Authors: Scott O'Connor
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
The houses on the street were so close together that it was hard to believe the entire block hadn’t caught fire, that the flames hadn’t leapt across the street, shot out up the hill toward Sunset, toward The Kid’s house. The Kid tried to imagine the scene as Michelle had described it, the satellite trucks, the newswoman from Channel Two. It seemed impossible that the fire had been contained in such a small space.
No one had survived. The Kid knew this. Michelle had been right. No other conclusion could be drawn by looking at the house. Someone had been inside and hadn’t gotten out. He just had to look at the house to know.
He wondered what would happen to the house next. Somebody would come and tear it down, he guessed. Bulldozers, dump trucks, men with shovels. They’d knock over what was left, haul it away. Spread new dirt across the lot, build another house. Once the smell was gone, once the people on the street had moved away or died, no one would know the house had even been here. No one would know what had happened, what had been left.
He looked around to make sure that no one was watching, then he stepped to the side of the house, placed his hand against the outside wall. He wasn’t sure why he was doing this, what he expected. What he thought it would feel like. It was strange, what it felt like. It felt like a body, like a human being, like a person’s side, their ribcage, breathing slowly, in and out, settling down after something scary, something awful. It felt soft, it felt fragile. It felt warm.
Midnight in Van Nuys. The flat, still depths of the San Fernando Valley. They drove the vans down the narrow aisles of a vast public storage facility, between rows of low, identical garages, their headlights sweeping across the steel doors, gravel crunching under their tires, deeper in, down rows with more garages, through long stretches of darkness between security lights, peering out the vans’ windows, looking for numbers above the doors. Bob was in the first van, following a makeshift map Mrs. Fowler had drawn on the work order, as per the caller’s directions. Darby and Roistler were in the second van, trailing close behind.
Their headlights found him standing in front of a garage door in the middle of a row, smoking a cigarette, coughing into the crook of his elbow. Young guy, dark-featured and heavy-lidded, wearing a baggy gray jogging suit, a thick gold chain around his neck, a Yankees ball cap pulled low over his eyes. He did this weird thing where he slapped the hood of each van as it came to a stop in front of the garage, a quick blast with the heel of his hand as if he were congratulating them for winning a race.
“It’s about fucking time,” he said. “How long have I been standing here? Two hours, at least.”
Bob checked the work order on his clipboard, turned his wrist to look at his watch. “You Tino?”
“Forty-seven minutes,” Bob said. “Call placed to our dispatcher just after eleven pm.”
“Look, Bob, give me a break, okay? I’ve been standing out here for I don’t know how long with this fucking
back there in the unit.”
“The coroner didn’t take the body?”
“The coroner took the body, Bob, but there’s still a hell of a lot of him in there.” Tino tossed his cigarette, knelt down next to the padlock on the door. “I locked it back up,” he said. “I locked it back up, and then I thought, Why am I locking it back up? That mess isn’t going anywhere on its own.”
“Have you been in contact with the owner of the facility?” Bob said.
“The owner of the facility’s my father. The owner of the facility’s on vacation. Cops wanted to know that, too.
Can we get in contact with the owner of the facility?
” Tino unlatched the padlock, pulled it from the door. “I told them to come back in a week, he’ll be here. In the meantime I’ve got to get this shit cleaned up. I said, What do I do? Go get a mop? The cops said,
Try the Yellow Pages. Contaminated Waste Disposal
. I thought they were fucking joking with me. Then I saw your ad.”
Tino lifted the garage door, flipped on the overhead light, covered his nose with the sleeve of his jogging suit. Bob stepped inside the unit. Within a few seconds, Darby could see the flash of the Polaroid.
“The coroner said it happened a week ago, at least,” Tino said. “Told me before he even saw the body.”
“Thank you,” Bob said. “That’s fine.”
“He said he could tell by looking at the flies. He could tell by looking at the number of maggots, at the generations of maggots, if you can believe that shit.”
“That’s fine,” Bob said. “That’s all the information we’ll need.”
They suited up and walked through the site. There were two connected units, and there had been some movement back and forth. Things had spread, dripped, dragged. The units were set up as an apartment almost, a living room with a thrift store couch and coffee table and TV, a bedroom with a small army cot, an exercise bike, throw rugs on the cement floor. Tino said this happened sometimes, even though it was against the rules of the facility. People came to live, quietly, kicked out by their wives or landlords. They set their stuff up in their units and went on with their lives, went to work, went to the gym, came back here to watch TV and sleep. Tino said it wasn’t common, but it wasn’t exactly uncommon, either.
They started with the second unit, the bedroom. Bob turned on the TV, all night news, something to drown out the spraying and scrubbing and Roistler’s incessant chatter. There was more footage of the Tehachapi compound, a shaky, long-range shot of a pair of sheriff’s deputies walking the dirt road up to the fence, speaking with two men on the other side. After a minute the camera moved away from the conversation, panning the compound, searching the spaces between structures, hastily focusing and unfocusing, looking for something more interesting, finally coming to rest on a spot beside one of the smaller buildings, a swing set and slide, a short row of childrens’ bicycles.
Tino paced outside the unit while they worked, in and out of the glow of a security light, kicking the gravel, chain smoking, talking loudly on his cell phone about what he’d found.
At about four in the morning, they took a meal break, got breakfast at a diner near the freeway onramp. Bob and Roistler debated the Tehachapi situation, armchair quarterbacking the authorities’ next move. Roistler said they should just leave the survivalists alone, they had rights, let them do what they wanted. Bob said that was all well and good, but he’d seen the TV shots of the bikes and if it turned out that kids were inside the compound then the state was going to get involved, there were no two ways around it.
Darby half-listened to the debate, ate his pancakes, sipped his coffee. Barely any traffic outside, just a few headlights on the freeway. This was the time of night he’d often come home to find Lucy sitting at the kitchen table, unable to sleep. She’d have made instant coffee, standing by the stove, ready to pull the pot before it whistled so as not to wake The Kid. She wrote out lesson plans or read a magazine or just sat at the table, hands around the warm mug, waiting for him to get home.
They’d sit and talk in low tones, in whispers. She’d ask him about the night, about everything other than the details of the job, about Bob and Roistler and Molina, the whole strange crew. About where he’d been, out in the sleeping city. There wasn’t a part of town he hadn’t been to, a neighborhood he didn’t know. His easy intimacy with the place fascinated her. She still felt like a visitor after a decade and a half, still got turned around in the stretching maze of streets and freeways, kept a gaggle of maps in her purse, stopped and asked for directions more often than she liked to admit. The names of surrounding towns still sounded beautiful to her Midwestern ears, exotic and bright: La Mirada, La Cañada, Montebello.
She talked about everything other than why she wasn’t able to sleep. She didn’t like to recount the dreams that had woken her, the thoughts that kept her up. At the kitchen table she wanted to be distracted. She wanted him to talk, to guide them both to morning, to sunrise and safety, the start of a normal day. He’d ask what was bothering her and she’d shake her head, smile tightly, request a story about the desert, another of his stories about growing up in what she thought was the strangest place of all.
He’d tell her about the one-gas-station-town, the dusty trailer park, the freezing nights, the daytime heat so unrelenting he’d had to wear gloves to open the tin mailbox at the end of the road. He’d tell her about the sight of vacationing families on their way to Vegas, motoring through town without slowing, without so much as a look out their windows. About the brave few who pulled over to the side of the road to admire the heat, stepping out of their air-conditioned station wagons just long enough to snap a quick picture of the bleak Martian landscape, the mirages in the dips in the asphalt that shimmered like standing water. He’d tell her about the mysterious blue mountains in the distance, an hour’s hike away, the borax mines and relay antennae. The abandoned Air Force base where he and his friends hopped the fence and rode their bikes up and down the crumbling cement stairwells. Hours spent this way, entire days, skipping school, exploring the vacated barracks, looking for rattlesnakes and scorpions, drinking pilfered booze, smoking contraband Kools.
He’d tell her about his grandmother, Eustice, a tough, leathery old bird who drank too much, smoked too much, carried a wireless radio everywhere, room to room in the trailer, out to visit at neighboring trailers, out in the car, to the grocery store ten miles east, always tuned to the Country & Western station out of Barstow, humming along with Waylon Jennings, Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline. About her insuperable pride, how she made every repair to the trailer herself, every repair to their rusted-out Dodge Dart, repairs to all the neighbors’ places. How she shepherded him in one end of childhood and out the other in relative safety, with a minimum of broken bones, no head trauma, no time in juvenile hall.
There was no father. There was no mother. He had no memory of either. When Lucy pressed a little, he told her of the two short, sun-streaked flashes he still had, the only recall, two hot desert afternoons when he was five, six years old.
The first, of a tall man with calloused hands, a mustache and mirrored sunglasses. He wore army boots caked with old mud. The rough feel of the man’s hand on the back of Darby’s neck. The man leans down and says something in Darby’s ear. The smell of cigarettes on his breath, his teeth yellow and broken. There was no memory of the man’s voice. He’s there and then he’s gone.
The second flash, at the diner on the other side of the road from the trailer park. Darby sitting in a booth with a woman in a white halter-top and blue jeans. She’s smoking instead of eating, filling the plastic ashtray on the table while she picks at a plate of fat yellow French fries. She wears her sunglasses inside the diner. There are little cuts on her hands, scars and scabs on her forearms. The red polish on her fingernails is chipped. Darby eats a bowl of Frosted Flakes and milk. The Frosted Flakes came in a fist-sized single-serving box that was an exact replica of a real-sized box. The waitress brought the box and a cup of milk to the table and Darby was amazed by this. He looks at the box more than he looks at the woman beside him. The woman looks like an old photograph of his grandmother that hangs in the front room of the trailer. His grandmother as a young woman. She talks non-stop in a voice that’s a smoother, higher version of his grandmother’s gravelly twang.
After he finishes his cereal, they walk back across the road. The woman holds Darby’s hand as they cross. She goes inside the trailer to use the bathroom and has another argument with his grandmother. Darby sits on the bumper of the woman’s brown Camaro, looking at the miniature cereal box he has kept, this amazing thing, pretending that it’s a normal-sized box and he’s a giant. How big his hands look. After a while, the woman comes out of the trailer, angrily wiping at her eyes under the sunglasses. She lifts Darby off the bumper, sets him down on the trailer’s front steps, drives away in the Camaro, wheels spitting sand as she pulls out of the driveway and off down the road.
That was it. That’s all there was. Not memories, really, just flashes of heat and dust, light reflecting in sunglass lenses, cereal and cold milk. Lucy would ask if he was curious at all, if he ever wondered about the rest of it, and he had to admit that he was, curious and angry and a little sad, but there was nothing he could do about it, there was nothing to look for, nothing left behind. Except for the cereal box. He kept the cereal box all throughout his childhood, kept it as a teenager, took it with him when he finally drove west into the city. It sat in the bottom of his toolbox, filled with a small block of wood so the sides wouldn’t get crushed under the weight of the tools piled on top. One night he brought it out to the kitchen table. Lucy held the box, smiled slowly at the outdated package design, the thought of Darby as a little boy holding the box years ago.
That’s it, he’d said. That’s all there is. It’s not a memory. It’s just a cereal box.
She smiled like she didn’t quite believe him.
They both wished like hell for a cigarette on nights like that, just one. They thought about how good it would feel to stand on the porch in the cool air, passing it back and forth, hands touching at the warm exchange. They hadn’t smoked since Lucy got pregnant with The Kid, but it still pulled at them on nights like that, nights with long whispered stories and instant coffee at the kitchen table. They came close to giving in, talked resentfully about ease and convenience, the insidious temptation of 24-hour gas stations. They rushed to change the subject, to get the delicious thought out of their heads.
Some nights Lucy would tell him about Chicago, her parent’s house in the northwest suburbs. About going to the sets of her father’s early infomercials, a warehouse in Skokie converted to a bargain-basement soundstage. About the visits from the IRS, the FTC, other government agencies, local and federal, about the constantly shifting corporate names, front companies, holding companies, the late night phone threats from irate customers, husbands of customers, husbands of secretaries and call center operators. The evenings her mother sat expressionless at the dining room table with glass after glass of white wine, Lucy’s father doing battle on the phone in the other room, his voice rising and falling, bellowed threats and hushed whispers. Her mother’s thin fingers finding the stem of the glass, lifting the glass to her lips.