Expiration Date – Snippet 03
“. . . Just look along the road, and tell me if you can see either of them.”
“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.
“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!”
Through the Looking-Glass
Pete Sullivan opened his eyes after the flash, but seconds went by as he watched a patch of sky through the screened window of the van, and he didn’t hear any thunder. He sat up in the narrow bed and wondered whether silent flashes behind one’s eyes were a symptom of impending stroke; he had been unaccountably jumpy tonight, and he had played a terrible game of pool in the bar here after work, flinching and clumsy with the cue stick.
The thought of incipient stroke wasn’t alarming him, and he realized that he didn’t really believe it. He swung his bare feet to the carpeted floorboards and stood up–years ago he had replaced the van’s stock roof with a camper top that raised the ceiling two and a half feet, so he was able to stand without bumping the top of his head–and he leaned on the little sink counter and stared out through the open window at the Arizona night.
Tonto Basin was down inside a ring of towering cumulus clouds tonight, and as he watched, one of the clouds was lit for an instant from inside; and a moment later a vivid fork of lightning flashed to the east, over the southern peaks of the Mogollon Rim.
Sullivan waited, but no thunder followed.
The breeze through the screen smelled like the autumn evenings of his boyhood in California, a cool smell of rain-wet rocks, and suddenly the stale old-clothes and propane-refrigerator air inside the van was confining by contrast–he pulled on a pair of jeans and some socks, stepped into his steel-toed black shoes, and slid the door open.
When he was outside and standing on the gravel of O’Hara’s back parking lot, he could hear the noise from the bar’s open back door–Garth Brooks on the jukebox and the click of pool shots and the shaking racket of drink and talk.
He had taken a couple of steps out across the lot, looking up vainly for stars in the cloudy night sky, when a Honda station wagon spoke to him.
“Warning,” it said. The bar’s bright back-door light gleamed on the car’s hood. “You are too close to the vehicle—step back.” Sullivan stepped back. “Thank you,” said the car.
The thing’s voice had been just barely civil.
Sullivan plodded back to the van for cigarettes and a lighter. When he was back out on the gravel, the Honda was quiet until he clicked his lighter; then the car again warned him that he was too close to the vehicle.
He inhaled on the cigarette and blew out a plume of smoke that trailed away on the breeze. “Too close for what?” he asked.
“Step back,” said the car.
“What vehicle?” Sullivan asked. “You? Or is there somebody else around? Maybe we both ought to step back.”
“Warning,” the thing was saying, speaking over him. “You are too close to the vehicle. Step back.”
“What’ll you do if I don’t?”
“It’ll go off like a fire siren, Pete,” came a voice from behind Sullivan. “What are you teasing a car for?”
It was Morrie the bartender, and out here in the fresh air Sullivan thought he could smell the beer stains on the man’s apron. “He started it, Morrie.”
“It started it. It’s a car. You’ve got a call.”
Sullivan imagined picking up the bar phone and hearing the flat mechanical voice telling him that he was standing too close to a vehicle. “The power station?”
“Didn’t say. Maybe it’s some local mom pissed about her daughter being messed with.”
Morrie had turned and was crunching back toward the lit doorway, and Sullivan tucked in his T-shirt and followed him. It wouldn’t be some citizen of this little desert town–Sullivan was one of the apparently few tramp electricians who didn’t get drunk every night and use his eight-hundred-a-week paycheck to sway the local girls.
Besides, he’d only been in town this season for a week. Last Friday he’d been bending conduit pipe and pulling wires at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station a hundred miles west of here–and during this last week at the Roosevelt Station, outside of town, there had been too much overtime for him to do anything more than work, come back here to gulp a couple of Cokes and shoot a couple of games of pool, and sleep.
The noise of conversation increased when he walked in through the back door after Morrie, and Sullivan squinted in the sudden glare of overhead lights and neon beer signs. He walked to the bar, and Morrie was already behind it and tilting a plastic cup under the Coke tap. The telephone was on the bar with the receiver lying beside it.
Sullivan picked it up. “Hello.”
“Pete? God, you’re a creature of habit–every year working the same places at the same seasons.” She sounded angry.
It was his twin sister, and his hand tightened on the receiver. “Sukie, what–”
“Shut up and listen. I’m at a hotel in Delaware, and the front desk just called me. They say somebody hit my car in the lot, and they want me to go down and give ’em insurance information. I–”
“Sukie, I don’t–”
“Shut up! I woke up on bar-time, Pete! I was bolt upright a second before the phone rang, and then I felt the plastic of the receiver before my hand hit it! I could feel my pupils tighten up a second before I turned on the lamp! Nobody hit my car, I’ll bet my life on it! She’s found me, and she’ll find you–she’ll have people at the desk here waiting for me, and she’s got people out there where you are, you know she does. And you know what she wants us for, too, unless you’ve managed to forget everything. I’m looking Commander Hold-‘Em in the eye right now, if you care; this is for you. Go straight out of there, right now, and drive and–this call is through the goddamn front desk, I know they’re listening–go to the place where we hid–a thing, some things, okay? In a garage? It’s what you’re gonna need if she’s–wanting us again. For any purpose.”
“Do you know the thing I’m talking about?”
“I think so, the . . . where you can’t hardly walk for all the palm fronds on the pavement, right? And you’ve got to crawl under low branches? Is the . . . thing still there?”
“I’ve never moved it.”
“But I can’t just walk away here, Sukie. I’d have to . . . God, go to Radiation Control and get a Whole Body Count, that takes twenty minutes right there, and for my paycheck–”
“Walk away, Pete! It’s just a job.”
“It’s the Arizona Public Service,” Sullivan told her evenly, “that’s Edison-owned, just like all the utilities are–the east coast is all Con Ed, and the West Coast is California Edison, and even Niagara up there is on the Edison grid. It’s all Edison, coast to coast. I’d never work for any of the utilities again.”
“Sukie, maybe somebody did hit your car,” he began, then realized that he was talking to a dead phone. He hung it up and pushed it toward Morrie.
“Sukie?” the bartender said.
“My sister. Somebody ran into her car and she wants to make a federal case out of it.” Sullivan was remembering how awkwardly he’d played pool earlier in the evening, and he was annoyed to notice that his hands were trembling. He pushed away the Coke. “Give me a shot of Wild Turkey and a Coors chaser, would you?”
Morrie raised his eyebrows, but hiked up the bottle of bourbon without remarking on the fact that this would be the first real drink Sullivan had ever ordered in the place.
Sullivan sat down at one of the stools and slugged back the bourbon and then chased it with a long sip of cold beer. It made him feel closer to his sister, and he resented that almost enough to push the drinks away.
But not quite. He waved the emptied shot glass at Morrie and had another sip of the beer.
I’m looking Commander Hold-‘Em in the eye right now, if you care.
Commander Hold-‘Em was Sukie’s name for the Grim Reaper–Sullivan believed she’d derived it from the name of some poker game that she always lost at–and it was also what she had always called whatever gun she carried. For several years, in the old days in L.A., it had been a .45 Derringer with two hollow-point bullets in it. Commander Hold-‘Em would certainly still be something as effective today. Sullivan wondered if she would kill herself before even going down to the front desk and making sure that the call had been a trap. Maybe she would. Maybe she had just been waiting, all these years, for a good enough excuse to blow her goddamned head off. And, of course, not neglect to call him first.
And you know what she wants us for, too, unless you’ve managed to forget everything.
For a moment Sullivan found himself remembering an enigmatic image from his recurrent adolescent nightmare: three cans of Hires Root Beer, sitting in beach sand, unopened forever . . . a man’s voice saying, You’re not Speedy Alka-Seltzer–
And he shuddered and thrust the thought away. He lifted his glass and took such a huge slug of beer that his throat ached sharply, and he had to sit rigid until the swallow had finally gone down. At last he could breathe again.
Now he could feel the sudden cold of the beer in his stomach. At least it had driven away the momentary memory. God, he thought, I’m turning into Sukie.
She’d been good at driving the L.A. freeways drunk–she always said that if you started to weave in your lane, you could cover it by accelerating as you corrected, and nobody would know you’d been out of control; it had become a motto of theirs–Accelerate Outta Problems.
Morrie finally refilled the shot glass; Sullivan nodded and took a cautious sip. I was never any good at shooting pool, he thought. Or else, I’ve always been fairly good at it, but I was just jumpy when I was playing earlier tonight. I can’t accelerate out of this town, out of this job. Probably she made the whole thing up–giggling in a house somewhere right now, not in Delaware and not even owning a gun anymore–just to wreck my life one more time.
No way it’ll happen.
He took a moderate swallow of the beer. I could just resign from this job, he thought. If I turn in my resignation to the general foreman, it won’t be held against me. Tramp electricians are always getting “a case of red-ass” and moving on. I’d just have to sign out and get a Whole Body Count, wearing paper pyjamas and lying in the aluminum coffin while the counter box inches over me, measuring the rems of radiation I’ve picked up this year; then drive to California and retrieve the . . . the mask, and move on, to Nevada or somewhere. There’s always utilities work for someone who’s still in good with Edison.
But if Sukie’s just jerking me around, why should I bother?
And if she’s not, he thought, then there’ll be people waiting for me to show up at the station, as she said. In fact, if bad guys were listening in on our call, at the front desk of her hypothetical hotel, then they’d have heard Morrie answer the phone here the way he always does, O’Hara’s in Roosevelt, Morrie speaking.
It’s a half-hour’s drive from the Roosevelt Nuclear Generating Station to O’Hara’s . . . if you’re not in a tearing hurry.
Sullivan bolted the rest of the bourbon and the beer and walked out of the bar. Morrie would add the cost of the drinks to the rent on the parking space in the back lot.
As he trudged across the obliquely lit gravel, the sight of the familiar, homely old van slowed his pace. He could just climb in, pull the doors shut behind him and lock them and get back into the fold-out bed, and tomorrow morning at eight be driving through the gate at the Roosevelt Station, waving his badge at the guard who knew him anyway, and then happily spend all morning tightening conduit bolts that would have to be ripped out and done again after the foreman noticed that the inspection date on all the torque wrenches had expired a week ago. Assured, meaningless, union work, at thirty dollars an hour. Where would he find another trade like it?
He jumped in surprise, and an instant later the Honda said, “Warning—you are too close to the vehicle.” The breeze was suddenly cold on his forehead, and his heart was pounding. “Step back,” the thing went on. He stepped back. “Thank you.”
Bar-time. It had not just been clumsiness at the pool table. He was definitely on bar-time again.
I woke up on bar-time, Pete!
That’s what the Sullivan twins had called the phenomenon when they’d first noticed it, early in their years of working for Loretta deLarava in L.A.–Sukie had got the term from California bars that keep their clocks set about ten minutes fast, so as to be able to get all the drinks off the tables by the legal shut-down time of 2 a.m., and drinkers experience 2 a.m. a little while before it actually occurs. The twins had spent a lot of nights in bars, though Pete drank only Cokes and the occasional beer, and he could still vividly see Sukie, wearing dark glasses at some dark corner table, sucking a cigarette and asking someone. One-thirty? Is that real-time or bar-time?
Sullivan stood beside the van now, his hand on the driver’s-side door handle.
Finally, he unlocked the door and climbed in. The engine started at the first twist of the key, and Sullivan let it warm up for only a few seconds before clanking the van into gear and steering it out toward the road that would take him south to Claypool and the 60 Highway that stretched away west.
The sky flashed again, twice; and though he had rolled the window down as he drove past the glaringly lit front entrance of O’Hara’s and then picked up speed on the paved road, he still heard no following thunder.
He touched the brake pedal an instant before the brake lights of the car ahead came on; and then he saw the next jagged spear of lightning clearly because he had already glanced toward where it would be.
Bar-time for sure. He sighed and kept driving.
Everyone experiences bar-time occasionally, usually in the half-conscious hypnagogic stage of drifting into or out of sleep–when the noise that jolts one awake, whether it’s an alarm or a bell or a shout, is anticipated, is led up to by the plot of the interrupted dream; or when some background noise like the hum of a refrigerator compressor or an air conditioner becomes intrusive only in the instant before it shuts off.
The Sullivan twins had spent countless hours on bar-time during the eighties–it had seemed that they were always reaching for a telephone just before it would start to ring, and appearing in indoor snapshots with their eyes closed because they had anticipated the flash. Eventually they had figured out that it was just one more weird consequence of working for Loretta deLarava, but the pay had been good enough to make it, too, just a minor annoyance.
Pay. Sullivan glanced at his fuel gauge and wondered if he would ever be able to get his last paycheck from the power station. Probably not, if Sukie had been right about deLarava being after them. Could he get a job as a lighting technician again?
Probably not, if deLarava was still in any aspect of the film business.
Worry about it all later, he told himself, after you’ve got to Hollywood and fetched the mask–if it’s still in that weird garage, if somebody hasn’t planed off that hill and put up condominiums there.
Without taking his eyes from the highway rushing past in his headlights, he fumbled in the broad tray on the console beside him, found a tape cassette, and slid it into the dashboard slot; and as the adventurous first notes of Men At Work’s “A Land Down Under” came shaking out of the speakers behind him, he tried to feel braced and confident. The intrepid traveler, he thought, the self-reliant nomad; movin’ on, able to handle anything from a blown head gasket to a drunk with a knife in a roadside bar; and always squinting off at the horizon like the Marlboro man.
But he shivered and gripped the wheel with both hands. All the way out to Hollywood? The oil in the van hadn’t been changed for four thousand miles, and the brakes needed bleeding.
Sukie had frequently, and apparently helplessly, made up nonsense lyrics for songs, and when the tape ended he found himself humming the old “Beverly Hillbillies” tune, and unreeling random lyrics in his mind:
Sister said, “Pete, run away from there.”
She said, “California is the place you ought to be,”
So he cranked the poor old van, and he drove to Galilee.
On the night of his sixteenth birthday, he had borrowed his foster-father’s car and gone tearing around a dark shopping-center parking lot, and then the security guards had chased him for miles in their fake cop car, and at the end of the chase the furious guards had threatened to charge him with all kinds of crimes; nothing had come of it, and the only one of the wild charges he could remember now was Intercity flight to avoid apprehension.
And now here he was, twenty-four years later, his black hair streaked with gray at the temples, forlornly wondering how even an interstate flight could possibly let him avoid apprehension.
In the rearview mirror, he saw the back window flash white, and this time thunder came rolling and booming across the desert, past him and on ahead into the darkness, followed a moment later by thrashing rain.
He switched on the windshield wipers. Her real name had been Elizabeth, but she’d somehow got her nickname from Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife”–the song had briefly referred to a woman named Sukie Tawdry. His vision blurred with tears and he found that he was weeping, harshly and resentfully, for the twin sister who had been lost to him long before tonight.
The unfamiliar liberation of drink made him want to stomp on the accelerator–A.O.P., dude–and hammer the flat front of the van relentlessly through the desert air; but he remembered that this first rain would free up oil on the surface of the highway, slicking everything, and he let the speedometer needle drift back down to forty.
There was, after all, no hurry. DeLarava would want to do her work on Halloween, and that was still five days off.