Expiration Date – Snippet 17

Expiration Date – Snippet 17

CHAPTER 17

Alice thought to herself “I never should try to remember my name in the middle of an accident! . . .”

–Lewis Carroll,

Through the Looking-Glass

Raffle was frowning at him in puzzlement over the top of the hood. “No, Jacko,” he said, slamming it down. “Nor do I want Fred to drive. Get in on your own side.”

“I can scoot across.” Kootie got in the car and then hiked and dragged himself over the console into the passenger seat, so that Raffle’s attention would be drawn down at him rather than up toward the billboard. Kootie’s face was chilly with sweat, and his T-shirt was wet under the heavy flannel shirt. He was whistling again to hold the older man’s attention, whistling Raffle’s another pizza pie tune because he couldn’t think of anything else; he knew that with his bad ankle he wouldn’t be able to outrun Raffle, if it came to that.

But now Raffle had coaxed the dog into the back seat, and had got in himself and closed the door. “Are all little kids as crazy as you?”

Kootie was glad that his sunglasses were hiding the alarm that must still be shining in his eyes. “I’m not a little kid,” he said, hoping his heartbeat would slow down once the car got moving. “I’m an eighty-four-year-old . . . midget.”

“Mayor of the Munchkin City,” recited Raffle in a high, solemn voice as he cranked the starter, “in the county of the land of Oz.” The engine caught, and the car shook.

“Follow the yellow brick road,” quacked Kootie.

Raffle clanked the car into gear, nosed it forward, and steered it north again on Broadway. Kootie ruffled Fred’s fur and stole a glance back at the receding white rectangle that was the billboard, and he wondered who was offering the $20,000 recompensa. One last quote from The Wizard of Oz occurred to him. “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto,” he told Fred softly and self-consciously.

In the next two blocks they crossed over an invisible thermocline border, from hot, colorful third-world agitation into an area of tall, clean gray buildings, and streets with young trees planted along the sidewalks at measured intervals. and new cars and men in dark suits.

They turned left on Beverly and then parked in a broad pay lot off Hope Street. “We’ll make booyah more than the seven bucks it costs to park here,” said Raffle confidently as they piled out of the car and he opened the trunk to get his will work for food–homeless vietnam vet with motherless son sign; “so it’s no problem parking on credick.” (Kootie guessed that Raffle had derived his pronunciation, of credit from the way people generally said credit cards.) The whoosh of trucks on the Hollywood Freeway, muffled by the tall hedge of the shoulder at the north end of the lot, was like low random surf on the lee side of a jetty.

They had slept in the car last night, and Kootie had noticed that Raffle slept only a few hours between medication runs. He hoped that tonight they might crash for a while in a motel–the sight of the Ahmanson Theater and the Mark Taper Forum and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, standing as imposing as foreign capitol buildings on the wide, elevated, tree-shaded plaza across the intersection of Temple and Hope, reminded him of the Los Angeles he used to live in, and he yearned for the gracious luxury of a shower.

Kootie limped across the asphalt of the parking lot, holding the end of the belt that was Fred’s leash. The dog lunged at a couple of prancing pigeons, and Kootie tried to hop after him but turned his bad ankle and went painfully to his knees on the pavement. For a moment the world went from color to black-and-white.

“You’re just gettin’ beat to bits, Jacko,” said Raffle sympathetically as he helped the boy back up to his feet. “Here, I’ll take Fred.”

Kootie wasn’t crying, though the pain in his ankle was like a razory-high violin note, and he was sure blood must be trickling down his shin under his pants. “Okay,” he managed to gasp, blindly handing Raffle the end of the belt.

As soon as Kootie was able to breathe smoothly he spoke, to show that he was okay.

“What ‘work’ do we do,” he asked, “for food?”

The people who had given them stray one-dollar bills and pocket-warmed handfuls of change yesterday and last night had clearly been just paying an urban toll, but here he could imagine getting a twenty or two, and being given some actual task.

They stopped at the Temple Street curb. “Well,” said Raffle, squinting around at the wide, clean streets, “you gotta anticipate. It’s no good saying, ‘I gotta go buy my gardening tools back out of hock’ if the guy turns out to have gardening tools. The basic trick is ‘Gimme forty bucks right now and I’ll be at the address in a couple of hours,’ see? With you along it should be easy. ‘My boy’s sick, I just need thirty bucks to stash him in a motel bed, and then I’ll be right over.’ A cough or two from you, and the guy’s some kind of monster if he don’t cooperate.”

The light changed, and they crossed Temple, Fred tugging eagerly at the leash in Raffle’s knobby fist.

“So, we don’t do any actual work at all,” Kootie said, relieved in spite of himself.

“Work is whatever you do that gets you a nice time, Jacko,” Raffle said, “and you gotta figure out how to get the most for the least. Food, shelter, drink, dope. Some guys take a lot of R and R in jail, they don’t mind those orange jumpsuits, but that ain’t for me–my outstanding warrants are under different names, every one. In jail, speaking of your video rewinder, they start the movies at eight, but bedtime is nine, so you always miss the end of the movie. Could you live like that? And if you even smoke a cigarette–and one cigarette, in trade, costs you anywhere from four to eight items from the commissary, like soap or candy bars–a guy hiding in the air conditioning vent or somewhere tells on you, and then on the loudspeaker, ‘Mayo, report to the front watch, and put out that cigarette.’ You get a write-up, and gotta spend four hours scrubbing the toilets or something. Get two or three write-ups and you get a major–you don’t get your early release date. The good life is this out here.”

Kootie shrugged bewilderedly. “I’m sold,” he said.

They were stopped now at the Hope Street corner curb, waiting for the east-west light to change, and several men in suits and a woman in a coffee-colored dress had drifted up beside them, chattering about whoever was singing the Phantom role today.

The words I’m sold went on ringing in Kootie’s head as he stared to his right, back north across Temple.

The sky and the houses on the Echo Park hills and the greenery of the Hollywood Freeway shoulder all faded into a blurry two-dimensional frame surrounding the white, white billboard with the black lettering and the livid color photograph.

Kootie was icy cold inside his heavy flannel shirt. His ears were ringing as if with the explosions of the dreamed firecrackers, and he wondered if he would be able to run, able to work his muscles at all. It had not occurred to him that there might be more than one of the billboards–this affront had the disorienting dreamlike intrusiveness of supernatural pursuit.

The billboard was in English here, three blocks north of the first one:

***

cash reward for this missing boy

named koot hoomie

last seen monday october 26th

on sunset boulevard

$20,000 call (213) jkl koot $20,000

no questions asked

***

Kootie swung his head around to blink up at Raffle.

Raffle was staring at the billboard, and now looked down at Kootie with no expression on his weathered brown face.

The little green figure was glowing now in the screened box below the traffic signal across Hope, and the people beside Kootie stepped out into the crosswalk. Kootie found himself following them, staring at the crude silhouette in the box and hearing Raffle’s step and Fred’s jangling chain coming right along behind him.

“You’d get eight thousand,” said Raffle quietly. “After my cut and Fred’s.”

“Damn Ford,” said Kootie helplessly.

“We can get a Cadillac,” said Raffle. “Hell, we can get a Winnebago with two bathrooms.”

“I can’t . . . go to them,” Kootie said, involuntarily. Why not? he asked himself–I surely can’t live in a damn car forever. Then he heard himself saying, “They’ll eat me and kill you.”

Kootie stepped up the curb, helplessly letting the theater-goers hurry on ahead, and turned to face Raffle.

Raffle was frowning in puzzlement. “Eat you?” he said. “And kill me?”

“Not you,” Kootie said, speaking voluntarily now. “He was talking to me–he meant kill me.”

“That’s what he meant, huh?” Now Raffle was grinning and nodding. “I get it, Jacko–you really are crazy. Your nice clothes and nice manners–you’re the escaped schizo kid of some rich people, and they want you back so you can take your Thorazine or lithium, right? I’ll be rescuing you.”

Kootie, entirely himself for the moment, stared at the man and wondered how fit Raffle was. “I can just run, here.” His heart was thumping in his chest.

“You got a bad ankle. I’d catch you.”

“I’ll say I don’t know you, you’re trying to molest me.”

“I’ll point at the billboard.”

Kootie looked past Raffle at the momentarily empty sidewalk and street. “Let’s let these cops decide.”

When Raffle turned around, Kootie hopped up the stairs and broke into a sprint across the broad flat acropolis-like plaza, toward the curved brown wall below the flared white turret of the Mark Taper Forum; a walkway crossed the shallow pool around the building, and he focused on that. The tall glass facade of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was too far away.

Behind him he heard a yelp as Raffle collided with Fred, and then he heard the big man’s shoes scuffling up the steps; but Kootie was running full tilt, ignoring for now the pounding blaze of pain in his ankle, and when he crossed the moat and skidded around the circular brown wall of the Mark Taper Forum he couldn’t hear his pursuers.

Then he could. Fred’s claws were clattering on the smooth concrete and Raffle’s shoes were slapping closer. Kootie was more hopping than running now, and his face was icy with sweat–in a moment they’d catch him, and there was no one around who would help, everybody would want a piece of the $20,000.

Caught. Jagged memories crashed in on him–whipping his horse as he drove home at night past a cemetery while unsold newspapers tumbled in the back of the cart as insubstantial fingers plucked at the pages; crashing through the dark woods at Port Huron, pursued by the ghost of a recently dead steamship captain; fleeing west to California under the “mask” of a total eclipse of the sun in 1878, leaving no trail, sitting uncomfortably on a cushion on the cowcatcher of the racing Union Pacific locomotive, day after day, as it crested the mounting slopes toward the snowy peaks of the Sierras . . .

And too he remembered expiring in the bedroom of the mansion in Llewellyn Park in October of 1931, breathing out his last breath–into a glass test tube.

Anyone could eat him now, inhale him, inspire the essence of him. In his tiny glass confinement he had been taken to Detroit, and then eventually back out to California, and this prepubescent boy had inhaled him; the boy wasn’t mature enough to digest him, unmake him and violate him and put his disassembled pieces to use for alien goals . . . but the people pursuing him could, and would.

If they caught him.

At this moment the boy was just a shoved-aside passenger in his young body, and the old man turned on the dog that came bounding around the curve of white wall.

***

No more than two other people at the worst, thought Raffle, at the very worst, and that’ll still leave sixty-six hundred for me, since dumb Jacko is forfeiting his share, making me run after him like this; I can knock him down and then start yelling, Rightful Glory Mayo! Rightful Glory Mayo!–no, no jail names here, use the real name–what the hell is the real name?–and then tell ’em to call 911, this kid’s having a prophylactic fit, swallowing his tongue. I can take off my shoe and stick it in the kid’s mouth so he can’t talk, say it’s a first-aid measure.

Raffle sprinted across the walkway over the shallow pool and skidded around the curved wall of the Mark Taper only a few seconds after Kootie had, and practically on Fred’s tail–just as a deep thump buffeted the morning air.

And he clopped to a frozen halt, slapping the wall to push himself back.

The wall was wet with spattered blood that was still hot, and through a fine, turbulent crimson spray he stared at the portly old man, dressed in a black coat and battered black hat, who was gaping at him wide-eyed. Thinking gunshot, Raffle glanced down for Kootie’s body, but saw instead the exploded, bloody dog-skeleton of Fred.

Kootie was nowhere to be seen.

The old man half-turned away, and then suddenly whirled and sprang at Raffle, whipping up one long leg and punching him hard in the ear with the toe of a hairy black shoe; the impact rocked Raffle’s head, and he scuffled dizzily back a couple of steps, catching himself on the pool railing.

The old man’s mouth sprang open, and though more blood spilled out between the uneven teeth, he was able to say, “Let’s see you capture me now, you sons of bitches.”

Raffle remembered the boy having said something like kill you and eat me, and for this one twanging, stretched-out second Raffle was able to believe that this old man had eaten Kootie, and was now ready to kill him, ready to blow him up the way he’d apparently blown up the dog.

And an instant later Raffle had leaped the railing and was running away, splashing through the shallow pool, back toward the steps and the car and the smoggy familiar anonymity of the scratch-and-scuffle life south of the 10 Freeway.

***

The figure of the old man walked unsteadily to the stairs on the west side of the elevated plaza. A few of the people in line for Phantom tickets nudged their companions and stared curiously at the shapeless black hat, and at the black coat, which was coming apart at the shoulders as the arms swung at the figure’s sides.

The well-dressed people in line had seen the boy run that way, pursued by the bum, and they’d seen the bum come running back, across the pool and right on past to the stairs, in a fright; but this old man was walking calmly enough, and there hadn’t been any screams or cries for help. And the old man was disappearing down the parking garage stairs now, at a slow, labored pace. Clearly whatever had happened was over now.

***

The old man had thrown Kootie right out of his own body, into a pitch-dark room that Kootie somehow knew was Room 5 in the laboratory at West Orange.

The boy was panting quickly and shallowly, with a whimper at the top of each expiration. He wasn’t thinking anything at all, and he could feel a tugging in his eyes as his pupils dilated frantically in the blackness.

As he slowly moved across the wooden floor, sliding his bare feet gently, he passed through static memories that were strung through the stale air like spiderwebs.

There was another boy in this roomno, just the faded ghost of a boy, a five-year-old, who dimly saw this dark room as the bottom of a dark creek in Milan, Ohio. He had drowned a very long time ago, in 1852, while he and his friend Al had been swimming. In the terror of being under the water and unable to get back up to the surface, in the terror of actually sucking water into his lungs, he had jumpedright out of his body!and clung to his friend on the bank above. And he had gone on clinging to his friend for years, while Al had done things and moved around and eventually grown up into an adult.

Kootie shuffled forward, out of the standing wave that was the boy’s ghost, and he was aware of Al himself now, who as a boy had simply walked home after his friend had disappeared under the water and not come back up; Al had had dinner with his mother and father and eventually gone to bed, without remarking on the incident at the creekand he had been bewildered when his parents had shaken him awake hours later, demanding to know where he had last seen his friend. Everyone in town, apparently, was out with torches, searching for the boy. Al had patiently explained what had happened at the creek . . . and had been further bewildered by the horror in the faces of his mother and father, by their shocked incredulity that he would just walk away from his drowning friend.

As far as Al had been concerned, he had carried his friend home.

And in this room, thirty-seven years later, the friend had finally left Al.

Al was forty-two by then, though he had never forgotten the drowning. In this dark, locked room he had been working with Dickson on a secret new project, the Kinetophonograph, and late on a spring night in 1889 the two of them had tried the thing out. It was supposed to be a masking measureand, actually, as such, it had worked pretty well.

Dickson had set up a white screen on one wall, while Al had started up the big wood-and-brass machine on the other side of the room; as the machine whirred and buzzed, the screen glowed for a moment with blank white light, and then Al’s image appearedalready portly, with the resolute chin set now on a thick neck, the graying hair slicked back from the high, pale foreheadand then the image began to speak.

And the ghost of the drowned boy, confronted with an apparently split host, sprang away from Al and ignited in confusion.

***

Abruptly Kootie was back in his own body and remembered who he was, but he couldn’t see–there was some hot, wet framework all over him. Shuddering violently, he reached up and clawed it off; it tore soggily as he dragged it over his head, but when he had flung it onto the railing of the cement steps he could see that it had been a sort of full-torso mask: the now-collapsed head of an old man with a coarse black-fur coat attached to the neck, and limp white fleshy hands lying askew at the ends of the sleeves. It smelled like a wet dog.

Kootie was shaking violently. The morning breeze in the stairwell was chilly on his face and in his wet hair, and he realized numbly that the slickness on his hands and face was blood, a whole lot of somebody’s blood. Profoundly needing to get away from whatever had happened here, he stumbled farther down the steps into the dim artificial light, unzipping his heavy flannel shirt. His throat was open, but he hadn’t started breathing again yet.

Standing on the concrete floor at the foot of the steps, he pulled off the heavy shirt, which was slick with more of the blood; the nylon lining was clean, though, and he wiped his face thoroughly and rubbed his hair with it. Then he pushed the sticky curls back off his forehead, wiped his hands on the last clean patch of quilted nylon, and flung the sodden bundle away behind him. His backpack had fallen to the concrete floor, but at this moment it was just one more blood-soaked encumbrance to be shed.

The shirt he had on underneath was a thin, short-sleeved polo shirt, but at least it had been shielded from the blood. He scuffed black furry slippers off his Reeboks, wincing at the sight of the red smears on the white sneakers. Good enough! his mind was screaming. Get out of here!

He ran back up the steps, hopping over the collapsed organic framework, and when he was back up on the pavement he hopped over a low retaining wall, down to the Hope Street sidewalk.

He was walking away fast, with a hop in every stride.

The brief vision of normal life that the Music Center had kindled in him was forgotten–his brain was still recoiling from having been violated by another personality, but his nervous system had turned his steps firmly south, toward hiding places. The shaking of his heartbeat had started his lungs working again, and he was breathing in fast gasps with a nearly inaudible whistling in his lungs.

The old man’s memories were still intolerably ringing in his head, and at every other step he exhaled sharply and shook his head, for along with the immediate clinging smells of dog and blood he could feel in the back of his nose the acrid reek of burned hair.

The little boy’s ghost had exploded in an instantaneous white flash halfway between Al and the movie screen, charring the screen and putting a calamitous halt to the world’s first motion picture, which, ahead of its time, had been a talkie.

A combusty.

Later, Al had explained the bandages over his burns as just the result of a crucible happening to blow up while he’d been near it, but of course the press had played it up.

The New York Times headline for April 21, 1889, had read, edison burned but busy.

 

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