For me and for a moment, present and future became one, the latter floating on the former, sensed more than seen, presenting itself as feelings and metaphors rather than as a detailed vision of what was to come in the days and years ahead. Claustrophobia wound around me, tighter and tighter, as if it were grave cloth and I were being mummified. For all that great cities had to offer, they were nonetheless mazes of streets. Mazes could thwart and trap. Broad, open freeways offered freedom only until clogged with traffic—or barricaded. Any neighborhood, rich or poor, was potentially a ghetto, every ghetto easily converted to a prison, every prison a potential death camp. To both sides of the highway, the residences and offices and retail outlets seemed at one moment to be burnt-out and boarded-up, but an instant later they appeared to be bunkers and battlements arrayed not against a common enemy but each against the other in a war of all versus all. Now I felt the shadows that flailed the land, as though they were accompanied by shock waves, and the flickers of sunlight were almost bright enough to blind. In addition to the broad freeway along which vehicles raced at high speed, I was also aware of these same concrete arteries in a state of sclerosis, perhaps hours or weeks or years from now, commuters halted bumper-to-bumper. As insubstantial as figments of a dream yet terrifying, an angry mob invaded my vague premonition, a faceless horde bringing grim detail to the vision, metastasizing along the lanes of stalled cars and trucks, smashing windows, tearing open doors, dragging motorists and passengers onto the pavement, blades glinting, guns firing, boots stomping terrified faces. Blood.
I might have lost consciousness for a few seconds, because when I opened my eyes, the landscape was no longer darkened by fast-moving and inexplicable shadows. The surrounding communities were neither in ruins nor fortified against conflict, traffic sped along the freeway, and Mrs. Fischer sounded worried when she said, “Oddie, what’s wrong? Do you hear me? Oddie?”
“Yes, ma’am, I hear you.”
The images from the premonition faded, but I still had a sense of being in the path of malevolent, implacable forces. That wasn’t an unusual feeling for me, but this time the threat felt imminent.
“Are you all right?” Mrs. Fischer asked.
“Sort of. Yeah. I’m fine. Just a little thing there for a moment. What’s up?”
“I think we’ve lost him.” She drove as fast as ever, switching lanes with bravado, passing between a pair of eighteen-wheelers that bracketed us like cliffs, searching for the one that got away. “There were suddenly so many trucks and I thought I still had a lock on him, but then I realized it was a different rig.”
State Route 134 had become Interstate 210. The highway signs promised exits for Azusa and Covina.
The dark clouds massed in the south were dramatically closer than before, and I suspected that I had been unconscious for minutes rather than seconds.
“Ma’am, you better get all the way over to the right. Take the next exit.”
“Do you know where he’s gone? How can you know where he’s gone?”
“I have a hunch.”
Working the car toward the right lane, Mrs. Fischer said, “A hunch? A hunch isn’t worth spit.”
“Well, this one is, ma’am. It’s worth spit and then some.”
“Your hunches usually pay off, do they?”
“I learn by going where I have to go,” I said, determined not to explain psychic magnetism.
She didn’t slow down much for the exit ramp.
I said, “Left at the bottom.”
Because no traffic approached on the intersecting surface street, she didn’t obey the stop sign.
“Come to think of it,” she said, “how did you know he would be at that truck stop earlier?”
As we went through an underpass beneath the freeway, we politely pretended not to see the obscene spray-painted graffiti, which was colorful but, as usual, unimaginative. I suspect that those who see equal merit in graffiti and the work of Rembrandt might be wrong.
I said, “Trucker at a truck stop. It seemed logical.”
“That’s all it was? Just logic?”
“You’re dancing around the truth, child. You told me it was only all right to lie to evil.”
“And you said you might be evil.”
“Might be. I didn’t say I was.”
“Please turn left in two blocks, ma’am.”
“Fact is, I’m not evil.”
The effect of the premonition had diminished enough to allow me to smile. “First you said you might be evil, now you say you’re not. I better tread carefully with you.”
We passed through a once prosperous retail area where a third of the businesses were gone, many of them restaurants, and the remaining shops and services had a tattered look that suggested they were week-to-week enterprises. Some days lately, it seemed that everything was a week-to-week enterprise, including the country and the world.
A traffic signal turned green to accommodate us, and I said, “After the intersection, pull to the curb.”
Mrs. Fischer braked to a stop in front of a thrift shop operated by the Salvation Army.
I said, “I’ll be going the rest of the way alone, on foot.”
“Is that really wise?”
“I’m not sure anything I do is wise, ma’am, but I’ve stayed alive a lot longer than I ever expected.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I’m grateful that you came along, and I’m thankful for your help. But I don’t want you to be hurt because of me. You need to get on with your life while I get on with trying to understand mine.”
After her many years of living, perhaps even from her childhood, Mrs. Fischer’s eyes were the sky reflected in the sea, eternity mirrored in the everlasting waters. Even if she had not given voice to the next thing that she said, meeting her gaze, I would have known that the secrets to which she often alluded were real and profound and no less strange than my own. She said, “Something big is coming, Oddie. Something so very big that the world will change. I know you feel it, too.”
“How long have you felt it?”
“Almost all my life. But more so lately.”
“Much more so lately,” she agreed. “Child, do you know where truly great courage comes from, the kind of courage that will never back down?”
I said, “Faith.”
“And love,” she said. “Faith is a kind of love, you know. Love of what is unseen but certain. Love makes us strong and brave.”
I thought of Stormy and how the loss of her had tempered my steel. “Yes.”
“Heath and I never had children. I believe that I wasn’t given any children because I needed to save all that love for a time late in my life when I would need it to give me courage.”
Suddenly the rising wind rose faster, buffeted the limousine, and conjured a dust devil full of leaves and litter that whirled up from the gutter and followed a drunkard’s path down the center of the street.
She said, “You see, many years ago, three times I had the same vivid dream about a motherless, fatherless boy who was nevertheless not an orphan. Are you without a mother and father, Oddie?”
“They’re still alive, ma’am, but they were never a mother and father to me. I’ve been on my own since I was sixteen.”
“When I saw you standing beside the Coast Highway, I recognized you from the dream, though you are not a boy any longer.”
Several pages of a newspaper flocked along the street, faux birds of ill omen, flapping ungainly wings of words.
“What’s the story of your dream?” I asked. “What happens in it?”
“A true and lovely thing. That’s all I’ll say for now. But I will never, as you suggest, get on with my life by leaving you here and driving away. If you must go by foot now and alone, so be it. But I’ll get on with my life by waiting right here until you come back.”
“I wish you wouldn’t.”
She opened her voluminous purse. “Take the gun.”
I thought of the premonition: universal war, all against all. If such a conflict was coming, it wouldn’t happen in the next day or the next week, probably not even in the next year. Maybe it wouldn’t ever happen. The future isn’t set. Our free will creates our future.
Mrs. Fischer plucked the weapon from her purse and pressed it into my hands. “Take, take. I’ve got others.”
As I tucked the pistol in my waistband and under my sweatshirt, I said, “You seem to be prepared for anything.”
“We all better be prepared, child.” Her eyes remained solemn even when she smiled. She reached out and gently pinched my cheek. “Be safe, Oddie. Come home.”
WHEN I GOT OUT OF THE LIMOUSINE, THE WIND TOSSED my hair and threw dust in my eyes, as if it were a malicious spirit. The day was chilly for Southern California in early March, especially considering that the storm front had come in from the southwest. The sea, which this gruff wind would have bullied into whitecaps, must have been unusually cold. I could faintly smell the distant shore, mostly the astringent scent of iodine given off by certain seaweeds when they are tossed onto the beach to decompose above the tide line.
I walked past the thrift shop to the nearby corner and turned left. The two- and three-story buildings were old, mostly of painted brick with cast-stone Art Deco details in their parapeted roofs and pedimented windows. Phoenix palms lined the street, more stately than the neighborhood in which they flourished.
Instead of consciously choosing a route, I went where psychic magnetism drew me, never sure when I might find myself before a door and know that my quarry waited beyond it, or round a corner and come face-to-face with him, or hear the word dirtbag spoken behind me and turn to discover that my talent for attraction had drawn him to me instead of me to him, his silencer-equipped Sig Sauer in my face—or crotch.
Ahead of me, from high in a wind-tossed phoenix palm, four rats that were remarkably fat for these lean times descended from their fair-weather nest in the thick dry skirt just below the glorious spray of green fronds. Like a precision drill team, they came one behind the other, nose to tail, legs synchronized. At the bottom of the tree, the quartet spilled over the curb, into the gutter, and disappeared through the bars of a drainage grate, as disciplined as any human family in the vast flat Midwest when the tornado sirens wailed and the house had to be abandoned for the storm cellar in the backyard.
Although I know the world is an intricately more complex place than it appears to most people, although I understand in my blood and bones that humanity is a turbulent family aboard an endless train, on an infinite journey to shores that can only dimly be imagined by the living, I don’t see signs and portents everywhere I look. Most often, a haloed moon means nothing more than that reflective volcanic ash has made its way into the stratosphere, and a two-headed goat is only a genetic curiosity. The mommy-porn genre currently sweeping the book industry and the Babylonian excess of most television shows probably fall within the historical norm in our culture’s sleaze index and are not omens of the imminent collapse of civilization, though if I were not so busy, I might start building an ark.
Those four brown rats, however, descending at precisely that moment instead of any other, impressed me as being more than merely rodents on the run from threatening weather. For one thing, at the curb, before slinking into the gutter, each turned its head toward me, its whiteless eyes as glossy as black glass, its scaly tail lashing back and forth twice before it continued out of sight into the drain.
I found myself drawn to the curb, where I stood staring at the large rectangular grate, shivering with recognition. It was made in an age when public works were elegant and well crafted instead of slipshod. The parallel iron bars met a four-inch iron ring in the center of the design. Within the ring, a stylized iron lightning bolt angled from right to left. On a fogbound night in Magic Beach, more than a month previously, on a street deserted but for me, I had been drawn to such a grating, below which grotesque shadows capered in pulses of eerie light.
On that occasion, in the grip of curiosity, I had knelt to peer between the bars, into the culvert, seeking an explanation for this unusual display. I had been by some means induced into a half trance, so that I lowered my face ever closer to the drain, overcome not only by a compulsion to learn what might lie below but also by the intense expectation that, whatever it proved to be, I needed it as surely as I needed air and water and food to sustain life.
The sudden arrival of an unexpected ally on that lonely street in Magic Beach had broken the spell and had brought me to my feet. Later, I felt that I had been close to discovering something that might have been the end of me—not merely death but a more terrible and enduring end.
Now, I did not follow the rats to the grate, but turned away and walked swiftly, not quite running. I went four blocks, the battalions of incoming storm clouds forgotten, oblivious of the wind, the rats banished from my mind. Rather, I succumbed to one of those fugues that sometimes strike us when, below the age of ten, we chance upon a truth meant only for adults, a sharp truth that stabs darkness into the light of innocence, that makes us at once rebel against this assault on wonder, that sends us away to games and bicycles and all manner of distractions, from which we rise in a few hours, like a sleeper from a dream, having spun a cocoon of denial to protect us from that piercing truth, although it is a fragile cocoon that in time will dissolve.
Halting at a street corner, looking back the way I’d come, I had no memory of the buildings I had passed, only of the lightning-bolt grate that lay four blocks to the south. For that distance, I’d even forgotten why I’d come here. Now I remembered the rhinestone cowboy, his spiky white hair, his pitiless stare, his vacation-in-Hell tan.
My heart lagged my brain, beating hard and fast, as if I were still within a step of the ominous drain grating. Giving it time to settle into a rhythm less suggestive of a crisis in an ER, I studied my surroundings.
I had arrived in a district of old industrial buildings, mostly constructed of dark-red or pale-yellow brick with slate or tile or corrugated-metal roofs, others of stucco cracked and stigmatized with stains of such disturbing shapes that they might have depicted Armageddon reflected in a fun-house mirror. Some structures appeared still to be in use. Others were untenanted or abandoned, diminished by missing windowpanes, months of debris compacted by wind and rain in their doorways, and weeds bristling from cracks in the pavement of the adjacent parking yards, around which chain-link fencing sagged.
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