Hey gang! It’s the third Wednesday of the month, so it’s me again. Most of you know, I’m on a road trip across the USA. If you want to know more about that, check out my travel blog. At the moment I’m sitting out the rain in our van in Wyoming, just outside of Yellowstone. It’s a gorgeous blustery day, but my Internet connection is weak, so my apologies for not posting photos.
It’s October 17, 1989, Santa Cruz, California, 5:01 pm. I’ve just turned off the industrial-sized gas oven with its eight rotating shelves, removed my batter-caked apron, tried to rinse the smell of sugar and butter off my hands and face, nabbed my paycheck from the bakery bulletin board, and stepped out onto the sidewalk. I’m feeling a little guilty. I really should have made another batch of lemon bars before clocking out. But it’s been a long day. Also, I’m in one of those relationships that take a lot of work. Our fight from the night before still isn’t resolved, so there’s that to deal with when I get home. I’ve bought a pumpkin pie at half price, the employee discount, in hopes of sweetening things up. Pumpkin pie for dinner, hon! We aren’t just living month to month; it’s week to week, day to day. This pie is a splurge.
The girlfriend in question is coming to pick me up in our old white Volvo sedan, which runs, I swear, on prayers. The evening is unseasonably warm. Commuter traffic is happening, cars are piling up at the light. The bakery where I work is at the top of the funky outdoor Pacific Garden Mall. It’s been there for years, but now under new ownership: a young couple with a new baby. The couple knows nothing about owning or running a bakery. They’re floating on family money, and the bakery is kind of a pipe dream for them. Sometimes they fight with each other. He’s got a wandering eye. She’s stuck doing a lot of the day-to-day management of the bakery and caring for the baby. Still, it’s a paycheck. As long as I keep the cookie trays stocked, and don’t overlap with the early-rising bread and Danish bakers, they let me do what I want, come in when I want, which is great since I’m directing a show at a local theater.
Outside, a bunch of “transients” (a.k.a. a mixture of homeless, drug addicts, and the mentally impaired) hang out in front of the bakery. They seem in relatively good spirits today. I’ve come to know some of them by name. There’s the dark horse V who always wears the same ankle-length trench coat. He likes to point out women who are wearing short skirts and say, “You vex my soul!” and other vaguely biblical condemnations. He has a bona fide disciple, a lanky guy with a white man’s ’fro who’s never without a guitar slung over his back, though I’ve never heard him play. And sweet B who, even in blistering hot weather always wears a long puffy down coat, her filthy, callused feet bare. She has two of these coats, one rose colored, one blue. She speaks in a baby voice. And then there’s J, perpetually slumped over her bike and muttering curse words, her straw-like hair covering her face. “Has a real case of sad,” my fellow baker says.
I stand not with them but near them as I wait to be picked up. They’re used to me. I’m used to them. There are a couple of bakers still in the building too: the sales staff and one baker who’s working on a wedding cake. I turn my face up to the sun; send up a prayer that it goes easy at home.
Then I hear it. A low rumble coming from down the street.
It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard, like what I imagine a stampede of bison coming my way would sound like. Suddenly there’s a loud Crack! and the steepled town clock at the top of the mall begins to tremble. And I’m having difficulty staying upright, the sidewalk beneath my flour-covered sneakers is starting to jerk and twist. I reach out to steady myself on the wall of the bakery just as a plate glass window explodes in slow motion. People are screaming. The wedding cake baker and sales women charge out of the building onto the street, their faces masks of terror. V raises his grubby fists into the air and yells, “It’s come at last! Armageddon! And all ye sinners shall perish!” And still the earth continues to rock and roll, and keeps on rocking and rolling for what seems like minutes but in point of fact lasts only about 15 seconds.
Then, just like that, the 7.1 earthquake is over. But the world beneath my feet doesn’t seem quite as sturdy as before. It feels unsure of itself. Like it can’t decide whether it wants to do it again or not. I feel unsure of myself too. And hugely insignificant. What am I doing with my life?
My fellow employees and I all turn to one another. There is dust everywhere, red dust, from the nearby brick Bookshop Santa Cruz, which I will learn later has collapsed in on itself and taken four good people’s lives with it. I’m just feeling damn grateful that I’m okay, that we all are. “Wow,” one of us says. Maybe it’s me who says it. Maybe not. We’re all trying to get a grip on what’s just happened, our sentences clipped and adrenalin-fueled. Then the wedding-cake baker says, “My kid! My kid! I have to go find my kid!” and takes off. And I think about my girlfriend who had to drive a bridge to come get me. Is she okay?
And so it went, my big earthquake experience, the Loma Prieta Earthquake, known to many as the World Series Earthquake. It shook up my life, that’s for sure. I lost my job to it. Not my girlfriend though. Moments later she rounded the corner in our old Volvo, and I was so glad to see her. But in some ways, that earthquake was the beginning of the end for us.
Earthquakes have a way of changing people. You can’t stop thinking about all the what ifs? What if I hadn’t turned off the big gas oven? What if I had been down in the basement of the building? What if the ceiling had given way?
In Perfect Little Worlds I throw some of these what ifs at Lucy and Alice, two middle-aged sisters trying to figure out what to do with a mother lost to dementia. I set my story in that bakery in Santa Cruz in 1989, (fictionalizing elements of both bakery and town when needed) then tossed in alcohol, Alzheimer’s, and Asperger’s then waited to see what would happen. And I’ve got to tell you, the outcome surprised even me.
I hope I’ve piqued your interest, and you’ll pick up a copy. I’m pretty excited about its release of my fifth novel.
So, over and out, and remember, live the love, it’s all we’ve got.