by Judith Martin-Straw | Writing |

Earthquake Dreams - by Judith Martin-Straw

How can I tell you a story I don’t want you to hear? It does not make me look good, and it certainly does not make you look good. I know you’ll find the part with your name in it, and you’ll be angry and disgusted with what you did, and even more upset that the whole thing hasn’t been buried and forgotten by now. In fact, I don’t know that there is any hero in this story at all. Perhaps only the survivors, and only they know if they deserve to be lauded for their continued existence, or reviled for their actions.
Who can take a dream- improbable, surreal, hallucinatory- and make it a story with a nice curve, beginning, middle, end? Why should there be any desire from you, any need to hear this tale translated? We all come across as fools, and that’s only when the narrative makes sense. What’s even more ridiculous are the parts that are funny. You are going to wonder at yourself, laughing at this kind of stuff. You are going to have to ask yourself some questions.
I am telling this story because the earth is still turning. She has day and night, and night has dreams and dreams call to us. Why are these illusions so compelling?
Let me tell you a story.

It always began the same way, with the sound. A very distant thunder in the darkness, no lightening, no light, like a distant jet behind a cloud. I was sleeping in my own bed, alone in the cold, when this sound would begin. Then, the shaking starts. First the bed and then the windows, then the walls until the whole house is creaking and cracking, the roaring louder and louder. Mirrors shatter, plants tumble and break, books throw themselves across the room, and I am trying to scream but nothing comes out, I can’t catch my breath, I can’t breathe, I can’t. In one last effort to save myself I toss off the blankets and stand, leaving the bed to lurch to the door frame and brace myself with both arms and both legs, and then it stops.

And I wake up. Sometimes still in the bed, but often in the doorframe, I wake up and there is no earthquake, no damage, no loss. The books sit comfortably on the shelves, the windows are closed, the mirrors are solid, or so they seem. There is nothing shaking but me. I am shaking like a leaf in a hurricane, terrified sweat flying from me like a tropical storm. And I don’t know why, I don’t know, I throw myself back at the bed and wrap myself in blankets, I can’t know what I know, I just can’t. Sometimes I go back to sleep, and sometimes I don’t. It’s just that I don’t know any more, I don’t know when I’m dreaming and when I’m awake because it’s all so vivid, so real.

When it gets light, I can go for a walk. I am still, at this point, certain that if I’m walking, I’m awake.

Despite the fact that the weekend has not yet started, a stern looking man with grey hair has begun setting up a yard sale. In fact it’s the same collection of old furniture, kitchen clutter and tired paperbacks arraigned across his lawn every day on frail card tables and tall cardboard boxes, but he seems confident that anyone coming by will see it as a special event.

I wander through the maze of unloved items, picking up the occasional book, looking at a collection of half burned candles, rosary beads and chipped coffee cups. I am suddenly delighted with a small white statue of the virgin at prayer, her head bowed and eyes closed, a long thin crack decorating her robe, brown with old glue. She looked as if she’d been broken the way that the villain in an old western breaks a bottle to turn a bar fight deadly, not shattered, but cracked entirely in half.

I must take her home.

Knowing that the fiver in my purse is supposed to be breakfast and quite possibly lunch, I realize it’s essential to keep my enthusiasm to myself.
I wander over to a table stacked with books and read the titles, full of hope that I won’t find anything else I like. An amazingly tawdry cover on an old paperback of “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” seems to promise a tale of degradation. Of course, it is, but it is hard to reconcile Thomas Hardy’s language with the torn dress of the young woman on the cover. She looks like Joan Crawford, or maybe Barbara Stanwyck, deprived of all hope, cursed with some lurid hairstyle from the 1950’s.

It might be the fact that my hands are full, but this is the moment when the grey haired man decides to approach me. He greets me with a proprietary air. “That book is a great find. It’s a classic. It’s out of print now, you won’t find it anywhere else.”

I settle for “Oh” as a reply, having no need to embarrass him with the truth. This book will never be out of print. This book will be around long after you and I are dead, a half an hour from now. Besides which, I’d already read it. And I don’t need anyone else’s story of dishonest lovers, greedy relatives or ruined innocence. I have my own.

But here I am at the never ending yard sale with a broken virgin in one hand and Tess of the d’Urbervilles in the other. My story feels embarrassingly obvious. I need to flee.

“Will you take fifty cents for the little statue?”
“I was asking a dollar.”
“Well, she has been glued back together very carefully, but you can see she she’s broken.” I put Tess back on the table and run my finger over the long crack on her cloak.

He shrugs, lights a cigarette, and blows the smoke at me while all happiness leaves his face with the grey air. “Sure, fifty cents.” Too quickly, I want her, I want to get out of here, I hand him my five and he sneers. I have bargained him down to half his price while I have money, money I am not going to spend here and give to him. Now he is angry, and I have to do something. I reach over to a pile of scarves and pick one up. “Would you take another fifty cents for a scarf? I’ll need something to wrap her in.”

He drags on his cigarette and shrugs, handing me back four crumpled singles. I take the scarf in my hand, a wide square of rayon with a dark blue border and some kind of map detailed in the center, and wrap the little white virgin in it, carefully easing her into my purse. I offer “Thanks” but get no reply, and I can feel his eyes on me as I walk towards the little gate at the edge of the lawn. I make it a point to look at every table I pass, and pick something up, consider it and put it down again.

One thing I’ve always known about angry men is that if you let them believe that they still might get what they want, they will usually let you get away.
He is waiting for me to spend another dollar. I am making my way to the gate. At last, he throws his cigarette down and forces it into the sad lawn with a grind of his frustrated heel. The gate clicks behind me and I am walking towards the light.

Later, much later, perhaps a half an hour, I am getting my keys out of my purse and they fall to the ground with the glittering clink of a dozen small bits of metal meeting the concrete. The sound echoes off the walls and the windows, and I’m instantly frozen with fear that the world will come to an end, that I’m trapped in a nightmare, but the sound does not turn into motion, and nothing I’m looking at changes or shifts. I reach down for the keys, and as I move my purse against my shoulder, I notice she’s there.
The scarf has unwound at the top and her calm, peaceful face looks up.
I didn’t dream it. I really have her. My heart suddenly unfurls with hope, and the heroic notion that I have saved her, this little broken one, and find myself feeling almost bouyant, as I unlock the door, that she will save me.

This is excerpted from the novel “Earthquake Dreams” by Judith Martin Straw.
The complete manuscript will be available by June, 2007.