Expiration Date – Snippet 06
“I dare say you never even spoke to Time!”
“Perhaps not,” Alice cautiously replied, “but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.”
“Ahh, that accounts for it,” said the Hatter. “He won’t stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock.”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Musso and Frank’s Grill, Hollywood’s oldest restaurant, was still in business on the north side of the boulevard at Cherokee, and Sullivan parked around the corner and walked in through the double wood-and-glass doors and crossed to one of the booths under the eternal autumn-scene mural and the high ceiling. The Tuesday special was corned beef and cabbage, but he sentimentally ordered a sardine sandwich and a Coors.
This had been his and Sukie’s secret hideout; their friends and coworkers had hung out in trendier places like the City Cafe and the Cafe Figaro on Melrose, or the Ivy down on Robertson.
In fact, he and Sukie had driven here in 1984 for dinner right after the Christmas Eve shoot at the Shelton, and during the drive Sukie had been loudly singing gibberish Christmas carols–O car-bo-lic faith-less, poi-son-ously pregnant . . . O rum key, O ru-um key to O-bliv-i-on . . . Commander Hold-‘Em, bone-dry king of a-angels . . . and of course the old schoolyard song they’d got in trouble for singing in some foster home when they’d been seven, We three kings of Orient are, trying to smoke a rubber cigar; it was loaded, it exploded . . .
As soon as they’d got to the restaurant and been seated, Sukie had ordered a double Jack Daniel’s, and Pete, though he had wanted a beer, had wound up with a Coke, because when the waiter had walked up to their booth Pete had been leaning forward and saying, “Coke?”
After the waiter had left, Sukie had grinned and said, “Coke what?”
Pete had waved vaguely. “What she was doing. Loretta, our dignified boss, snorting a straw along the old hotel wallpaper! Old cocaine mixed up in the dust, do you think?”
In reply Sukie had resumed singing some badly remembered lines from “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”–“We won’t go until we got some, we won’t go until we got some, we won’t go until we got some, so trot ’em out now.”
“What the hell, Suke,” Pete had said, bewildered by her manic cheer.
“I figure that’s what the Sodomites and–what would you call ’em, Gomorrites?–were singing outside of Lot’s house, you know? In the Bible, when all of Lot’s neighbors wanted to bugger the angels that were visiting him. Loretta wouldn’t go today until she got some, and she did get some–she sucked ’em up through that straw.” The drinks had arrived then, and Sukie had drained hers in one long swallow and mutely signaled for another.
“Got some what?” Pete had said after a half-hearted sip of his Coke. “Angels? Angel dust? What?”
“Ghosts,” Sukie had said impatiently. “What did you think? She snorted up a whole pile of ghosts today–did you see how much younger she looked when she finally got into her car and split? She looked thirty years old tonight, a youthful thirty, and she looked a goddamn hundred this morning. We somehow made it possible for her to draw a whole lot of ghosts out of the walls of that place and then snort ’em up her nose.”
Pete hadn’t wanted to start discussing ghosts with his sister. “She’s, ah, something like a necrophilliac voyeur,” he said. “There’s probably a single word for it. She likes to go shoot films at cemeteries and places where people have died, and kind of rub her fingers in the dirt, we’ve noticed that in her before. Hell, I suppose there’s somebody somewhere who watches the tape of Jack Ruby shooting Oswald over and over again. Getting off on . . . what, the thought that somebody really did die here. Creepy, but probably harmless, right? But I’m afraid she’s going flat-out crazy now. Where does that leave our jobs? I mean, there she was, crouched over and snuffling along with a straw, as if some dead lady’s perfume might still be in the wallpaper!”
“Pete,” said Sukie, “I don’t mean perfume, and I don’t mean metaphorical ghosts. I mean there were real essences of dead people in that place, and she consumed them in some literal way, like a whale eating plankton.”
Pete stared at her. “Are you saying,” he asked carefully after a moment, “that you think she actually believes that?”
“God, you’re an idiot sometimes. I’m saying that’s what happened. She’s right to believe it, she did eat a bunch of ghosts. Didn’t she change, visibly, between eight this morning and nine tonight?”
Pete tried to smile derisively, but gave it up and let his face relax into a frown. “She did get something out of it,” he admitted. “But come on, ghosts?”
The word hadn’t sounded ludicrous in this dark wooden booth at Musso and Frank’s.
“And,” he found himself going on, “she is often . . . prettier and cheerier after a shoot. Still damn fat.” He laughed uncertainly. “Do you suppose that’s what she’s been doing, all along? She never used a straw before. That we ever noticed, anyway.”
“I’m sure she’d have liked it better if we hadn’t seen her do that–but she obviously needed it too bad to be subtle this time. I bet she usually sucks ’em in through those damned cigarettes of hers–maybe ghosts are drawn to that clove smell, like kids to hot cookies. It was a flavored straw, you noticed.”
Sukie’s fresh drink arrived. Pete drained it himself, and Sukie glanced at her watch and then at the clock on the wall, and she asked for two more.
For a full minute neither of them spoke.
Pete was feeling the bourbon hit his fragile alertness like static muddying up an AM radio signal. “And, of course, it would have something to do with bar-time,” he said finally. “Ghosts are . . . if there are ghosts, they’re certainly a very derailed crowd, in terms of time.”
“Of course. And the electrical problems. We always have electrical problems, and she still not only doesn’t fire us, but pays us way too much.”
“We don’t always have electrical problems,” Pete said irritably. Then he made himself think about what Sukie had said. “Now you’re saying it has to be us? Specifically, Pete and Sukie?”
“She acts like it, doesn’t she? Has she ever once hired anyone else? Those props, those watches and things, those were lures; but for some reason she needs us to make her able to hook ’em. Did you keep on looking at her watch?”
“Not after the first business,” he said glumly. Of course, Sukie would have, once he’d told her about it.
“When we finally got started filming, the hour hand was pointing straight to the section of wall she took her straw to, every time, and it wasn’t north anymore.”
Pete grinned weakly. “Compass needles point to ghosts?”
“Evidence of the old glazzies, droogie,” she said, quoting the movie A Clockwork Orange.
Glazzies, he recalled, meant eyes. “Let’s get some menus,” she went on. “I may as well eat while I drink, and she’ll want her precious twins all peppy and full of vitamins tomorrow.”
Her precious twins, Pete thought now as he finished his sardine sandwich and drank off the last of the Coors alone in the booth on this sunny but cold morning eight years later.
The twins had continued working for deLarava for precisely another two years after that Christmas Eve; and Pete had eventually come to believe that Sukie was right about what deLarava had been doing at their shooting locations.
Neither of them, though, had seriously considered quitting. What the hell, Sukie had remarked more than once when she’d been drunk. It’s just exorcism, right? I mean, she inhales the ghosts and then they’re gone—obviously, since she never goes back and does a shoot at the same place twice. We’re exorcists, like that priest in that movie. And we didn’t take no vows of poverty.
No indeed, thought Sullivan now. DeLarava paid us damn well. And if she hadn’t tried to get us car-bo-lic faithless, poi-so-nously pregnant to do that muscle beach feature in Venice, on bone-dry king of angels Christmas Eve in 1986, won’t go until we got one, so dredge him out now we’d probably be working for her still, to this day.
He frowned intently at the check, tossed thirteen dollars onto the Formica table and walked quickly out of the restaurant into the chilly October breeze.
It had been early in 1986 when they had hidden the mask in the ruins up on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. Just a dried thumb and two plaster hands, but Sukie always referred to the set as “the mask.”
Sullivan steered the van back onto Hollywood Boulevard, heading west again; there was still only the one more turn ahead. On the south side of the street stood a new McDonald’s restaurant that looked like an incongruously space-age Grecian temple, but at least the Chinese Theater was still there in all its battered black and red byzantine splendor at Highland.
The boulevard narrowed after that, as it flowed west between big old apartment buildings and broad lawns, and around Fairfax the pavement of the eastbound lane was entirely ripped up for repairs, but the sun hung still a little short of noon in the empty blue sky when Sullivan reached Laurel Canyon Boulevard and turned right, up the hill.
The curling road had only one lane each way, and no shoulder at all between the-pavement and the greenery hanging over bowed chain-link fencing, and he had to drive a good quarter of a mile past the place before he found a wider spot where the van could plausibly be parked without getting clipped by a passing car. And then the walk back down the hill was a series of lateral hops from the asphalt into the tall curbside grass every time a car came looming at him from around a corner ahead. Already he was sweating.
Even after six years, he recognized the section of chain-link fence he was looking for, and when he stopped and hooked his fingers through it and peered up the wooded slope beyond, he saw that the ruins had not been cleared away. Nearly hidden under shaggy palm trees and oaks, the broad stone stairway swept up to the terrace at the top of the hill, and even from out here on the street he could see many of the broken pillars and sagging brick walls.
He was breathing deeply, and wondering almost resentfully why no one had planed this off and put up condos or something. The real estate must be worth a fortune. At last he unhooked his fingers and stepped back.
Several no trespassing signs were hung on the fence, but it was widely split at one point, and among the tall weeds beyond he could see empty twelve-pack beer cartons and a couple of blankets and even a sort of little tent made from an upended shopping cart. Sullivan glanced up and down the road, and at a moment when no cars were in sight he ducked through the gap and sprinted to the shade of the nearest palm tree. He picked his way through a dense hedge of blue-flowered vinca, and after a few seconds noticed that he wasn’t walking on dirt anymore–the soles of his black leather shoes were brushing dust and drifts of leaves off paving stones that had been laid in the 1920s.
The stairs were broad between the low corniced walls, but were thickly littered with bricks and chunks of masonry and the brown palm fronds that had been falling untended for five decades; and sycamore branches hung so low in places that he practically had to crawl from step to step. When he had scrambled up to the second landing he paused to catch his breath. The air was still and silent and fragrant with eucalyptus, as if Laurel Canyon Boulevard and all of Hollywood were very far away. He couldn’t even hear any birds or insects.
A row of once-white marble pillars supporting nothing anymore ran along the top of a wall across the stairs from him, and below the wall a dead stone fountain poked up from a bank of dried leaves; the ruined architecture all looked Greek, or at least Mediterranean, and it occurred to him that time didn’t seem to pass here–or, rather, seemed already to have passed and left this place behind. Probably that’s why they don’t tear it all down, he thought. It’s too late.
He was now three-quarters of the way up the dusty, overgrown slope. To his right was a little stone bridge over a dry streambed, and though both of the wide cement railings still arched over the gully, the middle six feet of the bridge’s floor had long ago fallen away. A weathered two-by-six beam spanned the gap, and he remembered that in 1986, at least, the beam had been sturdy enough to bear his weight.
He discovered that it still was, though it was springy and he had to stretch his arms out to the sides to keep his balance. On the far side he paused to wipe the dusty sweat off his face; he thought about lighting a cigarette, but looked around at all the dry brush and glumly decided he’d better not.
Then he froze–someone was moving around below him, clumsily, through the litter on one of the clogged side terraces. Sullivan couldn’t hope to see the person through the shaggy greenery below, but in the weighty silence he could hear someone mumbling and scuffling around.
One of the bums that live here, he thought. It doesn’t sound like a cop or a caretaker; still, the bum might draw the attention of such people, and I don’t want to get kicked out of here myself before I retrieve the mask. They might fix the fence, or even post guards, before I could get back. This place is a historical landmark, after all, though nobody seems to pay any attention to it.
He tiptoed through the fieldstone arch ahead of him and picked his way up a side stairway, which, being narrower, was relatively clear of debris. His fast breathing sounded loud in the still air.
There was another arch at the top, and he paused under it, for he was at the broad main terrace of the hill now, and he’d be visible crossing the cement pavement that stretched between the jungle below and the odd house in front of him.
The pavement was clear up here, and he let himself light a cigarette. Sukie, he recalled, had brought a flask, on that . . . March? . . . day in ’86. That’s right, March–it had been Good Friday afternoon, which had seemed like a good day for burials.
At first the two of them had thought that this house–this narrow, two-story building, brick below and stuccoed above, with castle-like crenellations along the roof as if the owner were ready to hire archers to repel attack from below–must be Houdini’s mansion, and they’d been surprised that the famed magician would live in such a little place. Later they’d learned that this was just the servants’ quarters. Houdini’s mansion had stood a hundred yards off to the south, and had burned down in the thirties. But this was nevertheless a part of the old Houdini estate. It would do fine as a place to hide the mask. “Hide a thumb in a place where there’s already a lot of its thumbprints,” Sukie had said.
Sullivan now stared uneasily at the house. The doors and windows were all covered with weathered sheets of plywood, but on the tiny upstairs balcony sat a flowerpot with a green plant growing in it. Had there been rain in L.A. recently? The palm fronds he’d climbed over below had been dry as mummies. Was some homeless person living in this place?
He decided to hide here for a little while and see if the noises on the slope had been heard and might draw someone out onto the balcony.
Sullivan recalled that he and Sukie had nearly killed themselves struggling up the slope six years ago, for they’d been “on bar-time big time,” as Sukie had said–they’d been feeling the roughness of a step underfoot before the shoe actually touched it, and the bark of a tree limb a second before the hand grasped it. But Sukie had been full of hectic cheer, chatting graciously with imaginary guests and singing misunderstood snatches from Handel’s Messiah. Sullivan had been constantly whispering at her to shut up.
No one seemed to be home in the little castle. Sullivan relaxed and sucked on his cigarette, and he looked up at the brushy slope beyond the house. The upper slope had advanced visibly since his previous visit–broken dirt was piled up right to the stones of the arch at the south end of the house now, and a section of ornate marble railing stuck up crookedly above and behind the arch like a bleached rib cage exposed by a cemetery landslide.
He jumped suddenly, and as his cigarette hit the pavement he heard a voice from the stairway he’d just climbed: “By the hair of my chinny-chin-chin–”
Sullivan crouched behind the house side of the arch as the voice went on, “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll eat you, billy-goat-gruff.”
It’s that bum, he thought nervously. He’s following me, and of course my gun is locked up back in the van.
Then he grinned at his momentary panic. Just a bum, he told himself. Forget him and go get the mask from the garage, which luckily is still standing. Sullivan stretched out his leg and stepped on the smoldering cigarette, but he was trembling, for the billy-goat-gruff remark had reminded him of the troll that had lived under a bridge in that old children’s story. Maybe, he thought as he made himself maintain his grin, I shouldn’t have walked across that board over the broken bridge back there.
He straightened up and stepped out into the sunlight and began walking across the old cement, careful not to kick any stray rocks.
The open-arched garage was a strange structure, too, entirely fronted with tiny inset stones and with two broad castle-like merlons on the roof; the inside walls were all stonework as well, and the back wall was concave, as though to provide good acoustics.
After only a few steps he whipped his head back around to the left and saw a skinny old woman come shuffling around the corner of the house. Her white dress looked as if it had been elegant before someone had spent years sleeping and apparently doing engine work in it, but all she was wearing on her stained feet was a broken pair of plastic zoris. The soles flapped on the cement as she hunched toward him.
“I suppose you don’t want to lose your name?” she was calling anxiously.
Then Sullivan heard the bum scuffling quickly to the top of the stairs behind him. “Blow your house down!” he was cawing.
Sullivan broke into a run for the garage; he stomped and skidded inside and in an instant, was crouched in the shadows against the back wall, digging in the loose dry dirt with his hands. It seemed to him that the dirt was colder than it had any right to be.
“Where the fuck,” he was keening to himself, just as he felt the plywood board he and Sukie had laid over Houdini’s mask. He paused, even though he could hear the bum wheezing his way across the driveway toward the garage. It’s not Houdini buried here, Sullivan reminded himself; it’s not even his ghost. He took a deep breath and lifted the board away in a shower of powdery dirt.
And he saw that the life-size plaster hands and the little cloth Bull Durham sack were still in the hole. If the bum was just a bum, Sullivan could probably chase him away by waving the plaster hands like clubs.
Even in his panic, he grimaced with distaste as he tucked the sack into his shirt pocket, and then he made himself snatch up the plaster hands, and he turned toward the light of the entrance.
The bum from the hill slope was standing there, visible at last, and Sullivan saw that he did have hair on his chin; lots of it, white and matted. The man had his hands in the pockets of an enormous ragged overcoat, and he was rocking his head and peering in Sullivan’s direction.
Sullivan’s heart was pounding, for the man was clearly puzzled to see him. “What do you want?” Sullivan ventured. “How did you get in here?”
“I saw a guy–come in here,” mumbled the old man, “couldn’a had a hall pass, aren’t they–I forget. Where’d he go, anyway? I think he’s the guy that stole my . . . my Buick.” He was scuffling backward in confusion now. “I’m still pissed about that Buick.”
“He came in here,” said Sullivan, trying to keep the shakiness out of his voice. “I ate him. And I’m still hungry.” He could smell the old man now, the well-remembered tang of raw cheap wine oozing out through dead pores.
“Jesus God!” the old man exclaimed shrilly, his brown-mottled eyes wide. “Ate–him! I help out around here, ask anybody, I fold the newspapers–” He was flapping his shaky hands. “–rearrange the rocks and–branches, you know? Make it all neater.” He bared teeth that seemed to be made of the same bad stuff as his eyes. “You can’t eat me, not right on top of him.”
Sullivan jerked his head toward the slope and the ruined stairs. “Go, then.”
Nodding as rapidly as a pair of wind-up chattering teeth, the old man turned and began limping rapidly back toward the stairs . . . Sullivan stepped out into the light, his heart pounding against the little bag in his pocket. The old woman had stopped a few yards away and was gaping at him uncertainly.
“I . . . was keeping your plant watered,” she said. “In most gardens they make the beds too soft–so that the flowers are always asleep.”
Sullivan recognized the line as something from the Alice in Wonderland books. So many of them had read and somehow remembered them. Sukie had always said that the Alice books were the Old and New Testaments for ghosts–which Pete had never understood; after all, Lewis Carroll hadn’t been dead yet when he’d written them.
“Fine,” Sullivan told the old woman, making a vaguely papal gesture with one of the hands. “Carry on.”
The old man had by now scrambled some distance down the side stairway, and in a birdy old voice was calling, “I got away-ay! I got away-ay!” in the nyah nyah nyah-nyah-nah! cadence of spiteful children.
Sullivan glanced back in distaste, then turned and looked past the old woman at the driveway that curled away down the hill to Laurel Canyon Boulevard. Best to leave that way, he thought. I haven’t heard any sirens, and it’s less important, now, that I not be seen. At least now I’ve got the goddamn things.
“Excuse me,” he said, and stepped around the woman.
After a few moments, as he was trudging down the driveway, she called after him, “Are you animal, vegetable, or mineral?”
That was what the Lion had asked Alice in Through the Looking-Glass. “It’s a fabulous monster!” he called back, quoting what the Unicorn had answered about Alice.
Don’t I wish, he thought.