After the Quake
April 2, 0001 PPE: Caprice, Kansas
Bill stared motionless into the fire. In the smoke and glare a circle of dim flickering shapes huddled against the chill. Ghosts flickered at the corners of his eyes, buckdancing.
Two guitars and a fiddle held the better part of his attention: an old Appalachian buckdance his Grandma used to play on her Victrola. The minicam hung like a cancerous hump against his hipbone, tipping him just off-balance in the dark. By now he barely noticed the quiet, continuous necessity of leaning to offset the weight.
Two couples hooked elbows and whirled at the edge of the firelight. Half a dozen were clapping. The rest stared into the fire with the same solemn lethargy that Bill felt. Drained of strength by their second day of an impossible labor. Hercules never had a harder assignment.
Or were they simply overwhelmed by their first fortyeight hours as homeless refugees? Shellshocked, in a strangely appropriate sense, by the sudden loss of their status as the owners of things? It was impossible to say. Bill had given up trying to compose an analysis for the minicam. He had quit shooting little vignettes to analyze. Little by little he had given in to the music and the firelight and an odd feeling in the air. Not despair, exactly. Not surrender. Truce, maybe. A temporary truce with the powers that be.
The parking garage was one of the few structures in all of downtown Caprice that had survived the tremor intact. The cars had arrived from every direction, loaded with refugees and their sparse possessions. The rent-a-cops had stacked them here until every parking space was filled.
The view from the highest level, blotted mercifully black now, was spectacular by daylight: here and there a wall. Everywhere the mounds of brick and cinderblock and splintered wood which for two days now had become burial mounds in reverse, yielding one corpse after another to the rescue crews. Every once in a while, broken, bleeding, unconscious, a survivor.
Bill recognized the faces of the shovel-crews flickering in the shadows tonight, lost in the music. In their faces he saw no heroes, no victims. Only blank fatigue. Yet for the past twelve hours these people, survivors all, had carried Bill repeatedly to the brink of awe.
He had held the minicam rigid, as he’d been trained to do. Touching the zoom and fade controls with light, sure fingers. Speaking clearly into the padded microphone. Making mental notes for his first attempt at an On-the-Scene disaster commentary. All the while he’d felt the surge of something crazy inside: a swelling hope against all hope, rising laughter in the face of death and destruction, a laughter too enormous to risk letting out in the usual way.
Skip Nelson, Bill’s sound tech, had fiddled with the levels on his portable unit to filter out the background as they shifted from location to location, accompanied by four purple-uniformed NSI Guards. Somewhere up in geosynchronous orbit among the stars, Newsworthy Network’s fifty-million-dollar satellite homed in on Bill’s random images and muttered phrases. Back in OKC, inside a tiny chip of artificial glass somewhere high in the Data Central Tower, an automated editing room waited on-line. To clip and assemble the digital puzzle-pieces of the story. Bill’s first story for The Calamities Report.
Finally all that remained was to shoot the commentary that would tag the Caprice segment. He had handed the minicam to Skip, who set it up on its tripod. While Bill stepped back to collect his impressions for a moment, as the training video had recommended. Closing his eyes and breathing three giant breaths— something Lucy had recommended. Then he looked around.
Over his left shoulder, just inside the camera-frame, approximately two hundred people wearing rags and dust had been standing patiently in line for chow. Styrofoam cups of yellowish soup; hard rolls. They were letting kids go first. Rent-a-cops in purple uniforms stood guard while the spigot at the tail end of a gleaming tank-trailer measured out soup. A platoon of nurses in pink pinstripes handed out the rolls.
Bill had gazed out past Skip, the camera, his potential audience of millions. Into a rich, raspberry-cheesecake soufflé of a sunset. Over the blowing dust of downtown Caprice. He picked up the remote mike slung around his neck and blew into it. “Testing,” he murmured. “One. Two.” But took another moment to organize his thoughts.
When the moment had stretched into minutes, he had realized he had none. No thoughts. No comment. His chest was swollen to bursting with unspeakable emotion. But for the first time in his life he had nothing to say. Not a single word. And the first tear had trickled down his face.
“Yip! Yip! Yii-yii-yii-yii-yo!” someone was squealing now from the fire’s dim periphery, and Bill turned to watch. Eight couples now skipped and spun on the concrete between the twin diagonal ranks of cars. The two guitars pumped harder, the fiddle reeling. The clapping was now accompanied by a disembodied foot-stomping that shook the cement. Yet even the faces of the clappers and stampers still gazed into the fire with no visible expression at all.
He had sent Skip and the Guards home with the coptor at the pilot’s scheduled departure-time, keeping only his waterbottle, a blanket, and the minicam. At the time he had confused notions of redeeming himself at the Network by catching some human-interest shots. He could come up with the copy later. At the moment, surreptitiously squeezing the trigger in the dark, he was catching some terrific fiddle-licks— yet another tune he hadn’t heard since he was a kid back in the hills of Tennessee.
The disaster here was already a day old; today a new disaster had struck somewhere, no doubt, a fresher kill for the scavengers. It was a fifty-fifty bet whether Newsworthy would bother to send one of its pink coptors back in the morning to fetch Bill Benedict, let alone any more of his footage of refugees. He vaguely knew that he too could end up ragged and unshaven, waiting for the next truckload of food from Human Welfare. But tonight he was glad. Almost delirious. The bonfire tonight had been worth it all.
He had asked them to get a message to Lucy. Half-hoping she would wonder. Not that he had told her he was going to be on TV. But knowing Lucy, she would have found out anyway.
He’d been intending to catch some of the faces in the firelight. But he was almost out of tape. Glancing surreptitiously around, he saw a couple leaning back on the windshield of a customized Chevrolet like it was their royal sedan-chair, obliviously kissing. He saw kids who were supposed to be asleep peeking out from the back seats of Chevys and Toyotas and Fords. He saw an old lady tapping her foot in a wheelchair with a baby on her knees. The baby was wide awake, looking around at everything. Looking right up at Bill when he happened to look down.
It was priceless. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to lift the minicam. If they knew he was taping, everything would be different. He would no longer be one of them, a nameless flickering face. He smiled at the little tyke. The baby smiled back. He made one of his faces, and the baby started to cry. Bill looked back into the fire, hoping no one had noticed.
After he’d lost his voice and Skip Nelson had stepped forward to improvise an off-the-cuff On-the-Scene commentary, it was an all but certain bet that no one would ever notice him again. Bill Benedict, he slowly realized, had narrowly escaped becoming a household image like Verne Palazzo or Rita Shumbaugh. Shit, fuck, piss, amen. He could already hear Lucy laughing out loud. Lame. He had no excuse.
He couldn’t even explain that he’d fallen in love. It was perverse to fall in love with two hundred people in a single night. Wasn’t it?
The guitars changed hands around the fire now; someone played experimental notes on a harmonica from the dark. One guitar now started a slow blues progression while the other broke into spontaneous solos running up and down the scale. Then the tempo jumped, the harmonica player joined in, and a rough voice started the song.
“Jesus was a storyteller,
The rough-voiced singer was a black man who handled the guitar more like a country-western box than a rhythm-and-blues axe. Bill knew the tune— owned it rather, somewhere in the gospel section of his morgue of vinyl and tape back home. But hadn’t actually heard it in two or three years. The black singer knew the chords perfectly, but got tangled up in the lyrics once or twice. Next he sang The Times They Are a-Changing in a slow, mournful drone, like some kind of chant for the dead. Bill felt the dead then, broken victims of the Quake lying scattered in all directions in the dark, from the Appalachians to the Ozarks. Not as a malevolent force but as silent, sleeping victims of some kind of reverse lottery. The unlucky.
And it was the lucky losers in that lottery who had inherited the grisly privilege of burying them. The faces flickering around this fire tonight.
The other guitar spoke up now, leading off with a familiar riff. Not one of Bill’s favorite tunes, even back then. But he’d later collected it on a Greatest Hits CD, along with the rest of that era's hit parade. A couple was up and dancing again and in a matter of seconds it seemed that every voice around the fire was singing along in energetic harmony. A drum joined in.
Even the fire seemed to blaze up higher with no discernible provocation. Bill saw how smoke had already blackened the concrete ceiling. Night after night, burning the scraps of their furniture to stay warm. In the sky beyond the concrete abutment he saw stars.
Shit, fuck, piss, amen. How was he ever going to explain to Lucy that he lost his job when he heard forty people around a campfire singing Band on the Run, and fell in love?