Natalie slit open a case of beer with a box knife and dumped the contents into an ice-filled trashcan. “The crowd is going to be big tonight,” I told her, winking. She didn’t respond, only gave me a quick, bothered look and slid the trashcan into the corner with a grunt. She then started washing bar glasses directly in front of me, her ponytail gyrating back and forth, keeping time with her hips, her breasts partially exposed to my point of view. My own glass was empty already. She finally saw it, sighed and looked up at the clock to show me how early it was, frowning. I knew that she wanted to tell me slow down, maybe even switch to beer for a few hours, but that she also preferred not to engage me in direct conversation. Then the door opened and sunlight flashed across her face, making it the color of really good scotch for a few moments and then in-profile as she looked to see who it was. Her frown intensified. I didn’t have to look. I knew who it was. Natalie started walking in one direction while staring back in another, like I have seen cowboys do in movies, towards the good stuff, to get me another drink.
“I did it.” Milton, the substitute teacher, said. He never really ever substituted at any of the schools that kept calling him. I think he just liked having an answer when somebody asked him what his job was. “I did it,” he repeated. Nobody was paying any attention to him.
The Guatemalan appeared from the back and sat down. He must have finished cleaning and was now ready to take his reward—Natalie gave him free beer and sandwiches for mopping up and stocking. I had once made the mistake of telling Natalie that I felt bad for his poverty and wished I could help him, trying to impress her.
“Please,” she had told me. “You wish you were half as happy as he is.”
Now, when I looked at the Guatemalan drinking his cheap beer, eating the same dry, microwaved sandwich every day like it was something decadent, I wanted to choke him to death. He was just gloating, rubbing his happiness in my face. I suspected that he was illegal and often thought about turning him in to the government for deportation.
“Turn the game on. Turn the game on. I did it.”
Natalie told Milton to calm himself down. “The game is not on until six. Play the jukebox.”
Milton took a seat on the other side of me, opposing the Guatemalan, the three of us spaced out like the front court of a basketball team, and stared at the black screen of the television.
“I did it,” he told me without looking at me.
“I put it all on the game. Ten-thousand dollars. I just got back from Vegas.”
“How much do you have?”
“Well I had ten-thousand dollars.”
“So, you have nothing left?”
“Yup. I put it all on San Francisco.”
The Guatemalan, who had also begun looking at the television screen with Milton, turned to him, smiled and nodded. He did that every time someone said a word in English that he recognized. I think he only knew five or six words. My dog had a bigger vocabulary than him.
“Yes,” I told him. “We all know about San Francisco.” He smiled and nodded again. I wanted him to know I hated him, but because of the language barrier, I could not seem to get it across. Then I turned to Milton. “San Francisco has lost three straight.”
Natalie gave him a look.
“Exactly,” he whispered. “Every time they lose, it becomes more likely they will win the next time. This is Einstein shit. It’s in the bag. Nobody gets swept. Not in the world series.”
“What are you talking about? Teams get swept all the time. You’re gonna lose everything. And then what will you do?”
Milton didn’t answer. He didn’t need to answer. We all knew what he was going to do. He was going to throw himself off of the Golden Gate Bridge. Every day he showed up at the bar, we were surprised he hadn’t done it already. His inheritance money was clearly gone and everybody knew he was never going to get any sort of real job. Who would hire him?
“What happens if you lose?” I repeated.
Natalie must have given the Guatemalan money for the jukebox, some type of samba music filling the bar and molesting my brain. The Guatemalan began slow dancing with himself, his eyes closed, his face plastered with peace and serenity. That motherfucker.
“Do we have to listen to this?” I asked her.
“What do you care?”
“I don’t speak Spanish. That’s why I care. It drives me nuts that I don’t know what they’re saying.”
Natalie sighed at me. “It’s a sad song about poor people. Not everyone worships the rich. In his country, they write songs about the poor.”
“Well, once this game is over, maybe they can write a song about Milton, because Oakland is gonna sweep and he is gonna lose everything.”
Milton didn’t respond to this either but closed his eyes pathetically as if he were imagining himself sailing off a bridge. My glass was empty again. Damn, that was fast. I looked up at Natalie. She was slowly, almost imperceptibly, shaking her head at me. Whenever I started drinking really early, it was always a disaster. She knew that better than anyone as she had had to smack me on several occasions. She looked at the clock again. It was right at five. I pushed my empty glass across the bar towards her, hopeful I was not about to get cut off.
Then the Guatemalan started running around and screaming in Spanish.
“Que pasó?” Natalie asked him. “Que pasó?”
Those two got face to face at the end of the bar. I could tell she didn’t know enough Spanish to really understand him. That idiot certainly didn’t know any English. But he was all worked up about something, trying to take her by the hand. I sighed at the wonderful expression of concern on her face and the impression her small, buoyant tits made inside her low-cut blouse.
Then the glasses started rattling around. Everyone must have noticed because we were all looking at one another. Milton spread his arms out and grabbed the bar as if somebody was trying to drag him off against his will. Then someone pulled the stool out from under me and I started rolling around the floor. My first thought was that I was possessed, like in that movie where those priests tried to kill that little girl. I caught a glimpse of the Guatemalan. He was being bullied by the same physics, but that motherfucker was still smiling. Christ, I hated him so much. I watched him continue to stagger past me towards the back. I was trying to will his head into the juke box with my thoughts so I could see them both split open. But he missed it by several feet and splattered onto the wall, just below the photo of Jerry Garcia which hung there like it was a portrait of Jesus in some immigrant’s shack, and it immediately crashed to the floor but missed the Guatemalan’s skull. Then Milton bumped into me and, for a moment, our eyes met. We were both sliding towards the corner but then he reached out and grabbed the trashcan that Natalie had been filling with ice and beer all afternoon and pulled the whole thing down on my groin. I began to hear glass exploding, but I think that noise had always been there, just covered up by Milton’s effeminate screams. I saw him get punched into the women’s restroom by some imaginary fist while a strange cocktail of glass shards, alcohol and broken roof tiles began to rain inside the bar. I closed my eyes as tight as I could and put my hands over my face, but I smelled that distinctive, metallic scent of fresh blood and knew I was being cut, even though I couldn’t feel anything.
Then the Guatemalan pulled me to my feet.
Milton staggered out of the women’s restroom. For the few moments he had the door opened, I could see water shooting into the air behind him where the toilet should have been. He immediately stomped up to us and started gawking at the Guatemalan. “He knew,” he told us. He pointed at him. “He knew it was coming. Did you see him?”
Natalie put the remnants of the television back on its stand and started clicking its buttons. “It won’t work.” She said.
“You sure it’s plugged in?” I suggested she double check and gave her a wink.
“Thanks.” Natalie started searching the ground while Milton continued to point at the Guatemalan. Something exploded across the street and flames, easily observable through the missing portions of the exterior walls, began licking at the outside of the bar. The smell of gas was everywhere.
“He knew. God told him.” The Guatemalan, upon hearing the word God, smiled and nodded.
“This thing still won’t turn on. I think it might be broken.”
I pulled a handful of ice out of my pocket and threw it at Milton. My pants were so soaked that the weight of the water was making it hard to stand. I carefully stepped out of them, threw them at Milton also, and then stood there uncomfortably in my boxers.
Something else exploded and we all went back to the floor.
When we got up this time, Milton had black soot all over his face and the flames were lurching at him through the now doorless entrance. I saw the door was now broken in half on top of the juke box. Good!
The Guatemalan stood in front of me waving his hands and pointing to the flames. He still had that damn smile on his face.
Natalie lifted the television up again and returned it to its stand. There seemed to be even less of it this time, just a few exposed circuit boards and a plastic frame. “I think I should try a different outlet. Where is that extension cord?” I started looking for it on the ground.
“God saved me,” Milton said.
The Guatemalan must have heard the word God again because he went to Milton, still waving his hands frantically.
“Guys, I think the bar’s on fire.”
Natalie looked so beautiful there, her bangs flopping over her eyes, the light from the fire flickering off her cheeks, her shirt ripped open to where I could see most of her bra.
“I love you,” I told her.
“I’m a lesbian, idiot. I’ve been trying to explain this to you for years now. I love Jessica.”
I didn’t know this Jessica … It was getting really warm inside the bar, especially for October.
Milton grabbed my arm. “I think the Guatemalan is trying to tell me something. This guy is sent from God. I think we should listen to him.”
This made a great deal of sense to me. There was no doubt that motherfucker was sent from God. “Okay.”
“Okay.” Natalie agreed and came out from behind the bar. “You need pants.” She told me.
The four of us huddled for a moment in the center of the bar and then lined up, the Guatemalan in the lead. He began stepping carefully out into the street and we followed him, the bar collapsing on itself the moment we left it, as if we had been what was holding it up.
The middle of California Street was oddly quiet for rush hour, mostly just the sound of fires cracking and car alarms. But there was something building, a crescendo, like wolves calling each other in the wilderness, slowly getting louder, slowly getting closer. A few people ran by, some of them like me, without pants. Then there were more people running. But they all seemed to be going in different directions, getting in each other’s way.
Milton came up to me. “I was going to lose everything. Oakland was going to sweep, just like you said. But now the game will be canceled. I can get my money back. I have been saved. God has given me a second chance.”
“You really think God did all this for you?” I asked him.
“Well … I think when God does something this big, he gets a lot done with it.”
“You’re probably right.”
The Guatemalan handed me a pair of jeans and I put them on. They, of course, fit perfectly.
“Where did you get those?” Natalie asked.
“The Guatemalan gave them to me.”
“Where did he get them?”
Milton stepped into the middle of this, putting one arm on the Guatemalan’s shoulders and holding the other one up to Natalie, palm out, like he was a traffic cop. “This man is sent from God. I think God can handle a pair of blue jeans without a whole bunch of questions.”
Milton was making more sense than he had ever made before, like he had been jarred into a better version of himself, shaken awake. I could no longer imagine him jumping like a wounded animal off of the Golden Gate Bridge.
“We must follow the Guatemalan,” he said.
We all agreed.
Together as one unit, we began hiking up California Street, into the teeth of the carnage. The sun was out, but not really. A layer of something like a storm cloud, only more sinister, had come between it and us. I never realized the Guatemalan was so small. He crouched even lower, his heroic shadow cast upon us. We crouched too, mimicking him. The city had never sounded like that before. The city had never smelled like that before.
“I still love you even though you’re a lesbian,” I told her.
Natalie sighed at me.
We heard cries for help and followed the Guatemalan into a building. It was hard to keep up with him. All we could do was track the path he made crashing through walls towards the screams. When we finally got to him, there were bunches of them there, mostly on the ground, all of them inside some sinister neon red shadow and looking dead. The Guatemalan crouched low again and we did too. He pulled a child into his arms and we looked for children to pull into our arms. All I found was a really old lady who smelled like burnt rubber, but I cradled her like a child. The Guatemalan disappeared with his little girl and we followed. I heard Milton telling everyone to come with us because he was sent by God. They seemed confused as to which one of us he was talking about. “The Guatemalan, idiots. Follow the Guatemalan!”
When we got out to the street, the Guatemalan handed the little girl to a woman who said she was a nurse and she started breathing into the little girl’s mouth and pushing on her. Some other woman was screaming in my ear and it was then I noticed I still had that old lady and she told me I was killing her. I threw her on the ground and looked at the Guatemalan for what to do next. We all did. But he was staring at that girl, the nurse making her little chest heave up and down. He had finally stopped smiling. He had his hands on his knees and he was panting. He looked scared. I had never seen him like that. Nothing was as it should have been.
When the girl started to cough and vomit some strange, smoky brew, he crossed himself and went running back up the street. We all crossed ourselves and followed. There were a dozen of us. The sky was getting darker and the only light seemed to be coming from the glow of the fires. I heard helicopters above us and felt like I was in a war movie. We could not see much. All we could do was run to the screams.
Across from us, others were walking down California Street towards the ferry building, looking like war refugees from some village that had just been wiped off the face of the earth. They pointed at us as we ran by, some of them even joining up with us on the spot. I heard one kid tell his mom to continue without him, that he was going with the rescue squad. It sounded like she was telling him to be careful or maybe she was begging him to stay with her. She was crying so hysterically I couldn’t tell. Her boy started running right beside me. He couldn’t have been very old, maybe fifteen. The two of us were breathing hard. But we were still keeping up, running very fast. I felt like I could run forever. I felt invincible. I felt caught up in something bigger than staring at women’s tits for a change, something more important than staying drunk all the time. I felt like there might something out there for me after all. I began to think I had been waiting for this moment my whole life. I was certain Milton was right.
“Where are you guys from?” The boy asked.
“Guatemala,” I told him. And we ran into the night to save the people.