him. The one on the left wore blue hot pants, the one on the right a rose patterned black and white mumu. The one with the hot pants leaned further over the railing.
"Did you say 6.5?" Her voice started as a yell but broke into a whimper. The other woman slapped her across the face and then slapped her again. The man in the brown and gold flecked business suit stepped out a little and looked up at them.
"7.6," he yelled. "The whole San Fernando Valley might go. They got a dam out there and if the pressure builds up any more you can forget about it."
The girl sat down cross-legged on the diving board. It was an awkward position for her but she seemed determined to hold it.
"Fuck them," she said. "Pressure. What do they know about pressure? I don't care if the whole state goes. I'm up to here. All I can think about is the goldfish falling out of all the tanks. There must be eight million goldfish in this town."
I wasn't watching myself, so to speak, but the action around the pool. Somehow I felt a need to delay my own reaction as long as possible.
The manager of the motel stumbled out of the office. He was old and white haired and wore baggy yellow flannel pajamas. He walked around the pool with his eyes to the cement, checking for cracks. When he had returned to the office he stopped and shaded his eyes towards Santa Monica Boulevard. He stood that way for a long time before he opened the door and disappeared.
"I came back late," the girl said. "You don't mind if I talk like this, do you? You're not doing anything, are you? I'm not going to be able to talk much longer. I can feel it. This is my rush now. They were all fucking around inside with their videotapes and dope and experiments in some kind of science. They're English. Room eighteen. You don't mind, do you? All they do is play music and put everything down. Snort coke, bitch about the air conditioning, watch the tube. It's a life. Their group makes bread. You don't mind if I go on like this? Well, shit, I'm from Montana. Northern Montana. I don't need them. Heh Heh. I was sitting out here and the water hit me and woke me up. I was scared. I was so crazy I ran around and tried to scoop the water back into the pool. Talk it back, you know. I been here three days. Four days counting today. I might go to London. They have a house in London. I never been anywhere except for three weeks in London. I mean Denver."
She stared off across the pool. There was a slight tremor and she dug her nails into the bottom of my foot. I screamed.
"Is it?" she yelled. "Well, is it? This is it, isn't it? But they have these all the time out here, don't they? They got some kind of a fault underneath. Don't they? You can answer me. It's all right. Don't do a number on me. Okay? It's passed. I think it's passed."
"What do you care?" I pushed her back with my foot. My voice sounded very loud to me. "So what if it comes down? Who are you to choose sides? You can't go anywhere. You're totally lamed out as it is."
She shrugged. "Yeah, you're right."
I watched the side of the pool.
The form underneath the bath towel slowly stretched and the towel dropped over the back of the plastic chaise lounge. A massive and leonine head appeared, with golden curls swirling over narrow pinched shoulders. A full blond beard covered most of the granite-shaped face but the eyes, even from the diving board, were an electric pink and piercing blue.
"I seen him around," the girl said vaguely. She watched me anxiously. "He plays base guitar somewhere and knows about mushrooms and Kundalini."
His posture was rigidly messianic as he stood with legs apart and arms spread-eagled towards the sun. His long body was pale and emaciated. He wore blue nylon swimming trunks and heavy white shower clogs. He began to sing a morning mantra, his voice low and melodious, his eyes squeezed shut.
"I'm not into hostility," she said.
"I'm not either," I said.
"I think you are. Just a little."
"How so?" I asked.
"Well, you want me off this board." Her voice suddenly rose to a higher pitch. "You lie on this board like you think you own it. No good. No good. I'm sick of that kind of attitude. I'm up to here with that kind of chicken shit. Just the way you slouch over it and hang one leg over the side and wrap yourself up in that sheet makes me sick. It makes me want to puke. I can't stand guys like you. You can see I need help and you just lie there thinking you're some kind of laid-back local star ..."
She stopped. I wanted to get rid of her but I didn't know how to go about it. If I had been able to choose someone to share this particular morning with it wouldn't have been her. It might have been someone with the kind of suspicious repression it takes to share a small space with. Someone a little older.
The door to cabin nine opened and two girls in red panties and black bras took long wavering steps towards the pool and then sat down. They were followed by a black man in white shorts and blue tank shirt. He stared at the top of their curly blond heads and then returned to the cabin. An elderly man with a towel wrapped around his thick waist stepped outside cabin ten and whispered to the two girls, who stared at the pool. His long white hair was tied behind his head with a pink ribbon and he slapped a TV antennae against his thigh. He waited for a long moment but the girls held their gaze. Then he walked over to the edge of the pool, to the left of the diving board, and yelled to someone at the far end.
"It's a fucking earthquake. It might get worse. I can't move them. They're scared out of their minds."
A wheezing voice called back. "Just get them out of the doorway. Forget about the date. It's only a grand. Get them cooled down. I don't care how you do it. Give them some reds if you have to."
The man looked into the water. Then he shifted his gaze to the end of the diving board and spoke vaguely towards us.
"Everyone is so snapped out because they don't know how to handle disasters. Someone says dying to them and they put their heads under the bed. I never saw the likes of it. This is the worst goddamn shithole place I've ever seen. You don't see it at first because of all the palm trees and orange juice bars but let something happen and then see what they do. There could be a million dead and maimed out on the roads and no one would pay it any mind. I swear to god. Look at the two of you; balling and playing around out there like you was movie stars. All you need is a color TV and some goof balls and you'd be wailing. Now ain't that the truth? I'm getting my kids out of this place if I have to leash them and walk them out."
"Yeah, you're right," the girl said.
The man zapped the antennae against his thigh and walked past the two girls, who were staring at their feet. He slammed the door to his cabin.
He had reminded me that I was on a diving board. I had forgotten and that was no small achievement. Perhaps I needed another tremor to block it all off again. The girl had removed her tee shirt and was vaguely rubbing her right breast while staring off across the pool. The sheet had fallen from my shoulders and gathered itself around my waist and legs. I propped myself up on my elbows. The ends of the sheet had fallen into the pool so that now there was a slight weight tugging at my lower body. The sun was rising underneath the neon motel sign. Its presence made me almost relaxed. A few cars moved slowly on Santa Monica Boulevard and I took that as a good sign. And yet there were a few dead around. There was even one in my bathroom.
A tight-lipped, parched young couple with straw cowboy hats and khaki shorts carried their bags out from cabin twenty-four. They dropped them to my right, at the edge of the pool. The bags were new and cheap. They sat on them and stared blankly into the pool. The woman wore a large shell necklace which she twisted slowly through her fingers while her husband tossed a silver key in the air. The key picked up the rays of the sun and occasionally fell through his fingers to land with a brittle clink on the cement. The pool area had become congested. People moved in and out of cabins, slamming doors and yelling at each other, while some sat quietly, as if adjusted to whatever might come. I began to suffer a strange nausea as if I was being pulled towards a forbidden place deep within myself, a swamp that I had only reached a few times before. We were becoming removed from the pool, from the calamity which we had been unable to confront.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"I don't know," I said. "I mean, I don't know how to answer that."
I was suddenly afraid of losing the anonymity that existed between us, as if once we knew our names the erotic focus we were falling into would dissolve. I curled my lower lip.
"We're overloaded as it is."
"Yeah, you're right," she said.
An upright middle-aged man in white slacks and yellow polo shirt walked out of cabin eight. He shook his head, disappointed in the surroundings. He circled the pool twice, carrying a black leather briefcase and whistling tunelessly. He stopped once and stared at us. His small pugnacious face twisted into a frown. He walked to the office and barked an order.
"Clear the area. The quake isn't over. All you people are in danger out there."
One of the two girls outside cabin ten went inside.
"This area is hazardous," he shouted.
The tight-lipped woman with the straw cowboy hat looked up from her vigil by the pool.
"Fuck off, Jack," she said evenly.
The man turned on his heels and disappeared into the office. A helicopter circled overhead. There was a sudden tremor and then a deafening crash as power lines snapped on Santa Monica Boulevard and a car swerved into the plate glass window of a luncheonette. The window in the office broke and glass sprayed out towards the pool. The golden-haired man in the blue swimming trunks, involved in a wavering shoulder stand, dropped to the ground and dove into the pool. The girl put her hand on my cock and I had an erection. She crawled out on the board and put her arms around me and we kissed.
Part of the edge of the pool must have caved in. I could hear a man weeping. A woman on the second story landing shouted for Harold. Feet ran around the pool, there were distant thuds behind me, a door opened and fell off its hinges, two women chanted the Lord's Prayer while a man yelled at them to shut up. A fire engine clanged down Santa Monica Boulevard followed by police and ambulance sirens. The diving board was still, as if we had been overlooked. Her tongue explored my mouth and her hands wandered over my thighs and stomach. The sheet had slipped to my ankles. I opened my eyes. Her eyes were still closed and a line of sweat had broken out on her forehead. She was trying to struggle out of her pants while keeping one hand on my cock.
Excerpted from QUAKE by RUDOLPH WURLITZER Copyright © 2009 by Rudolph Wurlitzer. Excerpted by permission.
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