Earthquake Weather – Snippet 25
“Tell me how long it takes to prepare the earthquake?”
“A long time, I suppose. But when it is ready, it takes place, and grinds to pieces everything before it. In the meantime, it is always preparing, though it is not seen or heard. That is your consolation. Keep it.”
–Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
“Do you know about ‘making amends’?” Plumtree asked as she led him across a dark parking lot in the direction of the white-glowing facade of a fast-food ice cream place called the Frost Giant. Cochran thought she sounded a little uneasy.
“I suppose,” he said, trudging along beside her and wondering when they would get their drinks and talk. The night air was chilly, and he wished he’d been wearing a jacket when they had escaped from the mental hospital, and he wanted to get someone in San Mateo County to wire him some money tonight, or at least use a credit card number to get him a motel room. That should be feasible somehow.
“Restitution,” he said. “Taking the blame, if you deserve it; paying back people you’ve cheated, and admitting you were the villain, and apologizing.” He smiled. “Why, did that guy in the 7-Eleven give you too much change?” They hadn’t bought anything at the convenience store three blocks back, but Plumtree had cajoled the clerk into giving her seventeen one-dollar bills and a double fistful of assorted coins in exchange for the crumpled twenty-dollar bill that had been in her shoe. When they had got outside, she had made Cochran give her four quarters from his pants pocket.
“No. The thing is, making amends is . . . good for your soul, right?”
He shrugged. “Sure.”
“But before you can do it, you’ve got to cheat somebody.”
“I–” He laughed as he exhaled. “I guess. If you want the sacrament of Confession, you do have to have some sins.”
“Whatever.” She gave him a blank, tired look in the white glow. “Don’t speak, here, okay? Do you know any foreign languages, besides plain old Mexican?”
“Oui, mademoiselle–je parle Français, un peu.”
“That’s French, right? Cool, you be a Frenchman. They’ll figure you don’t know what your stupid shirt says.”
She pulled open the glass door of the Frost Giant, and a puff of warm, vanilla-scented air ruffled Cochran’s hair.
There was only one customer in the brightly lit restaurant, a woman in a Raiders sweatshirt in a booth by the far window. Plumtree scurried to the counter, and she was laughing with evident embarrassment as she dumped her pile of bills and change onto the white Formica.
“Could you do me a big favor?” she asked the teenage boy who was the cashier. “My friend paid me back twenty dollars he owed me, but he doesn’t understand about American money–I can’t fit all this in my pockets! Could you possibly give me one twenty-dollar bill for all this?”
“I–don’t think so, lady.” The young cashier smiled nervously. “Why don’t you get rid of some of it by buying some ice cream?”
A muted crack sounded from the far booth, and the woman in the sweatshirt said, “Shit. You got any spoons that are any damn good?”
Plumtree gave the young man a sympathetic smile as he fetched another white plastic spoon from under the counter and walked around to give it to the woman.
“I understand,” Plumtree said when he was back behind the counter, “and we can come back tomorrow and buy some. But my friend here doesn’t speak any English at all, and he thinks all Americans are stupid–especially me. I told him I could get this money changed into one bill, and if you don’t do it, he’ll call me a . . . a haricot vert again. That means ‘damn fool’. You can tell he’s thinking it already, look at him.” She waved at Cochran. “Momentito, Pierre!”
“Ce n’était pas ma faute,” said Cochran awkwardly. “Cet imbecile m’est rentre dedans.” It was a bit he remembered from the Berlitz book: It wasn’t my fault, this imbecile crashed into me.
The name badge on the cashier’s shirt read karen, and Cochran, perceiving him as a fellow-victim of ludicrous men’s wear, sympathetically wondered when the boy would notice that he had put on the wrong badge. “Well,” said the young man, “I guess it’d be okay. We could use the ones, I guess.”
“Oh, thanks so much,” said Plumtree, helpfully spreading the bills out on the counter for him to count.
The young cashier opened the register drawer and handed her a twenty-dollar bill, his eyes on the ones and the change.
“What are you giving me this for?” asked Plumtree instantly.
The bill in her outstretched hand was a one-dollar bill.
The young man stared at it in evident confusion. “Is that what I just gave you?”
“Yeah. I wanted a twenty. You must have had a one in your twenty drawer.”
“I . . . don’t think that’s what I just gave you.”
“You’re gonna take all my money and just give me a dollar?” wailed Plumtree in unhappy protest.
The woman in the Raiders sweatshirt broke her spoon again. “Hey, shithead!” she yelled. “You’d think with all the money you make cheatin’ folks, you could afford decent spoons!”
After a tense pause, the young man took back the dollar and pulled a twenty out of the drawer. He stared at it hard for a moment before looking up.
“I really hope,” he said quietly as he handed the twenty to her, “we’re not twenty short at cashout. You seemed nice.”
Cochran’s teeth were clenched, and he could feel his face heating up. This was abominable. He knew he should make Plumtree give back the other twenty-dollar bill, the one she had palmed, but all he could think of was getting out of this place. “Uhh,” he said, feeling a drop of sweat run down his ribs. “Merde.”
“I’ll come back tomorrow and make sure,” said Plumtree, pocketing the fresh twenty and hurrying away from the counter. She took Cochran’s elbow and turned him toward the door. “Thanks again!”
Cochran was dully amazed that she could maintain her cheery tone. When they were outside again, he tried to speak, but she shook his arm, and so he just pressed his lips together. His foolish shirt was clammy with sweat now, and he was shivering in the chilly breeze.
At last she spoke, when they had scuffled away out of the radiance of the Frost Giant. “Now we’ve got a clear twenty for food and drink.” Her breathing was labored, and she was sagging against him, as if the conversation in the ice cream place had exhausted her.
“The kid’s right,” he said tightly. “You did seem nice. He’ll probably lose his job.”
“He might lose his job,” she said flatly, apparently agreeing with him. “I’ll understand–I’ll respect it!–if you decide you don’t want anything to eat, anything that’s bought with this money.” She frowned at him. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“No. Now that it’s done–”
“I could go back.” She straightened and stepped away from Cochran, though she still seemed sick and wobbly on her feet. “Do you want me to give it back to him?”
Cochran shivered, and as he shoved his cold hands into his pants pockets he wondered how energetically the police might be looking for Plumtree and himself, and how easy or difficult it might actually be to get money “wired” to him from the Bay Area at this hour. Where would he go to pick it up? Wouldn’t he need a driver’s license or something? And he was very hungry, and he desperately wanted the warm relaxation and comfortable perspective that a couple of shots of bourbon would bestow. “Well–no. I mean, now that it is done–”
“Right,” she interrupted dryly. “You’re just like Janis.”
“I hear you’re not really a security guard,” he said–absently, for he had noticed a red neon sign ahead of them, on the same side of Rosecrans, that read mount sabu–cocktails. “I hear what you really do is burglaries.”
“She just tells you every damn thing, doesn’t she?”
A mirror-studded disco ball was turning under the ceiling over the dance floor in Mount Sabu, but none of the people in the bar were dancing–possibly because the stone dance floor was strewn with sand as if for a soft-shoe exhibition. Even over here on this side of the long room, by the street door, Cochran could feel grit under his shoe soles as he led Plumtree to an empty booth under a lamp in the corner. The warm air smelled of candle wax and mutton.
“Hi, Scant,” Plumtree said when they had sat down. “Are we going to have a drink? What–” She paused, staring at his T-shirt. “Stand up for a minute, will you?”
He slid back out of the booth and stood up, and she started laughing.
“A Connecticut pansy in . . . King Arthur’s shorts!” she gasped. “I love it! By Marky ‘Choo-Choo’ Twain, I suppose.”
Cochran managed a sour grin as he sat back down, but her obviously spontaneous reaction to the shirt had shaken him. He had to ask: “Do you, uh, happen to feel like dancing?”
“Sure!” she said brightly. “Is that why we came in here?”
“No.” He sighed. “No, and I don’t want to dance, actually. A shot of Wild Turkey, please, and a Coors chaser,” he said to the dark-haired woman who had walked up to the booth with a tray. “And . . . ?” he added, turning to Plumtree.