It’s time for some red-pen savagery! Below is the first chapter of a novel I “finished” a few months back. I have sent it out to some agents, but there was undoubtedly some kind of solar flare that kept the instant medley of “Yes, I want it!” replies from arriving back to me. Rather than darken more inboxes with my shrieks, I thought I’d revisit the first chapter, to see if its joints are properly oiled.
First chapters, of course, should have the needed amount of firecrackers or sure-footed feints or character conniptions to move a reader from “I’m not sure” to “I will lick every page of this book.” My biggest blanket question: does this first chapter draw you in and make you want to continue? It introduces the three central characters: the bit-of-a-blowhard narrator, his constrained boss, and a homeless guy who’s about to get all shook up—and not just from the earthquake.
My specific question is: does the introduction of some backstory material—five paragraphs of such, starting at paragraph eight—deter reading interest, in that it steps away from the immediacy of the earthquake accounting? To me, that bit of expository material serves to get a necessary serving of the narrator’s perspective, with the quaking quickly taken up again. Or is it just distraction?
Thanks for any thoughts on the questions and the chapter in general.
I was thinking about my Studebaker when the quake hit. Though it’s not exactly a showstopper, it’s a ’63 Lark, and pretty sweet. The Studey was on my mind because a moment before the building went bonkers I’d been looking at Della’s legs. She was wearing one of those napkin-sized skirts she sometimes wears and her legs are all the way up to there anyway. I always tried not to stare—I think I’ve perfected this method of looking off in a fake distracted way and then flicking my eyes back. I can get away with zeroing in on her stems without getting caught, I think. It was almost quitting time, and I wasn’t paying much actual attention to anything.
So there I was standing in my cubicle holding some papers and Della was standing at the copy machine in that skirt and I was thinking that maybe if those Nazi mechanics of mine would fix that problem on the Studey, this time I could finally ask Della out without worrying that my car would stall at a light and maybe leave us in the Tenderloin without wheels and me looking like Doofus Number One. And then the quake hit.
Now it’s not like I’m a quake virgin or anything. I’m a California boy all the way, and have been through more than a couple shakers in my thirty-plus, including one in the 70s when I was staying in Santa Barbara where I watched a nearby hillside seem to turn to liquid—but that was just my eyes jiggling. And since I’d moved to the City I’d felt the earth skip a beat more than a couple of times. I’ve always sort of liked it—the land stretching its legs a bit and all. And now it was almost the 90s, and there hadn’t been a real big bumper for a while. But this was different.
Different because Consolidated Leasing (yeah, that’s where I work—could a business name be any more lame?) is on the eighth floor of a new building on the edge of downtown, and it’s built to flex in a quake—and man was it flexing. But different yet because even with the flex, even with me having rocked and rolled through my share of quakes, this shaker seemed special right from the get-go.
I felt it in my stomach first, a kind of squeezy uncomfortable feeling, like riding on one of those old centrifugal-force carnival rides where you lean against a wall on a spinning, circular platform, and then the floor drops away while you spin faster, pinning you to the wall in an awful, verge-of-nausea way. I always hated those rides, but I would always ride ‘em when I could. You can’t be smart all the time, I guess.
So my stomach did a couple of pirouettes before I really even knew what was going on and then the floor started moving in a real greasy way, a kind of sliding, humping, fucked-up kind of way, and I was finally clued in that it was an earthquake—and that it was a big one. There seemed to be a second wave that had more kick than the first and then the building really stepped onto the dance floor. It swayed big-time, and I mean swayed like you’ve downed ten tequila shooters and slapped yourself in the temple with an unabridged dictionary.
The jolt punched me into the edge of my cubicle, and I hit the corner about armpit height, hard, and then I stumbled to one knee. Though I pretty much forgot about scoping Della, she was still right in front of me and I saw that she was clutching the sides of the copying machine with both arms, a love-death grip. From my angle it looked like the machine was actually lifting into the air a little, but maybe that’s because I wasn’t exactly the Rock of Gibraltar myself. Also from my angle I saw that her little skirt had hiked up even further so that I could see where the thighs of those fine legs moved right up into that round rump, which was covered by red panties. I filed that away in one of those micro-seconds because it’s really no time for my standard lech act, considering that the office was in a state of total pandemonium, and I’m not completely convinced that the entire building wasn’t going to go kablooey right down onto Market Street.
It might help to know that our office is not going to win any design awards for innovation or architectural flair or for that matter, the quality of its business concerns. Sure, it’s an OK building at the corner of Market and Main, just off the Embarcadero. We lease big equipment to big companies. Big deal. If your company needs a fleet of trucks to shoot widgets from Daly City to Jersey City, we’re in the book. If your five thousand employees need five hundred copiers, and you don’t want to pay up front, we’ll meet you around the back. And if you’re a big wheel and you want to flash it, we’ll even arrange for you to lease a corporate jet on the cheap—if you call thirty thousand a month cheap. Of course, we don’t own any of this crap we lease anyway—we’re just middlemen, picking up as much change as spills out of the pockets of corporate America on its way from here to there.
The office is modern enough, which is to say that that oatmeal-puke fur that lines the cubicle walls isn’t torn and the Sparkletts water bottles get changed on a regular basis. There are about thirty people that work in the office (and about twenty lawyers that work outside), and it’s mostly a young bunch, though the sales guys have some mileage on their faces and plenty of air in their spare tires. But I don’t deal with those guys anyway. I really only deal with the people in the so-called Editorial department, issuing decrees from my exalted throne as Proofreading Coordinator.
We do documents at Consolidated. Oh boy, do we do documents. Paper industry big-wigs must rely on leasing contracts for their year-end bonuses. If your company wants to lease office furniture for a three-story building, the leasing contract might be a story tall all by itself. But that’s not to say it’s an interesting story. Contracts are about 98 percent fat, and that’s all the boilerplate mumbo-jumbo that goes into all the contracts, whether the items being leased are tanks or tortilla chips.
We’ve got that phalanx of lawyers twiddling the same documents in twenty different ways depending on the piddling new info in the contracts, and since lawyers couldn’t be bothered to spend any extra time exercising their eyeballs on the precious billable words they’ve inserted into the contracts, we need a whole crew—well, two, plus me to bless their sweaty efforts—to make sure that every T is not only crossed, but in the correct typeface, line length and proper page placement.
That takes an editor’s eyes (though we call ‘em proofers so they don’t ask for raises too often), and those eyes must be overseen by yours truly, the executive editor, a title I no doubt deserve, but this being Consolidated, they act as though they’d conferred the Order of the Knights of Malta on me with my paltry present title. The fact that I have a Bachelor’s in Philosophy (and even a year in grad school) doesn’t seem to carry any pay-scale weight either. I try to be philosophical about it.
I wasn’t feeling particularly philosophical when the cubicles started playing bumper cars with each other. Since our building was getting so loosey-goosey, and we were on the top floor (the eighth), office stuff was really starting to scoot around with each pendulum swing of the building. Two of the tallest filing cabinets toppled with a huge crash, but I could barely hear that because of the shouts and screams that were ricocheting around the office. After I’d righted myself a little using my cubicle wall, the next round of building flexing took my monitor tumbling off my desk, and it exploded on impact. When I whirled around to look at its scattered remains, another tremor hit that seemed to run sideways from the direction of the first. I was plunked right down in the aisle between the cubicle rows so that I sort of fell on my back and my butt, with my legs a little in the air. That gave me a splendid view of some of the plasterboard roof panels of the acoustic ceiling above, which were now deserting the roof in droves and diving to the floor.
I sprang up, but was staggered a bit by a rolling motion of the building. I noticed that the most egregious example of wretched corporate art that the office possessed (on a lease, of all things) had jumped to its deserved death off the wall. It had been pierced by the weird sharp-edged desk lamp that one of the graphic artists had brought in to try and prove that she wasn’t a corporate drone. I had a fleeting thought that I hadn’t appreciated her creativity before. At this point, at least six people were crowded into the office’s open double-doorway, seeking wall-joint strength like good Californians should. Unfortunately for them, that was also the primary office exit, leading to the elevators and staircases and what seemed now to be an impossibly long flight away from a building that was rumbling like it was moving to a good belly laugh.
The bulk of the office populace was now pouring toward those open double doors, where that half-dozen of the first mad scramblers had fled. The doorway people were half-crouching, some with arms entangled, all leaning on the person next to them, all wide-eyed and open-mouthed as the floors and walls did a little tango. They didn’t intend to abandon their protected place in the doorway, but those intentions had to negotiate with those of the half-crazed stream of souls coming toward them who had no intention of remaining in the building. I glanced back at the cubicles, seeing two people from Payroll standing wall-eyed in the aisle, while a rivulet of a toppled Sparkletts bottle trickled between them toward me. When I turned back to head for the door, my boss Megan was standing in front of me.
In front of me doesn’t quite explain it though. When I turned back toward Megan, I was wearing her, rather like an apron, since I had turned holding both my arms out from my waist and she had moved with her arms up and forward toward me. Since she’s about a foot shorter than me, just in turning around I ended up involuntarily clasping her to my chest, which surprised us both.
I grabbed her by the shoulders and said “Megan!” which was all I could manage. My ante was too high for her, however—she couldn’t even speak. We’ve all heard that phrase “white as a ghost.” Just another phrase that’s lost its elastic—but Megan brought a rich new meaning to a poor phrase.
She was drained of color, paste-white, a fully credible white that would never pretend to be the pallor of a living being. But I did detect a little pinkness in the center of her face: her tongue, usually as discreet as all of Megan’s doings, now blatant because she was unable to engage it to make conversation. It rested limp on the bottom of her widely open mouth. Behind the heavy black horn-rims of her Elvis Costello glasses, Megan’s bright blue eyes shrieked the words her tongue couldn’t manage.
I did a little pas de deux with her in the aisle, spinning her by the shoulders toward the exit. In thinking of it afterward, I longed for a video: my formidable boss, always cordial but always reserved, impenetrable and boss-like, spun like an addled child and pointed toward the door. “I think we should get out,” I said in as manly of a voice I could muster.
We were near the tail end of the crowd moving toward and through the doorways. The first human wall of resistance clinging to the entryway had been breached—and like bowling pins, most had scattered, choosing the staircase path preferred by the bulk of those in flight. Probably two minutes, three at most had passed since the initial shock hit, and the building still seemed to be reverberating, though I couldn’t judge time or the trembling with any accuracy. I shepherded Megan past the lone doorway holdout, Sheldon Shenk from Accounting, who we all called Squink behind his ample back. He was gripping the doorsill with both hands, his eyes wet and dreamy as we went by.
“Squink, you’d better head down. The worst of it’s over,” I said as we passed him. I thought I was getting the hang of this whole leadership-in-a-crisis thing, what with Megan acceding to every tiny pressure of my arm, and me feeling like most everything’s in control. It was only when my knees buckled at the first staircase step that I realized that my whole body was slightly quivering, and that I had lost that fine motor control needed for precise movement.
I grabbed the handrail and steadied myself, though Megan, in full zombie mode, didn’t notice my little stumble. At that moment, she might not have noticed if I had a long scaly tail and flippers. We merged into a mass of semi-orderly building deserters, moving haltingly down the staircases mostly three abreast. I saw Della ahead of us, looking back with an alarmed look and then lurching forward. My crew, Silvie and Crenshaw, was ahead of her—I could see Silvie throw her arms up while she talked to Crenshaw as they descended. She had a characteristic way of flinging her arms about; I thought it was because she always wore about twenty bangles and wrist bracelets on each arm that clicked and clattered when she jostled them. I was glad to see they were both all right.
The only person I could see that had an injury was Mr. McManus, the portly Vice President, who had a pretty good gash on his forehead, against which he held a slightly bloody handkerchief. There was a lot of tangible tension going down the stairs, which was a process less than brisk. “What if there’s another quake? We’re likely to get crunched on these stairs,” someone said. “God, I wonder what my house looks like? I just put all this decorative glass on shelves in my living room,” somebody else answered. “Goddamn. I thought the whole goddamn building was going down! The whole damn thing!” said one of the lawyers, who’d just come into the office before it hit.
We came to the landing for the seventh floor, where we met a surge of employees from the big insurance firm that worked there. I could see a couple of women who were crying, and several people who looked disheveled and shaken up, but no major injuries. An older man in a suit was standing on the side of the stairwell saying over and over, “Just move slowly and watch out for your neighbor. It’s OK, just move slowly down and watch out for your neighbor.”
Just a few steps ahead someone I didn’t know had a portable radio pinned to his ear. “Seven-point five. They’re saying seven-point five, and major damage in the City. Big fires in the Marina. Not certain where it actually hit yet.” We were slowing way down on the stairs as we came in contact with people emptying out of the sixth-floor offices. People were starting to get more anxious, pushing a little, and I could see a big guy ahead of us trying to force his way through. But when I looked at Megan, she looked weirdly calm. Some color had started to come back into her face.
“Megan, are you feeling better? You OK?”
She turned to me and nodded and softly said, “Yes.” Her eyes still looked as if their owner was off vacationing, but at least she resembled the upright—if not uptight—boss that I reported to that morning. I turned into a bit of a robot myself after that, just moving kind of numbly with the crowd, listening to people speculate on what had happened, the fear squeezing their voices. I wondered how my house was. Sure, it was a rental, so it’s not my house, but it had been hard enough finding the place after I left Santa Cruz in such a hurry a year before. It’s a big Victorian, with a huge bay window in the Lower Haight. I hoped Drew, my housemate, hadn’t been standing in front of that window debating his next decorating move. We hadn’t lost any windows in our office, but I was plenty worried that big old house wouldn’t have flexed quite like our spiffy new building.
It might have been thirty, forty minutes to get down to the lobby—it seemed like hours. Then, suddenly, we were out on Market Street. It was pandemonium. The noise was the first shock. The combined sounds—shouts, crashes, horns, machine noises, police sirens—hit with a physical impact, so that I ducked a little when I stepped out onto the street. The street and sidewalks were teeming with people, some milling about, some standing alone, many walking in waves up and down Market.
Traffic was completely stopped, with some cars left at odd angles in the middle of the street. I saw an empty Muni bus almost sideways, straddling both lanes with its door open. There was smashed glass all over the place, much of it from sidewalk-level storefront windows. Police cars were parked or in movement in all directions. I saw water gushing over a low rooftop wall and down the front of a nearby five- or six-story building onto the sidewalk below. Then I watched an ambulance pull up on the sidewalk of the building right next to ours and spill out its attendants, who rushed inside. I could hear sirens near and far. I checked out the big office building right across the street, and it had thick white smoke pushing out of broken windows on the third floor. It was madness.
People from our office had gathered in a loose circle on the sidewalk edge and in the street, trying to decide what to do. One of the sales guys was trying to get people to go to the Gnome’s Hat, a dive bar around the corner, but nobody was listening. I thought I should try to call the house, but the only phone in sight had six or seven people crowded around it. I spun around in a small circle, looking up and down the street, and at my fellow workers, who didn’t seem to be able to put a plan of action together. Silvie and Crenshaw stood off to the side, Silvie waving her arms and Crenshaw sucking on a cigarette with fierce concentration.
Then I noticed Megan staring at me. Though her complexion was returning to normal, she still looked stricken. She looked at me steadily for a moment and then said, slowly, in a tight-throated way that made her words croak a bit, “Hayden, I would greatly appreciate if you would walk me to my apartment. I’m feeling quite ill.” She fluttered her arm toward my shoulder, and briefly rested it there and then she looked away. I thought I could see her trembling a little.
“Well, that’d probably be OK, Megan. I’ll just try and call my place from your house—I’m a little worried because it’s an old building.” I tried not to smile too broadly when I said, “I’m glad to see you’re getting some blood back—your face was the color of printer paper up there.”
She touched one of her earlobes, covering one of her tiny pearl earrings. “Well, that’s probably true. This is my first earthquake, and I’d like the number to stop there.” She looked out at the crazed street scene and shuddered a little. “At the moment, I think I’d take the peril of Boston drivers over San Francisco earthquakes hands down.”
Megan had come to Consolidated from Boston only two years before. She’d been an editor there, but also (because it was a small company) the Traffic Manager or some such ungodly title at a small boutique publisher in Boston, routing manuscripts, messages, contracts and communications through that office and across that quadrant of the East Coast’s literary world. She did have all kinds of exchanges with agents and name authors, but that didn’t count much at Consolidated. But damn, that contract work did: Now she insured that leases had signatures, executives had quarterly reports and that meetings had 100% attendance. Consolidated leaned on her small frame with a vengeance, but she never seemed to be caught with a contract—or a sandy-blond hair—out of place.
Not that I’m complaining. In my storied history of bosses, I’ve had ogres, oafs and other assorted hind ends. Megan was the picture of reason, calm and cordiality. I’d spent a few idle moments in the past wondering how Consolidated could have lured Megan out of her Boston environs. She seemed so quintessentially Right Coast and proper, a person who could probably get away with wearing white gloves to work without it seeming wholly absurd, someone who might not visibly stiffen if you spoke to her with food in your mouth, but whose delicate glance away would prompt that mouth’s closing. Even though she was just a year or two older than me, her manner seemed ten. But maybe I’m not telling it right: It’s not like she was a stiff—she was just someone you couldn’t see getting loose. She wasn’t stuffy in some dried-up way; she was simply precise. Her opinions—and her English—were never sloppy.
Maybe the source of that tidy English was the fact that she was English: she grew up in suburban London, an only child of well-to-do parents who left when she was nine, after her father accepted a position at a Boston law firm, while teaching law part-time at Boston University. Her mom had been born in Boston, but had met her dad in London. Suffice it to say that Megan was the only one I knew who had had a nanny. At the moment, both of us (and maybe even the City itself) could have probably used a nanny, but we would have to soldier on without.
First things first—get off of Market Street. I knew Megan lived somewhere on Taylor in Russian Hill, so I figured we’d walk up to California and maybe move north on Stockton, skirting Chinatown. I knew that would first take us through some of the big-boy buildings in the financial district, but I didn’t want to flank the Embarcadero—I’d remembered that big waves can follow an earthquake, and though that seemed pretty unlikely in the Bay, I’d always had a weird fear of drowning. Megan still seemed only semi-coherent, so I just gestured the way and we moved through the chaos.
We started walking up to where California hits Market and I saw Leg Man, in his usual spot, not far from Consolidated. I saw him almost every morning, since he set up shop near the coffee stand where I regularly fueled up. Leg Man was a homeless guy, or at least he looked like a homeless guy, and like many of the homeless on Market, he had a regular spot where he plied his trade. The ways the homeless folks hit you up for dough on Market Street varied: some would try a story on every passerby, walking with you a bit to fast-talk a dollar. Some had crude or artistic signs with jokes on them—“Homeless man needs money for college and beer” or sad descriptions of their plight. Others would just sit slumped on the sidewalk, not looking at the masses moving by, maybe with a plastic cup to take any donations.
Leg Man was different. Leg Man had an artificial leg that he set up on the sidewalk, and at the top of the leg (a little above the knee), where there was a little platform/connecting bracket, he’d position a small metal can for people to drop money in. He usually stood stock-still back off the sidewalk from his leg—he didn’t seem to need the leg to stand—looking at everyone passing by, a small scowl on his face. He was late forties, maybe fifty, black, a big, stocky guy with wild graying hair. Today, amidst the madness, his leg was next to him against the storefront wall he normally leaned against. He undoubtedly knew that pickings would be slim on a day when all of the City was topsy-turvy.
I gave him a nod, and his eyes tightened a bit, but otherwise, he gave me no acknowledgment. But he gave Megan a long, sharp look and then gazed down the crowded street. He’d seen me many times, but I never knew if he recognized me or not, though I’d pushed a buck his way a few times. I wondered for a second if he knew Megan, but then we turned up toward California.
California was only marginally better than Market. The same twisted street scene of stopped cars, blocked drivers, bewildered pedestrians and buildings with some bites taken out of them. We headed into the living traffic, surrounded by confusion and crazy conversation. A story moved from behind us and forward through us, as though it were an electric shock: “The Bay Bridge collapsed! Whole thing’s down in the water. Rush hour—can you imagine it?” It was truly surreal—not merely the thought that that huge structure over the Bay had fallen, but how there was a tangible feeling that the story was like a swarm of bees or wasps that moved electrically through the crowd, stinging people with news as they passed.
I didn’t really believe the thing about the bridge, and was going to tell Megan as much, but when I looked at her, she just glanced at me with a look of such sick grimness that I didn’t say anything. We hurried on as best we could, Megan clacking in her heels through the crowd. She was wearing one of those pinstriped, pantsuit kind of things she often wore, when she wasn’t wearing a dress. I wonder if she even owned a pair of jeans.
On the corner of California and Kearny was a scene I won’t forget: a middle-aged man was just turning around in a small circle, weeping loudly, and just a few feet away, a heavily tattooed woman who looked like a bike messenger was gesturing to the sky and laughing maniacally. It was hard to tell which one was in worse shape. We moved on.
We headed up Stockton and started to climb the hill. On the edge of Chinatown I saw a strange sight: there were a bunch of those pressed, flattened ducks that they sell in plastic bags spilled all over the sidewalk, along with a bunch of root- and twig-like things, some kind of loose tea or herbs. All of the display racks of the ducks and some of the shelves had flipped over and spilled everything, and a guy that looked like he might have been the proprietor was just staring at the stuff on the ground.
We got over to Taylor and started heading north and up and if you know Taylor, you know I mean up. Taylor was quieter than the streets we’d passed, though there was full evidence that something had given the street a big shake. It was pretty close to dark now, and darker yet, because there was no power. It was quite eerie to ascend the street and come to corners where you could see toward downtown and the Bay. San Francisco with no lights was something strange, the tall buildings dark and brooding, with sirens still going off in every direction.
I was surprised at how well Megan moved in those heels up that hill. It’s not like she’s out of shape or anything; in fact, as I walked close behind her I found myself admiring the pull of her hips as she tackled that hill, with the street’s angle and her motion tugging her loose pants so that they outlined her small, tight frame. I shook my head a little bit—I can’t think of Megan that way, no. My mind quickly moved on to those red panties of Della’s I’d caught a glimpse of that morning. I was so deep into a warm thought about Della that when Megan turned back to me and spoke I almost jumped.
“This is it—I’m on the top floor.”
I glanced up at a five- or six-story apartment complex, the Belvedere, with its street address written out in script letters with a flourish. Russian Hill might only be five or six miles from my place in the Haight, but it was a world away as well. There was no obvious damage to the stately old building, though it looked like someone had stacked a bunch of cardboard boxes out front filled with broken stuff.
“OK. I probably should get over to my place and see if it’s still standing. Take care, Megan.”
I turned back down the hill and started off. Megan’s voice behind me was too sharp for the short distance between us.
“Hayden! Hayden, maybe you could come up for a moment and help me determine if everything’s all right. I, I think that I wouldn’t be able to right my bigger bookcases if they’ve fallen.”
She looked at me quickly and looked away down the street, her hand scratching a bit at her face.
“Well, yeah, sure. I mean, maybe just for a minute. I really should get home.” Man, at the beginning of this day, could I ever have predicted I’d be asked into the boss’s apartment that night?
All it took was a huge earthquake.