The Things Quakes Bury


My father would sometimes come home with an object unearthed at one of his construction sites. A lady’s high-button shoe. A silver half dollar. A hand-forged spur. A Chinese cherry blossom incense burner. A ceramic dog’s head.

I especially like the dog head, so I keep it around. When I hold it, I feel like it’s from a place I’ve traveled, sometimes forgetting that I lived there.

My father was the guy who worked for a large construction company who spent his days driving from one building site to the next, looking over the blueprints and schedule, checking over the progress, making arrangements for the delivery of the next day’s materials and heavy equipment. He would have several of these to manage in San Francisco.

Where there was a building going up in San Francisco, there was almost always a building that needed to come down. And when the old building was finally down, and its pieces cleared away, there would be the exposed ground, and in some of that was likely rubble from the great earthquake and fire of 1906.

Out of that disturbed earth came objects my father brought home. He would, of course, leave behind the pieces broken bottles, shards of tile, tea cups and dinnerware. These were just the unidentified fragments of things a departed generation had forged or manufactured and took into their homes and their lives.

My father was a man on some contradictions.  He loved being part of a new building going up, and he loved the history, and finding a connection with the past from the objects of the past.  He  was also resigned to the notion that what he called “progress” was unstoppable,  as unstoppable as death and the cycle of each generation replacing the next. The objects he brought home usually went into some box in the garage or garden shed. Once home, he was done with them.

I think my father might have kept a pair of gloves in his pickup truck. I think he might have put these on when he thought he might want to spend some minutes sorting through some rubble that had spilled from a backhoe bucket.

These days, I like to hold the dog’s head in my hands. The dog’s fur is expertly etched into the piece with what looks like might have been a small stiff-bristled brush, laying down the hairs in exactly the pattern that a dog’s fur grows on its head. That is, up the muzzle, then splitting in the different directions: over and under the eyes, across the top head, circling around the jowls.

I wonder about the artist, and the dogs this artist must have loved.

You see, this is no generic mantlepiece dog. If you saw him tied to a post near the door of a Starbucks cafe, you would recognize him.  He  is an individual with eyes of animal who appears to recognize someone that he had been waiting for. There’s a graying muzzle, a testament to the years in that household. It’s the same with the saggy lips at the corners of what would be a drooly mouth, and the same with the floppy folds running down the neck.

The head is hollow. Inside I see finger impressions. When I hold the head, I can poke around inside with my thumb or fore finger.  My fingers go where the artist’s fingers must have gone while the fingers on the other hand worked at the pinching and clay shaping.

No human being can know all that was buried in the cold earth in the 1906 earthquake. Pieces of the ceramic dog’s body must still be down there, or in the old landfill in nearby Brisbane. Paws, haunches. Tail. That’s lost, of course. I take some comfort in knowing my father was responsible for resurrecting a few things, stuff that had joined the living, and again held in warm hands.

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