Expiration Date – Snippet 11

Expiration Date – Snippet 11

CHAPTER 11

“You may not have lived much under the sea–” (“I haven’t,” said Alice)“and perhaps you were never even introduced to a lobster–” (Alice began to say, “I once tasted” but checked herself hastily, and said, “No, never”)“so you can have no idea what a delightful thing a Lobster-Quadrille is!”

–Lewis Carroll,

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

In Wilmington, the glow of dawn was held back by the yellow flares of the Naval Fuel Reserve burn, huge flames gouting out of towering pipes at the top of a futuristic structure of white metal scaffolding and glaring sodium-vapor lights; below it and inland, on the residential streets around Avalon and B Street, shaggy palm trees screened the old Spanish-style houses from some of the all-night glare.

Pete Sullivan tilted a pan of boiling water over his McDonald’s cup and watched the instant-coffee crystals foam brown when the water hit them. When the cup was nearly full he put the pan back on the tiny propane stove and turned off the burner.

As he sipped the coffee, he switched off the overhead light and then pulled back the curtain and looked out through the van’s side window at this Los Angeles morning.

The money-scapular was pasted to his sweaty chest, for he hadn’t known this area well enough to sleep comfortably with a window open.

Last night he had driven aimlessly south from his early-evening nap stop at La Cienega Park, and only after he’d found himself getting off the 405 at Long Beach Boulevard did he consciously realize that he must have come down here to look at the Queen Mary.

To put that off, he had resolved to have something good for dinner first, and then had been shocked to find that the Joe Jost’s bar and restaurant on Third Street was gone. He’d made do with a pitcher of beer and a cold ham sandwich at some pizza parlor, disconsolately thinking of the Polish sausage sandwiches and the pickled eggs and the pretzels-with-peppers that Joe Jost’s used to have.

At last he had got back into the van and driven down Magnolia all the way to the empty south end of Queen’s Highway and stopped in the left lane, by the chain-link fence; he had slapped his shirt pocket to be sure he still had the dried thumb in the Bull Durham sack, and then he’d got out and stood on the cooling asphalt and stared through the fence, across the nearly empty parking lot, at the Queen Mary.

Her three canted stacks, vividly red in the floodlights, had stood up behind and above the trees and the fake-Tudor spires of the “Londontowne” shopping area, and he had wondered if Loretta deLarava was at home in her castle tonight.

The breeze had been cold out in the dark by the far fence, but he had been glad of his distance and anonymity–even if deLarava had been standing out on the high port docking wing and looking out this way, she couldn’t have sensed him, not with the thumb in his pocket and the plaster hands in the van right behind him. Houdini’s mask was only in effect draped around him right now; he wasn’t really wearing it, wasn’t a decoy-Houdini as the wearer of the mask was intended to be; but even so the mask would blur his psychic silhouette, fragment it like an image in a shattered mirror.

You’ve hurt my family enough, he had thought at her. Fully, fully enough. Let us rest in peace.

The beer had made him sleepy, and, after eventually getting back in the van, he had driven only a little distance west, across the Cerritos Channel and up Henry Ford Avenue to Alameda, which was called B Street down here in lower Wilmington, before pulling over to a curb and turning the engine off and locking up.

***

The rattling roar of a low helicopter swept past overhead now, and for an instant he glimpsed the vertical white beam of a searchlight sweeping across the yards and rooftops and alleys. Somewhere nearby a rooster crowed hoarsely, and was echoed by another one farther away.

Sullivan wondered if Los Angeles had ever been really synchronized with the time and space and scale of the real world. Even finding a men’s room, he remembered now as he sipped this first cup of coffee, had often been an adventure. Once in a Chinese restaurant he had trudged down a straight and very long flight of stairs to get to one, and then discovered that a number of doors led out of the tiny, white-tiled subterranean room–he had made sure to remember which doorway he had come in through, so that he wouldn’t leave by the wrong one and wind up in some unknown restaurant or bakery or laundry, blocks from where he had started; and one time in a crowded little low-ceilinged Mexican restaurant on Sixth he had pushed his way through the rest rooms door to find himself in a cavernous dark warehouse or something, as big as an airplane hangar, empty except for a collection of old earth-moving tractors in the middle distance–looking behind him he had seen that the restaurant was just a plywood box, attached to the street-side wall, inside the inexplicably enormous room. His Spanish had not been good enough to frame a question about it, and Sukie had been irritably drunk, and when he’d gone back a month or so later the place had been closed.

He lit a cigarette now and wondered if Sukie really had, actually, killed herself.

Remotely he remembered how close the two of them had become–after their father died when they were seven years old–during the years they’d spent in several foster homes. They had never had a “psychic link” or anything like that, but the world was so coldly divided between us two and all of them that the twins could read each other’s moods instantly, even over the phone, and either one of them could unthinkingly and correctly order for the other at any restaurant, and the random letters on passing license plates would always suggest identical words to each of them.

Now Sukie was probably dead, and still his first response to the thought was good riddance. He was surprised and uncomfortable with the vehemence of the thought.

The twins had begun to differ when they were going to Hollywood High School, and it had become clear that the money their father had left them would be used up before they would finish college in about 1974. Sukie had never been interested in boyfriends, and she resented Pete spending money and time on things like dances. And the girls Pete went out with always dumped him before long, so the whole effort of trying to pursue romances really had seemed like a costly waste.

***

Eventually he had got a clue to why the girls had always dumped him.

***

He and Sukie had supported themselves through their last years in City College with jobs at pizza parlors and miniature golf courses and pet stores, but even after they’d graduated and got hired by Loretta deLarava for substantial salaries, they had continued to be roommates. Sukie continued to have no interest in the sex that was opposite to her, and Pete had continued to have meager success in pursuing the sex that was opposite to him.

And then in the summer of ’86, Pete got engaged.

Judy Nording was a film editor who had done postproduction work for deLarava since the late seventies, and Pete had got into the habit of drifting past the editing rooms when she would be working. Somehow, he had known that he’d be wise to do this visiting when Sukie was off on some solo errand.

Judy had been two years younger than Pete, but she had made him feel naive and stodgy and incurious–she not only knew everything about editing and mixing, but also knew nearly as much as he did about lights and colored gels and generator trucks and on-site electrical problems. And she was tall and slim, and when he strolled into her office she had a casual way of shoving her chair back and throwing one long blue-jeaned leg over the editing bench, with her ankle between the rewind posts, and the tight denim that sheathed her calf glowing in the glare from the light well. Her long blond hair was generally tied back in a braid.

He had been fascinated when she’d shown him things like the xenon-gas projection bulbs that worked under eight atmospheres of pressure, and that burned so hot that they reconfigured ordinary air into ozone, which had to be piped up through the ceiling by exhaust fans; and she had taken him down to the wide Foley stage in front of the screen in the projection room, and shown him the dozen floor-sections that could be lifted away to expose yards-wide movable wooden trays, so that the actors who were dubbing English dialogue onto foreign movies could audibly plod through sand while they spoke their lines onto the new soundtrack, or walk clickingly over marble, or even, if the last partition was lifted away, slosh noisily through a pool of water.

She had lived with half a dozen other young people in an old three-story Victorian house off Melrose, near the studio; even in ’86 the house and yard had been fenced in with chain-link and barbed wire. Eventually Judy had given Pete a key to the front gate.

Sukie had been furious when he first spent the night there–but as it became clear that her brother and Judy Nording were actually likely to get married, Sukie had apparently changed her mind about the woman, taking her out for “girl lunches” and shopping expeditions.

Pete had been naively pleased that the two women were getting along, and he was seeing Judy every night.

Then one evening at Miceli’s, an Italian restaurant off Hollywood Boulevard, Judy had been inexplicably cold and abrupt with him; he had not been able to demand or plead or wheedle the reason from her, and after he had sulkily driven her home and gone back to his and Sukie’s apartment, he had shut himself into his room with a bottle of Sukie’s Wild Turkey bourbon and had laboriously and painstakingly written a maudlin sonnet to his suddenly hostile fiancée. At about two in the morning he had opened the door, thrown all the drafts of the sonnet into the kitchen wastebasket, and lurched off to bed.

The next morning, he had been awakened at about ten by intermittent laughter and a harsh voice droning on and on, outside his bedroom window, in the alley; but he had not opened his eyes and dragged himself out of bed until he had recognized the lines the voice was reciting. Then, his face cold with nausea and disoriented horror, he had reeled to the window and squinted out.

Apparently, Sukie had taken out the trash.

Some ragged old man had found the drafts of Pete’s sonnet in the Dumpster and, in mock-theatrical tones and with exaggerated grimacing, was reading the verses to an audience of about half a dozen unkempt men and women, who were bracing themselves on their shopping carts to keep from falling down with laughter.

Pete hadn’t been able to work up the peremptory tone to tell them to go away, and neither could he bear to go back to bed and listen to more of the recital, so he had defeatedly set about showering and shaving and making coffee. He had eventually got to deLarava’s studio at about noon–to discover that Judy Nording had quit. When he rushed to her house he was told that she had packed up her bed and stereo and books in a U-Haul trailer and had simply driven away. By nightfall he had established that none of her friends, nor even her parents in Northridge, would admit to knowing where she might have gone.

Upon hearing of it, Sukie had denounced Nording as a teasing, fickle bitch and probable sociopath; and under her indignation she had been obviously pleased and relieved.

In November, Pete had located Judy Nording–she’d been working for a news station in Seattle, and he had flown up there and surprised her on her front doorstep one rainy evening when she was returning from the studio. She had burst out sobbing at the sight of him, and he had walked her to a bar across the street. Over a calming gin-and-tonic she had stiffly apologized for disappearing the way she had done, but insisted that she had had no choice after finding out about his previous marriages, and his children, and his bisexuality. Sukie had told her all of it, Nording had assured him–Sukie had taken her to one last lunch and had shown her the wedding announcements, pictures of the many kids, and had even brought along a man who’d been one of Pete’s ill-treated gay lovers. Sukie, Nording explained, had felt that she ought to know.

***

Now, sitting on the narrow bed in his van six years later, Sullivan winced as he remembered that he had not been able to convince Nording that Sukie’s stories had been lies. It hadn’t really mattered anymore, for Nording was by that time involved with some guy at the station, and Pete himself had begun dating a young woman who worked in a West wood restaurant–but though he had laughed, and spoken earnestly, and shouted, and thrown a handful of change onto the table and waved at the telephone, during the course of a long half-hour in that Seattle bar, he had not been able to convince Judy Nording that he really was single, childless, and heterosexual.

Pete had been glad Sukie hadn’t gone on to attribute to him something like heroin dealing, or murder, for Nording would probably have believed those things too, and called the police on him.

He had flown back down to Los Angeles later that night. Nothing about the scene he’d then had with Sukie in their shared apartment had gone the way he had indignantly planned. Sukie had cried, and told him why she had chased Judy away, and, hanging on to his jacket sleeve as he struggled toward the front door, had kept on telling him.

***

He gulped the last of the hot coffee, and decided against another cup. Sukie had always had a couple of cups of coffee first thing in the morning, and then followed them with two or three cold beers “to keep anything from catching up.”

He could see now that Sukie had been an alcoholic by the time they’d got out of college in ’75. By the early eighties, when the twins had been working for Loretta deLarava for a while, they had been known to some of their friends as “Teet and Toot”–Pete was “Teet,” for teetotaller, and Sukie was “Toot” for off-on-a-toot.

He was sure that he must have tried on a number of occasions to talk her into at least cutting back on her drinking, but this morning he could remember only one time. During a break at a shoot somewhere in Redondo Beach, years before she would wreck his engagement to Judy Nording, he had timidly suggested that one more slug from her bourbon-filled thermos bottle might be enough for the day, or at least for the rest of the morning, and she had said, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.” She had given him a strange look then–a sort of doubtful smile, with her eyebrows hiked up in the center and down at the outer edges, as if affectionately forgiving him for having asked a naively rude question, one that could have elicited a devastating answer.

He stubbed his cigarette out in a little tin ashtray on the narrow sink, then stood up and pulled his pants on. Later today he’d have to get a shower in some college gym, but right now he wanted to find some early breakfast at a place with an accessible men’s room . . . and then have a look around the city.

He put on his shoes and a shirt and ducked between the front seats to pull back the windshield curtain. The windows of the houses on this street were still dark, though the dawn was beginning to fade the orange glow of the flares crowning the Naval Fuel Reserve.

As he sat down in the driver’s seat and switched on the engine, he was suddenly, deeply certain that Sukie had indeed killed herself three nights ago. His heartbeat didn’t speed up, and all he did was light another cigarette as he fluttered the gas pedal to keep the cold engine running, but quietly and all at once he had realized that for decades she had been wanting to be dead–maybe ever since their father died, in 1959.

A.O.P., dude. Accelerate Outta Problems. She hadn’t exactly accelerated out of that one. It had taken her thirty-two years.

And now Sukie was a ghost. Sullivan hoped she would rest quietly and asleep, and not be searched out and snorted up by some East Coast deLarava, nor stay up, awake and agitated, and eventually grow by slow accretion into one of the lurching, imbecilic creatures such as he had seen at the Houdini ruins yesterday.

He let off on the gas pedal. The engine seemed to be running smoothly. He turned on the lights, squinted at the green radiance of the gauges, then clanked the engine into gear and nosed the van away from the curb into the still street. May as well head up to Sunset and see if Tiny Naylor’s is still there, he thought.

***

In the Greyhound bus station on Seventh, Angelica Anthem Elizalde stood by the glass doors off to the street side of the ticket counter, down at the end where the word boletos was printed very big over the small word tickets on the overhead sign.

For the last several hours she had tried to nap in one or another of the cagelike chairs, or peered out the doors at the empty nighttime street, or paced the shiny linoleum floor while humbled families gathered around Gate 8, to eventually all pile aboard some bus bound for God knew where, and then after half an hour or so be replaced by more shuffling, apologetic, fugitive families. Their luggage was old thrift-store suitcases, and cardboard boxes hastily sealed with glossy brown tape, and woven nylon sausage bags so stained that they might plausibly have contained actual sausages; Elizalde kept expecting to see goats on rope leashes, too, and wicker cages full of live chickens.

After some time she had convinced herself that the hands of the clock on the wall did move, but she had been wearily sure that they moved with supernatural slowness. Without believing it very much at all, she had played with the thought that she had died on the bus, that the jolt that had waked her up as they’d been passing through Victorville had been a massive cerebral hemorrhage, and everything she had experienced since that moment was only after-death hallucination; in that case yesterday’s eerie sensation of momentarily anticipating events had probably been pre-stroke phenomena. This fluorescently bright bus station boarding area, with its cage-chairs and its chrome-and-tile restrooms and its jarringly jaunty posters of rocketing buses, would be the antechamber of Hell. This night would never end, and eventually she would defeatedly join one of the crowds of departing families and go away with them to whatever lightless tenements and government-project housing Hell consisted of. (She could offer her apologies to Frank Rocha in discorporate person.)

But now, standing by the glass doors that faced Seventh, she could see that the sodium-yellow-stained blackness of the sky had begun to glow a deep blue in the east; white lights shone now in the liquor store across the street–presumably the employees were preparing for the dawn rush–and a couple of the hotel-room windows above the store were luminous amber rectangles. Los Angeles was wearily getting up, she thought, shambling to the bathroom, lip-smacking the false teeth into place, strapping on the pros­thetic limbs . . .

A whisper of cool breeze breathed between the aluminum doorframes into the stale atmosphere of the bus station, and somehow even down here south of Beverly and west of the L.A. River, it carried a scent of newly opened morning glories.

The day, the staring Western day, is born, she thought. Awake, for morning in the bowl of night has fired the shot that puts the stars to flight.

She jumped, and then the public-address speakers snapped on to announce another departure.

With a rueful sigh she abandoned the notion that she was dead. Another few cups of vending-machine coffee, and then it would be time to start walking.

***

Lobsters and crabs had begun crawling out of the Venice Beach surf at dawn.

Under the brightening tangerine and spun-metal sky, the streets were still in dimness, and for a silent few moments at six-thirty a ripple of deeper shadows stepped across the uneven city blocks as the streetlights sensed the approaching day and one by one winked out. no parking signs had kept the curbs of Main and Pacific clear all night, but on the side streets, and in the tiny dirt lots between houses, cars sat parked at whatever crooked angles had let them fit, and motorcycles leaned on their kickstands right up against walls and fence posts and car fenders.

On the rust-streaked walls of the old buildings, the little iron diamonds of earthquake-reinforcement bolts studded the old stucco. The painted Corinthian columns of the porticoed shop fronts facing Windward Avenue were faded in the half-light, and the littered expanse of the street was empty except for an occasional shapeless figure trudging along or stolidly pushing a trash-filled shopping cart. Occasional early-morning joggers, always flanked by at least one bounding dog, scuffed down the middle of the street toward the open lots facing the narrow lane that was Ocean Front Walk.

The lots were ringed with empty metal-pipe frameworks and cages that would be occupied with vendors’ booths later in the morning, and the only color in the scene now was the vividly shaded and highlighted graffiti that was gradually engulfing the once-red Dumpsters lined up against the building walls.

Out past the stark volleyball poles and the cement bike trails was the open beach, not taking clear footprints now but showing clearly the sharp broken-star prints of bird feet and the crumble-edged footprints of joggers who had been out when the dew had still clung to the sand.

The waves were low and the blue ocean stretched out to the brightening horizon, undimmed by any fog. A jet rising steeply into the sky from LAX to the south was a dark splinter, with a point of white light at the wingtip shining as bright as Venus in the dawn sky. Fishing boats moved past in the middle distance as silently and slowly as the minute hand of a watch, and a fat pelican bobbed on the waves a hundred yards offshore.

And crabs and lobsters were climbing over the sprawled and trailing piles of coppery kelp. Seagulls shouted and glided low over the spectacle, their cries ringing emptily in the chilly air, and sandpipers swiveled their pencil beaks and high-stepped away along the surf edge. A shaggy golden retriever and a Great Dane had stopped to bark at the armored animals who had come clambering and antennae-waving up the sand, and the owners of the dogs stopped to peer and back away. More lobsters and crabs were tumbling up in the low waves, and the ones who had come out first were already up above the flat brown dampness and were floundering in the dry sand. A John Deere tractor had been chugging up the beach from the direction of the pier and the lifeguard headquarters, dragging a leveler across the night-randomized dunes and gullies, but the driver had put the engine into neutral and let the tires drag to a halt when he noticed the leggy exodus.

Then a wave began to mount, out on the face of the water.

It was a green hump against the horizon, rather than a line, more like the bow-swell of an invisible tanker aiming to make landfall here than a wave rolling in to crash indiscriminately along the whole length of the Santa Monica Bay coastline. Only when the pelican was lifted on it, and squawked and spread his wings at his sudden elevation, did the people on the beach look up, and then they hastily moved back up the flat beach toward the gray monolith of the Recreation Center.

The tall green swell grew taller, seeming to gather up all the visible water as it swept silently toward the shore. As the wave crested, and finally began to break apart into spray at the curling top edge and roaringly exhale as it leaned forward against the resistance of the air, a long form was visible rolling inside the solid water–and when the wave boomingly crashed on the sand, surged far up the slope in hissing foam and then was sucked away back to the reced­ing sea, a big steely thing had been left behind on the brown, bubbling sand.

It shifted and settled, and then didn’t move.

It was a fish. That much was agreed upon by the half-dozen people who timidly approached after the thing had lain inert on the sand for a full minute and no further big waves gathered out at sea–but the fish was twenty or thirty feet long and as thick as a thigh-high stack of mattresses, and its body and head were covered with bony plates rather than scales. No one in the knot of spectators could even guess what species it might be. It appeared to be dead, but it looked so like some monster from the pages of an illustrated book on the Cretaceous period that no one approached the thing within twenty feet. Even the dogs stayed away from it, and made do with bounding away to bark busily at the fleeing lobsters and crabs.

For a while, water leaked out of the fish’s blunt face from between its open, armored jaws, but now there was no motion at all to the creature.

An old woman in a parka stared for a while, then backed away from the big and vaguely repulsive spectacle. “I’ll go get someone,” she said querulously. “A lifeguard, or someone.”

“Yeah,” called a young man. “Maybe he can do CPR on it.”

Up the slope, on the dry sand closer to the sidewalks and the handball courts and the sea-facing row of shops and cafes and blocky old apartment buildings, the panicky crabs and lobsters were turning in disoriented circles and waving their claws in the air.

 

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