Expiration Date – Snippet 15
“When the sands are all dry he is gay as a lark,
And will talk in contemptuous tones of the Shark:
But, when the tide rises and sharks are around,
His voice has a timid and tremulous sound.”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Since this was in effect breakfast, Pete Sullivan had ordered a Coors Light with his menudo. The beer was finished by the time the waiter carried the bowl of tripe stew to his corner table, so he waved the empty glass at the man.
“Another Coors,” noted the waiter, nodding. From the moment Sullivan had sat down, the man had proudly insisted on speaking English. “That was unleaded, right?”
“Right,” said Sullivan. “Right,” he repeated quietly as the waiter walked back to the counter. Unleaded, he thought. That’s the only kind of gasoline they sell now, so people with old vehicles like mine have to dump little jugs of lead substitute into the tank every time they fill up. Probably the term unleaded for light beer will still be in use long after leaded gasoline is forgotten, and everyone will assume that it’s a corruption of some old beer term. Uhnledden, he thought blurrily. The original light beer, brewed since the Middle Ages in the ancient German village of Bad Fahrting.
There were two or three plastic bottles of shampoo now alongside the bottles of lead substitute in the box under the sink in his van, and he imagined strolling into the men’s gym at City College up on Vermont and pouring the wrong stuff onto his head in the shower. He could claim it was a delousing measure. It probably would work as a delousing measure. But what would he tell the gas station attendant when he poured shampoo into the gas tank?
The shampoo had been only ninety-nine cents a bottle–logically–at the Arab-run ninety-nine-cent store he’d stopped at on Western. The ubiquitous little L.A. strip malls seemed to be all ninety-nine-cent stores now, as they had seemed to be all Mexican-style barbecue chicken places in the eighties.
Tiny Naylor’s was gone, and so he had driven on down Sunset past the various coffee shops that he still thought of as the chicken-hawk place, the A.A. and N.A. place, the rock-‘n’-roll place, the punk-rock-hell place. God knew what sorts of crowds they attracted now. Ben Frank’s was still by the La Cienega intersection, and he remembered that it had been such a hangout for the long-hair-and-granny-glasses types in the sixties that the casting call ad for the Monkees’ TV show had said, “Ben Frank’s types wanted.”
He had turned south on Highland and then east again on Melrose–and discovered that Melrose Avenue, though still animated, had died. He remembered when Flip, the huge used-clothing store, had burned in ’83 or ’84, and had then had an epic fire sale out on the sidewalk–kimonos and tuxedos and fedoras, all selling cheap in the hot sun and the loud rock music. Now there was a Gap clothing store, just like you’d see in any mall. In the early eighties, savvy Japanese had been scouring Melrose for old leather jackets and jukeboxes, and nervous tourists would drive by to look at the punks with green mohawks; now the funny hairstyles looked as if they’d been done at the Beverly Center. Like a government-subsidized avant-garde, Sullivan had thought as he’d tooled his old van down the crowded avenue, affluent disenfranchisement is just galvanic twitching in a dead frog’s leg.
Once safely past the neighborhood of deLarava’s studio, he had turned south on Western and driven down to Wilshire and followed it farther east, past the marooned Art Deco relics of the Wiltern Building and the Bullocks Wilshire, to Hoover Street; east of Hoover, Wilshire slants through MacArthur Park (Sullivan’s father had always stubbornly gone on calling it Westlake Park, as it had been called before World War II, but today Sullivan sped through to Alvarado without thinking about the old man), and Sullivan recalled that the boulevard would end a mile or so ahead, just past the Harbor Freeway.
Here in this triangle between the Harbor and Hollywood Freeways were the narrow streets and old houses of the area known as the Temple-Beaudry district. Over on the far side of the freeways, on the hill above downtown L.A., the grand Victorian houses of Bunker Hill had stood until thirty years ago. Anonymous office towers stood there now; and on this side Sullivan saw new cleared lots and construction, and he knew that Temple-Beaudry would soon go the same way.
He had got off Wilshire and driven around through the pepper-tree-shaded streets, and had eventually found this place–a tiny Mexican restaurant called Los Tres Jesuses. Presumably, it was owned by three guys who each had the common Hispanic first name Jesus–pronounced Hey-soos, and usually, perhaps out of reverence, replaced with the nickname Chui–pronounced Chewy. “The Three Chewies” had sounded to him like a good place to get breakfast.
Snap, Crackle, and Pop, he thought now as he took a sip of his second cold beer. Manny, Moe, and Flapjack. Larry, Moe, and Culero. Sukie had called people culero sometimes–it meant, roughly, coward.
He picked up his spoon and dipped it into the hot menudo. Even the steam from it, sharp with garlic and onion and cilantro, was strengthening; in a few minutes he had eaten it all, chewed up every white rectangle of tripe and mopped up the last of the red, beefy broth with tortillas.
He wiped his forehead with the paper napkin and waved the second emptied bottle of beer at the waiter. He put it down and shook a cigarette out of the pack, and as he struck a match he noticed that the tin ashtray on the table had a crude felt-pen drawing of a skull in the dish of it, with, carefully lettered around the rim, the words l.a. cigar–too tragical.
It was a palindrome–L.A. cigar both ways, with toot in the middle.
Startled an instant in advance, he dropped the burning match onto the drawn skull, and the ashtray glared for a moment with a silent puff of flame, as if someone had previously poured a film of high-proof brandy into it.
The flame was out instantly, and the faint whiff of . . . bacon? . . . was gone as soon as Sullivan caught a trace of it.
Suddenly he was nervous–but a moment later all that happened was that a car alarm started up in the lot behind the bar. Beep . . . beep . . .beep . . . He smiled wryly–Que culero, he thought–but his hand was almost twitching with impatience for the third beer.
Then the bartender began clanging a spoon against a glass between the beats of the car horn: beep-clang-beep-clang-beep . . .
For a moment it was the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore . . . and with that the memories of his father had caught him.
You couldn’t count on motors, their father had told Sukie and Pete a hundred times, sitting over chili sizes at Ptomaine Tommy’s down on Broadway, or in line for the Cyclone Racer roller coaster way out at the Pike in Long Beach, or just driving the new Studebaker up Mulholland Drive along the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains to Topanga Canyon and back. The camera had to be cranked at a steady speed even when you were crouched on a platform bolted to the front of a car spinning out around a turn, or on a boat in the Bering Sea when it was so cold that the oil in the camera was near to freezing solid. Some guys tried to use the second hand of a watch to keep rolling that foot of film per second, but Karl Brown told me the trick of humming the Anvil Chorus in your head—if you got that tune really tramping, they could swing you on a sling in a high wind from the top of a twenty-story building and you’d still have that crank turning sixteen frames a second as steady as a metronome in somebody’s parlor.
Their father had been Arthur Patrick Sullivan–known as A.P. or Apie, apparently because he liked to do feats of strength and had hair growing thickly on the backs of his shoulders–and he had started in the movie business in 1915, working as a cameraman and film technician in Cecil B. DeMille’s barn at Vine and Selma in Hollywood. His bosses in those early days had been DeMille, Jesse Lasky, and Samuel Goldfish, who was soon to change his name to Goldwyn–but the infant movie business was chaotic, and Apie Sullivan had eventually become a producer and director at 20th Century Fox. For a cresting decade or so, he had made feature films with stars like Tyrone Power and Don Ameche and Alice Faye, but it had been obvious to the twins that he had been happiest in the days before sound stages and artificial set lighting. They’d say “We’re losing the light” when the sun would start to set, he had often told the twins, but that was Griffith’s magic hour, that hour when the sun was just over the trees, and the buildings and the actors would be lit from the side with that gold glow.
The 1920s had been their father’s magic hour.
By the time the twins were born, in 1952, the old man had been on his third marriage, had subsided into doing documentaries and freelance editing, and was supplementing his income by buying and selling real estate out in Riverside and Orange County; but he had never moved out of the old Spanish-style house in Brentwood, and he had sometimes hung out at the Hillcrest Country Club with Danny Kaye and George Jessel, and had been proud that he could still occasionally get jobs in show business for the children of various old friends.
The waiter brought the third Coors Light, and Pete took a long sip from the neck of the bottle. Drinking in the morning, he thought.
Beth, as Sukie had been known until college, had always claimed to remember their mother, who died a year after the twins’ birth. Pete had never believed her.
When the twins were seven, their father had got engaged to be married again. Kelley Keith had been thirty-three years old to their father’s sixty-one, but she was a genuine actress, having had a few supporting roles in films like We’re Not Married and Vampire Over London, and the twins had been impressed with her contemporary career as they had never been with their father’s old movies. And she had been slim and blond with a chipmunk overbite and laugh-crinkled eyes, and Pete had been desperate not to let Beth know that he had fallen in love–he was certain–with their stepmother-to-be.
The four of them had seemed, to the twins at least, to do everything together–wading in the tide pools at Morro Bay to find tiny octopuses and to nervously stick their bare toes into the clustered grasping fingers of sea anemones, hiking through the pine woods around their father’s cabin in Lake Arrowhead, having grand lunches at the giant-hat-shaped Brown Derby on Wilshire. . . Their father always ordered raw oysters and steak tartare, and kept promising the twins that they’d be getting new brothers and sisters before too long.
The wedding was held in April of 1959 at St. Alban’s Church on Hilgard. Sukie–Elizabeth–had been sulking for weeks and refused to be the flower girl, and in the end, it had been Shirley Temple’s little girl, Lori Black, who carried the bouquet of lilacs. The reception was at Chasen’s, and Pete could still remember Andy Devine raucously singing “At the Codfish Ball.”
And then, one afternoon that summer, their father and his new bride had driven out to Venice Beach for a picnic. The twins had not been along for this outing. Their white-haired father had reportedly gone swimming, doing his always-self-consciously-athletic “Australian Crawl” way out past the surf line, and he had apparently gotten a stomach cramp. And he had drowned.
Pete tilted the bottle up for another slug of cold beer.
After their father’s death, Kelley Keith had just disappeared. She had simply packed up all her belongings and moved, and no one had been able to say where to.
Story of my life, Pete Sullivan thought now with no particular bitterness. Later he’d heard a rumor that she had gone to Mexico with a lot of their father’s money. Then he’d heard that she had got in a car crash down there and died.
And so, the twins had been put into the first of what was to be a succession of foster homes. And eventually there had been Hollywood High, and City College and no money, and then the jobs with deLarava.
DeLarava probably has the license number of my van, Sullivan thought now as he swirled the last inch of beer in the bottle. Could she somehow have the cops looking for it?
He remembered a joke his father had liked to tell:
What do you make your shoes out of?
Hide? Why should I hide?
No, hide! Hide! The cow’s outside!
Well, let her in, I’m not afraid.
I’m afraid, Sullivan thought. Yo soy culero.
He had seen a pay telephone on the back wall by the restroom doors, and now he slid a couple of quarters from the scatter of change on the table and stood up. See if you can’t establish a solider home base, he thought as he walked steadily to the phone. Clausewitz’s first piano concerto.
Be there, Steve, he thought as he punched in the remembered number. Don’t have moved.
He heard only one ring before someone picked it up at the other end. “Hello?”
“Hi,” Sullivan said cautiously, “is Steve Lauter there please?”
“This is Steve. Hey, this sounds like Pete Sullivan! Is that you, man?”
“Or an unreasonable facsimile.” Steve had been working at some credit union in the eighties. Sullivan wondered if he was about to leave for work. “Listen, I’m in L.A. for a couple of days, I was thinking we should get together.”
“I can have a case of Classic Coke on the premises when you get here,” said Steve heartily. “Where are you staying?”
“Well,” said Sullivan, grateful that Steve had so readily provided a cue, “I’m sleeping in my van. It’s got a bed in it, and a stove–”
“No, you stay here. I insist. How soon can you be here?”
Sullivan recalled that Steve had been married, and he wanted to shave and shower before showing up at his old friend’s door. “Aren’t you working today?”
“I get Wednesdays off. I was just going to mow the lawn today.”
“Well, I’ve got a couple of errands to run,” Sullivan said, “people, to see. This afternoon? I’ll give you a call first. Are you still off Washington and Crenshaw?”
“Naw, man, I moved west of the 405, in Sawtelle where the cops don’t pull you over if you’re in a decent car. Let me give you the address, I’m at–”
“I’ll get it when I call you back,” Sullivan interrupted. “And I’ll watch the speed limits on the way, I don’t think I’m in a decent car.”
“Make it soon, Pete.”
“You bet. I’ll bring some . . . Michelob, right?”
“It’s Amstel Light these days, but I’ve got plenty.”
“I’ll bring some anyway.”
“Are you drinking now? Old Teet himself?”
“Only when it’s sunny out.”
Steve laughed, a little nervously. “That’s every day, here, boy, you know that. I’ll be by the phone when you call.”
After he had hung up, Sullivan stood beside the phone in the dark hallway. His mouth tasted of menudo and beer, and he wished he hadn’t left his cigarettes out on the table, for there was another call to make. A siren wailed past outside, and he slid his other quarter into the slot. He remembered the studio number too.
After two rings, “Chapel Productions,” said a woman’s voice.
Good Lord, he thought, that’s new. “Could I talk to Loretta deLarava, please. This is Donahue at Raleigh.” He wondered if deLarava still used Raleigh for special post-production work, and if Donahue was still there.
He had no intention of speaking to deLarava, and was ready to hang up if she came on the line, but the woman said, “Ms. DeLarava is at lunch–no, that’s right, she’s doing a timely in Venice. Might be a while.”
Sullivan’s face was chilly with sweat again, and he glanced at the men’s room door, measuring the distance to it–but the surge of nausea passed. “Okay,” he said, breathing shallowly, “I’ll try later.”
He juggled the receiver back onto the hook and swayed back to his table. Sitting down, he lifted the bottle and drank the last of the beer.
Order another? he thought. No. Can’t A.O.P. in these narrow old streets, and you sure don’t need a drunk-driving arrest. What the hell is she doing in Venice today. Halloween’s three days off. At worst, this is just a reconnaissance scouting trip for what she’ll be doing then–and maybe something timely really is happening there.
He thought about driving out there to see, and discovered that he could not.