ANGELS: Shock & Awe

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Chapter 34

Dad’s dad, Grandpa K, known to one and all as Big Mike (although he wasn’t big, maybe five-foot six in his shoes, and his name wasn’t really Mike, but Marion, which is probably explanation enough), was a die-hard, dyed-in-the-wool, unreconstructed baseball fan. More than that, like Annie Savoy in Bull Durham, he believed in the Church of Baseball. And his preferred cathedral was Candlestick Park. If he had lived so long, he’d have been crushed when the Giants abandoned it in ’99.

If I grew up bonding with Papa Nick, Gareth was closer to Grandpa K. Like all real baseball fans, they always had something to talk about: stats. The old man was a walking major league encyclopedia, and the boy tapped into that every chance he got. Summer visits to the old Kristopolous homestead in Palo Alto usually meant at least one visit to Candlestick, and often more. Eventually, I was allowed to beg off most of the time and spend those afternoons fishing or reading or grabbing a nap, all activities more exciting in my opinion than attending a ball game.

But when Grandpa K got tickets for the four of us, including Dad, to the ’89 “Battle of the Bay” World Series home games, I was almost enthusiastic. For one thing, I had developed a perverse, rebellious (albeit secret) admiration for the A’s. Grandpa K would have disowned me; Gareth had his suspicions—he was my twin brother, after all—but left them unspoken, especially after all was said and done and Oakland had humiliated the Giants in a four game sweep. He wasn’t about to give me a chance to gloat.

Big Mike wouldn’t be caught dead at the Oakland Coliseum, so our tickets were for games three and four at The Stick. He was fit to be tied when his Giants only managed one run against the A’s over the weekend. Dad, Gareth and I took the train up from San Diego after school on Monday (we had a pre-arranged “cultural enrichment” absence scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday; one of Gareth’s teachers had asked him to bring back a program, preferably signed by the team); on Tuesday afternoon, Grandpa K drove us on up to the park in his ancient Suburban.

We had just found our seats. It was a couple of minutes after five o’clock; the game was supposed to start at 5:15. Then came the Ultimate Freight Train. We could see the earthquake as it rippled through the stadium. The scientific record says it lasted fifteen seconds. Well, fifteen seconds can be a very long time. Everyone who’s ever been through even a minor earthquake knows exactly what I’m talking about. Every one else doesn’t really get it, and never will. It is the very definition of “you had to be there.”

Gareth threw his hands up in the air and whooped like we were on a rollercoaster, which I suppose we were. I gripped the sides of my seat so fiercely it’s a wonder I didn’t break off chunks in my hands. Then, with a whoosh and a fading noise exactly like a train passing directly under our feet, it was over. The entire stadium erupted in a spontaneous cheer, a boisterous affirmation that right this second we were lucky to be alive. Then Gareth was among the first to start chanting, “Let’s play ball! Let’s play ball!”

Of course, no ball was played that day. It may have been a rollercoaster ride in the stadium, but San Francisco had just been shaken hard; the Loma Prieta Earthquake, seven-point-one on the Richter scale. When we finally got out of the parking lot it took us over four hours to make the twenty-two mile trip back to Palo Alto. This was before normal folks had “mobile phones,” of course, so by the time we got home, Grandma Kate was worried sick. It took us several hours more to get through on the phone to Mom in Mira Mesa. But Californians live with earthquakes the same way I imagine Floridians live with hurricanes and Kansans live with twisters; you hunker down and hope the building you’re in doesn’t collapse around you. Then it’s over; you dust yourself off, pick up the pieces, and get back to your life. It’s no big deal.

We couldn’t hang around for two weeks to see Game Three when it finally happened. But that turned out okay in the long run—Gareth didn’t have to witness the humiliation, and I thought having been right in the middle of a seven-point-one quake beat the heck out of a mere World Series game anyway.

I never made it up to Candlestick Park again. And although I could never fully understand Grandpa K’s reverence for the windy old concrete monster, I still thought of it as a special place: a little slice of my boyhood, a tangible connection to my dead grandfather, a legacy shared with my brother, the patch of ground where we had survived an epic seizure of the restless Earth.

But when I materialized on the faded paint in the untended bluegrass, I hardly recognized the place. Of course I’d always been up in the stands, looking down at a baseball diamond. The lopsided way the seats wrapped around the football field spoiled the symmetry of the stadium. As I looked around I shivered; as usual, it was cold here, and there was a considerable wind swirling around, but it was more than that. Something just felt wrong about the place. There were several thousand people here, mostly gathered in the big block of low-level seats on the east side. I turned in that direction. There was a ramshackle tower of scaffolding off to one side, maybe twenty feet tall, a kind of derrick with a small plywood deck at the top and a pole flying the old Gadsden flag: a snake in three coils on a yellow field, with the legend “DONT TREAD ON ME.” Perfect.

It didn’t occur to me at the time to wonder how so many had gotten there in just the four hours since our broadcast invitation, or why so many had had the sense to bring blankets against the cold. It only started to seem obvious in hindsight—Gareth’s note had said “any Saturday”; the same note had mentioned APAFA. Gareth must have been organizing for weeks, so that the bulk of the crowd whenever we showed up, as long as it was a Saturday, would be Apafans. And we played right along.

The first part of the program went according to script. I spoke, magically amplified, the Angels appeared, did their bit, then disappeared with the customary flash and thunder, and I went into my “help me help you” spiel, this time more slanted towards a “resistance is futile” message than usual. I even went so far as to say. “Time is on our side. If we go about our business, take care of our own needs, as much as humanly possible ignore the Angels, we will ultimately prevail. Because it’s a big Universe, and the Angels will eventually move on. And the meek will reinherit the Earth.”

Nothing. They all sat and stared at me. From somewhere in the weeds at the sidelines, I swear I heard a cricket chirp.

I walked toward the crowd. The Ishim fanned out slightly and kept pace with me. Then someone stood. The crowd rippled as a squat figure in a rough brown hooded robe stepped out of the stands and walked towards me. In the steep noon sunlight, his face was lost in shadow, but I still recognized him. The two nearest Ishim raised their weapons and moved to bar his way, but I gestured them back. Gareth reached up and threw the hood back off his head. Wild orange-brown hair sprouted in a wooly nimbus around an otherwise bald head. He looked like an overgrown orangutan. He really was semi-simian; always had been. Sometimes it was hard to believe we were brothers, let alone twins. I was over a foot taller, and had obviously inherited most of my fair-haired, grey-eyed looks from our mother’s side of the family. Hard to tell what evolutionary leapfrog had crafted my brother’s form.

Until just that moment I don’t think I’d really believed he’d be there. I sub-vocalized a cue word to take me off of the magic PA. Then as subtly as possible I tipped my head and willed my eardrop out and into my hand. I caught Gareth’s eye and thought I saw a little twinkle of acknowledgement there. We’d be able to have a private word when we stepped away from the Ishim and the crowd.

“Hello, Gray,” he said. “And here I was betting real money that you’d show up with your own pair of wings.” He grinned, or grimaced anyway, but he wasn’t trying to be funny. “Still, an impressive entrance. You’ll have to teach me how you do that.”

“I don’t do it. I just go where they send me.” This got a reaction from him, a thoughtful squint; we both knew that wasn’t quite true. After all, he’d invited me here. “And don’t call me Gray.”

“What should I call you?” he said. “The Chosen One? Doesn’t exactly roll trippingly off the tongue.”

“Graham will do fine,” I said. “I don’t much care for the whole ‘Chosen’ thing myself.”

“Well, it’s good to see you anyway, brother,” he said, “even if you do look like the head nerd at a Star Trek convention.”

“Nice. What about your get-up? You look like Dr. Zaius, for chrissakes.”

He laughed out loud. He stepped up and gave me a fierce hug and a kiss on the cheek. He turned around, standing next to me, his long, beefy arm wrapped around my shoulders. He shouted to the still strangely quiet crowd, “This is my brother, everybody! My brother, you hear me?”

The crowd responded with a throaty “Yeah!” but all their enthusiasm was all for Gareth, not me. I got the distinct impression he was declaring me under his protection.

It wouldn’t be the first time. I had a sudden flashback to the first week of fifth grade. We were ten years old. Our height difference wasn’t so profound yet; I had barely started to shoot up. But Gareth was somehow both stout and wiry in his simian way, and I was a skinny, clumsy, knock-kneed nerd. We weren’t in the same class, but we had recess together. For the first couple of days I did my best to remain invisible, but that couldn’t last forever. For one thing, the well-intentioned but clueless teachers on duty kept urging me back out to play with the other kids. And so I came to the attention of the Brothers McVee.

They were twins, too, but identicals. They’d gone to a different grammar school, but everybody’d heard of them. Their names were Charles and Chester, I think, but everyone called them Chip and Chet, and it didn’t seem to matter which was which. They’d been held back at least twice, and so they were already twelve or thirteen years old, and big for their age. There was something not quite right about them, and the bottom line was they were mean as snakes. They had me cornered behind a tree away from any teachers’ eyes, and had just begun telling me how pretty I was. Really. Then Gareth appeared, wrapped his arm around my shoulders and loudly proclaimed that I was his brother. Exactly the same words: “My brother, you hear me?”

Just as we had all heard of Chip and Chet, so too did Gareth have a reputation. A wildly exaggerated reputation, mind you—I don’t think Gareth ever really broke anybody’s arm, not on purpose anyway, and he definitely never threw anybody off the cliffs at La Jolla—but with enough true grit in it to give even the none-too-bright McVees pause. After all, he really had once bested Bobby “Beaver” Binkowski and two of his buddies, all at least two or three years older, in a fair fight, widely witnessed by seemingly every kid in the neighborhood, even some who hadn’t moved there yet. So recess became a safer place for me that day; I was still prone to the humiliations of being picked last and tripping over my own feet, but my kinship to Gareth meant I got to keep my lunch money and get through fifth grade wedgie-free.

I just had time to wonder why I needed his protection now when he turned back to me and whispered, “Sorry, Gray.” Then he twisted my arm, and grabbed the eardrop out of my hand. The pain dropped me to my knees. The Ishim weapons came up, but they had to hesitate—Gareth was already wrapping his other arm around my neck. This action must have been the signal to the Apafans in the crowd; I caught sight of blankets being thrown off and several people rising with weapons firing. Then Gareth’s big gnarly fist swung around at my jaw and the lights went out.

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