Expiration Date – Snippet 22

Expiration Date – Snippet 22

CHAPTER 22

The snoring got more distinct every minute, and sounded more like a tune:

at last she could even make out words . . .

–Lewis Carroll,

Through the Looking-Glass

And way out east at the other end of Wilshire, out where multicolored plastic pennants fluttered along nylon lines strung above used-car lots, where old brownstone apartment buildings still stood on the small grassy hills, their lower walls blazing even in the failing daylight with bright Mexican murals, where neglected laundry flapped on clotheslines in the grassless courtyards of faded apartment complexes built in the 1960s, Kootie stepped up a curb, limped across the sidewalk away from the red glow of a Miller Beer sign in a corner bar window, and rocked to a halt against the bar’s gritty stucco wall.

He was still intermittently talking to himself, and during the walking of these last several blocks he had even begun moving his lips and whispering the dialogue.

“I can’t walk anymore,” he panted. “I think I’ve ruined my foot–they’re probably gonna have to just cut it off and put a wooden one on.”

“Duh,” he said thickly then, speaking for the absent ghost of Thomas Alva Edison, which he was certain he had left behind in a mess on the stairs at the Music Center, “well, I got wooden teeth. No, that was George Washington–well, I got a wooden head.”

“I saw your head,” Kootie whispered, his voice shaky even now as he remembered that shocking period of dislocation. “It was made out of old strips of beef fat.” He mouthed the last two words with, it fleetingly occurred to him, as much revulsion as his vegetarian parents would have done. He jumped hastily to the next thought: “I’m gonna go in this bar–no, not to get a cocktail, you stupid old fart!–I’m gonna get somebody to call the cops for me.”

Kootie was still holding the quarter that the pay telephone had given back to him two hours ago. He had been gripping it between his first two fingers and tapping it against the palm of his hand as he had walked. The rhythm of the tapping had been unconsidered and irregular, but now, probably because he had a purpose for the coin again, the tapping was forcefully repetitive.

“I don’ wanna go in the bar,” he said in his dopy-old-Edison voice, and in fact, Kootie didn’t want to step in there. The memory was still too fresh of the lunatic phone call with–with what, exactly? The ghosts of his parents? It had been that, or it had been a hallucination. And his parents had seemed to be in a bar.

But if somebody else made the telephone call . . .

(He found himself picturing carbon; black grains in a tiny cell at first, with a soft iron diaphragm that would alternately compress and release the carbon grains, thus changing the conductivity; but the grains tended to pack, so that after a while the conductivity was stuck at one level . . . )

If somebody else made the call it might go through, and not just be routed again to that bar from hell.

That call an hour ago had started to get through–Kootie was sure now that the first voice he had heard had really been the 911 operator, for after he had walked away from the pay phone he had seen a police car drive past slowly in the right-hand eastbound lane of what had proved to be Sixth Street. Kootie had wanted to go flag him down, but had found himself hurrying away across the parking lot instead, and pushing open the glass door of the ninety-nine-cent store, where he had then gone to the back aisle and crouched behind a shelf of candles in tall glasses with decals of saints stuck on the outsides.

He must have been afraid, still, of facing the police and deciding which sort of crazy story to tell them.

And then the shop manager had yelled at him, demanded to know what the boy was doing there, and in his feverish embarrassment Kootie had bought a bagful of stuff he hadn’t wanted, just to placate the man: a box of Miraculous Insecticide Chalk, a blister-pack roll of 35-millimeter film, and a Hershey bar with almonds. They were all things displayed right at the checkout counter. The bag was crumpled up now, jammed inside his lightweight shirt.

When he had finally left the store and resumed limping east, away from the fading light, he had pretended that the imaginary ghost of Edison took the blame for Kootie having hidden from the police car. Duh, sorry, he had had the ghost say, but I can’t let the cops catch meI’ve got library books that have been overdue since 1931!

Now Kootie forced himself to push away from the wall and walk toward the bar’s front door. He was chilly in the smoky evening breeze with just the polo shirt on, and he hoped the bar’s interior would be warm.

(A glass lamp-chimney, blackened with smoke. When the black stuff, which was carbon, was scraped off, it could be pressed into the shape of a little button, and that button could be attached to the metal disk. In another room you could bite the instrument it was connected to, and, through your teeth and the bones of your skull, hear the clearer, louder tones.)

Kootie pulled open the door with his left hand, for the fingers of his right were still rapidly thumping the quarter into the tight skin of his palm. Tap. . . tap . . . tap. . . tap-tap-tap . . . tap . . . tap . . . tap . . .

An outward-bursting pressure of warm air ruffled his curly hair–stale air, scented with beer and cigarette smoke and sweaty shirts, and shaking with recorded mariachi guitar and the click and rattle of pool balls breaking across bald green felt. Yellow light shone in the linoleum under his Reeboks’ soles as he shuffled to the nearest of the two empty barstools. The bartender was squinting impassively down at him over a bushy mustache.

“Do you have a telephone?” Kootie asked, grateful that his voice was steady. “I’d like to have someone make a call for me.”

The man just stared. The men on the barstools around him were probably staring too, but Kootie was afraid to look any of them in the face. They’ll recognize me from those billboards, he thought, and turn me in. But isn’t that what I want?

“Teléfono,” he said, and in desperate pantomime he raised his left hand in front of his chin as if holding an empty Coke bottle to blow hoots on, while he held his right hand up beside his head, the fingers extended toward his ear. “Hel-lo?” he said, speaking into the space above his left hand. “Hel-lo-o?”

His left hand was still twitching with the coin, and belatedly he realized that the rhythm it had been beating against his palm was the Morse code for SOS; and at the same time, he noticed that he was miming using one of those old candlestick-and-hook telephones, like in a Laurel and Hardy movie.

SOS? he thought to himself–and then, instinctively and inward, he thought: What is it, what’s wrong?

An instant later he had to grab the padded vinyl seat of the barstool to keep from falling over.

Kootie’s mouth opened, and for several whole seconds a series of wordless but conversational-tone cat warbles yowled and yipped out of his throat; finally, after his forehead was hot and wet with the effort of resisting it and he had inadvertently blown his nose on his chin, he just stopped fighting the phenomenon and let his whole chest and face relax into passivity.

“Duh,” came his voice then, clear at last. “Du-u-h,” it said again, prolonging the syllable, indignantly quoting it. Then he was looking up at the bartender. “Thanks, boys,” said Kootie’s voice, “but never mind. All a mistake, sorry to have wasted your time. Here, have a round of beers on me.” After a pause, Kootie’s voice went on, “Kid, put some money on the bar.”

Catching on that he was being addressed–by his own throat!–Kootie hastily dug into the pocket of his jeans and, without taking out his roll of bills, peeled one off and pulled it out. It was a five; probably not enough for very many beers, but the next bill might be a twenty. He reached up and laid it on the surface of the bar, then ducked his head and wiped his chin on his shoulder.

“Lord, boy, a fiver?” said his mouth. “I bet they don’t get many orangutans in here. Who are these fellas, anyway, son? Mexicans? Tell ’em in Mexican that this was a misunderstanding, and we’re leaving.”

“Uhhh,” said Kootie, testing his own control of his voice. “Lo siento, pero no yo soy aquí. Eso dinero es para cervezas. Salud. Y ahora, adiós.”

“Oh,” he heard himself add, “and get matches, will you?”

“Uh, y para mi, fosforos, por favor? Mechas? Como para cigarros?”

After another long several seconds, the bartender reached out and pushed a book of matches forward to the edge of the bar.

Kootie reached up and took it. “Gracias.”

Then he could almost feel a hand grab his collar and yank him away from the bar, toward the door.

(But even with the pressed carbon disk, if you were relying on just the current set up in the wire, there was clarity but no reach; all you had was a little standing system. To fix that, the changing current in the wire had to be just the cue for changes that would be mirrored big-scale in an induction coil. Then the signal could be carried just about anywhere.)

“Trolley-car lines,” Kootie heard himself say as he pushed open the door and stepped out into the cold evening again. Standing on the curb, he waited for the headlights of the cars in the eastbound lanes to sweep past, and then he limped out across the asphalt to stand on the double yellow painted lines in the middle of the street. His head bent forward to look, at the pavement under his feet. His mouth opened again, and “Find us a set of streetcar lines,” he said.

“There aren’t any,” he answered–hoarsely, for he had forgotten to inhale after the involuntary remark. He took a deep breath and then went on, “There haven’t been streetcars in L.A. for years.”

“Damn. The tracks make a nice house of mirrors.”

Trucks were roaring past only inches from Kootie’s toes, and the glaring headlights against the dark backdrop of the neighborhood made him feel like a dog crouching on the center divider of a freeway; and briefly he wondered how Fred was.

His attention was roughly shoved away from the thought. “After this next juggernaut, go,” said his own voice as he watched the oncoming westbound traffic. “Have they always been this loud?”

“Sure,” Kootie answered as he skipped and hopped across the lanes after a big-wheel pickup had ripplingly growled past.

On the north sidewalk at last, Kootie limped east, his back to the blurred smear of red over the western hills under the clouds. Of course, he knew now that he had not lost Edison’s ghost after all, and he suspected that he had known it ever since he had involuntarily hidden from the slow-moving police car two hours ago; but the old man’s ghost was not shoving Kootie out of his body now, and so the boy wasn’t experiencing the soul-vertigo that had so shattered him at the Music Center.

Actually, he was glad that the old man was with him.

“Well now,” said his voice gruffly, “did you get the firecrackers?”

Kootie’s face went cold. Had those firecrackers been important? Surely, he had lost them along with everything else that had been in the knapsack or in the pockets of his heavy shirt–but then he slapped the hip pocket of his jeans and felt the flat square package. “Yes, sir!”

“Good boy. Haul ’em out and we’ll squelch pursuit.”

Kootie hooked out the package and began peeling off the thin waxed paper. The things were illegal, so he looked around furtively, but the TV repair shop they were stopped in front of was closed, and none of the gleaming car roofs moving past in the street had police light bars. “Why would an orangutan go into a bar?” he asked absently.

“Sounds like a riddle. You know why the skeleton didn’t go to the dance?” Kootie realized that his mouth was smiling.

“No, sir.”

“He had no body to go with. Hardy-har-har. How much is a beer these days?” Kootie’s hands had peeled off the paper, and now his fingers were gently prizing the firecracker fuses apart. Kootie didn’t believe he was doing it himself.

“I don’t know. A dollar.”

“Whoa! I’d make my own. The joke is, you see, an orangutan goes into a bar and orders a beer, and he gives the bartender a five-dollar bill. The bartender figures, shoot, what do orangutans know about money, so he gives the ape a nickel in change. So, the creature’s sitting there drinking its beer, kind of moody, and the bartender’s polishing glasses, and after a while the bartender says, just making conversation, you know, ‘We don’t get many orangutans in here.’ And the orangutan says, ‘At four-ninety-five a beer, I’m not surprised.’ ”

Kootie’s laugh was short because he was out of breath, but he tried to make it sound sincere.

“Don’t like jokes, hey,” said the Edison ghost grumpily with Kootie’s mouth and throat. “Maybe you think it’s funny having to pay four-ninety-five for a beer. Or whatever you said it was. Maybe you think it’s funny that somebody could be trying for an hour to tell you what you got to do, but your intellectual grippers ain’t capable of grasping any Morse except plain old SOS! Both times I proposed marriage, I did it by tapping in Morse on the girl’s hand, so as not to alert anyone around. Where would we be, if the ladies had thought I was just . . . testing their reflexes? I knew Morse when I was fifteen! Damn me! How old are you?”

Kootie managed to pronounce the word “Eleven.” Then, momentarily holding on to control of his throat, he went on, defiantly, “How old are you?” What with being unfairly yelled at, on top of exhaustion and everything else, Kootie was, to his humiliation, starting to cry.

“No business of yours, sonny.” Edison sniffed with Kootie’s nose. “But I was a year short of seventy when I bet Henry Ford I could kick a globe off a chandelier in a New York hotel, I’ll tell you that for nothing. Quit that crying! A chandelier on the ceiling! Did it, too. Did you see me kick that guy back there? What the hell have we got here?” Kootie’s hands shook the nest of firecrackers.

“F-fire–” Kootie began, and then Edison finished the word for him: “Firecrackers. That’s right. Good boy. Sorry I was rude–I shouldn’t put on airs, I didn’t get my B.S. until I was well past eighty-four. Eighty-four. Four-ninety-five! Oh well, we’ll make our own, once we’ve got some breathing time. Breathing time. Hah.”

Two black people were striding along the sidewalk toward where Kootie stood, a man in black jeans and a black shirt and a woman wearing what seemed to be a lot of blankets, and Kootie hoped Edison would stop talking until the couple had passed.

But he didn’t. “You like graveyards, son?” Kootie shook his head. “I got no fondness for ’em either, but you can learn things there.” Air was sucked haltingly into Kootie’s lungs. “From the restless ghosts–in case the bad day comes, in spite of all your precautions, and you’re one yourself.”

The black couple stared at him as they passed, clearly imagining that this was a crazy boy.

“Leave no tracks, that’s the ticket. I did all my early research in a lab on a train. Take your shoes off. Daily train between Port Huron and Detroit; in ’61 I got a job as newsboy on board of it, so I could have a laboratory that couldn’t be located.” He sniffed. “Not easily, anyway. One fellow did find me, even though I was motivating fast on steel rails, but I gave him the slip, sold him my masks instead of myself. Take off your shoes, damn it!”

Kootie had not really stopped crying, and now he sobbed, “Me? Why? It’s cold–” Then he had suddenly bent forward at the waist, and had to put weight on his bad ankle to keep from falling. “Don’t!” He sat down on the concrete and then began defeatedly tugging at the shoelaces. “Okay! Don’t push!” His hand opened, dropping the firecrackers.

Edison inhaled harshly, his breath hitching with sobs, and Kootie’s voice said, brokenly, “Sorry, son. It’s (sniff) important we get this done quick.” Kootie had pulled off both his shoes. The concrete was cold against his butt through his jeans. “Socks, too,” wept Edison. “Quit crying, will you? This is . . . ludicrous.”

Kootie let Edison work his numbing hands, stuffing the socks into the shoes and then tying the laces together and draping the shoes around his neck. He straightened carefully, still sitting, and leaned back against the window of the TV repair shop. He half-hoped the window would break, but even with Thomas Edison in his head he didn’t weigh enough.

“Your furt’s hoot,” spoke Edison, interrupting Kootie’s breathing. “Excuse me. Your foot is hurt. I’ll let you get up by yourself. Grab the firecrackers.”

Too tired to give a sarcastic reply, Kootie struggled to his feet, closing his fist on the firecrackers as he got up. Standing again, he shivered in his flimsy shirt.

“Now,” said Edison, “we’re going to run up this street here to our left–we’re going to do that after you start to–no, I’d better do it–after I start dropping lit firecrackers on your feet.”

At that, Kootie began hiccupping, and after a moment he realized that he was actually laughing. “I can’t go to the cops,” he said. “I got a one-armed murderer following me around–and a dope fiend cooking me dinner on a car engine, and my parents–and anyway, now Thomas Alva Edison is gonna chase me up a street barefoot throwing illegal explosives at my feet. And I’m eleven years old. But I can’t go to the cops, hunh.”

“I liked that trick of cooking on the engine.” Edison had made Kootie’s hands cup around the matchbook and strike a flame. “I’m saving your life, son,” he said, “and my . . . my . . . soul? Something of mine.” He held one of the lit firecrackers until the sparking fuse had nearly disappeared into the tiny cardboard cylinder. Then, “Jump!” he said merrily as he let go of it.

Kootie got his foot away from the thing, but when it went off with a sharp little bang his toes were stung by the exploded shreds of paper.

He opened his mouth to protest, but Edison had lit two more. Kootie’s head jerked as Edison cried, “Run!” and then Kootie was bounding up the narrower street’s shadowed sidewalk, both feet stinging now.

“Fuckingcrazy man!” the boy gasped as another firecracker went off right in front of the toes that had already been peppered.

The next one Edison didn’t let go of; he held it between his fingers, and the rap of its detonation banged Kootie’s fingers as painfully as if he’d hit them with a hammer. “What the damn hell–” Kootie yiped, still leaping and scampering.

“Watch your language, boy! You’ll have the recording angels hopping to their typewriters! Keep a clean mouth!”

“Sorreee!

In the back of his mind, Kootie was aware that Edison’s children had hated this, too, having their footsteps disattached from the ground; for an instant he caught an image of a girl and two boys hopping on a lawn as exploding firecrackers stippled their shins with green fragments of grass, and fleetingly he glimpsed how strenuous it had been to get Tommy Junior to shinny up a pole and grab the coins laid on the top–how Edison had finally had to rub rosin on the inside of the boy’s knees so that he could get traction. It had had to be done, though, the children needed to be insulated every so often, for their own good.

He was hopping awkwardly, and the whoops of his breath burned his throat and nose. At least no one was out on this street at the moment; to his left, beyond a chain-link fence that he grabbed at again and again to keep his balance, dusty old hulks of cars sat in a closed bodywork lot, and the little houses on the opposite side of the street were dark.

One of Kootie’s bouncing shoes had caught him a good clunk under the chin, and his ankle was flaring with pain, when Edison finally let him duck around a Dumpster in an empty parking lot and sit down on a fallen telephone pole to catch his breath. The nearest streetlight had gone out when Kootie had pranced past beneath it, and now as he sat and panted he watched the light’s glow on the nearest cinder-block wall fade through red toward black.

Kootie’s mouth hissed and flapped as he and Edison both tried to use it at once. Kootie rolled his eyes and relaxed, then listened to Edison gasp out, quietly, “If I was your father–I’d wash out your mouth–with soap.”

Kootie had heard the phrase before, but this time he got a clear impression of a father actually doing that to a son, and he shuddered at the picture. Kootie’s own father had not ever punished him physically, always instead discussing each error with him in a “helpful dialogue,” after which the transgression was respected as having contributed to a “learning experience” that would build his “self-esteem.”

“Well, that’s plain bullshit,” Edison went on in a halting whisper, apparently having caught Kootie’s thought. “When I was six years old I burned down my father’s barn–I was trying to . . . ditch a playmate who’d been following me around for a year or so; of course, at that age, I didn’t know about tricks like blowing up your footprints with firecrackers!” He wheezed, apparently laughing. “Oh, no! Burned to the ground, my father’s barn did, and my little friend was still no more ditched than my shadow was. What was I saying? Oh–so I burned down the barn, and do you think my father discussed it with me, called it a–what was it?”

“A learning experience,” said Kootie dully. “No, I suppose he didn’t.”

“I’ll say. He invited all the neighbors and their children to come watch, and then he damn well whipped the daylights out of me, right there in the Milan town square!”

Kootie sniffed, and from across all the subsequent years of the old man’s accumulated experiences, a trace of that long-ago boy’s remembered despair and fear and humiliation brushed Kootie’s mind.

For a long moment neither of them spoke. Then Kootie whispered, “Can I put my shoes and socks back on now?”

“Yes, son.” He sighed. “That was for your own good, you know. We’ll do better evasion tricks when we get the time, but the gunpowder cakewalk will probably have foxed your–what was it? one-armed murderer?–for a while. Slow him down, at least.” Kootie’s hand wavered out, palm down and fingers spread, and then just wobbled back to the splintery surface of the wooden pole. “You’re tired, aren’t you? We’ll find some place to sleep, after we’ve taken one or two more precautions. This looks like a big city, we’ll be able to do something. Before all this started up, I had the impression I was in Los Angeles–is that where we are?”

“Yes, sir,” said Kootie. “Not in the best part of it.”

“Better for our purposes, maybe. Let’s move east a couple of blocks here, and keep our eyes open.”

“Which way’s east?”

“Turn right at that light. Need directions, always ask a host.”

 

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