Earthquake Weather – Snippet 22


No fight could have been half so terrible as this dance.

–Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“HIS LITTLE BOY may have watched me kill him,” said Janis Plumtree in a quiet, strained voice. A waterproof Gumby-and-Pokey tablecloth had been spread on the big table in the TV lounge, and she and Cochran were standing in line, each of them holding a glossy little cardboard bowl and a napkin that was rubber-banded around a plastic spoon.

“You didn’t kill him,” whispered Cochran earnestly. “Cody did.” He looked nervously at the patients on either side of them, but the old woman ahead of Plumtree and the morose teenager behind Cochran were just staring ahead, anxiously watching the ice cream being doled out.

Plumtree had been escorted to the Quiet Room again, directly after her conference with Dr. Armentrout this afternoon, and confined there for an hour, and when she had found Cochran afterward she had told him about the morning’s costly discovery of her multiple personalities, the “dwarves in Snow White’s cottage.” He had listened with unhappy sympathy, withholding judgment but taking the story as at least a touching apology for her occasional rudenesses, which supposedly had all been the doing of the ill-natured “Cody personality.” Apparently, there was no Cody-the-roommate, really.

The appalling thing, the stark fact that still misted his forehead every time he thought of it, was that she had actually undergone shock therapy this morning; he was clinging to her insistence that it had been scheduled for her even before Long John Beach had been hit, and he was happy to be talking about topics that had nothing to do with the hospital, for he had not yet found a chance to tell Armentrout what had really happened last night.

“Well,” Plumtree said now, “Cody didn’t kill him either, directly. But we all knew we were going to that Leucadia estate to do somebody harm. Old Flibbertigibbet kept saying that we were just going to stab somebody in the leg. But we all knew what he could do, what he probably would do, and we all cooperated. We didn’t care.” She sighed shakily. “We do what he wants, ever since we got him to . . . kill a man in ’89.”

Cochran was inclined to doubt that; and he was fairly sure that she hadn’t killed anybody on this last New Year’s Day, either, for she’d surely be in a prison ward somewhere right now if the police or the doctors had found any reason to take her story seriously.

But she clearly believed these things, and was troubled by them– and Armentrout had given her shock therapy this morning!–so he said, with unfeigned concern, “Poor Janis! How did that happen?”

They had got to the front of the line, and a nurse scooped a ball of vanilla ice cream into Plumtree’s bowl and tucked a wafer cookie alongside it. Plumtree waited until Cochran had been served too, and then they sidled off to the window-side corner, by unspoken agreement choosing the far end of the room from where Long John Beach sat blinking and licking a spoon. At their backs, beyond the reinforced glass, a half-moon shone through the black silhouettes of the palm trees outside the courtyard.

“We were in a bar in Oakland,” she said quietly when the two of them had sat down on the linoleum by the nursing-station-side wall, “and Cody got real drunk. I was twenty-two, and Cody was drinking a lot in those days, though I always stayed sober to drive home. And we lost time–or maybe Cody had an actual alcoholic blackout–and when I could see what was going on again, I was on my back in a van in the alley parking lot, and the boyfriend I was at the bar with was trying to pull my clothes off. Cody had passed out, and he figured he could do what he wanted with an unconscious woman. This was only . . . well, it was five-oh-four in the afternoon, wasn’t it? Across the bay, you were just about to catch your wife, wife-to-be, when she fell down the winery stairs. Anyway, this guy gave me a black eye, but I was able to fight him off because he hadn’t expected me to . . . wake up. I scrambled out of the van, with him still grabbing at me and me not able to run, with my clothes all hiked up and down. I probably could have got away from him then with no trouble, ’cause I was awake and outside and I think he was apologizing as much as anything; but I . . . got so mad . . . at him thinking he could do that to me when I was passed out that way, that I called a real serious sic ‘im! in my head. You know? Like you would to a pit bull that was real savage but was yours. I can see now that all of us, even drunk Cody, helped call it. We hadn’t ever been that mad before. We knew it was bad, and that it would cost us, but we called anyway. And we woke up Flibbertigibbet.” Cochran recalled that this was another of her supposed personalities, a male one. Janis had told him that she didn’t know much of what had happened at the therapy session with Armentrout today– she’d said she had “lost a lot of time” after he had showed her some miniature painting that she couldn’t bear to look at–but that she was pretty sure Flibbertigibbet had been out. Probably Flibbertigibbet had been the one who had reportedly broken the doctor’s desk lamp and bitten his finger, earning Plumtree her most recent stay in the Quiet Room. She had said that she was grateful that Flibbertigibbet hadn’t done anything worse.

“And . . . Flibbertigibbet–” Cochran was embarrassed to pronounce the foolish name “–killed the guy?”

She shivered. “He sure did. The big earthquake hit right then, and I suppose the cops thought it was falling bricks that smashed his head that way. It was never in the papers, anything about a guy being murdered there. I ran to my car, and it took me two hours to drive the ten miles home. Nobody at my apartment building, what was left of it, said anything about the blood on me–a lot of people were bloody that day.”

“. . . I remember.”

The Franciscan shale of San Bruno Mountain hadn’t shifted much in that late-afternoon quake, and only a couple of Pace Vineyards’ oak casks had fallen and burst, spilling a hundred gallons of the raw new Zinfandel like an arterial hemorrhage across the stone floor of the cellar, which Cochran had eventually had to mop up; but when he and a couple of the maintenance men had immediately driven one of the vineyard pickup trucks down to the 280 Highway, they had found cars spun out and stalled across the lanes, and in the little town of Colma hillsides had toppled onto the graves in the ubiquitous cemeteries, and he remembered stunned men and women standing around on the glass-strewn sidewalks, many of them in blood-spattered clothes and holding bloody cloths to their heads. Paramedic vans had been slow and few, and Cochran had driven several people to the local hospital in the back of the pickup truck before eventually returning to the vineyard. The visitor from France, young Mademoiselle Nina Gestin Leon, had been stranded there, and had stayed for the subdued late dinner in the Pace Vineyards dining room. They had all drunk up innumerable bottles of the ’68 late-harvest Zinfandels from Ridge and Mayacamas, he remembered; the night had seemed to call for big, wild reds, implausibly high in natural alcohol content and so sharp with the tea leaf taste of tannin that Cochran had thought the winemakers must have left twigs and stems in the fermenting must.

“I had blood and wine on my clothes when I went to bed that night,” he said now.

“Cody’s more of a vodka girl,” said Janis. She leaned back against the TV lounge wall and sang, “You can always tell a vodka girl . . .”

“That’s the tune of the old Halo Shampoo ads,” Cochran said. “That’s before your time, isn’t it? I barely remember that.”

“Geber me no zeitgebers,” she said shortly. She looked at the nearest of the other patients–poor old Mr. Regushi a dozen yards away, eating his ice cream with his hands–and then she said quietly, “We’ve got to escape out of this place.”

“I think it’d be better to get released out of here,” Cochran said hastily. “And I do think we can do it. I have a lawyer up in San Mateo County–”

“Who couldn’t get us out before tomorrow dawn, could he? Dr. Armentrout is going to give me the electroconvulsive therapy again tomorrow–I can tell, I was told not to eat anything after ten tonight. He says he’s elected me, Janis, to be the dominant personality inside this little head, and he’s going to . . . cauterize Cody away, like you would a wart.”

Cochran opened his mouth, wondering what he should say; finally, he just said, “Do you like her?”