“In my dream,” Viola said, “I saw myself, and my face was… bro­ken, dead. I had a hole in my forehead.”
“Maybe it was a dream about why you married Rafael.”
“Not funny,” Terri admonished me.
“I think maybe I’d been shot,” Viola said.
“Honey,” Terri comforted her, “when’s the last time you had a dream come true?”
“I guess never,” Viola said.
“Then I wouldn’t worry about this one.”
“Best I can remember,” Viola said, “I’ve never before seen myself face-on in a dream.”
Even in my nightmares, which sometimes do come true, I’ve never glimpsed my face, either.
“I had a hole in my forehead,” she repeated, “and my face was… spooky, all out of kilter.”
A high-powered round of significant caliber, upon puncturing the forehead, would release tremendous energy that might distort the structure of the entire skull, resulting in a subtle but disturbing new arrangement of the features.
“My right eye,” Viola added, “was bloodshot and seemed to… to swell half out of the socket.”
In our dreams, we are not detached observers, as are the characters who dream in movies. These internal dramas are usually seen strictly from the dreamer’s point of view. In nightmares, we can’t look into our own eyes except by indirection, perhaps because we fear discover­ing that therein lie the worst monsters plaguing us.
Viola’s face, sweet as milk chocolate, was now distorted by a be­seeching expression. “Tell me the truth, Odd. Do you see death in me?”
I didn’t say to her that death lies dormant in each of us and will bloom in time.
Although not one small detail of Viola’s future, whether grim or bright, had been revealed to me, the delicious aroma of my un­touched cheeseburger induced me to lie in order to get on with lunch: “You’ll live a long happy life and pass away in your sleep, of old age.”
Smiling and nodding, I was unashamed of this deception. For one thing, it might be true. I see no real harm in giving people hope. Besides, I had not sought to be her oracle.
In a better mood than she’d arrived, Viola departed, returning to the paying customers.
Picking up my cheeseburger, I said to Terri, “October 23, 1958.”
“Elvis was in the army then,” she said, hesitating only to chew a bite of her grilled-cheese sandwich. “He was stationed in Germany.”
“That’s not very specific.”
“The evening of the twenty-third, he went into Frankfurt to attend a Bill Haley concert.”
“You could be making this up.”
“You know I’m not.” Her crisp dill pickle crunched audibly when she bit it. “Backstage, he met Haley and a Swedish rock-’n'-roll star named Little Gerhard.”
“Little Gerhard? That can’t be true.”
“Inspired, I guess, by Little Richard. I don’t know for sure. I never heard Little Gerhard sing. Is Viola going to be shot in the head?”
“I don’t know.” Juicy and cooked medium-well, the meat in the cheeseburger had been enhanced with a perfect pinch of seasoned salt. Poke was a contender. “Like you said, dreams are just dreams.”
“She’s had things hard. She doesn’t need this.”
“Shot in the head? Who does need it?”
“Will you look after her?” Terri asked.
“How would I do that?”
“Put out your psychic feelers. Maybe you can stop the thing before it happens.”
“I don’t have psychic feelers.”
“Then ask one of your dead friends. They sometimes know things that are going to happen, don’t they?”
“They’re generally not friends. Just passing acquaintances. Anyway, they’re helpful only when they want to be helpful.”
“If I was dead, I’dhelp you,” Terri assured me.
“You’re sweet. I almost wish you were dead.” I put down the cheeseburger and licked my fingers. “If somebody in Pico Mundo is going to start shooting people, it’ll be Fungus Man.”
“Sat at the counter a while ago. Ordered enough food for three people. Ate like a ravenous swine.”
“That’s my kind of customer. But I didn’t see him.”
“You were in the kitchen. He was pale, soft, with all rounded edges, like something that would grow in Hannibal Lecter’s cellar.”
“He put off bad vibes?”
“By the time he left, Fungus Man had an entourage of bodachs.”
Terri stiffened and looked warily around the restaurant. ‘Any of them here now?”
“Nope. The worst thing on the premises at the moment is Bob Sphincter.”
The real name of the pinchpenny in question was Spinker, but he earned the secret name we gave him. Regardless of the total of his bill, he always tipped a quarter.
Bob Sphincter fancied himself to be two and a half times more gen­erous than John D. Rockefeller, the oil billionaire. According to leg­end, even in the elegant restaurants of Manhattan, Rockefeller had routinely tipped a dime.
Of course in John D’s day, which included the Great Depression, a dime would purchase a newspaper and lunch at an Automat. Cur­rently, a quarter will get you just a newspaper, and you won’t want to read anything in it unless you’re a sadist, a masochist, or a suicidally lonely wretch desperate to find true love in the personal ads.
Terri said, “Maybe this Fungus Man was just passing through town, and he hit the highway as soon as he cleaned his plate.”
“Got a hunch he’s still hanging around.”
“You gonna check him out?”
“If I can find him.”
“You need to borrow my car?” she asked.
“Maybe for a couple hours.”
I walk to and from work. For longer trips, I have a bicycle. In special cases, I use Stormy Llewellyn’s car, or Terri’s,
So many things are beyond my control: the endless dead with all their requests, the bodachs, the prophetic dreams. I’d probably long ago have gone seven kinds of crazy, one for each day of the week, if I didn’t simplify my life in every area where I do have some control. These are my defensive strategies: no car, no life insurance, no more clothes than I absolutely need - mostly T-shirts, chinos, and jeans - no vacations to exotic places, no grand ambitions.
Terri slid her car keys across the table.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Just don’t haul any dead people around in it. Okay?”
“The dead don’t need a ride. They can appear when they want, where they want. They walk through air. They fly,”
‘All I’m saying is, if you tell me some dead person was sitting in my car, I’ll waste a whole day scrubbing the upholstery. It creeps me out.”
“What if it’s Elvis?”
“That’s different.” She finished her dill pickle. “How was Rosalia this morning?” she asked, meaning Rosalia Sanchez, my landlady.
“Visible,” I said.
“Good for her.”
GREEN MOON MALL STANDS ALONG GREEN MOON ROAD, between old-town Pico Mundo and its modern western neighbor­hoods. The huge structure, with walls the color of sand, had been designed to suggest humble adobe construction, as though it were a home built by a family of gigantic Native Americans averaging forty feet in height.
In spite of this curious attempt at environmentally harmonious but deeply illogical architecture, patrons of the mall can still be Star-bucked, Gapped, Donna Karaned, and Crate &Barreled as easily in Pico Mundo as in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, or Miami.
In a corner of the vast parking lot, remote from the mall, stands Tire World. Here the architecture is more playful.
The single-story building supports a tower crowned by a giant globe. This model of Earth, rotating lazily, seems to represent a world of peace and innocence lost when the snake entered Eden.
Like Saturn, this planet sports a ring, not of ice crystals and rocks and dust but of rubber. Encircling the globe is a tire that both rotates and oscillates.
Five service bays ensure that customers will not wait long to have new tires installed. The technicians wear crisp uniforms. They are po­lite. They smile easily. They seem happy-Car batteries can be purchased here, as well, and oil changes are of­fered. Tires, however, remain the soul of the operation.
The showroom is saturated with the enchanting scent of rubber waiting for the road.
That Tuesday afternoon, I wandered the aisles for ten or fifteen minutes, undisturbed. Some employees said hello to me, but none tried to sell me anything.
I visit from time to time, and they know that I am interested in the tire life.
The owner of Tire World is Mr. Joseph Mangione. He is the father of Anthony Mangione, who was a friend of mine in high school.
Anthony attends UCLA. He hopes to have a career in medicine.
Mr. Mangione is proud that his boy will be a doctor, but he is disap­pointed, as well, that Anthony has no interest in the family business. He would welcome me to the payroll and would no doubt treat me as a surrogate son.
Here, tires are available for cars, SUVs, trucks, motorcycles. The sizes and degrees of quality are many; but once the inventory is mem­orized, no stress would be associated with any job at Tire World.
That Tuesday, I had no intention of resigning my spatula at the Pico Mundo Grille anytime soon, although short-order cooking can be stressful when the tables are full, tickets are backed up on the order rail, and your head is buzzing with diner lingo. On those days that also feature an unusual number of encounters with the dead, in addition to a bustling breakfast and lunch trade, my stomach sours and I know that I am courting not merely burnout but also early-onset gastroin­testinal reflux disease.
At times like that, the tire life seems to be a refuge almost as serene as a monastery.
However, even Mr. Mangione’s rubber-scented corner of paradise was haunted. One ghost stubbornly inhabited the showroom.
Tom Jedd, a well-regarded local stonemason, had died eight months previous. His car careened off Panorama Road after midnight, broke through rotted guardrails, tumbled down a rocky hundred-foot em­bankment, and sank in Malo Suerte Lake.
Three fishermen had been in a boat, sixty yards offshore, when Tom went swimming in his PT Cruiser. They called the cops on a cell phone, but emergency-rescue services arrived too late to save him.
Tom’s left arm had been severed in the crash. The county coroner declared himself undecided as to whether Tom had bled to death or drowned first.
Since then, the poor guy had been moping around Tire World. I didn’t know why. His accident had not been caused by a defective tire.
He’d been drinking at a roadhouse called Country Cousin. The au­topsy cited a blood-alcohol level of 1.18, well over the legal limit. He either lost control of the vehicle due to inebriation or he fell asleep at the wheel.
Each time I visited the showroom to stroll the aisles and mull a ca­reer change, Tom realized that I saw him, and he acknowledged me with a look or a nod. Once he even winked at me, conspiratorially.
He had not, however, made any attempt to communicate either his purpose or his needs. He was a reticent ghost.
Some days I wish more of them were like him.
He had died in a parrot-patterned Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, and white sneakers worn without socks. He always appeared in those clothes when he roamed Tire World.
Sometimes he was dry, but at other times he appeared to be soaked, as if he’d just walked out of Malo Suerte Lake. Usually he had both arms, but occasionally his left arm was missing.
You can tell a lot about a dead person’s state of mind by the condi­tion in which he manifests. When dry, Tom Jedd seemed to be re­signed to his fate if not fully at peace with it. When wet, he looked angry or distressed, or sullen.
On this occasion, he was dry. His hair had been combed. He ap­peared to be relaxed.
Tom had both arms this time, but the left wasn’t attached to his shoulder. He carried his left arm in his right hand, casually, as though it were a golf club, gripping it by the biceps.
This grotesque behavior did not include gore. Fortunately, I had never seen him bloody, perhaps because he was squeamish or because he remained in denial that he had bled to death.
Twice, when he knew that I was looking, he used his severed arm as a back scratcher. He clawed between his shoulder blades with the stiff fingers of that detached limb.
As a rule, ghosts are serious about their condition and solemn in their demeanor. They belong on the Other Side but are stuck here, for whatever reasons, and they are impatient to move on.
Once in a while, however, I encounter a spirit with his sense of hu­mor intact. For my amusement, Tom even conspired to pick his nose with the forefinger of his severed arm.
I prefer ghosts to be somber. There’s something about a walking dead man trying to get a laugh that chills me, perhaps because it sug­gests that even postmortem we have a pathetic need to be liked - as well as the sad capacity to humiliate ourselves.
If Tom Jedd had been in less of a jokey mood, I might have lingered longer at Tire World. His shtick disturbed me, as did his twinkly-eyed smile.
As I walked to Terri’s Mustang, Tom stood at a showroom window, vigorously and clownishly waving good-bye with his severed arm.
I drove across sun-scorched acres of parking lot and found a space for the Mustang near the main entrance to the mall, where workmen were hanging a banner announcing the big annual summer sale that would run Wednesday through Sunday.
Inside this cavernous retail mecca, most of the stores appeared to be only moderately busy, but the Burke &Bailey’s ice-cream parlor drew a crowd.
Stormy Llewellyn has worked at Burke &Bailey’s since she was six­teen. At twenty, she’s the manager. Her plan is to own a shop of her own by the time she’s twenty-four.
If she had gone into astronaut training after high school, she would have a lemonade stand on the moon by now.
“According to her, she’s not ambitious, just easily bored and in need of stimulation. I have frequently offered to stimulate her.
She says she’s talking about mental stimulation.
I tell her that, in case she hasn’t noticed, I do have a brain.
She says there’s definitely no brain in my one-eyed snake and that what might be in my big head is still open to debate.
“Why do you think I sometimes call you Pooh?” she once asked.
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