Earthquake Weather – Snippet 26

“A Manhattan, please,” Plumtree said.

“And a couple of menus,” put in Cochran.

The waitress nodded and clunked down a fresh ashtray with some slogan printed around the edge of it before striding back toward the bar, her long skirt swishing over the sandy floor. Two men in rumpled business suits were playing bar dice for the price of drinks, banging the leather cup on the wet, polished wood.

“What does Cody drink,” asked Cochran, “besides vodka?”

“Budweiser.” She smiled at him. “This is fun! She’s letting me sit and talk to you. Usually, I just get to go to the bathroom–over and over again, throwing up there sometimes, while Cody gets to sit and talk to the man, and she never has to get up and leave him at all.”

“Well, she doesn’t like me, you said. And,” he added, still shaken by the realization, “she seemed exhausted, a few moments ago. She wouldn’t have wanted to dance.”

Plumtree nodded. “That treatment this morning hit her hard. She might appreciate a drink or two herself, before we leave here.”

Cochran thought of mentioning how they would be paying for the drinks and eventual food, but decided he didn’t want to break Janis’ cheerful mood.

A frail electronic beeping started up, and he remembered that her watch had made a noise like that when she had been talking the 7-Eleven clerk into giving her all the ones and change for her original twenty-dollar bill. “What do you have that set for?” he asked.

“Oh, this silly thing. You have a watch, don’t you? I think I’ll just leave this one here. One of the doctors gave it to me–it’s supposed to keep me in now, and not in the past . . . or future, I suppose.” She had unstrapped the watch as she’d been speaking, and now held it up by one end, as if it were a dead mouse. “It’s my last link with that stupid hospital. If I leave it behind, I’ll bet I can leave all of their depressive-obsessive doo-dah with it. They want you to be sick, in hospitals. I bet I won’t even have my old nightmare as much, away from that place.”

In spite of himself, Cochran said, “About the sun falling out of the sky?”

“Right onto me, yeah.” She shook her head sharply. “Filling up the sky and then punching me flat onto the sidewalk. I was in the hospital when I was two, and I guess there was no window in my room, ’cause I somehow got the idea that the sun had died. My father died right around that time, and I was too young to grasp what exactly had happened.” She frowned at her fingernails. “I still miss him–a lot–even though I was only two when he died.”

The waitress had returned, and she set their drinks down on the tablecloth and then handed Cochran and Plumtree each a leather-bound menu. “Could I borrow a pen?” Cochran asked her. When he raised his hand and made doodling motions in the air the woman smiled and handed him a Bic from her tray. Cochran just nodded his thanks as the woman turned away and strode back toward the bar.

“Prassopita,” said Plumtree, reading from the menu. “Domatosoupa. This is a Greek restaurant.” She took a sip of her drink and audibly swished it around in her mouth before swallowing.

“Oh.” Cochran thought of Long John Beach singing frolicked in the Attic mists . . . and then remembered that Janis hadn’t experienced that part of the evening. “I guess that’s all right.” He opened his own menu and stared at the unfamiliar names as he took a sip of the warmly vaporous bourbon. Finally, he looked squarely at her. “I believe you, by the way,” he began.

“We’re not talking about the menu now, are we?”

“That’s right, we’re not. I mean I believe you about you being a genuine multiple personality.” He took several long gulps of the cold beer. “Whew! You obviously hadn’t noticed my dumb shirt before a minute ago, and Cody saw it back at the hospital; and she didn’t get that it was a joke about a Mark Twain book title.”

“You should believe it, it’s true. I don’t think Cody’s much of a reader. I am–and I love books about King Arthur, though I’ve never been able to read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” She rolled her eyes. “You’re taking a whole crowd of girls, out to dinner!”

Cochran decided not to ask what she thought One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had to do with King Arthur. A slip of paper with daily specials on it was clipped to the inside of the menu, and he tugged it free and poised the pen over the blank back side of it. “Who all are you? Just so I’ll . . . know what names to write on the thank you card.”

“Oh, Cody’s paying for dinner, eh? I don’t want to hear about it. Well, you know me and her . . . and there’s Tiffany . . .” She paused while Cochran wrote it down. “And Valerie . . .” she added.

He wrote it down the way it was generally spelled, but she leaned over and tapped the paper with her finger. “It’s spelled with an ‘o’–Valorie.”

Cochran smiled at the idiosyncrasy. “Like calorie. If you had an overeater in there, you could call her Calorie, and they could be twins.”

Plumtree bared her teeth in a cheerless grin. “Valorie isn’t a twin of anybody.” She stared at the names on the paper. “Then there’s him. Just write ‘him’, okay? I don’t like his name being out, even on paper.”

As he wrote the three letters, it occurred to Cochran that this Flibbertigibbet character was probably as real as Cody and Janis . . . and might very well actually have killed a man in Oakland, a little more than five years ago.

And then he wondered about the king that Plumtree claimed to have killed ten days ago.

“That’s a birthmark,” Plumtree said, “not a tattoo–right?”

Cochran put down the pen and flexed his right hand, and the ivy-leaf-shaped dark patch below his knuckles rippled. “Neither one. It’s . . . like a powder burn, or a scar. Rust under the skin, I suppose, or even stump-bark dust. I was seven years old, and I got my hand between a big set of pruning shears and a stump face. I guess I thought it was an actual, live face, and I tried to block this field worker from cutting the old man’s head off.”

Plumtree was frowning over the rim of her glass. “What?” she said when she’d swallowed and put it down.

Cochran smiled. “Sorry–but you obviously didn’t grow up in the wine country. It’s as old as ‘Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home’, or the Man in the Moon. Le Visage dans la Vigne, Froissart called it. The Face in the Vine Stump. See, in the winter, when it’s time to prune back the grape vines, sometimes the lumpy budwells in the bowl of an old head-trained vine look like an old man’s face–forehead, cheekbones, nose, chin. People used to be real superstitious about it, like in France in the Middle Ages–they’d uproot the one that looked most like a real face, and take it out on a mountaintop somewhere and burn it. In the middle of winter, so spring would come. The old man had to die.” Throw out the suicide king, he thought.

“As long as you do not die and live again, you are a stranger to the dark earth,” Plumtree said, obviously quoting something. “Don’t ask me what that’s from, I don’t even know which of us read it. Have you ever thought of having the mark removed? Doctors could do that now, I bet.”

“No,” said Cochran, making a fist of the hand to show the mark more clearly, “I’m kind of proud of it, actually–it’s my winemaker’s merit badge, an honorable battle scar.”

Plumtree smiled and shook her head. “I think I’ll get this Arni Kapama thing, if I can chew it.”

Cochran looked at the menu. “Lamb cooked with sugar and cinnamon? Yuck. I guess I’ll go with the Moskhari Psito. At least that’s beef, according to this. I wish they had plain old cheeseburgers.”

“Well, yeah. We don’t have all night. Are you still set on calling your lawyer? What is it you’d be wanting him to do?”

The waitress came back then, and they placed their orders; Cochran ordered another bourbon and beer chaser, too, and Plumtree ordered another Manhattan.

“I’d want the lawyer,” he said when the woman had gone sweeping away, “to . . . wire me some money . . . so that I could get back home. And I”–he looked straight into her tiny-pupiled eyes–“I hope you’d be willing to come with me, Janis. The lawyer would be able to work for you better if you were up there, and you’d be that much farther away from Armentrout.”

Plumtree sang, “I’ll take you home again, Kathleen . . .” and then sighed. “What’s the hurry? About you getting back home?”

Cochran blinked at her. “Isn’t that song about a girl who’s going to die?”

“I forget. So, what is the hurry?”

Cochran spread his hands. “Oh . . . a paycheck.”

“What’s the work, in January, in a vineyard?”