Expiration Date – Snippet 09


“I only took the regular course.”

“What was that?” inquired Alice.

“Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with,” the Mock Turtle replied, “and then the different branches of ArithmeticAmbition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.”

–Lewis Carroll,

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Raffle was obviously pleased with the money they made during the next ten minutes, and he dug a laundry marking pen out of the pocket of his topmost shirt and, under the words homeless vietnam vet, he added:

with motherless son

“We gonna make booyah bucks on this,” said Raffle with satisfaction. “We probably be sleepin’ in motels every night.”

Kootie thought of sleeping on wheels. “I don’t mind a car,” he said, struggling to keep the impatience out of his voice. He still hadn’t seen the one-armed man, but he could imagine him watching from behind some wall.

“Good attitude,” Raffle said. “Hey, we should be shifting locations–you want a beer?”

Kootie blinked. “I’m only eleven.”

“Well, I’ll drink it if you don’t want it. Come on.”

They walked across the street to a little liquor store, Fred following closely on their heels, and Raffle bought a bottle of Corona in a narrow paper bag.

“Let’s head for the car,” he said as they walked back out onto the sidewalk.

The car was a twenty-year-old mustard-colored Ford Maverick parked behind a nearby laundromat, and the back seat was piled with clothes and Maxell floppy-disk boxes and at least a dozen gray plastic videocassette rewinders. Fred hopped up onto the clutter when Raffle unlocked the door, and Raffle and Kootie sat in the front seats.

Raffle levered the cap off the beer bottle against the underside of the dashboard. In an affectedly deep voice, he said, “What’s your name, boy?”

Catching on that Raffle was pretending to be someone else, Kootie said, “Mayo. Uh, Jacko Mayo.”

“Very good.” Raffle took a long sip of the beer. “We used to live in La Mirada, that’s forty-five minutes south of here on the 5, okay? Four-bedroom house, only place you ever lived. I used to be a car mechanic, but your mom was a legal secretary and she made the real money, but she didn’t have health insurance and when she got cancer we lost everything, and then she died. Nobody’s likely to ask you for anything more than that, but if it ever comes up, just start crying. Can you cry if you have to?”

Kootie thought about it. “Easy.”

“Great. Now are we black or white or Mexican or Indian or what?”

“To work for both of us? I’d just say–” He shrugged “–we’re Angelenos. We just . . . grew up out of the sidewalks.”

“Good. Don’t remember no old days at all.” Raffle tilted up the bottle and drained the last of the beer. “Now, there’s some . . . things you’re gonna have to just get used to seeing, okay? Like if you suddenly moved to . . . Borneo or Australia or somewhere, they might do stuff that you were always taught was bad, but it’s okay there, right? I mean, as long as they don’t say you’ve got to do ’em. You just consider it higher education.”

“Right,” said Kootie cautiously.

“Okay. There’s a little nail in the ashtray, lemme have it, hm?”

Kootie found the nail and handed it to the man.

Raffle put the point of the nail into a little dimple in the base of the glass beer bottle, and then he picked up an old shoe from between the seats and whacked the head of the nail with it; the point was now inside the bottle, though the bottle hadn’t broken, and Raffle twisted it back out, then blew through the hole.

“All us good Dagwood-type dads smoke pipes,” he said. Then he reached under the seat and dragged up a box of Chore Boy scrubbing pads and prized a little cushion of steel wool out of the box. He tore off a bristly shred of the stuff and tucked it like a little bird’s nest into the neck of the bottle, and then replaced the rest of the pad and pushed the box back under the seat.

“If you see a one-time,” Raffle said, “don’t change your expression or look around, but slap me on the leg.”

Kootie remembered reading in the newspaper that one-time was a street term for policeman. “Is this,” he faltered, “some kind of–no offense–dope thing?”

“Just say yo,” Raffle agreed. Out of a hole in the double thickness of his shirt cuff he dug a tiny fragment of what seemed to be white stone, like a piece off one of the ones Kootie’s father had spread around the plants in the atrium pots, and Raffle carefully laid it in the nest of steel wool at the top of the empty beer bottle.

Raffle slouched down in the seat and held the bottle up to the textured plastic head liner, which Kootie now noticed was dotted with scorch marks, and the man put his mouth to the little hole he’d punched in the bottle’s base; then he flicked a long orange-plastic Cricket lighter and held the flame to the piece of rock as he sucked.

Kootie looked away as the bottle began to fill with pale smoke. His heart was pounding, but he didn’t see any “one-times,” and in just a couple of seconds Raffle had opened the door and rolled the bottle away across the parking lot.

Raffle exhaled, and Kootie smelled burned steel wool and a faint chemical tang. “Never hang on to a pipe,” Raffle told him hoarsely as he began grinding the starter motor. “There’s always another at the next liquor store.”

“Dagwood probably saved ’em,” said Kootie bravely.

Raffle laughed as the engine finally caught and he clanked the transmission into reverse. “Yeah,” he said, still hoarse. “He probably had all kinds of oak pipe racks, full of cans and bottles. Blondie would dust ’em, and sometimes break one of the bottles and make him real mad–I had that Corona broke in perfect, you bitch!”

Kootie laughed nervously. Raffle made a left turn onto Fourth Street and angled into the far right lane to get on the southbound 110 Freeway.

“I thought we were going to Silver Lake,” said Kootie. “Isn’t that north?”

“Detour for medical supplies.”

They got off three miles south at the Vernon Avenue exit, and Raffle parked in the empty lot of a burned-out gas station.

“The plan’s this,” he said as he rolled up the driver’s-side window. “Me and Fred will be gone for twenty minutes or so. You keep the doors locked, and if anybody tries to mess with you, just lean on the horn until they go away, right? A one-time, roll the window down and smile and say you’re waitin’ for your dad. When we get back, it’s dinnertime.”

Kootie nodded, and Raffle grinned and got out of the car. He folded the seat forward so that Fred could scramble out onto the pavement, and then the door was shut and locked and the two of them had gone loping away down the sidewalk and around a corner.

Kootie realized that Raffle was going to go spend some of the afternoon’s income on more drugs, but he never even considered getting out of the car and walking away. He remembered watching the riots on TV six months ago, and he imagined that the people around here would break his face off with bricks if they so much as saw him on the sidewalk.

He wondered what kind of food Raffle generally ate. Kootie was ready to eat just about anything at all.

He hiked up on the car seat and looked around. Dimly in the bay of the ruined gas station he could see the brown shell of a burned-up car, still raised up off the floor on the hydraulic lift; Kootie wondered if the owner had ever come by to see if any progress was being made on whatever repairs he’d brought the car in for. The tall palm trees along the sidewalks were black silhouettes against the darkening sky, and lights had begun to come on in shop windows up and down the street. Raffle’s car smelled like unbathed dog, and Kootie wished he were allowed to roll down the windows. Big speakers were playing music somewhere not too far away, but all Kootie could hear was the pounding bass and a lot of angry, rhythmic shouting.

He sat back down. The one-armed bum would no doubt show up here, tracing the smell or warped refraction or abraded air or whatever effect it was that the glass-brick thing left as a track, but Kootie and his new friend–friends, plural, counting the dog–would be long gone.

He flipped the straps of the knapsack off his shoulders and dragged it around onto his lap and unknotted the straps. Then he dug around among the clothes until he found the glass brick.

He lifted it out and turned it against the windshield, trying to see the fading daylight through the murky glass depths. The brick still clicked faintly when he turned it, as though there was something hard and transparent inside. He rocked it in time to the incomprehensible music from outside. Tick, tick, tick.

He was pretty sure he should just pitch it–toss it into the wrecked gas station and let the wrecked bum find it. Or the lady he’d seen in the Jaguar last night–“a hundred dollars for your cigar”–she could come and get it, and have her tires rotated and burned up, as long as she was here.

He gripped the glass thing in his palms the way he had on the Fairfax sidewalk this morning; again he could feel the halves of it shift when he pulled at it, and he looked nervously at the street, but none of the cars driving by stalled.

Prying hard and rocking the halves away from each other, he soon had them almost completely separated. One more tug, and the thing would be opened.

He thought again of the Robert Louis Stevenson story, the one about the demon in the bottle. Here by the burned-out gas station, though, in Raffle’s car full of Raffle’s litter, on this alien street, it no longer seemed likely that some kind of old-world monster would erupt out of the little glass box.

He lifted off the top half.

And nothing happened. Inside it, laid into a fitted cavity in the glass was . . . a test tube? A glass vial, with a tapered black-rubber stopper. He put the halves of the glass brick down on his lap and lifted out the vial.

He could see that it was empty. He found that he was disappointed, and he wondered what the vial might once have contained. Somebody’s blood, mummy dust, gold nuggets with a curse on them?

He twisted out the stopper and sniffed the vial.