Earthquake Weather – Snippet 30


My credentials, entries, and memoranda, are all comprehended in the one line, ‘Recalled to Life’ . . . “

–Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Dogs were howling out in the alleys and dark yards of Long Beach, and unless the ringing air was particularly distorted–which Koot Hoomie reflected that it might very well be–they were howling out on the beach sand too, possibly mistaking the electric glow of the Queen Mary‘s million lights across the harbor for the moon, or a close-passing comet.

Kootie stepped out onto the front porch and pulled the door closed behind him. Or, he thought as the night breeze swept the echoes of amplified wailing around from the parking-lot side of the old apartment building, maybe the dogs are tired of our music. The tenants in the neighboring complexes would probably have come to complain about it a week ago if they could locate the source.

For ten days now, all day and all night, there had been some person or other dancing in the Solville parking lot; Elizalde’s clients had spontaneously conceived and taken on the eccentric task, and many of them had missed work to do their individual four-hour shifts, each successive businessman or tattooed cholo or portly matron dutifully hopping and scuffing to the music banging out of the portable stereo that was connected by extension cords to an outlet in the kitchen. On Sunday and Monday of last week, it had been a randomly eclectic sequence of sixties rock, mariachi, rap, and country-western musics, but by this last weekend they had somehow found and settled on one song–a hoarse, haggardly persevering thing called either “Lay Down” or “Candles in the Wind” by Melanie, recorded more than a decade before Kootie had been born–and Arky Mavranos had dubbed a cassette of nothing but that song, repeated over and over again, for the dancers to play endlessly.

His foster-dad and Arky Mavranos had located and busted open an old fireplace behind the drywall in the bathroom down the hall from the office; and they had fetched a ladder and climbed up on the roof and knocked the layers of tar paper off the obscured chimney, and so a fire of pine and oak logs had been kept continuously burning. There were enough people in residence to keep the fire tended, but Mavranos had in recent days begun to complain about having to drive all over town for more wood, and Kootie was afraid he would soon insist that they cut down one of the shady old carob trees around the parking lot.

Ten days so far on this deathwatch, and not even a whiff of decomposition yet. Kootie wondered if they would be able to keep on maintaining all these observances even until the weekend.

Kootie sighed, staring out at the dark rooftops.

And whenever the old king did begin to show some sign of decay, and could thus be formally acknowledged as dead, Kootie would apparently . . . be the next king. His poor naive dead parents had raised him to be some kind of Indian holy man, the new Krishnamurti, the jagadguru, and that discipline had been close enough to what was required here, what with all the well-remembered fasts and the meditations and the sacramental meal of smoked salmon and whitefish at Canter’s Jewish delicatessen on Fairfax, one Friday in 1988–and he was a virgin, physically, and he had the perpetually bleeding wound in his side.

That was why Arky Mavranos and Diana were here–to transfer the mantle, to pronounce Le Roi c’est mort, vive le Roi.

These recent mornings–in the sunny cool-breeze moments between waking and getting out of bed, when he seemed to thrill to the vertiginous flights of crows all over the L.A. basin, and flex with the powerful iron tides roaring along the San Diego and Harbor and Pomona freeways, and be able to just tap his feet in rhythm with the heartbeat of the continent–he found himself very much wanting this job the people in the red truck had brought for him; it was only after the sun had gone down over the smokestacks of the Queen Mary a quarter mile away across the harbor that he seemed to catch the tang of fresh blood and stale beer on the taste buds of the broken asphalt, and cramp with the hopeless hunger and unknown withdrawals in the mazes of cracked plaster and parking garages and electric rainbows in glass on street corners, and shiver with the grinding of fast, shallow panting, or of some subterranean gnawing, that invisibly agitated all the pavements.

Kootie would soon have to either accept it or refuse it; and he couldn’t get rid of the thought that he would be accruing some debt either way–that a consequence, a price, would be demanded of him at some future time.

Tonight, he just wanted to be Kootie, the fourteen-year-old boy who lived in Long Beach and studied astronomy and went in-line skating down the sidewalks of Bluff Park in the afternoons.

He leaned back against the clapboard wall and closed his eyes, and he cautiously let his attention expand just to include the building here. Most strongly he felt the presence of Scott Crane, the still-undecaying dead man in the kitchen, robed in white now and laid out across a dining-room table, with the sawed-short spear segment standing up from his shut-down, pulseless throat; but Kootie was also aware of his foster-mom Angelica and the pregnant, bald-headed Diana lady fussing over the big pot of bouillabaisse on the stove near the dead man’s bearded head, and of his foster-dad Pete crouching by the television set in the long office room, talking to Diana’s two sons, Scat and Oliver; and of Johanna, who owned the buildings that were Solville, sitting out on the back steps drinking Tecate beer and eating homemade enchiladas with the girlfriend of the teenage boy who was currently keeping the dance going.

Now Pete had straightened up and was looking for Kootie–but it was probably just to ask about the pans full of bean sprouts, and Kootie didn’t bother to open his eyes or step away from the shadowed wall. After Angelica had been convinced that these uninvited houseguests had to stay, and that in some vague but compelling way they needed and merited Kootie’s cooperation, she had done some research into their problem and come up with, among other troublesome measures, her “Gardens of Adonis”–five shallow aluminum pans with half an inch of damp dirt and a handful of beans in each of them; the things had sprouted and quickly died again and had to be resown twice already, and Kootie knew that Pete was of the opinion that this third crop had about had it too. Let this lot go one more day, Dad, Kootie wearily thought now.

But Pete had leaned out the back door and spoken to Johanna and had walked back through the office and was now striding up the hall toward the front door.

Kootie stepped away from the wall and opened the door just as Pete was reaching for the inside knob.

Kootie smiled. “Let ’em go till tomorrow, Dad.”

“You’re talking about those beans, aren’t you?” said Pete Sullivan impatiently. “To hell with the beans. We’ve got a line on the TV.”

“Oh. Okay.” Kootie followed his foster-father back into the hall and made sure to slide the feather-hung security chain into the slot on the inside of the door.

The hallway, and the office when they walked in there and stood beside the television set, smelled strongly of burnt coffee again. The smell had been untraceably hanging around the whole place for the last ten days, generally stronger at night, even with all the windows open and people cooking for a crowd and smoking and often not having bathed; Arky Mavranos had only joined in the general puzzled shrug when people remarked on the odor, but privately he told Kootie that when Scott Crane’s first wife, Susan, had died of a heart attack in 1990, she’d been drinking a cup of coffee, and it was unfinished and still hot after the paramedics had taken her body away–and that Crane, unable to bear the thought of it too eventually cooling off, had put the cup in his oven over the lowest heat setting, and that it had baked dry in there, apparently filling the house with the burned smell. After a while, Arky had said, a crippled and malevolent facet of the wine god Dionysus had come to Crane in the apparition of Susan’s ghost, incongruously heralded by the hot coffee reek. All this had apparently happened before Crane had become . . . king of the west . . . on Holy Saturday of 1990.