“What about? Elvis never struck me as weepy.”
“People change when they die. It’s traumatic. He’s like this from time to time, but I don’t know for sure what the trouble is. He doesn’t try to explain himself to me.”
Clearly, the chief was dismayed by the image of Presley weeping. “Is there anything I can do for him?”
“That’s thoughtful of you, sir, but I don’t see what anyone can really do. From what I’ve observed on other occasions, my sense of it is… he misses his mother, Gladys, and wants to be with her.”
‘As I recall, he was especially fond of his mama, wasn’t he?”
“He adored her,” I said.
“Isn’t she dead, too?”
“Much longer than he’s been, yes.”
“Then they’re together again, aren’t they?”
“Not as long as he’s reluctant to let go of this world. She’s over there in the light, and he’s stuck here.”
“Why won’t he move on?”
“Sometimes they have important unfinished business here.”
“Like little Penny Kallisto this morning, leading you to Harlo Landerson.”
“Yes, sir. And sometimes they just love this world so much they don’t want to leave it.”
The chief nodded. “This world sure was good to him.”
“If it’s unfinished business, he’s had more than twenty-six years to take care of it,” I noted.
The chief squinted toward Lysette Rains, trying to see some small­est evidence of her spirit companion - a wisp of ectoplasm, a vague distortion of the air, a quiver of mystical radiance. “He made some great music.”
“Yes, he did.”
“You tell him he’s always welcome here.”
“I will, sir. That’s kind of you.”
‘Are you sure you can’t stay for dinner?”
“Thank you, sir, but I’ve got a date.”
“With Stormy, I’m sure.”
“Yes, sir. My destiny.”
“You’re a smooth operator, Odd. She must love to hear you say that - ‘my destiny.’”
“I love to hear me say it.”
The chief put his arm around my shoulders and walked me to the gate at the north side of the house. “Best thing that can happen to a man is a good woman.”
“Stormy is beyond just good.”
“I’m happy for you, son.” He lifted the latch and opened the gate for me. “Don’t you worry about this Bob Robertson. We’ll dog him, but so he doesn’t suspect we’re watching. He tries to make a wrong move, we’ll be all over him.”
“I’ll worry just the same, sir. He’s a very bad man.”
When I got to the Mustang, Elvis was already sitting in the pas­senger’s seat.
The dead don’t need to walk where they want to go - or ride in a car, for that matter. When they choose to walk or cruise the streets, they’re motivated by nostalgia.
From the poolside party to the Mustang, he had changed out of the clothes from Blue Hawaii. Now he was wearing black slacks, a dressy tweed sport coat, white shirt, black tie, and black pocket handkerchief, an outfit from (as Terri Stambaugh later told me) It Happened at the World’s Fair.
Driving away from the Porter house, we listened to “Stuck on You,” as infectious a tune as ever the King recorded.
Elvis rapped out the rhythm on his knees and bobbed his head, but the tears kept flowing.
IN DOWNTOWN PICO MUNDO, AS WE WERE PASSING A church, Elvis indicated that he wanted me to pull to the curb.
When I stopped the car, he held out his right hand to me. His grip was as real and warm as Penny Kallisto’s.
Instead of shaking my hand, he clasped it in both of his. Maybe he was simply thanking me, but it seemed like more than that.
He appeared to be worried about me. He gently squeezed my hand, staring intensely at me with evident concern, and then squeezed my hand again.
“It’s all right,” I said, although I had no idea whether that was in any way an adequate response.
He got out of the car without opening the door - just phased through it - and walked up the steps of the church. I watched until he passed through the heavy oak doors and out of sight.
My dinner date with Stormy wasn’t until eight o’clock, so I had time to kill.
Keep busy, Granny Sugars used to say, even if with poker, fighting, and fast cars, because idleness will get you in worse trouble.
Even lacking Grandma’s advice, I couldn’t just have gone to my rendezvous point with Stormy and waited for her. With nothing else to occupy my mind, I’d dwell on Bob Robertson and his demonic files.
Cruising away from the church, I phoned P. Oswald Boone, he of the four hundred pounds and the six-fingered left hand.
Little Ozzie answered on the second ring. “Odd, my beautiful cow exploded.”
“Boom,” said Little Ozzie. “One minute all is right with the world, and the next minute your fabulous cow is blown to bits.”
“When did this happen? I haven’t heard anything about it.”
“Exactly two hours and twenty-six minutes ago. The police have been here and gone, and I believe that even they, with all their experi­ence of criminal savagery, were shocked by this.”
“I just saw Chief Porter, and he didn’t mention it.”
‘After they left here, the responding officers no doubt needed a stiff drink or two before writing their report.”
“How’re you doing?” I asked.
“I’m not bereft, because that would be a morally offensive over-reaction, but I am sad.”
“I know how much you loved that cow.”
“I loved that cow,” he confirmed.
“I was thinking of coming over for a visit, but maybe this isn’t the best time.”
“This is the perfect time, dear Odd. Nothing is worse than being alone on the evening of the day when one’s cow has exploded.”
“I’ll be there in a few minutes,” I promised.
Little Ozzie lives in Jack Flats, which fifty years ago was called Jack Rabbit Flats, an area west and downhill from the historical district. I have no idea where the rabbit went.
When the picturesque downtown commercial district began to be a tourist draw in the late 1940s, it was given a series of quaintness injections to increase its appeal. The less photogenic enterprises - muffler shops, tire stores, gun shops - were squeezed to the Flats.
Then twenty years ago, glittering new commercial centers arose along Green Moon Road and Joshua Tree Highway. They drained cus­tomers from the shabbier businesses in the Flats.
Gradually during the past fifteen years, Jack Flats has been gentrified. Old commercial and industrial buildings were bulldozed. Homes, townhomes, and upscale apartments took their place.
The first to settle in the neighborhood when few could see its fu­ture, Little Ozzie purchased a one-acre parcel on which had stood a long-out-of-business restaurant. There he built his dream home.
This two-story, Craftsman-style residence has an elevator, wide doorways, and steel-reinforced floors. Ozzie constructed it both to ac­commodate his proportions and to withstand the punishment that he might inflict upon it if eventually he becomes, as Stormy fears, one of those men for whom the attending mortician requires a crane and a flatbed truck.
When I parked in front of the now cowless house, I was more shocked by the carnage than I had expected to be.
Standing under one of the Indian laurels that cast long shadows in the westering sun, I stared in dismay at the giant carcass. All things of this earth eventually pass away, but sudden and premature departures are nonetheless disturbing.
The four legs, chunks of the blasted head, and slabs of the body were scattered across the front lawn, shrubbery, and walkway. In a par­ticularly macabre touch, the inverted udder had landed on one of the gateposts in the picket fence, and the teats pointed skyward.
This black-and-white Holstein cow, approximately the size of an
SUV had previously stood atop two twenty-foot-tall steel poles, nei­ther of which had been damaged in the explosion. The only thing left on that high perch was the cow’s butt, which had shifted position un­til it faced the street, as if mooning passersby.
Under the plastic Holstein had once hung a sign for the steakhouse restaurant that had previously occupied the property. When he built his home, Little Ozzie had not preserved the sign, only the giant plas­tic bovine.
To Ozzie, the cow wasn’t merely the largest lawn ornament in the world. It was art.
Of the many books that he has written, four have been about art, so he ought to know what he’s talking about. In fact, because he is Pico Mundo’s most famous resident (living, anyway) and perhaps its most respected, and because he was building a home in the Flats when everyone else expected it to remain a blighted zone in perpetuity, only Little Ozzie could have argued successfully before the city building department to keep the cow, as sculpture.
As the Flats became more upscale, some of his neighbors - not most, but a highly vocal minority - objected to the giant cow on aes­thetic grounds. Perhaps one of them had resorted to violence.
By the time that I navigated through the jagged shards of cow art and climbed the front porch steps, before I could ring the bell, Ozzie opened the wide door, hove across the threshold, and greeted me. “Is this not pathetic, Odd, what some ill-educated fool has done? I take solace in reminding myself that ‘art is long and critics are the insects of a day.’”
“Shakespeare?” I asked.
“No. Randall Jarrell. A wonderful poet, now all but forgotten be­cause modern universities teach nothing but self-esteem and toe-sucking.”
“I’ll clean this up for you, sir.”
“You will not!” Ozzie declared. “Let them look at the ruin for a week, a month, these ‘venomous serpents who delight in hissing.’”
“No, no. W.B. Daniel, writing on critics. I’ll have the debris picked up eventually, but the ass of that fine cow will remain up there, my an­swer to these bomb-toting philistines.”
“So it was a bomb?”
“A very small one, affixed to the sculpture during the night, with a timer that allowed these ’serpents who feed on filth and venom’ to be far from the crime when the blast came. That’s not Shakespeare, ei­ther. Voltaire writing on critics.”
“Sir, I’m a little worried about you,” I said.
“Don’t be concerned, lad. These cowards have barely sufficient courage to sneak up on a plastic cow in the dead of night, but they don’t have the spine to confront a fat man with forearms as thick as mine.”
“I’m not talking about them. I’m referring to your blood pressure.”
With a dismissive wave of one of his formidable arms, Little Ozzie said, “If you carried my bulk, your blood rich with cholesterol mole­cules the size of miniature marshmallows, you’d understand that a little righteous outrage from time to time is the only thing that keeps your arteries from clogging shut altogether. Righteous outrage and fine red wine. Come in, come in. I’ll open a bottle, and we’ll toast the destruction of all critics, ‘this wretched race of hungry alligators.’”
“Shakespeare?” I asked.
“For Heaven’s sake, Odd, the Bard of Avon wasn’t the only writer ever to put pen to paper.”
“But if I just stick with him,” I said, following Ozzie into the house, “I’ll get one of these right sooner or later.”
“Was it with such pathetic tricks that you slid through high school?”
Ozzie invited me to make myself comfortable in his living room while he fetched the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, and thus I found myself alone with Terrible Chester.
This cat is not fat, but he is big and fearless, I once saw him stand off an aggressive German shepherd sheerly with attitude.
I suspect that even a pit bull, gone bad and in a murdering mood, would have turned away as the shepherd did, and would have gone in search of easier prey. Like crocodiles.
Terrible Chester is the color of a rubescent pumpkin, with black markings. Judging by the black-and-orange patterns on his face, you might think he was the satanic familiar of that old rock group, Kiss.
Perched on a deep windowsill, gazing out at the front yard, he pre­tended for a full minute to be unaware that company had arrived.
Being ignored was fine with me. The shoes I wore had never been peed on, and I hoped to keep them that way.
Finally turning his head, he regarded me appraisingly, with con­tempt so thick that I expected to hear it drizzle to the floor with a spat­tering sound. Then he shifted his attention once more to the window.
The exploded Holstein seemed to fascinate him and to put him in a somber, contemplative mood. Perhaps he had used up eight of his lives and felt a chill of mortality.
The furniture in Ozzie’s living room is custom, oversized, and built for comfort. A Persian carpet in dark jewel tones, Honduran ma­hogany woodwork, and shelves upon shelves of books create a cozy ambience.
In spite of the danger to my shoes, I quickly relaxed and experi­enced less of a sense of impending doom than at any time since find­ing Penny Kallisto waiting at the foot of my apartment steps earlier in the day.
Within half a minute, Terrible Chester put me on edge again with his threatening, angry hiss. All cats have this talent, of course, but
Chester rivals both rattlesnakes and cobras for the intensity and the menace of his hiss.
Something outside had so disturbed him that he rose to his feet on the windowsill, arched his back, and bristled his hackles.
Although clearly I was not the cause of his agitation, I slid to the edge of my armchair, poised for flight,
Chester hissed again, then clawed the glass. The skreeeek of his nails on the window made the fluid quiver in the hollows of my spine.
Suddenly I wondered if the cow-demolition squad had returned in daylight to bring down the stubborn bovine butt.
When Chester raked the glass again, I got to my feet. I eased toward the window with caution, not because I feared that a Molotov cocktail would crash through it but because I didn’t want the vexated cat to misunderstand my motives.
Outside, at the picket fence, facing the house, stood the Fungus Man, Bob Robertson.
MY FIRST INSTINCT WAS TO DUCK BACK FROM THE WINdow. If Fungus Man was already following me, however, he must somehow suspect that earlier I had been in his house in Camp’s End. My furtive behavior would serve to confirm my guilt.
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