Expiration Date – Snippet 21
“The little fishes of the sea,
They sent an answer back to me.”
Through the Looking-Glass
The sun was under the skirts of the dark clouds now, showing briefly on the western edge of the world before disappearing below the silhouetted hills of Pacific Palisades. Pete Sullivan was sitting by the leaded-glass window of Kendall’s Sport Time Bar, and the long, horizontal rays of sunlight glowed red in the depths of the Guinness stout in the glass on the polished table.
He was waiting for his order of appetizers–fried mozzarella with marinara sauce and Buffalo chicken wings with celery and blue cheese dressing–but he had got the stout in the meantime because a teacher at City College had once told him that Guinness contained all the nutrients required to sustain human life. It was thick and brown and rich, though, and he planned to switch to Coors Light as soon as he had emptied this glass and thus fulfilled his health duties. And this bar somehow didn’t have any smoking area at all, so his next cigarette would have to wait until he got back into the van. A healthful evening all around.
Television sets were hung at several places in the darkness under the ceiling beams, but each one seemed to be tuned to a different channel, and the ones with the sound turned up loud weren’t the ones closest to Sullivan. On the nearest screen he watched presidential candidate Bill Clinton moving his lips, while what he heard was whining electrical machinery and mechanical thumping from a farther speaker. Sullivan looked away.
His hands were still sticky from having washed them with Gojo hand-cleaning jelly at the tiny sink in the van. This morning, after driving around to pick up supplies, he had found an unfenced dirt lot east of Alameda, among the windowless plastic-works and foundries by the train tracks and the cement-walled Los Angeles River, and he had done some work on the poor old van.
The sun had still been glaring out of a clear October sky, and he had taken off his shirt and scapular and popped a beer from a fresh twelve-pack before opening the van’s back doors and dragging out his tools.
The tire pressures were low, so he hooked up a little electric air pump to the battery with his jumper cables, and crouched beside each tire in turn, puffing a cigarette and sipping the chilly beer, and watched to make sure the cable clamps didn’t touch each other as the pump wobbled and vibrated on the adobe dirt. Then he crawled under the van and dumped the oil, conscientiously draining the old black stuff into the kind of sealable plastic container that could be taken to an oil-recycling center, though unless someone was watching, he intended to leave the container right there in the middle of the field. A new oil filter, new spark plugs, and six quarts of Valvoline 20-50-weight oil finished the job.
L.A. air in the tires, he thought, and fresh oil in the engine. Nothing with any memories of fleeing Arizona–of driving to Houdini’s wrecked old place–of fearfully crossing borders. And he remembered the old notion that after some number of years every cell in a human body had been replaced, every atom, so that the body is just a wave form moving through time, incorporating just for a little while the stuff of each day; only the wave itself, and none of the transient physical bits, makes the whole trip. Even a scar would be no more significant than a wobble still visible in an ocean wave long after the wave had passed the obstruction that caused it, while the water molecules that had actually sustained the impact were left comfortably far behind.
A.O.P., Sullivan thought now as he sipped his cloying Guinness. Accelerate Outta Problems. He had always been uneasy watching people dig in–the newlyweds committing themselves to a mortgage and a roof and plumbing, the brave entrepreneur leasing a building and getting boxes and boxes of letterhead printed up. Sullivan had owned the van for five years now, but he had owned other vehicles before that, and he would own others after the van met whatever its eventual terminal problem would turn out to be; the very books on the shelf over the top bunk were a wave form–paperbacks that were bought new, became bent and ruptured and yellowed, and eventually served as ragged whiskbrooms that went out with the trash they swept up, to be replaced by new paperbacks.
Sullivan had once read some Greek philosopher quoted to the effect that no man can step into the same river twice, because it’s never again the same river, and he’s never again the same man.
Thank God for that, Sullivan thought now as he beckoned to the waitress. On the nearest television screen, in front of some shabby house draped in yellow police-line tape, a concerned-looking newsman was frowning into the camera and opening and closing his mouth, seeming, because another set was turned up loud on a different channel, to be barking like a dog while someone kept saying, “Speak!”
Sullivan looked back down at the table. It was better with just the sound. Today he had set up his portable radio and cassette deck on the van floor, and on the noon news he had heard that some giant prehistoric fish had washed up on the shore at Venice Beach, and that lobsters had crawled out of the ocean and terrified people on the shore.
So there had been a timely at Venice. That was immensely reassuring. DeLarava’s motive in going there had been just for a news story, and nothing to do with . . . anything else.
You’re not Speedy Alka-Seltzer, you won’t dissolve.
He cut off the intrusive remembered sentence before he could distinguish the voice that had (long ago) spoken it. Better to dissolve, he thought.
“And could I switch to a Coors Light now,” he said aloud, for the waitress had brought the two steaming plates to his table, and lukewarm stout wasn’t at all the thing for washing down garlic and Tabasco and blue cheese. “In fact,” he added, “could I have two of them.”
One of them to drink in memory of the surely dissolved ghost of Sukie, he thought.
Now that his head was ringing slightly with alcohol, he was comfortably sure that the wave form that had been his sister was safely dispersed and flattened out, and not carrying on past the death of the body that had maintained it. DeLarava only went to Venice today because her job happened to take her there, he told himself, and all the ghosts are laid.
Let it all dissolve. Scarf this hasty late lunch or early dinner, call Steve and go over to his house for a few more beers, and then just get out of L.A. All the old dirty shit is cleaned out of the van’s works, and you’ve surely cleared all the old guilts and uncertainties out of your soul just by coming back here and looking around at the outgrown home town.
Vera, vidi, exii, he thought, quoting another motto of Sukie’s. I came, I saw, I left.
The sound vibrating out of the nearest speaker was some kind of mulitudinous roar like a crowded stadium, but on the nearest screen he could now see a beach, breezy basketball courts, a crowd of people in swimming suits standing and craning their necks . . . a brightly sunlit scene, not live.
Jarringly, it was Venice Beach–but obviously this was just a recap of the prehistoric fish story. Perhaps this film clip was deLarava’s work. Sullivan’s two beers arrived then, and with one of the chilly glasses clamped in his palm he was able to keep on looking up at the TV screen.
And a deep slug of cold beer helped him hang on to his mood of serenity. I can look at films of Venice Beach now, he thought steadily. All the old ghosts are laid.
As soon as the televised scene was replaced by a view of some new car leaning fast around rural roads, he drained the beer and took the other one with him as he got up–the food could wait–and walked back through the crowded tables to the hallway where the telephones and the restrooms were.
He dropped a handful of change on the wood floor, retrieved most of it and thumbed a quarter into the pay-phone slot, then punched in the remembered number.
Above belt-level wainscoting, the wallpaper was furry red velvet–and it fleetingly occurred to him that in spite of the beamed ceiling and the etched glass partitions around the booths, this place was probably too new for deLarava to find it worthwhile snuffling a straw in these corners.
The phone at the other, end was ringing, and then it was picked up. “That you, Pete?” came a gasping voice.
“Sure is. Steve? I’m–”
“Where are you calling from, man?” Away from the phone he snapped, “I’m fine, dammit!” to someone.
“Well, I’m in a bar–in Westwood, I think, on Wilshire. A ‘sports bar,’ with TV sets hung all over the place, every one on a different channel. Loud. I can’t wait to get to your place. And I don’t think I’ll be spending the night after all. I gotta get back to Arizona–”
“Okay, listen, I just this second dumped a whole panful of Beans Jaime dip all over myself, and it’s damn hot. I’ve got to get back in the shower. Stay there for another half-hour or so, okay?”
“No problem, I’ve got some snacks–”
“Cool. That’s good then. Shit, this stuff is like napalm! How’s–I meant to ask, how’s Sukie?”
Sullivan was glad that he had thought to bring a beer with him. After chugging a series of gulps, he gasped, “Fine. No, she’s–well, I think she’s dead.”
“Jesus. You think?” After a pause, Steve said, “I always liked her. Well! Do something sentimental for me? Have a Kahlua and milk for me, in her memory, will you do that? Promise?”
It had been Sukie’s favored breakfast drink. Sullivan nodded dutifully, imagining dumping Kahlua and milk into his stomach on top of the Guinness. He realized that Steve couldn’t hear a nod, and said, “Okay, Steve. So, what’s your address? I don’t need directions, I’ve got a Thomas Brothers guide.”
Steve gave him an address on La Grange Avenue, and Sullivan hung up and returned to his table.
The fried mozzarella had cooled off, but the Buffalo wings were still hot, and he dipped them in the marinara sauce as often as in the blue cheese dressing. When the waitress came by again, he ordered two more beers . . . and a Kahlua and milk, though he resolved to let the drink stand as a gesture rather than drink it.
He got hungrier as he diminished the fresh beers and ate the snacks, and after gnawing at the chicken bones he began chewing up the rehardened mozzarella. Just as he was considering ordering something else, maybe the Nachos Grande, the waitress walked up and told him he had a call at the bar.
He blinked up at her. “I doubt it,” he said. “Who did they ask for?”
“A guy drinking a Kahlua and milk. You haven’t touched it, but I figure you’re who they want.”
That has to be Steve, somehow, Sullivan thought uneasily as he pushed back his chair and weaved his way between the tables to the bar, on which a white telephone sat with the receiver lying next to it. He was reminded of the call he’d got at O’Hara’s, back in Roosevelt, the call from Sukie that had started this pointless–no, this cathartic–odyssey, and after he had nervously picked up the receiver and said “Hello?” he was relieved to find that the voice on the other end was not Sukie’s again. Then he realized that he hadn’t listened to what this woman had said.
“I said, is this Pete Sullivan,” she said angrily.
“Yes. Are you somebody at Steve’s house? I–”
“This is Steve’s wife, and I’m at a pay-phone. He scalded himself dumping that dip on his leg! And in his hair! Intentionally! To have an excuse to give me a shopping list and get out of the house so I could call you from somewhere where those men wouldn’t hear! Here’s his note for you, his ‘shopping list’: Pete—Call me back and say you cannot make it over to my house, please, Pete. And don’t say on the line where you’re going, and get out of there. Whatever it is, they want you alive. I’ve got a wife and kids. Good luck, but don’t call me again ever after this next call. That’s his note, okay? This is the third damn sports bar on Wilshire that I’ve called, and now I’ve got to go to some store and buy some more frijoles and Jack cheese and stuff, even though I know we’re not going to be making more Beans Jaime, thank God, just so this shopping trip will look genuine to those men! They’ll leave when you call and tell them you can’t come over, so call. And then just leave us alone!”
“Okay,” he said softly, though she had hung up. The waitress was standing nearby, watching him, so he smiled at her and said, “Can I make a local call?” When she shrugged and nodded, he went on, “And could I have another Coors Light.”
Again, he punched in Steve’s number and, again, Steve answered it quickly. “Steve,” Sullivan said, “this is Pete. I’m calling from a different bar, I’m up on Hollywood Boulevard now. Listen, man. I just won’t be able to make it by tonight. And, ah, I’m gonna be leaving town–I’ll catch you next trip, okay? Next year some time, probably.”
As he carried his fresh beer back toward his table he wondered, without being able to care very much, if Steve’s regrets had sounded any more sincere to “those men” than they had to Pete.
He was looking down and carefully watching each of his shoes in turn catch his forward-moving weight, for his spine was as tense as if he were walking along the top of a high wall.
He sat down heavily in his chair at last, and, just in case, hid the glass of Kahlua and milk under his tented napkin.
Those would be deLarava’s men, he thought dully.
And I can drink all night long, or run to the van and drive to Alaska, and it won’t change the obvious fact that she is planning, again, to–
He inhaled, drained the beer, and then dizzily exhaled.
–She is again planning to consume my father’s ghost. For some reason, she can’t just let him rest in peace.
She went to Venice today because of the fish business, sure, but the fishes must have been acting up because my father’s ghost is coming back out of the sea; right there in Venice, where he drowned thirty-three years ago. Right back where it started from, he sang in his head,
DeLarava would like to have me–alive–as a lure. Not as part of a mask, the way Sukie and I used to work, but, for this one, as a lure.
With a shudder of revulsion, Sullivan remembered how fat and youthful and happy deLarava always was after sucking in some ghost through one of her sparking clove cigarettes.
Presumably one ghost was as good as another . . . so why was she again going after his father’s? On that Christmas Eve in 1986, Pete and Sukie had both been uneasy with the fact of being physically present in Venice Beach, especially with deLarava, for it had been in the Venice surf that their father had drowned in 1959, when the twins had been seven–but it wasn’t until well after noon, in the instant when Sukie had spilled the contents of the shoebox deLarava had brought along, that he and Sukie had known what ghost was indeed that day’s particular quarry. DeLarava had probably been hoping to consummate the inhalation without the twins even suspecting, but the exposed wallet and key ring had been, horribly and unmistakably, their father’s.
The old man had drowned, and they hadn’t been there. And then Loretta deLarava had tried to eat the old man’s ghost, and–as Pete Sullivan had realized only after having driven far up the featureless Interstate 5 toward San Francisco, and as Sukie must have realized at some point during her own flight–they had fled without taking away the wallet and the keys.
Sullivan held the cold beer glass tightly to keep his hands from shaking, and his face was cold and sweaty. In that instant, he completely understood, and completely envied, Sukie’s suicide.
She’d had to do it. How could you hide forever in a bottle?–unless you became transparent yourself. Dissolved (–like Speedy Alka-Seltzer–) so that you were a waveform propagated all the way out beyond any scraps of physical material, even compass needles, that might move in response to the fact of you and thus betray your presence.
(He couldn’t think about the three cans of Hires Root Beer that had also fallen out of the shoebox, one of which had rolled right up to his foot and sprayed a tiny forlorn jet of ancient brown pop across his shoe, but) he knew in the tightening back of his throat that he and his sister had betrayed their father on that day, that chilly winter of 1986 day, by running mindlessly away and leaving the tokens of their father’s ghost in deLarava’s hands.
But I’m still alive, he thought, and I’m back in L.A. I’ve got to save him from her. And I can’t possibly face him.
“–the ghosts of dead family members,” said a placid male voice from one of the television speakers, “but police investigators speculate that the apparently supernatural effects were caused by some electrical or gas-powered apparatus that may have exploded and caught fire, causing the blaze that gutted the psychiatric clinic and killed three of Dr. Elizalde’s patients. Several others still to this day remain hospitalized for psychological trauma sustained during that Halloween tragedy.”
Sullivan looked up at the nearest screen, but saw only football players running across a green field. He pushed his chair back and turned around, and on one of the farther sets saw a blond man in a suit standing behind a news-show podium. As Sullivan watched, the studio set was replaced with a still photo of a slim, dark-haired woman standing with raised eyebrows and an open mouth in a doorway. Her eyes were shut.
That looks like a bar-time snapshot, Sullivan thought as a chill prickled the back of his neck. Whoever this woman is, she seems to have anticipated the flash.
“And today,” the newsman’s voice went on, “nearly two years after that scam-gone-wrong, Dr. Elizalde is reportedly back in Los Angeles. Police say that this morning she went to the Amado Street house of Margarita Gonzalvez, the widow of one of the patients who died in the so-called sÃ©ance, and drew a handgun and fired four shots! Mrs. Gonzalvez was able to snap this photograph of Elizalde shortly before the discredited psychiatrist allegedly began shooting. Police are investigating reports that Elizalde may subsequently have bought a disguise and stolen a car.”
The scene changed back to the newscaster in the studio, who had now been joined by another blond man in a suit. ” ‘Physician, heal thyself,’ ” said the newcomer solemnly. “A tragic story of misplaced faith, Tom.”
“Certainly is, Ed,” agreed the grave newscaster. “Though medical authorities now believe that many of the folk remedies dispensed at these curanderias and hierverias can actually be beneficial. It’s the charlatans who prey on credulity, and exaggerate the reasonable claims, who give the whole field a bad name.”
The newsmen were apparently segueing into a topical Halloween-related story about the upcoming Day of the Dead celebrations in the local Hispanic communities, and shortly they switched to film clips of stylized papier-machÃ© skulls waving on poles, and dancing people wearing black and white face makeup and wreaths of marigolds. Sullivan turned back to his table, frowning at the spooklike figure of the napkin-draped drink. The dead woman’s drink, the suicide’s drink. He wasn’t going to touch it.
Apparently, this psychiatrist’s catastrophic “so-called sÃ©ance” had been big news two years ago. Sullivan never read newspapers, so he hadn’t heard about it.
She held a sÃ©ance at her psychiatric clinic, he thought; on Halloween, a dangerous night even for a sÃ©ance that might not have been meant to get real supernatural effects. And something sure enough happened–the surviving patients apparently saw “dead family members,” and then there were fires and explosions or something, and three of her patients died. (Of course, the police would assume that the disaster was caused by some kind of goofy “apparatus” blowing up.)
If she is on bar-time, as that photo implies, it’s certainly no wonder–she’s now got ghosts guilt-linked to her, like all of us ghost-sensitives.
Sullivan had gathered from the news story that Dr. Elizalde had fled Los Angeles after the fire and the deaths. Why had she come back now, at another Halloween? Not to shoot at that widow, it seemed to him–if there was shooting, it was probably aimed at Elizalde. Elizalde probably came back here in some idiot attempt to . . . set things right.
Apologize to all of them, living and dead.
But . . .
It sounds to me as though she really can raise ghosts, he thought. Whether she’s happy with it or not, it sounds as though she’s a genuine, if accidentally ordained, medium.
She could probably raise the ghost of my father, and I could–insulated from him, at a medium distance, speaking through a screen like a shameful penitent in a confessional–warn him.
His heart was beating faster. Elizalde, he thought. Remember the name.
She’ll be hiding now, but I’ll bet she won’t leave L.A. until after Halloween, until after her Quixotic amends are impossible again. She’ll be hiding, but I’ll bet I can find her.
He smiled bleakly into his empty beer glass.
After all, she’s one of us.
Outside, in the westbound left lane of Wilshire Boulevard, a 1960 Cadillac Fleetwood slowed to a stop at the Westwood intersection.
Behind the wheel, Neal Obstadt could see that all the other drivers had their headlights on, so he reached out carefully and switched on his own. He liked to be the last.
A cellular telephone was wedged under his jaw, and in his right hand he held a Druid Circle oatmeal cookie from Trader Joe’s. “You don’t need to be fretting about over costs, Loretta,” he said absently into the phone. “Your location accountant’s an anal-retentive, and the production reports always balance. You’ve got the insurance and permissions. Worry about something else, if you’ve got to worry.”
Obstadt had had various business dealings with deLarava for years, and he knew that this anxiety was what she called “checking the gates”–a cameraman’s term for a last-minute, finicky checking of the lens for dust or hair. Still, he could hear her sniffling–and she’d been crying on the phone this morning, too–and it occurred to him that this agitation was out of proportion for the modest ghosts-on-the-Queen-Mary shoot she had scheduled for Saturday.
“You having a bad hair day, Loretta?” he asked. “Your big manhunt suffer a setback?” The light turned green, and he accelerated west, toward the elevated arch of the 405.
“What did you have to do with that?” shrilled her voice out of the phone. “He isn’t really leaving the state, is he?”
Obstadt blinked, and smiled as he took a bite of the cookie. “Who, Topper?” he said around the mouthful. “Spooky, I mean–your Nicky Bradshaw. He left the state? I had nothing to do with it, I swear. I never even liked the show.”
“Oh, Bradshaw,” she said, her quick anger deflating. “My . . . manhunts are doing just fine, thank you. I’ve got one snatch working right now that’s going to be costing me twenty grand.”
“Good for you, kid, the big time at last.” Obstadt glanced at the taped-shut Marlboro carton on the seat beside him. Twenty grand for a washed-up old prehistoric fish? he thought. Or did you give up on the fish? I’m spending forty grand to finance a snatch, buy the access to somebody else’s snatch–but forty grand for a thousand primo smokes is the bargain of a lifetime. Jeez, though, cash!–in a cigarette carton that I’ve got to hand to some guy from the phone exchange, just for rerouting their reward listing of that missing Sockit Hoomie boy! The exchange people are reliable, but who, really, is this Sherman Oaks person? His ass’ll be smoke, if he hoses me on this. “So who is it that slipped through your fingers tonight?” Obstadt said into the phone.
“If everybody minded their own business,” sniffed deLarava, “the world would go round a deal faster than it does.”
Obstadt suspected that her line was a quote from one of the Alice-in-Wonderland books. Loretta liked old smokes that had hung around hotel lobbies for decades: Obstadt preferred them fresh. It was the old ones that quoted Alice all the time. Among the solid old bum-smokes on the street, the Alice stuff seemed almost to be scripture.
He was driving between the broad dark lawns of the Veterans Administration grounds now, with the Federal Building to his left and the cemetery to his right.
“Is it that fish?” he asked, taking another bite of the cookie. “Did you get outbid by the fish market man at Canter’s?” So much for your bid to be the Fisher Queen, he thought–in spite of all your vegetarianism, and your ‘youth treatments’, and your Velcro instead of buttons and topologically compromising buttonholes.
“What are you eating?” deLarava demanded. “Don’t speak while you’re chewing, you’re getting crumbs in my ear.”
“Through the phone? I doubt it, Loretta.” Obstadt was laughing, and in fact spraying crumbs onto his lap. “It’s probably dead fleas. Don’t you wear a flea collar under your hair?”
“Jesus, it’s sand! Grains of sand! Has he been whispering to me while I napped? But I’ll eat him–“
The line clicked. She had hung up.
He replaced the phone in the console cradle, and his smile unkinked as he drove under the freeway overpass, the cemetery behind him now. You spend all day at the beach, Loretta, he thought, you shouldn’t be surprised to find sand in your ear.
Loretta was crazy, beyond any doubt. But–
Something big had happened two nights ago, at around sundown; he had had to excuse himself from dinner at Rusty’s Hacienda in Glendale and go stand on the sidewalk and just breathe deeply and stare at the pavement, for all the ghosts he’d snorted up over the years were clamoring so riotously in his mind that he couldn’t hear anything else; the Santa Ana wind had strewn the lanes of Western Avenue with palm fronds, and Obstadt had squinted almost fearfully southwest, over the dark hills of Griffith Park, wondering who it was that had so abruptly arrived on the west coast psychscape.
The intensity had faded–but now the street-smokes were all jabbering and eating dirt, and some kind of dinosaur had washed up in Venice, and deLarava couldn’t stop crying.
Loretta’s a clown, he had said this morning. She wins chips in this low-level game, but never cashes ’em in to move up to a bigger table; still, some big chips do sometimes slide across her table; and she’s all excited about one now.
He stomped the gas pedal furiously to the floor, and bared his teeth at the sudden roar of the engine as acceleration weighted him back against the seat.
The fish? he thought; some Jonah inside the fish? The guy that maybe left the state? Nicky Bradshaw?