warm patina on them. Mrs. Sanchez’s kitchen is as beautiful as the finest antique, with the priceless patina of a life’s work and of cooking done with pleasure and with love.
I sat across the table from her.
Her hands were clasped tightly around a coffee mug to keep them from shaking. “You’re late this morning, Odd Thomas.”
Invariably she uses both names. I sometimes suspect she thinks Odd is not a name but a royal title, like Prince or Duke, and that proto­col absolutely requires that it be used by commoners when they ad­dress me.
Perhaps she thinks that I am the son of a deposed king, reduced to tattered circumstances but nonetheless deserving of respect.
I said, “Late, yes, I’m sorry. It’s been a strange morning.”
She doesn’t know about my special relationship with the deceased. She’s got enough problems without having to worry about dead people making pilgrimages to her garage.
“Can you see what I’m wearing?” she asked worriedly.
“Pale yellow slacks. A dark yellow and brown blouse.”
She turned sly. “Do you like the butterfly barrette in my hair, Odd Thomas?”
“There’s no barrette. You’re holding your hair back with a yellow ribbon. It looks nice that way.”
As a young woman, Rosalia Sanchez must have been remarkably beautiful. At sixty-three, having added a few pounds, having acquired the seams and crinkles of seasoning experience, she possessed the deeper beauty of the beatified: the sweet humility and the tenderness that time can teach, the appealing glow of care and character that, in their last years on this earth, no doubt marked the faces of those who were later canonized as saints.
“When you didn’t come at the usual time,” she said, “I thought you’d been here but couldn’t see me. And I thought I couldn’t see you
anymore, either, that when I became invisible to you, you also became invisible to me.”
“Just late,” I assured her.
“It would be terrible to be invisible.”
“Yeah, but I wouldn’t have to shave as often.”
When discussing invisibility, Mrs. Sanchez refused to be amused. Her saintly face found a frown of disapproval.
“When I’ve worried about becoming invisible, I’ve always thought I’d be able to see other people, they just wouldn’t be able to see or hear me.”
“In those old Invisible Man movies,” I said, “you could see his breath when he went out in really cold weather.”
“But if other people become invisible to me when I’m invisible to them,” she continued, “then it’s like I’m the last person in the world, all of it empty except for me wandering around alone.”
She shuddered. Clasped in her hands, the coffee mug knocked against the table.
When Mrs. Sanchez talks about invisibility, she’s talking about death, but I’m not sure she realizes this.
If the true first year of the new millennium, 2001, had not been good for the world in general, it had been bleak for Rosalia Sanchez in particular, beginning with the loss of her husband, Herman, on a night in April. She had gone to sleep next to the man whom she had loved for more than forty years - and awakened beside a cold cadaver. For Herman, death had come as gently as it ever does, in sleep, but for Rosalia, the shock of waking with the dead had been traumatic.
Later that year, still mourning her husband, she had not gone with her three sisters and their families on a long-planned vacation to New England. On the morning of September 11, she awakened to the news that their return flight out of Boston had been hijacked and used as a guided missile in one of the most infamous acts in history.
Although Rosalia had wanted children, God had given her none. Herman, her sisters, her nieces, her nephews had been the center of her life. She lost them all while sleeping.
Sometime between that September and that Christmas, Rosalia had gone a little crazy with grief. Quietly crazy, because she had lived her entire life quietly and knew no other way to be.
In her gentle madness, she would not acknowledge that they were dead. They had merely become invisible to her. Nature in a quirky mood had resorted to a rare phenomenon that might at any moment be reversed, like a magnetic field, making all her lost loved ones visible to her again.
The details of all the disappearances of ships and planes in the Bermuda Triangle were known to Rosalia Sanchez. She’d read every book that she could find on the subject.
She knew about the inexplicable, apparently overnight vanishment of hundreds of thousands of Mayans from the cities of Copan, Piedras Negras, and Palenque in A.D. 610.
If you allowed Rosalia to bend your ear, she would nearly break it off in an earnest discussion of historical disappearances. For instance, I know more than I care to know and immeasurably more than I need to know about the evaporation, to a man, of a division of three thou­sand Chinese soldiers near Nanking, in 1939.
“Well,” I said, “at least you’re visible this morning. You’ve got an­other whole day of visibility to look forward to, and that’s a blessing.”
Rosalia’s biggest fear is that on the same day when her loved ones are made visible again, she herself will vanish.
Though she longs for their return, she dreads the consequences.
She crossed herself, looked around her homey kitchen, and at last smiled. “I could bake something.”
“You could bake anything” I said.
“What would you like me to bake for you, Odd Thomas?”
“Surprise me.” I consulted my watch. “I better get to work.”
She accompanied me to the door and gave me a good-bye hug. “You are a good boy, Odd Thomas.”
“You remind me of my Granny Sugars,” I said, “except you don’t play poker, drink whiskey or drive fast cars.”
“That’s sweet,” she said. “You know, I thought the world and all of Pearl Sugars. She was so feminine but also…”
“Kick-ass,” I suggested.
“Exactly. At the church’s strawberry festival one year, there was this rowdy man, mean on drugs or drink. Pearl put him down with just two punches.”
“She had a terrific left hook.”
“Of course, first she kicked him in that special tender place. But I think she could have handled him with the punches alone. I’ve some­times wished I could be more like her.”
From Mrs. Sanchez’s house, I walked the six blocks to the Pico Mundo Grille, which is in the heart of downtown Pico Mundo.
Every minute that it advanced from sunrise, the morning became hotter. The gods of the Mojave don’t know the meaning of the word moderation.
Long morning shadows grew shorter before my eyes, retreating from steadily warming lawns, from broiling blacktop, from concrete sidewalks as suitable for the frying of eggs as the griddle that I would soon be attending.
The air lacked the energy to move. Trees hung limp. Birds either re­treated to leafy roosts or flew higher than they had at dawn, far up where thinner air held the heat less tenaciously.
In this wilted stillness, between Mrs. Sanchez’s house and the Grille, I saw three shadows moving. All were independent of a source, for they were not ordinary shadows.
When I was much younger, I called these entities shades. But that is
just another word for ghosts, and they are not ghosts like Penny Kallisto.
I don’t believe they ever passed through this world in human form or knew this life as we know it. I suspect they don’t belong here, that a realm of eternal darkness is their intended home.
Their shape is liquid. Their substance is no greater than that of shadows. Their movement is soundless. Their intentions, though mysterious, are not benign.
Often they slink like cats, though cats as big as men. At times they run semi-erect like dream creatures that are half man, half dog.
I do not see them often. When they appear, their presence always signifies oncoming trouble of a greater than usual intensity and a darker than usual dimension.
They are not shades to me now. I call them bodachs.
Bodach is a word that I heard a visiting six-year-old English boy use to describe these creatures when, in my company, he glimpsed a pack of them roaming a Pico Mundo twilight. A bodach is a small, vile, and supposedly mythical beast of the British Isles, who comes down chim­neys to carry off naughty children.
I don’t believe these spirits that I see are actually bodachs. I don’t think the English boy believed so, either. The word popped into his mind only because he had no better name for them. Neither do I.
He was the only person I have ever known who shared my special sight. Minutes after he spoke the word bodach in my presence, he was crushed to death between a runaway truck and a concrete-block wall.
By the time I reached the Grille, the three bodachs had joined in a pack. They ran far ahead of me, shimmered around a corner, and dis­appeared, as though they had been nothing more than heat imps, mere tricks of the desert air and the grueling sun.
Some days, I find it difficult to concentrate on being the best short-order cook that I can be. This morning, I would need more than the usual discipline to focus my mind on my work and to ensure that the omelets, home fries, burgers, and bacon melts that came off my grid­dle were equal to my reputation.
“EGGS - WRECK ‘EM AND STRETCH ‘EM,” SAID HELEN Arches. “One Porky sitting, hash browns, cardiac shingles.”
She dipped the ticket to the order rail, snatched up a fresh pot of coffee, and went to offer refills to her customers.
Helen has been an excellent waitress for forty-two years, since she was eighteen. After so much good work, her ankles have stiffened and her feet have flattened, so when she walks, her shoes slap the floor with each step.
This soft flap-flap-flap is one of the fundamental rhythms of the beautiful music of the Pico Mundo Grille, along with the sizzle and sputter of things cooking, the clink of flatware, and the clatter of dishes. The conversation of customers and employees provides the melody.
We were busy that Tuesday morning. All the booths were occu­pied, as were two-thirds of the stools at the counter.
I like being busy. The short-order station is the center stage of the restaurant, in full view, and I draw fans as surely as does any actor on the Broadway boards.
Being a short-order cook on a slow shift must be akin to being a symphony conductor without either musicians or an audience. You stand poised for action in an apron instead of a tuxedo, holding a spat­ula rather than a baton, longing to interpret the art not of composers but of chickens.
The egg is art, sure enough. Given a choice between Beethoven and a pair of eggs fried in butter, a hungry man will invariably choose the eggs - or in fact the chicken - and will find his spirits lifted at least as much as they might be by a requiem, rhapsody, or sonata.
Anyone can crack a shell and spill the essence into pan, pot, or pip­kin, but few can turn out omelets as flavorful, scrambled eggs as fluffy, and sunnysides as sunny as mine.
This is not pride talking. Well, yes it is, but this is the pride of ac­complishment, rather than vanity or boastfulness.
I was not born with the artistry of a gifted hash-slinger. I learned by study and practice, under the tutelage of Terri Stambaugh, who owns the Pico Mundo Grille.
When others saw in me no promise, Terri believed in my potential and gave me a chance. I strive to repay her faith with cheeseburgers of exemplary quality and pancakes almost light enough to float off the plate.
She isn’t merely my employer but also my culinary mentor, rny sur­rogate mother, and my friend.
In addition, she is my primary authority on Elvis Presley. If you cite any day in the life of the King of Rock-’n'-Roll, Terri will without hes­itation tell you where he was on that date and what he was doing.
I, on the other hand, am more familiar with his activities since his death.
Without referencing Helen’s ticket on the rail, I stretched an order of eggs, which means that I added a third egg to our usual serving of two. Then I wrecked ‘em: scrambled them.
A “Porky sitting” is fried ham. A pig sits on its ham. It lies on its ab­domen, which is the source of bacon, so “one Porky lying” would have called for a rasher with the eggs.
“Cardiac shingles” is an order of toast with extra butter.
Hash browns are merely hash browns. Not every word we speak during the day is diner lingo, just as not every short-order cook sees dead people.
I saw only the living in the Pico Mundo Grille during that Tues­day shift. You can always spot the dead in a diner because the dead don’t eat.
Toward the end of the breakfast rush, Chief Wyatt Porter came in. He sat alone in a booth.
As usual, he washed down a tablet of Pepcid AC with a glass of low-fat moo juice before he ordered the mess of eggs and the home fries that he’d mentioned earlier. His complexion was as milky gray as carbolic-acid solution.
The chief smiled thinly at me and nodded. I raised my spatula in reply.
Although eventually I might trade hash-slinging for tire sales, I’ll never contemplate a career in law enforcement, it’s stomach-corroding work, and thankless.
Besides, I’m spooked by guns.
Half the booths and all but two of the counter stools had been va­cated by the time a bodach came into the diner.
Their kind don’t appear to be able to walk through walls as do the dead like Penny Kallisto. Instead they slip through any crevice or crack, or keyhole.
This one seeped through the thread-thin gap between the glass door and the metal jamb. Like an undulant ribbon of smoke, as insub­stantial as fumes but not translucent, ink-black, the bodach entered.
Standing rather than slinking on all fours, fluid in shape and with-
out discernible features, yet suggestive of something half man and half canine, this unwanted customer slouched silently from the front to the back of the diner, unseen by all but me.
It seemed to turn its head toward each of our patrons as it glided along the aisle between the counter stools and the booths, hesitating in a few instances, as though certain people were of greater interest to it than were others. Although it possessed no discernible facial fea­tures, a portion of its silhouette appeared headlike, with a suggestion of a dog’s muzzle.
Eventually this creature returned from the back of the diner and stood on the public side of the counter, eyeless but surely watching me as I worked at the short-order station.
Pretending to be unaware of my observer, I focused more intently on the grill and griddle than was necessary now that the breakfast rush had largely passed. From time to time, when I looked up, I never glanced at the bodach but at the customers, at Helen serving with her signature flap-flap-flap, at our other waitress - sweet Bertie Orbic, round in name and fact - at the big windows and the well-baked street beyond, where jacaranda trees cast shadows too lacy to cool and where heat snakes were charmed off the blacktop not by flute music but by the silent sizzle of the sun.
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