After the Loma Prieta earthquake, our father lives in front of the TV, leaving only to use the bathroom, to bring meals from the kitchen to his TV tray table, to empty his ashtray, or to pace. Papa has no job to go to. “Thank God we have cable,” he says. A thick haze of cigarette smoke coats our paneled walls, a gravy spill on Mom’s beloved floral velour couch which he’s sleeping on now to be close to the tv.
No Cosby Show for me and my seven-year-old twin brothers. We watch ruin.
Over and over, we watch a chunk of the upper tier of the San Francisco Bay Bridge collapse, a red car and black car crashing down to the lower deck, front and back ends of the cars straddling the break in the bridge, gray waves below.
“Papa,” I beg the second day. “Turn this off. Please. It’s too scary for the twins.”
Papa is keeping us home from school for a while; he says we’re safer here. Even though we live in Fresno, hundreds of miles from the quake, no earthquake fault near us.
“You can take it, little men. Right?”
The twins nod.
What would our mother do? I’m only twelve.
Over and over we watch buildings crumble in San Francisco. Whole blocks burn. We watch houses slide off their foundation in Santa Cruz. Over and over we watch the upper tier of a West Oakland freeway collapse, hundreds of tons of concrete smashing cars below. People from the neighborhood rush to help. They carry ladders, ropes, tools. They crawl on their bellies in the few feet of space between the upper and lower decks. Screams, dust, flames, aftershocks. More than 40 people died when their cars were pancaked.
Papa cheers these civilians, calling them the real first responders. “See if the government does that!” he shouts. His eyes tear up when an occasional survivor is pulled from the rubble. “You need to see this,” he says. “Heroes in action.”
After three days of nonstop quake news and meals of Swanson TV dinners and Davy’s coughing and wheezing getting worse and the twins falling asleep on the couch after midnight and no showers for anyone but me—”Give it a rest, Shelly. Boys are supposed to smell.” — I call Aunt Meg. “You know how your father is,” she says. “None of us wanted your mother to marry him.”
After four days of nonstop quake news, I count my victories. Papa only smokes outside now. He finally took a shower. He made the twins go to bed at 10:00 pm.
After five days of nonstop quake news, after the twins say my burnt meatloaf is gross, after Papa mocks my attempts to get them to do schoolwork—Let’s make a list of quake related verbs and nouns, I say. Let’s write a story about the quake—, after Davy gives Chris a bloody nose because Chris hogs Zaxatron, their favorite transformer Papa made last year when he spent weeks in his workshop making 50 transformers— I get brave. And mad. I tell Papa I’ll throw the goddamn TV out the window if he doesn’t turn it off.
No. What I really do is cry. Beg. He’s silent for a while. Then, “You’re right,” he says. “Things have been a mess since Mom died.” He turns off the TV. He turns off the TV! Paces. “We need something to bring us together,” he says and disappears into his workshop.
I microwave TV dinners. Force the twins into showers. When he comes out of his workshop, he has a roll of papers. He unrolls them so we can see the detailed drawings.
“The joints connecting the upper and lower columns were too weak,” he says, pointing.
“Huh?” says Chris.
“And too many of them. Too many hinges, too. Plus that unstable soil the freeway was built on. And the bridge. Well, the magnitude of the quake’s horizontal motion was unanticipated. It broke the bolts holding the span to the pier.”
“Papa,” I say, gently. “I thought we were done with the quake. What is this?”
“Home schooling. Real learning. I’ll teach you at home, little men. We’ll build a model of both the bridge and the freeway. Then we’ll simulate the quake.”
“You can’t keep the kids out of school.”
“Shelly. Listen. The really cool thing— this quake gives us an entire curriculum! You were right about earthquake nouns and verbs, a story.” His voice rises. “That’s reading and writing. You’ll be my aide. The math and science is obvious.” He taps the drawings. “And PE. Man, do we have PE covered. Little men,” he shouts. “Come on. We’re crawling through the rubble.” He crouches on the floor, creeping, crawling, slithering. “Follow me, little men. Over there, the smashed truck. Can’t you hear the screams?” He points to a chair. “Help,” he shouts. “I’m all bloody.”
Chris is on the floor, yelping. “Coming to the rescue!”
“Davy, on the floor,” yells Papa. “Now. Be a hero. Not a wimp.”
Davy is unmoving, wiping away tears.
I close my eyes. I wish myself far far away from here. Anywhereanywhereanywhere. I open my eyes and rub his arm. “It’s okay,” I tell Davy. “It’ll be fun. Come on.” I crouch on the floor. I motion him to follow.