The long, slow roller began with animal warnings, for where we lived even the ground was unreliable. I’d lived in San Andreas a long time. And even before that I knew about the animals; the warnings they gave and the warnings they didn’t; the way the ground gave way.
I lived with my boyfriend Joshua Liu in a bungalow built in the ’20s. It had charm, a built-in cabinet in the living-dining room with French glass doors, a messy garden, light, too many books. The house reflected our amorphous qualities, our intense but sporadic enthusiasms: garage rock, Aikido, veganism and inner-city BBQ, eco-activism, massage modalities, meditation. Saint Andreas is the patron saint of fishermen. In San Andreas, we lived on the shores of the Pacific, which means “peaceful.” Maybe that was why we were always looking for serenity.
That morning, the sky was gray, the sky hung low and muggy. Earthquake weather. I kissed a sleeping Joshua goodbye — he muttered and kissed air — and locked the house behind me. I managed a local art gallery in a sagging storefront for not enough money per hour, and that’s where I headed, a brisk walk over to 28th and George Washington. I waved to our neighbor, out changing the oil on his old Caprice. Since the summer vandalisms had begun, he’d pasted an NRA sticker on his front door and boasted about his .44 with a repeating magazine.
San Andreas was the wild, wild west, the only Northern California coastal town where the city departments were still so lax and corrupt that nobody bothered with building permits, where termite inspectors were regularly bribed to clear old houses for sale. Last Fourth of July, the skies had erupted in explosions of illegal fireworks. Guns went off in the air, and nobody enforced anything. But Joshua and I hung with a more earnest bunch. Our San Andreans leaned to the left. We had humility, we suffered from survivor guilt, class consciousness. “After all,” we said, slyly self-referential, “It’s our fault.”
It was our fault. Our city was named for the deadly earthquake slip fault that zagged through it. A giant geological scar, in reality a beautiful canyon and creek, separated the city into “good side” — hill and slope — and “bad side” — cracked sidewalks, crime, and decaying industry. Much of the hill areas were solid rock; the lower stretches, the stretches near the water, were built on rubble used to fill out our small bay. In San Andreas, most of us lived on ground at risk from liquefaction when it shook. Which it did, often. Sometimes faults are invisible. We were lucky because we knew where ours lay.
I crossed the fault canyon, the footbridge across Spitfire Creek. I preferred to walk to work, though it took close to half an hour each way. From a mile away, I heard dull roars. The lions. “Baby!” they roared. The ground quivered.
Most San Andreans had long stopped noticing the little quakes. Nobody carried earthquake insurance; the cost was prohibitive. Residents lived for the big one, worshipped the God of Quakes, established The Cult of the Shaking. Point of honor not to run to a doorway; local patriotism not to cringe and move away. To stand, braced as on a crowded bus, and yell, “Rock and roll!”
Not me. Earthquakes were not benign to me.
I walked down to George Washington and along the commercial avenues north where things were gritty, not far from our aging seaport. My head ached from allergies or warnings and my brain felt thick. Traffic was bad; the noise and gray sky pressed in on me, though San Andreas was not beautiful even when the sun shone. While the hill and slope held small pockets of Republicans and a few Soccer Moms, in the flats, clusters of conservative Asians interspersed with old white guys who smoked too many cigarettes and drank cheap booze and worked in shitty factory jobs or small family service businesses. We had lots of plumbers in San Andreas, most of them dishonest. We had a strong African-American community, mostly in the port areas. We were in the top ten of most violent cities on the West Coast. We were the California Penal Authority’s favorite place to parole sex offenders.
I liked the edge; we lived in San Andreas because it was real. And because, frankly, where else could we afford so much house?
At 10:00, I unlocked the gallery door and sat on a stool behind the counter to wait for customers, at least the post woman. Outside, pigeons cooed too loudly, “Baby, baby, baby,” but the traffic sounds overwhelmed them, and I would not listen. My head throbbed. I opened my sketchbook and doodled. A couple of hours later, the door opened, a small bell rang: Joshua.
“Parking’s hell. I’m in the yellow next door,” he said, and handed me a cup of coffee.
“Thanks! What’s this?”
“Latté. I’m going to the gym.”
Joshua was half-white Jewish and half Chinese, gorgeous and smart. Food mattered to him, and music. He’d skateboarded when he was younger and bore a small scar on the side of his face, memento of an encounter with a taxicab. Joshua worked as an emergency room nurse, part-time, on-call. For a while, he’d played bass two nights a week in a punk throwback garage band called Uppa Tree and the Singing Dalmations but the band had recently fallen out. He’d been one of the Dalmations. Uppa Tree, the lead singer, was a bleached blonde trust fund kid who had stopped cutting herself a few years before when daddy gave her money to pay a band a small stipend, and she found her calling. She sang beautifully, but hanging out with that band had made me feel old and Joshua feel young, though we’d never talked about that aspect of it.
“I think there’s something coming,” I said. “Lots of grumbling. I feel like shit.”
“Sorry,” he said. He gave my hand a squeeze. “Got any money?”
“Not much, why?”
“Going out to lunch with Victor and I left my wallet at home.”
I opened mine — 32 dollars. I handed him 20. He grinned his “charming” smile but I didn’t bite. I’d hoped we’d eat fish tacos together as we usually did on Tuesdays but I wasn’t a clinger, we’d established that years ago.
“Thanks.” He kissed me on the forehead and turned toward the door.
“Where are you eating?”
“Le Vieux Moulin.”
“You know Victor; he’s a lawyer. Lawyers like swank.”
“I thought he was a public defender.”
Josh nodded. “He is. I’ll see you tonight.”
The caffeine helped the pressure in my head, but it was still earthquake weather.
San Andreas wasn’t my hometown — I’d grown up 20 miles away, on bedrock, in the town of Gracy — though my dad had worked at the zoo here for years. Despite my childhood familiarity with the city, I moved in with the culture-shocked eyes of a stranger. My first major earthquake as a San Andrean, years ago, I wasn’t home. I’d heard the animals mutter, but I didn’t know why to listen then, or what to listen for. Still in mourning for my father, I’d taken a job I hated as a receptionist at a travel agency and commuted daily to San Francisco where I worked on the seventh floor of a big building three doors down from Union Square.
One late afternoon as I headed out for the day, bees in the countryside panicked and fled their hives. Rattlesnakes in Chert Canyon crawled from their holes. In my office, the floor lurched. The plaster above the door cracked and rained dust.
“Get under your desk!” I yelled, and ran away from the door.
Patty and Dave, newcomers to California both, moaned and blindly dived. From beneath my desk, I watched the windows in the tall I. Magnin building bordering Union Square shudder, shatter, and fall, silver. Then it was over. Patty and Dave and I walked seven stories down a darkened stairwell to a street of panicked people, ants spilling out of their trampled nests, and people wandering up Market Street, calling to each other, “Did you hear? The Bay Bridge collapsed!”
We walked buoyant, powered by survival, self-important. But when I finally made it home to Joshua at three a.m. still heart-racing and godlike, I found a stilled and changed San Andreas; off-kilter, off-foundation, stunned. A woman killed by collapsing bricks. So much damage. Those earthquake lovers didn’t like it so much then. “Rock and roll!” my ass.
In the zoo, the animals were terribly upset with themselves — they should have seen it coming.
“I did!” the little sun bear told her mother. “I did, I felt weird, but I didn’t want to say anything!”
Her mother smiled indulgently: “Yes, Honey Bear.”
Our house survived major damage in that quake and in all the rest; we’d sometimes arrive home to furniture shifts and crooked pictures. A broken mirror, glasses in the built-in cabinet smashed, a potted plant flung and shattered on the floor.
From then on, I preferred to work closer to home.
I was no Dr. Doolittle, chatting with the beasts. Yes, I could hear the animals, but only before or after an earthquake. I’d researched the phenomenon. I had an explanation. Before an earthquake, the earth sometimes releases charged ions, and electrically-charged ionic particles change the neurotransmitter ratios in animal brains so that the animals wig out — domesticated animals become fearful, run away, wild animals become gentle and tame.
And I was an animal, too, ionic particles affected my brain waves, apparently, for it was only during these electro-magnetic disturbances that I heard the animals speak.
They talked about the night, and the wind. They talked about each other; the feud between the mockingbird and the Steller jay. The dogs talked about the cats. In the zoo, the camels wondered about water, and the elephants pondered the impenetrable nature of the universe. They warned each other, in the panic of uncertain ground; they talked each other down from the ledge.
All morning, I sat on the stool behind the counter. Whispers came from the walls, even the insects were telling me something, their rustling paper voices too low to hear. Something brewing.
I’d had to learn to listen.
Growing up, my father was a keeper at the San Andreas Zoo. Nobody else’s dad came home smelling like elephant dung. Patrick’s dad worked as a ship builder on Mare Island, Karen’s dad taught economics, who knew what the rest of them did. Dad being a zookeeper — a big animal man — was not unlike his being in the circus: a clown, a ringmaster. And it meant the class always went to the San Andreas — instead of the San Francisco — Zoo, because we got free tours and backstage passes. I never trusted the big animals. People forgot they were scary just because they were caged. Thousands of pounds of flesh, the lions with teeth and jaws and claws.
Dad was Whitey the elephant’s keeper, the man who held the chain attached to the leg; nothing but love in those huge, nictitating eyes, he said, yet our dinner table conversations filled with stories of near disaster. Dad laughed it off. And I’d dream of thundering herds, the eerie blast of an elephant’s bellow through raised trunk. I’d wake terrified for my father.
When you are eight, nine, when you speak like Cassandra, warn of evil in the form of elephantine flesh, dream of pulling your dad out of the enclosure and buying him a business suit and sending him somewhere safe, nobody listens.
By the time I was 12, I had more friends and we never went to the zoo anymore. Every day Dad combed what was left of his hair, stood and shaved, put on his green zoo suit (three more hanging in the downstairs closet) and took the bus to the San Andreas Zoo.
I forgot to worry.
Mom and Dad argued and divorced, and Mom and I moved away from Gracy to a vapid, Southern California town. Dad moved to a bungalow in San Andreas not far from the zoo. Then, when I was 23 and already deeply in love with Joshua, Whitey, Dad’s other baby, went into musth, the male elephants’ form of heat. The elephant version of testosterone rage filled him and brimmed. No love in his eyes now, Whitey freaked out and tantrumed, and stomped and stomped and stomped my father to a pulp.
San Andreas had a small earthquake later that week, magnitude 3.3. When elephants stomp, the earth shakes, but I was unaware of the warnings. The lions roared all night the night before; the monkeys huddled, wide-eyed, on their perches. People said later that their cats and dogs acted oddly, licking themselves compulsively, hiding under the bed. We sat in our room at the Sunrise Motel, still in shock, the day after Dad’s funeral. We listened to the window panes throb.
Three months later, Josh and I moved to San Andreas, to Dad’s house, less than a mile from the zoo.
After Joshua left for the gym, two middle-aged women came in and browsed, then left without buying. A little before 1:30, I left the gallery and walked over to Franklin and Mission. On the corner was a classic dive bar with a thick vinyl curtain over the doorway. A lady of a certain age pushed her way in: bewigged, lipstick-caked , dowdy-skirted, gingerly clutching a handbag containing Virginia Slims. Time for a little cocktail. Next door, I ate a fish taco at the counter at Baja Taqueria. Then I stopped at Longs and picked up an Early Pregnancy Test. Perhaps that was the problem, migraines and bad PMS, a late period, the neighborhood cats and dogs louder than ever.
In the small bathroom in the back of the gallery, I peed on a white stick. Best results if you used the first morning pee, the box said, but I couldn’t wait. Then I had to wait anyway for it to change color to the pale unmistakable blue that would confirm my pregnancy. It didn’t change. No pure pale blue of truth.
I felt nothing. I knew there were no false positives on an EPT; you cannot secrete a pregnancy hormone unless you have it. But there were false negatives, and I had not used the first morning pee.
I closed early. On my way home from work, a black cat sitting in a window at 37th stared and reiterated. “Baby.”
“No baby,” I whispered to the cat.
Joshua and I were both 38 and though we’d been together since we were 23, we’d never, ever wanted to have children, even though if we’d had a baby we might create a perfect melt, the true American Dream. Josh’s father was Chinese-American second generation and his mother was a tall, blond shiksa-looking Polish-Jewish-American. They didn’t last. Now his dad lived in Marin as a successful businessman and his mother lived in San Francisco as a successful second wife. I was one-eighth black, but raised white for generations. My mother, still eking it out in Southern California, had the rich skin tones that let people know. If you knew my heritage (a great-grandfather on my mother’s side), you could see it in the set of my nose and lips, a little bit in the texture of my hair. But I looked too white to rate as a woman of color. My link to the non-dominant culture was a hidden one, cherished by me, and I was defensive of it, too. Never sure when to mention it, to trot it out.
When we went to dinner with Joshua’s father, we ate sushi in hushed restaurants without our shoes. When we went to dinner with his mother, she cooked us vertical food on composed plates; her husband Bob called us “the melting pot” and asked us probing questions about what it was like to be an interracial couple.
We went to dinner at his mother’s house that night, the night of the day the black cat at 37th and George Washington confirmed my pregnancy. I hadn’t told Joshua; I had no blue stick for proof.
“How’s life as an interracial couple?” Bob asked.
“Bob!” Myrna said.
“Fine,” I said, rearranging the chives on my plate, wondering if I felt queasy.
Joshua said, “Same as always, Bob.”
It was fine. San Andreas led Northern California in interracial couples, which meant we led the world, except for Cuba. You rarely saw a segregated crowd.
A bird chirped a small warning outside in the Monterey pine: “Shaking coming!”
I put down my fork.
“Earthquake,” I said.
“I didn’t feel it!” Myrna said.
“Oh, no, not yet.”
“How soon?” Joshua asked.
“No.” I bit my lower lip, hard.
“She predicts earthquakes,” Joshua told his mom and stepdad.
They looked at him.
“Not really,” I glared at Joshua. “I just usually get a sense.”
“Bad one coming?” he asked. I was his party trick.
“It’s just a thing I feel,” I told them, “I have a good track record.”
“Should we get under the table?” Myrna’s face, opaque. Bob smiled at me as though I was a cute kid.
“I’m pregnant,” I wanted to say. “No tables and doorways yet!” I said. It was my own fault though, so I needed to explain. “But there’s probably going to be some seismic activity in the next week or so.”
“Like every week in San Andreas,” Joshua said.
“But how do you know?” His mother said.
I didn’t look at Joshua. He didn’t say anything.
I shrugged to lighten it. “I’ll let you know when I predict the big one.”
Myrna and Bob smiled at each other. Their unit was sealed. Mine and Joshua’s leaked air.
I knew that animal warnings were not always reliable; animals were never reliable, they could turn on you. Like EPTs, though, animals gave false negatives but no false positives. In 1975, Chinese officials ordered the evacuation of Haicheng (population about 1 million) based on widespread accounts of peculiar animal behavior, changes in land elevation and ground water levels, and a regional increase in seismicity (later recognized as foreshocks). A few days later, on February 4, 1975, a magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck the region. 2,041 people died and 27,538 were injured. Scientists estimated that, without earthquake prediction and evacuation, fatalities and injuries would have exceeded 150,000.
But a year and a half later, on July 28, 1976, a 7.8 earthquake struck Tangshan, a city of about the same size, without warning. The animals were mum. No land elevation changes, no ground water changes, no foreshocks. 242,419 people died and 164,000 were injured. Didn’t they have elephants in Tangshen?
Three months before the pregnancy, Joshua had fallen in love with Uppa Tree. I knew it was temporary. She was 25 and unavailable; he was ruing his loss of hair, the thickening of his waist. Uppa Tree, real name, Kat Kelly. “Fat Belly,” I called her; he told me I was childish. For a few weeks he mooned, he sighed, she indulged. They kissed behind a speaker at one of the gigs and that’s as far as it went, he told me, sad, guilt-ridden, fleeing his guilt by delivering it to me, wrapped in remorse, a delicacy: melon in prosciutto.
It was nothing, and then it was over, and so was the band. I knew that affairs happen. And affaires de coeur; you can’t help falling in love. I forgave him; I believed he cared for me, as well as he could. I asked few details. But like a waiter ripping away the tablecloth and leaving the dishes standing, Joshua’s confession had pulled the rug out from under me, leaving me standing on quicksand. I had not been prepared. No canaries in my coal mine.
That night after dinner with Myrna and Bob, I went online and googled rare genetic diseases. Prune Belly Syndrome. Tay Sachs. A long time ago, before I knew Joshua, his sister’s baby was born broken and died when she was nine months old, though it was nobody’s fault, a mutated gene and an enlarged heart. The family did not endure. I followed the links to Proteus Syndrome, a disease so uncommon that only 120 living people had it; cause unknown, no prenatal diagnosis. Proteus Syndrome, named after the polymorphous Greek sea god. Proteus lived in an island grotto and made prophecies, but only when asleep. Awake, he changed his form whenever he wanted so he wouldn’t be recognized.
In humans, the Proteus changes were immutable. I found case pictures of a little boy, four years old, standing pink and naked in front of a screen, arms upraised, a dense black square imposed over his face. The side of his torso bulged out, fingers already distended into thick, warped sausages. I found a mother’s website, a photo shrine to her nine-year-old recently dead. His limbs had frozen in place, his bones overgrown. A child formed of clay and then pulled, stretched like taffy, hideous, and frozen into a grimace. His favorite thing had been to ride his wheelchair in fast circles in the sun.
Even if I had this baby, Proteus Syndrome was unlikely to result, so I turned off the computer and headed for bed. As I lay there next to Joshua, I heard the animals talking outside our bedroom window in the Live Oak tree; the squirrel and the jay, the opossum and her quadruplets.
“Shaking comes, hold on tight.”
“You’re fine, little possum.”
“You’re fine, little jay.”
“Baby in the belly,” the squirrel said. “Baby in the house. Hold on tight, shaking comes now.”
So I told Joshua, as we didn’t have much time before the earthquake. “I’m pregnant.”
“What? Are you sure?”
“I did a test.”
He was silent. “How did this happen?”
“Should we have this baby?” I asked him. “This baby?”
“I don’t know. It’s your body.” His head was on the pillow but his voice came from far away.
“It’s your baby, too.”
“Sleep on it. We’ll just sleep on it.” He pulled the pillow tighter to his head and fell asleep.
I waited. A field mouse crept from the wall and sat on my nightstand looking at me with bright little eyes.
At slightly after midnight, the world rocked, the ground shook with a sharp 3.9 foreshock, the dishes rattled in the old glass-faced built-in cabinet. Joshua woke with a start. We cuddled in the dark in our bed, buried below sheets and quilts, hoping our arms around each other would find a resolution.
The next-door neighbor roared up in his beater, bass pounding, slammed the car door and shouted, went in the house and the outside stilled.
I got out of the bed and went to the window.
The animals were silent, waiting.
We lived in an uncertain world, and we lived in an earthquake zone. The earth was overloaded, dying. I had agreed, long ago, and I was not the kind of person to go back on my word.
“I want a baby,” I said.
“I can’t,” he said.
The earth quivered and I felt the fault line, the earth separating between us.
When I was growing up, we had a lion skin in a burlap bag in our basement, stored in rock salt, waiting for some day when my parents had the energy to get to the taxidermist; waiting on the list with the other things that never got done: the small hole in the living room plaster where Mom had uninstalled a heater, the lacy film of charcoal black mildew in the corner of the laundry room. After the animal died of a burst uterus, Dad had asked for the skin. I’d go down the stairs in the dark (no turning on the light) and scare myself into creeping forward until I touched it, the long dry hair, the rough sack, chunks of salt.
If I had the baby, I would be a mother, a single mother. I would leave my father’s pretty house. Move to solid earth in a city far away from San Andreas and live in a highrise on a foundation of bedrock where the things I loved would not rise up shaking and stomping. No animals would speak to me. If they spoke, I wouldn’t listen.
The night listened to me. The world tensed for the big one. The cat down the street with grey eyes whispered, “Get out now, get out, get out,” and dogs howled in fear. Across the city, the elephants roared. A raccoon crept from the trees toward the window where I stood and looked at me through the glass, wanting my arms. Catfish in Spitfire Creek woke in the dark and jumped to dry land. In the zoo, I heard later, a tiger leapt into the buffalo enclosure and curled consoling around a calf till dawn, waiting for the shake.
But the earth of San Andreas stayed put. The only movement was inside me, a tectonic shift, a long slow roll.
“San Andreas” first appeared in Scrivener Creative Review.