Saturday, April 08, 2006

Small Town Boys - Chapter 32

January 17, 1994 – Six Point Seven

At first he thought it was a dream. He was driving down a bumpy road and the car was taking the potholes heavily. But then an awareness of the sound of breaking glass, a heavy thud, and a low, almost subsonic rumble awakened him, and the sound continued beyond the stage of a dream. The bed was shaking and he could feel it inching across the floor with each shake as if something was pulling it.

The room was dark. He was alone. Marc had come over the night before for dinner and a movie that Sunday night – Eric was in Pasadena and Danny was on duty. But Marc had left to get ready for work in the morning and a meeting with the broker from the bank even though Monday was a holiday: Martin Luther King’s birthday. Eric had come home around midnight.

He couldn’t see the alarm clock and when he tried to turn on the light it wouldn’t work. He fumbled for his watch, squinting at the luminous hands: 4:30 a.m. The rumbling stopped, the bed stopped shaking, and after something else clattered to the floor out in the living room, it was silent. Then he heard Eric’s door open and his swung open. A beam from a flashlight poked into the room, catching a slow shower of dust motes falling from the ceiling.

“Donny, you okay?”

“Yeah. What the fuck...?”

“Earthquake. Felt like a big one. Put some shoes on; there’s probably broken glass everywhere. Where are they?”

“Over there.”

Eric pointed the light at the closet and Donny pulled on his sneakers without socks. “Jesus, that was weird,” he mumbled.

“That’s your first quake? Can’t believe you’ve lived here this long without one.”

“First time for everything.”

Danny opened his door and Eric pointed the flashlight out into the hall. “Shoes, soldier boy. Broken glass.”

“Got’em. Power’s out, I take it.”

“Yeah,” said Eric, “and I gotta get to the garage and turn off the gas. See if the phones still work.”

Donny picked up his Trimline. He got a dial tone. He dialed Eric’s number and got a fast busy signal, then dialed Danny’s and got the same. “I’m getting the ‘circuits are busy’ noise,” he reported.

“Everybody’s trying to call everybody else,” replied Eric from the garage. He came back, shutting the door behind him. “Nothing’s broken out there, but the garden tools are all lying next to my car. Hope they didn’t scratch it.”

“I’ve got a flashlight in my Jeep,” said Danny. He opened the front door. “Jesus, it sounds like every car and house alarm within a ten block radius is functioning within normal parameters.”

“I’ll bet,” replied Eric. A caterwaul of sound greeted them – chirps, sirens, whoops, car horns, and over all of it the wail of a fire truck going down the cross street, its flashing lights bouncing off the windows of the houses across the street. The sky above the trees was still dark, but to the east and south they could see lights – the power outage wasn’t everywhere – but to the north there was nothing but darkness.

“Betcha that’s where the epicenter is,” said Eric. “North of here. Damn, I hope Greg’s okay.”

The broken glass in the kitchen was limited to some glasses that had been in the dish rack and had fallen into the porcelain sink. Everything else looked intact except the pictures on the wall which were all askew at the same angle. The thud that Donny had heard turned out to be the rubber tree in the living room; it had tipped over and scattered a fan of dirt across the carpet. Eric shined the light at the windows. There were no cracks. The patio door was a little hard to slide, but it opened all the way and a cursory inspection outside didn’t reveal any cracks. “We should buy this place now. Good solid house.”

Donny’s phone rang. It was Greg. There was a lot of background noise of cars going by, faint police radios squawking, and crowd noise. “You guys okay?”

“Yeah, we’re fine,” Donny told him. “Just a couple of glasses. No power, though. Where are you?”

“Payphone. There’s a line waiting for the phone so I’ll make it quick. I’m gonna head over to the office to see if there’s much damage – if I can get there. The freeways are fucked up in some spots – they say a bunch of overpasses fell. According to KNX the epicenter’s in Northridge.”

“Jesus.” He repeated this to Eric, who asked, “How’s his condo?”

“Kinda trashed,” Greg replied when asked. “Things are all over the place and the property manager said the foundation’s cracked. I may have to bunk in with you guys for a while.” Donny wondered how Marc was. “See if you can get ahold of my folks. The phones are kinda screwy – I tried Eric’s number and got a busy signal. I’ll try and call you from the office and then I’ll see if I can get over there somehow. They’re not letting us back into our building, though.”

“Okay. You wanna talk to Eric?”

“Nah, I got people waiting for the phone. See ya.”

Eric tried his phone. He got a dial tone and tried his parents. No answer. “Shit. I’ll bet the power’s out there and they have those stupid cordless phones.”

After four tries Danny was able to get through to the base. He was told to stand by for orders but not to come in until told to do so. He took a quick shower and dressed in fatigues. He called Eleanor; she and her roommate were fine. Their apartment had been built to code and they even had lights, so they were staying put. Donny tried Marc’s number and got a busy signal – a regular one. He tried again a few minutes later and Marc answered after five rings, sounding like he was out of breath. He reported that the building had survived but the power was out. The manager was asking them to vacate until they could make sure there was no structural damage.

“Come on over here,” Donny offered.

By sunrise they were able to see that they had escaped major damage. Most of the houses in the neighborhood were old enough to have survived the 1971 quake and the newer ones had been reinforced. Danny boiled water on the barbecue grille for coffee. Marc arrived with a suitcase, his briefcase, and a box of books and computer discs. He put them in Donny’s room.

Greg showed up an hour later looking tired and dirty. “The building’s okay. The security guard said a bunch of windows popped out on the north side but structurally it looks good; won’t know really until it’s inspected. He let me in to check on the offices. The plants are all tipped over and the warehouse looks like the bottom of a birdcage, but I don’t think too much stuff got broken.”

“What about the production floor?” asked Eric.

Greg shrugged. “Looked okay. We’ll have to get the guys out from the company to make sure everything still works, but from where I stood things looked intact. The server’s still running on back-up. The phones are working, so I called Margaret and told her to call as many of the staff as she could get hold of and tell them to stay put until they heard from her. Everyone gets paid, too.”

“Any guess how long before we can go in?” asked Marc.

Greg shook his head. “We have to wait for the inspection. That could be a week. But if it’s safe to go back in, I’m going as soon as they get the power back.”

As if it took its cue from his words, the light in the kitchen flickered on and the clock on the microwave flashed “12:00.” “Woo hoo,” said Eric.

The cable was out, but they rigged up an antenna with the one from Eric’s stereo. All the TV stations were carrying quake news, the anchors telling everyone to stay off the streets and not use the phones except in case of emergency. They all had helicopter shots of fallen sections of freeways and some buildings shaken off their foundations, interviews with tons of people telling their stories, and stand-ups by correspondents outside City Hall and in press rooms, all filling air time and basically adding nothing new except it wasn’t “The Big One” – preliminary reports were that it was over six points on the Richter scale but because it happened so early in the morning on a holiday it was “a miracle that many more people weren’t killed” and most of the damage was limited to areas near the epicenter. They confirmed that the epicenter was near Northridge, north and west of Hollywood, but a lot of the northern suburbs and the San Fernando Valley were also impacted.

“Mike,” said Donny to himself. He dialed his number. No answer; the phone rang ten times without the machine picking up.

“I’m sure he’s okay,” said Danny. “His agent or somebody will make sure of that.”

“If they can get through to him.”

“You wanna go look for him? I’ll bet if we drove up there with me in my uniform they’d let us past roadblocks.”

“I don’t want to get you in any trouble.”

Danny shrugged. “All they can do is say no.”

“I don’t even know where his house is. All he said was it was in ‘the Valley.’ Besides, what if you get called in?”

A few minutes later Danny was called into the base. “See you guys sometime. Don’t wait dinner for me,” he said as he climbed into his jeep.

By nightfall things had returned to some semblance of normal and they decided to turn on the gas again. After a few false starts the pilot light in the hot water heater came on and the stove worked. Danny came home with little more to report than the base was secure. Preliminary reports listed the quake as a six point seven. They were starting to cook dinner when someone knocked on the front door. It was Mike. He was dirty, he had a cut on his right hand, and he was hyped up. His BMW was in the street, and he was carrying a duffel bag.

“My phone’s out. I was gonna call from a store or something, but I just decided to take the chance that you were here. The radio said this part of town didn’t get much damage. Do you mind if...uh...?”

“Sure, the more the merrier,” said Donny. He wondered how he would explain it to Mike that Marc had already called dibs on his room. Danny, sensing the situation, said, “Hey, Mike, put your stuff in my room, okay?”

“Sure thing. Thanks.”

It had been nearly a month since Donny had seen him. Since his return from New York he’d called once in a while to chat and to say that he’d been called in to read for some good parts, and over Thanksgiving he stopped by the house to drop off a gift basket from Hickory Farms. Paul Jeffries threw a holiday party and invited Donny and Marc, and asked if it was all right if he invited Mike as well. Donny said sure, and the three of them actually had a nice time chatting about nothing important and talking to the other guests, including some of the most famous names in the film business. Jim McGruder came up to Donny and shook his hand, was introduced to Marc, said hello to Mike, and said, “Keep up the good work.” Mike assumed that Jim was talking to him and smiled broadly, and Donny and Marc shared a private grin: the dividend checks had gone out on December 1.

Silver Star had opened to good reviews – the Times critic compared it favorably to Silverado and labeled Mike as “the next Kevin Costner” – and the promotional tour got him on talk shows, including his first appearance on The Tonight Show. After dropping off a Christmas present for Donny – a small clay pot from an Indian reservation in New Mexico – he went to Michigan for the Christmas weekend to be the grand marshal of the county’s holiday parade.

They ate dinner on the patio and everyone shared stories about earthquakes and other natural disasters. The whole thing had a surreal feel for Donny; hosting a dinner party while news and rescue helicopters fluttered overhead and sirens went by every few minutes or so. As they ate, another aftershock rattled the table.

There had been several during the day, but this was the first one to hit when they were all sitting down, and it was noticeable. Donny happened to be looking at Mike when it hit and his reaction was startling. He went pale, almost seasick green, and grabbed for his wine glass to steady it, then drained it. No one else seemed to notice, and a few seconds later he was back to normal.

They sat on the patio after dark, slowly lapsing into silence as exhaustion set in. The TV was still on but the volume was low – they were replaying the same stories over and over. The only interruption came when Donny’s mother called to inquire how they were doing. “We saw all the destruction on the news and I wondered if your phone was working; I was sure we would have heard from you.”

Donny smirked at the implied motherly guilt. “We’re okay, Mom. Just a couple of broken glasses. The office is okay, too. Danny’s here; you want to talk to him?” He handed the phone to his brother who rolled his eyes and mouthed “thanks a lot.”

“Hi, Mom.... No, really, we’re okay. I even reported for duty today. Spent most of the time cleaning up broken glass at the O club.... Yeah, well, don’t believe everything you see on Dan Rather, okay? We’re fine.... Okay, I’ll call them, but I’m sure they’re okay; Whittier’s even further away from the epicenter than we are. Okay, but they’re telling us to stay off the phones. Okay. Love to Dad. Bye.” He handed the phone back. “Guilt: the gift that keeps on giving. We’re the ones with the earthquake and we’re bad sons for not calling them.”

“Not really,” said Marc.

Danny shrugged. “Comes with the territory. Anybody else want to call home?”

Mike called his parents to let him know he was okay. It was a very short conversation: “Hi Pop. I’m fine. The house is kinda trashed but Marty’ll take care of it. Yeah, thanks. Glad you liked it. Bye.”

Marc was the first one to say goodnight, followed soon by Eric, Greg, and Danny. Mike followed Danny into his room and unpacked some clothes. Donny slipped into his room while Mike was in the bathroom and closed his door. Marc was already under the covers, the light already out. He whispered, “Thanks for letting me stay here.” “Sure, no problem,” Donny replied quietly.

He was awakened by another aftershock. It wasn’t a big one – like someone hitting the wall with the heel of their hand – but it was enough to bring him to full consciousness. He sat up.

The room was dark except for the eerie red glow of the numbers on his alarm clock: 3:18. Marc was still asleep, his breathing rhythmic. He had kicked back the covers a little and was sprawled across the bed, his arms tucked under the pillow, his underwear-clad butt peeking out from the blanket.

Donny listened for a moment. He heard nothing; not even distant traffic from the thoroughfare two blocks over. Even the night bugs were silent. He settled back and was drifting off when he heard someone cough. It sounded like it came from the backyard. He got out of bed, put on his bathrobe, and opened the door.

Faint light came down the hallway. It was from the light on the patio. Mike was sitting at the table smoking a cigarette. He was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans, but he was barefoot. There was a tumbler in front of him. He picked it up and took a drink. He looked up when Donny slid open the door.


“What’s up?” Donny quietly, closing the door behind him.

“Couldn’t sleep. The ... whaddayacallem ... aftershocks.”

“Yeah,” agreed Donny. “That’s what woke me up.”

Mike chuckled ruefully. “At least you got to sleep.”

“I thought you’d have gotten used to earthquakes by now.”

Mike shook his head. “Nope, I never have. One thing I hate about living here.” He took another sip from the glass and caught Donny watching him. “It’s just a little wine left over from dinner. No, they still freak me out a little,” he added, and Donny remembered his reaction to the one that hit during dinner. Mike took another puff from his cigarette. “Your brother is a great guy. What was it like growing up with a twin?”

“Like having someone always there who knew exactly what you were thinking all the time.”

“Mmm. Must have been interesting to always have someone there.”

Donny shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. We were together until he went off to military school, so.... I don’t know any different.”

“When was that?”

“We were fifteen.”

“First time you were separated.”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“Must have been weird, being apart after all those years.”

“Yeah.” Donny remembered the day that Danny left. He could remember the heat, the dust, the smell of Danny’s shoe polish, the tightness in his throat as they said goodbye, and the afternoon with Craig.

As if Mike knew what he was thinking, he asked, “Ever had a best friend other than your brother.”

Donny shook his head. “Not really. Never really needed one. What about you?”

Mike picked up his lighter and flicked it a couple of times. “Oh, you know, the usual buddies in high school; guys I hung out with, got drunk with, messed around with.”

“Messed around with?” Donny said, slightly incredulously. “You mean....?”

Mike snorted. “Oh, no, nothing like you and your buddy in the barn. ‘Messing around’ like goofing off, hanging out at the Tastee-Freeze, going to the beach or the dunes and shit like that. But I really didn’t have a best friend. I had a crush on Jed Craker, but that was only because he had a big dick and when he got drunk he’d pull it out and play with it. I used to go to the late-night beach parties and skinny dip with him just to see that.” He looked at Donny and smiled a little. “I never really told anyone that before.”

“You never really told me much about your life before we met,” Donny said.

Mike looked at him with a surprised expression. “Really?”

“Not a lot, no. I know where you’re from and I know that your dad has a cherry farm and that he’s a vet, but that’s about it.”

“Really,” he said again, this time reflectively. “Well,” he added with a shake of his head, “what do you want to know?”

Donny thought for a moment. “How come you spent maybe fifteen seconds on the phone with your folks after a major earthquake out here? Danny and I got the third degree from our folks, but with yours it was like ‘Hi, fine, bye.’”

Mike finished his cigarette before he answered. “It’s a long story, but to make it short and sweet, my mom and I have not really been on speaking terms since I was about, oh, seventeen or so.”

“Sorry to hear that. How come?”

Mike glanced at Donny. “Take a wild guess.”

“You’re gay.”

“No, the fact that I’m ‘wasting my life doing nothing worthwhile,’ according to her. Acting isn’t something people from Maple City, Michigan aspire to as a career choice. The gay part I suspect they suspect but we’ve never talked about it and as far as I’m concerned, it’s nothing we will ever talk about.” He lit another cigarette, coughing slightly from the smoke. “I’m a huge disappointment to her. Dad not so much, I guess. He actually saw Silver Star; took off to Traverse City to see it the other day. Said he liked it. But Mom.... As far as I know she’s never seen anything I’ve done – not even the soap – and has no plans on doing it. Dad’s tried to be sort of a go-between, y’know, but I told him to forget it. I can’t live my life trying to make someone happy when they’ve pretty much decided that they won’t do it.”

“So when you went home over Christmas, what happened?”

“I stayed in the Park Place Hotel in T.C. The Chamber of Commerce paid for it. I went up to see them for one afternoon and Mom basically sat there in silence while Dad told me about how the crop was this year, how Jacobsen’s cows were doing, and how they’d raised over a thousand bucks for the Leelanau County animal shelter. Not a word about the movie or what I was doing.” He paused. “No wait; Mom did ask me if I got mugged while I was in New York.”

Donny shook his head. “That sucks.”

Mike nodded absently. “Used to it. My mom never liked me, I think. She always treated me like I was some intruder in her life. It’s weird; my sister Candi – she’s ten years older than me – she treats like a princess, and the grandkids are angels, even if they are the noisiest, most obnoxious, and spoiled little bastards in three counties. But me? Couldn’t be less interested.” He stubbed out his cigarette. “So you can imagine what it would be like if she found out that I was gay. It’d probably confirm her suspicions that my purpose in life is to make her miserable.”

“I wonder why,” said Donny.

“Yeah, I used to wonder about it too; I came up with all those theories about post-partum depression and shit like that, and when I was working on the soap all those crazy plot lines – like maybe I’m the result of a torrid affair she had with the guy who delivers propane – kept popping into my head, but I think it just comes down to the fact that I was born when she was just getting over the hump of raising one kid and here comes another and she is living in this tiny town with nothing much to do. Worse yet, I’m into theatre and acting and that’s embarrassing when all your friends’ kids are normal people: carpenters, farmers, schoolteachers, shoe salesmen, and housewives. I just think there are some people that other people don’t like. Period.” He gazed into the empty tumbler and looked at Donny apologetically. “I’m sorry; I’m dumping all this shit on you.” He gazed into the empty glass.

Donny picked up the cigarette pack, shook one out, and lit it. “I’m used to it.”

Mike looked up. “What’d you mean?”

“I mean, Mike, that I’m used to hearing about you.” Donny shrugged and blew a small smoke ring. It drifted across the table and dissipated slowly. “It’s part of the deal with you.”

“‘Part of the deal?’”

“Yeah. It comes with the territory. You talk about you, and I listen. I’m ... I’m not criticizing you.” He shrugged again. “I kind of expect it.”

Mike gazed at Donny narrowly. “You mean I’m self-absorbed; that all I care about is what happens to me and all I ever talk about is my problems.”

Donny returned the gaze. “Well, that kinda harshes it, but yeah, pretty much.”

Mike shook his head. “That’s not fair.”

“It’s true. In all the time I’ve known you, everything has been about you. Look, maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be; it’s part of your business, I guess. But everything we ever did, everything we talked about, everything you said you wanted for us was really for you. The house, the vacation, even the living together. It was all for you.”

“You didn’t seem to mind.”

“Didn’t say I did. But think about it. What did we ever do – what did we ever talk about – that was about anything else?”

Mike looked away for a moment, chewing his lip. “You think the sex was just all about me?”

Donny smiled. “No, not all.”

“That’s a relief.”

Donny smoked the rest of his cigarette in silence. Mike was staring at something between the house and the wall. Off in the distance a helicopter clattered by. Finally he said, “I’m gonna get a little nightcap. You want something?”

“No, I’m good.”

Mike went in the house. Donny shivered; it was a chilly night and he was wearing nothing but underwear under his robe. He thought about going back and putting on something warmer, but he couldn’t imagine staying out here much longer. Mike came back with his glass half-full and a piece of leftover bread from dinner.

“So,” he said as he sat down again, “what do you say we start all over again.”

“What do you mean?”

Mike held out his hand. “Hi, I’m Mike.”

Donny got it, and they shook hands. “Donny.”

“So, Donny, tell me. What’s been going on in your life.”

Donny lost track of time. It wasn’t until he had finished telling the tale of Bryce’s firing that he noticed it was getting light around them and the air was getting warmer. “Holy shit,” he said, “we’ve been out here all night.”

Mike yawned. “Maybe now I can get some sleep.” He started to get up slowly, looked at Donny and nodded. “This has been good. I’ve missed this. We haven’t done this since...”

“Key West,” said Donny.

Mike nodded. “That big bedroom with the big bed.” He glanced at Donny. “No chance we’re gonna get back together on that score, is there,” he said more as a statement of fact than a question.

Donny just shook his head, not willing to say anything out loud or hint that going to bed with Mike was a matter for discussion, even if Marc wasn’t sleeping twenty feet away. In fact, it had trickled across Donny’s mind that sex with Mike was not as far out of the realm of possibility than he would care to admit, even though he knew that it wouldn’t be for any other reason than it would be fun to just do it for the hell of it. Mike nodded again and grinned tightly. “Didn’t think so. Actually, that makes it a lot easier to be ‘just friends,’ doesn’t it?”

They both went back to their rooms. Marc was up and getting dressed. “Greg and I are going into the office to check it out. Should be back around noon. Get some sleep.” Donny gave him a hug and fell into bed.

There was no structural damage to the office building, and after three days they went back to work. Donny was impressed at how quickly things, for the most part, returned to normal. The people of Los Angeles, he learned, were used to this sort of thing, and soon the Northridge quake – to the people he knew – was a memory and the stuff of stories told at parties and for conversation starters in the office. That’s one way of dealing with it, he thought. Marc’s apartment and Greg’s condo were declared fit for occupancy and they moved back in to their respective places at the end of the week.

Mike’s rental house was declared a total loss, but fortunately – for him – his few pieces of furniture and personal possessions could be packed into a midsized U-Haul. The weekend after the quake he put them in storage and moved in with Donny, Danny, and Eric until Marty could find him another house. Rentals were scarce, though; houses that weren’t damaged had been snapped up in the first day by people who had lost their own place or couldn’t shack up with friends and relatives.

At first Donny thought it was a little awkward to have Mike living in his brother’s room, but within a couple of days it was clear he was doing all he could to fit in. He cleaned up after himself, he stayed out of Danny’s room except to sleep, he earned his keep by cooking and buying groceries, and he offered to pay a portion of the rent. A week later he closed on the house in Idyllwild and landed a starring role in a pilot for a spring replacement sitcom. He too seemed to have put the earthquake behind him although Donny didn’t forget the look of panic that flashed by when the aftershock hit. When the sitcom started shooting he went to work like everyone else and soon Donny thought of him as just another roommate. Only once did he have a twinge of recollection of their previous life. One Friday night he came home from the gym to find Mike and Danny in the kitchen making dinner together, and the banter between them reminded him of the times that he and Mike had done the exact same thing many times before. It was a little like watching a replay, even down to the little motions that Mike made when he was chopping lettuce. Donny watched them for a moment, and then went to take a shower. Marc was coming over after dinner, and that night, when they lay in the darkness, the drying sweat making Marc’s skin taste salty, Donny didn’t think twice that his former lover was sleeping across the hall.

Another little aftershock shook the house as he fell asleep.

Chapter Guide