“Because I’m cuddly?”
“Because Pooh’s head is full of stuffin’.”
Our life together isn’t always a New Wave Abbott and Costello rou­tine. Sometimes she’s Rocky and I’m Bullwinkle.
I went to the counter in Burke &Bailey’s and said, “I need some­thing hot and sweet.”
“We specialize in cold,” Stormy said. “Go sit out there in the prom­enade and be good. I’ll bring you something.”
Although busy, the parlor offered a few empty tables; however, Stormy prefers not to chat on the premises. She is an object of
fascination for some of the other employees, and she doesn’t want to give them fuel for gossip.
I understand precisely how they feel about her. She’s an object of fascination for me, too.
Therefore I stepped out of Burke & Bailey’s, into the public prome­nade, and sat with the fish.
Retail sales and theater have joined forces in America: Movies are full of product placements, and malls are designed with drama in mind. At one end of Green Moon Mall, a forty-foot waterfall tumbled down a cliff of man-made rocks. From the falls, a stream coursed the length of the building, over a series of diminishing rapids.
At the end of a compulsive-shopping spree, if you realized that you had bankrupted yourself in Nordstrom, you could fling yourself into this water feature and drown.
Outside Burke &Bailey’s, the stream ended in a tropical pond sur­rounded by palm trees and lush ferns. Great care had been taken to make this vignette look real. Faint recorded bird calls echoed hauntingly through the greenery.
Except for the lack of enormous insects, suffocating humidity, malaria victims groaning in death throes, poisonous vipers as thick as mosquitoes, and rabid jungle cats madly devouring their own feet, you would have sworn you were in the Amazon rainforest.
In the pond swam brightly colored koi. Many were large enough to serve as a hearty dinner. According to the mall publicity, some of these exotic fish were valued as high as four thousand dollars each; tasty or not, they weren’t within everyone’s grocery budget.
I sat on a bench with my back to the koi, unimpressed by their flashy fins and precious scales.
In five minutes, Stormy came out of Burke & Bailey’s with two cones of ice cream. I enjoyed watching her walk toward me.
Her uniform included pink shoes, white socks, a hot-pink skirt, a
matching pink-and-white blouse, and a perky pink cap. With her Mediterranean complexion, jet-black hair, and mysterious dark eyes, she looked like a sultry espionage agent who had gone undercover as a hospital candy striper.
Sensing my thoughts, as usual, she sat beside me on the bench and said, “When I have my own shop, the employees wont have to wear stupid uniforms.”
“I think you look adorable.”
“I look like a goth Gidget.”
Stormy gave one of the cones to me, and for a minute or two we sat in silence, watching shoppers stroll past, enjoying our ice cream.
“Under the hamburger and bacon grease,” she said, “I can still smell the peach shampoo.”
“I’m an olfactory delight.”
“Maybe one day when I have my own shop, we can work together and smell the same.”
“The ice-cream business doesn’t move me. I love to fry.”
“I guess it’s true,” she said.
“Is this the new flavor came in last week?” I asked.
“Cherry chocolate coconut chunk?”
“Coconut cherry chocolate chunk,” she corrected. “You’ve got to get the proper adjective in front of chunk or you’re screwed.”
“I didn’t realize the grammar of the ice-cream industry was so rigid.”
“Describe it your way, and some weasel customers will eat the whole thing and then ask for their money back because there weren’t chunks of coconut in it. And don’t ever call me adorable again. Pup­pies are adorable.”
“As you were coming toward me, I thought you looked sultry.”
“The smart thing for you would be to stay away from adjectives al­together.”
“Good ice cream,” I said. “Is this the first taste you’ve had?”
“Everyone’s been raving about it. But I didn’t want to rush the ex­perience.”
“Yeah, it makes everything sweeter.”
“Wait too long, and what was sweet and creamy can turn sour.”
“Move over Socrates. Odd Thomas takes the podium.”
I know when the thin ice under me has begun to crack. I changed the subject. “Sitting with my back to all those koi creeps me out.”
“You think they’re up to something?” she asked.
“They’re too flashy for fish. I don’t trust them.”
She glanced over her shoulder, at the pond, then turned her atten­tion once more to the ice cream. “They’re just fornicating.”
“How can you tell?”
“The only thing fish ever do is eat, excrete, and fornicate.”
“The good life.”
“They excrete in the same water where they eat, and they eat in the semen-clouded water where they fornicate. Fish are disgusting.”
“I never thought so until now,” I said.
“How’d you get out here?”
“You been missing me?”
“Always. But I’m looking for someone.” I told her about Fungus Man. “This is where my instinct brought me.”
When someone isn’t where I expect to find him, neither at home nor at work, then sometimes I cruise around on my bicycle or in a bor­rowed car, turning randomly from street to street. Usually in less than
half an hour, I cross paths with the one I seek. I need a face or a name for focus, but then I’m better than a bloodhound.
This is a talent for which I have no name. Stormy calls it “psychic magnetism.”
‘And here he comes now,” I said, referring to Fungus Man, who am­bled along the promenade, following the descending rapids toward the tropical koi pond.
Stormy didn’t have to ask me to point the guy out to her. Among the other shoppers, he was as obvious as a duck in a dog parade.
Although I had nearly finished the ice cream without being chilled, I shivered at the sight of this strange man. He trod the travertine promenade, but my teeth chattered as if he had just walked across my grave.
PALE, PUFFY, HIS WATERY GRAY GAZE FLOATING OVER store windows, looking almost as bemused as an Alzheimer’s patient who has wandered out of his care facility into a world he no longer recognizes, Fungus Man carried stuffed shopping bags from two department stores.
“What’s that yellow thing on his head?” Stormy asked.
“I think it’s a crocheted yarmulke.”
“No, it’s hair.”
Fungus Man went into Burke & Bailey’s.
‘Are the bodachs still with him?” Stormy asked.
“Not as many as before. Just three.”
“And they’re in my store with him?”
“Yeah. They all went inside.”
“This is bad for business,” she said ominously.
“Why? None of your customers can see them.”
“How could slinky, slithering evil spirits be good for business?” she countered. “Wait here.”
I sat with the fornicating koi at my back and the unfinished ice cream in my right hand. I had lost my appetite.
Through the windows of Burke &Bailey’s, I could see Fungus Man at the counter. He studied the flavor menu, then placed an order.
Stormy herself didn’t serve him but hovered nearby, behind the counter, on some pretense.
I didn’t like her being in there with him. I sensed that she was in danger.
Although experience has taught me to trust my feelings, I did not go inside to stand guard near her. She had asked me to wait on the bench. I had no intention of crossing her. Like most men, I find it mor­tifying to be ass-kicked by a woman who doesn’t even weigh 110 pounds after Thanksgiving dinner.
If I’d had a lamp and a genie and one wish, I would have wished myself back to Tire World, to the serenity of that showroom with its aisles of soothingly round rubber forms.
I thought of poor Tom Jedd, waving good-bye with his severed arm, and I decided to finish my ice cream, after all. None of us ever knows when he’s approaching the end of his road. Maybe this was the last scoop of coconut cherry chocolate chunk that I’d ever have a chance to eat.
As I finished the final bite, Stormy returned and sat beside me again. “He’s ordered takeout. One quart of maple walnut and one quart of mandarin-orange chocolate.”
‘Are the flavors significant?”
“That’s for you to decide. I’m just reporting in. He’s sure one megaweird sonofabitch. I wish you’d just forget about him.”
“You know I can’t.”
“You have a messiah complex, got to save the world.”
“I don’t have a messiah complex. I just have… this gift. It wouldn’t have been given to me if I wasn’t supposed to use it.”
“Maybe it’s not a gift. Maybe it’s a curse.”
“It’s a gift.” Tapping my head, I said, “I’ve still got the box it came in.”
Fungus Man stepped out of Burke & Bailey’s. In addition to the two department-store bundles, he carried a quilted, insulated bag that contained the ice cream.
He looked right, looked left, and right again, as though not certain from which direction he had arrived here. His vague smile, which seemed to be as permanent as a tattoo, widened briefly, and he nod­ded as though in cheerful agreement with something that he’d said to himself.
When Fungus Man began to move, heading upstream toward the waterfall, two bodachs accompanied him. For the moment, the third remained in Burke &Bailey’s.
Rising from the bench, I said, I’ll see you for dinner, Goth Gidget.”
“Try to show up alive,” she said. “Because, remember, I can’t see the dead.”
I left her there, all pink and white and sultry, in the palmy tropics with the scent of amorous koi, and I followed the human mushroom to the main entrance of the mall and then out into sunshine almost sharp enough to peel the corneas off my eyes.
The griddle-hot blacktop seemed but one degree cooler than the molten tar pits that had sucked down dinosaurs in distant millennia. The air flash-dried my lips and brought to me that summer scent of desert towns that is a melange of superheated silica, cactus pollen, mesquite resin, the salts of long-dead seas, and exhaust fumes sus­pended in the motionless dry air like faint nebulae of mineral particles spiraling through rock crystal.
Fungus Man’s dusty Ford Explorer stood in the row behind mine and four spaces farther west. If my psychic magnetism had been any stronger, we would have been parked bumper to bumper.
He opened the tailgate of the SUV and put in the shopping bags.
He had brought a Styrofoam cooler to protect the ice cream, and he snugged both quarts in that insulated hamper.
Earlier, I had forgotten to prop the reflective sun barrier against the windshield in the Mustang. It was folded and tucked between the pas­senger’s seat and the console. Consequently, the steering wheel had grown too hot to touch.
I started the engine, turned on the air conditioner, and used my rearview and side mirrors to monitor Fungus Man.
Fortunately, his movements were nearly as slow and methodical as the growth of mildew. By the time he backed out of his parking space, I was able to follow him without leaving scraps of blistered skin on the steering wheel.
We had not yet reached the street when I realized that none of the bodachs had accompanied the smiley man when he’d left the mall. None were currently in the Explorer with him, and none loped after it, either.
Earlier, he had departed the Grille with an entourage of at least twenty, which had shrunk to three when he arrived at Burke & Bailey’s. The bodachs are usually devout in their attendance to any man who will be the source of terrible violence, and they do not desert him until the last drop of blood has been spilled.
I wondered if Fungus Man was, after all, the evil incarnation of Death that I had taken him to be.
The lake of blacktop glistened with so much stored heat that it ap­peared to have no more surface tension than water, and yet the Explorer cruised across it without leaving wake or wimple.
Even in the absence of bodachs, I continued to trail my quarry. My shift at the Grille was done. The rest of the afternoon as well as the evening lay ahead. No one is more restless than a short-order cook at loose ends
CAMP’S END IS NOT A TOWN IN ITSELF BUT A NEIGHBORhood of Pico Mundo that is the living memory of hard times even when the rest of our community is experiencing an economic boom. More lawns are dead than not, and some are gravel. Most of the small houses need new stucco, fresh paint, and a truce with termites.
Shacks were built here in the late 1800s, when prospectors with more dreams than common sense were drawn to the area by silver and rumors of silver. They discovered rich veins of the latter.
Over time, as the prospectors became legend and could not be found anymore in the flesh, the weathered shacks were replaced by cottages, shingled bungalows, and casitas with barrel-tile roofs.
In Camp’s End, however, renovation turned to ruin faster than else­where. Generation after generation, the neighborhood retained its es­sential character, an air not so much of defeat as of weary patience: the sag, the peel, the rust, the bleak and blanched but never quite hopeless spirit of a precinct in purgatory.
Hard luck seemed to seep out of the ground itself, as though the
devil’s rooms in Hades were directly beneath these streets, his sleeping loft so near the surface that his fetid breath, expelled with every snore, percolated through the soil.
Fungus Man’s destination was a pale-yellow stucco casita with a faded blue front door. The carport leaned precipitously, as if the weight of sunshine alone might collapse it.
I parked across the street from the house, in front of an empty lot full of parched jimson weed and brambles as intricately woven as a dreamcatcher. They had caught only crumpled papers, empty beer cans, and what appeared to be a tattered pair of men’s boxer shorts.
As I put down the car windows and switched off the engine, I watched Fungus Man carry his ice cream and other packages into the house. He entered by a side door in the carport shadows.
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