WEBS Chapter Five ‘Downtown’


     People say you can tell when an earthquake is coming by the weather or the strange behavior of animals. It’s little more than superstition, searching for light in the darkness. With all of our technological accomplishments, we still have no way of predicting exactly when an earthquake will occur. When they do, they shake more than windows and knock down more than walls. They shake our sense of security and knock down our defenses.

     Ruth sorted through a stack of  cashmere sweaters in the men’s department of Gump’s looking for one in Eric’s size. It was her feeble attempt at an apology for having stood him up the previous night.

     “Can I help you find something?” Daniel asked.

     “Yes, thank you. Do you have this in a large?” Ruth responded, holding up one of the sweaters in a pearl gray color.

     “Let me have a look, here.” Daniel checked the sweaters lying in neatly folded stacks on a long, reproduction French farmhouse table. As the two continued to look, they felt a quick jarring movement in the floor.

     “Just a little one,” Daniel said, with a smile. The table began to gently rock back and forth, then a strong jolt moved it backward an inch. Instinctively, Daniel grabbed Ruth’s hand and dropped to his knees pulling her down with him.

     “Under the table!” he shouted as the floor buckled and rolled. They could hear things all over the store falling and crashing as the powerful motion of the quake rocked from side to side then up and down, banging their heads on the underside of the heavy table. People throughout the store were screaming. The walls of the building creaked and cracked and chunks of plaster fell from the ceiling.

     “This is it! The big one!” Ruth screamed. “Oh, God! I’ve go to get out!” Daniel held her hand, tightly.

     “Stay here!” he shouted. The bulbs in the recessed lighting fixtures exploded, spraying slivers of glass like rain onto the Berber carpet as the quake shook violently for a terrifying, seemingly endless twenty seconds then abruptly stopped. The two of them remained momentarily on their knees, barely breathing, their hands tightly clasped. Daniel looked at Ruth, her face drained of color.

     “We should get out of here in case there’s a strong aftershock.”

     “Yeah, yeah,” Ruth frantically agreed. Once on their feet, they could see the extent of the damage. Shelves had fallen over, merchandise was strewn everywhere and there were jagged gaps in the walls where they had cracked. Stepping over the cashmere sweaters, Armani suits and Ralph Lauren dress shirts, they made their way to the escalator for the ground floor. The earthquake had knocked out the power to most of the city converting the escalator to a stairway crowded with desperate shoppers and sales clerks, all trying to get out of the building. In the aftermath of terror, and the rush of adrenalin, Ruth’s knees began to buckle and she clung to Daniel, her arms around his neck.

     “Are you going to make it?” he asked, supporting her around her waist. His face was bathed in perspiration.

     “I think so,” she answered with a trembling voice.

     “Just a few more steps.” Once outside, they joined some people gathered together on the sidewalk, all sharing cigarettes and passing around cell phones to call loved ones.

     “Oh, God, I left my purse up there,” Ruth groaned. She was still shaking and pale. Daniel took her hand to reassure her.

     “Let’s wait a few minutes and see what happens then we’ll go get it.”

     “You’re so kind. Thank you so much for helping me. I thought…I was…” Ruth stammered, shaking her head and starting to cry.

     “Hey, come on now,” Daniel comforted her.

     “I thought I was going to die,” Ruth whimpered, then added with embarrassment, “Jesus, look at me. I’m falling apart.” Daniel handed her the lavender handkerchief from his jacket breast pocket and held her as she cried on his shoulder.

     “It’s all over and you’re all right.”

     “Yes.” Ruth wiped her tears and tried to regain her composure.

     “What’s your name?”

     “Ruth McKinney. What’s yours?”

     “Daniel Wolfe. Good to meet you, Ruth.” He saw the last caller hand the cell phone back to it’s owner.

     “Excuse me, sir. Can we borrow your phone?” he asked the man.

     “Sure, but keep it short, ok? The battery’s running low.” Daniel dialed Patrick’s cell and after four rings, Patrick picked up, sounding panicked.

     “Are you all right?” Daniel asked.

     “Yeah, I’m fine but I think a customer is having a heart attack. He’s turned gray and I can’t tell if he’s breathing or not,” Patrick panted.

     “Did you call 911?”

     “I did but all I got was a busy signal.”

     “Can you do CPR? You know, push on his chest then breath into his mouth.”

     “I’ll try.”

     “And keep calling 911. I’ll get there as fast as I can.”


     “I will.” Daniel hung up the phone and handed it to Ruth. She dialed Eric’s phone but there was no answer.

     “I have to get to the Haight and help my partner. Will you be ok now on your own?”

     “I’ll be fine. Thank you, Daniel.”

     “You take care, Ruth.” She watched him run down Maiden Lane, noticing his effeminate way of running.  During and after the earthquake he had been strong, self-controlled and protective. She on the other hand had become overly emotional and clingy, behavior she despised. She’d spent years in law school training herself to control her emotions. That training had spilled over into her personal life. In a mere twenty seconds the quake had undone her control, unearthed her long suppressed anxieties and toppled Ruth’s sense of infallibility. She took a deep breath before re entering the store.There were two employees in the home decor department, agitatedly trying to open the cash register.

     “Excuse me. Where are you going?” one of them called out to Ruth.

     “My purse is upstairs in the men’s department.”

     “Oh, all right. I’ll go up with you.” As they climbed the escalator the self-important woman said over her shoulder, “We have to be careful of looters.”

     “Do I really look like a looter to you?” Ruth snapped, insulted by the woman’s insinuation and supercilious attitude.

     “As the store manager, I can’t be too careful at a time like this.” Once on the second floor she asked Ruth, “Do you remember where you left it?”

     “Under that table over there.”

     “Try not to step on the merchandise, please,” the woman instructed. Ruth could feel her nerves calming and the steel coming back into her spine with every remark the woman made. She retrieved her purse and the few things that had fallen out in the dive under the table.

     “I think that’s everything.”

     “May I see your ID? I need to be certain it’s your purse.”

After an astonished pause, Ruth glared at the manager and hissed, “Oh, go to hell.”

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