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Audio Excerpt

THE GRAPEVINE

 

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Tune: Are You Going with Me? (Pat Metheny and Anna Maria Jopek)

 

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Feeling the jubilation of an escaped felon he shot up the ramp to northbound 101. He had committed the crimes of grand auto theft, assault with an unloaded deadly weapon, and driving under the influence with a burned-out tailight. Barlow would have approved of his filching the car, but he could hardly believe he had the reckless courage to pull the stunt with the gun. It was a premeditated practical joke, not a spur-of-the-moment gag. Even if there was no intent to harm the man, it was a terroristic threat far out of proportion to the menace that Du Goyle perpetrated toward him. Something had sprung out of his dark side that surprised and now shamed him. “I am not that person,” he yelled at the image in the rear-view mirror.

The brake light and the competency of his driving under the influence of all his afflictions would be the hazards to watch out for on the journey, he told himself. A swerving Subaru could invite the dreaded CHP Breathalyzer.

He careened across the bridge unmolested by local law enforcement and without incidents, save the error of lightly grazing the passenger side of the Subaru on a concrete barrier. The aging span groaned beneath him in complaint of the heavy load it must bear day in, day out, its back aching from unrepaired earthquake damage and the insult of its second-fiddle status to its celebrity sister on the other side of the city. When the coroner reached the far shore he marveled at the herd of towering cargo cranes off in the distance to his right, heads cocked like stallions and steel bodies bejeweled by lights to warn off low-flying aircraft. He panicked for a moment when he returned his gaze to the road searching for the lanes that would take him to Interstate 580 and onward to the Southland.

Ordinarily he took Highway 101 to Los Angeles because it was the gentler, greener and more humane route in comparison to the desolate corridor cut by the Interstate 5, which plows in an unwavering straight line down the arid floor of the San Joaquin Valley to the Great Valley choked by peat dust and diesel fumes, the new California. Time was of the essence, however, and he reasoned he could cut two hours off the trip with the inland route.

Cutting through the Oakland Hills on the 580, he concentrated hard to avoid straying across the faded white dashes. He flew past the wind turbines in the Livermore Hills on his starboard, that stood in formation like ghostly green-energy sentries in the dark, some of them with blades loping slow circles in the unusually temperate breeze. He passed the monotonous exurban housing nightmare of the Tracy environs. The exit sign for Highway 130 to Modesto popped up and caught his eye. “Modesto,” he said, wearily acknowledging the city’s existence. Then the road merged with the mighty Interstate 5, and like a rocket launcher the highway blasted him southwards on Barlow’s journey.

Then he heard an annoying violin through the whistling windows and the noisy purr of the engine. It was playing the Flight of the Bumblebee. “Oh God!” he said. “Get that tune out of my head!”

Alcoholics sometimes have auditory hallucinations, not just visions of pink elephants, the coroner knew. Perhaps he was regressing to early childhood. He had to be mindful, at a professional level, about the risks of alcohol in his bloodstream. At a personal level, he had to be respectful of the hideous thumping in his head after the bumblebee quieted down. He became intensely aware of the razor-wire barbs below his rib cage where young men in boots played soccer the night before. Try not to cough, and breathe deeply lest your lungs collapse, he reminded himself. Motoring down the Valley he heard a new sound well up in his eardrums, a soothing drum rhythm smothering the pain. Dong, dodo tock! dodo tock dodo dodo tocka!

The rhythm increased in volume as he drove. Dong, dodo tock! dodo tock dodo dodo tocka! Dong, dodo tock! dodo tock dodo dodo tocka . . .  He buzzed down all four windows to slap cold air on his hot, stinging forehead. Dong, dodo tock! dodo tock dodo dodo tocka! Dong . The rushing wind carried the stench of methane as he passed ranches so vast the offending herds of cattle were out of sight. He watched a sign for the Rastau Rest Area rush by and suddenly became aware of his swollen bladder and parched throat. He had to suppress the urge to take a suicidal U-turn across the concrete median at 80 miles per hour. Clean urinals and artesian drinking fountains would have greeted him there had his reflexes been sharper, he lamented. A cordon of semi-trailer trucks hemmed him into the slow lane and blocked him from passing into safer territory. The coroner was dazed by the trucks’ jumbo halogen headlamps until the sound returned and brought him back to his senses. Dong, dodo tock! dodo tock dodo dodo tocka! The sound was in synch with his heartbeat.

After seventeen miles of gritting teeth and fighting off the gathering peristalsis of his urinary tract he spied the lights of a roadside oasis, Food, Gas and Lodging at exit 47. The Subaru coasted down the off ramp and into the parking lot of a bright red hamburger outlet where he burst through a door marked Men and rid himself of an odiferous brew of uric acid, ketones and alcoholic by-products.

He washed and dried his hands and saw a puffed red face in the mirror, lacerated and sagging with black tea bags under bloodshot eyes. He rolled up Barlow’s borrowed shirtsleeves and splashed the face with cold water. It burned.

“Christ almighty Mother of God I’m a mess,” he grunted, wondering if the fellow making noises in the toilet stall could hear him. “Who the hell cares at this point?” Hush, hush, hush . . .

It was one of those ubiquitous fast food establishments that served prefabricated food, part of a global network renowned for the uniformity of its dry hamburger patties and larded French fries. He squinted in the bright light and asked the chubby girl behind the counter, adorned with the golden N on her breast and tattoos peeking from her sleeves, for a happy dinner with a large cup of black coffee.

“How many creams?” she asked. “Three, please,” he said.

You know you can jumbo-size your meal for another dime,” she chirped.

“No thank you,” he said. “Most everybody gets the jumbo size,” she said with a charming grin that spread ear to ear and displayed shiny blue-colored braces. “It’s too late in the night to be so cheerful, Miss,” he said. “Please just give me the regular. I’ll pay extra for the regular meal if I have to.” She giggled in response.

He noticed an emaciated man in a trench coat and fedora sitting at a plastic booth in the rear corner of the restaurant, his eyes sunk deep into their sockets, his thin cheekbones protruding from his blanched face. He was devouring a happy hamburger with one hand and clutching a bouquet of French fries in the long bony fingers of the other. On the glistening red and yellow table three empty hamburger wrappers and bent french-fry cups sat before him. This man is famished, the coroner thought, and he can’t get enough to sate his hunger.

On his way out the door he thought he heard the man whisper something that sounded like “Oh sigh, oh sigh . . . roos.”

What? He shivered away the mournful incantation. Was he trying to say Osiris, the Egyptian god of something he learned in school but forgot? No, the man was another hungry night traveler mumbling incoherently with his mouth full of junk food, but he turned to take one last look at the curious fellow, who suddenly became animated. His blank stare turned attentive, his dark eyes turned to alabaster. “Are you going to Bardot?” he said.

“No sir,” the coroner said. “I don’t know where Bardot is, never heard of it.” He walked backward toward the door, suspecting this hamburger ghost was going to try conning him into a ride. He waited for the man to make his pitch, claiming his car broke down and he desperately needed a lift to a god-forsaken cow town twenty  miles off the highway named Bardot.

“You’ll pass through it down the road. Everybody does,” the man said before turning back to his meal.

The coroner crouched in the front seat of Barlow’s car and choked down his own food, leaving the creamed-up coffee for consumption later in the drive. As he started the ignition he tasted bile in the back of his throat. He reached a patch of grass behind the edge of the tidy parking lot just in time and used the happy paper napkins from the burger bag to wipe the vomit off his wingtips.

Then he resumed the journey across his ruined map.

It was an endless wide stripe of highway traveled by reckless sport utility vehicles and a motley caravan of big rigs pulling monstrous trailers the size of ranch houses and double loads of corrugated steel shipping containers, all flashing their high beams and honking their air horns as they passed him. He gripped the steering wheel with purple knuckles not daring to turn his neck and watch the trucks swoosh by. Dong, dodo tock! dodo tock dodo dodo tocka! Dong, dodo tock! dodo tock dodo dodo tocka!

The Subaru was obstructing traffic traveling at a mere seventy-eight miles per hour in the slow lane after he engaged cruise control. He noticed the lower rim of the steering wheel was sticky with blood, his own he deduced, but from where? Did he touch his forehead and open a wound when he washed his face? He drank coffee and slapped his thighs to relieve the tense monotony of the road. When he reached down to turn on the radio he caught sight of a white stripe poking out from below the knobs, a cassette tape. He punched it in and the car filled with a quiet pulsating rhythm overlaid by a rippling electronic guitar. The music was a starship, exuding faith and desire, lifting him purposefully off the ground. He recognized the tune and associated it with something good in his early life, but could not call up its title.

Then his mind unpeeled into a reverie. He heard a wall of sound, buzzing, whirring, rising and falling in a shrill, melodic song. He was walking along a familiar road inside a tunnel of elms and oaks, and he was transfixed by the sound and by the crackle of dead cicadas under his feet. He was in the epicenter of a massive brood of 17-year cicadas, the magicicada, which had risen from the ground all across northern Illinois to live a brief life of several weeks, sing, mate, and die. They were not locusts at all, he learned. Locusts are grasshoppers that plagued man by destroying crops when they swarmed down from the sky. The magicicada, however noisy, were harmless, peaceful, uplifting, created to serenade the human species and teach the evanescence of life. It was a blazing hot August afternoon. He was nineteen years old. He remembered watching the Watergate hearings all morning and reading the transcript of one of President Nixon’s paranoid exculpatory speeches in the newspaper, and he heard an echo of Gil Scott-Heron rapping Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell and Dean, it follows a pattern if you dig what I mean. He remembered being spellbound by the mating song that showered down upon him. He remembered wondering where he would go on his long walk and how long it would take him to return.

Whose memory is this? The coroner was confounded by the time and place of the story. He could not recall ever visiting or living in northern Illinois but the roaring sound of the cicadas was sharp and clear as though they sang to him sometime in the past year or two. Was it static from the radio? No, the radio was off and the cassette tape was not playing, still in cradle waiting to be replayed. He listened as the sound of cicadas turned into the mesmerizing rough sound of the road, the rumbling truck tires, grinding engines needing repair, the blaring radios and drunken shouts from a muscle car packed with farm kids, the Doppler effect of a purring of sports car passing at 93 miles an hour. The Subaru made its own noises, an irritating wind whistling through the damaged rubber gasket on the passenger side window and the clunking of some loose auto part under the chassis in back. It went on like this for a hundred miles with his eardrums inhaling an overlay of the rhythm, softer now but the metronome was accelerating. Dong Taka-bodobodo-dum, Dong taka-bodobodo-dum . . . Tah-tah-bodo-bodo-podum, Dong Tah-tah-bodo-bodo-podum . . .

Then there were no trucks, no menacing high-beam headlights, no road signs for what seemed like an eternity. He sped down a stretch of empty highway and took the opportunity to engage Barlow’s cruise control, setting it to a reasonable 73 miles per hour. The highway was so straight he hardly needed to steer toward the vanishing point, freeing his hands to unscrew his flask and wet his throat with vodka. “I’m absolutely alone,” he shouted, “going God knows where.” Hush . . .

Now a dense layer of enchanting tule fog blanketed the road with puffs of swans and demons and daredevil hitchhikers making him swerve to avoid collision with nothing at all. He passed sentient vapors shaped like eels inviting drivers to jump the shoulders of the highway into the milky blackness. Dong, dodo tock! dodo tock dodo dodo tocka!

The coronerlooked into the rear-view mirror to adjust it and when he leaned in he saw a strange face emerge from the milky fog behind the back window coming into the car and gathering on the tinted glass, a scattering of pixilated features that sharpened into the dead man’s face where his own should have been. When he flipped the mirror back from its nighttime position to normal the image of the death mask remained, shaking its head back and forth, mimicking the coroner’s own shaking until he slapped the mirror askew and stomped on the gas pedal to flee the vision.

In time he became very drowsy. He slapped his cheek, pinching the back of his neck and screamed like a banshee to ward off the hypnosis of the tule fog. For a split second the windshield turned black and when he reopened his eyes the car swerved across the highway from the left to the right lane and he heard the pebbly sound of the shoulder on Barlow’s tires before he was able to swing back onto the road praying that a night truck was not hiding in the fog ready to flatten him. The slip-sliding stopped but he continued to feel exhaustion infecting the pit of his stomach The coroner held his breath and made his abdomen taut to resists the sickness. He bellowed “RrrAaahhhh!” to fight off the urge to close his eyes, until his larynx was raw.

He searched desperately for something to keep him awake in the tule fog. He squeezed the tendons on his shoulder in a Vulcan grip and pounded the top of his head with his knuckles, which he regretted immediately when the impact fired hot buckshot into his skull. Then it came to him: Pain was the one thing that would keep him alive.

He had urgent business to conduct another hundred fifty miles ahead so he concentrated on the knives in his ribs, the sickeningly sour trumpets in his head making his temples throb, the open scab itchiness on his forehead, and the merciless yowling in his abscessed tooth. Pain is a whetting stone, he observed. Dong Taka-bodobodo-dum, Dong taka-bodobodo-dum… Tah-tah-bodo-bodo-podum, Dong Tah-dah-bodumo-bodo-podum…

He punched the knob on the radio, hungry for loud music or even screeching static between stations to stir him. Not a sound emerged. Did he break it? The fog was snowy, dark and deep. It was blowing laughing ghouls at his windshield when he saw a sign crop up on the roadside ahead, the first he had seen in an hour. He had to squint to read it. “Rt. 915 East, Khertneter Salt Lake, Next Exit.” The coroner stepped on the accelerator pedal and sped past the turn-off because he knew if he pulled over to rest now he would never reach his destination.

“I wonder if they know,” he said, finding another purpose to stay awake. He overheard them once last year when they were in the staff room speaking in low tones about mysterious deposits of funds in their bank accounts. Listening furtively near the door he could tell neither of them knew the other had been receiving the same anonymous deposits of a thousand dollars a month, which bank officials told them could not be traced to the depositor because they were in cash. The two were baffled when they learned it was happening to both of them.

Next thing he knew he had his mobile phone in hand. He turned it back on and pressed eight, the speed dial number for Wilson, who was exceedingly groggy at four forty-seven in the morning.

“Leo, I’m so glad you called,” he said. “I’ve got incredible news for you. Where the hell have you been?”

“First you have to listen to me, Wilson. I know I’ve done you wrong. But I got something to tell you if you’ll just shut up and listen. I’m taking a little trip and everything is fine so don’t worry.”

“This is bullshit, Leo. I won’t stand by and watch you kill yourself like this! Don’t be such a self-centered asshole. Wherever the hell you are, you turn around and come back home, Leo, because the case is solved. You’re really pissing me off.”

The coroner’s eyes brightened and the fog lifted. He could see clearly the painted lane markers dashing their way up the road ahead of him. The wind blew warmly though his windows carrying the spicy scent of juniper trees. He did not comprehend what Wilson just told him. Something about the case. It could wait.

“Okay, just hear me out, son. I want you to go to my desk and open the file drawer on the left side where you will find a folder tagged “Personal and confidential.” Got me? There are two envelopes inside, one marked Wilson and the other Nicole. Bearer bonds, seventy thousand each. Promise me you’ll get out of the fucking morgue and go back to graduate school, full time, finish your doctorate in EE or whatever the hell it was before you jumped off the cliff and turned yourself into a miserable diener. Tell Nicki to move out of that hovel of hers and buy herself a decent house.”

“Never mind all that Leo. She called!”

“She what?”

“Christina called the morgue asking about Barlow. Evidently she filed a missing persons report with the police after checking with the morgue Saturday. The dots didn’t get connected because of our Monday backup but the cops called her once we officially identified Barlow. She called the morgue, Leo. I talked to her about an hour after I left you at Barlow’s house but you ditched me. She was in hysterics, Leo, she kept wailing and cursing. The woman sure knows how to swear.”

“Okay, Wilson. I got it under control. I’m heading her way right now.

“You’re what? Don’t tell me you’re driving to LA, that’s suicide! Du Goyle got the cops to put out an all-points bulletin for your arrest on attempted homicide charges. What’s that all about?”

The coroner tossed his cell phone out the window and watched it skip and bounce in his side mirror.

A giant semi-trailer broke though the black lacquer wall behind him, flashing its halogen search lights through the car’s back window and tromboning its air horn until it changed lanes, missing the Subaru’s rear fender by inches as it ripped past. He noticed the cola logo on its side and thought he could use a stiff Cuba Libre at that moment to calm his frayed nerves.

Barlow’s car was shocked into an unpiloted space craft now flying at warp speed into a shapeless starless tunnel wrapped in velvet and guided only by the flickering reflection of lane markers caught in the car’s high beams. Tah-tah-bodo-bodo-podum, Dong Tah-tah-bodo-bodo-podum . . . He began to fall asleep again, nodding off and bouncing back to consciousness with each jerk of his floppy neck. He barked like a dog, growled like a lion and hollered oaths so loud it tested the capacity of his lungs and measured the limits of his rib cage to endure pain. The wind, which had been so gentle and warming just minutes earlier, turned freezing cold and made him shiver violently, but he did not dare shut the windows. A sign saying “Bakersfield 37 miles” lit up momentarily and slipped by. He thought he saw the flickering of a sign announcing the town of Weedpatch, then other signs appeared for exits to Sage Brush, Dirt Canyon and Cactus Graveyard. Time went on, indecipherable in its fleeting, slowing, sputtering and quickening pace.

He watched for the enormous Scandinavian furniture store on the right that served as a landmark for the approach to the Grapevine. It should be right here. It’s the size of two or three airplane hangars and would be impossible to miss. But it had disappeared from the landscape. Instead, he saw a road sign he did not recall ever seeing before. “Bardot, Next 3 Exits.”

He felt a jolt of electricity travel up the his hunched spine, from the coccygeal through the sacral to the lumbar and tingling upward to the thoracic curve and his thinning cervical vertebrae, where it triggered a sharp blast of fire beneath the lower edge of his skull. He nearly lost control of the steering wheel before the pain abated. Then his mind started spinning in a whirling dervish of images, sounds and pungent odors as he approached Bardot.

The first exit was marked “Esperanza Negra Ave., Clear Light Tabernacle.” Sounds vaguely Pentecostal or Mormon, he thought, and how very odd it was that he had traveled this highway so many times before and had not noticed the town of Bardot or even heard of the name until the hamburger ghost mentioned it. He would be entering the grapevine soon and billowing his way to the Los Padres National Forest. This must be one of those hellish new bedroom communities springing up everywhere with tracts of huge houses with plastic doors and identical roofs. Bardot’s residents must commute two or three hours to their jobs in the city, he supposed, the poor devils.

He finished what remained in his flask, a few drops, to stanch the rising ache of his entire body. The pain mocked him as his inner ears reverberated to the crazed cadence guiding him to the Grapevine. Dong, dodo tock! dodo tock dodo dodo tocka! Dong, dodo tock! dodo tock dodo dodo tocka! Dong, dodo tock! dodo tock dodo dodo tocka . . .

‘I can do better than that,” he told his muffled ears. He slapped the cassette tape back into its slot to listen to the pulsing rhythm and rising crescendo of an electronic guitar. He suddenly remembered the name of the tune. “Are you going with me?

“Yes,” he said, “I am coming, Christina.”

The second Bardot sign appeared: “Triesteza Blanca Blvd., Locus Plaza, Next Exit.”The coroner thought it might be a good idea to pull off the road here and to get a cup of coffee at the Plaza or at a convenience store that he was certain to find on the Triesteza Blanca strip, but there were no lights in sight and something warned him away, a premonition of dire consequences, a fear that once he entered Bardot he would be unable to get out. The road suddenly filled with semi-trailers and big SUVs with giant wheels as the pitch of the incline threw the car into second gear to catch its purchase on the road. He suddenly noticed that the little nozzle-icon light at the bottom of the gas gauge was flicking on and off, flirting with the empty line. He knew the car would have two or three gallons in reserve when the light went solid, but he worried he might not make it to a gas station at one of the little towns ahead near the mountain pass. A third Bardot sign suddenly manifested itself, reading: “El Camino Dolor, Thodol District Courthouse,Next Exit.” He did not want to gamble on the Grapevine so he resigned himself to visit the wretched town of Bardot to fill up on gas and, if he could find a gauge in the glove compartment, check the tire pressure. Turning off the Interstate he thought he saw palm trees beckoning him from the bottom of the ramp, but when he squeezed his eyes shut and opened them they were gone.

The coroner cruised up and down El Camino Dolor, the town’s main drag paralleling the freeway, looking for a gas station, finding it very odd that there were none in sight. He was not surprised when he saw there were no cars or people on the street at this time of night, but he was taken aback when he saw no lights and heard no sounds, not even a hum. When he pulled into a side-street named Elm Avenue to turn around and head back to the freeway ramp he was puzzled by the lack of houses and buildings in the dark, no sign of life behind the row of dark shops on El Camino Dolor. Turning back he did a double-take when he saw there were no backs to the buildings facing the avenue, just supporting struts angling down from the rooftops.

“Son of a bitch, these are all false fronts,” he exclaimed. “Bardot isn’t a bedroom community, it is a clever illusion. But why? It is like a bad movie set, a Potemkin village, a fairyland without fairies.”

Back on the highway the Subaru’s engine strained to power the vehicle uphill and allow the coroner to merge into traffic and snake up the flank of the Tehachapi Mountain Range. This was the granite barrier separating the vast irrigated desert of the Central Valley, the heartland of California, from the boundless urban sprawl of the Southland. He detected a barely audible voice wafting through the car’s rear speakers that was disturbingly out of synch with music from the cassette: “This you must know of a dying man, the quivering fear, the sputum of lies . . .

“Pipe down back there,” the coroner croaked. “Don’t distract me when I’m concentrating on the road.” He remembered his father saying that all the time on family trips. It took the air out of their yellow station wagon.

Nearly a minute lapsed before the back-seat death rattle resumed, the thrill of swimming in the darkening brine . . .

“Okay, that’s enough,” he said. “I’m warning you!”

“. . .A cowering clock, a hobo, a shrine.”

To hell with this weirdness, he thought. I need to flush it out of my mind like a dirty radiator or I’ll lose my way.

Redolence of evergreen filled the Subaru as the transmission bumped from drive to third gear and the car began navigating the loping switchbacks in the ascent of the Grapevine. Black and gray vehicles honked and flashed their high beams in disgust at the choking pace of the Subaru as they veered past. A sluggish sixteen- wheeler shifted into the lowest gear and blocked him from weaving through the strobe lights to the safety of the right lane. The highway turned east then south and west then south and east again, rising up inclines and sinking into gullies and rising again.

The Subaru’s boxer engine kept losing its power, with pistons begging for a richer injection of fuel, then it regained its vigor when the transmission lurched into third. He looked down at the gas gauge nervously. There’s empty when the panic sets in and there’s truly empty when the car sputters to a stop. The coroner wondered if Barlow had a Triple-A membership card in the glove compartment. How far to the next station in the blackness ahead, he wondered. A whimpering halt on the shoulder would give him a fifty-fifty chance of getting crushed under the giant wheels of an unstoppable Mack truck, even if Barlow did have road service insurance.

“Have I come this far just to fail?” The voice said Hush . . .  The coroner said “Oh shut up yourself, you nasty little twit. For Christ’s sake leave me alone in my own misery! It belongs to me, not some babbling nag out of my bloody conscience.” Dong, dodo tock! dodo tock dodo dodo tocka! Dong . . .

He lightened his foot on the pedal and slowed the chugging little-engine-that-could, coasting in neutral when the road sloped downward to conserve his dwindling supply of gasoline, and when the climbing resumed he reluctantly engaged the transmission to accelerate sparingly uphill. He tried to close his ears to the thunder of horns behind him demanding he go faster . . . dong, dodo tock! dodo toka dong taka . . . until the motorcar sputtered through Los Padres National Forest and reached Tejon Pass. He pulled over into a rest area, reclined his seat and napped fitfully until he heard them banging on his windows and scratching the paint on Barlow’s fenders and hood with razor claws. Were these creatures the guardians of the forest, or the gate to hell? That was the first thought that came to his febrile mind. No, they were raccoons. Panic, dread and terror were their names.

He leaned on the horn to frighten them away but they did not budge, so brazen was this trio of deranged animals peering into the car through their black masks with sinister human eyes. He locked the doors trying to recall whether raccoons had prehensile thumbs they could use to jimmy their way into the front seat to slice open his throat. Do raccoons live at elevations this high? In the lowland forest they raid your campsites foraging for food, knocking over trashcans and slicing open your tent if you forgot to stow away your PowerBars. In residential areas the bandits sneak into your kitchens and claw their way into the pantry for a meal of Cheerios.

“They are not raccoons, they are bewitched tanuki devils,” he said, not knowing exactly what a tanuki was. He had absorbed the word from a crossword puzzle, seventeen across: Japanese badger dog. “I can’t let them stop me here.” He had not been this sober and alert in three days and found the courage to spark the ignition wires and slammed the accelerator pedal, sending the beasts flying off the hood. It was worth wasting gasoline to hear them shriek in surprise on his way back to the expressway. Sweating profusely, he wiped his brow with a rag from Barlow’s passenger seat. The bleeding had stopped, but not the tender pain.

Maybe they were just protecting their young, he wondered. Warding off an intruder. “Oh no. Did I hurt them?”

The fuel held out until he saw distant lights emanating from the town of Lebec, where four spanking clean self-service gas stations welcomed the Subaru as it sputtered down the off ramp. When he slipped his last three dollar bills into the gas pump his eyes navigated to a darkened wooden house across the road that advertised itself as a Mexican restaurant on its switched-off neon sign. If it had been open, and he had not spent the money, he would have ordered a burrito. For a moment he thought he heard a lilting trill from inside the restaurant, sweet women’s voices singing in seductive harmony. He felt a powerful urge to go knock on the door. When he crossed the street, however, the singing turned sour and the harmony broke up into a discordant chorus of feral cats. They scattered in every direction when they heard the coroner approach, hissing and yowling as they disappeared into the trees. “No tortilla scraps for you little vultures tonight,” he hissed back at them. The snarling song of the cats still rang like tinnitus in his ears when he replaced the nozzle and wired the engine alive, but it was soon smothered by the driving beat of the tabla. Dong, dodo tock! dodo tock dodo dodo tocka . . . Dong, dodo tock! dodo tock dodo dodo tocka! Dong, dodo tock! dodo tock dodo dodo tock . . .

Back on the road he felt merciful relief. The dark haze that shrouded the basin below was pocked with pinpoints of light as he descended the southern flank of the mountain range, the tail lights of toy cars commuting to Los Angeles. It was not long before Barlow’s car was snagged by the great city’s mighty gravitational pull and taken prisoner by gridlock. This was a coronary disease that shortsighted road engineers created and that Angelinos must endure, a vast capillary network of surrounding highways conveying too many vehicles into the sclerotic arteries. It can be fatal, he knew from his experience in the morgue. Barlow’s Subaru could only slow down, stop and lurch foreword in frustration when the sea of taillights turned red.

The sun was rising by the time he passed through the San Fernando Valley and followed his path Dong, dodo tock! southeast on the 210 to Pasadena. After exiting at Fair Oaks and finding his way to Green Street he was tantalizingly close to his destination. The coroner’s mood changed when he smelled burning oil from the Subaru’s weary boxer engine and heard an ominous whirling and a growling, which continued for another mile until the car was in its death throes. He had time to pull it over to the curb before it stopped running. He jumped out and opened the hood to look at the motor with uncomprehending eyes.

Christina’s house was three or four blocks away, the coroner reckoned, and so he abandoned ship and started walking, then jogging to his destination. Dong, dodo tock! dodo tock dodo dodo tocka . . .  Chest heaving and legs burning, he ran. Dong, dodo tock! dodo tock dodo dodo tocka! Dong, dodo tock! dodo tock dodo dodo tock . . .  He ran until he collapsed on the sidewalk across the street from her yellow house. Tocka tocka tocka tocka…tock!

 

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