The bus was running late, so Laurie arrived just after the memorial service began. Because every folding chair in the church community room was filled, she stood next to Malcolm and Annette, an elderly couple she knew from evenings spent stuffing envelopes. Laurie suspected that she had folded and unfolded each of those chairs several times over during the course of weekly meetings and other events throughout the last year. She knew well the cool weight of the cream-colored metal, the familiar creaking resistance, and the satisfying snap-into-place. The placard on the wall announced that the room seated 100. At least two dozen more stood. Cracks were still visible in the drywall from the recent earthquake.
Everyone was singing “Freiheit.” A cheerful, chubby banjo-playing man led them, translating each verse in carefully enunciated English, before returning to the original German. Some looked down at the lyrics, extra-large on half-sheets of paper. But most, like Malcolm and Annette, marched through these verses, singing in robustly gruff-sounding syllables about the Spanish heavens and plains, the far-off homeland and the fascists, the bullets falling like hail and their comrades in the trenches.
As soon as the song was finished, Annette turned to her. “I haven’t sung ‘Freiheit’ in years,” she said. Her large eyes, brown and rimmed with black eyeliner, were wet. She pulled a tissue from her purse. It was an old-lady purse, a grandmother’s purse, well-stocked, Laurie thought. Ready for anything. She spied a pack of gum, individually wrapped peppermint pinwheel mints, a fat wallet, a stash of ballpoints, and the red make-up pencil Annette would need to repair the damage to her crying eyes.
The memorial was for Herman Rosenberg, who had sung “Freiheit” decades earlier, as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, that assembly of anti-fascists who had gone to fight Franco. His son took the podium to deliver the eulogy, pointing to the enlarged photo of his father as a young man, posing with his fellow soldiers and an American flag.
“Premature anti-fascists,” the son said. “The war before the good war.”
The mourners were aging brigadistas and internationalistas, as well as survivors of other battles, like Malcolm, whose tattoo was visible on one forearm, numbers stained blue when he rolled up his sleeves. The first time they’d met, Malcolm had advised Laurie that everyone needed to belong to a brigade or liberation front at least once. Malcolm offered loads of advice.
That night, almost a year ago, the volunteer crew had prepared a fundraising appeal for bulk mailing: folding letters, stuffing envelopes, sealing, stamping, and addressing. After watching Laurie fold and refold the appeal letter, Malcolm had pointed out the space between paragraphs that she could use as a natural measure. It was right below the sentence: If we don’t speak out for El Salvador, for Elba Ramos, her daughter and the six Jesuit priests, who will?
“This one’s yours, I guess, isn’t it?” he asked. ”Your liberation front. Everyone needs one.” Malcolm nodded toward the emblem printed on the letterhead: a dove with an olive branch in its beak flying over a map of a tiny country. In his voice, she could hear what her grandmother might call the old country.
Laurie did not want to confess that this liberation front was not hers, nor this church, that she didn’t belong to anything or anyone but was here only to perform community service, a deal with a judge and attorneys and the DA, an impossible number of hours to be served. This was the consequence of poor choices involving alcohol and drugs, and even poorer choices involving a car she could no longer drive even if it could be driven, even if it was hers. It was why she took the bus. Or walked. Resided in a so-called halfway house which was exactly halfway between the church and her old high school. Showed up at the church for AA meetings and unfolded the chairs and set up the coffee urns. Two regular, one decaf. Lots of sugar. Then she stayed to fold up the chairs after and pour what was left of the hot coffee in the gutter, watching it steam into the night as it ran down the appropriately named Hill Street. This was why she folded the endless appeal letters in thirds without complaint and moistened the glue on the envelopes. She didn’t read them. Didn’t think twice about the dove. Didn’t really want to think.
Despite his age, Malcolm had muscular forearms, deeply tanned. It wasn’t too hard to see the tattooed numerals, half hidden in the thinning thicket of the gray hair there. Her own tattoos crawled up her pale arms and shoulders, danced across her back, an incoherent circus. Tiger. Monkey. Lion. Peacock. Camel. Seal. A murder of crows. A smiling dolphin swimming under a rainbow. An impulse-driven dragon that a cute guy had talked her into getting. He’d gotten one too and, for a short time, they were a couple. But that was over now. She had to get her act together. She was twenty-five.
Annette admired them all, as if Laurie had drawn them herself. “Which one was first, dear?” she’d asked that night, when they were still strangers.
Laurie pointed to her right ankle, exposed in a flat sandal. Hello Kitty, fat-headed, pink-bowed, mindless and friendly. Fat paw waving.
“Ooooh,” Annette responded. “Adorable.”
“Do you really like them?” She felt she could ask Annette anything. After all, no one here knew who Laurie was. Her own grandmother winced whenever she caught sight of the tattoos. And her mother had told her she pretended her daughter’s menagerie was temporary and would one day disappear. Her father, the psychologist, who had left when Laurie was a child, dryly congratulated her on finding the one thing that would drive her mother crazy forever. “The permanence is what’s truly brilliant,” he said. “I wish I would have thought of it.”
Laurie looked around for the minister who signed her timesheet. Everyone referred to him as Jim. She couldn’t do that, even though he had gently corrected her when she had used the term Father. Now, she called him sir or Minister Jim. He was also the mayor of the sleepy coastal city. This had been news to her even though she’d lived here all her life. It explained, perhaps, why she had been assigned here, to this church. No doubt it was a favor for her parents—who, she had begun to appreciate since the accident, were people of some social standing, of some power. Dad, the shrink; Mom, the restaurateur. A deal must have been struck. Minister Jim usually supervised the assembly line on the collapsible card tables: folders, stuffers, labelers, closers, and stampers; troubleshooting and anticipating needs for more envelopes or labels; sometimes kneeling in front of the cantankerous copy machine to extract a stubborn misfeed or refill the paper supply. Occasionally he played pinball on the Dolly Parton-themed machine that stood like an improbable altar in between a tall bookcase filled with old hymnals and a squat metal file cabinet.
The pinball machine was a great mystery to Laurie. How had it been carried up the church’s narrow interior stairway? She wondered about the place of such a thing in a minister’s office. Of course, there was the wonder of Dolly herself, with her trademark blonde voluptuousness, resplendent in a revealing yellow pantsuit. When the machine was on, when the tokens dropped into the slot, the singer glowed. Laurie hoped Dolly would sing, but it was just a game, a single silver ball triggering buzzers and bells and lights. Pinball Dolly was lush and blank, and when Laurie played, as she did at least once, almost every day—free, after all—she saw her own faint reflection superimposed on the singer: slender, darker, pale skin scrambling with inky beasts.
Laurie didn’t have the heart to tell Annette that she was on the clock, following orders, here not for Herman but for the hours served. After cleanup, she’d bring her timesheet to Minister Jim and have him sign off, another two hours subtracted from what she owed the state.
The school bus Laurie had T-boned had been empty except for the bus driver, who looked like he’d seen his fair share of drunk drivers and accidents. The last of the students he’d dropped off saw the whole thing, standing on the corner of Hollister and Fourth. They were witnesses, not that witnesses were needed. It had happened in broad daylight, as people said. The people in the corner liquor store or the pocket park were more than enough to testify that the car had slammed into the school bus without so much as braking, and then ricocheted into the boundary wall. Laurie was lucky, the bus driver told her, even before the paramedics arrived to extract her from her vehicle with the jaws of life. But Laurie didn’t feel lucky. The car (not hers) was totaled. She was holding. She was under the influence. For some time after, she could make out the sinister streaks on the cinderblock wall where, after hitting the bus, the car had slammed, skidded, and come to rest. She thought of it as the shadow of the accident, as if the event had cast its own mark through speed and scratch and heat. Then, one day it was painted over, just like that.
Gone. Forgotten. Or maybe forgiven, Laurie hoped.
This is how Laurie saw it: she had so many hours of community service. Too many! And she had those twelve steps to climb. Both could be achieved in the same place, the Methodist church. Here she was, upstairs or down, nearly every day and night of the week. When she wasn’t stuffing envelopes upstairs with people who could be her grandparents—if her grandparents had been aging Commies and leftists and old hippies—she was downstairs in a dreary circle with the AA crowd and the NA crew.
Laurie’s sponsor, Ivette, had begun to press Laurie gently to open up, intercepting her as she set up the coffee and unpacked the enormous blue tin of Danish sugar cookies, stacked in their crinkled paper cups, as yellow and swirly as Pinball Dolly. Laurie’s shares always ended with the yellow school bus and her friend’s father’s Mustang and that cinderblock wall. The bump of the curb, the crack of the axle, the shearing of the tires.
“Tonight,” Ivette said, “tell us more. Not just the story that brought you here. If you’re like us, and you know you are, you have other stories, stories you need to tell. It will help.”
Ivette applied lipstick and dressed up, as if going to a meeting was a big deal. Laurie knew all about her because Ivette had laid it all out: the broken marriage, the three kids taken from her. Even as adults, they didn’t speak to her. Something about cashing in her daughter’s U.S. savings bonds for drugs. Wasn’t the car, the bus, the wall enough? Laurie knew how to tell that story. It did the job.
The early arrivals were filing in, before the coffee had begun to perk. Some waited outside, smoking. What else could she offer up? At the time of the accident, she’d had cocaine in a tiny aluminum foil envelope tucked inside her sock. A quarter gram. She got away with it somehow, trapped in the car, peeling off shoes and socks with her toes so she could emerge barefoot. How about the high school English teacher who, instead of busting her for the stash in her reading folder, confiscated her kit? Mr. Morrison. She could remember seeing him suddenly still behind his desk, his carefully tended afro backlit from the afternoon sun through the classroom window, watching her discover what was gone. Two months from graduation. Was he trying to save her? Or did he want it for himself? The matches, the foil, the straw, the crumbly brown powder. She graduated, walked across that stage. Mr. Morrison shook her hand, wished her well. Most of her stories were about getting away with it. But you weren’t supposed to tell stories that didn’t have regret. Laurie understood that much.
“I’ll try,” she told Ivette. But she didn’t mean it. That night, she told the story as she always had.
Getting away with things was a hard habit to break. Laurie was good at it, and it had worked for her so far. Minister Jim pointed this out one night as she waited for him to finish her weekly paperwork. He took his time. The previous week he had caught her trying to double dip, a phrase she hadn’t heard before. He accused her of attempting the miracle of bilocation, which only five Catholic saints had ever demonstrated, and then proceeded to tell her about all five. These stories of being in two places at once were surprisingly boring. If she could be in two places at once, she would do a better job. Minister Jim’s favorite was Isidore, the patron saint of farmworkers, who had appeared in the field working the harvest at the same time he was seen in church.
Laurie hadn’t thought Minister Jim would notice that she had claimed to be in twelve-step meetings at the same time she was also upstairs with Malcolm and Annette and the premature anti-fascist battalion stuffing envelopes for justice. So she sat in his tiny office while he examined her entries and tallied up hours and made her talk. He was good at that.
Minister Jim’s office was like his pinball machine. Unexpected. He could have chosen the larger space on the second floor with the big windows but instead he allowed the local peace and justice organizations to work there. His office looked like a large storage closet, but it was large enough for what he needed: a desk, a bookcase, a few chairs. Spare. Monk-like. The wood-paneled walls made it warm instead of oppressive. So did he. Even when he was scolding, his round, suntanned face beamed hope. He was a man of faith, after all. Laurie sat and waited. She had no choice.
“I don’t understand what you have to get away with,” he was saying. He had finished signing the forms but had placed them on his desk and folded his hands on top.
“This is where you tell me that I had everything growing up, right? That I still do?”
He waited. When he smiled, his face grew rounder, sun-like. Ivette had told her Minister Jim was a surfer. That he took the short walk with his board from the rectory to the waves at least twice a week. This explained the tan, the sun-bleached but thinning hair, and the laid back attitude, but Laurie thought it was too much. Minister? Mayor? Surfer? How many things could one person be?
“You should talk to my parents. You know my parents, don’t you?” Her voice was a petulant whine, as if she were a kid. She was embarrassed. Where did that come from?
Jim sighed a bit theatrically, or maybe he was tired. “This isn’t about your parents,” he told her. “This is about you. My relationship here is with you. It’s not about the numbers.” He looked down at the papers, then back at her. “It’s about what the time here is doing for you.”
“I am doing everything I’m told,” she said steadily. The bare walls of the office were now bothering her. There was nothing to look at. Maybe that’s why he kept it like this. She arched her ankle and looked down. Hello Kitty waved. Mute.
“But you’re still trying to get away with it, aren’t you? Instead of getting with it. You’re just doing what you’ve always done.”
“I’m sober,” she responded. “I am clean. Two months.”
“Because they test you,” he said evenly. “You pee into a cup while someone listens outside the door. You can’t get away with anything there, not yet. But this?” He pointed at the paper again. “My church. My word.”
Laurie tried to imagine him in the water, black neoprene suit and surfboard. He possessed the kind of confident patience required to wait out natural forces, to read the waves. He was, she thought, trying to read her also. Maybe she too was a wave.
“I hear you surf,” she said.
“I do,” he said. “For fun.” He was smiling again, just like that. “What do you do for fun?”
Her silence was longer and deeper than she intended or he expected. Lying would have been quicker; it always was. “Your pinball machine,” she said finally. “The Dolly Parton. That’s fun.”
“I agree,” he said. He was pleased. “Anything else?”
She was thinking now. “I like pouring out the hot coffee in the street after meeting,” she admitted.
This seemed to impress him. “Anything else?”
She remembered Annette’s interest in her tattoos, Herman’s pleasure in having made her laugh.
“Can I go now?” she asked. “It will not be fun if I miss my bus.”
“You may,” he said, handing over the papers. “Have fun.”
It was a busy Wednesday night. Minister Jim was downtown, heading up a special city task force meeting on homelessness. “I’m putting you in charge,” he joked as he left. Laurie knew he’d be back to lock up, but she liked that they were still joking. Al-Anon was downstairs, and upstairs the SANE/Freeze monthly membership mailer was in the works. This mailing came with a special refrigerator magnet featuring Mahatma Gandhi reclining next to a surfboard. “Wipeout War,” it read. The magnet required an extra stamp. One more step in the process. Annette and Malcolm were folding and stuffing and Herman and Laurie had been sealing and stamping. That evening, Herman told a story Laurie had not heard. It was about his mother, who hadn’t wanted him to fight in Spain and so had hidden his passport. Herman got another one, applying under his mother’s maiden name. “I showed her,” he said, cackling. “I showed the government, too.”
Usually Laurie just listened but this night she was thinking. Maybe it was the magnetic Gandhi. “But here you are,” she said, “working for a peace group. How does that work?”
She really wanted to know.
“I was working for peace then, too,” Herman said. “Trying to stop a bigger war.”
“Did you?” As soon as she was finished, she realized she didn’t know what she was asking, that she might have gone too far.
Everyone was quiet. Malcolm and Herman exchanged looks. Annette kept folding letters. They could hear voices from below. Someone was complaining loudly about their father: “I never had a real conversation with that bastard. Not one.”
“We did what we could,” Herman said, sliding a sealed envelope her way.
“That’s all you can do,” Annette added.
“How old were you?” Laurie asked.
“So many questions!” Annette laughed. “After all this time, she finally talks?”
“Twenty-one,” Herman said. “Younger than you.”
The good feeling returned. Soon, they finished the first run and as they waited for the next stack from the printer, Laurie slid a token into Dolly, who brightened up right away.
At first, Laurie imagined she had made the machine tilt with one too many bumps of her hip. She was juggling a multi-ball play, hoping to cradle the first ball with one flipper and use a roll shot with the other flipper to ricochet the second ball into a jackpot which would trigger, she anticipated, another extra ball. Then she would just keep feeding them one by one into the jackpot. She hoped to catapult her score into the Top Ten which was currently dominated by Minister Jim. But then, as the vibrations increased, Dolly dimmed. The flippers stilled and the lights went out. The tremors became sharper, stronger. People shouted but the roar of the quaking earth was too loud, like a train had turned down Hill Street heading for the shore.
When it was over, the darkness in the two-story wood-framed church was total. Laurie, who had dropped to her knees and huddled under a table, followed Malcolm as he directed them to the stairwell. “Crawl,” he ordered and she did. She heard Annette scrambling in front of her, and once they reached the first floor, she could see by the moonlight shining in the windows. Annette was dragging her purse, but she was barefoot. No doubt the sandals she always kicked off under the table were still upstairs. Laurie could hear the barking of dogs, a distant chorus of car alarms. The Al-Anon folks crowded around the entrance as if eager to resume their meeting. “It isn’t safe,” Malcolm declared, his voice bold in the darkness. She and everyone else followed him into the street.
Inside the old church, Laurie feared the world outside had crumbled and that she might have to crawl to the halfway house through streets of rubble, but now that she was out in it, she could see that the world was beautifully intact. She could even hear, she imagined, the waves crashing at the beach. A sense of post-earthquake giddiness was already beginning to ripple through the people milling in the middle of Hill Street.
This would be one of those quakes, notable but not disastrous. Not like, say, Loma Prieta, which had happened last year, or the Sylmar quake of her childhood, which had sloshed the water from their backyard pool. This would be a respectable quake. Its modest casualties would mostly be flukes. Later, everyone would have an earthquake story. Hers would be the Dolly Parton pinball machine and the old lefties she shook, rattled, and rolled with, before crawling after them on her knees.
When the earth rumbled again, someone shouted with a kind of glee: “Aftershock!”
“Stay out of the building,” Malcolm shouted. “It is not safe.”
Laurie saw Annette fish band-aids from her purse and offer them to Ivette, who was sitting on the curb watching blood run down her long bare shin from a gash on her knee.
“Can I help?” Laurie asked.
“I think we’re fine here, dear,” Annette said. “But have you seen Herman?”
Laurie looked around and saw he was not where she would expect him to be, huddled with the smokers on the corner, listening to their stories. Herman was like that; he took an interest in people. Had he been in front of her as they scuttled down the stairs? Or had he been behind? Then she realized Herman hadn’t been anywhere, that she had not heard his thick Queens accent in the darkness or the aftermath. By now, he should be making jokes.
Malcolm called her name as she ran back into the church, but Laurie didn’t stop.
The earthquake didn’t kill Herman. Laurie found him pinned under the hymnal bookcase, ready with a joke about the fate of an atheist Jew stuck in a collapsing church. It wasn’t a good joke, but at least he made the effort.
No, it was those cigarettes that killed Herman, not long after the temblor, just as his wife Millie had always warned. The day of his service, Laurie stayed late, sweeping up, pouring the leftover coffee down the gutter. Annette and Malcolm offered to help, but she waved them off and watched as they made their way to the beach in time for the sunset. She dumped the ice from the drink coolers into the planter beds, spreading it out gently with her hands. Herman, smoking on the corner, had once suggested this when he saw her poised to throw the contents of an ice bucket in the street. ”Ice now, water later,” he said. “Think about it. The plants will thank you.”
She had smirked then, but she didn’t do so now. Melting into the parched soil, the crushed ice glittered. Her hands were cold, clean.
When it was time to go, she didn’t climb the stairs to Minister Jim’s office to get her paperwork signed even though she knew he was there. She could hear the pinball machine: Ding, ding, ding. A jackpot. Laurie just walked home, song sheet folded carefully in her pocket as if she might try to sing it again.
The earthquake would eventually have a name. As it turned out, it belonged to the desert, where casualties were high. Its name came later, from a place, a dusty distant point of origin. Like the wars that don’t have names until the fighting is over and people finally figure out what they are fighting for and where and why.