Expiration Date – Snippet 13

Expiration Date – Snippet 13

CHAPTER 13

“If I wasn’t real,” Alice saidhalf-laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous

“I shouldn’t be able to cry.”

“I hope you don’t suppose those are real tears?” Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.

–Lewis Carroll,

Through the Looking-Glass

If you follow the Long Beach Freeway south from the 405, the old woman thought, you’re behind L.A.’s scenes. To your left is a scattered line of bowing tan grasshoppers that are oil-well pumping units, with the machined-straight Los Angeles River beyond, and to your right, train tracks parallel you across a narrow expanse of scrub-brush dirt. High-voltage cables are strung from the points of big steel asterisks atop the power poles, and the fenced-in yards beyond the tracks are crowded with unmoored boxcars. It’s all just supply, with no dressing-up.

Even when the freeway breaks up and you’re on Harbor Scenic Drive, the lanes are scary with roaring trucks pulling big semi-trailers, and the horizon to your right is clawed with the skeletal towers of the quayside cranes. The air smells of crude oil, though by now you can probably see the ocean.

Loretta deLarava sighed and wondered, not for the first time, what the stark logo on the cranes stood for–its was stenciled in giant black letters on each of them, easily readable across the water from where she stood high up on the Promenade Deck of the Queen Mary.

Its? she thought. What’s? Will it be coming back for its branded children one of these days? She imagined some foghorn call throbbing in from the sea, and the cranes all ponderously lifting their cagelike arms in obedient worship.

She gripped the rail of the open deck and looked straight down. A hundred feet below her, the narrow channel between the Queen Mary and the concrete dock was bridged by mooring lines and electric cables and orange hoses wide enough for a kid to crawl through. Down there to her left the dock crowded right up against the black cliff of the hull, and the morning shift was unloading boxes from trucks. Faintly, over the shouts of the seagulls, she could hear the men’s impatient voices, not far enough away below.

The mechanics of supply and waste disposal, she thought. Always there, if you look.

She turned away from the southward view and looked along the worn teak deck, and she took another bite of the half-pound of walnut fudge she’d just bought. In a few hours the deck would be crowded with tourists, all wearing shorts even in October, with their noisy kids, stumbling around dripping ice cream on the deck and gaping at the glassed-in displays of the first-class staterooms and wondering what the bidets were for. They wouldn’t recognize elegance, she thought, if it walked up and bit them in the ass.

During World War II, the Queen Mary had been a troopship, and the first-class swimming pool had been drained and stacked with bunks, all the way up to the arched ceiling. Before that, in the thirties, the ceiling had been lined with mother-of-pearl, so that guests seemed to be swimming under a magically glittering sky; but the top shelf of soldiers had picked it all away, and now the ceiling was just white tile.

She tried to imagine the ship crowded with men in army uniforms, and trestle tables and folding chairs jamming the pillared first-class dining room under the tall mural of the Atlantic, on which two little crystal ships day by day were supposed to trace the paths of the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth. The crystal ships had probably been stopped in those days, with around-the-clock shifts of soldiers inattentively eating Spam below.

The unconsidered life, she thought as she took another bite of the fudge, is not worth living. And, in spite of herself, she wondered if the soldiers would have considered her.

The tourists didn’t. The tourists didn’t know that she lived aboard, on B Deck, in one of the nicest staterooms; they just thought she was another of themselves, fatter than most. And sometimes older.

Such tourists as might be around on this upcoming Saturday would at least see her in a position of some importance when she would be directing the filming of her Ship of Ghosts feature aboard the ship.

Her scalp itched, and she scratched carefully over her ear.

It was time to be starting for the studio. She wrapped up the end of the fudge-brick in the waxed paper it had been served on, tucked it into her big canvas purse, and started walking toward the elevators. She had of course been careful to leave the door of her stateroom not-quite-closed, so that a push would open it, and today there was a big, diamond-studded 18-carat gold bangle on the bedside table, right where the light from the porthole would show it off. Attractive to a thief, and too heavy for a ghost. And the doors of the Lexus in the parking lot were unlocked, with the key in the ignition. Maybe today she would wind up having to rent a car to drive to work in–there was an Avis counter in the lobby area of the ship.

***

On Halloween of 1967, the Queen Mary had made her last departure from England; and for these past twenty-five years the world’s grandest ocean liner had been moored at the Port of Los Angeles in Long Beach, a hotel and tourist attraction now. The Cunard line had sold her to the city for 3.2 million dollars, and had insisted that the boilers be removed so that the ship could never again sail under her own power.

Under another name, Loretta deLarava had sailed aboard her in 1958, and had once danced with Robert Mitchum in the exclusive Verandah Grill at the stern, where you never ordered from the menu; the head waiter, Colin Kitching, would find you at lunch and ask what you’d like for dinner, and you could order anything you could think of, and they’d have it ready by eight.

The Verandah Grill now served hamburgers and Cokes and beer, and anybody on earth could get in. The tables and benches now were contoured sheets of vinyl-covered particleboard, and the floor was hard black rubber, with a herringbone pattern of bumps on it so people wouldn’t slip on the french fries.

***

Her Lexus had not been stolen; and, unfortunately, the car telephone beeped at her while she was still on the Long Beach Freeway, within sight of the usual litter of old pickup trucks parked in the dirt by the river to her right and the usual half-dozen men on the banks with their fishing poles. DeLarava sometimes fished off the stern of the Queen Mary, late at night, and ate raw the big opal-eye perch and sea bass she occasionally hauled all the way up the side of the ship, but it never seemed to help. And these weary old men fishing in the poisoned Los Angeles River just seemed to mock her efforts.

She was soon crying as she held the telephone receiver to her ear, though her face as she stared through the windshield at the cars ahead of her was effortfully expressionless. More wrinkles she didn’t need. She could only speak haltingly as she steered with her left hand.

“Are you still there?” buzzed the voice from the phone.

“I’m here, Neal.” Why did the best vegetarian restaurant in Los Angeles have to have that name?

“So, they’re going to meet us for lunch at Nowhere at one,” he went on. “Table for Obstadt, okay? They like the Queen Mary ghost show; be ready to defend this reunion-show concept, though, the ‘Ghost of a Chance’ thing, I don’t think they view it as feasible yet.” There was a click on the line. “You’ve got another call, Loretta–that’s all I had. See you at Nowhere, at one.”

“Right.” The line clicked on Obstadt’s end. DeLarava sniffed hard and blinked, then pushed a button on the back of the phone. “Hello?”

Over the background static of a portable telephone, she heard a steady echoing splashing. Whoever was calling her was doing so while urinating!

“Hi,” came a voice, “is this Loretta deLarava?”

“Who is this?”

“Ms. deLarava? This is Ayres out in Venice Beach, and I don’t know if this one is worth your time, but–”

“Are you pissing as you speak to me, Mr. Ayres?”

The noise abruptly stuttered to a stop. “No,” Ayres said breathlessly. “No, of course not. Of course not.”

“Good. What did you want to speak to me about?”

“Um. Oh, yeah–this may not be the kind of thing you told me to watch for, but a big goddamn fish just washed up on the beach this morning. It’s about twenty feet long, apparently dead, and nobody can figure out what the hell kind of fish it is. And a bunch of lobsters and crabs crawled up out of the ocean at about the same time–they’re still running around, some of ’em have got into the shops and the tennis courts. People are freaked.”

DeLarava’s heart was pounding, and all thought of Ayres’s discourtesy was forgotten. That would have to be him, causing that, she thought. Coming back out of the ocean these . . . thirty-three years later. Of course, this new damned smoke would finally be the beacon that would lead him ashore. And if Pete Sullivan is in town, that would also have helped draw him out.

“Thanks, Bernie,” she croaked. She hung up the phone and began signaling for a lane change. She hadn’t needed to ask where at Venice Beach.

She would have to call the studio and have them send a news crew to Venice, and then scoot south on the 405 to pick up Joey Webb at his creepy Signal Hill apartment. Good thing he never went anywhere.

She wasn’t ready for this. Here was the old man coming out of the sea already–and Halloween was only three days off. It would definitely have to be this year, this Halloween. Would Joey do, would he be mask enough, all by himself? He’d probably be okay today, when she’d just be trying to see where the old man went, but what might happen on Saturday? Damn Sukie Sullivan anyway. Paranoid lush.

DeLarava’s scalp was itching again, under the rubber band that encircled it under her brushed-over hair, and when she scratched, the rubber band slipped upward and jumped to the top of her head, where it sat slackly holding her hair up in an effect that she knew from past experience looked like a miniature thatched hut. She couldn’t pull the rubber band back down into place before she got off the freeway–it took two hands, and she would want to fix her hair too.

She had started wearing a rubber band around her scalp when she turned forty (in 1966!), as a measure to keep her facial skin pulled taut. It had perhaps never worked very well for that purpose, but she had noticed that the cerebral constriction of it seemed to keep her thoughts aligned, keep her personality from fragmenting into half a dozen frightened little girls. And when old triumphs began (irrationally!) to shake up silty clouds of guilt and shame in her thoughts, a rubber band or two around her skull helped to slow the involuntary tears.

But fresh tears were leaking out of her eyes now. At least I’ve got an excuse to miss the Nowhere lunch, she thought. Alert businesswoman, consummate professional; had to go cover the story of the crabs terrorizing Venice. And maybe my stateroom will be robbed today.

In ’46, when she’d had her other name and had still been waiting tables in Fort Worth, her little rented house had been broken into. The burglars had emptied her jewelry box onto the bed, and had flung her best clothes onto the floor, and had even left a greasy handprint on her not-yet-paid-off radio–but they had not taken anything at all. Obviously, she had had nothing, perhaps had been nothing, worth their attention.

The unconsidered life is not worth living. She had got consideration a number of times since then; she’d been robbed of diamonds, Krugerrands, fine cars–and she had gone to bed with a number of men, especially during her brief period of fame, and had even briefly been . . .

She shied away from memories of her marriage, and of a starkly sunny summer afternoon at Venice Beach.

But none of it had ever been enough to confirm her.

She knew it was Houdini’s fault.

The southbound 405 was crowded, and she had to slow down to a full stop in the right lane. She sat there expressionlessly leaking tears for a full minute before the cars ahead of her began to move, and only then, too late to fix it, did she remember her disordered hair. She glanced at the driver of a Volkswagen trundling along in the lane to her left, and wondered if he was puzzled by her unusual coif, but he was oblivious of her. That didn’t help at all.

The day after the day after tomorrow would be her seventy-seventh birthday. She had been born on Halloween in Grace Hospital in Detroit at 1:26 in the afternoon, in, apparently, the very instant that the famous magician and escape artist Harry Houdini was expiring in the same hospital.

And she had been robbed of her birth-ghosts, the psychic-shells of herself that had been thrown off in the stress and fright of being born. Those shells should have been instantly reabsorbed, like the virtual photons that electrons are always throwing off and then recapturing . . . but they had been caught by someone else, and so she had been tumbled out into this busy world with only a fraction of her proper self. The loss had to be connected with Houdini’s death.

DeLarava hit the brake pedal again as taillights flashed red in front of her, and she thought about what Sukie Sullivan had said to her brother Pete on the telephone on Friday night, just before she’d shot her own drunken head off: Go to the place where we hida thing, some things, okay? In a garage? It’s what you’re gonna need . . . And Pete had said, Where you can’t hardly walk for all the palm fronds on the pavement, right? And you’ve got to crawl under low branches? Is it still there? And Sukie had replied, I’ve never moved it.

DeLarava was sure that they’d been talking about Houdini’s mask–the severed thumb and the plaster hands. The loss of them at Kennedy Airport in ’75 had not been a random, tragic luggage theft after all–the twins had snatched the package, and hidden it from her. That, and the theft of her birth-ghosts, had been the only robberies that had ever hurt her.

A garage, she thought as she signaled for a lane change to the left, with palm fronds on the pavement and low branches around it. That could be nearly anywhere–and if Pete has recovered the thumb and the hands, there’s no use in me finding the garage now anyway. And if he’s carrying them with him, then he’s masked and I can’t track him.

At least not by psychic means.

But the old man is apparently out of the sea now, or at least emerging. Maybe I can catch him and eat him even without Pete being present as a lure. And though my twin set is broken, I ought to be able to get by, just with the help of Joey Webb. A real bag-full-of-broken-mirror schizophrenic is nearly as good a mask as a pair of twins.

And maybe this . . . this lobster quadrille will even draw Nicky Bradshaw out of hiding, him being the old man’s godson and all, and the old man having got him his start in show business. Maybe I could have Bradshaw gassed or knocked unconscious. Do people dream, when they’re unconscious? If so, I could probably be on hand to get live footage of one godalmighty fireball in Venice. It’d certainly be a more valuable bit of film to peddle to the networks than this feature on the lobsters and the dead fish.

It might even be possible for me to catch Nicky’s ghost. I wonder how that one would taste, it having been in effect carried in a locket around his neck for seventeen years.

***

Neal Obstadt’s offices were on the roof of the Hopkins Building on the corner of Beverly Glen and Wilshire, ten stories above the Westwood sidewalks and overlooking the tan blocks of the UCLA buildings to the west and the green lawns of the Los Angeles Country Club to the east. The walls of his consulting room were sectional cement slabs paneled with Burmese teak, but there was no roof, just a collapsible vinyl awning that was rolled back this morning to let the chilly breeze flutter the papers on the desk. Obstadt was slouched sideways in his thronelike chair, squinting up at an airliner slanting west across the blue sky.

“Loretta’s a clown,” he said without looking away from the plane. “Trying to eat the ghost of Jonah or somebody out of those fishes she hooks up from that puddle around the Queen Mary.”

The black-bearded man across the desk from him opened his mouth, but Obstadt held up a hand.

“Got to think,” Obstadt said. “I need . . . what I need is a fresh viewpoint.”

He pulled open a drawer and lifted out of it a thing that looked like a small black fire extinguisher. From his pocket he fished a thumb-sized glass cartridge, and he looked at the label hand-dremeled onto the side: henrietta hewitt–9-5-92.

“Was last month a good vintage?” he asked absently as he laid the cartridge into a slot in the nozzle at the top of the black cylinder and then twisted a screw at the base of the slot until he heard a muffled hiss inside the cylinder. A plastic tube like a straw stuck out from the top of the nozzle, and he leaned forward over the desk to get his lips around it.

He exhaled through his nose for several seconds, then pressed a button on the side of the nozzle and inhaled deeply.

All at once:

Yellowed curtains flapping in an old wood-framed window with peeling white paint, hip and wrist lanced with flaring hot pain against the dusty carpet and the weight of the whole noisy planet crushing her sunken chest; only newspapers for years now on the big leather recliner by the TV, no one will find me, who’ll feed Mee-mow and Moozh; Edna and Sam both moved away, back East, having had weddings of their own, but a string of Christmases before that with smells of pine and roasting turkey, and bright-painted metal toys; and their births, wailing little creatures wet and red-faced after the hours of anxious, joyful, expanding pain(nothing like this constricting agony that was smashing her out of existence now like a locomotive rolling a fragmenting car in front of it)and breath-catching nakedness under sweaty sheets in a palm-shaded Pasadena bungalow, a wedding in 1922, drunk, and driving the boxy new Ford around and around the little graveled traffic circle at Wilshire and Western; long hair easier to brush when the air carried the sulfur smell of smudge pots burning in the orange groves in the winter, and a schoolhouse and pet ducks in the flat farmlands out home in the San Fernando Valley, dolls made of wood and cloth, and smells of cabbage and talcum powder and sour milk; pain and being squeezed and choking and bright lightejected out into the cold!and now there was nothing but a little girl falling and falling down a deep black hole, forever.

Obstadt exhaled slowly, aware again of the sun on his bare forearms, the breeze tickling between the coarse gray hairs. He uncrossed his legs and sat up straight, his man’s body still feeling strange to him for a moment or two. And, he thought, I now weigh one three-thousandth of an ounce more than I did a minute ago.

He took a deep breath of the chilly morning air. The memories were fading–an old woman dying of a heart attack, after kids and a long life. He knew that the details would filter into his dreams . . . along with the details of all the others. Nice not to have a wino or a crackhead for once.

“Loretta’s a clown,” he repeated hoarsely, dragging his attention back across the vicarious decades. “She wins chips in this low-level game, but never cashes ’em in to move up to a bigger table; though she’d obviously like to, with her Velcro and her vegetarianism.”

He rubbed his fists over his gray crewcut, knuckling his scalp. “Still,” he went on, “some big chips do sometimes slide across her table, and she’s all excited about one now.” He stood up and stretched, flexing his broad shoulders. “I’m going to take it away from her.” He thought of brightly painted toys under Christmas trees. “Children,” he said thoughtfully. “Does Loretta have any, biological or adopted? Find out, and find them if she does. Keep monitoring her calls.” He looked at Canov. “What have you got on Topper?”

“Spooky,” Canov corrected him. “Nicholas Bradshaw. I think the courts still have warrants out on him. We’re pretty sure he’s dead.”

“Loretta’s pretty sure he’s not.”

Canov made a tossing gesture with one hand. “Or she’s trying to fake somebody out by pretending she thinks so. He does seem to be reliably dead. We got a broad spectrum of media out to do resonance tests at the houses he lived in, and in his old law office in Seal Beach, and they found no ringing lifelines that worked out to be him. The one that seems to be his thuds dead at around 1975, when he disappeared.”

“What kind of mediums?” Obstadt hated faggoty overprecise language.

Canov shrugged. “Hispanic brujas, a team of psychics from USC, autistic kids, ghost-sniffing dogs, even; a renegade Catholic priest, two Buddhist monks; we fed LSD to some poker players and had them do sixty or seventy hands of seven-stud with a Tarot deck in the law office one night. We had some blind fencers in, and videotaped ’em, watching for spontaneous disengages, but we didn’t see any dowsing effects. And all the EM stuff, TV sets and current and compasses, behave normally.”

“Okay, so he’s dead,” said Obstadt, “and his ghost hasn’t been hanging out at the places you checked. Is it wandering around?”

“Not if he died anywhere locally–it looks like he just dispersed, or was eaten. He published an as-told-to book in 1962, Spooked, but no copy we’ve found in libraries or bookstores or junk stores has any flyspecks on it at all, and we located a dozen copies of his high-school yearbooks, all of them with clean pages where his picture is. His parents were both cremated–Neptune Society–but his godfather’s buried at the Hollywood Cemetery next to Paramount Studios, and we keep scattering dirt on the old man’s marker, but the only time it’s cleaned off is when the maintenance people do it.”

Obstadt nodded. ” ‘Kay.” He stood up and crossed the carpeted floor to an east-facing window. “And right now, go to Venice, will you? Check out this business with the fish and the lobsters.”

 

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