Saturday Morning Post #72: Stacey Shaken

In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, Stacey gets a typical California wake-up call from nature.

She always heard them first. A creak or a thunk, nothing that seemed important, really. The house settling or someone moving upstairs. Except that there’s always something a little different about this creak or thunk. It’s not a random noise. It’s, “Hello! I’m here…”

Then it started.

Now, being from around here, she always did the same thing at first. Nothing. Sit at attention, cock her head to one side, think, “Here we go again.” Try to think nothing of it, but waiting for that magic moment. These things had delineations, after all. They would either decide to stop or, sometimes, like this time, they wouldn’t.

Her second thought was always, “Oh shit,” and she’d go dashing to the nearest doorway. And, usually, just about the time she’d gotten there, she’d notice that it was over, feel her heart trying to elbow her lungs out of the way, then head to the TV, flicking on every light switch she passed, grab the remote and stand in the living room, flipping through the channels looking for the special report.

While she was flipping, she played the guessing game. “Four? No, no, that had to be five. Or a really big one far away…” And all the time in the back of her mind wondering, “Aftershock or foreshock?” How soon would the next one come and how big would it be?

Finally, she found the news, two anchors sitting at their desk, trying not to look scared, because they’d just been through the same thing themselves. “We have a preliminary report that the earthquake was a four point three magnitude — “

“Four three my ass,” Stacey thought as she sat down to watch. Spend a long enough time in LA, you got pretty good at guessing these things, and that one felt like a five, at least. And no way in hell that big one back in ‘94 had been anything less than a seven, no matter what the scientists said. She’d read somewhere that there was a state law that would waive property taxes for a year after an event greater than seven, and she was pretty sure they lied so they wouldn’t have to do it.

Now that had been a nasty morning. That quake had its own personality — they all did. And that personality had been particularly evil. Everything was shaking and bouncing and rolling ferociously and then, right in the middle of it, as if the quake were adding its own personal “fuck you” to the mix, there was another jolt, bigger, and the whole thing got stronger and nastier and Stacey had been sure that this was it, it was The Big One finally come and it wouldn’t stop until everything in Southern California had been flattened.

But, apparently, it wasn’t The Big One, just a big one. It had been her first. She wasn’t even born yet when the big one before that happened, but everyone who’d been around in ‘71 assured her, “Oh, no, Northridge (the new one) was much, much bigger than Sylmar (the old one).”

Why did people name these things? Like hurricanes. Was it some attempt to make them warm and fuzzy and less threatening? It was like the ancient Greeks naming thunder and lightning “Zeus.”

Stacey looked around the apartment. Nothing seemed damaged. No new cracks, nothing fell off the walls. She jumped up, hurried into the kitchen. The cupboards were all closed, nothing fell over in here. She sniffed for gas, smelled nothing. Good.

From the other room, the special report continued. “Oh, joy,” Stacey thought, “Pointless call-in time.” That was an inevitable feature of these things. No real news to report, but the possibility that something horrendous had happened, so these idiots went to the phones, and the conversation was always the same.

“We’re on the line with Wanda from Canoga Park.” Why was it always someone from the far West Valley? “Wanda, what did you feel?”

In the kitchen, Stacey spoke out loud, along with Wanda, who sounded about seventy, “Oh, it was a pretty good shake, and a rolling motion and the dishes were rattling, a couple of pictures fell off the wall.” Why didn’t they just record one of these calls so they’d have it to use, over and over?

Stacey took a glass off the counter and put it in the sink, just in case. She’d always been meaning to go to the hardware store and get those earthquake latches, but it would be such a pain in the ass to install them in — how many? She counted. A dozen cupboards. And getting that blue museum stuff to stick behind the pictures. And those straps for the big bookcases. She would do it, one of these days, when she had the time.

Why did these things always happen after dark, anyway? And why was it that the really big ones always came early in the morning as wake-up calls? That was the worst part, really. Knowing that a big enough quake would knock the power out, shake you around in the dark and then leave you there. She opened the junk drawer, fished around for the flashlight, pulled it out. It was silver metal, a real old skool piece of work, something her father had given her a long time ago before she went off to college. She was surprised she still had it. He told her that its main use was to hit any man who tried to rape or rob her over the head. Lighting was secondary.

She flipped the switch. Nothing. Even though it was heavy enough to have batteries in it, she still opened the bottom to check. Oh yeah, it had batteries. Some cheap old ones that had corroded. The whole inside of the flashlight looked like it had rusted. She screwed the cap back on and tossed it in the trash. Mental note, get flashlight. And earthquake latches and straps. She looked at the clock. A quarter to ten. Too late right now, unless she wanted to go all the way to that twenty-four hour place in Hollywood. But how stupid would that be, to be out on the road, in case this little jolt was some kind of foreshock to something bigger? And, anyway, she’d look like a big stupid girl if she went running off to stock up just because of a minor shaker like this. It was nothing, really. Nothing at all.

Her heart had finally settled down, at least. Then the phone rang and Stacey jumped, getting startled all over again. Who’d be calling her this late? Oh, but of course.

She picked up and said, “Yeah, I felt it, Mom.”

“It was a pretty good one, wasn’t it?”

“Oh, it was nothing. The news said four point three.”

“That was at least a five. The whole house shook here. Snowball was running in circles, barking his little head off.”

“Doesn’t he always do that?”

Stacey’s mother laughed. “I think we were closer to it than you. It was a pretty good shake, and a rolling motion and the dishes were rattling. A couple of your baby pictures fell off the wall.”

“You still have those things up?”

“They fell down. Didn’t break, though.” Stacey’s mother said this last with a note of triumph in her voice.

Didn’t break. That was one of the fluky parts about really big quakes, Stacey had learned the hard way — what broke and what didn’t. Back in ‘94, she found a tall votive candle of St. Emygdius, which had been on top of a bookcase, across the room, on a table, intact. She’d also found one of her plates, in the middle of a stack in the cupboard, cracked right down the center. Back then, three blocks north of her, hardly anything happened. Three blocks south, an entire neighborhood was condemned.

“I’d still rather go through an earthquake than a flood,” her mother said. “At least a quake is over quickly. Why do you think I moved out here?”

“Yeah,” Stacey thought, “A quake is over quickly if it doesn’t destroy everything you own.” Out loud, she said, “At least you get a warning with a flood or a tornado or something like that.”

“Not always,” her mother said. “You’d be surprised. Well, dear, I’m glad you’re okay. Your father’s calling me. We were watching a movie and he doesn’t want to be up late.”

“Okay, Mom. What movie?”

“‘Twister.’ Did you ever see it?”

“Uh, yeah, long time ago. Talk to you later.”

“Good-bye, dear. I love you.”

“Love you too.”

And they hung up.

The news report was over and they’d gone back to ‘Baywatch.’ Stacey flipped through the local channels one more time. Nothing. This was a non-event, no big deal. She was silly, really, for getting so worked up about it. The upstairs neighbors hadn’t come crashing through her ceiling, her life hadn’t been trashed, the apocalypse hadn’t come. She turned off the TV, put down the remotes and headed back down the hall. But she left all the lights on.

Back in her office, she sat down to finish reading her email. This was a safe room, really. A corner room, a corner desk, no way that could fall over, right? The blinds were shut, so, if the window shattered, the glass would fall straight down. But why was she even thinking this? It hadn’t been that long since Northridge. The really big ones didn’t come all that often, did they?

She was typing an email to an old friend back east when there was a creak and a thunk and it felt like the floor dropped. Then, the shaking started, just a little rattle. She stopped typing, looked over at the antenna on her wireless phone. Then it really started, the big jolt, the rolling, yes — it was another one.

Stacey gave an annoyed look at nothing in particular, just sat there and counted to five and then it was over. Not the big one, not even a particularly big one, just a bothersome interruption. She hit “send,” deleted the old email and went on to the next.

Friday Free-for-All #65: Worst hair, missed movie, new instrument, weirdest thing

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What’s the worst hairstyle you’ve ever had?

This goes back to my musician days, and it started when I told my stylist, “I want to grow it as long as I can.” Well, that long turned out to be more than halfway down my back. Keep in mind that I’ve got really thick, wavy hair, so it’s not the kind of thing that adapts well to that style.

Sure, if I had thinner, straight hair, it would have been awesome. But had had this shit on my head for a couple of years, which made summers hell, not to mention that it made morning prep a lot more difficult because it took a lot longer to wash and a lot longer to dry.

The other trick when my hair gets long is that one side naturally combs up and the other combs down and I can never remember which is which, but if I get it wrong it’s a nightmare. That’s why I would also have my stylist keep the sides fairly short but with the major warning: “This can in no way resemble a mullet, because it’s not the 80s anymore.”

Yeah, this was total grunge era.

Anyway, the day finally came along that I got sick of it and told her, “Okay, cut it off,” and I haven’t really gone back since.

Well, that’s not quite true. In 2020, I’d had my last hair cut in February, and by July it was getting pretty long and crazy, at which point I just said “fuck it” and shaved my head for the first time in my life. That was actually interesting and, since I wasn’t really going anywhere, didn’t have a big effect on my life.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t until February 2021 that I got my next cut, a freebie courtesy of my at-the-time boss’s wife, who was a stylist — but now it’s June again, and it’s turning into another rat’s nest or, as a former co-worker used to call it, my “Mad Scientist Hair.”

Still, nowhere near has bad as when I actually had it trained to crawl down my back. Left to its own devices, my hair mostly behaves.

What movie has everyone else seen but you haven’t?

There are probably a few, but the one that most surprises people is probably E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Why? Because I just had less than no interest in seeing it when it came out. It felt like Spielberg had already trod that path with Close Encounters, and from what I’d seen in trailers and ads, it just seemed too cutesy-stupid, even for a kid but especially for an adult.

Years later, when they replaced guns with walkie-talkies, it definitely went into my “Don’t bother” pile.

If you could pick up any one instrument and instantly be a virtuoso at it, what instrument would you choose?

This one is easy, but multiple option. It would be any of a handful of stringed instruments, although while learning some make the others easy, it’s not always the case. So I’d say either guitar, banjo, or fiddle, reasons below.

Keep in mind that guitar also gives you electric bass and ukulele, while fiddle gives you violin, cello, viola, stand-up bass, and contrabass. The difference? The first three have frets. The others do not. Or, in other words, a guitar and friends will tell you where to put your fingers. With the noble strings of the orchestra, you just have to figure it out and remember.

Plus… bow. Guitars and friends don’t have bows. You can finger your orchestral strings if you want, but it’s a specialized move called “pizzicato.”

Now guitars do have picks, while bass may or may not and ukulele doesn’t. Then there’s the banjo, which comes in several flavors — four strings, so close to a bass, or five string, so between bass and guitar, except that the fifth string is much shorter and is considered a “drone.” And while you can pluck them or play them with guitar picks, there are also metal banjo picks that go over your finger and which wouldn’t really work with the others.

Oh yeah — in a lot of cases, you also get a built-in tambourine — or at least a drumhead — with a banjo.

But why my interest in any of these — these being guitar, fiddle, banjo, or uke? They are portable, are easy for a crowd to hear, and you can sing when you play them. Or, in other words, the perfect party entertainment or busker tool if you feel like hitting up your local metro station for some pocket change. Or just making people happy.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve found lying on the ground / side of the road?

Oddly enough, this goes back to my musician/bad hair days. The ol’ band had been in the recording studio and were heading home fairly late at night. Now, even though three of us lived together, we had come to the studio from different work locations, so were all in separate cars. Meanwhile, the rhythm guitarist and drummer lived on the other side of the hill, so they headed south while the rest of us headed east.

We were way up in the buttfuck boonies of Chatsworth or something, so our route home took us past Northridge Hospital. I happened to be in the lead, but then suddenly slammed to a stop when my lights picked up something very pale and white in the road.

My bandmates pulled up behind me and we got out to find an old woman in a nightgown lying across the slow lane.

Well, that wasn’t good.

She was alive and conscious, but as we approached, she told us, “Leave me alone. Leave me here. I want to die.”

There being no cellphones, one of our bandmates ran over to the ER entrance only to be told that they couldn’t do shit unless she walked in. Great. So he found a payphone and called the police, who eventually showed up.

The entire time, we kept our cars parked around her, emergency lights flashing, and watched for approac1hing traffic in order to warn it around. Probably not necessary, though, because I think it was very late on a Sunday night — that’s how we got really cheap studio time — so no likely hood of much traffic.

The cops, typical for cops of that era, were completely unsympathetic dicks, at least to her condition, pretty much openly mocking her. However, they at least did have the power to get the ER crew to come out, flop her on a gurney, and admit her.

I have no idea what happened after that. I do know that it was a different era, and the attitude of medical professionals has changed enormously since then. And it still spooks me to this day that had I not realized it had been a human in the road and just perceived it as some junk or a plastic bag, I might have unintentionally granted her wish, with my bandmates accidentally ensuring that the job was done.

And the weirdness of the entire situation is why I remember it to this day.

Sunday Nibble #54: Words, words, words

One of my lifelong joys has been used bookstores and or used book sales, and from a very early age, whenever I could ever avail myself of one or the other and ride the three miles home on a bike with several heavy bags on the handlebars, or stuff my car trunk with several boxes, or whatever… the downside is that actually being able to patronize such places were taken away as an option a year ago.

And then, last week, I happened to stumble upon a place that was near where I grew up, but not there when I grew up at all, and wound up spending a ton of time crawling the shelves and coming out with a just amazing stack of stuff that cost around thirteen dollars.

One thing that they had a lot of that’s usually hard to find: Books of sheet music, generally collections of popular songs from various years or decades, or on various themes. I wound up with Television Sheet Music Hits (from Warner Music, so not surprisingly all Warner Bros. produced shows); Biggest Hits of ’92-’93; Popular Hits of the ‘90s; 50 Songs of WW II; and Bradley’s New Top Movie Tunes (© 1994), also Warner Music.

On top of those, I grabbed an AP Spanish Language study guide, presumably for the AP test 2018, and didn’t even realize it at the time that it came with a CD full of MP3s. It’ll be interesting to go through it and see how much I’ve learned on my own in the last seven-ish years that I didn’t learn taking five years of Spanish in high school — or at least which didn’t stick.

Two funny Spanish AP stories. When I got to junior year and the same Spanish class I’d been with since starting middle school, we all landed in AP and on the first day the teacher asked us whether we’d rather study grammar or literature.

The vote: Absolutely unanimous for grammar — and she vetoed it, saying that we’d learn grammar better by reading the literature. As a result, someone in the class found out that the University Library at Cal State University Northridge (CSUN) was available for L.A. Unified School District students. We couldn’t check anything out, but we could go in and read or copy as much as we wanted.

But the important part: They just so happened to have every book we were assigned to read for the Spanish class, translated into English. We alternated going down there to make copies of the shorter works, which we’d then share with each other. For longer books, we’d just read them in the library and make notes.

Consequently, we really didn’t learn shit about Spanish or its grammar that year because we all took the lazy way out. Now, at the time and like my fellow students, I was vehement in believing that learning grammar was the way to go. Looking back on it now from the point of view of someone who became fluent from self-study, I see that we were all wrong. Immersion, including reading everything, is the way to go.

Not long after I’d left high school, I’d pretty much lost my Spanish other than knowing basic words and short expressions. Anything complicated or conjugated, forget it. Now, I’ve gone way past translating in my head and can communicate with native speakers just fine.

The other funny Spanish AP story: I was scheduled to take the AP placement exam on a Saturday morning. The Friday night before was a high school football game, and I was in band. I played drums mainly because you can’t march with a piano. I don’t remember whether I’d forgotten my mallets or broke one, but we were on the field.

I ran back up to the classroom to grab a pair. On the way back down, I decided to try my powers of flight instead of actually taking the stairs, and twisted my ankle. I still played and marched the whole game, but wouldn’t get a chance to go to a doctor until after the test.

I showed up using one of my dad’s golf clubs as a makeshift walking stick, took the test in a lot of distracting pain, and I don’t remember doing all that well, although it was well enough to get me the college credits for that course.

Combined with my other AP credits, I actually started university as a second semester freshman, with the huge advantage being that I automatically wound up registering before all of the first semester freshman, so I got every class I wanted, and the pattern repeated.

Of course, instead of just graduating a semester early, I had to be ambitious, so in addition to my major in Communications, I had a double minor in Abnormal Psychology and Theatre, which all kind of go together in a way.

The four other finds in this bonanza were sort of random. The first, A Day in the Life of California, is a coffee table picture book created when a bunch of professional photo journalists were sent out to take pictures in the state, all on the same day: April 29, 1988. It was a massive undertaking and, from what I can remember hearing about it at the time, a pretty big deal.

The book itself tells me that it resulted in 115,000 photos, and it wasn’t the first time they did this. The back flap of the dust jacket lists six other entries in the A Day in the Life of… series. I have no idea what the original price was. It’s currently on Amazon for $25.95, but I got it for one dollar.

Another book, called Field Guide to Luck, was targeted as a how-to guide on using the lucky talismans of various cultures in order to get lucky, but at the same time, it’s just a handy reference to all kinds of folk superstitions, which will always be useful as a writer.

Another interesting random find was The Ultimate Fantasy Sourcebook and CD-ROM, a collection of free-to-use hand-drawn art depicting fairies, wizards, dragons, castles, and more, which seemed like it might be useful in future art projects. Finally, there’s Mathematical Lateral Thinking Puzzles, which are always good for keeping the brain sharp.

For example, you have ten letters, each written to a different person, and ten envelopes each addressed to one of those ten people. You put the letters into the envelopes blindly. What are the odds that exactly nine of them are in the right envelope?

Post your guesses in the comments, and tell me about your favorite used book store.

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