A Perfect Universe
The first thing I remember is the woman’s voice, amplified through the megaphone, calling my name. Castillo, Robert. I opened my eyes, but only knew they were open because I could feel my lids moving. There was no change in the darkness.
Cuarón, Eduardo. Daniels, Margaret. Daniels, Rachel. I couldn’t move. Everything hurt. There was no light, not much air. But the names kept coming. Diaz, Rosalie. Eaglesham, Jessica. Faye, Renee. I started screaming, Help me, I’m under here!, but my voice went nowhere, it just died in the debris around my face. Hernandez, Adrian. Hull, Leticia. I screamed until I realized how stupid it was, using all the precious air. When I was finally quiet, I could hear her again.
Hold on, she said. We’re coming for you.
The names continued. But after every ten or so, she’d stop and say, Hold on, we’re coming, or Don’t give up, we’re digging.
And they were. Once I stopped screaming, I could hear that, too. The sound of shovels and picks ringing in the rubble.
There were 146 names after mine, and when she got to the end of the list, she started again at the beginning.
* * *
There are about 5,600 pay phones left within the Los Angeles city limits. There are nine on the Santa Monica Pier, eighteen in and around the Convention Center downtown. The Vons supermarket in Echo Park has six. Dodger Stadium has eight, one of which is consistently in need of repair.
My department at the phone company was responsible for these units. We cleaned and serviced, collected the change from the coin boxes, and, as of the last few years, demolished a handful of underachievers every month, casualties of cellular progress.
Their destruction was my least favorite part of the job. It felt like a kind of forced euthanasia. Eva always got upset when I made that comparison. She thought it was disrespectful to the elderly. But some of those phones were as old as senior citizens. They had put in a lifetime of service, day and night, weekends, holidays. Some of those phones had never failed until their lines were snipped and they were ripped from their sockets and tossed into the back of one of our trucks.
I always tried to leave them with their dignity. On that one day a month of grim-reaper duty, I’d clear away the cigarette butts and scrape off the hardened bubble gum, spray the faceplate and receiver with disinfectant one last time, and then, gently but firmly, cut the line.
* * *
“Are we losing our pay phone?”
“You are. I’m sorry.”
“Well, I can’t—I guess nobody really used it.”
“Two hundred dollars a month.”
“It averaged about two hundred dollars a month. That’s four hundred calls.”
“Really? I never saw a single . . .Then why are you taking it down?”
“Two hundred dollars barely pays for the dial tone. This unit used to do close to a thousand, and that was when it was a quarter a call.”
“Well, I’m sorry to see it go for some reason. Out with the old, in with the— Did you feel that?”
“That. Whoa. Did you feel that?”
* * *
I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to describe it to reporters and friends and strangers who stop me on the street. What’s it like?
For a while I just said that it was like being buried alive, which is true, and also, I thought, sort of funny. I hoped it would lighten the mood a little. People didn’t want light. They’d nod and look deep into my eye. I can’t imagine, they’d say. Women took my arm. Men set their hands on my shoulders. As if touching me would give them some kind of understanding. As if this were something I could pass on, something I could share.
What’s it like?
the network newsmagazine reporter asked me, leaning forward in her chair. What’s. It. Like.
There was movement back in the darkness of the studio, a camera swiveling from the reporter’s face to mine. On one of the monitors I could see the shot: a slow zoom in, a close-up on my eyepatch. I could feel everyone in the studio—the reporter, the cameramen, the producers back in the booth—waiting for the answer. Twenty-five million, someone had said during the last commercial break. Estimated viewers, leaning toward their TVs.
What’s it like?
“I can’t describe it,” I said, letting myself off the hook, letting twenty-five million people down. “It’s indescribable.”
* * *
By the time the woman with the megaphone had gotten to Miller, Jessica, I’d started to calm down. I was on the list. They knew I was there. A few minutes before I’d walked into the building, I’d answered a call from my supervisor at the phone company, so he’d known I was inside when it came down.
I lay there and waited. Whenever people talk about how brave I was, how heroic, I always want to say, I just lay there. Everyone else did all the work. But no one wants to hear that. They need to believe there was some great inner strength tapped, some proof of the resilience of the human spirit in its darkest hour.
But there wasn’t. I just lay there.
* * *
I was in the hospital for six weeks. I went through fourteen surgeries. I lost an eye, I gained a walking cane, though the doctors said I was young enough that the limp probably wouldn’t be so pronounced in a few years. I’m told that I displayed a tremendous amount of bravery in the way I handled this, too, but I don’t see it. What was I going to do, throw myself out the window? I was too doped up to get out of bed.
I spent most of the time in the hospital watching the news. They were still showing footage of the rescue: the cops and firefighters pulling me out, carrying the stretcher down the mountain of steel and cement; the huge work lights holding back the darkness; the workers and newspeople cheering and crying. That shot where, right before they load me into the ambulance, I raise my hand. I don’t know what I was doing. Feeling for my eye, probably. That same shot, over and over. Raising my hand. Everybody cheers. The triumph of the will.
They showed earlier scenes, too. The first shots of the collapsed building. The swarm of sirens and flashing lights. The rescue workers digging day and night. The mayor telling the cameras, This is no longer a rescue operation; this is a recovery operation.
Every so often there was a shot where you could see the woman with the megaphone, pacing at the foot of the rubble. You could hear her under the voiceovers of the newscasters and guest experts. It’s a wide shot, to get the full scope of the devastation, and she’s tiny in the frame. A black woman, middle-aged, heavy-set, with a bit of a southern drawl. You can hear it
softening the corners of the names she’s saying. Pollack, Henry. Pullman, Sarah. Her back is to the camera. She never stops talking, never lowers the megaphone.
Hold on, she says. We’re coming for you.
* * *
What’s it like?
It’s like something so ordinary that it didn’t seem worth mentioning. Like the real answer would be more of a letdown than saying it was indescribable.
What’s it like? It’s like when my brother and I used to wrestle on the living room floor. He was twice as big, and inevitably he’d pin me on my back. And for a few seconds, there was something exciting about feeling completely powerless, being at someone else’s mercy. But then he wouldn’t let me up, and the more I struggled the tighter he held me down. It was the most awful feeling.
That’s what it was like. It felt like that.
For three days.
* * *
Just before they released me from the hospital, I broke up with Eva. I told her that I needed some time, some space. I needed to get my head around what had happened. I could tell she was trying to keep her emotions in check, which must have been some struggle for her. Remaining calm, supportive, understanding. Nodding at me like I was a kid or a pet. As if this was a predictable stage of whatever psychological process I was going through. She’d talked to the hospital shrink, too. She was following best-
practice protocol. No scene, no tears. A muffled end to our two years together.
Before she left the hospital room, she took my hand. “Call me,” she said. “Whenever you’re ready to talk.”
* * *
I got asked a lot about working at the phone company. What I did there, how I’d liked the job. Suddenly all this interest. I didn’t know how to answer. It was what I did. It was just my job.
What I really cared about was playing bass in the band. Heading down to Dido’s garage after work and running through eight or nine songs and a case of beer and Dido’s mom bringing out plates of beans and rice drizzled with tomatillo that blew our ears out way more than anything we were playing. That was what got me through the workday, the thought of that. That and Eva. But when people asked, I couldn’t really mention Eva anymore and I wasn’t returning Dido’s calls. Hey, bro, I was thinking we should get the band back and I’d skip to the next message. For the longest time the band was one of the only things I cared about, and now I couldn’t even stand to listen to Dido’s voice.
I tried not to worry about it. The shrink had said this would happen. Disassociation from formerly cherished persons and activities. He said it would be temporary. He said the medication would help.
* * *
I got a copy of the footage. I called one of the local TV stations and explained who I was and asked if I could have a DVD.
“Are you writing a book?” the producer asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m writing a book.”
They sent eighteen discs. Seventy-two hours of footage. I watched it all, never fast-forwarding. I wanted to experience it like everyone else had experienced it. By then I was a pro at staying in one place for long periods of time.
I sat on my couch and gasped and shook when the first pictures of the scene started coming in, the confusion over what was happening and then the sickening realization. That collective intake of breath that must have occurred across the country. Oh my God.
The rescuers arrived. The digging began. A media area was constructed outside the main entrance to the hospital, a podium with the city seal and a black bouquet of microphones. A guy from the office of the mayor was there every hour or so, giving a briefing. The fire chief, the chief of police. Every once in a while they’d try to talk to a rescue worker, but the workers waved them off. They were too busy digging.
Cynthia Lopez from the local news was the narrator for most of the footage, recapping what was known, breaking in with new developments. One day, two days. Most of the new developments updated the body count, the names of the deceased. Then the mayor was at the podium. This is no longer a rescue operation; this is a recovery operation. The bulldozers, the dump trucks. The firefighters standing in front of the machines, refusing to give up, holding their shovels like swords, keeping the trucks at bay.
But throughout the footage, the woman with the megaphone was always there, in the background, the periphery of shots. Her
back to the camera, pacing, calling our names. I yelled at the TV for her to turn around. Rawlings, Catherine. Rolston, Barney.
Turn around! Turn around!
She never turned around.
* * *
“Do you have any words for the firefighters, for the rescue workers?”
“Is there something you want to say to them, to the men and women who didn’t give up?”
On disc fifteen, there’s a clip of me leaving the hospital, wheeled through the front doors by one of my surgeons and an army of nurses and administrators and orderlies. The reporters follow with mics and cameras as I’m pushed toward the ambulance that would take me to the first rehab center.
I remember this clip. The other patients at the rehab center watched it over and over in the TV room the first few days I was there.
“—the workers who defied the orders of the mayor, and kept digging through that last night?”
“Do you have anything to say to the mayor, who threatened to fire anyone who wouldn’t get out of the way of the bulldozers?”
“Yes. I do. Fuck you, you prick. I was still alive under there.”
Even with the bleeped curse, that line always got a lot of applause in the TV room.
* * *
One of the cops told me to stop by the First Street station anytime I wanted. Our house is your house, he’d said. I’d gone a couple of times early on, because I was having trouble sleeping and the police station was the only place open at 3 A.M. We drank coffee and they told stories about the days of the dig. But after a while I stopped going. I didn’t belong there. They had done something heroic. I was just a guy who’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I went back after I watched the DVDs. I had gone to an electronics place downtown and bought a machine that hooks up to your DVD player and prints out still frames from the video. I printed a handful of the best frames of the woman with the megaphone, the ones where you could make out what she was wearing, where you could almost see her face. I took them down to the station and showed the cops.
They remembered her, but didn’t know who she was. Everyone thought she was a city official of some sort. She had the list of the missing; she had a megaphone. They couldn’t remember her not being there, even after the mayor told everyone to abandon ship. It wasn’t until they’d pulled me free, after the ambulances had left and things started to clear out, that anyone noticed she was gone.
* * *
I had, actually, received a lot of money for the book rights to my story. The ghostwriter is a woman about my age, a columnist for a weekly newspaper down in San Diego. She’s smart and pretty,
and six months ago, before the cane and the eyepatch, I probably would have fallen all over myself trying to impress her.
We meet at a coffee shop in my neighborhood every morning and I tell her my life story, up to and including the day I took the elevator to the twenty-sixth floor to pull that pay phone, and then the three days after. She asks me what the worst part of the ordeal was. I tell her that it sounds stupid, but that the worst part was not sleeping. I was so tired, but I was afraid that if I fell asleep I’d miss the rescue workers getting close and if I didn’t call out, they’d pass me by. So I stayed awake.
She asks me what it felt like when the firefighters digging nearby finally heard me, when they took my hand and held it while others dug furiously to get me free. What I remembered most.
What I remembered most was the sound of the woman’s voice through the megaphone, getting clearer and louder as the debris was pulled away.
Hold on, baby. We’re getting you out. I told you, baby. I told you.
“What did you say?” the ghostwriter asks. “You said something on the stretcher, on the way out. It’s hard to hear on any of the tapes.”
“I was delirious,” I tell her. “I don’t know what I said.”
She writes this down, then crosses it out. “We’ll think of something later.”
* * *
It sounded like she knew us, the woman with the megaphone. She gave each of our names a distinct personality, like she was
reading off a list of friends. Every once in a while I heard what sounded like another voice and the woman with the megaphone would yell, Hold on, and I wanted to yell, too. Margaret Daniels, hold on! Adrian Hernandez, hold on! When I imagined our rescue, I pictured us all standing by the rubble, shaking, dazed, blankets on our shoulders, paper coffee cups in our hands. I imagined friends for life. Something more than friends, even, sharing something only we could understand. My husband doesn’t get it, Leticia Hull would tell me, weeks later, years later. But you get it.
I imagined all sorts of silly shit. Michael Gordon and Henry Pollack—guys I’d never met, guys I’d never even seen, but who I could still see clearly—with me at a Dodgers game, at a sports bar, at a show, not saying a goddamned thing about it. Not needing to. Just knowing.
In the hospital, Eva had said, You survived. You made it, you were the only one. And I know it makes no sense, but I couldn’t help but hate her for taking them all away.
* * *
Dido kept calling. We hadn’t rehearsed in months, hadn’t played a show in almost a year, but offers were coming in for gigs and radio appearances, a couple of TV spots. There was some record company attention. All of this was based on what had happened to me rather than any genuine interest in the band, but the guys didn’t seem to care. An opportunity was an opportunity.
We called a rehearsal in Dido’s garage, just like the old days, and everyone drank and smoked and wailed away, but I kept jumping every time Dido crashed the cymbals, to the point where
I was literally freaking out after an overly long drum fill and had to leave the garage to catch my breath.
Dido followed me, pissed. I was blowing our chance. We shouted back and forth while the other guys hung in the doorway and smoked and made half-assed attempts to intervene. A couple of the neighbors stopped watering the scrub brush in their front yards to watch. It was a real scene. You fucking this, you fucking that. You’ve always, you’ve never, blah blah blah. Dido started to run out of gas. I don’t think he expected me to push back so hard. I’ve never been much of a fighter, but it felt good to yell, so I shouted until I was the only one shouting. I didn’t care who heard—the neighbors, Dido’s mom back in the house. I just kept screaming at him that I couldn’t take the noise anymore, throwing up my hands and limping back to my car and shouting that we were a shitty band, we’d always been a shitty band, and three days pinned under the concrete hadn’t changed that.
* * *
I believed you. That’s what I said on the stretcher, on the way out of the pile. The last thing the woman had said through the megaphone, right before they got me to the ambulance, was I told you we were coming, baby. And I didn’t know if she could hear me or not, but I said, I believed you.
* * *
I still have trouble sleeping. I lie in bed for a few hours and then get up and walk the hills above my apartment, over around the reservoir. I come back dragging, out of breath, legs aching, but still not exhausted enough to sleep, or at least to sleep in the way I want
to, without those dreams of Dodgers games and bars and concerts, Leticia Hull telling me that I’m the only one who understands.
* * *
A couple of the First Street cops came by my apartment. One black, one white. They were in civilian clothes and I couldn’t remember their names. I’ve been having trouble with names. We stood in the living room. I offered to make some coffee, but they passed.
The black cop said there’d been a complaint. Apparently I’ve been calling Eva in the middle of the night, and when she answers I scream into the phone. I don’t say anything, I just scream. When she stopped picking up, I started screaming into her voice mail.
He played me the recordings. It sure sounded like my voice. After a minute or so, he turned it off. The white cop stood by the door and looked at his shoes.
The black cop said that they’d talked her out of filing a restraining order, convinced her not to speak to the news. I thanked him and told him that it wouldn’t happen again. I’d been having trouble sleeping, I said, but my doctor prescribed something and it wouldn’t be a problem anymore.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked. I was embarrassed that he had to deal with this, with me.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Every day I wake up and think how lucky I am to be alive.”
* * *
The kindness of strangers has been overwhelming. The firefighters and police and rescue workers took up a collection to pay my medical bills, but the hospital waived them anyway. People
from all over the world sent cards and letters, CDs and books. I received over a hundred Bibles. A car dealer in St. Louis sent me a brand-new Cadillac.
After I got out of the hospital, I tried to go back to work, but the phone company promoted me to an office job and I had trouble sitting still. I’ve had other opportunities, offers to do ads for everything from survival-themed workout videos to a line of fashion eyepatches, but I turned them all down. I look at the interviews with the ghostwriter as my real job now. So when she says that I look tired, that we can take a break for a few days if I’m not feeling up to it, I tell her that I’m fine, that I need to do this. It’s good therapy.
I wonder what she knows. If she’s talked to the police, or to Eva. She does a lot of research. Sometimes she brings up things about my life that I’ve forgotten.
I ask her about the woman with the megaphone. She says that she hasn’t identified her yet. She wasn’t sure that the woman was important to the story. I tell her that I was just curious, because she keeps showing up on the footage.
“We can ask one of the TV reporters,” she says. “They might have gotten her name.”
* * *
The whirlpool’s the best part of rehab. The stretching and weight training are brutal, but I like to sit in the big plastic tub and close my eye, stretch out my arms and legs and sink into the heat.
I heave out a lungful of water and my trainer pulls his face from mine and rolls me onto my side. I heave some more and he
pounds me on the back. My chest hurts from where he’s been pushing on it. I open my eye. There’s a circle of other trainers and patients standing over us.
“Can you breathe?” my trainer asks.
I nod, but can’t stop coughing long enough to speak.
“You must have slipped and gone under,” he says.
I nod, coughing, finally clearing my lungs. “Thank you,” I say. “I must have slipped.”
* * *
Cynthia Lopez meets me in the lobby of the TV studio. When we enter the newsroom, all of the reporters and newscasters are standing in the aisles between their desks, waiting for something. I’m afraid that it might be a birthday or retirement party, and I start to apologize for interrupting, but then they all applaud. For me.
She leads me through the crowd. One of the reporters has a copy of the newspaper where I was on the front page, lying on the stretcher, surrounded by firefighters and rescue workers, holding my arm up. The headline says, Sole Survivor. The reporter asks me to autograph it for his daughter.
We get to Cynthia Lopez’s desk and she opens a spreadsheet on her computer. “I didn’t know who she was. I assumed she was a city official. She had the list of the missing. She had a megaphone.” She finds the entry and clicks the mouse. An interview transcription comes up on the screen.
“We only spoke for a second,” Cynthia Lopez says. “She said she had to get back to work. Her name is Margaret Hamilton.”
Cynthia Lopez reads to me from the screen, as if without my eye I’ve somehow lost that ability, too.
CL: Is that a current list of the missing?
MH: Unless they’ve pulled somebody out that I don’t know about.
CL: Are you with the mayor’s office? Is that where I can get an updated list?
MH: I’m not with the mayor.
CL: Are you from the hospital?
MH: I work at the post office on Vine and Selma in Hollywood.
CL: I’m sorry, then, I don’t—
MH: I saw it on TV and came down.
CL: Came down why?
MH: Because there are people in there, honey. There are still people in there.
Hamilton, Margaret Anne. Widow of George, mother of Linda and Davis, grandmother of Craig and Tamara and George III. Born forty-six years ago in the same hospital I was taken to. Employee of the United States Postal Service for twenty-one years. Member of the Bethany Baptist Church on Eighth Street. Resident of the 2900 block of South St. Andrews Place.
I turn off the library computer. It’s late afternoon. There are high school kids at all the other tables, sitting close together, huddled almost, ignoring their homework to look at me. The
man with the eyepatch, the scars. Whispering, snickering. I stand and snarl, show my teeth. This is what they want. I move closer, dragging my leg. I lift the eyepatch.
The librarian asks me to leave, but I’m only giving them what they want.
* * *
The cops are back. This time it’s the ghostwriter who’s complaining about my calls. She’s had to get her number changed.
The black cop puts his hand on my shoulder. It’s not the same kind of touch I get from strangers asking, What’s it like? It’s a firm grip, a warning. It feels good. It makes me want to keep calling the ghostwriter, calling Eva, anyone, just so he’ll come back.
“Stay off the phone,” he says, turning to the door, and I feel like shouting at him, swinging at him, so he’ll grab me again.
* * *
I couldn’t sleep and so I walked the hills and around the reservoir and then farther into the city, ending up at her building just as the sun started to rise.
Her voice through the call box sounds just like her voice through the megaphone. Slightly over-amplified, metal-tinged, but deep and rich and warm. I have to stop myself from pressing the buzzer another time, just to hear it again.
She opens the door and recognizes me immediately.
“Oh my goodness,” she says. “You look worse than when they pulled you out.”
She looks older than I imagined. Uncoiled white strands stand up spring-like from the bun of her hair. There are gray puffs of
skin under her eyes. Years of worry or lack of sleep. She’s dressed in her postal uniform, getting ready for work.
“Can you help me?” I ask.
She reaches up to my face. I close my eye and I can see her pacing on the news videos, her back to the camera. I close my eye and see nothing, just the darkness under the pile, waiting for her voice.
“Please,” I say.
She’s shaking, but her hand feels warm on my cheek. “Hold on, baby,” she says. “You hear me? You hold on. We’re going to get you out of there.”