Earthquake Weather – Snippet 27

He barked out two syllables of a laugh, and flexed his right hand again. “Well–pruning. It’s winter. Get our guys to cut each vine back to two canes, with two buds per cane, and save what they call a goat-spur, a water-sprout replacement spur, closer to the stump for fruit a year or two from now–and then drive around to the vineyards we buy off-premises grapes from, and see how they’re pruning their vines. If they’re leaving three or four canes, and a lot of buds, for a water-fat cash crop, I’ll make a note not to buy from them come harvest.” He looked at the gray ivy-leaf mark on the back of his otherwise unscarred hand, and he remembered the vivid shock-hallucination that had accompanied the childhood injury, and it occurred to him that he didn’t want to be there for the pruning–not this year. Grape leaves fell like rain . . . “Why, what’s on your agenda?”

Plumtree eyed her cola-colored drink as the electric light over their heads flickered, and then she waved at the waitress. “Could I get a Budweiser here?” she called. “Two Budweisers, that is?”

Cochran heard no reply, just the continuing thump and rattle of the bar dice.

After a few moments he spoke. “Janis mentioned that you might want a couple of drinks,” he said, levelly enough. He was annoyed to see that his hand trembled as he lifted his beer glass. He made himself look squarely at her, and the skin of his forearms tingled as he realized that he could see the difference, now that he knew to look for it; the mouth was wider now, the eyes narrower.

“My agenda,” said Cody. “I’ve got a lawyer of my own to look up. His name is Strube. He’ll be able to lead me to a boy who’s about fifteen now, a boy-who-would-be-king, apparently, named something like Boogie-Woogie Bananas.”

Cochran raised his eyebrows as he swallowed a mouthful of beer and put his glass down. “Uhh . . . ?”

“This boy apparently knows how to restore a dead king to life. What’s that you’re drinking?”

“Wild Turkey and Coors.”

“Coors. Like screwing in a canoe. Oh well.” She reached across the tablecloth and lifted his glass and drained it in one long swallow. “And two more Coorses too,” she called without looking away from Cochran.

“You can afford it,” he said.

“Fuck you!” yelled a woman in the booth by the door; and for a second Cochran was so sure that she had been yelling at him that his face went cold. But now a man in the same booth was protesting in shrill, injured tones, and when Cochran looked over his shoulder he saw the blond woman who had shouted shaking her head and crying.

” ‘Nuff said,” remarked Plumtree.

If Long John Beach’s crazy lyrics for “Puff the Magic Dragon” had not still been jangling in his head, if Beach had not clasped Cochran’s hand tonight with a hand that he didn’t have, if the bang and rattle of the dice players at the bar hadn’t been emphasizing the fact that nobody in this bar had seemed to speak above whispers until the woman had shouted, Cochran would never have thought of what he said next; and if he hadn’t downed the bourbon on a nearly empty stomach he would not have spoken it aloud; but:

“You throw it, don’t you?” he said wonderingly to Plumtree. “Anger. Like, it can’t be created or destroyed, but it can be shifted.” Over the aromas of lamb and mint and liquor, the humid air was sharp with the smell of wilted, chopped vegetation, like a macheted clearing in a jungle. “Is that part of your dissociative disorder, that you can stay calm by actually throwing your anger off onto somebody nearby? The lady who kept breaking her spoon in the ice cream place, and cussing, when the kid wouldn’t give you a twenty . . . and Mr. Regushi jumping up to strangle Muir yesterday, when Armentrout pissed you off.” He was dizzy, and wished the waitress would hurry up with the beer.

“What gives you the right–?” choked the blond woman by the door.

Cochran exhaled, and gave Plumtree a frail, apologetic smile. “Nothing, I guess,” he said.

“You still got any quarters?” asked Plumtree calmly.

Cochran squeezed his thigh under the table. “At least one.”

“Let’s go make a call.”

They stood up out of the booth and crossed the sandy floor to the pay telephone by the restrooms in the far corner, and after Plumtree had hoisted the white-pages telephone book up from a shelf under the phone and flipped through the thin leaves of it, she said, “No Strube listed. Not in L.A.”

Cochran was peering over her shoulder at the STR page. “There’s a . . . Strubie the Clown,” he noted. “He’s listed twice, also as ‘Strubie the Children’s Entertainer’.”

She nodded. “It’s a good enough flop for a call. Gimme your quarter.”

Cochran dug it out for her, and she thumbed it into the slot and punched in the number. After a few seconds of standing with the receiver to her ear, she said, “It’s a recording–listen.”

She leaned her head back and tilted the receiver, and Cochran pressed his chin to her cheek to hear the message with her. His heart was pounding, and he let himself lay his hand on her shoulder as if for balance.

“. . . and I can’t come to the phone right now,” piped a merry voice from the earpiece. “But leave your name and number, and Strubie will right back to you be!” A beep followed, and Plumtree hung up the phone and shook off Cochran’s arm.

“He’s, uh, not home, I guess,” said Cochran to cover his embarrassment as they scuffed back to the booth. Their dinners had been served–two plates sat on the tablecloth, the meat and vegetables piled on them steaming with smells of garlic and lamb and onion and cinnamon, along with another Manhattan and a fresh shot glass of bourbon and five fresh glasses of beer.

“Where would we be without you to figure these things out?” Plumtree said acidly as she slid into the booth.

Cochran sat down without replying, and as he began hungrily forking up the mess of onions and tomatoes and veal on his plate he looked around at the bar and the other patrons rather than at Plumtree. He hoped she’d be Janis again soon; and he resolved to catch her if she got up to go to the ladies’ room.

The bartender was a woman too, and as Cochran watched she drew a draft beer for one of the men who had been playing bar dice. The man pulled a little cloth bag from his coat pocket and shook from it a pile of yellow-brown powder onto the bar. The bartender scooped the powder up with a miniature dustpan and disposed of it behind the bar.

Gold dust? wondered Cochran with the incurious detachment of being half-drunk. Heroin or cocaine, cut with semolina flour? Either way, it seemed like an awful lot to pay for one beer.

A black dwarf on crutches was laboriously poling his way out of the bar now, and when he had braced the door open to swing his crutches outside, Cochran caught a strong scent of the sea on the gusty cold draft that made the lamps flicker in the moment before the door banged shut behind the little man. And under the resumed knock and rattle of the dice he now heard a deep, slow rolling, as if a millwheel were turning in some adjoining stone building.

He became aware that his food was gone, along with the bourbon and a lot of the beer, and that Plumtree had a cigarette in her mouth and was striking a match. Cochran’s cigarettes were still back at the madhouse.

When she threw the match into the ashtray it flared up in a momentary flame; an instant later there was just a wisp of smoke curling over the ashtray, and a whiff of something like bacon.

“Brandy in the ashtrays?” said Cochran, in a light tone to cover for having jumped in surprise. “What’s the writing on it say? ‘No smoking near this ashtray’?”

Plumtree was startled herself, and she reached out gingerly to tilt the ashtray toward her. “It says–I think it’s Latin–Roma, tibi subito motibus ibit amor. What does that mean?”

“Lemme see.” Cochran tipped the warm ashtray toward himself. “Uh . . . ‘How romantic, to be . . . submitting . . . in a motor bus, having . . . a bit! . . . of love.”

“You liar!” She actually seemed frightened by his nonsense. “It doesn’t say that, does it? In a motor bus? You’re such a liar.”

Cochran laughed and touched her arm reassuringly. “No, I don’t know what it says.” He took a sip from one of the beer glasses, and to change the subject he asked, “Why did you say Coors is like screwing in a canoe?”

“Because it’s fuckin’ near water. Ho ho. Let’s get out of here. Strubie the Clown ought to be home by now. I’ll go copy down the address listed for him and call us a cab.” She had got out of the booth and was striding away toward the telephone before he could protest.