Expiration Date – Snippet 23

This book should be available now so this is the last snippet.

Expiration Date – Snippet 23

CHAPTER 23

“I have tasted eggs, certainly,” said Alice, who was a very truthful child;

“but little girls eat eggs quite as much as serpents do, you know.”

“I don’t believe it,” said the Pigeon; “but if they do, why, then they’re a kind of serpent:

that’s all I can say.”

–Lewis Carroll,

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

In the office on the ground floor of his apartment building, Solomon Shadroe had finally stopped staring at the horizontal white line on the television screen and had plodded to his desk to resume doing the month’s-end paperwork.

He didn’t like the line being there on the screen at all, but at least it had stopped flaring and wiggling.

At last he pushed his chair back from his desk; he had finished writing the October checks and had then laboriously calculated the balance left in the account. As he stared at the worn blotter it occurred to him that pencil shavings looked like scraps of garlic and onion skins–his desk looked as though someone had been chopping together a battuto.

Garlic and onions–he remembered liking them, though he couldn’t remember anymore what they had tasted like. Something like fresh sweat, he thought as he stood up, and a fast hot pulse.

His cup of Eat-‘Em-&-Weep tea was lukewarm, but he drank off the last inch of it, tilting the cup to get the last sticky red drops. He put the cup down on the cover of the old ledger-style checkbook and took a can of Goudie snuff out of the desk drawer.

As he tapped out a pile of the brown powder onto his thumb-knuckle and raised it to his nose, he looked at the high built-in shelf on which sat three of his stuffed pigs. They had been burping away like bad boys during the half-minute when the line on the TV screen had been acting up, but–he looked again to make sure–the line was still motionless, and the pigs were quiet now. Johanna had the radio on, and the only noises in the office were the rolling urgencies of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.”

“Too loud?” asked Johanna from the couch where she lay reading a ladies’ magazine.

Shadroe took a deep breath as he inhaled the snuff. “No. Just finished it up. Utility bills eating me alive. Gonna feed the beasties now.” He got to his feet and plodded to the shelves.

“Oh good. Beasties!” she called to the screened window. “Din din din!”

Shadroe pried two white paper plates out of a torn cellophane wrapper and laid them on the coffee table. Onto one he shook a handful of Happy Cat food pellets from a box on a chair. Then he dug a handful of smooth pebbles out of his shirt pocket and spread them on the other plate.

He had taken Johanna to the Orange County fair this summer, and in one of the exhibit halls his attention had been caught by a display called the “Banquet of Rock Foods Collection.” The display had been an eclectic meal laid out on a lace tablecloth: on one plate sat a hamburger, pickles, french fries, olives, and what might have been a slice of pȃté; on another sat a stack of pancakes with some jagged fragments of butter on top, with a sunny-side-up egg and two slices of underdone bacon alongside. There had been other things, too: a narrow roast turkey with ruffled paper socks on the ends of the drumsticks, a thin slice of toast, a boiled egg in an egg cup. The thing was, they were all rocks. Somebody had scoured deserts all over the west to find pieces of rocks that looked like food items.

He had wondered at the time if any raggedy old derelict had ever sat down at the table and tucked a napkin into his outermost grimy shirt. There had been a relish jar, Shadroe recalled, rilled with tiny cubes of green glass–a spry old ghost could probably wolf down a spoonful of that before being hauled away.

In the months since, he had been putting out two plates at night–one with cat food for the possums, as always, and one with delectable-looking rocks for the poor hungry old wandering ghosts. The rocks were often gone when he came back from the boat in the morning. In a catalogue recently, he had seen a set of Mikasa Parklane crystal candies for a sale price of eighteen bucks, and he meant to get some to dole out during the cold nights around Christmas.

He had once read that Chinese people bury raw eggs in mud, and then dig them up years later and eat them. When he thought about that he was just glad that he couldn’t remember taste, but apparently Loretta deLarava was not so fastidious–she didn’t mind eating things that had long ago lost their freshness.

In his head he made up a lyric for the pounding Springsteen song:

***

Did your face catch fire once?

Did they use a tire iron to put it out?

***

It had been in 1962, on the set of Haunted House Party, that he had first met Loretta deLarava.

He’d been trying to make the shift from being a teen TV star to getting young-adult movie roles, but couldn’t seem to shake the Spooky persona he’d acquired during the five years of “Ghost of a Chance.” (People would keep asking to see him do the Spooky Spin, the dancelike whirl that, on the show, had always preceded his disappearing into thin air.) This was the fourth movie he’d worked in since CBS had canceled the series, and like the first three, it had been a low-budget tongue-in-cheek horror picture, filmed at a pace almost as fast as TV work.

The novice production assistant had probably been about thirty years old, though it was hard to be sure–she was already overweight even then, and her jaw and nose were noticeably misshapen even after evident reconstructive surgery. (Did they use a tire iron to put it out?) Her name was deLarava–she claimed that it had originally been two words but had been inadvertently combined into one, like DeMille’s, by a careless ad-copy writer. She had quickly outgrown the modest PA chores–somebody else had had to be found to make the coffee and drive to fetch paper clips and saber-saw blades, for, within days of starting, deLarava was filling out time cards and writing the daily production reports. Her credentials were hazy, but clearly, she had had experience on a movie set.

“Sun’s down,” said Shadroe after putting the plates outside and coming back in and closing the door. “Draw me a bath, will you–” he paused to inhale “–sweetie?”

Johanna put down the magazine and sat up. She glanced at the television screen, but the line was still steady and motionless. “Not ice?”

“Ice,” he said firmly. “A lot of it.” He looked at the TV too, and sighed. Can’t wait till my alma mater actually goes nova, he thought. “Ice every night,” he went on in his labored voice. “Until Halloween’s past. Anybody from the building,” he added, “should come knocking, tell ’em I walked to the store, unless there’s actual blood or fire.”

” ‘Sol,’ ” said Johanna in a drawling imitation of a tenant they’d had for a while, ” ‘I heard a noise?–in the parking lot?–so I shoveled your mailbox full of dirt.’ “

The tenant had thought he’d smelled gas from a neighboring apartment, and, unable to reach Shadroe, had in a panic broken out all the windows in his own apartment. In the years since that tenant had left, Shadroe and Johanna had endlessly amplified on the man’s possible responses to emergencies.

“Heh heh,” said Shadroe levelly.

The couch springs twanged as Johanna levered herself up, and then the floorboards creaked as she padded barefoot to the next room; after a few seconds he heard water booming into the big old claw-footed cast-iron bathtub he had installed in there a couple of years ago. He used to take makeshift showers at dawn out behind the garages, holding a lawn sprinkler over his head, but a tenant had seen him one time and complained to the police–even though Shadroe had always been wearing jockey shorts when he did it–and anyhow he had had to stop.

Now he was wondering if even cold baths would work for much longer. He didn’t speak to people face-on anymore, even if he’d just chewed up an Eat-‘Em-&-Weep ball, because of the way they would flinch at his breath; and he knew that his ankle, onto which he had squarely dropped that refrigerator two days ago, couldn’t possibly ever heal. He had wrapped it up tight with an Ace bandage, but it still hurt, and he wondered if he would be around long enough to get so tired of it that he would just saw the whole foot off.

He was only fifty-two years old . . . or would have been, if he had still had any right to birthdays. At least he wasn’t a ghost.

Loretta deLarava obviously wanted to finish him off now–as she had smashed him seventeen years ago–after having taken aim at him all the way back in ’62 on the set of Haunted House Party.

She had known who he was–Nicky Bradshaw, star of “Ghost of a Chance,” godson to Apie Sullivan–but he had not realized who she was until that summer night when unseasonable rain had actually put rushing water in the L.A. River bed all the way up by the Fourth Street bridge, and the shooting of some zombie scene had had to be postponed.

Everybody had been sitting around in the big, chilly brick warehouse in which the indoor sets had been built, and deLarava had kept looking at her watch. That was natural enough, since by that time she was practically the second assistant director on the picture, but after a while she had lit up a corncob pipe full of some vanilla-scented tobacco and gone wandering out into the rain. He had heard her whistling old tunes out there, specifically “Stormy Weather,” and when she had come back in she had ditched the pipe and had seemed to be stoned. At the time he had assumed that she’d been hiding the smell of grass or hash under the vanilla . . .

Though in fact she had seemed wired, as if on cocaine or an amphetamine. As soon as she’d got back inside and shaken back her wet hair, she had started talking nonstop in her hoarse, fake British accent–rambling on about her genius-plus IQ, and telling fragments of anecdotes that clearly had no point except to illustrate how competent she was, equal to any challenges and a master of subtle revenge upon anyone who might foolishly dismiss her as unimportant.

The monologue had sat awkwardly with the crew and the youthful actors, all of whom had until then thought pretty highly of her. Bradshaw had been napping in a nest of rags in the costuming room, but the change in the tone of the conversation woke him, and he had wandered sleepily out into the big room.

“I was married once,” deLarava was saying airily. “He was a very powerful figure in . . . an industry I’m not at liberty to name. He gave me everything I asked for, we had a big estate in Brentwood and a whole fleet of classic cars! But he couldn’t give me the gift I demand of a man–that I be the most important person in his life. His two children . . . occupied that spot.” (One of the crew wearily asked her what she had done about that, and deLarava simpered.) “We went on a picnic,” she said, “and I fixed potato salad just the way he liked it, with olives and red onions and celery seed, but I used a jar of mayonnaise that had been sitting out opened for a few days. And he had an appointment later that afternoon. Oh yes,” she went on as though someone had asked, “the most important appointment of his life. His precious children pigged down a lot of the potato salad, too.”

“Jesus,” someone muttered. “Did they all die?”

The question brought deLarava back from the spicy pleasures of the memory. “Hm? Oh no, they didn’t . . . die. But for a while they definitely had nothing to think about except when Nurse . . . Nurse Loretta might find the time to attend to their sickbeds! I can assure you!” Her British accent had been broadening out to sound more Texan, and was practically a drawl when she added, “That time they really were pooped-out puppies.”

At that moment, Bradshaw realized who she was. Her appearance had changed drastically in the intervening three years, but when she forgot the hoarseness and the affected accent he knew the voice even an instant before the pooped-out puppies phrase–which he had heard her say a number of times–confirmed it. Then she looked up and saw him, and her eyes widened and then narrowed momentarily as she visibly became aware that she had been recognized.

It’s Kelley Keith, he thought in that first moment of surprise; it’s my godfather’s widow . . . fat and disfigured now . . .

Only then did he consider what she had just said. The most important appointment of his life. And he remembered that the autopsy of Arthur Patrick Sullivan had mentioned spoiled potato salad in his stomach as the cause of the cramp that had caused him to drown, out past the surf line on that summer day in Venice in 1959.

Bradshaw had backed away without changing his sleepy expression . . . but he’d known that she wasn’t fooled. She was aware that he–alone!–had recognized her, and that he alone had understood her oblique and inadvertent admission of murder.

After Haunted House Party was in the can, he had finally stopped trying to chase his earlier success in show business. He had enrolled in the UCLA law school, and two years later passed the California bar and moved to Seal Beach to practice real-estate law.

Sometimes during the ensuing decade, he had wondered if the advent of Loretta deLarava had scared him away from the movies . . . and then he had always recalled the artistic merits of Haunted House Party, and had wryly dismissed the suspicion.

He had stayed away from Hollywood, though, and had gradually stopped seeing his friends in the industry; and even so, he was careful to keep his home address and phone number a secret, and to vary the route he took to his office, and to come and go there on no set schedule. He kept a gun in his office and car and bedside table. Superstitiously, he never ate potato salad.

And, in fact, it wasn’t potato salad that she finally got him with, in 1975. It was a spinach salad with hot bacon dressing, and lots of exotic mushrooms.

When Johanna returned to her magazine, Shadroe, who hadn’t called himself Nicholas Bradshaw since his “death” in ’75, took one more look at the static television screen and then stumped into the little room where the tub was, and by the glare of the bare overhead lightbulb he stared with distaste down at the dozens of ice cubes floating in the gray water–like broken glass in a tub of mercury.

The sooner he took his bath and got out, the sooner he could be in his car and driving west on Ocean Boulevard to the marina, where he would climb aboard his boat and spend the long hours of darkness sitting and staring at another TV set switched to CBS with the brightness control turned down just far enough to black out the picture, watching the white line that would certainly be on that screen too, and listening for the burping croaks of his pigs.

Like every other night.

 

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