Expiration Date – Snippet 07
“I can’t help it,” said Alice very meekly. “I’m growing.”
“You’ve no right to grow here,” said the Dormouse.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The van shook every time a car drove past it, but after carefully laying the plaster hands and the little bag with the dried thumb in it on the front seat, Sullivan climbed in the back and tossed the sheets and blanket and cushions off the unmade bed. The bed could be disassembled and partially telescoped to become a U-shaped booth with a little table in the middle, but when it was extended out like this, the boards under the booth-seat cushions could be lifted off, exposing a few cubic feet of unevident space. He hooked his finger through the hole in the forward board and levered it up out of its frame.
Inside the booth-seat box lay a couple of square, limp, plastic rectangles connected by two foot-and-a-half-long ribbons, and a gray canvas fanny-pack containing his .45 semi-automatic Colt and a couple of spare magazines.
He lifted out the fanny pack and hefted it. He hadn’t shot the .45 since an afternoon of target practice in the desert outside Tucson with some of the other tramp electricians a couple of years ago, but he did remember cleaning it afterward, and buying a fresh box of hardball rounds and reloading all three magazines.
The strung-together plastic rectangles were meant to be worn around the neck while traveling, with one rectangle lying on the chest and the other back between the shoulder blades–right now he had about six and a half thousand dollars in hundreds in the one, and his union papers in the other. Sullivan always thought of the pair as his “scapular” because the linked flat wallets looked like one of those front-and-back medallions Catholics wear to keep from going to hell. He was always vaguely embarrassed to wear it.
He glanced toward the front of the van, where the three pieces of Houdini’s “mask” lay on the passenger seat.
What would he put away in the seat box, and what would he keep out?
If he was going to drive straight back to Arizona and try to save his job at the Roosevelt Nuclear Generating Station, he would peel off a couple of hundred dollars to comfortably cover gas and food, and leave the rest of the cash hidden in the seat box here, along with the loaded gun, which was a felony to take across state borders; and the mask would be most effective where it was, out in the open. But if he was going to stay in Los Angeles for a while he’d have to allow for the possibility of being separated from, or even abandoning, the van–he’d want to have the cash and the gun on him, and the mask would have to be hidden from the sort of people who might get into the van and ransack it.
Another car drove past on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, and the van rocked on its shocks.
Stay in Los Angeles? he asked himself, startled even to have had the thought. Why would I do that? She works here, Loretta deLarava, and she probably still lives aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach and commutes right up through the middle of the whole city every day.
I’d be crazy to do anything but leave the mask on the front seat and drive . . . anywhere. If I’m screwed with the Edison network I can still get electrician work in Santa Fe or Kansas City or Memphis or any damn place. I could be a plain old handyman in any city in the whole country, doing low-profile electric, as well as cement work and dry-wall and carpentry and plumbing. An independent small-time contractor, getting paid under the table most of the time and fabricating expenses to show to the IRS on the jobs where I’d have to accept checks.
And if I scoot out of here right now, I might not even be screwed with Edison.
Sukie’s nonsense Christmas carols were still droning in the back of his head, and he found himself thinking about the last time he’d seen her, at the shoot at Venice Beach on Christmas Eve in ’86. He had somehow not ever been to Venice before–he was certain–and of course he had not been there since.
But on that overcast winter morning he had recognized the place. Driving around in one of deLarava’s vans, he had several times found himself knowing what he would see when he rounded the next corner: a gray old clapboard house with flowers growing in a window box, the traffic circle, the row of chipped Corinthian pillars lining Windward Avenue.
On this Christmas Eve of ’86, big red plastic lanterns and garlands of fake pine boughs had been strung around the tops of the pillars and along the traffic-signal cables overhead, and the sidewalks had been crowded with last-minute Christmas shoppers and children, and dogs on leashes, and there had seemed to be a car in every curbside parking slot–but the pavements in his flickering memory had been empty and stark white under a harsh summer sun, and in his memory the shadows in the gaping windows and behind the bone-white colonnades were impenetrably black, all as silent and still as a streetscape in some particularly ominous De Chirico painting.
Under an overcast sky the real, winter ocean had been gray, with streaks of foam on the faces of the waves, but luckily deLarava had not wanted to actually go out onto the sand. Sukie was already drunk and wearing sunglasses, and Pete had been shaking as he set up the lights along the sidewalk.
They’d been supposed to be doing a short subject on the bodybuilders who apparently spent all their days lifting weights in the little fenced-in yard by the pavilion at the bottom of Windward Avenue, but deLarava’s props had been old–a rented 1957 Buick, a Gigi movie poster to hang in a shop window–and she had had something else, too, that she’d carried in a shoebox.
(Sullivan was shaking now, holding the scapular and the gun. Idaho, he thought desperately, up in the Pelouse area where they grow lentils instead of potatoes. It’ll be snowing soon now, and people always need electrical work done when it gets real cold. Or, what the hell, all the way out to the east coast, way out to Sag Harbor at the far end of Long Island–there was a lot of repair work of all sorts to be done during the off season, and you could hardly get farther away from Los Angeles.)
But helplessly he found himself remembering the moment on that chilly morning when deLarava had put down the shoebox on a truck fender, and Sukie had found an opportunity to peek inside it–and then had screamed and flung it away from her onto the sidewalk.
Pete had already spun around in sudden fright, and he’d expected to see something like a dead rat, or even a mummified baby, roll out of the box; but what had come spilling out of the box, tumbling across the looping electrical cables on the beachfront sidewalk, had been a well-remembered brown leather wallet and ring of keys and, somehow worst of all, three cans of Hires Root Beer. One of the cans rolled up against Pete’s shoes, spraying a tiny jet of brown foam.
He and Sukie had simply fled then, mindlessly, running away up Windward Avenue. He had eventually stopped, winded, at a gas station somewhere up on Washington Boulevard, and had taken a cab to their apartment, and then driven his car to his bank, where he had cashed out his savings account. To this day he didn’t know or care where Sukie had run to. Pete had been in Oregon by the next afternoon. Sukie had eventually tracked him down through union records, and they had talked on the phone a few times, but they’d never knowingly been in the same state at the same time again.
And now deLarava apparently wanted them back again. Sukie had obviously believed that the old woman intended to try the Venice “exorcism” again, with Pete and Sukie again present–voluntarily or not.
Sullivan tried to think of some other explanation. Maybe deLarava didn’t want the twins back, hadn’t thought about them in years, and Sukie’s car had simply been hit by some random drunk, and the sudden onset of bar-time was caused by something that had nothing to do with deLarava; or deLarava might indeed want the twins back, but just to do the sort of work they’d done for her before, nothing to do with Venice; or she did want to do the Venice one again, but wouldn’t be able to, now, because Sukie had killed herself. The old lady would be unable to do it unless she got a new pair of twins.
He bared his teeth and exhaled sharply. She might try to do it again, with some other pair of twins. Probably on Halloween, four days from now. Halloween was even better than Christmas, probably, for her purpose.
Well, he thought, in any case, I’m out of it. It has nothing to do with (–a Hires Root Beer can rolling against his foot, wasting itself spraying a thin needle of foam out onto the sandy sidewalk—) me.
For five full minutes, while cars roared past outside the van, he just crouched over the open underseat box.
Finally, with trembling fingers, he unbuttoned his shirt and draped the ribbons of the scapular over his head and onto his shoulders. After he had rebuttoned the shirt he flipped the black web belt of the fanny pack around his waist and snapped the buckle shut. Then he straightened up to go fetch the plaster hands so that he could put them away and reassemble the bed. The thumb in the Bull Durham sack he could carry in his shirt pocket.