“The Big One” by Debra McQueen

Image by Vivek Chugh

On the fourth floor of the humanities building
in the redwood and eucalyptus forest
of my university, the ground rolls up
like a steadily building Pacific wave –
one of those pounding Ocean Beach
in earshot of this classroom.

Levelor blinds slash
like daggers across the windows.
Those of us raised here dive for desks
too small for book bags.
Twelve on a threshold for fifteen seconds
and the door police beat against us
like we are rioters.

Outside, the redwoods loom,
giants bent on crushing us.
A mushroom shape of smoke
rises behind Twin Peaks.
Some punk with a walkman radio
shouts the highlights –
“The bridge fell into the ocean!
The Bay Bridge is gone!”
It takes hours –
the Underground closed up
like a Mom And Pop eatery in the suburbs –
on a long MUNI bus ride so crammed
we have no choice but
become friends with each other.
As the teetering bus rises over
Potrero Hill a collective gasp –
our city black as the bottom of an oil drum.

We limp over broken concrete
in the dark – find our ways
past strangely quiet crack dens –
I clutch the handrail like a blind opossum –
creep up four flights of stairs
and meet neighbours for the first time.
Sixteen of us gather
in the weirdo’s apartment.
Candles, candles everywhere and only gin to drink.
Teetotallers gulp five-olive martinis.
Straight-edgers take bong hits.
A huge vat of spaghetti on the gas range –
we won’t hear till much later
how lighting stoves blew up houses at random.
We can’t get enough pasta into us.

Sitting in a circle we listen
without interruption as each one
details exactly where, when, and what
we were doing the moment
the big one hit. No one has batteries
big enough for a boom box.
All we can do is sit, drink, smoke,
make new friends.
We will wonder about each other
days later, power restored,
news of our demise greatly exaggerated.
Just as slowly and just as quickly
as those fifteen seconds ticked by,
our names will drift away.
When we see each other in the hall,
we will nod like lovers embarrassed
by our ill-advised one-night stand.


Debra McQueen teaches school, rides a motorcycle, and loves to travel. This year she’s published a scandalous resignation letter in WORK (www.workliterarymagazine.com) and poetry in The Legendary (www.downdirtyword.com). Her creative nonfiction appeared in The Art Of Medicine In Metaphors in 2013.  She’s from San Francisco, now living happily in South Carolina.

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  1. John Philip Johnson

    I really like this one, Debra. “Candles, candles everywhere and only gin to drink.”

  2. Paul Smith

    A great description of paranoia over the San Andreas fault causing catastrophic damage, and insight into us humans reaching out for comfort in times of stress and then turning our back on our neighbors.