Expiration Date – Snippet 19

Expiration Date – Snippet 19

CHAPTER 19

“But then,” thought Alice, “shall I never get any older than I am now? That’ll be a comfort, one waynever to be an old womanbut thenalways to have lessons to learn! Oh, I shouldn’t like that!”

–Lewis Carroll,

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Back in his Olive Street office after court, well in time for a healthful lunch, J. Francis Strube tossed his briefcase onto the long oak credenza and slumped his oversized frame into the padded leather McKie chair behind his desk.

He had an appointment this afternoon, some guy whose wife was divorcing him. The man had sounded almost apologetic on the phone, clearly reluctant to hire an attorney because he hoped his wife would abandon the divorce action and come back to him. Strube would sympathize during this first consultation, let the guy ramble and emote and probably weep; during later sessions Strube could begin to raise his eyebrows over the man’s willingness to let the wife take so much stuff. Strube would interject, Oh, she’ll need it because she’ll be doing a lot of entertaining, eh? delivered in a tone that would make Strube seem like a sympathetically angered friend. Well, if you want to let her have everything . . .

Eventually, Strube could get a man to refuse to part with a vacuum cleaner that he might never have actually used, or possibly ever even seen. It took more time, but Strube preferred nurturing rapacity in these timid clients to flattering the egos of the villains who just wanted to ditch the old wife and marry the twenty-year-old sex . . . pot. For the latter sort, Strube would have to say, in tones of polite surprise, things like You’re fifty? Good Lord, you don’t look a day over forty. And, How did you put up with this for so long?

Anyway, the timid ones needed attorneys. What they initially wanted, like first-time Driving Under the Influence offenders, was to appear in court in humble pro per, not realizing that judges had all been attorneys once, and planned to be again after they retired, and wanted to make of these fools examples of how badly unrepresented people fared.

In a courthouse hallway this morning another attorney had told Strube a riddle.

Question: what do a lawyer and a sperm cell have in common?

Strube pursed his lips and leaned forward to pick up the newspaper that Charlotte had left on the desk. The telephone rang, but Charlotte would get it. Strube made it a point never to answer the phone on spec.

He waited, but the intercom didn’t buzz. That was good, she was fielding whatever it was. He let himself start to read. He saw that Ross Perot was claiming to have backed out of the presidential race only because of threats from the Bush-campaign people. He smiled. Strube never voted, but he liked to see things shaken up. “Time for a Change!” was a political slogan that always appealed to him. He was about to flip the front page when he noticed the box at the bottom.

***

fans searching for “spooky” from old sitcom

***

Strube read the story quickly, peripherally aware that his heartbeat was speeding up. When he had finished it, he pushed a button on the intercom.

“Charlotte!” he squeaked. “Get in here and look at this.” No, he thought immediately, she might try to get the credit herself. “Wait, get me–” he began again, but she had already opened his office door and was staring in at him curiously.

She was wearing another of the anonymous dark jacket-and-skirt combinations to which she had been confining herself ever since he’d made a blundering pass at her six months ago. “Look at what?” she asked.

“Perot says Bush was going to wreck his daughter’s wedding,” he said absently, folding the paper and pushing it aside. “Did you read about that? Say, get me the telephone number of . . .” What had been the name of the damned snuff? Ouchie? “Goudie! Goudie Scottish Snuff, uh, Company. G-O-U-D-I-E. It’s in San Francisco.”

“Snuff?”

Strube raised the back of his pudgy hand to his nose and sniffed loudly. “Snuff. Like lords and ladies used to do. Powdered tobacco.”

“Do you want me to call them?”

“No, just get me the number.”

Charlotte nodded, mystified, and walked back out to the reception desk, closing his office door behind her.

If Nicky Bradshaw’s still alive, thought Strube excitedly, he’s gotta still be doing that snuff; and it’s a clue I’ll bet not a lot of people remember. And I’ll bet nobody but me remembers the actual brand name. God knows I ordered it often enough.

Strube stood up and walked quickly across the carpet to the window overlooking Olive, and he stared down at the gleaming multicolored car roofs rippling through the lanes like beetles. Strube had a new BMW himself, but from up here it could look no different from any of the cars below him now. He was a member of Sports Club LA on Sepulveda–he had even got occasional business from his ad in the club’s networking newsletter–and he was proud of his healthful diet regimen, years having passed since he had last eaten real eggs or bacon or butter or sour cream; and his apartment on Sunset was expensive, but . . .

Aside from his suits and the sectional furniture and some signed sailing prints on the walls, the apartment was pretty bare–in truth, about half of his worldly goods were in the goddamn credenza here in the office, along with the ceiling fan that he’d never taken out of its box and the routed cherrywood decoupaged j. francis strube name plaque that a client had handcrafted for him and that he’d been embarrassed to put out on his desk because people might think he represented hippie dopers.

But he could be . . . the attorney who located Spooky.

Answer: each of them has one chance in two million of becoming a human being.

Of becoming somebody.

It seemed to him now that, when he was twenty and twenty-one, he had mailed orders to the Goudie Snuff Company as often as he had mailed solicitation letters to the people whose names and addresses had appeared on the thrice-weekly foreclosure lists.

He had worked as a legal secretary for Nicholas Bradshaw in ’74 and ’75 in Seal Beach. Bradshaw had handled mostly bankruptcy cases, which often came around to involving divorce and child custody, and young Strube had proved to have a natural knack for the tactics of family breakup.

Strube had planned to go into show-business law–after law school he had let his mousy brown hair grow long and had worn crazy little granny glasses, and he had gone to work for Bradshaw mainly because Bradshaw had once been an actor–but somewhere along the line Bradshaw had developed an aversion to the TV and movie business; and without a contact, an in, access, Strube hadn’t been able to get any of the industry’s law firms to consider taking him on.

Then after Bradshaw had just . . . up and disappeared . . . in ’75, Strube had been left without any job at all. He had hastily gone to work for a divorce and personal-injury attorney and passed the bar in ’81. At last in ’88 had been able to open his own practice . . . but he was still just disassembling families.

The intercom buzzed, and Strube walked back to his desk and pushed the button. “Yeah, Charlotte.” He wrote down the 415-area-code number she read to him. At least Goudie was still in business.

Back in ’74 and ’75, Bradshaw had kept a box of snuff cans in his desk, and when he had paperwork to do he would open the box and lay out half a dozen cans, like a buffet, and sniff a bit of this one, a couple of snorts of that one, and a chaser of another. He had gone through so much of the stuff that he found it easiest to have his legal secretary order directly from the company.

Strube punched the number into the telephone.

Bradshaw had paid young Strube a generous weekly salary, and never cared what hour Strube came into the office or went home, as long as the work got done, and he had been lavish with bonuses–and, too, he’d always been paranoid, afraid of being findable, always varying his schedule and never divulging, even to Strube, his home address or phone number; wherever he was now, he clearly didn’t want to be found. But . . .

“Goudie Snuff Company,” chirped a voice from the phone.

“Hi, my name is J. Francis Strube. I’m in Los Angeles and I’m marketing a line of–” What, he thought nervously “–traditional Scottish products, tartan sweaters and walking sticks and so on, and I’d like to buy a copy of your mailing list.”

***

Angelica Anthem Elizalde slumped wearily in the RTD bus seat with her forehead against the cool window, and she watched the shops and old houses of Sixth Street, fogged by her breath on the glass, swing past in the sunlight outside.

She wondered if people still used the word chicana, and she wondered when and where she had stopped being one. The women in the seats around her were happily chatting in Spanish, and twice they had referred to her as “la Angla sonalienta al lado de la ventana”–the sleepy Anglo lady by the window. Elizalde had wanted to smile and, in Spanish, say something back about the long Greyhound ride across the desert yesterday, then had realized that she no longer had the vocabulary.

Elizalde’s mother had always told her that she looked mestizo–European Spanish, rather than indigent. Her face was long and angular and pale, like a saint in an El Greco painting, and in her Oklahoma Levi jeans and her old Graceland sweatshirt she probably did look Anglo. It occurred to her that she probably even spoke with a bit of an Oklahoma accent now.

At one point during the long night at the Greyhound station–waiting for the dawn, not able to afford a taxi and not wanting to walk anywhere on the menacing dark streets–she had washed her face in the ladies’ room, and had stared in the mirror at the vertical grooves in her cheeks and the lines around her eyes. Her face looked older than her thirty-four years, though the rest of her was somehow still as trim and taut as she’d been in her twenties–or even in her teens.

Immature? she wondered now as she watched the old houses sweep past outside the bus window. Say–she smiled nervously–arrested adolescent.

It seemed to her now that there had been something naively Quixotic about her psychiatric career and her stubbornly terminal argument with Dr. Alden. In her private practice, in her own clinic, she had been able to make her own rules–and then had just fled the state and changed her name when the whole arrangement had blown up.

(Almost literally blown up–the fire department had managed to save the building.)

She had never married, nor ever had children. In idly psychoanalyzing herself, she had once decided that her “morbid dread” of pregnancy derived from the time when, at the age of three, she had climbed into an old milk can in the living room in Norco and got stuck–and, to hear her mother describe the event in later years, lost her mind. It was a three-foot-tall, forty-quart metal can that her parents had kept in the corner and tossed spare change into, and when toddler Angelica got stuck inside it, she had apparently had a severe claustrophobic reaction. After her father had failed to pull her out, and had failed to break the can open with a hammer (all of this no doubt compounding little Angelica’s terror), Angelica’s grandmother had been summoned from the house across the street. The old woman, who had luckily done midwifing for half a century, ordered Angelica’s father to turn the can upside down, and then had delivered the toddler out of the can as though she were guiding a newborn baby out of the womb, head first and then one shoulder at a time. The afterbirth had been a shower of pennies and nickels and dimes.

Her mother had always told her how, apparently out of regret for having caused so much trouble, baby Angelica must have awakened late that night and gone into the dark living room and gathered up all the spilled coins, separated them out by denomination, and then ranked them in stacks on a table; and her mother had forever insisted, with obviously sincere astonishment and pride, that the baby had even arranged the coins in chronological order of mint date, with the oldest coins on top.

Angelica had never believed that she had got up and moved the coins at all, but even as a child she had known better than to say so to her mother, who would probably have called the grandmother over again to do some distressing kind of homespun exorcism. Perhaps, as a child Angelica had known that there were some borders that it was best not to include in one’s maps. If so, she had recently learned it again.

The women in the bus seats around her this morning had no such compunctions. One woman was cautioning the others against leaving the living-room drapes open at night this weekend, and Elizalde at first assumed that it was a precaution against being shot in a drive-by shooting; and it might have been, partly, but after a few moments she understood that it was mainly to keep from calling to oneself the attention of the witches that would surely be flying around in calabazas y bolos fuegos, gourds and fireballs. Another woman said that she would be smoking cornhusk cigarettes every night for the next week or so; and one old grandmother in the very back seat said she’d be going out to Santa Monica on Friday night to feed her piedra iman in the sand and seawater. When Angelica Elizalde had been growing up, a piedra iman was a magnet; perhaps the term now meant something else.

Mundane borders too were commonplace with these ladies–secure in the supposed secrecy of the Spanish language, they casually traded adventure stories of how they’d stolen across the California-Mexico border, and a couple of them even discussed holiday plans to travel back and forth across it again to visit relatives in Mazatlán and Guadalajara, and they traded bits of advice for dealing with the coyotes who guided parties north across the broken wasteland of gullies and arroyos into the border cities of the United States.

Altogether they made Elizalde feel . . . incompetent and unworldly, a frightened fugitive with an out-of-date tourist’s map. It should, she thought wearily, be the other way around. These women were housemaids, paid stingily in cash under the table, and they lived in the neighborhoods around Rampart and Union and the east end of Wilshire, where the families who were crowded into the shabby apartments did “hot bed” sleeping, in shifts, and Sunday dawns no doubt found these women stirring steaming pots of menudo for their hung-over husbands, who would have towels beside them to mop the sweat off their faces as they ate the spicy stuff. Elizalde had gone to college, and medical school, and had thought she had moved up, out of this world; now she wished she could trade places with any one of these women.

On the south side of the street, a sign over the bay door of a onetime gas station read carredios, and–in the few seconds it took her to realize that it was just a badly spaced and misspelled attempt at car radios–she read it as carre dios, which would mean something like the god of the course, the god of the run; and she had fleetingly thought of getting off the bus and going in there and lighting a candle.

She would have to be getting off soon anyway. Alvarado was the next stop. She sat up and tugged at the cord over the window, hearing the faint bong from the front of the bus, then got stiffly to her feet. Only a few blocks south of here was the office, she had rented on Tuesdays, when she had first gone into private practice. Frank Rocha had been one of her patients even back in those early days, and later he had attended the group “seances” when she had opened her clinic up on Beverly.

She grabbed one of the upright steel poles as the bus squealed to a stop. What on earth, she thought helplessly as she let go and shuffled toward the opened back doors, do I think I’m going to do here? If his widow and kids even still live in that house? Apologize? Offer to . . . help? What money I’ve got I do need.

The letter in her wallet seemed to be heavy, seemed to be almost pulling her pants down on that side.

Do yardwork? Tune up the car engine?

Madam, she thought, suppressing a hysterical giggle, I accidentally ran over your cat, and I want to replace it.

Fine, but how good are you at catching mice?

She stepped down to the curb. Apologize, I guess. I can at least give her that, I can let her know that her husband’s death has shattered me, that I’m aware that I was responsible for it, that I haven’t been blithely forgetful of it.

As the doors hissed shut and the bus pulled away from the curb in a cloud of diesel smoke, Elizalde looked across the lanes of Sixth Street at the receding green lawn of MacArthur Park. She sighed and turned away, toward a ripped-up construction site where, according to signs on the plywood hoardings, city workers were digging tunnels for the proposed Metro Rail; and she started trudging that way, north up the Alvarado sidewalk.

***

She recognized Rocha’s house by the willow tree in the front yard. It must have had deep roots, for its narrow leaves were still green, while the lawn had not only died but gone entirely away, leaving only bare dirt with a couple of bright orange plastic tricycles knocked over on it. The old wood-frame house was painted navy blue now, with a red trim that Elizalde thought looked jarring.

Under these twittery surface impressions her mind was spinning. How on earth could she dare approach Mrs. Rocha?

How could she not? Only two nights ago, when she had weirdly begun reacting to events a second before the events happened, she had finally decided to confront whatever it was that had happened in her clinic on Halloween two years ago; and part of confronting it, as far as she could see, had to be facing the victims of it. Trying to make amends.

But she herself was a victim of it! Walking wounded! How would this ordeal–subjecting herself to this unthinkable meeting–be making amends to Angelica Anthem Elizalde?

Just to . . . apologize? No one would be better off.

But she was shuffling up the concrete walk toward the front porch. And when she had stepped up to the front door, she rapped on the frame of the screen. Brassy mariachi music was blaring inside. Peering through the mesh of the screen door, she could see the blue-and-pink flicker of a television reflecting in framed pictures on a living-room wall. The music and the colors both ceased at the same instant.

The gray-haired woman who appeared behind the screen stared at Elizalde for a moment, and then said something fast in Spanish.

“Perdón,” said Elizalde, as light-headed as if she’d just bolted a stiff drink on her empty stomach, “estoy buscando por Señora Rocha?”

“Ahora me llamo Señora Gonzalvez.” Her last name was now Gonzalvez, but this was apparently Frank Rocha’s widow. Elizalde didn’t recognize her, but after all she had seen the woman only once before, three or four years ago. She didn’t recall her hair being gray then.

“Me llamo Elizalde. Angelica Anthem Elizalde. Necesito–”

The woman’s eyes were wide, and she echoed, “Elizalde!” slowly, almost reverently.

“Sí. Por favor, necesito hahlar con usted. Lo siento mucho. Me hace falto . . . explicar que yo estaba . . . tratando de hacer–“

“Un momento.” The woman disappeared back into the dimness of the living room, and Elizalde could hear her moving things, a shuffling sound like books being rearranged on a table.

Un momento? Elizalde blinked at the again-vacant rectangle of the screen door. One of us isn’t understanding the other, she thought helplessly. This woman can’t be Frank Rocha’s widow, or else I can’t have made it clear who I am–otherwise, surely, she wouldn’t have just walked away.

“Escúsame?” she called. This was ridiculous. Her heart was thudding in her rib cage like fists hitting a punching bag, and her mouth was dry and tasted of metal. Hell-o, she thought crazily, wondering if she might start giggling. I’m responsible for the death of somebody’s husband around here . . . !

She curled her fingers around the door handle, and after a moment pulled it open against the resistance of creaking hinges.

On the mantel against the far wall an ofrenda had been set up, an altar, a figured silk scarf laid across a little embroidered cushion with framed photographs set up on it and around it, and two stylized, fancifully painted wooden skulls at either end of the display, like bookends. Preparation for El Día de los Muertos, the day of the dead. On the wall over it was hung a heart-shaped frame, its interior occupied by a gold-colored crucifix and a small clock face. She noted that the time was nearly noon.

She stepped inside, letting the screen door slap closed behind her.

Abruptly startled, she blinked her eyes shut–and a flash of red through her closed eyelids, and then a little mechanical whirring sound, let her know that the woman had taken her picture with an instamatic camera. To add to the ofrenda? wondered Elizalde in bewilderment as she opened her eyes and blinked at the woman’s silhouette. But I’m not dead . . . Then her knees and the palms of her hands hit the carpet as a tremendous, stunning bang shook the room, and she was up and spinning and punching the screen door aside as another gunshot bruised her eardrums; she had clenched her eyes shut an instant before the shot, and so the splinters from the struck oak doorframe just stung her eyelids.

She felt one of her sneaker soles slap the porch boards–and then the porch had hit her again, and she was falling, and the dirt of the yard slammed against her hip and elbow as another bang crashed behind her and a plume of white dust sprang up from the sidewalk.

Rolling to her feet, she sprinted slantways across the barren yard and pelted away back south down the Amado Street sidewalk. She had to run in a slapping, flat-footed gait, for her feet kept feeling the impacts with the pavement before they actually occurred.

A one-story travel agency building, apparently closed, loomed at the corner on her left, and she skidded around its wall tightly enough to have knocked over anyone who might have been walking up on the other side–but the sidewalk, the whole narrow street, was empty.

In an alley-fronting parking lot across the street an old lime-green couch was propped against the back wall of another retail-looking building, and she crossed the street toward it–forcing herself to shuffle along, to stroll, rather than flail and stamp and wheeze as she had been doing.

Her lungs felt seared, and the back of her head tingled in anticipation of savage pursuit, but nobody had yelled or audibly begun running across the asphalt by the time she stepped up the curb and crossed to the couch.

She thought she could hide behind it, crouch in the cool shadow of it, until dark, and then creep away. Her teeth were clenched, and her face was cold with shame. Why did I go there? she was screaming in her head. Why did I rip open her old wounds; and mine, and–She remembered the shots, and rolling on the dirt, and running so clumsily, and she opened her eyes wide with the effort of forcing those things out of her attention, concentrating instead on the blue sky behind the shaggy palm trees and the telephone wires and the whirling crows.

Dizzy, she looked down and put her hand on the couch. The couch arm was fibrous and oily under her hand–gristly–but she realized that she had felt the texture of it only when she had actually touched it. The weird anticipation of sensations had apparently stopped when she had been crossing the street.

“Did you leave that here?” piped a close young man’s voice, speaking in English.

Elizalde looked up guiltily. The back door of the building had been standing open, and now a fat white man with a scruffy beard was leaning out of it. He was wearing cutoff jeans, and his belly was stretching a stained example of the sleeveless undershirts she had always thought of as wife-beater undershirts.

She realized that she had forgotten what he had asked her. “I’m sorry?”

He peered up and down the alley. “Did you hear gunshots just now?”

“A truck was backfiring on Amado,” said Elizalde, keeping her voice casual.

The fat man nodded. “So, is it yours?”

“The truck?” Her face was suddenly hot, and she knew she was either blushing or pale, for she had almost said, The gun?

“The couch,” he said impatiently. “Did you put it here?”

“Oh,” Elizalde said, “no. I was just looking at it.”

“Somebody dumped it here. We find all kinds of crap back here. People think they can unload any old junk.” He eyed the couch with disfavor. “Probably some big old black lady gave birth on it. And her mother before that. We got better furniture inside, if you got any money.”

Elizalde blinked at him, trickles of disgust beginning to puddle in the scraped, blown-out emptiness of her mind. And where were you born, she thought–on a culture dish in a VD lab, I’d judge. But all she said was, “Furniture?”

“Yeah, secondhand. And books, kitchenware, ropa usada. Had Jackie Onassis in here the other day.”

Elizalde had caught her breath at last, and she could smell beer on him. She nodded and made herself smile as she stepped past him into the store. “Yeah, she was telling me about it.”

Inside were racks of pitiful clothes, bright cheap blouses and sun hats and colorful pants, that seemed still to carry an optimistic whiff, long stale now, of their original purchases at sunny swap meets and canvas-tent beachside stands. And there were shelves of books–hardcover junior-college texts, paperback science fiction and romances–and rows of family-battered Formica and particle-board-and-wood-veneer tables, covered with ceramic ashtrays and wrecked food processors and, somehow, a lot of fondue pots. A white-glass vase had been knocked over on one table, spilling a sheaf of dried flowers. My quinceniera bouquet, she thought as she looked at them. Withered roses, and husks of lilies, and a stiffened spray of forgive-me-nots.

“Begin life anew,” advised the drunk bearded man, who had followed her back inside.

Life a-old, she thought. This was an accumulation of the crumbled shells of lives, collapsed when the owners had become absent, piled here now like broken cast-off snakeskins, some pieces still big enough to show outlines of departed personalities.

Well, Elizalde thought, I’m kind of a broken personality myself. I should hide in here for a while, at least long enough to see if cop sirens go past on the street outside, or angry Rochas or Gonzalvezes come bursting in. If they do, I’ll just drape myself over one of these fine tables and be as inconspicuous as a skeleton hiding in a scrimshaw shop.

But nobody did come in at all, and the traffic outside was uneventful. The sunny October Los Angeles day had apparently swallowed up the gunshots without a ripple and was rolling on. Elizalde bought a Rastafari knitted tarn–red, gold, black, and green–big enough to tuck her long black hair up into, and a tan size-fourteen Harve Benard jumpsuit that had no doubt had an interesting history. Three dollars paid for the whole bundle at the counter by the street door, and the bearded man didn’t even remark on it when Elizalde swept the cap forward over her head and then pulled the jumpsuit on right over her jeans and sweatshirt. After she had pushed open the door and walked a block back south toward Sixth Street, she realized that she had taken on the humbled, slope-shouldered gait she remembered in many of her patients; and she was pleased at the instinctive mimicry, during the few moments it took her to realize that it was not mimickry at all, but natural.

 

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