Expiration Date – Snippet 01

Expiration Date – Snippet 01

Expiration Date

By Tim Powers

BOOK ONE

Open Up That Golden Gate

TRENTON, NJ–Thomas A. Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, whose honors have included having a New Jersey town and college named after him, received a college degree Sunday, 61 years after his death.

Thomas Edison State College conferred on its namesake a bachelor of science degree for lifetime achievement.

The Associated Press,

Monday, October 26, 1992

CHAPTER 1

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

–Lewis Carroll,

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

When he was little, say four or five, the living room had been as dim as a church all the time, with curtains pulled across the broad windows, and everywhere there had been the kind of big dark wooden furniture that’s got stylized leaves and grapes and claws carved into it. Now the curtains had been taken down, and through the windows Kootie could see the lawn–more gold than green in the early-evening light, and streaked with the lengthening shadows of the sycamores–and the living room was painted white now and had hardly any furniture in it besides white wood chairs and a glass-topped coffee table.

The mantel over the fireplace was white now too, but the old black bust of Dante still stood on it, the only relic of his parents’ previous taste in furnishings. Dante Allah Hairy, he used to think its name was.

Kootie leaned out of his chair and switched on the pole lamp. Off to his left, his blue nylon knapsack was slumped against the front door, and ahead of him and above him Dante’s eyes were gleaming like black olives. Kootie hiked himself out of the chair and crossed to the fireplace.

He knew that he wasn’t allowed to touch the Dante. He had always known that, and the rule had never been a difficult one to obey. He was eleven now, and no longer imagined that the black-painted head and shoulders were just the visible top of a whole little body concealed inside the brick fireplace front–and he realized these days that the rustlings that woke him at night were nothing more than the breeze in the boughs outside his bedroom window, and not the Dante whispering to itself all alone in the dark living room–but it was still a nasty-looking thing, with its scowling hollow-cheeked face and the way its black finish was shiny on the high spots, as if generations of people had spent a lot of time rubbing it.

Kootie reached up and touched its nose.

Nothing happened. The nose was cool and slick. Kootie put one hand under the thing’s chin and the other hand behind its head and then carefully lifted it down and set it on the white stone slab of the hearth.

He sat down cross-legged beside it and thought of Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon, sweating furiously, hacking with a penknife at the black-painted statue of the falcon; Kootie had no idea what might be inside the Dante, but he thought the best way to get at it would be to simply shatter the thing. He had glimpsed the unpainted white base of the bust just now, and had seen that it was only plaster.

But breaking it would be the irrevocable step.

He had packed shirts, socks, underwear, sweatsuit, a jacket, and a baseball cap in his knapsack, and he had nearly three hundred dollars in twenties in his pocket, along with his Swiss army knife, but he wouldn’t be committed to running away until he broke the bust of Dante.

Broke it and took away whatever might be inside it. He hoped he’d find gold–Krugerrands, say, or those little flat blocks like dominoes.

It occurred to him, now, that even if the bust was nothing but solid plaster all through, as useless as Greenstreet’s black bird had turned out to be, he would still have to break it. The Dante was the . . . what, flag, emblem, totem pole of what his parents had all along been trying to make Kootie into.

With a trembling finger, he pushed the bust over backward. It clunked on the stone, staring at the ceiling now, but it didn’t break.

He exhaled, both relieved and disappointed.

Dirty mummy-stuff, he thought. Meditation, and the big tunnel with all the souls drifting toward the famous white light. His parents had lots of pictures of that. Pyramids and the Book of Thoth and reincarnation and messages from these “old soul” guys called Mahatmas.

The Mahatmas were dead, but they would supposedly still come around to tell you how to be a perfect dead guy like they were. But they were coy–Kootie had never seen one at all, even after hours of sitting and trying to make his mind a blank, and even his parents only claimed to have glimpsed the old boys, who always apparently snuck out through the kitchen door if you tried to get a good look at them. Mostly you could tell that they’d been around only by the things they’d rearrange–books on the shelves, cups in the kitchen. If you had left a handful of change on the dresser, you’d find they’d sorted the coins and stacked them. Sometimes with the dates in order.

At about the age when his friends were figuring out that Santa Claus was a fake, Kootie had stopped believing in the Mahatmas and all the rest of it; later he’d had a shock when he learned in school that there really had been a guy named Mahatma Gandhi, but a friend of his who saw the movie Gandhi told him that Gandhi was just a regular person, a politician in India who was skinny and bald and wore diapers all the time.

Kootie wasn’t allowed to see movies . . . or watch TV, or even eat meat, though he often sneaked off to McDonald’s for a Big Mac, and then had to chew gum afterward to get rid of the smell.

Kootie wanted to be an astronomer when he grew up, but his parents weren’t going to let him go to college. He wasn’t sure if he’d even be allowed to go to all four years of high school. His parents told him he was a chela, just as they were, and that his duty in life was to . . . well, it was hard to say, really; to get squared away with these dead guys. Be their “new Krishnamurti”–carry their message to the world. Be prepared for when you died and found yourself in that big tunnel.

And in the meantime, no TV or movies or meat, and when he grew up he wasn’t supposed to get married or ever have sex at all–not because of AIDS, but because the Mahatmas were down on it. Well, he thought, they would be, wouldn’t they, being dead and probably wearing diapers and busy all the time rearranging people’s coffee cups. Shoot.

But the worst thing his parents had ever done to him they did on the day he was born–they named him after one of these Mahatmas, a dead guy who had to go and have the name Koot Hoomie. Growing up named Koot Hoomie Parganas, with the inevitable nickname Kootie, had been . . . well, he had seen a lot of fat kids or stuttering kids get teased mercilessly in school, but he always wished he could trade places with them if in exchange he could have a name like Steve or Jim or Bill.

He lifted the Dante in both hands to a height of about four inches, and let it fall. Clunk! But it still didn’t break.

He believed his parents worshipped the thing. Sometimes after he had gone off to bed and was supposedly asleep, he had sneaked back and peeked into the living room and seen them bowing in front of it and mumbling, and at certain times of the year–Christmas, for example, and Halloween, which was only about a week away–his mother would knit little hats and collars for Dante. She always had to make them new, too, couldn’t use last year’s, though she saved all of them.

And his parents always insisted to Kootie–nervously, he thought–that the previous owner of the house had coincidentally been named Don Tay (or sometimes Om Tay) and that’s why the drunks or crazy people who called on the phone sometimes at night seemed to be asking to talk to the statue.

***

Terminator 2. “Peewee’s Playhouse.” Mario Brothers and Tetris on the Nintendo. Big Macs and the occasional furtive Marlboro. College, eventually, and maybe even just finishing high school. Astronomy. Friends. All that, on the one hand.

Rajma, khatte chhole, masoor dal, moong dal, chana dal, which were all just different kinds of cooked beans. On the other hand. Along with Mahatmas, and start some kind of new theosophical order (instead of go to college), and don’t have a girlfriend.

As if he ever could.

You think it’s bad that Melvin touched you and gave you his cooties? We’ve got a Kootie in our class.

***

His jaw was clenched so tight that his teeth ached, and tears were being squeezed out of his closed eyes, but he lifted the Dante over his head with both hands–paused–and then smashed it down onto the hearth.

With a muffled crack it broke into a hundred powdery white pieces, some tumbling away onto the tan carpet.

He opened his eyes, and for several seconds while his heart pounded and he didn’t breathe, he just stared down at the scattered floury rubble. At last he let himself exhale, and he slowly stretched out his hand.

At first glance the mess seemed to consist entirely of angular lumps of plaster; but when he tremblingly brushed through the litter, he found a brick-shaped piece, about the size of two decks of cards glued together front-to-back. He picked it up–it was heavy, and its surface gave a little when he squeezed it, cracking the clinging plaster and exhaling a puff of fine white dust.

He glanced over his shoulder at the front door, and tried to imagine what his parents would do if they were to walk in right now, and see this. They might very well, he thought, go completely insane.

Hastily he started tugging at the stiffly flexible stuff that encased the object; when he got a corner unfolded and was able to see the inner surface of the covering he realized that it was some sort of patterned silk handkerchief, stiffened by the plaster.

Once he’d got the corner loose, it was easy–in two seconds he had peeled the white-crusted cloth away, and was holding up a little glass brick. The surfaces of it were rippled but gleamingly smooth, and its translucent depths were as cloudy as smoky quartz.

He held it up to the light from the window–

And the air seemed to vibrate, as if a huge gong had been struck in the sky and was ringing, and shaking the earth, with some subsonic note too profoundly low to be sensed by living ears.

***

All day the hot Santa Ana winds had been combing the dry grasses down the slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains, moving west like an airy tide across the miles-separated semi-desert towns of Fontana and Upland, over the San Jose Hills and into the Los Angeles basin, where they swept the smog blanket out to sea and let the inhabitants see the peaks of Mount Wilson and Mount Baldy, hallucinatorily clear against a startlingly blue sky.

Palm trees bowed and nodded over old residential streets and threw down dry fronds to bounce dustily off parked cars; and red-brick roof tiles, loosened by the summer’s rains and sun, skittered free of ancient cement moorings, cartwheeled over rain gutters, and shattered on driveways that were, as often as not, two weathered lines of concrete with a strip of grass growing between. The steady background bump-and-hiss of the wind was punctuated by the hoarse shouts of crows trying to fly upwind.

Downtown, in the streets around the East L.A. Interchange where the northbound 5 breaks apart into the Golden State and Santa Monica and Hollywood Freeways, the hot wind had all day long been shaking the big slow RTD buses on their shocks as they groaned along the sun-softened asphalt, and the usual reeks of diesel smoke and ozone and the faint strawberry-sweetness of garbage were today replaced with the incongruous spice of faraway sage and baked Mojave stone.

For just a moment now as the sun was setting, redly silhouetting trees and oil tanks on the western hills around Santa Monica, a higher-than-usual number of cars swerved in their freeway lanes, or jumped downtown curbs to collide with light poles or newspaper stands, or rolled forward at stoplights to clank against the bumpers of the cars ahead; and many of the homeless people in East L.A. and Florence and Inglewood cowered behind their shopping carts and shouted about Jesus or the FBI or the Devil or unfathomable personal deities; and for a few moments up on Mulholland Drive all the westbound cars drifted right and then left and then right again, as if the drivers were all rocking to the same song on the radio.

***

In an alley behind a ramshackle apartment building down in Long Beach, a fat, shirtless old man shivered suddenly and dropped the handle of the battered dolly he had been angling toward an open garage, and the refrigerator he’d been carting slammed to the pavement, pinning his foot; his gasping shouts and curses brought a heavyset young woman running, and after she’d helped him hike the refrigerator off of his foot, he demanded breathlessly that she run upstairs and draw a bath for him, a cold one.

***

And on Broadway the neon signs were coming on and darkening the sky–the names of the shops were often Japanese or Korean, though the rest of the lettering was generally in Spanish–and many of the people in the hurrying crowds below glanced uneasily at the starless heavens. On the sidewalk under the marquee of the old Million Dollar Theater a man in a ragged nylon jacket and baggy camouflage pants had clenched his teeth against a scream and was now leaning against one of the old ornate lampposts.

His left arm, which had been cold all day despite the hot air that was dewing his forehead with sweat, was warm now, and of its own volition was pointing west. With his grubby right hand, he pushed back the bill of his baseball cap, and he squinted in that direction, at the close wall of the theater, as if he might be able to see through it and for miles beyond the bricks of it, out past Hollywood, toward Beverly Hills, looking for–

–An abruptly arrived thing, a new and godalmighty smoke, a switched-on beacon somewhere out toward where the sun had just set.

“Get a life,” he whispered to himself. “God, get a life!”

He pushed himself away from the pole. Walking through the crowd was awkward with his arm stuck straight out, though the people he passed didn’t give him a glance, and when he got on an RTD bus at Third Street he had to shuffle down the crowded aisle sideways.

***

And for most of the night all the crickets were silent in the dark yards and in the hallways of empty office buildings and in the curbside grasses, as if the same quiet footstep had startled all of them.

 

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