Expiration Date – Snippet 05
“Then you keep moving around, I suppose?” said Alice.
“Exactly so,” said the Hatter, “as the things get used up.”
“But what happens when you come to the beginning again?” Alice ventured to ask.
“Suppose we change the subject,” the March Hare interrupted . . .
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
One of them had finally been for real.
It had been two hours since the Greyhound bus had pulled out of the dawn-streaked yard of the Albuquerque station, subsequently finding the I-40 highway and cranking its way up through the dry rock Zuni Mountains, downshifting to follow the twisting highway among the ancient lava beds, and booming down the western slope to roar right through Gallup without stopping; but when the bus finally swung off the I-40 at the little town of Houck, just over the border into Arizona, Angelica Anthem Elizalde simply kept her seat while most of the other passengers shuffled past her down the aisle to catch some fresh morning air and maybe a quick cup of coffee during the fifteen-minute stop.
She looked out her window. Though it was now eight-thirty, the bus was still casting a yards-long shadow, and the shadow pointed west. She shivered, but tucked her ladies’ magazine into the pocket of the seat in front of her.
She had hoped to distract herself with its colorful pages, but had run aground on an almost hysterically cheerful article about how to cook squash, with a sidebar that addressed “Twelve Important Squash Questions”; and then she had been forced out of the pages again by a multiple-choice “Creativity Test”, which gave high marks to the hypothetical housewife who, confronted with two mismatched socks after all the laundry had been put away, elected to (C) make hand puppets of them rather than (A) throw them away or (B) use them for dusting.
None of the listed answers had been anything like “burn them,” “eat them,” “bury them in the backyard,” or “save them in case one night you answer the door to a stranger with bare, mismatched feet.”
Elizalde managed a tight smile. She flexed her hands and wondered what work she would find to do in Los Angeles. Typist, again? Waitress, again? Panhandler, bag lady, prostitute, a patient in one of the county mental hospitals in which she’d done her residency—
—a felon locked up in the Sybil Brand Institute for Women—
She quickly fetched up the magazine out of the seat pocket and stared hard at a photograph of some happy family having fun around a swing set (–probably all of them models, really, who had never seen each other before lining up there for the picture–) and she thought again about turning back. Get off the bus at Flagstaff, she told herself, and catch the 474 bus, take it all the way back to Oklahoma City, be there by eight-thirty tonight. Go back to the big truck stop under the Petro water tower, tell the manager at the Iron Skillet that you were too sick to call in sick when you failed to show up for the waitress shift last night.
Get back on that old heartland merry-go-round.
For nearly two years she had been traveling, far from Los Angeles, working in restaurants and bars and small offices, along the Erie Canal from the Appalachians to Buffalo, and up and down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Cairo, and, most recently, along the Canadian River in Oklahoma. She’d celebrated her thirty-fourth birthday with half a dozen of the Iron Skillet waitresses in the bar at O’Connell’s in Norman, twenty minutes south of Oklahoma City.
At least L.A. would be fairly warm, even now, in October, four days before Halloween. The Mexican street vendors in the Boyle Heights area might already be selling El Día de los Muertos candy, the white stylized skulls and skeletons–
Again she forced herself to stare at the family in the magazine photo, and she tried to believe that it really was a family, that they were genuinely enjoying some–
weekend in the backyard, oblivious of this photographer–
. . . It didn’t work. The adults and kids in the photograph just looked like models, strangers to each other.
Elizalde remembered driving the L.A. freeways at night, snatching an occasional glance to the side at some yellow-lit kitchen window in a passing apartment building, and always for one moment desperately envying the lives of whatever people lived there. She had always imagined hammered-copper roosters on the kitchen wall, a TV in the next room with “Cheers” getting innocent laughs, children sitting cross-legged on the carpet–
That had never really worked, either. Maybe those apartments had all been vacant, with the lights left on. She folded the magazine and put it back.
A few moments later she jumped, and looked toward the front of the bus just before the first returning passenger stepped aboard, rocking the bus on the shocks. Elizalde sighed. No, she couldn’t go back to Oklahoma.
For about twelve hours now she had been doing this, reacting to noises and jolts just before they happened. She’d been in bed when it started, and she’d awakened in her darkened apartment just before the clock radio had blared on. At first she had thought some mental clock had been keeping track of the time while she’d slept–she’d found herself remembering her grandmother’s saying, Es como los brujos, duerme con los ojos abiertos: He is like the witches, and sleeps with his eyes open–but the effect had continued as she’d proceeded to get ready for work, so that she’d flinched before water had come out of the shower head, and dropped her hair dryer because it had seemed to quiver animatedly in her hand just as she was about to push the On button.
Then she had begun blinking her eyes even before the tears welled up in them. She’d sat down on her bathroom floor and just sobbed with fright, for in the same way that she’d seemed to be anticipating physical events, she had now been afraid that an idea was about to surface in her mind, an idea that she had been strenuously avoiding for two years. Before she’d been able to distract herself, the idea had hit her: maybe she had not, after all, had a psychotic schizophrenic episode in her Los Angeles clinic in 1990.
And, bleakly, she had known that she would have to go back there and find out. Find out if: one of them had finally been for real.
Everybody was getting back on the bus now, and the driver had the engine idling. Elizalde let her head sink back against the high, padded seat, and she thought she might at last be able to get some sleep, during the twelve hours it would take the bus to plow on through Flagstaff and Kingman and Barstow to, finally, Los Angeles.
After all, it seemed that nothing could sneak up on her.
Soy como las brujas, duermo con mis ojos abiertos.
Pete Sullivan clanked the gearshift into neutral and gunned the engine to keep it from stalling. He was stopped in what was supposed to be the fast lane of the 101, a mile or so short of the tunnel where the northbound Santa Ana Freeway would merge in. God only knew when he would get to Hollywood.
Though it was a non-holiday Friday morning, even on the westbound 60 the traffic had been jammed up–fully stopped much of the time, and occasionally speeding up and opening out in front of him for just enough moments to let him imagine that the congestion was behind him, before the red brake lights would all start glaring again ahead of him.
In the driver’s seat of his van he was above most of the other drivers, and during the course of an hour, while his foot had moved back and forth from the brake to the gas pedal, he had watched the towers of Los Angeles rise ahead of him in the brassy light. The towers had been scrimmed to dim silhouettes by the smog, as if they were faded shapes in a photograph that’s been left out too long in the sun–or, he had thought, as if the city has had its picture taken so many times that the cumulative loss of images had begun to visibly diminish it.
Like deLarava’s ghosts, he had thought. Maybe the whole city has died, but is too distracted to have realized it yet.
The towers were clearer now, and it was disorienting to see big buildings that he didn’t recognize–one of the new ones was a tall tan-stone cylinder, like a stylized sculpture of a rocket ship, and he wondered uneasily if he would still be able to find his way around the city’s streets.
His window was open to the diesel-reeking air, and he looked down over his elbow at the center divider, which in the old days had generally just been a featureless blur rushing past. Flowering weeds, and even a couple of midget palm trees, were pushing up out of cracks in the concrete, and curled around them and the many Budweiser cans was an apparently constant web of brown tape from broken stereo cassettes; there were even a lot of peaches for some reason, bruised but unbitten, as if some citizen of this no man’s land had left them there like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs.
Sullivan wondered what cassettes these were that drivers had so prodigally pitched out their windows, and he grinned nervously at the temptation to open the door and salvage some of the tape. It would be a cinch to clean it and wind it onto a fresh cassette-half. Would it all be the same kind of music, perhaps even all copies of the same tape? It occurred to him that the center divider looked like a miles-long shrine to primitive-but-urban gods; and he shivered and turned his attention back to the pickup truck in front of him, in the bed of which two Mexican girls were listlessly brushing their long black hair.
About an hour ago he had stopped peering ahead to see what wreck or freeway construction would be causing the traffic jam–apparently the freeways just snarled up without any definable cause these days, like the turbulence that would sometimes inexplicably shake a sump pipe at a power station even when all the air had been bled out of it.
In Los Angeles space is time, he thought–you don’t say, I’m thirty miles from downtown; you say, I’m half an hour from it. If unpredictable turbulence has become a real, constant factor in traffic, then all the maps and clocks are broken (like the Mad Hatter’s butter-clogged watch!) and you can only make a hazy guess about how far it might be from one point to another.
I’m a hundred years from Venice Beach, he thought, and a thousand miles from Christmas Eve of 1986. Better draw up a chart.
He pushed the thought away and concentrated on the traffic.
The Brew 102 brewery proved to be gone. 102 had been the only beer Sullivan had ever encountered that had sediment in it, but he found that he missed the old black-and-yellow sign, and he was further disoriented to see half a dozen helicopters parked on the wide roof of a building on the other side of the freeway. With the glittering rocket still ahead of him, the whole place was looking like a poster for some 1930’s science-fiction movie.
When he eventually gunned the van up the off-ramp at Hollywood Boulevard, though, there were beat up old couches under the palm trees in the freeway border area, and a dispirited-looking group of ragged black men, their hair in ropy dreadlocks, were slouching there in the shade. He half-expected to see chickens running around their skinny ankles, and a fire in a split oil drum behind them.
The clocks and maps are smashed and ripped to bits, he thought. Even though it was the best butter.
He drove west on Hollywood Boulevard, cautiously pleased to see that though the names of many businesses had changed–there was no Howard Johnson’s restaurant at Hollywood and Vine anymore–most of the actual buildings he remembered had survived.
It seemed to him that it had always been like this, in the area from Franklin south to Melrose and beyond. Every building looked as if it had originally been used for something else. Even here on Hollywood Boulevard, the odd top corners of the storefronts were frequently broken or bent, showing old brick underneath, and between buildings he could see brick alcoves, way up and far back, dating from God knew when. Tiny ironwork balconies still stuck out on second and third floors, with probably nothing behind them anymore but empty offices.
Now that he was nearly there–only one turn remaining, a right onto Laurel Canyon once he’d got out past this tourist area of the boulevard–he was in no hurry to get to the ruins he and his sister had explored on that spring day in ’86. At Wilcox he impulsively decided to turn north–and when he’d made the turn he saw that the Shelton Apartments had been torn down, replaced by some sprawling new pink apartment building.
He pulled the van over to the curb and switched off the engine for the first time since stopping for eggs and bacon in Blythe, four hours ago. Then for several minutes, while he lit a cigarette and stared across the street at the. new four-story building, he tried to remember the old Shelton.
Like the Lido and the Mayfair, both of which were still standing a block farther up the street, the Shelton had had one of those big signs on the roof, separate ornate letters in line, supported by a lattice of steel beams, and had had a lot of the decorative cornices and balconies that architects never seemed to bother with anymore. The only eccentricities of this new place, the Hollywood Studio Club Apartments, were inset windows and an apparent blanket policy of having all corners be rounded. A banner across the top announced $777 moves you in! Probably not a bad price around here, he thought absently, these days. It had been while filming a documentary in the lobby of the old Shelton in the winter of ’84 that he and his sister had finally got a strong clue about what Loretta deLarava really did.
DeLarava had hired the twins right out of college ten years earlier, and they’d been working for her ever since as “gaffers”–lighting technicians. DeLarava produced short-subject films–in-house instruction pieces for businesses, non-timely human-interest bits for news programs, the occasional commercial–and for twelve years the twins had spent their days driving to what seemed like every corner of Los Angeles, to lay cables and set up Genie lifts and hang lights over some beach or office floor or sidewalk.
DeLarava had been a disconcerting boss. One of the first jobs the twins worked on with her had been a short film about the vandalizing of Houdini’s grave in Brooklyn in 1975–and deLarava had been the first to cover the event because it hadn’t even occurred before she arrived. It had been deLarava herself who shattered the stone bust of Houdini in the Machpelah Cemetery and took a mummified thumb out of a hollow inside it, and who had dug two plaster hands out of the soil in front of the grave. The twins had of course not even been tempted to turn their new boss in to the authorities–but, apparently on a drunken whim, Sukie had stolen the thumb and the hands from deLarava’s luggage on the drive back to the airport.
DeLarava had cried when she’d discovered the loss, and ransacked the car, and had even had to make new airline reservations because she insisted on driving back to the cemetery to look for the items, but Sukie had not ever admitted to the theft.
From the beginning, Sukie had taken a perverse pleasure in tormenting their boss, and certainly deLarava was an easy target. The fat old woman always wore a rubber band around her scalp, with her hair brushed down over it to keep it from showing, and after Sukie had discovered the habit she made a point of finding opportunities to bump the woman’s head, dislodging the rubber band so that it sprang to the top of her head, making a wreck of her hair. And deLarava’s clothes always had Velcro closures instead of buttons or zippers, and Sukie frequently managed to get the old woman’s shoes or jackets attached to upholstered chairs or textured wallpaper, so that deLarava had to pull herself loose with an embarrassing tearing sound. And once, after a minute or so of silence during a drive, Sukie had glanced brightly at the old woman and said, “Yeah? Go on–? You were saying something about a picnic?”–acting as if their boss had just begun a sentence and then forgotten it–but deLarava had reacted with such fright to the disorienting gambit that Sukie had never tried that particular trick again.
At the Shelton they’d been filming in the lobby and in an upstairs hallway, and of course Pete and Sukie had arrived three hours before the rest of the crew to locate a 220-volt power source in the old building and set up the hydraulic lifts and hang the key lights. Sullivan remembered now that for an outdoor shot of the hotel they’d rented battery-powered lights made by a company called Frizzolini, and that Sukie had kept saying that deLarava had better be careful of getting her hair all frizzed. Possibly Sukie had been drunk already.
DeLarava herself had arrived early for that shoot. She would have been in her mid-fifties then, and for once she had been looking her age. She had always smoked some kind of clove-flavored Indonesian cigarettes that made a room smell as though someone were baking a glazed ham nearby, and on this morning, her chubby hands had been shaking as she’d lit each one off the butt of the last, sparks dropping unnoticed onto the carpet, and her pendulous cheeks had quivered when she inhaled. She had brought with her a whole hatbox full of props to distribute around the shooting area; Sullivan remembered pocket watches, a couple of diamond rings, even a feather boa, in addition to the usual antique, still-sealed bottles of liquor.
The project had been a short morbid piece on the suicides that had taken place in the old building; perhaps the film had been done on spec, for Sullivan couldn’t now recall any particular client for the job, and he couldn’t remember it having gone through the post-production or screening steps. Incongruously, they had been filming it on Christmas Eve. The old woman had never let a Christmas Eve or a Halloween go by without filming something, somewhere.
Sullivan wondered uneasily what she might have scheduled for this upcoming Saturday.
DeLarava had been interested in only two of the suicides that had taken place at the Shelton. The first was a woman called Jenny Dolly. Around the turn of the century, Jenny Dolly and her twin sister, Rosie, were a celebrated dance team, renowned for their beauty; but Jenny’s face had been horribly scarred in a car crash in 1933, and she had hanged herself in her apartment here in 1941. The other suicide had been the actress Clara Blandick, who, one day in 1962, had got her hair fixed up and had carefully done her makeup and put on a formal gown and then pulled a plastic bag over her head and smothered herself. She was chiefly remembered for having played Auntie Em in the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz.
Auntie Em, Auntie Em, thought Sullivan now as he puffed on his cigarette, echoing in his head the mocking voice of the Wicked Witch of the West in the movie.
And, he thought as he squinted through the smoke, a twin sister who killed herself. How’re you doing, Sukie?
The shoot had been what gaffers called a bad-hang day. The lights had been plagued with “ghosting,” the lamps glowing dimly even when the big old dimmer boxes indicated no power being transmitted, which called for a lot of laborious checks of the light board and all the cable connections; and then when the cameras were finally running, the shoot had repeatedly been interrupted by power surges and blackouts.
Apparently, a lot of people had died at the Shelton, he thought now.
Live and learn.
DeLarava had kept looking at her watch, though the clock on the lobby wall was accurate. Twice Pete had peered at her watch as she glanced at it, and both times it had been wrong–differently wrong: once it would read, say, 6:30, and a few minutes later it would be indicating something like 12:35. At one point, he had called Sukie over to one of the malfunctioning lights and in a low voice had told her about their boss’s erratic watch.
Sukie had followed deLarava around the carpeted lobby for a few minutes after that, ostensibly to ask about the placing of the props and the fill lights, and then she had come back to where Pete was still crouched over the flickering lamp; and she had told him in a whisper that no matter which way deLarava was facing, the hour hand of her watch always wobbled around to point up Wilcox–north. It was a compass.
Shortly after that the music had started up. DeLarava had liked to have taped music playing before the cameras started running, even during takes for which the soundtrack would be entirely dubbed in later–she said it helped establish the mood–and the music was always something contemporary with the period the film was dealing with. Today it was Glenn Miller’s “Tuxedo Junction,” and she had decided to start it up early.
As the audiotape reels started rotating and the first notes came razoring out of the speaker grilles, deLarava had turned away from the twins and fumbled something out of her purse. She was clearly trying to conceal it, but both twins saw that she was holding a drinking straw–one of the striped ones marketed for children, with a flexible neck and some kind of flavor capsule inside it to make plain milk taste like chocolate or strawberry.
Sullivan pitched his cigarette out the window and started up the van’s engine. Stopped ahead of him was a battered old blue-painted school bus with the back doors open, and inside it, on wooden shelves and on the floor, were crates of bananas and tortillas and garlic and long, dried red chili peppers. A mobile third-world grocery store, he thought, a hundred feet from the Hollywood Boulevard sidewalk.
It reminded him of lunch, and he wondered if Musso and Frank’s was still in business, a block or two west. He steered the van around the stopped bus and drove up Wilcox to make a U-turn back to the boulevard. Over the tops of the old apartment buildings in front of him he could see the Capitol Records building, designed long ago to look like a stack of vinyl records with a needle touching the top disk.
Vinyl records, he thought. The clocks and maps are definitely broken.