Expiration Date – Snippet 10

Expiration Date – Snippet 10

CHAPTER 10

Alice caught the baby with some difficulty, as it was a queer-shaped little creature, and held out its arms and legs in all directions. “Just like a star fish,” thought Alice. The poor little thing was snorting like a steam-engine when she caught it, and kept doubling itself up and straightening itself out again, so that altogether, for the first minute or two, it was as much as she could do to hold it.

–Lewis Carroll,

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

As if he had plugged in the wires for the second of a pair of stereo speakers–as if he’d attached the wires when the second stereo channel was not only working but had its volume cranked up high–Kootie’s head was abruptly doubly hit by the ongoing music from outside now; and he found himself somehow jolted, shocked, by the mere fact of being able to hear.

Dropping the vial, he grabbed the steering wheel and gripped it hard, gritting his teeth, cold with sudden sweat, for he was falling with terrible speed through some kind of gulf–his eyes were wide open and he was aware that he was seeing the dashboard and the motionless windshield wipers and the shadowed sidewalk beyond the glass, but in his head things clanged and flashed as they hurtled incomprehensibly past, voices shouted, and his heart thudded with love and terror and triumph and mirth and rage and shame all mixed together so finely that they seemed to constitute life itself, the way rainbow colors on a fast-spinning disk all blur into white.

It wasn’t stopping. It was getting faster.

Blood burst out of his nose and he pitched sideways across the passenger seat onto his right shoulder, twitching and whimpering, his eyes wide open but rolled so far back into his head that he couldn’t see anything outside the boundaries of his own skull.

***

Pete Sullivan jackknifed up out of the little bed and scrambled for the front seat–but when he yanked the curtain back from the windshield he saw that the van was not careening down some hill. He almost shouted with relief; still, he tumbled himself into the driver’s seat and tromped hard on the emergency brake.

Ahead of him, beyond a motionless curb, half a dozen boys in baggy shorts and T-shirts were strolling aimlessly across a broad lawn. Their shadows were long, and the grass glowed a golden green in the last rays of sunlight.

Sullivan’s heart was pounding, and he made himself wait nearly a full minute before lighting a cigarette, because he knew his hands were shaking too badly to hang on to one.

At last he was able to get one lit and suck in a lungful of smoke. He’d had a bad dream–hardly surprising!–something about . . . trains? Electricity? Sudden noise after a long silence . . .

Machinery. His work at the nuclear power plant, at the other utilities? The whole Edison network–Con Ed, Southern California Edison . . .

He took another long drag on the cigarette and then stubbed it out. The van was in shadow now, definitely not moving, and the sky was darkening toward evening. He breathed slowly and evenly until his heartbeat had slowed down to normal. Should he go find something to eat, or try to get some more sleep?

He had driven the van back down Laurel Canyon Boulevard and parked it here in the La Cienega Park lot, south of Wilshire. He had pulled the curtains over the little windows in the back and dragged the rings of the long shade across the curtain rod over the windshield and behind the rearview mirror, and had then locked up and crawled into the bed. He had apparently slept for several hours.

The boys in the park were at the top of a low green hill now, their laughing faces lit in chiaroscuro by the departing sun. Griffith’s hour, Sullivan thought.

He fumbled in his pocket now for his keys. No way sleep, after that jolt. Dinner, then–but a drink somewhere first.

***

On the Greyhound bus, Angelica Anthem Elizalde had been dreaming of the ranch in Norco where she had spent her childhood.

Her family had raised chickens, and it had been Angelica’s job to scatter chicken scratch in the yard for the birds. Wild chickens that a neighbor had abandoned used to roost in the trees at night, and bustle around with the domesticated birds during the day. All the chickens, and a dozen cats and a couple of goats as well, had liked to congregate around the trail of dry dog food Angelica’s mother would spread by the driveway every morning. The half-dozen dogs had never seemed to mind.

It had always been her grandfather whose job it was to kill the chickens–he would grab a chicken by the neck and then give it a hard overhand whirl as if he had meant to see how far he could throw it but forgot to let go, and the bird’s neck would be broken. Angelica’s mother had tried it one time when the old man had been in jail, and the creature hadn’t died. The chicken had done everything but die. It was screaming, and flapping and clawing, and feathers flew everywhere as her mother tried lashing it around again–and again. All the kids were crying. Finally, they had got an axe from the shed, a very dull old axe, and her mother had managed to kill the chicken by smashing its skull. The meat had been tough.

For the occasional turkey they would cut a hole in a gunny sack–her mother always called them guinea sacks–and hang the bird in it upside down from a tree limb, and then cut the bird’s throat, standing well back. The sack was to keep its wings restrained–a turkey could hurt you if it hit you with a wing.

One Easter her father had trucked home a live pig, and they had killed it and butchered it and cooked it in a pit the men dug in the yard–the giant vat of carnitas had lasted for days, even with all the neighbors helping to eat it. For weeks before that, her mother had saved eggshells whole by pricking the ends with a hatpin and blowing the egg out; she had painted the eggshells and filled them with confetti, and the kids ran around all morning breaking them over each other’s heads, until their hair and their church clothes looked like abstract pointillist paintings.

One of them had finally been for real–late in the afternoon her brother had broken a real, ripe, fertilized egg over Angelica’s head, and when she had felt warm wetness on her scalp, and had reached up to wipe it off, she had found herself holding a spasming little naked red monster, its eyes closed and its embryonic beak opening and shutting.

Her dream had violently shifted gears then–suddenly there was clanging and lights, and train whistles howling in fog, and someone was nearly insane with terror.

***

With a jolt she was awake, sitting up stiffly in the padded bus seat, biting her lip and tasting the iron of her own blood.

It’s . . . 1992, she told herself harshly. You’re on a bus to Los Angeles and the bus is not out of control. Look out the window–the bus is staying in its lane and not going more than sixty.

You’re not dead.

She looked up, beyond the rushing darkening lanes, to the flat desert that was shifting by so much more slowly. Probably the bus was somewhere around Victorville by now, still an easy sixty miles out of L.A.

On her panicked late-afternoon drive out of Los Angeles two years ago she had seen a Highway Patrol car behind her, just south of Victorville, and she had meticulously pulled off and let him go on by, and had had a hamburger at a Burger King alongside the freeway. Then she had driven the next dozen miles northeast on a side road paralleling the freeway, to let the cop get far ahead. Even on the side road she had stopped for a while, at a weird roadside lot among the Joshua trees where a white-bearded old man had assembled a collection of old casino signs, and big plywood caricatures of a cowboy and a hula dancer, and assortments of empty bottles hung on the bare limbs of scrawny sycamores, out here in the middle of the desert. Out of sympathy for another outcast, she had bought from him a book of poems he’d written and had published locally.

Now, biting her nails aboard a rushing Greyhound bus, she wondered if the old man was still there, wondered if Southern California still had room for such people.

Or for herself. She and the old man at the ramshackle roadside museum had both at least been alive.

***

The man known as Sherman Oaks screamed when the heat scalded his left arm, and he fell to his knees in the lush ice plant of the shadowy freeway island at the junction of the 10 and the 110.

After a few choking moments he was able to stand up and breathe; but his heart was pounding, and his left arm, still hot but at least not burning now, was pointed stiffly south. His right palm and the knees of his baggy pants were greenly wet from having crushed the ice plant. Beyond the thickly leaved branches of the bordering oleander bushes, the flickering tracks of car headlights continued to sweep around this enclosed parklike area as they followed the arc of the on-ramp onto the southbound 110.

He ate it, he thought numbly. The kid ate it, or it ate him.

But I’ll eat who’s left.

He had come here to check his ghost traps. The trap right in front of him had caught one, but the ghost seemed to have fled when he had screamed. Sherman Oaks decided to leave the trap here–the ghost would come back to it in a few hours, or else another ghost would come. Sometimes he was able to bottle five or six from just one trap.

He had knocked the trap over when he had fallen, and now he righted it: a hand-lettered cardboard sign that read: sit on a potato pan, otis. Other traps he had set up in this secret arbor included several more homemade signs–the noon sex alert relaxes no one ht, and go hand a salami, i’m a lasagna hog–and scatterings of jigsaw-puzzle pieces on patches of clear dirt. Better-known palindromes, such as Madam, I’m Adam, didn’t catch the attention of the wispy ghosts, and heavier items such as broken dishes seemed to be beyond the power of their frail ectoplasmic muscles to rearrange; but the Potato Pan and the Sex Alert and the Lasagna palindromes kept them confounded for hours, or even days, in wonderment at the way the sentences read the same backward as forward; and the ghosts would linger even longer trying to assemble the jigsaw puzzles.

Real, living homeless people seldom came here, knowing that this isolated patch of greenery was haunted, so he sometimes dropped a big handful of change among the jigsaw pieces–that trick would hold ghosts probably till the end of the world, for they not only felt compelled to put the puzzle together but also to count and stack the money; and apparently their short-term memories were no good, because they always lost count and had to start over. Sometimes, when he arrived with his little glass bottles, the ghosts would faintly ask him for help in counting the coins.

And then he would scoop the ghosts in and stopper the bottles tight. (It was awkward, using just his right hand; but sometimes he had actually seemed able to nudge them along a little with his missing left!) He had always known that he had to use glass containers–the ghosts had to be able to see out, even if it was only as far as the inside lining of a pocket, or they rotted away and turned to poison in the container.

He had his makeshift traps all over the city. In RTD yards under the Santa Monica Freeway, ghosts would climb aboard the doorless old hulks of city buses and then just sit in the seats, evidently waiting for a driver to come and take them somewhere; and they often hung around deserted pay telephones, as if waiting for a call; and sometimes in the empty cracked concrete lots he would just paint a big bull’s-eye, and the things would gather there, presumably to see what sort of missile might eventually hit the target. Even spiderwebs often caught the very new ones.

Sometimes he got so many bottles filled that even his stash boxes wouldn’t hold any more, and he could sell the surplus. The dope dealers that catered to the wealthy Benedict Canyon crowd would pay him two or three hundred dollars per bottle–cash and no questions and not even an excitation test with a magnetic compass, because they had known him long enough to be sure he wouldn’t just sell them an empty bottle. The dealers siphoned each ghost into a quantity of nitrous oxide and then sealed the mix into a little pressurized glass cartridge, and eventually some rich customer would fill a balloon with it and then inhale the whole thing.

The cylinders were known as smokes or cigars, slang terms of the old-timers who attracted ghosts with aromatic pipe tobacco or cherry-flavored cigars, and then inhaled the disintegrating things right along with the tobacco smoke. Take a snort of Mr. Nicotinus, walk with the Maduro Man. It had been considered a gourmet high, in the days before health and social concerns had made tobacco use déclassé. Nitrous oxide was the preferred mixer now, even though the hit tended to be less “digestible,” lumpy with unbroken memories.

Sherman Oaks favored ghosts raw and uncut–not pureed in the bowl of a pipe or the cherry of a cigar, or minced up in a chilled soup of nitrous oxide; he liked them fresh and whole, like live oysters.

He opened his mouth now and exhaled slowly, emptying his lungs, hearing the faint roar of all the ghosts he had eaten over the years or decades.

The Bony Express, all the fractalized trinities of Mr. Nicotinus.

To his left the towers of downtown, among which he could still pick out the old City Hall, the Security Bank building, and the Arco Towers, were featureless and depthless silhouettes against a darkening sky stained bronze by the returned smog, but the cooling evening breeze down here in the freeway island somehow still carried, along with the scents of jasmine and crushed iceplant, a whiff of yesterday’s desert sage smell.

His lungs were empty.

Now Sherman Oaks inhaled deeply–but the kid was too far away. That old gardening truck had apparently kept right on going; he should have got the license number. But his left arm, still uncomfortably warm, was at least pointing toward the nearest loop of the track the kid was leaving. West of here.

The actual flesh-and-blood left arm was gone–lost long ago, he assumed from the smooth, uninflamed scar tissue that covered the stump at the shoulder. The loss of the limb had no doubt been a dramatic incident, but it had happened back in the old life that he knew only through vague and unhelpful fragments of dreams. He couldn’t now even remember what name he might once have had; he had chosen “Sherman Oaks” just because that was the district of Los Angeles he’d been in when awareness had returned to him.

But he still felt a left arm. Sometimes the phantom hand at the end of it would feel so tightly clenched into a fist that the imaginary muscles would cramp painfully, and sometimes the “arm” felt cold and wet. When someone died nearby, though, he felt a little tingle of warmth, as if a cigarette ash had been tapped off onto the phantom skin; and if the ghost was trapped somehow, snagged on or in something, the phantom arm would warm up and point to it.

And even though he knew that there was not really any arm attached to the shoulder, Sherman Oaks found it awkward to walk through doorways or down bus aisles when the phantom limb was thrust out in that way. At other times the missing hand would for whole days at a time seem to be clutching his chest, and he would have to sleep on his back, which he hated to do because he always started snoring and woke himself up.

He squinted around at the darkening grove. He knew he should check the other traps, but he wanted to find the kid before someone else did; obviously Koot Hoomie Parganas had not yet reached puberty–that was why the boy couldn’t absorb the super-smoke that he was overlapped with, even if he had actually inhaled it now. The unabsorbed ghost would continue to be conspicuous.

Sherman Oaks lifted his head at a sudden rustling sound. With muffled cursing and a snapping of oleander branches, someone was clumsily breaking into his preserve. Sherman Oaks tiptoed toward the intruder, but relaxed when he heard the mumbled words: “Goddamn spirochetes can’t hear yourself think in a can of tuna fish. Yo bay-bee! Gotcha where they want ’em if it’s New York minutes in a three-o’clock food show.” And Oaks could smell him, the sharp reek of unmetabolized cheap wine.

Oaks stepped out into a clearing, intentionally stamping his feet. The stranger goggled at him in vast confusion.

“Get out of here,” Oaks told him. “Or I’ll eat you too.”

“Yes, boss,” quavered the stranger, toppling over backward and then swimming awkwardly back toward the oleander border, doing a thrashing backstroke across the ice plant. “Just lookin’ to get my ashes hauled.”

You got your ashes hauled years ago, thought Oaks as he watched the ludicrous figure disappear back onto the freeway shoulder.

But Oaks was uneasy. Even this sort of creature, the creepy old ghosts who had accumulated physical substance–from bugs and sick animals, and spilled blood and spit and jizz, and even from each other, sometimes–might go lurching after the boy, in their idiot intrusive way. They always seemed to find clothes to wear, and they could panhandle for money to buy liquor, but Sherman Oaks could recognize them instantly by their disjointed babbling and the way the liquor, unaffected by their lifeless token guts, bubbled out of their pores still redolent with unmetabolized ethanol.

They couldn’t eat organic stuff, because it would just rot inside them; so they mindlessly ate . . . rocks, and bottle caps, and marbles, and bits of crumbled asphalt they found in the gutters of old streets. Sherman Oaks had to smile, remembering the time a truck full of live chickens had overturned on the Pasadena Freeway, freeing a couple of dozen chickens who took up messy residence on one of the freeway islands. Passing motorists had started bringing bags of corn along with them on the way to work, and throwing the bags out onto the island as they drove past. Several of the big old solid ghosts had mistaken the corn kernels for gravel, and had eaten them, and then a couple of weeks later had been totally bewildered by the green corn shoots sprouting from every orifice of their squatter’s-rights bodies, even out from behind their eyeballs.

To hell with the ghost traps, thought Sherman Oaks. I can go hungry for one night. I’ve got to track down that kid, and that big unabsorbed ghost, before somebody else does.

***

The sky was purple now, darkening to black, and the Queen Mary was a vast chandelier of lights only a quarter of a mile away across Long Beach Harbor, throwing glittering gold tracks across the choppy water to where Solomon Shadroe stood on the deck of his forty-six-foot Alaskan trawler.

His boat was moored at a slip in the crowded Downtown Long Beach Marina, by the mouth of the Los Angeles River, and though most of the owners of the neighboring boats only rocked the decks on weekends, Shadroe had been a “live-aboard” at the marina for seventeen years. He owned a twenty-unit apartment building near the beach a mile and a half east of here, and even though his girlfriend lived there he hadn’t spent the night on land since 1975.

He swiveled his big gray head back toward the shore. He had no sense of smell anymore, but he knew that something heavy must have happened not too far away–half an hour ago he had felt the punch of a big psychic shift somewhere in the city, even harder than the one that had knocked him down in the alley yesterday evening, when he’d been moving the refrigerator. And all of the stuffed pigs in his stateroom and galley and pilothouse had started burping and kept it up for a full ten minutes, as if their little battery-driven hearts would break.

A few years ago, it had rained hard on Halloween night, and he had climbed into his skewed old car and rushed to a Montgomery Ward’s and bought a dozen little stuffed-pig dolls that were supposed to oink if you “gently pet my head,” as the legend had read on the boxes; actually, the sound they made was a prolonged burp. As soon as he had got back to the boat he had pulled them all out of their boxes and stood them on the deck, and they had soaked in the Halloween rain all night. To this day they still had the old-bacon mustiness of Halloween rain.

Now they were his watchdogs. Watchpigs.

Shadroe limped back to the stern transom and stared past the lights of the Long Beach Convention Center, trying to see the towers of Los Angeles.

He had been ashore today, dollying a second used Frigidaire to a vacant apartment on the ground floor of his building–the refrigerator he’d tried to install yesterday had fallen onto his foot, possibly breaking something in his ankle and certainly breaking the refrigerator’s coils, and right there was a hundred dollars blown and the trouble of hiring somebody to take the damned inert machine away–and through an open window in another apartment he had caught a blare of familiar music. It was the theme song of the old fifties situation comedy “Ghost of a Chance,” and when he had stopped to ask the tenant about it he had learned that Channel 13 was running that show again, every afternoon at three–by popular demand.

The sea breeze was suddenly chillier on his immobile face, and he realized that he was crying. He couldn’t taste the tears, but he knew that if he could, they would taste like cinnamon.

One night, and it looked like being soon, he would go ashore and stretch out and take a nap on the beach. Just so there was no one around. He really didn’t want anyone else to get hurt.

***

And miles away to the northwest, out on the dark face of the Pacific, fish were jumping out of the water–mackerel and bonita leaping high in the cold air and slapping back down onto the waves, and sprays of smelt and anchovies bursting up like scattershot; fishermen working the offshore reefs noticed the unusual phenomenon, but being on the surface of the ocean they couldn’t see that the pattern was moving, rolling east across the choppy face of the sea, as if something were making its underwater way toward Venice Beach, and the fish were unwilling to share the water with it.

***

“Jesus, Jacko did you get beat up again?”

Someone was shaking the boy awake, and for a few moments he thought it was his parents, wanting to know what had happened to the friend he’d been playing with that afternoon. “He was swimming in the creek,” he muttered blurrily, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. “And he went under the water and just never came up again. I waited and waited, but it was getting dark, so I came home.” He knew that his parents were upset–horrified!–that he had calmly eaten dinner and gone to bed without even bothering to mention the drowning.

He wanted to explain, but . . .

“Little man, you might be more trouble than you’re worth.”

A dog was licking the boy’s face–and abruptly, as if across a vast gulf, the boy remembered that the dog’s name was Fred; and then he remembered that his own name was Koot Hootie Parganas, not . . . Al?

His own memories flooded back, reclaiming his mind. He remembered that this was 1992, and that he was eleven years old, and until last night had lived in Beverly Hills–briefly he saw again the one-armed bum in his parents’ living room, and his parents’ blood-streaked bodies taped into chairs–and he knew that he was sitting in the car that belonged to his new friend, Raffle; and finally he remembered that he had opened his parents’ secret glass vial, and had sniffed whatever had been in it right up into his nose.

His forehead was icy with sudden sweat, and he grabbed the handle of the passenger-side window crank, thinking he was about to throw up; then Fred clambered into the back seat, and leaned between the two front seats to lick Kootie’s cheek again. Oddly, that made the boy feel better. He just breathed deeply, and alternately clenched and opened his hands. Whatever had happened to him was slowing down, tapering off.

“I’m okay,” he said carefully. “Nightmare. Hi, Fred.”

Hello, Kootie,” said Raffle in a falsetto voice, and after a moment Kootie realized that the man was speaking for the dog. “Fred don’t know to call you Jacko,” explained Raffle in his own voice.

The boy managed a fragile smile.

Memories from a past life? he wondered. Visions? Maybe there was LSD in that vial!

But these were just forlorn, wishful notions. He knew with intimate immediacy what had happened.

He had inhaled some kind of ghost, the ghost of an old man who had lived a long time ago, and Kootie had briefly lost his own consciousness in the sudden onslaught of all the piled-up memories as the old man’s whole life had flashed before Kootie’s eyes. Kootie had not ever watched a playmate drown–that had been one of the earliest of the old man’s memories.

A shout of Gee-haw! and the snap of a whip as the driver kept the six-horse team moving, tugging a barge along the Milan canal, and the warm summer breeze up from the busy canal basin reeked of tanning hides and fresh-brewing beer . . .

Kootie forced the vision down. Milan was the name of a place in Italy, but this had been in . . . Ohio? and a caravan of covered wagons, which he knew were about to head west, to find gold in California . . .

Kootie coughed harshly, spraying blood onto the dashboard.

“Oh, dammit, Jacko. You sick? I don’t need a sick kid . . .”

“No,” said Kootie, suddenly afraid that the man might order him out of the car right here. “I’m fine.” He leaned forward and swiped at the blood drops with his sleeve. “Like I said, it was just a nightmare.” He closed his eyes carefully, but the intrusive memories seemed to have trickled to a stop. Only the last few, the chronologically earliest ones, had hit him slowly enough to be comprehensible. “Are we gonna do some more business tonight?”

After a few moments Raffle gave him a doubtful smile. “Well, okay, yeah, I believe we will. After dark, and until ten o’clock, at least, a homeless dad-and-son tableau has gotta be worth booyah, out west of the 405 where the guilty rich folks live. You want to eat?”

Kootie realized that in fact he was very hungry. “Oh, yes, please,” he said.

“Great.” Raffle got out of the car, walked around to the front, and lifted the hood. “I trust you like Mexican cuisine,” he called.

“Love it!” Kootie called back, hoping nothing was wrong with the car. His parents had often taken him to Mexican restaurants, though of course they had made sure he ordered only vegetarian things like chiles rellenos, not cooked in lard. He was picturing bowls of corn chips and chunky red salsa on a table, and he wanted to get there very soon.

Now Raffle was coming back and getting inside, but he had not closed the hood, and he was carrying a foil-wrapped package which, Kootie realized when the man sat down and began gingerly unwrapping it, was hot and smelled like chili and cilantro.

“Burritos,” Raffle said. “I buy these cold in the morning and drive around all day with ’em wedged in between the manifold and the carb. Plenty hot by dinnertime.”

Newspapers from underfoot turned out to be informal place mats, and silverware was a couple of plastic forks from the console tray; unlike Raffle’s “pipes,” the forks had obviously not ever been considered disposable.

Kootie made himself stop imagining a hot plate with a couple of enchiladas swimming in red sauce and melted cheese. This burrito was hot, at least; and the spices nearly concealed the faint taste of motor oil and exhaust fumes.

He wondered if the ghostly intruder in his head was aware of the events happening out here in Kootie’s world; and for just a moment he had the impression of . . . of someone profoundly horrified in a long-feared hell. Kootie found himself picturing walking quickly past a cemetery at night, and being afraid to sleep for more than an hour at a time, and, somehow, sitting crouched on the cowcatcher of an old locomotive racing through a cold night.

Kootie shuddered, and after that he just concentrated on the burrito, and on thwarting the dog’s cheerful interest in the food, and on the shadows on the dark street outside the car windows.

 

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