Expiration Date – Snippet 08
“How are you getting on?” said the Cat, as soon as there was mouth enough for it to speak with.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Kootie awoke instantly when he heard someone scramble over the wooden fence downstairs, but he didn’t move, only opened his eyes. The scuffed planks of the balcony door were warm under his unbruised cheek; by the shadow of the big old banana tree he judged the time to be about four in the afternoon.
He had found this enclosed courtyard at about noon; somewhere south of Olympic he’d picked his way down an alley between a pair of gray two-story stucco-fronted buildings that had no doubt housed businesses once but were featureless now, with their windows painted over; a wooden fence in the back of one of the buildings was missing a board, leaving a gap big enough for Kootie to scrape through.
Towering green schefflera and banana and avocado trees shaded the yard he had found himself in, and he’d decided that the building might once have been apartments–this hidden side was green-painted clapboard with decoratively framed doors and windows, and wooden steps leading up to a long, roofed balcony. Someone had stored a dozen big Coca-Cola vending machines back here, but Kootie didn’t think anyone would be coming back for them soon. He doubted that anyone had looked in on this little yard since about 1970. It was a relief to be able to take the adult-size sunglasses off his nose and tuck them into his pocket.
He had climbed the rickety old stairs to the balcony, and then had just lain down and gone to sleep, without even taking off his knapsack. And he had slept deeply–but when he awoke he remembered everything that had happened to him during the last twenty hours.
He could hear the faint scuff of the person downstairs walking across the little yard now, but there was another sound that he couldn’t identify: a recurrent raspy hiss, as though the person were pausing here and there to slowly rub two sheets of coarse paper together.
For several seconds Kootie just lay on the boards of the balcony and listened. Probably, he told himself, this person down in the yard won’t climb the steps to this balcony. A grown-up would worry that the stairs might break under his weight. Probably he’ll go away soon.
Kootie lifted his head and looked down over the balcony edge–and swallowed his instinctive shout of horror, and made himself keep breathing slowly.
In the yard, hunched and bent-kneed, the ragged man in camouflage pants was moving slowly across the stepping-stones, his single arm swinging like the clumped legs of a hovering wasp. The baseball cap kept Kootie from seeing the man’s face, but he knew it was the round, pale, whiskered face with the little eyes that didn’t seem to have sockets behind them to sit in.
Kootie’s ears were ringing shrilly.
This was the man who had tried to grab him in the living room of Kootie’s house last night–Hey, kid, come here. This was almost certainly the man who had murdered Kootie’s parents. And now he was here.
The rasping sound the man was making, Kootie realized now, was sniffing–long, whistling inhalations. He was carefully seining the air with his nose as he made his slow way across the yard; and every few seconds he would jerk heavily, as if an invisible cord tied around his chest were being tugged.
Kootie ducked back out of sight, his heart knocking fast. He’s been following me, Kootie thought. Or following the glass brick. What does the thing do, leave a trail in the air, like tire tracks in mud?
He is going to come up the stairs.
Then Kootie twitched, startled, and an instant later the bum began talking. “You came in here through the fence,” said the bum in a high, clear voice, “and you didn’t leave by that means. And I don’t think you have a key to any of these doors, and I don’t think you can fly.” He laughed softly. “Therefore, you’re still here.”
Kootie looked toward the far end of the balcony; it ended at a railing just past the farthest door, with no other set of stairs.
I can jump, he thought tensely. I can climb over the railing and hang from as low a place as I can hold on to, and then drop. Scramble out of the yard through the fence before this guy can even get back down the stairs, and then just run until . . . until I get to the ocean, or the Sierras, or until I drop dead.
“Let me tell you a parable,” said the man below, still audibly shuffling across the leafy yard. “Once upon a time, a man killed another man, and then he was . . . sorry, and wanted to be forgiven. So, he went to the dead man’s grave, and dug him up, and when he opened the casket, he saw that the man inside it was himself, smiling at the joke.
The balcony shook as a muscular hand grabbed the vertical rail-post in front of Kootie’s eyes, and two shod feet loudly scuffled for traction on the planks, inches from Kootie’s own feet; and the round face had poked up above the balcony floor and the bum’s little black eyes were staring straight into Kootie’s.
Kootie had rolled back against the wall, but now couldn’t move, or breathe, or think.
The inches-away mouth opened among the patchy whiskers, opened very wide, and out of it grated a million-voice roar like a stadium when a player hits a home run.
Then Kootie had kicked himself up and was running for the far end of the balcony, but behind him he heard the fast-booming scuffle of the man scrambling up onto the planks, and before Kootie reached the rail, his head was rocked as the bum snatched at his curly hair.
Kootie sprang, slapped the balcony rail with the sole of his left Reebok, and was airborne.
Banana leaves were whipping his face, and he tried to grab a branch but only managed to skin his palm and go into a spinning fall. His knapsack and the base of his spine hit the hard dirt in almost the same instant that his feet did, and his head was full of the coppery taste of pennies as he scrambled on all fours, unable to work his lungs, toward the fence.
By the time he reached the alley, he could at least wring awful whooping and gagging sounds out of his chest, and could even get up onto his feet, and he hopped and hunched and sobbed his way to the street sidewalk.
A pickup truck with its bed full of lawnmowers and fat burlap sacks was groaning past in the slow lane, and Kootie forced his numbed and shaking legs to run–and after a few pounding seconds he managed to collide with the truck’s tailgate, his knees on the bumper and his arms wrapped around the two upright metal tubes of a power-mower handle. At least his feet were off the ground.
But the truck’s old brakes were squealing now, and Kootie was being pushed against the tailgate as the battered vehicle ground to a halt. He used the momentum to help him climb into the truck bed, and then, kneeling on a burlap sack that reeked of gasoline and the stale-beer smell of old cut grass, he waved urgently at the rearview mirror. “Go,” Kootie croaked, “start up, go!”
Through the dusty rear window, he could see that the Mexican driver had put his elbow up on the back of the seat and was looking back at him. He was waving too, and mouthing something, no doubt ordering Kootie to get out of the truck.
Kootie looked back, toward the alley, and saw the one-armed bum stride out from between the two gray buildings into the brassy late-afternoon sunlight, smiling broadly straight at him.
Kootie sprang over the burlap sacks and banged his fist on the truck’s back window, and he managed to scream: “Go! Vaya! Ahora! Es el diablo!”
The driver might not have heard him, but Kootie could see that the man was looking past Kootie now, at the advancing bum; then the driver had turned back to the wheel and the truck lurched forward, swerving into the left lane and picking up some speed.
Kootie peered behind them through the swaying fence of lawnmower handles and weed whips. The bum had slowed to a strolling pace on the receding sidewalk, and waved at Kootie just before the intervening cars and trucks hid him from view.
Kootie sat back against a spare tire, hoping the driver would not stop for at least several blocks. When he stretched out his legs his right ankle gave him a momentary twinge of pain; he tugged up the cuff and saw that it was already visibly thicker than the left ankle.
The ankle felt hot, too, but his stomach was suddenly icy with alarm. Am I gonna be limping for a while? he thought. How fast can I limp?
Five minutes later, the driver of the pickup truck turned into a Chevron station. He opened the driver’s-side door and got out, and as he unscrewed the truck’s gas cap he nodded to Kootie and then jerked his head sideways, obviously indicating that this was as far as he meant to take his young passenger.
Kootie nodded humbly and climbed over the tailgate. His right ankle took his weight well enough, but had flared with pain when he’d rotated it in climbing down.
“Uh, thanks for the ride,” Kootie said. He fished the sunglasses out of his pocket and pushed them onto his nose.
“Si,” said the man, unhooking the gas-pump nozzle and clanking up the lever. “Buena suerte.” He began pumping gas into the tank.
Kootie knew that those Spanish words meant good luck. The sunlight was slanting straight down the east-west lanes of the street, and the shadows of the cars were lengthening.
Kootie was more upset about what he had to do now than he was by his injured ankle. “Uh,” the boy said quickly, “lo siento, pero . . . tiene usted algunas cambio? Yo tengo hambre, y no tengo una casa.” Kootie wished he had paid more attention in Spanish class; what he had tried to say was, I’m sorry, but do you have any change? I’m hungry and I don’t have a house.
His face was cold, and he had no idea whether he was blushing or had gone pale.
The man stared at him expressionlessly, leaning against the gas nozzle’s accordioned black rubber sleeve and squeezing the big aluminum trigger. Kootie could faintly hear gasoline sloshing in the filler pipe, though the air smelled of fried rice and sesame oil from a Chinese restaurant across the street. Eventually the gas pump clicked off, and the man hung up the nozzle and stumped away to the cashier to pay. Kootie just stood miserably by the back bumper of the truck.
When the man came back he handed Kootie a five-dollar bill. “Buena suerte,” he said again, turning away and getting back into his truck.
“Thanks,” said Kootie. “Gracias.” He looked back to the west, and as the truck clattered into gear behind him and rocked back out onto the street, Kootie stood on the oil-stained concrete and wondered where the one-armed bum was right now. Somewhere to the west, for sure.
Kootie started walking eastward down the sidewalk. His ankle didn’t hurt if he kept his right heel off the ground and walked tiptoe.
Sleep, he thought dazedly–where? There’s no way I can go to sleep, stop moving. He’ll catch up. Maybe I could sleep on a train–hop a freight.
Can I hide?
Most of the buildings in L.A. were low–three stories or shorter–and he looked around at the rooftops. Every one of them seemed to have a smaller house on top, in behind the old insulators and chimneys.
He’s only got one arm, Kootie thought; maybe I can climb somewhere that he can’t get to.
Right. With my sprained ankle?
Kootie was walking fairly briskly, and it seemed to him that he was just barely keeping ahead of panic.
He had passed many empty lots. He could describe the typical one now–fenced in with chain-link, with a few shaggy palm trees and a derelict car, and lines of weeds tracing lightning-bolt patterns across the old asphalt. Maybe he could get into a lot, and be ready to wake up and run when he heard the one-armed bum climbing the fence.
At the intersection ahead of him a man in an old denim jacket was standing on the sidewalk with a dog beside him. The dog was some kind of black German-shepherd mix, and the man was holding a white cardboard sign. When Kootie limped up beside them the dog began wagging its tail, and Kootie stooped to catch his breath and pat the dog on the head.
“Bueno perro,” Kootie told the man. He could now see that the hand-lettered sign read, in big black letters:
will work for food–homeless vietnam vet
“Sí,” the man said. “Uh . . . cómo se dice . . . perro is dog, right?”
“Right,” Kootie said. “Nice dog. You speak English.”
“Yeah. You got no accent.”
“I’m Indian, not Mexican. India Indian. Anyway, I was born here.”
The man he was talking to could have been of any race at all, almost of any age at all. His short-cropped white hair was as curly as Kootie’s, and his skin was dark enough so that he might be Mexican or Indian or black or even just very tanned. His lean face was deeply lined around the mouth and the vaguely Asian eyes, but Kootie couldn’t tell if that was a result of age or just exposure to lots of weather.
“Where do you two live?” Kootie found himself asking.
“Nowhere, Jacko,” the man said absently, watching the traffic over Kootie’s head. “Why, where do you live?”
Kootie patted the dog’s head again and blinked back tears of exhaustion, glad of the sunglasses. “Same place.”
The man looked down again and focused on Kootie. “Really? Here?”
Kootie blinked up at him and tried to understand the question. “If it was here, how could it be nowhere?”
“Hah. You’d be surprised. Act cool, now, okay?”
The light had turned red, and a big battered blue Suburban truck had stopped at the crosswalk lines. The driver leaned across the seat and cranked down the passenger-side window. “Nice dog,” he said through a ragged mustache. “How you all doing?”
“Not so good,” said the white-haired man standing beside Kootie. “My son and I and the dog been standing out here all day waitin’ for someone who needs some kind of work done, and we’d like to be able to stay in a motel, tomorrow being Sunday and us wantin’ to get a shower before church, you know? We’re just six bucks short right now.”
Kootie rolled his eyes anxiously behind the sunglasses. Tomorrow was Wednesday, not Sunday.
“Shit,” said the driver. Then, just as the light turned green, he tossed a balled-up bill out the window. “Make it count!” he yelled as he gunned away across the intersection.
The white-haired man had caught the bill and uncrumpled it–it was a five. He grinned down at Kootie, exposing uneven yellow teeth. “Good job. So whatta you, a runaway?”
Kootie glanced nervously back up the street to the west. “My parents are dead.”
“Some kind of foster home? Go back to wherever it is, Jacko.”
“There isn’t any place at all.”
“There isn’t, huh?” The man was watching traffic, but he glanced down at Kootie. “Well there was a place, I believe, a day or two ago. That’s a Stussy shirt, and those Reeboks are new. Where were you plannin’ to sleep? Any old where? You get fucked up bad around here, Jacko, trust me. Whole streets of chickenhawks looking for your sort. Nastiness, know what I mean?” He squinted around, then sighed. “You wanna move in with Fred and me for a couple of days?”
Kootie understood that Fred was the dog, and that helped; still he said quickly, “I don’t have any money at all.”
“Bullshit you don’t, you got two bucks just in the last couple of seconds. Fred takes twenty percent, okay? Let’s work this corner for another ten minutes, and then we can move up to Silver Lake.”
Kootie tried to figure where Silver Lake was from here. “That’s a long walk, isn’t it?”
“Fuck walk, and in fact, fuck talk. We got a red light coming up again here. I got a car, and Fred and I keep moving. Trust me, you be doin’ yourself a favor to ride along with us.”
Kootie looked desperately at the dog’s wide grin and brown eyes, and he thought about keep moving, and then he blurted, “Okay.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Kootie.”
The man clasped Kootie’s hand in his own dry, callused palm. “Kootie? No kidding. I’m Rightful Glory Mayo. Known as Raffle.” Then, more loudly, he said, “Can we wash your car windows, ma’am? My boy and I haven’t had anything to eat all day.”
Raffle didn’t even have a squirt bottle or a newspaper to wash windows with, but the woman in the Nissan gave them a dollar anyway.
“That’s another forty cents you got, Kootie,” said Raffle as the light turned green. “You know, we might do better if you ditched the shades–makes you look like a pint-size doper.”
Kootie took off the sunglasses and looked mutely up at Raffle. He had no idea what color his eye socket was, but it was swollen enough to perceptibly narrow his vision.
“Well now, little man,” Raffle said, “you’ve had a busy day or two, haven’t you? Yeah, keep the shades–people will think I gave you that, otherwise.”
Kootie nodded and put the glasses back on–but not before he had nervously looked westward again.