To Be There for the Earthquake, Which Couldn't Happen Without Them
by Nini Berndt
The seismologist’s only child was a boy and the boy was a dream. He looked exactly as you would imagine he would look. You would look at him and say, Well now, isn’t that right. Isn’t that the exact face I was hoping for.
If he were bearded no one would have trusted him but he wasn’t bearded and so at the advent of the earthquake he took every girl in the Sewell & Gamin building and led them into the basement. All the men had gone home hours ago. It was the women who were left to close up. The seismologist’s son wondered if they had anywhere else to go.
“We still have an awful lot of files left to file,” said the fourth-floor girls. “Don’t worry,” said the man. “You can finish up later. There will be time later on.”
Yesterday he was a boy and all of a sudden that had changed. The earthquake was his now. “You didn’t predict the earthquake, did you?” said a girl called Luce. The seismologist’s son laughed and swept the young lady’s hair from her eyes. “No,” he said. “This was my father’s work. But I followed the instructions he left me.” The man took Luce’s hand.
“You aren’t supposed to have favorites, are you?” said a girl called Lynne. Both the young ladies held plastic grocery bags of oranges and shampoo. The man let down the hand of Luce and took up the hand of Lynne.
Buddy Holly was put on a record player.
“Someone’s tried to kill me twice,” said Luce. “Both times with a hammer.”
“I would kill you anew each day if I had the chance,” said the man.
“As would I,” said Lynne. Luce blushed.
The girls, forty or so in total, had formed small groups around which they designated odd jobs—team captains, cooks, patrol officers. Some planned for an elaborate future in the basement of Sewell & Gamin. Others thought with pride on the work left undone upstairs. One, an illustrator, wrote out a letter leaving all previously unpublished work to her lover in the event she remained in the basement while others had access to the floors above.
“It won’t be long now,” said the man, checking his watch. He took a cube of tooth-picked cheese from a folding table. Provisions had been set up. A snack table, white wine. “That’s too full,” said Lynne, pointing at Luce’s overfilled glass. “There’s going to be an earthquake.” A woman called Blythe tried to swirl her glass and failed.
“I’ve never known a drunk,” said Fern.
“Shut up, Fern,” said everyone.
The man wondered if he shouldn’t kiss each woman on her forehead in an attempt to initiate long-term pair-bonding. He considered the short, happy life of the vole. The room shook. Lynne took one of the man’s anxious, pink hands. The girls pressed their backs against the walls of the room, raised their hands toward the ceiling. The man made a toast to the girls’ bravery and service. “I should think,” the man said, “we could stay underground a long, long time, rather happily.”
It was strange, Luce thought, how easy it seemed to believe in any number of things when the world was falling down.
The title is a shameless theft from Denis Diderot’s Jacque the Fatalist. When reading Diderot for the first time last fall, I came across this kick-ass line and decided I needed it for my own. Diderot is smart and hilarious and irreverent and frisky in the ways my favorite 20th century writers are, only he was doing it 300 years earlier. I forget, sometimes, how much we need that kind of playfulness. How much we like to be disarmed.
I started with Diderot’s line and let myself play. What does it mean for a natural disaster to require your presence? What does it mean to anticipate chaos, to feel both in and out of control, and to look forward to that feeling? I don’t know. This story doesn’t know either, but it’s going to show up and see what happens.
Nini Berndt is an MFA candidate at the University of Florida where she writes and teaches. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Passages North, Blackbird, Alice Blue Review, PANK, Word Riot, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a novel. She can be found at niniberndt.com.