That day of carnage, I was just a fry cook in over my head. Almost a year and a half later, in Magic Beach, I was still a fry cook in over my head.
Now more than ever.
Wyatt Porter, the chief of police in Pico Mundo, was not only a friend of mine but also one of my father figures. He had taught me how to be a man when my real father proved not to be much of one himself and incapable of showing a son the way. I had unofficially assisted Chief Porter on several difficult cases, and he knew about my paranormal senses.
If I called him and told him what had happened, he would believe everything I said. His experiences with me had taught him that no matter how unlikely a story of mine sounded, it would prove to be true in all details.
I doubted that every police officer in Magic Beach would prove to be corrupt. The great majority would be fine men doing good work, flawed humans of course but not monsters. Hoss Shackett would have recruited a cell of traitors as small as the job required, to ensure against discovery.
Wyatt Porter, however, lived a long way south and east of here. He did not know any of the players in Magic Beach. He would have no way of identifying a straight arrow among the bent ones in the local police department.
He might be able to contact the FBI and report information about a delivery of nuclear weapons through the harbor at Magic Beach, but federal agents were slow to take small-town cops seriously. And when Wyatt had to identify the source of his report as his supernaturally gifted young friend, he would forfeit all credibility.
Besides, only a little more than two hours remained until the deed would be done, the bombs off-loaded and shipped to various points of the compass. I was entering Act 3 of the drama, and I had the feeling that God had pushed the FAST FORWARD button.
Gradually I became aware of a continuous susurration, like the soft voice of a thin flow of water sliding over a lightly textured surface.
I surveyed the dreary stores behind me. No source for the sound was evident.
The mannequins had not moved in the window of the used-clothing shop. As I made that observation, I wondered why I had expected that they might have changed positions.
The store awnings were tattered and not as taut as they ought to have been. They swagged like funeral bunting, but no water drizzled from them.
The mysterious sound swelled into something more like numerous whispering voices echoing through a cavernous space.
Although the fog denied me a clear view of the shops across the street, I was pretty sure this noise originated closer at hand.
In front of me, in the gutter, light rippled from right to left, and right to left again: Halloween light here in January, like the flickering orange of a candle reflecting off the carved flesh inside a jack-o’-lantern’s hollow head.
They said that curiosity killed the cat, and I had seen enough feline road kill to confirm that diagnosis. Nevertheless, I got up from the bench and took a step forward to the curb.
In the pavement, a large rectangular grate covered a drain. It dated from an era when even public works had style. The parallel iron bars joined to a four-inch iron ring in the center of the rectangle. Captured within the ring, a stylized iron lightning bolt angled from right to left.
The susurration issued from the grating. Although the source lay in the drain, the sound no longer suggested water in motion. Now I thought it was also less like people whispering than it had been, and instead like the shuffling of many feet.
The elegance of the encircled lightning bolt appealed to me, but I wondered if it represented something other than foul weather, if it was the logo of the maker, that it should have been incorporated in a drain cover.
Grinning-pumpkin light flickered below the patterned ironwork, through the culvert that lay under the street. For a moment, the drain cover seemed like a perforated furnace door.
Standing, I was too far from the grating to discern the source of the quick spasms of luminosity. I stepped off the curb and knelt beside the ironwork.
Shoe leather sliding on concrete might have made such a sound, a platoon of weary soldiers dragging their heavy feet, bound from one battle to another—if this had been a war zone and if soldiers had been in the habit of traveling underground.
I lowered my face closer to the grating.
A faint cool draft rose from below and with it an odor, not one that I recalled having smelled before, not offensive, but peculiar. Foreign. A curiously dry scent, considering from where it came. I took three deep breaths, trying to identify the source—then realized that the odor had raised the fine hairs on the back of my neck.
When the orange light came a third time, I expected to see what, if anything, moved through the culvert. But each throb chased twisted shadows across the curved walls, and those leaping phantoms confused the eye, obscuring whatever cast them.
Perhaps I unconsciously worried my split lip with my tongue or bit it. Although it had not been bleeding, a fresh drop of blood fell on the back of my right hand, which rested on the grating beside the ring that encircled the lightning bolt.
Another drop passed through a gap and fell into the dark storm drain.
My hand seemed to have found its way to the grating without my conscious guidance.
Once more the light pulsed below, rapid diastole and systole, and the grotesque shadows appeared to swell larger than before, to thrash with greater agitation, although their provenance remained concealed.
When the fluttering light gave way to blackness again, I saw that the fingers of my right hand were straining to reach through the grate.
I registered this fact with concern, but I felt powerless to retract my hand. Something more than curiosity drew me, and I felt as perhaps a light-sodden moth feels as it beats its wings against the flame that will destroy them.
As I considered resting my brow against the ironwork, the better to see the truth that lay below when next the light came, I heard a sigh of brakes. A car, to which I had been oblivious, stopped in the street, immediately behind me.
AS IF COMING OUT OF A TRANCE, I ROSE FROM the drain grating and turned, expecting a squad car and a couple of officers with hard smiles and harder truncheons.
Instead, before me stood a 1959 Cadillac Sedan DeVille that could have rolled off the showroom floor an hour previously. Massive, black, loaded with chrome detail, featuring big tail fins, it looked suitable for either interstate or interstellar travel.
The driver peered at me through the front passenger window, which she had put down. She appeared to be half again as old as the car, a heavyset, blue-eyed, pink-cheeked lady with a huge church-choir bosom. She wore white gloves and a little gray hat with a yellow band and yellow feathers.
You all right, child? she asked.
I leaned down to the open window. Yes, ma’am.
You lose somethin’ through the grating?
Yes, ma’am. I lied because I had no idea what had happened—or had almost happened. But it wasn’t anything important.
She cocked her head, studied me for a moment, and said, It wasn’t unimportant, neither. You seem like a boy needs a friend.
Below the nearby lightning-bolt grate, the storm drain remained dark.
What happened to your lip? the woman asked.
A disagreement over singers. Rod Stewart or Sinatra.
Sinatra, she said.
That was my position, ma’am. I glanced at a pawnshop, then at the mannequins in used clothing. The fog has me confused. I don’t recognize this part of town.
Where you goin’?
To the harbor.
I’m goin’ that way, she said. Give you a lift?
You shouldn’t pick up strangers, ma’am.
Folks I know all have cars. Most won’t walk to the end of the block to see a parade of elephants. I don’t pick up strangers, who am I gonna pick up?
I got in the car, closed the door, and said, I was almost trampled by an elephant once.
Putting up the power window, she said, They go mad sometimes. Just like people. Though they don’t tend to shoot up classrooms and leave crazy videos behind.
This wasn’t the elephant’s fault, I said. A bad man injected Jumbo with drugs to enrage him, then locked the two of us in a barn.
I’ve known bad men in my time, she said, but none that ever schemed to do homicide by elephant. Why do they always have to name them Jumbo?
A sad lack of imagination in the circus, ma’am.
She took her foot off the brake, and the car drifted forward. Name’s Birdena Hopkins. Folks just call me Birdie. What do folks call you?
Harry. Harry Lime.
A nice clean name. Crisp. Conjures nice thoughts. Pleased to meet you, Harry Lime.
Thank you, Birdie. Likewise.
On both sides of the street, the shops appeared to recede into the fog, as though they were ships outbound from Magic Beach to even stranger shores.
You from around here? Birdie asked.
Visiting, ma’am. Thought I might stay. Not so sure now.
Not a bad town, she said. Though way too many tourists come for the spring harvest festival.
They harvest something in the spring around here?
No. Used to be two festivals, they combined them into one. Now each spring at plantin’ time, they celebrate the harvest to come in the autumn.
I didn’t think this was farm country.
It’s not. What we do is we celebrate the concept of harvest, whatever that means. Town’s always been run by an inbred bunch of fools, our foundin’ families.
The buildings had sailed beyond sight. Here and there, a blush of neon remained, but those signs were incoherent now, the glass words having shattered into meaningless syllables of nebulous color.
Birdie said, What’s your line of work, Harry?
Fry cook, ma’am.
Fell in love with a fry cook once. Beans Burnet, short-order wizard. A dream, that man.
We fry cooks tend to be romantic.
In Beans’s case, not enough. He loved his pancakes and home fries more than women. Worked all the time.
In his defense, Birdie, it’s an enchanting occupation. You can lose yourself in it.
Sure liked the way he smelled.
Beef fat and bacon grease, I said.
She sighed. Fried onions and green peppers. You don’t measure up to Beans in smell, Harry.
I’ve had a different kind of job the past month, ma’am. I’ll be back at the griddle eventually. I sure do miss it.
Then came Fred, my life mate, and I forgot all about fry cooks. No offense.
Birdie changed streets at a shrouded intersection of which I had been unaware until she pulled the steering wheel to the right.
Having been engineered to isolate the driver from the roughness of the pavement, the big sedan rode like a boat. Sloshing tides of fog enhanced the perception that, with wheels retracted, the Cadillac wallowed along Venetian canals.
Although Birdie Hopkins drove below the speed limit, we were moving too fast for the dismal visibility.
Ma’am, should we really be driving blind?
You might be ridin’ blind, child, but I’m drivin’ with sunny-day confidence. Been cruisin’ this town almost sixty years. Never had an accident. Weather like this, we have the streets to ourselves, so they’re even safer. When the sick and sufferin’ need me, I don’t say they gotta wait till mornin’ comes or till the rain stops.
Are you a nurse, ma’am?
Never had time for school. Me and Fred were in garbage.
I’m sorry to hear that.
Collection, I mean. Started with two trucks and no fear our hands might get dirty. Ended with a fleet, sole contractor for six towns along the coast. Garbage is like sunrise—never stops comin’.
You can get rich doin’ work others won’t. Garbage was gold.
A lot of times, I said, when a restaurant’s really busy, there’s a lot of stress being a fry cook.
Don’t doubt that for a second.
I’ve thought about switching into tire sales or shoes. Is the garbage business stressful?
Sometimes for management. For a route driver, it’s so the same day after day, it gets to be like meditation.
Like meditation, yet you’re providing a good service. Sounds real nice.
Fred died seven years ago, I sold out two years later. You want, child, I can still open doors in the garbage world.
That’s generous, ma’am. I might take you up on that one day.
You’d be a good route driver. Can’t look down on the job and be any good. I can tell you don’t look down on anyone.
That’s kind of you to say. The reason I wondered if you were a nurse is, before garbage, you mentioned the sick and suffering.
As if receiving directions beamed from a MapQuest satellite to her brain, Birdie turned left into a billowing white wall, and the Cadillac wallowed into a new canal.
She glanced at me, turned her attention to the invisible street, reached one hand up to adjust her feathered hat, glanced at me again, pulled to the curb, and put the car in park.
Harry, somethin’ about you is too different. I can’t do this the usual way. Feel like I should get right to it, say I didn’t come to you by chance.
She left the engine running but switched off the headlights.
Fathoms of fog pressed upon the car, so it seemed as though we rested on the floor of a sea.
You were a twinge before you were a face, Birdie said. For all I knew, you’d be another Nancy with cancer or like a Bodi Booker makin’ hot cocoa for suicide.
She waited for me to reply, so at last I said, Ma’am, I think maybe the fog got in my head, because I can’t see any sense in what you just told me.
What I think, she said, you’re in worse trouble than just a Swithin flat busted from bad romance.
BIRDIE HOPKINS TOOK OFF HER WHITE GLOVES. She slipped one over the gearshift knob and one over the turn-signal lever, so that the Cadillac seemed to be waving at me.
Seventy-eight years old, still a hot flash now and then. But it’s not the slowest change of life in history. Been done with all that long ago. Has something to do with the twinges.
From the large purse that stood on the seat between us, Birdie withdrew a Japanese fan, unfolded it, and fanned her plump face.
Fred died, it started.
Seven years ago, I said.
Love somebody from when you’re nineteen, one day he’s the same as ever, next day dead. So many tears, they seem to wash somethin’ out of you, they leave this emptiness.
Loss is the hardest thing, I said. But it’s also the teacher that’s the most difficult to ignore.
Her fanning hand went still. She regarded me with an expression that I took to be surprised agreement.
Because Birdie seemed to expect me to elucidate, I fumbled out what I thought she might want to say herself: Grief can destroy you—or focus you. You can decide a relationship was all for nothing if it had to end in death, and you alone. Or you can realize that every moment of it had more meaning than you dared to recognize at the time, so much meaning it scared you, so you just lived, just took for granted the love and laughter of each day, and didn’t allow yourself to consider the sacredness of it. But when it’s over and you’re alone, you begin to see it wasn’t just a movie and a dinner together, not just watching sunsets together, not just scrubbing a floor or washing dishes together or worrying over a high electric bill. It was everything, it was the why of life, every event and precious moment of it. The answer to the mystery of existence is the love you shared sometimes so imperfectly, and when the loss wakes you to the deeper beauty of it, to the sanctity of it, you can’t get off your knees for a long time, you’re driven to your knees not by the weight of the loss but by gratitude for what preceded the loss. And the ache is always there, but one day not the emptiness, because to nurture the emptiness, to take solace in it, is to disrespect the gift of life.