Expiration Date – Snippet 16
“I’m sure I didn’t mean–” Alice was beginning, but the Red Queen interrupted her impatiently.
“That’s just what I complain of! You should have meant! What do you suppose is the use of a child without any meaning?”
Through the Looking-Glass
Sometimes Kootie would be kind to the poor things, putting wooden croutons in the soup so that there would be something they could eat at the dinner table; but today, when he was trying to inoculate his children, he didn’t want the things around, so he was smoking a cigar made of paper and horsehair. It tasted horrible, but at least there were no indistinct forms hunching around the gate.
His children weren’t cooperating—Kootie had got them out on the lawn barefoot, and he was throwing little Chinese firecrackers to make the children dance away from their exploded footprints, but they were crying; and when he set up a pole with coins at the top, his son Tommy couldn’t climb it, and Kootie had to rub rosin on the boy’s knees and shout at him before he managed it.
It hadn’t been easy for Kootie to learn these tricks—he was deaf and had to bite the telephone receiver in order to hear by bone conduction. Now in the dream he was biting one of the firecrackers, lighting it as if it was one of the awful cigars, and when it went off it jolted him awake.
His warm, furry pillow was awake too–Fred had scrambled up at the noise, and Kootie sat up on the pile of video cassette rewinders in the back seat of Raffle’s car. Outside, bright morning sun lit the tops of old office buildings. Kootie straightened the sunglasses on his nose.
“That roused the sleepyheads,” said Raffle from the driver’s seat. “Backfire, sorry.” He revved the engine, and the whole car shook. “You were both twitching in your sleep,” Raffle went on. Kootie watched the back of his gray head bob in time with the laboring engine. “I always wonder what city dogs dream about. Can’t be chasing rabbits, they’ve never seen a rabbit. Screwing, probably. I always used to want to do it with my wife doggie-style, but I could never get her to come out in the yard.”
Raffle was laughing now as he hefted the bottle of Corona beer he’d bought late last night, and he wedged it under the dashboard and popped off the cap.
Kootie pulled one of the rewinders out from under himself, and as he dug in his pocket for a dime he peered out through the dusty back window and tried to remember what part of L.A. they were in now. He saw narrow shops with battered black iron accordion gates across their doors, drifts of litter in the gutters, and against the buildings, and ragged black men wrapped in blankets sitting against the grimy brick and stucco walls.
He nervously pulled a dime out of his pocket and remembered that Raffle had called this area “the Nickel”–Fifth Street, skid row, just a block away from the lights and multilingual crowds of Broadway.
Raffle was chugging the warm beer, and Kootie was nauseated by the smell of it first thing in the morning, on top of the smells of Fred and last night’s burritos. He bent over the gray plastic box of the rewinder and began using the dime to twist out the screws in the base of it. By the time Raffle had used the empty bottle as a pipe–needling the stuffy air with the astringent tang of crack cocaine and hot steel wool–and opened the car door to spin it out into the street, Kootie had worked the back off the machine and was trying to jam the blunt dime edge into the screw heads of the electric motor inside.
Raffle glanced back at him before putting the car in gear. “What you been snortin’, Koot me boy?” he asked cheerfully as he steered out away from the curb. “A little crank up the nose to wake you up?”
“Nothing,” said Kootie quickly, thinking of the ghost he’d inhaled at twilight yesterday. The ghost had surely been responsible for his peculiar dreams. Kootie certainly didn’t have any children.
“Huh. Regular speed freak you are.” The engine was popping and coughing, but Raffle was goosing the car forward down the curbside lane, tapping his foot rapidly on the gas pedal. “A speed freak, you leave him alone with a screwdriver and come back and find your stereo all over the apartment in pieces. This crack now, it’s nothin’ for kids, you understand, but it’s harmless compared to speed.” The light was green at Broadway, but he had to wait for pedestrians to wobble past before turning north. “Thing about speed, a guy cooks it up in a secret factory out in Twenty-nine Palms or somewhere, in the desert, you know? And if he’s paranoid, which he usually is, with good reason, the paranoia gets in the speed, and when you snort it you wind up feeling what he felt when he was cooking it. You get his personality. They should have those priests make it, up here at St. Vibiana Cathedral on Second Street–spike the stuff with some sanka-titty.”
For a moment Kootie pictured a breast that was heavy with decaf coffee, then realized that Raffle must have meant sanctity. Outside the car, the Broadway sidewalk was already crowded with bums and businessmen of, apparently, every nationality the world had to offer; all of them seemed busy, with concerns that Kootie couldn’t imagine. How long, the boy thought unhappily, can I live out here on the streets like this?
The narrow ground-floor shops were all shoe stores and Asian restaurants and–of all things–travel agencies, but above the restless heads of the crowd stood antique iron lampposts with frosted glass globes, and fire-escape balconies zigzagging up the dignified brick faces of the smog-darkened buildings.
He looked down at the machine in his lap–and suddenly he didn’t know what it was. Without deciding to, he found himself asking, “What does this thing do?”
Raffle glanced into the back seat. “Nothing, anymore, I guess. It’s a video rewinder, was. To rewind movies, so you don’t have to wear out your VCR.”
“Movies?” Kootie stared at the plastic box and tried to imagine reels of cellulose nitrate film small enough to fit inside it. Then, “VCR,” he repeated thoughtfully. Video-something, apparently. Video-cathode-rectifier, video-camera-receiver?
“Where did you grow up, boy?” said Raffle. “It hooks up to your TV set, and you rent movies to watch on it.”
Kootie’s heart was pounding, and he took off his sunglasses and ducked his head to peer out ahead, through the windshield, at the remote glass towers that intersected the yellow sky to the north. “What,” he asked shakily, “has been the greatest invention since–” He caught himself “–oh, say, in the twentieth century?” he finished.
He could see Raffle scratch the gray stubble on his brown chin. “Oh, I reckon . . . the thermos.”
Kootie blinked. “The thermos? You mean like thermos bottles?”
“Sure,” said Raffle expansively. “Hot things, it keeps hot. And cold things, them it keeps cold.”
“Well,” said Kootie helplessly, “yes . . .”
Raffle lifted his hands from the steering wheel for a moment to spread them in mystification. “So how does it know?”
Raffle was laughing again, and when Fred whined and licked his right ear he rolled down the driver’s-side window so the dog could poke his head out from the back seat. Kootie leaned forward and took deep breaths of the chilly diesel-and-fish-oil-scented breeze.
“Where are we headed?” he asked.
“Civic Center, I think, wander around Spring and Grand and all, catch some of the effluent citizens who’re on a break from jury duty or waiting in line for the matinee of Phantom of the Opera. Good guilt either way. And first a stop at the Market up here, get some good fresh tamales to put under the hood for dinner. There’s Chinese too, but it don’t last so good on the manifold.”
“Tamales sound fine,” said Kootie. “Uh . . . can I buy some firecrackers?”
“Firecrackers?” exclaimed Raffle. “On top of my felonies you want to . . . purchase illegal explosives?” Kootie had started to stammer an apology, but Raffle went on, “Sure, the boy can have firecrackers. And for breakfast, how about a slice of pepperoni pizza? Let’s have another cup of coffeee,” he sang raucously, “let’s have another pizza pie.”
Kootie smiled uncertainly and nodded as Fred’s tail thumped repeatedly against his cheek. Between two of the thumps he managed to get his sunglasses back on.
The first part of the morning was heady, nervous fun. Raffle parked the car on Third Street, and with Fred tagging right along they walked in the open front of the Grand Central Market, past the shoeshine stands on the sidewalk to the wide dim interior, where big live fish slapped on butchers’ blocks and gray-haired little old women wolfed noodles from paper bowls with chopsticks and haggled over vegetables the like of which Kootie had never seen before. Raffle handled his party’s purchases, joking in broken Spanish with the Hispanic fellow at the tamale counter and pausing for mumbled exchanges with a couple of overly made-up women who seemed to be just wandering around and whom Kootie took for hostesses.
Back out on the sunny sidewalk, Kootie and Raffle nibbled slices of hot pizza wrapped in waxed paper as they walked back to the car, while Fred trotted alongside carrying the bag of tamales in his mouth. Raffle had tucked a little flat square package into Kootie’s shirt pocket in the market, and when they got to the car and Raffle bent over the hood, Kootie dug the package out and saw the Chinese dragon printed on the wrapper and realized it was his firecrackers. He tucked it into the hip pocket of his jeans.
Firecrackers, he thought bewilderedly. What do I want firecrackers for?
Kootie wondered if his dream was still clinging to him; all morning he had been flinching at voices and car horns and the whacks of the butchers’ cleavers in the market, and until Raffle hoisted up the car hood Kootie was blankly staring at the low, sharp-edged cars that blundered incongruously through the lanes on this floor of the echoing valley between the buildings; the cars looked as though they’d been built to fly.
But when the hood had creaked up, Kootie leaned in over the fender and peered at the black engine. He could recognize the radiator, and vaguely the block, but he wondered why there were so many fan belts.
“Gimme the daily bread, Fred,” muttered Raffle to the dog, who relinquished the bag he’d been carrying.
Beside the left wheel well a roll of aluminum foil was tucked in behind some square translucent box that appeared to have green water in it, and Raffle unrolled a yard of foil and wrapped the tamales tightly, then tucked them in under the air filter.
Kootie was delighted with the notion. “Automotive cuisine,” he said. “They should design the engine with a box there, for baking.”
“And hang a string from the radiator cap,” Raffle agreed, “so you could steam ess-cargo.” He patted the crumpled silvery bulge. “Think that’s gonna stay wedged in there?”
Kootie didn’t answer. He had just looked up into an enormous color photograph of his own face, and for a dizzy moment he couldn’t guess the distance or the size of the thing. He blinked and bobbed his head, and then the image fell into its proper scale.
Behind Raffle and way above his head, in a wide metal bracket on the second floor of the building they’d parked in front of, a billboard had been hung–its bright and unfaded colors made it stand out from the weathered beer and cigarette signs around it.
The right third of it was a huge color blowup of Kootie’s own fifth-grade school photo. And the words on the billboard were in Spanish, but the meaning was clear:
recompensa dinero por este nino perdido,
se llama cut humi
la ultimo que lo vi lunes, 26 de octubre,
en buleva sunset
$20,000 llama (213) jkl koot $20,000
Kootie began whistling, and he shuffled to the driver’s side door and pulled it open, letting the thumb-button on the handle snap out loudly.
“Want me to drive?” he asked with a broad smile.