“The only reason I’m sitting here at all,” the silent man said at last, “is willpower.” We were sitting at the bar in Callahan’s a couple of days after the San Francisco quake of ‘89. He was wearing a hat and a trench coat and under it clothes that seemed respectable enough, but it looked to me like he hadn’t had a shower in about a month. I was drinking stout, but he was having something a little stiffer—a shot and a beer chaser every fifteen minutes or so. He must have thought he noticed something in my look when he downed his third drink since I’d drifted in. “I’m celebrating,” he said. “Don’t worry. I can hold my liquor.” He nodded his patchy head. “I’m the designated driver today.”|
We’d said little or nothing up to that point. Our eyes had met now and again in the foggy mirror behind the bar. He was downwind from me just a stool or two, but that brief eye contact had been the only exchange between us until he decided to get eloquent.
“How much you drink’s no skin off my nose,” I said. “Get well-preserved as you like.”
“That I will,” he said, nodding, but not vigorously, “That I will. You can count on it.” He sank his eyes into the beer before him and sighed. “It’s some skin off my nose, I want you to know. I was on the Nimitz Freeway when the quake hit. I was there when the roof fell in.”
“You don’t say!” Ollie, the barkeep, chimed in. He was standing between us and the mirror polishing steins and hanging them on the overhead pegs. “You shoulda seen this place right after the quake! There wasn’t a bottle left on the shelf, and the floor was an inch deep in liquor and broken glass. You can still smell it.” We all took in a lungful of the atmosphere of Callahan’s—it was no different than usual, only stronger.
“Glass is one thing,” the man said, “bodies is another.” He reached up almost too fast to follow and grabbed a fly that had landed on his cheek. He plucked it off and flung the crushed carcass onto the floor behind him. I stared at him, amazed, but he didn’t seem to notice. Ollie was looking up at the racks and didn’t see.
“I’m driving along as calm as you please—the traffic wasn’t too heavy for the time of day, which was evening rush hour, you know.” He took a hefty pull at his beer. “One second I’m staring through the windshield, the next I’m lying most of the way out the door of my car. Half the overhead deck is laying on my hood—steel, concrete, smashed cars. My left ear is on the bloody highway,” he said, tilting his head and brushing back the longish hair under the hat brim to show us what was left.
“Why isn’t that bandaged?” Ollie asked. “That’s ugly.”
“Wouldn’t do no good,” the man said. “It’s okay...looks worse than it feels. Like I said, I’m half out the car, my ear’s on the road, and I’m staring at something I don’t recognize for a minute.” There was a pause and he took another drink.
“So, what was it?” I asked.
“A brain,” he said. “A human brain laying there two feet away, still quivering.”
Ollie and I looked at each other and then we looked at him. He nodded.
“Quivering,” he said again and grabbed another fly off his chin. This time Ollie saw him do it—I noticed his eyes widen.
“That’s impossible,” Ollie said, the towel hanging off his right hand, a goblet in his left.
“Not a bit of it,” the man said. “It’s still quivering.”
“Must be that the whole freeway was still shaking from the quake,” I said.
The man thought about that for a second. “Maybe,” he said, “but I don’t notice any of the other body parts shaking.”
I didn’t say anything and neither did Ollie. The man reached for his stein and I noticed that his own hand was shaking. There was no color in it, either, even though his face was swarthy. His eyes were bloodshot. Ollie started polishing again, a little faster and harder, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the guy.
“They’re laying all around me. Hands, feet, stuff I can’t identify and don’t want to. Some of them belong to kids. I try to scream but as I remember it the only sound I can make is soft...a rattle in my throat, or even less. Or maybe I’m hearing all the screams and moans around me and think one of them is mine. Anyway, I try to move, but my right leg is pinned under the dash somehow. It hurts.” I looked down at the leg he had perched on the brass rail and Ollie leaned over the bar. The trousers looked as though they’d been pressed lately, but blood had soaked through the cloth and dried hard.
“I never wanted out of a place so bad,” the man said pointing to his shot glass. Ollie filled it up again and drew another beer.
“Me, too,” I said. “This one’s on me. Have one yourself, Ollie.” The barkeep got busy.
“So I pull myself up off the road and back onto the seat of my car. My head is spinning—a concussion, I figure. Dust is starting to settle on everything now. I can hardly breathe. I want to cough, but all I can do is gag.” He threw his head back and dropped the shot into his mouth—it almost looked like his muscles were out of control and I thought he was going to fall off his stool, but he recovered himself and took a deep draught of his brew. His hat had fallen to the floor, but he didn’t seem to have noticed. I went to reach for it when I noticed the side of his head.
The left temple was matted with blood and caved in.
“You belong in a hospital,” I said, handing him his hat.
“Thanks,” he said and put his hat back on his head, tilted a bit so as to hide the dent. “I take a good look at my stuck leg, and I figure out a way to pull loose. It’s a hell of a fight, let me tell you, but I’m free at last and I start to crawl away from the car, pushing stuff I don’t want to think about out of my way. I have about ten inches of leeway some places, and I have to detour a lot, backtrack, make tunnels. To tell the truth,” he said, staring at me, “I don’t know how I did it, but I wanted out of there in the worst way.” He cleared his throat. “The worst way.”
“So I make it. I get to the edge of the freeway, and I climb down somehow. I hear sirens going off all over the place. I hear things falling. I feel the ground moving.” He paused again. “I get the hell out of there.”
“Where did you get the clothes?” I asked him.
“At home,” he said. “I didn’t live far from where it happened. There was nothing wrong with my apartment except there was no water or electricity.” He looked down at himself. “There still ain’t any, and that’s why I look like this,” he said.
Another fly settled on his forehead, just under the brim of the hat, but he ignored it. There were a lot of flies in the pub, and most of them were circling around us. I kept having to wave them off. Above the strong liquor smell I noticed there was another, stronger odor starting to take over.
“And that’s how come I’m sitting here telling you what it was like,” the man said as he took another sip. “Take it from me, people can do some unbelievable things if they have to.” He got up from his stool slowly and eased his hand into his pocket. He stood there swaying, his eyes rolling in his head until he got them focused at last. He pulled his hand out and held a bill across the bar.
Ollie waved him off and backed up a bit, because now the smell was becoming more than we could stand. “It’s on the house, pal,” he said.
“Hey, thanks, barkeep,” the man said as he carefully moved away toward the door, steadying himself on the booths against the wall. “Next time the drinks are on me.” He opened the door and paused as one of the aftershocks rattled the bottles behind Ollie.
“Keep ‘em flying,” Ollie said.
“Never say die,” I chipped in.
“You got that right, pal,” the man said as he moved out into the drizzly evening and the door sighed closed behind him.