Expiration Date – Snippet 18
However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out, “The race is over!” and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, “But who has won?”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Even on this Wednesday morning in October the Santa Monica Bay beaches were crowded–with surfers in black and turquoise wet suits paddling out across the unbroken blue of the deep water or skating in across the curling jade-green faces of the waves, and blankets and umbrellas and glossy brown bodies thickly dotting the pale sand, and cars and vans and bicycles glinting in the sun on the black asphalt of the parking lots.
On the mile and a half of narrow grassy park on the bluffs above Palisades Beach Road, just north of the Santa Monica Pier, the villages of tents and old refrigerator boxes had drawn a crowd of tourists to mingle gingerly with the resident homeless people, for there was some kind of spontaneous revival meeting going on throughout the whole stretch of Sleeping-bag Town. Six or eight old women abandoned their aluminum-can-filled shopping carts to hop bowlegged across the grass, growling brrrm-brrrm in imitation of motorcycle engines or howling like police sirens; then all paused at once and, even though they were yards and yards apart and separated by dozens of people, all shouted in unison, “Stop! You’re on a one-way road to Hell!” Ragged old men, evidently caught up in some kind of primitive Eucharistic hysteria, babbled requests that someone take their flesh and eat it; then all at the same instant fell to their knees and began swallowing stones and fistfuls of mud. Several tourists got sick. On the indoor merry-go-round at the Santa Monica Pier, children were crying and protesting that they didn’t like the scary faces in the air.
A mile to the south, at Ocean Park, surfing was disrupted when nearly a hundred people went clumsily thrashing out into the water, shouting to each other and urgently calling out, “Sister Aimee! Sister Aimee!” to some apparently imaginary swimmer in peril.
And south of that, at Venice Beach, several trucks and a skip-loader had been driven around the Pavilion and down onto the sand, where, with police clearing the way, they slowly pushed their way through the crowd that had gathered around the big dead fish.
The thing was clearly dead–it was beginning to smell bad, and the crowd tended to be denser downwind of the fat woman who was feverishly puffing on one clove-scented cigarette after another.
None of the exhibitionist bodybuilders in the little fenced-in workout area had bothered to set down their barbells and get up off the padded benches to go look at the fish. And the girls in Day-Glo sunglasses and neon spandex went on splitting the crowd on Ocean Front Walk as they swept through on inline skates, and the jugglers and musicians stayed by their money-strewn hats or guitar cases. Attention can be briefly diverted by some kind of freak wonder, thought Canov as he leaned against one of the concrete pillars on the concrete stage, but these people know it’ll eventually swing back to them.
From up on the stage he could see the signs on the storefronts above the heads of the crowd–mick’s subs, pitbull gym fitness wear, candy world/muscle beach cafe/hot dogs/pizza–and blocks away to the north, up by Windward, he could see the ranks of tentlike booths selling towels and sunglasses and hats and T-shirts and temporary tattoos. The direct sunlight was hot up here on the stage, though when he’d sidled over here through patches of shade he’d noticed that the breeze, bravely spicy with the smells of Polish sausage and sunblock, was nevertheless chilly. The lapd officers ambling in pairs along the sidewalks were wearing blue shorts and T-shirts, but they’d probably been wearing sweats a few hours ago.
Canov wished he’d had time to change before driving out here, but deLarava had told somebody on the phone that she intended to come straight here herself, and Obstadt had ordered Canov to get to Venice quickly. Now here he was, dressed for the office, and his charcoal suit and black beard probably made him look like some kind of terrorist.
A massive concrete structure on broad pillars overhung the stage on which Canov was standing, and when he’d walked up to the thing and climbed up the high steps, he’d thought it was probably supposed to abstractly represent a man bent over a barbell; and behind it, squatting between it and Ocean Front, was a big gray garage structure that was shaped like a barbell sitting on one of those machines in an automated bowling alley that returned your ball to you. To Canov it all looked like some kind of surreal fascist physical-fitness temple in an old Leni Riefenstal documentary.
He turned his attention back out to the beach. DeLarava’s film crew had begun piling their lights and microphone booms back into their van. Apparently, they were about to leave–Canov stood up on tiptoes in his Gucci shoes to make sure.
Why the hell, Loretta deLarava thought as she plodded heavily away from the fish, down toward the booming surf, are so many people out on the beach? Did he draw them, as cover?
Her shoes had come unfastened, with sand clogging the patches of Velcro, and she couldn’t refasten them without a comfortable chair to be sitting in. And the white sun, reflecting needles off the sea and an oven glow upward from the sand, was a physical weight–she was sweating under her white linen sheath dress.
She paused and twisted around without moving her feet, blinking when the salty breeze threw a veil of her hair across her face. I should wear the rubber band on top of my hair, she thought. “Come here, Joey,” she called irritably.
Her bent little old assistant, ludicrous here on the beach in his boots and khaki jacket, crab-stepped away from the crowd down to where she was standing on the firmer damp sand. He never sweated.
“You’re on a one-way road to Hell,” he said, in a shrilly mocking imitation of a woman’s voice. “She knew enough,” he went on in his own voice, “to keep radio electricians around to screw. Total-immersion baptism to renounce the devils, and then she made sure to resurface under the spiderweb of radar-foxing moves. Rotor-fax devils,” he droned then, apparently caught in one of his conversational spirals, “Dover-taxed pixels, white cliffs of image too totally turned-on for any signal to show. Too too too, Teet and Toot, tea for two.”
DeLarava sucked on the stub of her cigarette so hard that sparks flew away down the beach, but there was no taste of ghost in the smoke. “What about Teet and Toot? Go on.”
Joey Webb blinked at her. “They were here once, you said.”
Perhaps he was lucid now. “Can you sense them, either of them? Can you sense their father?”
“Me sense a person?” Joey said, his voice unfortunately taking on his skitzy singsong tone again, “Aimee Semple McPherson swam out to sea here, and everybody thought she drowned. Two divers did drown, trying to save her, and she had to carry those ghosts forever, after that.”
DeLarava had wanted Joey Webb to sift news of old Apie Sullivan’s ghost from the turbulent psychic breezes, but he appeared to be hung up on Aimee Semple McPherson, the evangelist who had disappeared in the surf off Ocean Park in 1926; it had been big news at the time, but later the newspapers had discovered that she had just ducked away to spend a couple of weeks in anonymous seclusion with an electrician from her gospel radio station.
DeLarava sighed. Even as a film shoot, today’s expedition had pretty much been a failure. The generator truck from the Teamsters Union had got stuck in the sand a couple of hundred feet short of the fish, so that cables had had to be run where people were sure to trip over them, and then there had been trouble with the Mole-phase lights, the tic-tac-toe squares of nine 5600-Kelvin lamps that were supposed to provide daylight-colored illumination to fill the shadows on people’s faces; the lights had alternately flared and faded, and finally deLarava had told the cameraman to just shoot the bystanders with their eye sockets and cheek hollows gaping like caverns. God knew what the fish would come out looking like on the film.
Hours ago, Animal Control had sent a truck out to haul away the fish, but a bystander claimed that the dead monster was a coelacanth, some sort of living fossil from the Carboniferous Age, uncommon anywhere and never found in the Pacific Ocean. The Department of Fish and Game had arrived after that, and some professors had driven down from UCLA and were still arguing with anyone who planned to even touch the damned thing.
The news story, such as it was, was in the can, and deLarava had sent one of her people back to the studio with it, but she didn’t want to leave the beach without learning whether old Sullivan’s ghost had emerged from the sea yet–and if so, where he was. She wouldn’t dare try to eat him until Saturday, but she could safely catch him in a jar now.
For what must have been the hundredth time, she glanced at her watch, but the compass needle was still jittering unreliably, pointing more or less at the concrete block of handball courts, which was north of her. Before the camera had started rolling she had stumped her way through the crowd around the site, peering constantly at her watch, but each of the six times the needle had pointed away from north it had been indicating some nearby grinning or frowning old lunatic in junk-store clothes–accreted, hardened old ghosts, whose stunted fields wouldn’t even be detectable if they’d step back a yard or two.
Apie Sullivan’s ghost would be indistinguishable from a death-new one, and strong, preserved for all these past thirty-three years in the grounded stasis of the sea. But tracking a new ghost, she thought now as she watched the quivering needle, is like trying to spot a helicopter in a city–you “hear” ’em from all kinds of false directions; they aren’t truly at any “where” yet, and they’re subject to “echoes.”
But I’m not even getting any echoes. And Joey Webb isn’t sensing him, and he would–Joey thinks they’re angels or spirits or something, but he does reliably sense ghosts. Joey would know it if he was here.
And he’s not here.
DeLarava dug in her purse and pulled out her wallet. “Joey,” she said, “are you listening to me? I want you to stay here, rent a room at a motel or something, can you do that?” She slid a sheaf of twenties and hundreds out of the wallet and held it out toward him.
“Which motel?” said old Joey alertly, taking the money. “What name will he be using?”
“He’s not going to stay at a motel, you–” She threw her cigarette away toward the waves, and coughed harshly, tasting clove in the back of her throat. “He’ll be just a little wispy shred, like the cellophane from a cigarette pack, but not reflecting. Track him with a compass–he’ll be dazed, wandering. Buy a jar of orange marmalade, dump out the marmalade but leave some smears in it for him to smell, and if you find him, catch him in it.” She stared at the crazy old man anxiously. “Can you do all this?”
“Oh, do it, sure,” he said with a careless wave. He shoved the bills inside his shirt. “What do you want me to tell him?”
“Don’t talk to him,” deLarava wailed, nearly crying with exhaustion and frustration. “Don’t unscrew the lid after you’ve caught him. Just wrap him in your coat or something and call me, okay?”
“Okay, okay. Sheesh.”
“You won’t let him get past you? He mustn’t get inland of Pacific Avenue, I can’t afford to lose him in the maze of the city.”
Joey stood up straight and squinted at her. “He shall not pass.”
This would have to do. “Call me when you’re checked in,” she said clearly, then turned and began striding heavily up the sand slope, shoving her way between the bystanders.
When she had elbowed her way to the clearing in the center of the crowd, she paused by the thigh-high hulk of the coppery fish and looked down into its big, dulled eye. A living fossil, one of the UCLA professors had called this monstrosity. Hardly a living one, she thought. Though some of us still are.
She was on the north side of the dead thing, and she looked at her watch–but the compass needle pointed away behind her, northward.
She sighed and began pushing her way back out of the crowd. This was a waste of time, she thought. But maybe my billboards will have elicited a call about the Parganas kid. And I parked the Lexus way up on Main here–maybe somebody will have broken into it.
Sweat had run down from Canov’s styled hair into his beard, and he scratched at it before it could work down his neck to his white collar. He was glad to see that deLarava was finally leaving, for a dozen children in swimsuits had climbed up onto the open-air stage that he’d chosen as a lookout post, and they’d started some skipping and singing game.
A big dead fish, Canov thought as he carefully stepped down the cement block stairs to the pavement. What can I tell Obstadt, besides that she hung around and looked at it and filmed it? This one’s bigger than the ones she hooks and hauls up to the Queen Mary deck on dark nights, but she didn’t catch this one, and she surely didn’t eat it. Maybe she’s just interested in fish. And the crabs and lobsters have all been picked up, or managed to return to the sea. I can’t even bring him one, not that Obstadt would have any use for it, being a strict vegetarian.
“Can I buy a smoke off you, man?”
Canov turned away from the beach. A tanned young man who had been standing over by the volleyball nets had walked across the gray pavement to the stage, and now stood with one hand extended and the other digging in the pocket of his cutoff jeans. Canov thought he looked too healthy to be wanting nicotine.
“I haven’t found any,” said Canov. If it was a cigarette the man wanted, this answer ought to disconcert him. But instead of protesting that he didn’t want a cigarette picked up off the sidewalk, the young man shook his head ruefully. “They’re out today, though, aren’t they?” he said, his voice just loud enough for Canov to hear it over the rap music shouting out of the black portable stereos on the sidelines of the volleyball games. “You can almost smell how they died.”
Canov, never a user of the stuff known as “smokes” and “cigars,” just shrugged. “I can smell that that fish died,” he said inanely.
The young man glanced disinterestedly down toward the crowd by the shore. “Dead fish, yeah. Well, see you.” And he began jogging away barefoot toward the bike path, doubtless searching for some other out-of-place-looking person standing around.
Police had cleared another path through the crowd, and now a pickup truck with a cherry-picker crane in its bed had been driven down onto the sand, and Canov could see men in overalls trying to roll the fish over onto a long board. A big flatbed tow truck was parked nearby, and he wondered idly who had won custody of the creature.
He sighed and began walking over. Obstadt would probably want to know.
The fish was to be driven to an oceanography lab at UCLA. When the creature had been covered with a tarpaulin and roped down on the long bed of the tow truck, the driver slowly backed the truck out the way it had come, around the north side of the pavilion; the beep, beep, beep of the reverse-gear horn was drowned out at one point by metallic squealing, as one of the back wheels pinched and then flattened a blue-and-white trash can that had recycle*recicle*recycle*recicle stenciled endlessly around it, but eventually all four wheels were on pavement again, and the driver muscled the stick shift into first gear and began inching the big laboring old truck toward the Ocean Front curb, as policemen waved dozens of nearly naked people out of the way.
At last the truck reached Windward; and when the traffic thinned, out past Main, it drove up Venice Boulevard to Lincoln, and then turned north, toward the Santa Monica Freeway.
On the freeways, there you feel free.
As the truck ascended the on-ramp, grinding with measured punctuation up through the gears, the purple-flowered oleanders along the shoulder waved their leafy branches in a sudden gust; and sunlight flashed in the rushing air where there was no chrome or glass reflecting it, as if the ghosts of dozens of angular old cars accompanied the laboring truck.
In the steamy dimness under the flapping tarpaulin the jaws of the dead coelacanth creaked open, and a shrill faint whistling piped out of the throat as reversed peristalsis drove gases out of the creature’s stomach. The whistling ran up and down the musical scale in a rough approximation of the first nine notes of “Begin the Beguine,” and then a tiny gray translucency wobbled out of the open mouth, past the teeth, like a baby jellyfish moving through clear water.
A puff of smoke that didn’t disperse at its edges, the thing climbed down over the plates of the fish’s lower jaw, clung for a moment to the shaking corrugated aluminum surface of the truck bed, then sprang up into the agitated dimness toward the close tent-roof of the tarpaulin. The wind sluicing along the sides of the dead fish caught the wisp and whirled it back and out under the flapping tarpaulin edge into the open air, where hot, rushing diesel updrafts lifted it above the roaring trucks and cars and vans to spin invisibly in the harsh sunlight.
Traffic behind the flatbed truck slowed then, for suddenly the truck appeared to be throwing off pieces of itself: a glimpsed rushing surface of metal here, a whirling black tire there, glitters of chrome appearing first on one side of the truck and then the other, as if some way-ultraviolet light were illuminating bits of otherwise invisible vehicles secretly sharing the freeway. Then windshields were darkened in a moment of shadow as a long-winged yellow biplane roared past overhead, low over the traffic, with the figure of a man dimly visible standing on the top wing.
After no more than two seconds the plane flickered and disappeared, but before winking out of visibility it had banked on the inland wind, as if headed northeast, toward Hollywood.