“Conversation With A Dancer”
They crossed the street diagonally, Commander Blevins in the lead. He walked by the two houses separating them from their target and then said under his breath, “Eureka! There’s the carriage house. Or at least a carriage house.” He did not look back to see if Mrs. Frumpwooler had heard or noticed. He was on the scent now and his excitement went beyond the bounds of anything material. Mrs. Frumpwooler was walking full-tilt behind him, on her tip-toes.
All three MEs knew something was afoot.
Commander Blevins turned off the sidewalk and took the steps leading up to the porch two at a time. He reached inside his cape, inside his coat, inside his jacket, and found the upper pocket of his outer wool shirt. As he was contorting in front of the door, Mrs. Frumpwooler paused by the bottom of the stairs. She was looking at a large rectangle in front of the shrubbery.
“Commander Blevins!” she hissed. He turned toward her and was about to motion her still, emphatically still, when he saw her intent look. She was pointing furiously to something in front of the bushes. He walked back down the steps and looked at what Mrs. Frumpwooler was looking at. Tucked neatly in front of the wall that enclosed the super-structure of the porch and nestled among the greenery, was a rectangular wooden sign, finished, painted, and varnished to withstand San Francisco’s fog, damp days, and proximity to the ocean. The sign was tasteful and designed to convey information quietly while not intruding upon the integrity of the house itself. It read:
The Foundation for San Francisco’s
2007 Franklin Street
“What the devil,” Commander Blevins said.
“Some kind of Foundation, looks like,” Mrs. Frumpwooler said.
“Hmmm, this may change the complexion of things.” He picked his nose with a passion until he realized what he was doing and who he was with. “Well, now, lets take a look around back…no, first I do want to peek inside the front door.” He went back up the steps and discretely peered through the beveled glass of the front door. He whistled low and shaded his eyes from the outside light.
“What’s there? What’s there?” Mrs. Frumpwooler said.
Commander Blevins craned his head in several directions trying to see as much as possible in the house. Finally he motioned Mrs. Frumpwooler to join him on the front porch. She hurried to do so, her footsteps making a racket.
“Ssshhhh. Ssshhhh,” he said. “Look at this.”
Mrs. Frumpwooler did so and said, “Oh my, Oh my. It hasn’t changed a bit.”
“I thought not,” Commander Blevins said.
“It looks the same as it did when I–when Gwenny–was here.
Commander Blevins pulled out an ornate pocket watch from deep inside his many layers, looked at it, and said, “Well, it’s still 1989. We haven’t been caught in an errand time schism.”
“How can you tell by looking at that thing?”
“Deduction. Time fractures are rarely laterally consistent.” Mrs. Frumpwooler looked at him doubtfully. He added, “In moving from one era to another the time of day is rarely the same.”
“Anyway, lets look around back. We may be in unimaginable luck.”
“How’s that?” Mrs. Frumpwooler came down the steps behind him, a little quieter this time.
Talking over his shoulder, he said, “I only saw a little light coming from the kitchen. Did you see any other sign of life?”
“Any papers or coats or toys or junk laying around?”
“None.” They had walked–creeped really–around the corner of the porch and down the narrow walkway that ran along the Bay side of the house. It was enclosed by a ten foot high lattice work fence covered with ivy.
“We may have stumbled onto a museum. Or a home of a very old person who never comes downstairs.”
“I vote for the later, I think.”
“I don’t know. Say, what this?” Commander Blevins said.
“It looks like a little buzzer box. Shall we ring it?” Mrs. Frumpwooler said. A small square brown box was attached to the wall of the house about shoulder height just before a side door. There were three steps leading up to the door. The box had a white button on one lower corner, a round grill in the center and a name plate above it on the side of the house. The name plate said: “HERITAGE.”
“No, not just yet. Let’s see if you-know-what is in back.” Commander Blevins led the way and they walked very quietly back toward an arched trellis that seemed to herald something of promise beyond it.
Mrs. Frumpwooler gasped when they poked their heads through the arch. A small pond piled high with vines and trash sat in the middle of the backyard. There was no evidence of water in the pond or the bird bath, which rose from the midst of the pond, vines and trash.
“Amazing. Amaaazing. I thing we’ve found it,” Commander Blevins said. He saw the yard as it had been in 1906 when he, as Ito, had worked and played in it. It had been from this vantage point that he had spied on Gwenny as she had hidden the bag of Diamonds. He shifted back to the present and turned back to Mrs. Frumpwooler, their faces nearly touching as she looked over her shoulder. The expression on her face stopped him. She was still staring into the yard, but as he followed her gaze, he realized she was looking not at the pond and birdbath, but at the…wall. The back wall of the carriage house. The carriage house was still standing. And pretty much unaltered, except for the back wall. It stood naked, freshly brushed and fully exposed. Commander Blevins looked from it to the pond and back again.
The First and Second Ones hovered over the front of the house, in growing expectation. Greeny floated immediately over Mrs. Frumpwooler, very alert.
“They’ve torn the vines off the wall. And they’ve tuck- pointed it,” he said.
Mrs. Frumpwooler gasped again. “What does ‘puck- tointed’ mean? Is it as bad as I think. Have they rebuilt the wall. Oh, tell me no, Commander. Please tell me no.”
She was about to begin wailing.
Commander Blevins reached around and started to place his hand on her neck below her ear…and then remembered they were in the physical–the point of infinite peacefulness only works in the Inner Worlds–and shifted his arm so it wrapped around her shoulders. “Courage. Courage, Mrs. Frumpwooler. There was no guarantee we would find the Diamonds, you know.”
“Yes…I…know.” She sniffed. “But I had so hoped.” She turned into his shoulder and sobbed quietly.
“We still may.”
“What?” She looked up into this face.
He nodded and said, “Yes, we still may. The term is ‘tuck-pointing’, not ‘puck-tointing’ and it means to scrape out the loose mortar between the bricks and replace it with fresh mortar.”
“You mean they didn’t take the bricks out…or down…or off. Whatever they do with bricks.”
Commander Blevins smiled. “Not likely. Not unless a brick was very loose and it needed to be refitted or replaced.”
“Oh, I hope my…the bricks the Gwenny pulled out were in there tight enough.”
“Well, if it’s any consolation, this wall should have been tuck-pointed more than once in the past eighty-three years.”
“Oh, yes, that makes me feel…wait a minute, that means more chances for the bricks to be pulled out. That doesn’t make me feel better!”
“Not necessarily. If the wall has been properly maintained, then there is a good chance your bricks, er, the bricks that Gwenny put in, were properly secured before they had a chance to become so loose they needed refitting.”
“Oh, thank you, Commander. You are so wonderful.” She looked directly into this eyes.
The line between soothing a Client and becoming uncomfortably close was about to be crossed. “Yes, well…I think we should inspect it, don’t you,” he said.
“Yes, of course!”
They walked gingerly into the yard. There were twigs scattered on the walkway and they crunched underfoot.
“Hello there, can I help you?” The voice came from the back of the house. Commander Blevins and Mrs. Frumpwooler froze in their tracks. Commander Blevins flashed on Frau Swope. The voice was unaccented, however, and distinctly male, though not without female modulations. He recovered first–Mrs. Frumpwooler had gone all akimbo inside at the sound of another person–and turned to the voice.
“Yes,” he said, straining to see who he was talking to. He tried to sound firm, clear and happy to have finally found company, “I certainly hope so. We weren’t able to raise anybody at the front door.”
“Oh, yes. That front door thing is impossible to keep in working order. Did you try the side door buzzer. It usually works and more often that not someone upstairs will answer.”
The owner of the voice had been standing in the deep shadow of the back door. He now appeared outside on the low porch and began coming down the steps, which took him along the back of the house instead of out into the yard. He was still in partial shadow. The steps led to a curving walk that cut across the far corner of the yard and around the side of the carriage house. He turned off the walk and came across the yard toward Commander Blevins and Mrs. Frumpwooler, standing by the pond, vines, trash and bird bath. They could now see him clearly.
“Oh, was that a buzzer back there? Wondered about that,” Commander Blevins said.
“But you said…” Mrs. Frumpwooler whispered behind him a little too loudly. He took a small step backwards and placed his foot squarely on hers. “Owwie, owwie, owwie, you are on my foot Commander!”
He jumped away from her, turned around, feigned surprise and said, “Oh, gracious, Mrs. Frumpwooler, please pardon me. I am so sorry.” Leaning close to her ear, he whispered, “I KNOW about the buzzer, PLEASE keep your cool!”
“Oh, sorry.” she whimpered.
Commander Blevins turned back to the approaching man. The first thing he noticed were his legs. They were very visible and covered with a tight forest-green material. Commander Blevins’ eyes traveled up and lingered on a pair of leather shorts: fuchsia and very short. A gloved hand lingered near the shorts, holding a pair of garden clippers.
“Hi Ho.” The man was upon him and extended his ungloved hand. Commander Blevins gripped it and looked at the man’s face. It was finely boned and smooth. “My name is Niven,” the man said. Greeny perked up even more.
“Oh, hello. I’m Blevins and this is Mrs. Frumpwooler.” Commander Blevins pointed back to his Client.
“Charmed,” Niven said, stepped around Commander Blevins and gently shook Mrs. Frumpwooler’s hand.
“What brings two such delightful people to our little yard on a Monday afternoon?” Niven was taking in this unusual couple as he spoke. The woman, Mrs. Mompper, or something, was normal enough at first glance: middle aged, wearing a purple hat and dressed uninterestingly. Her eyes, though, held a driven sort of gleam and had made Niven uncomfortable when he had looked into them. Her hands were sweaty, too.
The man. Blimpins. He was talking now and Niven had no idea what he saying. His appearance was truly extraordinary. He wore a burgundy cape that looked like it could withstand a Siberian blizzard and he appeared to be a bulky looking fellow underneath the cape. And his head. He had a sock cap on it–probably liked to stay warm–and it was somewhat oversize. Niven had a secret weakness for big heads. His knees were beginning to get weak when he forced himself to tune into what Blimpins was saying.
“…having spent these past many months in archive research, we–my assistant, Mrs. Frumpwooler and I–felt it was time to venture forth into the world of matter and document our hypotheses…”
Niven faded again. He had never been able to follow scientific verbiage and was soon lost in Commander Blevins’ diatribe.
Commander Blevins noticed a feverish look in Niven’s eye, then saw it glaze over. He couldn’t imagine what had cause the first look, but was relieved to find his monologue having the desired effect. While continuing to assail his opponent with words, Commander Blevins again began the search for his bogus business cards. He slid his hand inside his cape, inside his coat, inside his jacket and finally into the top pocket of his heavy wool outer shirt. Pulling it out, he said, “A-hah!” which served as a convenient ending for a rambling non-sequitur that was slightly out of control. He produced the blue business card and handed it triumphantly to Niven. Niven took it and read:
COMMANDER Z. P. BLEVINS
Surveyor of Historic Carriage Houses
San Francisco 415-626-1950
“Do You Know The Heritage Of Your Carriage House?”
He had to read it three times. His head was still ringing with words that had nowhere to go, and the glimpse inside Blimpins’ cape had raised more questions than it had answered. “Surveyor of Historic Carriage Houses. I don’t think I have ever heard of anyone with such an occupation, Mr. Blimpin…Blevins,” Niven said.
“No mister, just Blevins.” Commander Blevins said.
“Well, alright, Blevins. I’m afraid that I’m still a teeny bit confused as to how I can be of service to you and Mrs. Mum…your assistant.” Niven was not the least bit suspicious, just confused.
“Well, I guess what we would like is to be able to inspect your carriage house.”
“Inspect…our CARRIAGE house.” Niven was quiet for a moment. “Oh, you mean the GARAGE.”
“Yes, the garage, if that’s what you call it.”
“Well what do you mean by inspect. Oh, I can’t decide this. I haven’t got time! I do hope you understand…and come back.” He flashed his eyes at Commander Blevins. Commander Blevins blinked, not sure what to make of this sudden shift. Mrs. Frumpwooler stood stoically at his side.
Greeny began hyperflexing the area around its yahooney.
“My God, he’s going to do it again,” the Second One said.
“Another show!” the First One said gleefully.
Niven was cranked up now, and he continued, “I have an obligation to get to, you see, and I was just on my way out and–oh I hope you don’t think this is what I normally wear around here, I’m usually much more in control, if you know what I mean.” He scrunched his nose at Commander Blevins. “Anyway, I was just on my way out when Marc ask me–that would be Marcus Upright, the Director of Heritage, I call him Markup behind his back, he would never get the joke.” Niven twittered. “Anyway, Marc ask me to do the flowers for tonight’s board meeting. I mean I don’t mind doing them, I’m actually quite good at it, but I had told him last week I would be leaving early today–we have a final dress for our opening–did I mention that to you?”
Both Mrs. Frumpwooler and Commander Blevins shook their heads.
Greeny took a deep breath and his yahooney sprouted a stubby new light cord.
“Lookeyloo! Lookeyloo!” the First One said.
“Hush, Flem Breath,” the Second One said. The First One stuck a tongue out at the Second One and raspberried it.
“Oh, dear. Cecil–my roommate who authored the comic dance would just SQUEWER me if I didn’t invite you–it’s opening tonight at 7:30 at our little third floor studio on 17th–that’s Street not Avenue–just off Castro. You DO know where Castro is don’t` you? Its the ONLY place to be in the City.”
Commander Blevins and Mrs. Frumpwooler found themselves paralyzed by Niven’s stream of consciousness, or lack thereof.
“Anyway–Oh, I do go on sometimes, Cecil is always telling me–the final dress is today at 2:00, so I decided to change into my costume here at home…I live here, you know, I’m the only one who does…” Commander Blevins found that interesting. “…instead of having to change once I got there, I just knew I’d be late today. Anyway, the performance is at 7:30 tonight. It’s called “The Enhanced Bulge: Does He Or Doesn’t He.” Oh, it’s just going to be a scream. This is only the second thing our little troupe has done–we call ourselves the Rock Hard Players and we do dance and some improv–and we are all so nervous. We are going to have shows all week, tomorrow we have a Happy Hour show and the evening show sort of back-to-back.” Niven twittered again. “The Happy Hour show is an experiment. I really do have to finish the flowers and get out of here. Its been so nice meeting you.” Niven reached out to shake hands.
Greeny hovered just over Niven, salivating.
Commander Blevins did not need to open his mouth to speak, it was already open–even if his mind was numb. He said, “Well, do have a good show. Break a leg and all that, I think they say.” He had ignored Niven’s offered hand unconsciously.
“You are TOO kind,” Niven said, and turned to go. Commander Blevins and Mrs. Frumpwooler were rooted where they stood, watching him as he walked back to the porch, swishing ever so slightly. When Niven got to the steps, he turned and, seeing them still standing in the yard, said, “I’m afraid I can’t let you do your surveying, or whatever, without Marc’s OK.”
Commander Blevins gulped and said, “Well, that’s all right.”
Niven flapped both hands in the air and came dancing back out to them.
Greeny was about to shoot Its cord through one of several wide gaps in Niven’s aura, when a dim memory returned. It hesitated. “Maybe this is not such a good idea,” It said to Itself. “Maybe…one or the other, isn’t that the rule…yeah….” Slowly Greeny floated a little higher and withdrew the new light cord.
“Aw, shucks, he’s not gonna do it,” the First One said.
“Harrumph,” said the Second One. It was interested only in Greeny not trying to reattach to Commander Blevins.
To compensate itself for its self-imposed disappointment, Greeny juiced deeply on the cord leading to Mrs. Frumpwooler.
“Oh what’s the matter with me,” Niven said. He should still be up there, lets go check. I knew I was going to be late anyway.”
“Well, I don’t think…” Commander Blevins started to say.
Niven grabbed him by the hand, “Here I’ll go buzz the buzzer for you and get you started on your way. He marched out through the trellis with Commander Blevins in tow. Mrs. Frumpwooler followed at a safe distance, looking back longingly at the barren brick wall.
“Here we are,” Niven said and pushed the white button on the buzzer box.
A voice answered in a moment, “HERITAGE.”
“Oh, HI! Connie. Is Marc busy right now, I have some people who would like to see him.” Commander Blevins was sweating, wondering what he would say to a Director of a Foundation.
“Sorry, Niven, Marc left right after he talked to you. He’s out for most of the afternoon with Mr. Hall. I think they are preparing for the board meeting tonight. Let me check his calendar.”
There was silence on the secretary’s end of the line and Niven turned to Commander Blevins, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Sorry, he’s out, apparently.”
Connie was back on the buzzer box speaker and said, “Niven?”
“Yes, Connie, we’re still here.”
“It appears that Marc won’t be free until Wednesday, late morning. He’s booked up all morning tomorrow and he’s leaving early to go to the Series game. Shall I write your people in for ten o’clock Wednesday morning?”
Niven looked at Commander Blevins and Mrs. Frumpwooler. Mrs. Frumpwooler had a very blank look on her face. Commander Blevins was smiling and nodding hard. Niven turned back to the speaker box, and said, “Sounds good, Connie.” He held up the bogus business card and read from it into the buzzer box, “Commander Z. P. Blevins and…” He lowered the card. “…his assistant, Mrs. Mumpper. Thanks Connie, you’re a jewel.” Niven blew a kiss into the buzzer box and slid by Commander Blevins and Mrs. Frumpwooler, saying as he went, “Hope that’s Ok, dear-ries. Toodles for now.” He waved backwards over his shoulder.
After Niven had disappeared through the trellis, Commander Blevins looked at Mrs. Frumpwooler. Niven popped back around the trellis and said loudly, “Promise me that you will come to a performance tonight or tomorrow.” They both jumped at the surprise, but managed to nod their heads. Niven vanished again. Slowly they walked down the narrow walkway, closed in by the house on one side and the tall grey fence on the other.
When they got to the street, Mrs. Frumpwooler broke the silence and said, “”Oh, I hate to leave here without knowing.”
Commander Blevins looked at her, smiled broadly and began whistling loudly and walking toward Sacramento Street and the bus stop.
“What’s gotten into you,” she said, having to move quickly to catch up with him.
“Hatching A Hammering Plan”
They walked past Clay Street with Mrs. Frumpwooler’s question hanging in mid-air, unanswered. Commander Blevins still whistled. One block later, at Sacramento, they stopped to wait for the 1 California bus, heading toward the ocean. Commander Blevins began singing. Mrs. Frumpwooler looked at him like his was crazy. He sang, “If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning…I’d hammer in the evening…I’d hammer aaaall day long….”
Mrs. Frumpwooler was feeling out of sorts. They had left the wall behind, untouched, and she did not have the slightest idea why Commander Blevins seemed so happy. Meeting with Director what’s-his-name didn’t seem like a solution to her. And that was not until Wednesday! After several repetitions of the song by Commander Blevins, she finally said, “If that was the way I sang, I wouldn’t sing in public.”
He turned to her, grinning and still singing. “If I had a hammer, I’d NOT hammer in the morning…I’d hammer in the evening…I’d hammer all evening long….” He sang this three times and stopped cold. Turning to her, he said, “Well…”
“Well, what!” she snapped.
“‘Hammering in the evening,’ doesn’t that give you some ideas.”
“You want to go back there tonight and pound away on that wall while they have their Board Meeting? You are crazy!”
“No, not tonight.” The bus rolled up. They boarded it with silence hanging between them.
After taking seats near the front, Mrs. Frumpwooler said, “Well WHEN, then!” There was a slight hiss in her voice.
“Tomorrow night, of course…when the Director is at the game and Niven is at his dance thing and after everyone else has gone home. Kapish?”
Mrs. Frumpwooler nodded several times as the impact of his plan settled in. “Kapish! You are so wonderful! Now I’m really excited!” She squeezed his arm as Lafayette Park glided by on their right. Commander Blevins felt full of congratulations and did not object to Mrs. Frumpwooler keeping a firm hold on his less than firm biceps.
They rode on in happy silence.
When the bus reached Fillmore and began to turn right, Commander Blevins reached up and pulled the cord above the windows. His movement reminded Mrs. Frumpwooler she still had a grip on him, and let go with a small blush. He didn’t notice. The driver let them off on the ocean side of Fillmore, just south of Sacramento. They walked down the sidewalk, looking into the store windows.
“Its getting warm, don’t you think,’ Mrs. Frumpwooler said.
“Uhmm, why yes, I guess you are right.” Commander Blevins was surprised he had not been aware of the change in temperature. He now remembered he had not been chilled all afternoon and was, if fact, about to be too warm. He took off the great cape and, folding it twice, draped it over his arm. The long wool coat that he wore underneath it was once a fashionable Woolridge plaid hunting coat, though he bought it for its large side pockets, not to hunt. It now was long out of style and in need of repair in several places.
Mrs. Frumpwooler took one look at it and said, “What a charming coat. You must let me sew up those tears…and holes.”
“Well that would be very kind of you, but not necessary.”
“I’ve been wondering–oh this is a personal question, am I taking liberties?”
“I don’t know without out hearing your question.” He looked at her and smiled. They were at the next corner and he turned to cross Fillmore. The light was against them, though, so they waited.
“I have two questions really.”
“Well, why do you wear so many clothes and…where on earth did you buy that cape? It is the most amazing…and big…thing I’ve ever seen.”
Commander Blevins was silent. The light changed, they began walking. The three MEs were floating behind them like children in a zoo, fairly calm and not bickering.
“The last question is easy,” he said hoping to dodge the first. “A friend of a very dear friend made it for me a couple years ago when I first had such trouble keeping warm. My friend is a choreographer and her friend is a costume designer for their dance company.”
“Oh, you mean like the group Niven belongs to.”
“Well, it a way, yes, but very different, I would imagine. Anyway, she offered to make this for me if I would get the material. I found a company that sold yard goods for awnings and backpacks and bought the outer layer there.”
Mrs. Frumpwooler eyes widen. “You mean this would have been an awning,” she said pointing to the cape hanging over his other arm now. It was a very heavy garment.
“Backpack. And the lining is two wool army blankets I found at a surplus store down on Mission Street.” He looked at her and smiled. They had stopped in front of a hardware store window. “Now you have the story of the burgundy cape,” he said in a dramatic, final way. “I suggest we now go in this conveniently located establishment and select our implements of attack for tomorrow’s assault on the carriage house and history.” He made a flourish with his free arm and Mrs. Frumpwooler laughed. They went into the hardware store.
Fifteen minutes later they came out laughing. Commander Blevins held a large bag. “Would you like for me to carry that, Commander?” Mrs. Frumpwooler said.
“Oh thanks, I’d appreciate that. The day had gotten still warmer and he was laboring as they walked to the corner. “Are you hungry?”
“Yes, a bit.”
“Good, there’s a great Macrobiotic restaurant just up this block, if you’d care to try it.”
“Macrobiotic. Its a way of eating that is Japanese in roots, but cuts across cultural boundaries. Very healthy.”
“All right, I’ll try it. Then I must be getting home… after I help you to your apartment with these tools, of course. What time tomorrow should we get together?” she asked.
“Let’s think about that over lunch.”
“Capitalizing On A Fault”
Five o’clock Tuesday afternoon arrived at four o’clock. That’s when Mrs. Frumpwooler buzzed Commander Blevins’ buzzer. He was recording a dream in his dream journal and couldn’t imagine who it could be. As he padded down the steps in his robe and goofy slippers another dream came back to him. It happened often that way. When he put attention on one dream, another appeared. He usually wrote down his dreams when he awoke in the night, or first thing in the morning. They were much clearer then and he could remember more of the dream. He had begun recording his dreams several years earlier when someone had shared with him how much more they remembered when they wrote down their dreams. He had said he didn’t dream. They had said sure you do. Try it. So his reawakening in the dream state had started with a dare. It had quickly opened his Inner Awareness and led directly to his involvement with the Society and Inner World travels.
This dream brought a smile to his face. In high school, and then in college, Zoider had been a close friend of his. Zoider’s girlfriend Andi and Commander Blevins had shared an attraction and an irritation for each other. He cherished his friends and Zoider was at the top of the list in those days. He fiercely resisted getting involved with any friend’s girlfriend. After Zoider had gone on to graduate school, he and Andi kept bumping into each other and had dinner a couple times. Then his apartment flooded and Andi offered to put him up for the night. He had slept on the sofa cushion in the middle of the living room, not far from Andi’s open bedroom door. The evening was filed with a subtle tension, but no bickering.
In the middle of the night, he had awaken enormously aroused. Half asleep, he had walked, naked, to Andi’s door. She slept just inside the room. He could hear her breathing, and though he didn’t know for sure, thought she might welcome him into her bed. He could not do it. His love for Zoider poured through him and he returned to this bed and satisfied himself.
Years later, in hormonal rages, he would sometimes return to that scene in fantasy, wishing he had played it out. Of course, then he wouldn’t have had it to fantasize about. He never fantasized about the women he had been with fully.
In the dream, he and Andi were frolicking in the shower, without reservation. It had been memorable. Her slim naked body was cavorting in his imagination when he turned the corner on the last landing and saw Mrs. Frumpwooler fussing with her purple hat outside the front door. He came down the few remaining steps to the foyer, hurried to the front door, opened it and said, “You’re early!”
“Yes, I know. I couldn’t sit at home any longer. I hope I am not being an inconvenience.” She saw that he was struggling to be gracious, but she came prepared for that eventuality. “I had to go to the bank anyway before it closed and I thought that it was risky to carry around so much money.” Commander Blevins’ objections dissolved. She continued, rushing into the gap, “I feel that you were so grand yesterday, that it would be silly of me to wait until after we do our work tonight to complete our financial arrangements.
Commander Blevins suddenly found gallantry overflowing. “You are truly a lady, Mrs. Frumpwooler.”
“Call me Gladys.”
“Gladys. And you may call me Commander.”
“Commander.” They stood that way, for a long minute overcome with their respective emotions.
“Hello, hello. Don’t hold the door open too long, you’ll let in all the strays in the neighborhood, neighborhood!”
Both Commander Blevins and Mrs. Frumpwooler turned to find Mr. Fedulity coming down the steps and laughing at his own joke.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Fedulity. How are you today?” Commander Blevins said.
“Fine, fine. And how are you folks?”
“We are both just ducky, I would say, wouldn’t you agree Mrs. Frumpwooler…Gladys.”
“Delighted, delighted,” Mr. Fedulity said and went through the door in the side of the foyer that led into the garage.
“Shall we,” Commander Blevins said and extended his arm to Mrs. Frumpwooler.
“We shall,” she said and took it, “we must be off very soon!”. They were not able to walk up the stairs side-by-side, however, so Commander Blevins graciously allowed Mrs. Frumpwooler to precede him.
The MEs were still in peaceful co-existence outside. The First One had not harassed Greeny when he arrived. Greeny had chosen to perch on the ocean side of Filmore, keeping Its distance from the other two, just in case.
Mr. Fedulity opened two of the garage doors and began cleaning his tools. It was a hot day, the second in what was probably one of the City’s rare three day hot spells. He wondered where Floyd and Semblance were. They almost always showed up to talk story in the afternoon. After he finished putting away the socket wrenches, screwdrivers and his big blue-handled channel locks, he swept the four car garage and set out three lawn chairs on the sidewalk in front of the garage door and sat down in the sunlight. He loved sun and got far too little of it in the City.
“…isn’t this too early to go there?” He heard a woman say.
“You’re the one who got here early and has been hurrying me along,” a man replied, chuckling. The voice sounded familiar, like….
“Well, that doesn’t mean we…”
“Oh, hello Mr. Fedulity,” Commander Blevins said.
“So it was him,” Mr. Fedulity thought. “Good day once again. Good Day,” he said to his tenant and the woman in the purple hat who trailed along behind him, looking a little agitated. They were gone without another word. Mr. Fedulity shook his head slowly and brushed aside uncharitable thoughts. At least the man wasn’t wearing his strange cape today. With determination, he pushed that out of his mind, too. He had found that thinking ill thoughts about other people had a way of coming home to roost. He did wonder what was in the bag Commander Blevins carried.
Commander Blevins and Mrs. Frumpwooler crossed Fillmore, got honked at, and walked up the hill to Oak Street to wait for the bus. There was a curious silence in the air and an unusually stifling feeling.
“The timing is OK, Mrs…Gladys, trust me,” Commander Blevins said.
“Well, alright, but what if someone is there, she said.”
“Then we will walk down to Union, and get some coffee…or tea. And wait.”
“How are we going to know to if someone is there or not?”
The bus came and they got on, both flashing their Fast Passes. It was mostly full, and they didn’t find two empty seats together until they got near the back door. As they settled into their seats, Commander Blevins leaned over and whispered loudly into Mrs. Frumpwooler’s ear, “I told you that I had called twice today. The second time, just before you arrived, I got their machine. I think the boss took the afternoon off and everyone else has left early, too.”
“Shhh…” he put his finger to his mouth and they rode on in silence, slicing through the Western Addition. When the bus crossed California, Commander Blevins pulled the cord above the window. The bus’ brakes squealed as it pulled over to the curb at Sacramento. The doors opened, back and front, and they stood up, Commander Blevins clutching the bag of tools, and walked the two rows back to the rear door. Mrs. Frumpwooler walked down the rubber matted steps.
Commander Blevins noticed people entering and leaving the stores strangely. It was a subtle feeling. He wondered what it was about the people that looked out of the ordinary.
“Maybe its me,” said out loud, shrugging his shoulders.
“What? I didn’t hear you,” Mrs. Frumpwooler said, yelling a little and half turning around to look at him. She took the last step down to the sidewalk with her head still turned. She put one foot on the sidewalk, shrieked, stumbled and fell sprawling across the concrete. Commander Blevins heard her scream as though she were down a long tunnel from him. He was looking at the corner through the bus windows. The first thing he noticed, just before Mrs. Frumpwooler’s outburst, was the light pole running up from the sidewalk. No one was standing around it, but it had…it was undulating like spaghetti at the end of a shaking stick. He thought it was an optical illusion caused by the heat and the glass. A car’s tires screeched and there was the crunch of metal and tinkle of breaking glass.
Then he saw Mrs. Frumpwooler laying on the ground. He hopped out of the bus with one leap and landed on shifting rubber. He, too went down and felt the sidewalk bucking and skating underneath him. His bag crashed down beside him and rolled over twice, clanking. He managed to push himself over on his back and sit up on scraped hands. Mrs. Frumpwooler was still hugging the walk, but other people getting off the bus by the front door, and a few others at the corner, were standing up. They were hanging on to each other, but they were standing up. The ground shook for another few seconds, then stopped.
The silence ended. Car alarms were going off everywhere. A siren wailed in the distance, then two, then twenty. People began running and shouting. Someone almost stepped on Mrs. Frumpwooler. Commander Blevins struggled to his feet and looked around at a crazed world. There was no obvious major sign of damage to the buildings nearby. No storefronts were collapsed, no piles of bricks were in the streets. The theater marquee for the Clay was still intact, though swaying a bit. All around them, though, was disarray and budding chaos. The neighborhood looked like a lady of the evening awakened suddenly in the late afternoon without a chance to straighten her hair or put on make-up. The newspaper machines at the corner were on their sides. Brooms and rolls of carpet and racks of magazines and barrels with knickknacks on them–all the things that held doors open and greeted customers entering the shops on Fillmore–these various and sundry things lay askew and fallen in doorways. Several plate glass windows were cracked. Plants that had been hanging outside a little cafe lay broken on the sidewalk and the tables below where they had hung were scattered and turned over.
Commander Blevins bent over to help Mrs. Frumpwooler.
“Dear God are you OK, Mrs. Frumpwooler,” he said. “Speak to me, speak to me.” She groaned and rolled over. Terror colored her face.
“What…what was that!” she said.
He knelt down beside her. “An earthquake, I think. Are you all right?”
“My heart…my heart is racing. I can’t belive we’ve had an earthquake.”
“Breath deeply,” he said and steadied her back as she wobbily tried to sit up. There was another shock and the whole street screamed. It was short and less severe. The sun beat down on her, hot and oppressive.
“I’m hot and my hands hurt,” she said. They were sitting on the streets two doors from a small coffee shop.
“See if you can stand, we might be able to sit down in that shop. Maybe they have something to drink.” He helped her up and walked very slowly the twenty paces to the storefront. Mrs. Frumpwooler hung tightly onto Commander Blevins.
The three MEs on Fillmore Street–and a couple of others around the corner on California–were zooming around nearly out of control. They had all three received substantial jolts of fear from their respective hosts, had absorbed the terror of all the people in the area; and had been bombarded by the astronomically high energy release of the quake. Normally a ME would be aware of and protect Itself from energies that came Its way from sources other than Its own light cord. The shock of the intense bolt of terror–without warning or logic–had fried all three MEs’ borders. They were now acting like mad, suicidal fighting kites…that, of course, no one else could see. If there were any of those special people in the immediate area who could see the unseen, they were well occupied otherwise.
“Come in. Come in.” A man in an apron stood looking into his kitchen, bewildered. He had turned around when Commander Blevins had called out to him. “Please come in and make yourself comfortable. My other customers ran out screaming when it first hit.” He saw that Mrs. Frumpwooler looked dazed and was being helped by Commander Blevins.
“Please, let me help you.” He took Mrs. Frumpwooler by her other arm and they guided her, crunching on glass and silverware, to a seat near the back and in the middle of the room. It was somewhat dark in the restaurant.
“Oh, thank you,” Mrs. Frumpwooler said, pressing one hand to her breast and breathing deeply. Commander Blevins sat down next to her.
“Can I get you anything…Oh, I’m not sure what I have to offer.” The man went in the back and began rummaging around. He called out, “The lemonade jar is not broken, here are some Danish, and…son of a gun…the coffee pot is unbroken and not a drop spilled. What would you folks like?”
“Some lemonade, please,” Mrs. Frumpwooler whispered.
“She’ll have the lemonade and I’ll have some coffee and a Danish,” Commander Blevins yelled back to the man. All dietary bets were off during earthquakes.
The man brought out the pot of coffee, the jar of lemonade, three cups, three glasses, and a plate heaped high with sweet croissants…what he called “Danish.” He wiped the dust and plaster off of the table, poured coffee and lemonade for all and spread napkins out in front of both Commander Blevins and Mrs. Frumpwooler, taking great care to be sure no wrinkles remained. Then he put two rolls in front of each, using his fingers. Mrs. Frumpwooler and Commander Blevins were oblivious to his eccentricities. She drank the lemonade desperately and he ate the two rolls in four bites and gulped the coffee. Then they stopped and looked at the man and each other and burst out laughing. It was not a time for middle-of-the-road behavior.
Greeny was in desperate shape. It was still attached to Mrs. Frumpwooler but so little energy was coming through that It had lost Its purpose and direction in life. It was sniffing anyone that passed by and running out abbreviated light cords whenever It detected a broken aura, which was quite often. The First and Second Ones had found a wire above the street and sat two doors down from the restaurant. They were a little numb themselves and watched Greeny.
“What a circus that Crustacean is,” the First One said.
“Yep.” the Second One replied. It burped.
Commander Blevins slowly regained his perspective. Could they go on? Should they go on? It was getting darker. He mulled these concerns over as silence fell in the disheveled restaurant. It sounded like bedlam outside. The shouts, clamor, sirens, car alarms, dogs barking, honking… all sounded like a cacophony from hell.
Mrs. Frumpwooler was staring at him, looking a little less lost. “What are you thinking about Commander,” she said. Her voice was still raspy. He hesitated, then ask the man across the table if there were any more rolls.
“Oh sure, I’ll check in back,” he said and left the table.
Watching him as he walked behind the counter, Commander Blevins said, “I was wondering if we should go on, or put things off to another day.”
“Of course, I had forgotten. I was wondering if my house is all right.”
“Oh yeah. We could go check. I don’t know if the busses are running, though. Are you up to walking to the Marina?”
“I might be able to walk there, but I don’t think I would then want to walk back.” Mrs. Frumpwooler thought it over briefly. “I suppose it might be prudent to wait…but I would really like to know. And what’s happened has happened. These things are over once they happen, aren’t they?”
“Don’t know. Don’t know if anyone knows. I think the 1906 Quake was over after about a minute. But aftershocks are common,” Commander Blevins said. “I wonder if our carriage house is still standing?”
“Oh. Oh, my!” Mrs. Frumpwooler’s face turned inside out: from quiet shock and reviewing options in a detached way…to a gripping fear that something might be taken from her–something she valued far more than her home and belongings. “Somebody might find the Diamonds…just laying in a pile of bricks. Oh, Commander, we can’t just leave them there for anyone to get!” Mrs. Frumpwooler’s eyes were wide open and gleamed.
Greeny felt a summons from home. It was wanted after all and It was being called with the strongest of voices.
“You have a point, Commander Blevins said.
“I have more than a point. We must get to the carriage house as soon as possible.
A minute later a voice sounded from the back room, “I’ll be right out with some candles…and I found some mor…..” The man came out into the front of the restaurant and found it empty.
Commander Blevins and Mrs. Frumpwooler walked up Fillmore past Sacramento as briskly as they could muster. The Bus they had come on was gone and there was no sign of another. The atmosphere was incredible. People were huddled around radios, laughing, crying, drinking. Two men were arguing with each other across the street in front of a liquor store. The sirens and alarms still wailed in the distance. They walked on. He carried the bag tight up under one arm. She held his other arm.
“Lookeyloo. Lookeyloo. We’re on the road again,” the First One said.
“Yeah, and lookit old Greeny. Straightened up and flying right,” the Second One said. Greeny was back on course and hovering not far above Mrs. Frumpwooler. It’s little bellows were pumping hard. The other MEs followed, lazily–but not missing anything.
The group reached Clay and turned east. It was dark.
“On The Road Again”
They passed some people sitting on a front step of a large house. A boom box sat in their midst. Commander Blevins and Mrs. Frumpwooler heard a voice from the radio say, “…are still trying to get comfirmation of earlier reports. In an effort to prevent misinformation from causing unnecessary alarm, we are withholding specific reports until confirmed by two sources. We can tell you that at 5:04 pm today an earthquake of an unknown magnitude hit the San Francisco Bay Area.”
“No shit!” someone said.
“…been confirmed that the Bay Bridge has been damaged. We are not sure at this time the extend of that damage, but we urge everyone to avoid using any and all bridges unless entirely necessary. If you are not already in your car, stay where you are. We will be hearing from KNBR’s Tom Rority, who has made contact with the local civil defense authorities, in a few minutes. Tom will be bringing us specific updates and what is happening to stabilize the region and what each and everyone one of us can best do to help protect our families and ourselves and the…”
Commander Blevins and Mrs. Frumpwooler walked on. The radio faded behind them. At the next corner they found their way blocked by the back of a large white building.
“Oh, that’s the Pacific Medical something,” Commander Blevins said. “Lets go that way.” He pointed north and they walked up a block to Washington Street. It was much different than Clay. There was no one around and the houses were all dark. No flashlights or candles flickered.
“Pretty eerie,” Mrs. Frumpwooler said.
“Yes, lets go on.” They turned to the right and continued up Washington. Two blocks later they were on the northwestern edge of Lafayette Park and the City was beginning to unfold to the south…or parts of it. They got to Octavia–in the middle of the northern edge of the park–and stopped to look out over the hills and valleys of San Francisco. Where there was usually a panorama of street lights, signs, lighted homes, cars moving throughout the City: now there was only a patchwork of mostly black. A few areas still had electricity. Even those isolated pockets, however, seemed dimmer than normal. The rest of the City–and they could have seen most of it from where they stood–was dark with slow moving snakes of traffic, flashing red lights, and sirens. And car alarms. They shrilled like a chorus of synthesized cats, all with their tails caught in a slammed door.
The Bay Bridge was not flowing normally. It, too, was dark except for a block of red tail lights. In the time Commander Blevins and Mrs. Frumpwooler looked at it, no headlights came over the bridge. They remained silent. Finally, Commander Blevins said, “Lets go.” Fear and greed gripped Mrs. Frumpwooler. She walked beside Commander Blevins, very numb.
Greeny was in about the same shape, but for different reasons. After the burst of energy from Mrs. Frumpwooler had gotten Its attention, It stopped sniffing every aura in the neighborhood and followed her. When Mrs. Frumpwooler lost her momentum again, however, It also lapsed back into a haze. As the party left the summit of Lafayette Park, Greeny was maintaining sporadic focus and following the group in a haphazard way. The other twos MEs watched It curiously, staying far out of the way and prepared to do whatever was necessary should It turn aggressive and shoot a light cord in Commander Blevins’ direction.
“Lets walk past the house on the far side of the street first,” Commander Blevins said. They had reached Franklin, only one block past the park, and crossed it. There was no traffic, no one in sight, and only a couple of houses on the south side of Washington showed the flicker of candles though drawn curtains. Commander Blevins took Mrs. Frumpwooler by the elbow and guided her left, to the north, and switched sides so he would be next to the curb. They began walking up Franklin Street. The house was only a half a block away and they could already see its large corner turret outlined against the sky, black against near black.
“I don’t see any lights…do you?” Mrs. Frumpwooler said.
“No, I don’t.” They walked up the hill, their heads turning slowly as they both kept their eyes glued on the house. As they pulled even with it, they stopped.
“Can you see anything down the walkway?” Commander Blevins asked.
“No. It’s dark.”
“Its creepy around here.”
Commander Blevins turned to her, releasing his hold on her elbow. “Gladys.” He waited until he was sure he had her attention. “Do you want to retrieve your Diamonds?”
She said, “Yes,” and then was quiet.
“Are you sure? We don’t have to do this, you know?”
A low light shone from her eyes, then it began building. “What do you mean–‘We don’t have to do this.’–are you daffy. OF COURSE we do! Let’s get on with it.” Greeny perked up and Mrs. Frumpwooler began marching across the street.
“Whoa….slow down.” He caught her by the arm again and said, smiling, “Shouldn’t cross the street without looking.”
“What? There are no cars coming, idiot.” Greeny was juicing hard.
Commander Blevins was experienced, by now, with this side of Mrs. Frumpwooler. “You’re right, there are no cars coming. But lets look around a little bit more before we plunge ahead. Follow me.” They walked back down Franklin until they were directly across from the driveway which led up the steep entryway to the back of the property, along the southern side, and to the open end of the carriage house.
“I think the door is open,” she said.
“I think so too. And I don’t see any one around.” They looked at each other. “Lets check it out,” Taking Mrs. Frumpwooler’s hand, Commander Blevins crossed the street with his Client close on his heels. They walked up the front of the drive way. There was a flicker of candlelight from the second floor of house next door. A cornice near its front corner was hanging crooked, vaguely defined in the dim reflected light from the sky. Everything else was black.
“Any One Home Tonight?”
“I can’t see. Didn’t you bring your flashlight? I saw you buy one yesterday.”
“I have it,” he said, “but it’s too soon to turn it on. We’ll just stay on the driveway. Walk carefully.” They reached the front edge of the carriage house and heard a shrill metallic squeal. They stopped. Then the squeal repeated and was followed by a furious scratching. Mrs. Frumpwooler grabbed Commander Blevins, who was frozen. The MEs felt the shift in energy and held their collective unseen breaths. Greeny, especially, sensed something unusual was afoot.
Suddenly, right in front of their faces, a dark pole separated from the corner of the carriage house with a loud tear, and hovered in the blackness above their heads. It had a lumpy top. Then it came straight at them. It was as though the carriage house was reaching out to bat them away.
They moved just before the pole struck them. It crashed onto the concrete driveway with a hollow thud and bounced a few times, making a scratching sound. As it hit, the lumps at the top screeched, divided into two and ran off. They were black blurs, but unmistakable.
“Oh, my!” Mrs. Frumpwooler said, clutching her breast and breathing hard.
“Cats!,” Commander Blevins said, and walked to the pole on the ground, now laying silent on the drive. “On the downspout. Must have torn loose in the quake. Wonder what those two were doing clinging to it?”
“I don’t know and I don’t want to know. Let’s find the Diamonds!”
“Well, it’s pretty clear that no ones is around.” He looked back over his shoulder at the neighbor’s house. The candlelight still flickered, but no shadow appeared in the window. “Lets go this way. And take my hand.” She did so without comment and they walked gingerly on the grass around the street side of the carriage house. Its back corner was its closest point to the house and they came to a walk that connect the back wall to the back porch of the house. All the windows were dark.
“Do you remember this walk?” Commander Blevins said.
“Yes, I noticed it yesterday. It leads to a door way in the back wall of the carriage house that should be just around the corner here. Will you PLEASE turn on your flashlight!”
“All right, but only for a moment.” Here hold this. He plopped the canvas tool bag in her arms before she was quite prepared.
“Sorry.” He tore the zipper open and then froze. “God that made a lot of noise.” They stood still for a full minute then he rummaged around inside carefully, but still making a racket.
“Can’t you do that quietly,” she whispered.
“I’m trying…here.” He pulled out the flashlight and turned it on. The middle of the backyard sprang at them. The birdbath now stood stark and naked in the empty little pool. He turned the light toward the wall. It was much the same as the day before, though, it too, was tidier around the bottom and sides. Then he shut the light off.
“Why’d you do that. Now I can’t see anything,” she said.
“Our night vision will come back in a minute. Let’s just wait here for a few minutes to see if anyone appears. In fact let’s move down to the end of the wall.” Commander Blevins squatted as though someone were watching and duck-walked the width of the back wall, touching it with one hand as he went. Mrs. Frumpwooler followed behind him standing straight up, carrying the canvas bag. He got to the end of the wall, turned around and stood up.
“What were you looking for?” she said.
“Looking…? I was trying to avoid detection. You didn’t….”
“Well, I couldn’t walk all silly and scrunched down like you carrying this bag!”
“Oh, forget it. Let’s just stand here for a while. Don’t say anything. And I’ll take that.”
“You’re the one that’s talking.”
“Shhh.” He took the canvas bag from her and set it on the ground near the back corner of the wall. It clanked.
They did stand without moving for what seemed like forever. Then Commander Blevins began to hear a soft voice somewhere nearby. It was saying something over and over. It got louder, and he whispered to Mrs. Frumpwooler, “Do you hear that?” She did not respond, so he leaned closer to her and started to say it again. But he stopped, for when he put his head near hers–she was facing away from him–he heard the voice. It was saying, “Diamonds, Diamonds, Diamonds…” and was coming from her.
Unknown to both Commander Blevins and Mrs. Frumpwooler, Greeny was juicing in rhythm to Mrs. Frumpwooler’s chant.
Commander Blevins snapped his fingers loudly and said, “Gladys!”
“Oh, what. Hello. Must have been daydreaming. Say, when are we going to get started. I don’t think anyone is around here. They are all out there, running around in ambulances or stealing cars.” The car alarms and sirens still dominated the background noise of the City.
“Well, I think you are right, for the most part, though I believe the earthquake is responsible for all the car alarms going off, not thieves. There’s something I want to do first before we begin dissecting this wall. Stay here for a moment.”
He walked a couple steps toward the pond, turned the flashlight on to avoid falling in it. She said, “I’m not staying here by myself, buster,” and followed along behind him. They made their way quickly across the back yard to the arched trellis and passed underneath it. A moment later they were at the side door next to the buzzer box. Commander Blevins pushed the white button. Mrs. Frumpwooler held her breath.
“Hear that?” he said.
“This.” He buzzed the buzzer again.
“Oh, yeah.” They listen to a faint ringing somewhere upstairs in the house as Commander Blevins pushed the little white button over and over again. Then he stopped.
“No one home tonight,” he said.
“Goody!” she said.
“Let’s get to work.”
“Let’s Get To Work”
They walked quickly back through the arched trellis, around the empty pool and bird bath and to the newly tuck pointed rear wall of the carriage house.
Commander Blevins stopped and shone the flashlight on the wall. Then he turned to Mrs. Frumpwooler. “Do you remember which bricks you took out?”
Mrs. Frumpwooler thought for a moment. “Well, there were two of them and they were both a little darker than the rest and…they were about shoulder high.”
“Which part of the wall?”
“The back part…about there,” she said and pointed.
He went over to the area she was pointing to, turned back and said, “Here?”
“You don’t need to yell. Yeah, about.” She was standing right next to him. “I don’t see any bricks that are darker than the others, though. I guess they all might have darkened with age, do you think Commander?”
“Either that or they have all gotten lighter with wire brushing. I kind of doubt that, though.” They stood looking at the wall, so close to their goal, yet so perplexed.
“We could just tear the whole wall down,” Mrs. Frumpwooler said. “Oh, I do want those Diamonds. Please, Commander!” She grabbed his arm and began whining. Greeny increased its rhythm.
“Calm down, Gladys.” She whined louder. He shouted “Gladys!” and snapped his fingers directly in her face.”
“Oh, what? Hello. When are we going to get started, Commander?”
Shaking his head, he said, “As soon as we figure…Wait! I’ve got it. You said shoulder height, right?”
“Yes, I can even remember going up on my tip-toes a little to push in the bag of Diamonds. Oh, Diamonds, Diamonds.”
“Well, that’s it,” he said and shook her shoulders hard.
Gwenny was taller that you are now…right?”
“Oh, well, I never thought about it, but I suppose you are right. I was–Gwenny was a big girl. She was taller than any one in the household except the nephew of…”
“Never mind who she was taller than. HOW tall was she?”
“I don’t remember. Tall. And don’t get uppity with me, Ito-san. Don’t YOU remember how tall Gwenny was? You were the one caught groping her. And you saw where the Diamonds were put as well as I, Commander Ito-san. How about earning your pay now and FINDING THOSE DIAMONDS.”
Commander Blevins could see the veins sticking out on Mrs. Frumpwooler’s neck. Before he snapped back at her, he caught himself and thought, “This is not a well woman.” He said to her, “You are quite right, Madam. I shall earn my keep. Please stand back.”
“Oh, no. I’m standing right here.”
“Gladys. I’m going to be banging away at this mortar and these bricks with a twenty-ounce mason’s hammer. If I strike a corner of a brick–which is highly likely–pieces of it are going to fly out at high speeds. If one of those hits you any where, it will hurt. If a piece of brick strikes you in the eye, at best you would loose the eye. At worst you would be dead.”
“Mind moving back, now?” he smiled sweetly.
“No, I think not.” She moved back several paces.
“Oh, would you hold the light?” He held it out toward her, she stepped in to take it and moved back out of range quickly. “Please shine it on this part of the wall.” He pointed to spot that was off to his left and a little higher that his shoulders. He bent down to the bag. “Drat.”
“What? Is something wrong, Commander?” Mrs. Frumpwooler was standing on her tip-toes trying to see into the bag at his feet, but still keeping the light on the wall.
“No, I just can’t see.” He picked up the bag and moved it out in the yard to a spot halfway between where she stood and where he would be working. “That’s better.”
“Shall I shine the light…” she said, turning the light on the bag.
“No! Keep it one the wall, please. I can see enough here.” She directed the light back to the wall and was silent. The chant of “Diamonds, Diamonds, Diamonds,” though, kept echoing through her mind.
He pulled out a pair of goggles and set them on the ground. Next he found the hammer, two small chisels, a large flat bar, and a pair of gloves. The flat bar was not a standard masonry tool, but it had been a favorite all purpose weapon of his when he used to do renovation projects. “What a long time it’s been,” he thought. He put on the goggles, then took them off and rummaged through a back pocket. It was still unusually warm. He pulled out a handkerchief, wiped off his forehead and face, then cleaned the goggles. They had been smudgy.
Goggles on, but pushed back on his forehead; flat bar tucked in his belt and sticking out from under his jacket and coat; gloves and one chisel in his side pocket; the other chisel in his left hand and the hammer in his right: he approached the middle of the wall. Mrs. Frumpwooler held her breath. He felt the wall with three fingers of one hand and muttered under his breath.
“What was that Commander,” she said and exhaled loudly.
“Nothing, nothing. Just talking to myself. “Hold that light still, now…right about here.” He pointed to a spot a couple meters to his right. “I can’t find your dark bricks but I’m going to try here.” He placed the end of the chisel –it had a rounded point–against an intersection of horizontal and vertical mortared groves. He braced himself, and held the hammer over the end of the chisel. Just as he was about to swing, he stopped and wiggled his goggles into place. Another stance and as he took a short back swing…he stopped again.
“Good grief, Commander!”
“Sorry Gladys, I forgot my gloves.” The new leather gloves were stiff and he struggle to put them on. Finally ready again, he nodded back to her–as a pitcher might to his not-so-patient catcher–took his stance and struck the chisel hard. A sharp metallic clang pierced the night. They both winced.
“Rats,” he said and turned back to the canvas bag once again. This time he pulled out a three inch leather cylinder that had a small cap on it and a loop that a belt could thread through.
“What on earth is that?” Mrs. Frumpwooler asked.
“It’s a carpenter’s wooden match holder.”
“I hadn’t seen one in years. They’re usually made out of metal to keep water out. This one is leather, like the one the man I learned carpentry from had. He put his wooden matches in it and carried them on his belt. He liked to strike them with his thumb nail in mid air and light his cigar with a whoosh.” He mimed his former boss.
“But what does that have to….”
“Watch.” He open the top of the little cylinder and bent the little lid back as far as he could. Then he slid the match holder over the top and part way down the shaft of the chisel. “See.” He held it up. “It will dampen the noise.”
“If you say so.”
“I do.” He assumed his position and struck three quick blows. There was no sharp metal twang. Only a dull thud as the hammer met the leather and the chisel bit into the mortar. He stopped for a moment, then continued. He hammered quickly and moved the chisel along as he went. White dust hovered in the air and bits of mortar bounced of his coat. Soon he had dug an outline in the mortar around two bricks as deep as the chisel would go and began attacking the bricks themselves. Then he went back to the bag, mimed a tip of his hat to Mrs. Frumpwooler–who stood mute, though rocking back and forth on her toes–and dug around for the second chisel. Then he remembered it was in his pocket. Acting as though it was his plan all along, he pulled a handkerchief out of the bag, wiped his forehead and put it in another pocket. He was beginning to sweat under all his clothes. Back to the wall with the second chisel, a sharp pointed one, he positioned it strategically against a brick, made one fast swing and visibly winced again. Mrs. Frumpwooler sighed. Commander Blevins retrieved the other chisel and switched the leather match holder to the pointed chisel in his hand.
He set to work with a passion, turning small round holes into cracks in the first brick. Finally it was a pile of pieces still held in place by the other bricks around it. He tossed the pointed chisel to the ground and pulled the flat bar out of his belt. It was a blue, eight-sided steel bar, about eighteen inches long. One end was flat, tapered to a sharp edge, and was notched to pull nails. The other end had a similar notch, but was bend at right angles to the shaft and was short and stubby. Commander Blevins jabbed the flat end between the brick pieces and began prying them out. At first nothing came, then most of it came tumbling out at once at his feet. He stopped and peered into the hole.
“Wonderful!” he said.
“Did you find it?” Mrs. Frumpwooler came running up behind him.
“No, I did not.”
“Oh. What was wonderful then.”
“That I did not find them.”
“How could that be…I don’t understand you sometimes, Commander.”
“If the bag of Diamonds had been behind this first brick they would have been scattered over half this yard. This way I can carefully work my way out from this hole until I find them, or until the wall is down.”
“I’m sure you’ll find them. I just know it.” There was an electric calmness about Mrs. Frumpwooler.
“Well, lets hope you’re right.” Over the next twenty minutes he removed six more bricks. His only hold-up was in finding the pointed chisel. He rummaged through all his pockets and the canvas bag twice before he kicked it where he had thrown it on the ground.
As he removed the seventh brick, a shiny pebble dropped out from behind the brick above. He stopped it with his hammer and looked at it.
“Here’s something. But I don’t think its one of your Diamonds. It looks soapy.”
“Oh! Oh! Oh! Let me see!” Mrs. Frumpwooler flew across the few steps separating them. “Oh, that’s it. That’s one of them. I remember old man Von Blume saying they were uncut. Malvandian used to dabble in precious gems, too. Ououououweeeee!” She was dancing and squealing at the same time.
Greeny was doing half-ganers from the low peaked roof over the back porch, floating down, and then doing it again. The other two MEs were looking on dispassionately. This was Greeny’s show. Their host wasn’t doing anything but wearing himself out.
Commander Blevins watched Mrs. Frumpwooler, shook his head, and turned back to the wall. He couldn’t see anything.
Mrs. Frumpwooler was dancing with the flashlight.
“Gladys! Gimme that, will you!”
“Oh…well sure. A girl can’t have any fun around you.”
He took the light and shined it up and under the bricks which spanned the empty row he had excavated. There was a larger than normal blob of mortar at a back corner where one brick met the next brick on its course. He poked at the mortar. Nothing. He poked harder. It gave way suddenly and a stream of little soapy, slightly shiny pebbles dropped out, bounced on the bricks below and fell at his feet.
“Whoopee. Goody. I’m rich! I’m rich! Oh, don’t loose any. Here I’ll get those. Where’s a bag. Why did the bag break. How much do you think they are worth. Oh, I’m so happy. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Commander Blevins was frozen in amazement that he had actually found the Diamonds and in befuddled awe at Mrs. Frumpwooler’s stream of chatter.
She probably would have talked forever, but a siren suddenly went by very near the house and they both froze. As it moved on down Franklin toward the Marina, they relaxed and laughed.
Commander Blevins pulled a small canvas draw-string bag and a plastic bag out of the large canvas bag and said, “Here put them in this.”
Mrs. Frumpwooler took the small bag and began pouring the Diamonds in her hand into the bag. She mumbled, “Thanks.”
He went back to the wall and, holding the plastic bag underneath the brick and over his large pocket, began digging around the hole. More Diamonds and mortar fell and bounced into the bag. Then they stopped. Finally a rotten and shredded piece of cloth came floating down from the bricks.
“The bag.” He said, holding it up for her to see.
“Screw the bag. Did you find any more Diamonds?”
“Just these,” he said quietly.
“Great, you are a peach. She grabbed the plastic sack, stuck it, and the little draw-string purse in her bosom and head for the arched trellis.
“Where are you going?”
“Home.” She was through the trellis and walking hard down the narrow walkway that ran beside the house.
He ran after her, but stopped at the trellis and called, “Don’t you want me to come with you.” He heard a distant, “No, I’ll call you…” then her voice faded out as she went down the front steps and across Franklin Street.
Greeny pranced over the high roof and did several barrel rolls off the high corner turret in the front of the house.
“Boy, there’s one stoked dude,” the First One said.
“Glad that’s over,’ the Second One said.
Commander Blevins shone his light around the little backyard and felt very alone. He began picking up tools and pulled out a little dust pan and brush. He swept all the fine mortar up into a little pile and then arranged the bricks in a ragged pile underneath the hole in the wall. It wasn’t a full hole, just one layer deep. He sprinkled some of the mortar onto of the pile and around the area. The rest he put into his bag. When he had everything loaded up, he turned off the flashlight and made his way out to the front of the house.
The air was charged with a wildness he had never felt. A great cloud of smoke hung in the sky north of him. He wondered what was burning. The shriek of sirens hit him like a visible slap. He realized he had heard only one since they had arrived. Car alarms whined in the distance.
“Diamonds In The Sky”
Mrs. Frumpwooler turned left when she crossed Franklin and walked to the corner at Jackson Street. Sirens of all types were shrill in her ears: some near, some far. She stopped for a moment and debated whether to walk or take the bus. Was the bus still running? She looked down Jackson toward Van Ness. It was choked with traffic. Franklin Street was, and had been, nearly deserted. She wondered why. No cars had passed by earlier in the evening when she and Commander Blevins and staked out the house. She thought of the house. She looked back for a moment. The corner turret was outlined against the dark sky. Memories flooded her of Gwenny leaving the house in disgrace. Her body shook for a moment, like a dog just in from the rain. She turned away from the house, away from the noise and blare of Van Ness and walked briskly across Jackson and on down the long sloping hill of Franklin Street as it ran toward Lombard and Fort Mason.
Two blocks later she looked up and saw the sky filled with smoke. It looked bizarre against the night sky, like black ink billowing up and across a charcoal backdrop. Where was it coming from?
Fear seeped in, fear for her home and all the precious things she kept there. She clutched her bosom and the Diamonds. They shifted, feeling like rough-edged, little marbles rubbing against each other. Precious little rough-edged marbles.
Something she had heard–from a radio at the center of a knot of people they had passed by during their walk from Fillmore to the house echoed back through her mind–something about the Marina. Suddenly she missed Commander Blevins. Should she go back? Would he still be there? No, she decided to continue. He was the only one that knew about the Diamonds. She wanted to get them safely tucked away before anyone else knew she had them. The bus would be faster. No one would know on the bus. And she was tired. Abruptly tired. Energy drained out of her. She turned to her right and headed for Van Ness.
Greeny was not tired. Greeny was high as life itself and bounding from one roof peak to another, delirious.
Commander Blevins was not high. He did not look back at the house as he left it, nor did he flash on Ito, Gwenny, or Frau Swope. Something nagged at him. Feeling alone was not new for him and, although never fun, he had learned to manage his emotions rather well in the years he had been ill.
This alone was different, as though something was missing. Something he had not previously been aware of having, or of its absence . Light burst at him from the shadow of a doorway. It lingered for a moment, then vanished. Blinking, only the darkness remained.
He reached Van Ness about the same time Mrs. Frumpwooler did, but five blocks south of her. He had turned away from the smoky black-on-black sky to the north. Van Ness was a circus. He was shocked at the difference between it and Franklin. The electricity was off, of course, and only motor coaches were running. But the din! People were everywhere with flashlights, lanterns, spotlights. Many businesses were lighted up with improvised light sources, keeping a vigil against possible looting. He saw a 42 Downtown go by, heading north. It was overflowing with people. Two buses were pulled over to the curb, empty and silent. He walked over curious. They were trolleys that pulled their power down through spring-loaded arms that glided against the underside of the overhead wires running throughout much of the City.
These same overhead wires, strung in pairs over both directions of traffic, were the bane of San Francisco Firemen. You had to be an exceptional Firefighter to dodge all the overhead utility wires in the City, bring the fires under control and not fry yourself or a fellow Fighter. As Commander Blevins and Mrs. Frumpwooler planned to head in opposite directions on Van Ness, the Firemen–and women–of San Francisco were tackling their biggest challenge in eighty-three and a half years.
Mrs. Frumpwooler squeezed on the bus. She wasn’t sure which one it was: that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that it was heading north and there was a space for her. The first three buses to pass were so full the doors couldn’t close.
“Would you like to sit down, dear?”
The voice startled Mrs. Frumpwooler, coming from her elbow. Or so it seemed. She peered around and moved her arm.
“You look all done in.” A clean cut young man stood up and made room for her to sit down.
“Oh…why, thank you. Yes I am tired. It has been a day to remember, I’ll say,” she said, sitting down.
“I think we can all say that,” the young man said. Mrs. Frumpwooler looked at him again. There was a strange glow in his eyes–they were wet–and he was half smiling, almost a smirk, but not quite.
The bus lumbered along Van Ness. Mrs. Frumpwooler looked out the window on the downtown side and saw blackness just past Polk Street, one block east. It spread out forever.
Greeny dipped and sailed along behind, over and ahead of the bus. It stretched itself out into a flying wedge and cavorted in the unseen breeze blowing off the Bay.
A few blocks later Lombard Street rolled past. This was the intersection where residential Lombard ended too suddenly. The commercialism of Highway 101 grew along Lombard like a fetid blight from Van Ness west, across the Marina. 101 then jogged, shaking off the stores and neon, and continued through the Presidio and over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County. Mrs. Frumpwooler looked at the calm, and now completely dark, side of the street. She remembered how much Malvandian used to enjoy turning here, driving all around Russian Hill, always to end up at Lombard and Hyde. He would then, with glee, point the car down the hill and snake through the many switchbacks of what the tourist brochures called the “Crookedest Street in the World.” It was a funny thing for a man to enjoy who disdained almost all other visitor attractions. Dimly, she realized she needed to get off the bus soon.
A block later she pulled the cord above the window and was let out at Francisco Street. She waited behind the bus for it to leave and then gasped. The Marina was covered with black smoke. It was thick in the air. No buses ran on Francisco, and she did not think of checking on Chestnut, a block south. She began walking with her eyes on the column of smoke in the distance. It was about where the Palace of Fine Arts stood. “Oh, I hope its all right,’ she said to herself. She also said a prayer for her home, a third story stucco flat on Broderick near Beach, only a block from the grounds of the Palace of Fine Arts and right where the blackest of the smoke was coming from.
It was dark and yet people were still loading up cars as though they were all going on vacation at the same time.
“Ridiculous,” she thought. “They ought to be staying here and protecting their homes.” Their homes looked fine to her. In the dark.
Then she ran into the Moscone Recreation Center and had to detour around it. Turning left meant Chestnut Street and it seemed loud over there. She turned right. One block later she turned back left on Bay Street: another strangely quiet area. A corner of Fort Mason touched the Rec Center here, forming a narrow pass for her to cross, from one mini-neighborhood to another. The sounds of the City reeling from the earthquake faded a little. She walked along Bay Street, past the Rec Center, and was aware of noise and flashing lights coming from Lombard. She walked another block to Cervantes and turned onto it. It ran toward the Bay at an angle. There were more people around, but she hurried by them. She noticed a dark pile of something on the sidewalk across the street. A block later she angled back to her left.
The smoke was getting closer. She could see some flames now and then. As she got still closer, she saw an outline of a roof top sitting at an unusual angle against the sky, backlit by the fire. Another shape caught her eye off to the left. With it came a sound that she had never heard before. The way roots hang-on and then snap one by one when a stump is being ripped from the earth: that was the feeling of the sound. Only the sound was coming from above ground, too, and there were many awful squeaks and rips and crashes. She looked left and stopped immediately. Three houses up the street–what street?, she had no idea–there was a short house sitting, no sliding into the middle of the street. It had a roof with the normal projections, but it also had a jumble of juts and protrusions underneath it. And it seemed to be riding on this mass of jumble…riding into the street, in slow motion. She couldn’t watch anymore.
Her fright finally punctured Greeny’s euphoria. It sensed that Its host felt threatened and hovered closer to her, oblivious to the physical upheaval.
Mrs. Frumpwooler crossed Divisadaro and froze. A whole line of three story flats were crumpled. They looked like little stick boxes that had been carelessly dumped by a small child. The fire was just beyond this block and a group of Firemen were unrolling hoses. “Why aren’t they over THERE, fighting the fire?” she thought.
“Hey you, get out of here,” one of the Firemen said.
Mrs. Frumpwooler hit full speed in one stride. She didn’t run–dignified middle age women don’t run well–but she was going to be hard to catch.
Beyond the fire was the Palace of Fine Arts. She could not see it, but she knew it was there. Between it and the fire was her home, her home sweet home. She prayed the fire had not reached it yet.
Somewhere behind her a man yelled, “You can’t go in there! The whole block’s going to blow!” Mrs. Frumpwooler broke into a run. Dignity had no place in that moment. At the next corner a gas main was spewing mud and gas fifteen feet into the air. It smelled horrible. She veered away from it and turned left, heaving hard. The Diamonds banged her chest and hurt.
Greeny was almost still, directly above her.
Looking down and across the street, several houses away, she saw the little greenhouse jutting from her bay window. It was always a landmark to her and had been installed at considerable expense. She hope her little garden of herbs and orchids were not traumatized by all the craziness. If she could just ride out this horror, all would be well.
She stopped in front of her door and was stunned. She had not thought of her purse since she had left Commander Blevins’ apartment. Did she even bring it with her? Not having her keys though, was academic. The front door to her home stood wide open. “Vandals,” she thought. But peering inside the door, she saw that the wall had buckled and popped open the door. Plaster and dust covered the steps leading up to her apartment. She took one step, then another, then a third. It felt solid and she turned the landing with her hopes mounting that all would be right.
It happened with a slow-motion quickness that is hard to comprehend and even harder to tell about later. To the people standing behind the barricades two blocks away, and to the Firefighters as close as half a block, the line of townhouses, built wall-to-wall went up in one huge fireball. But it only seemed to happened that way. The house at the corner, down from Mrs. Frumpwooler’s flat, was the first to go. It raised into the air several feet then flew apart in a mass of splinters. The flames followed the explosion. As it raised in the air, just before it disintegrated, the house next to it began to lift off its foundation. The force of the explosion rolled down the street popping townhouse after townhouse like bubbles blown too big. It happened so quickly it seemed like it happen at once.
Mrs. Frumpwooler heard a sharp clap, then was swept away in a firestorm. In that briefest of moments, her Inner Vision opened up to a different view of the Marina, a view from the top of Divisadero looking down at the Bay. There was no Marina Green or arcing concrete finger enclosing Aquatic Park; no pastel patchwork of three story townhouses; no neon bustle of Lombard Street: only the tidal marshes. The tidal marshes that were later filled in, paved over and built upon to become San Francisco’s Marina District. These same landfilled marshes had now shaken like unset jello, bringing the force of the earthquake to bear on the residents of the Marina in unforgettable fashion.
Somewhere in an area of several square blocks, someone surely found one of the soapy little stones. Perhaps more than one were found. If any of these Diamonds ever found their way to jewelers or gem merchants, though, it was discretely done.
“Guilt And Karma “
Commander Blevins’ homecoming was not as eventful as Mrs. Frumpwooler’s. He reached his apartment tired, bewildered, soaked with sweat, and collapsed into his overstuffed chair without turning on a light or taking off more than his coat and second jacket. If he had turned on the lights it would have been futile. There was no electricity.
600 Page Street was structurally unaffected by the earthquake. The contents did not fair so well. In apartment 307 the kitchen and dining room were covered with broken glass, most of it brown. On the top shelf of the high cabinets at the far end of the kitchen, Commander Blevins kept his small bottle collection. During the first year and a half of his illness he had taken large amounts of vitamin C. Later he cut down to more normal levels. It was one of the first tools he had found to combat the ongoing cycle of virus symptoms, and he had used it with his normal approach to life: taking it to an extreme. The vitamin C did help with the symptoms, for a while, but his body was knocked further out of whack by the heavy doses. Balance was still proving to be elusive.
The entire collection of little and medium sized brown bottles–all with their labels soaked off and the black lids stored separately in a yogurt tub–flew out of the top shelf when the first jolt hit. Either the bottles knocked the cabinet doors open or the doors were flung open themselves by the quake. Whichever way it happened, for the quarter minute the ground shook, the kitchen had become a war zone of shrapnel from flying and bursting little brown bottles.
All the adding machine parts from the kitchen table were scattered like sewn seeds. Earring supplies from the china cabinet were also spilled onto the floor. They had hung on for several jolts, before those doors finally opened, and then slopped onto the floor like someone had emptied a wastebasket in an unusual place. The containers of potent jewelry cleaner and grease solvents were on their sides and, thankfully, still sealed.
The main room was disheveled, but not dangerous. Commander Blevins was a sparse, functional decorator and had no breakable brick-a-brack in his apartment. There was a large pile of papers and magazines scattered around his desk, near the window. The walk-in closet was now a wade-in closet and the little wicker cabinet in the bathroom next to the tub was on it face. Bath Therapy was spilled across the floor, which he had yet to discover.
None of this, however, had made an impression on him. It was too dark to see, he was too tired to even go to the bathroom, which he needed to, and he was now sound asleep and heading directly toward morning and a backache.
It was a wild night on Page Street in the Lower Lower Haight. Few people wanted to go inside. Women were propositioned openly. Men were threatened. Drugs traded hands. Many people who lived there went somewhere else that night to be with friends, or just to be somewhere else. Some did not come home for two or three days. There was a feeling in the air that tonight was the last night. The big one had come and now civilization was toppling.
Commander Blevins slept on. He tossed and turned. He snored, which he rarely did. And he dreamed. In the last dream before waking in the middle of the night, he was with a black haired young woman. They were about to get in the shower together. She had told him Zander was waiting outside. In the dream it had been years since he had seen his old friend and yet only a day since he had showered with Andi…who was now Zander’s wife. He knew why Zander was there.
“He will wait,” he said to the black-haired girl in the dream. They got in the shower and started to soap each other. The phone rang in the distance. He stepped outside of the shower and found himself standing by a coffee table in his living room. Zander was laying on the floor at its end, propped up against the edge of the sofa, asleep. Commander Blevins prepared himself to face his old friend and the consequences of giving into temptation. But he could not remember the prelude to getting into the shower with Andi. He only remembered being there with her. Zander opened his eyes. They were set farther apart than normal and were cat-like slits. Clear, light grey eyes stared out at him shining with pain and murderous anger. Commander Blevins in the dream recoiled from a strong fear.
The phone rang loudly. Commander Blevins came out of his sleep and stared around him, caught between two realities. The phone was at his feet. That seemed unusual. It was on the hook. He answered it. It was a wrong number. He hung up and sat still in the darkness. He could hear voices and rap music from the street below. He drifted back into a not-here, not-there haze. His body was throbbing with a hard jarring pulse.
Guilt, consequences, and fear flooded through Commander Blevins. He did not buy into the concept of guilt, but it thrashed around inside of him just the same. He had not slept with Andi in the physical world, but his long standing desire for her nagged at him. Could intent trigger guilt?
Consequences, on the other hand were very real to him. The goes-around-comes-around shorthand for Karmic entanglements was obvious to him. Reviewing his most recent set of choices with blurry approximation, he succumbed to the pervading fear that he had really messed up. His ability to venture into the Inner Worlds had simply settled onto him a few years ago without his seeking it or having more than fragmentary preparation. It was an on-the-job-training he had eagerly jumped into and was only now beginning to see its potentially destructive ramifications.
Half pondering his unfulfilled desire, he floated through his haze unaware of either the three diamonds that had fallen unseen into his coat pocket nor the shadow of shimmering light forming briefly in the center of his room. Had he a clearer Inner Vision at the moment he would have seen the outline of a man appearing briefly in the sparkly light and a better understanding of additional difficulties which lay ahead.
Commander Blevins finally lapsed back into full slumber while the City writhed in chaos around him. Mrs. Frumpwooler was on her way to her next lifetime with a now scheduled layover in the Reflection Pool of Infinite Responsibility. Commander Blevins’ immediate future was less well defined.