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Authors: James Sallis

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BOOK: Drive
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Chapter Thirty

When Driver was a kid, every night for what seemed like a year he had this same dream. He’d be up on the side of the house with his toes on the molding, where the first floor was eight feet or so off the ground since the house was built into a hill, and there’d be a bear under him. The bear would go reaching for him, he’d pull up on a window casing, and after a while, frustrated, the bear would pick a tulip or iris from the bed of them at the base of the house and eat it. Then he’d go back to scrambling for Driver. Finally the bear would pick another tulip, look thoughtful, and offer it to Driver. Driver was always reaching for the tulip when he awoke.

This was back in Tucson, when he lived with the Smiths. His best friend then was Herb Danziger. Herb was a car nut, worked on cars in his backyard and made good money at it, challenging the pay both from his father’s job as security guard and his mother’s as a nurse’s aide. There’d always be a ’48 Ford or a ’55 Chevy sitting there with the hood up and half its innards laid out on a tarp on the ground nearby. Herb had one of those massive blue Chilton automobile repair manuals, but Driver never saw him look at it, not once in all those years.

Driver’s first and last fight at the new school happened when the local bully came up to him on the schoolyard and told Driver he shouldn’t be hanging around Jews. Driver had vaguely been aware that Herb was Jewish, but he was still more vague about why anyone would want to make something of that. This bully liked to flick people’s ears with his middle finger, shooting it off his thumb. When he tried it this time, Driver met his wrist halfway with one hand, stopping it cold. With the other hand he reached across and very carefully broke the boy’s thumb.

The other thing Herb did, was race cars at a track out in the desert between Tucson and Phoenix, in this truly weird landscape inhabited by ten-foot-high dust devils, cholla that looked like some kind of undersea plant gone astray, and grand saguaro cacti with limbs pointing to heaven like the fingers of people in old religious paintings, riddled with holes hosting generations of birds. The track had been built by a group of young hispanics who, rumor had it, controlled the marijuana traffic up from Nogales. Herb was an outsider, but welcome for his skills as driver and mechanic.

First few times Driver went along, Herb would send him out to run the track with cars he’d just worked up, wanting to watch their performance. But once he got a taste of it, Driver couldn’t hold himself back. He started pushing the cars, giving them their head, seeing what was in there. Soon it became clear he was a natural. Herb stopped driving and stayed in the pit after that. He tore the cars down and put them back together, same thing you do to build muscle; Driver took them out into the world.

It was also at the track that Driver met his only other good friend, Jorge. Just beginning to find the one thing he would ever be good at, Driver was astonished at someone like Jorge, who seemed so effortlessly good at everything. Played guitar and accordion in a local conjunto and wrote his own songs, drove competitively, was an honor student, sang solos in the church choir, worked with troubled juveniles at a shelter. If the boy owned a shirt besides the one he wore to church, Driver never saw it. He was always in one of those old-style ribbed undershirts, black jeans and gray nubbly cowboy boots. Jorge lived in South Tucson, in a shambling, much-amended house with three or four generations of family and an indeterminate number of children. Driver’d sit there chowing down on homemade tortillas, refried beans, burritos and pork stew with tomatillos surrounded by people babbling away in a language he couldn’t understand. But he was a friend of Jorge’s so he was family too, no question about it. Jorge’s ancient abuela was always the first to rush out onto the dirt driveway to greet him. She’d ferry him in, forearm clamped against hers as though they strolled the boardwalk, babbling away excitedly the whole time. Out back often as not there’d be drunken men with guitarrons, guitars and mandolins, violins, accordions, trumpets, the occasional tuba.

That’s where he learned about guns, too. Late evening, the men would get together and head out into the desert for target practice, both practice and target pretty much euphemism. Sipping at six packs of beer and bottles of Buchanan’s scotch, they blazed away at anything in sight. But for all their seeming carelessness over application, they took the instruments dead seriously. From them Driver learned how these small machines must be respected, how they had to be cleaned and set up, why certain handguns were preferred, their quirks and shortcomings. Some of the younger men were into other things, like knives, boxing and martial arts. Driver, always a watcher and a quick study, picked up a few things from them as well, just as, years later, he’d pick things up from stunt men and fighters in movies he worked on.

Chapter Thirty-one

He took Nino down at six a.m. on a Monday. Weather report said it would climb to a balmy 82-degree high, gentle clouds from the east, forty percent chance of light rain later in the week. In slippers and a thin seersucker bathrobe Isaiah Paolozzi came out the front door of his Brentwood home, his mission twofold. Pick up this morning’s L.A. Times from the drive. Fire up the sprinklers. Never mind that each burst from those sprinklers was water stolen from others. No other way you turned a desert into sculptured green lawns.

Never mind that Nino’s entire life was stolen from others.

As Nino bent to pick up the paper, Driver stepped out of the recess beside the front door. He was there when Nino turned.

Eye to eye, neither blinked.

“I know you?”

“We spoke once,” Driver said.

“Yeah? What’d we talk about?”

“Things that matter. Like how once a man makes a deal he keeps to it.”

“Sorry. Don’t remember you.”

“What a surprise.”

Perfect round hole between his eyes, Nino staggered back against the partially opened front door, pushing it the rest of the way open. His legs remained on the porch. Varicose veins like thick blue snakes stood out on them. A slipper fell off. His toenails were thick as planks.

From somewhere back inside the house, a radio issued morning traffic reports.

Driver set the box with its large pepperoni, double cheese, no anchovies, on Nino’s chest.

The pizza smelled good.

Nino didn’t.

Chapter Thirty-two

It looked just as he remembered.

There are all these places in the world, he thought, all these pockets of existence, where nothing much ever changes. Tide pools.

Amazing.

Mr. Smith, he assumed, was off at work, the Mrs. at one or another of her endless meetings. Church, school board, local charities.

He pulled up in front of the house.

Neighbors would be peeking out their windows, fingering slats of venetian blinds apart, wondering what business anyone driving a classic Stingray could possibly have with the Smiths.

What they saw was a young man climbing from the car, going around to the passenger side to extract a new cat carrier and a well-worn duffel bag. On the porch he set these down. He stepped close to the door, after a moment eased it open. They watched him pick up the cat carrier and duffel bag and step inside. Almost immediately he was walking back down the drive. He got in the Corvette and drove away.

He remembered how it had been, everyone knowing everyone else’s business, all the open secrets, the lot of them believing they had the only true, real life and all others were counterfeit.

Along with the cat carrier and duffel bag he’d left a note.

Her name is Miss Dickinson. I can’t say she belonged to a friend of mine who just died, since cats don’t belong to anyone, but the two of them walked the same hard path, side by side, for a long time. She deserves to spend the last years of her life in some security. So do you. Please take care of Miss Dickinson, just as you did me, and please accept this money in the spirit it’s offered. I always felt bad about taking your car when I left. Never doubt that I appreciate what you did for me.

Chapter Thirty-three

Couldn’t have been easy for his father. Driver didn’t remember much about it, really, but even then, as a kid, dawn of the world, he’d known things weren’t right. She’d put eggs she forgot to hard-boil on the table, open cans of spaghetti and sardines and throw them together, serve up a platter of mayonnaise and onion sandwiches. For a time she’d been obsessed by insects. Whenever she found one crawling, she’d cover it with a water glass and leave it to die. Then (in his father’s words) she “took up with” a spider that established a web in one corner of the tiny half-bath where she retired each morning to apply the eyeliner, foundation, blush and cover providing the mask without which she would not launch herself into the world. She’d catch flies in her hand and throw them onto the web, prowl outside at night for crickets and moths and deliver those. First thing she’d do upon return, any time she left the apartment, was check on Fred. The spider even had a name.

Mostly, when she spoke to him at all, she just called him boy. Need any help with schoolwork, boy? Got enough clothes, boy? You like those little cans of tuna for lunch, right, boy? and crackers?

Never close to the ground, she drifted ever farther away from it, until he began to think of her as somehow exempt, not so much above this world as several steps to one side or the other of it.

Then that night at dinner with the old man spewing blood onto his plate. Ear there too, like a portion of meat. Driver’s sandwich of Spam and mint jelly on toast. As his mother so carefully set down butcher and bread knives, perfectly aligned, having no further need of them.

I’m sorry, son.

Could this be a real memory? And if so, why had it taken so long to emerge? Could his mother actually have said that? Spoken to him that way?

Imagination or memory, let it go on.

Please.

Probably I’ve only made your life more complicated. Not what I’d hoped for….Things get so tangled up.

“I’ll be okay. What’s going to happen to you, Mom?”

Nothing that hasn’t already. Time to come, you’ll understand.

Imagination. He’s pretty sure of that.

But now he finds himself wanting to tell her how, as time has gone by, he doesn’t understand.

How he never will.

Meanwhile he’d ridden his new buggy home to the latest of local habitations. Name: Blue Flamingo Motel. Weekly rates, nothing much else around and a generous expanse of parking lot, ready access to major arteries and interstates.

Settling in, he poured half a fist of Buchanan’s. Traffic sounds, TV from rooms close by. Spin, bang, slide and clatter of skateboards out on the parking lot, a favorite with neighborhood kids, apparently. Thwack of the occasional traffic or police helicopter overhead. Pipes banged in the walls whenever neighboring roomers roused and took to showers or toilets.

He picked up the phone on the first ring.

“I hear it’s done,” his caller said.

“Done as it’ll get.”

“His family?”

“All still asleep.”

“Yeah. Well, Nino never slept much himself. I told him it was a bad conscience working its bony fingers up into him. He claimed he didn’t have one.”

A moment’s silence.

“You didn’t ask how I knew where you were.”

“Tape across the bottom of the door. You replaced it, but it never quite re-adheres.”

“So you knew I’d be calling.”

“Sooner rather than later, I assumed—given the circumstances.”

“Kind of pitiful, aren’t we, the two of us? All this high technology swarming about us and here we are still relying on a piece of Scotch tape.”

“One tool’s much like another, long as it gets the job done.”

“Yeah, I know something about that. Been something of a tool myself, all my life.”

Driver said nothing.

“Fuck it. Your job’s done, right? Nino’s dead. What’s left on the plate? You see any reason this should go on?”

“It doesn’t have to.”

“Got plans for tonight?”

“Nothing I can’t ignore.”

“Okay. So here’s what I’m thinking. We get together, have a few drinks, maybe dinner after.”

“We could do that, sure.”

“You know Warszawa? Polish joint, corner of Santa Monica and Lincoln Boulevards?”

One of the ugliest streets in a city of many, many ugly streets.

“I can find it.”

“Unless you insist on pizza.”

“Funny.”

“Yeah. It was, actually. All those coupons. Place—Warszawa, you got that, right?—shares its parking lot with a carpet store, but no problem, there’s plenty of room. Around, what? Seven? Eight? What works for you?”

“Seven’s good.”

“It’s a small place, no bar or anything like that where you can wait. I’ll go on in, get us a table.”

“Sounds good.”

“Time we met.”

Putting the phone to rest, Driver poured another couple of inches of Buchanan’s. Close to noon now, he reckoned, most of the city’s good folk itching to bail on job and duty and escape to lunch or a stamp-size park somewhere. Call home, see how the kids are, place a bet with the bookie, set up a meet with the mistress. The motel was deserted. When housekeeping knocked at the door, he said he was fine, didn’t need service today.

He was remembering a time not long after he’d come to L.A. Many weeks of scrambling to stay off the streets, to stay out of harm’s way and that of cruising sharks, scavengers and cops, scrambling just to stay alive, stay afloat. All was anxiety. Where would he live? How would he support himself? Would Arizona authorities suddenly appear to haul him back? He lived, slept and ate in the Galaxie, gaze ratcheting from street to roofs and windows nearby, back to the street, to the rear view mirror, to shadows back in the alley.

Then a great peace came over him.

He opened his eyes one day and there it was, waiting, miraculous. A balloon in his heart. He got his usual double hit of coffee at the mom-and-pop convenience store nearby, took up squatting space on a low wall before hedges entangled with food wrappers and plastic carry bags, and realized he’d been sitting there for almost an hour without ever thinking once about….well, anything.

This is what people are talking about when they use words like grace.

That moment, that morning, came vividly back to him whenever he thought of it. But soon suspicion set in. He understood well enough that life by very definition is upset, movement, agitation. Whatever counters or denies this can’t be life, it has to be something else. Was he caught in some variant of that abstract, subatmospheric nonworld where his mother’s life had simmered away unnoticed? Luckily, this was about the time he met Manny Gilden.

And now, from a phone booth outside the mom-and-pop convenience store, just as he did that long-ago night, he calls Manny. Half an hour later they’re walking by the sea out Santa Monica way, a stone’s throw from Warszawa.

“Back when we first met,” Driver said, “and I was just a kid—”

“Looked in a mirror lately? You’re still just a fuckin’ kid.”

“—I told you how I was at peace, how it scared me. You remember that?”

A museum of American culture in miniature, a disemboweled time capsule—burger and taco sacks, soda and beer cans, tied-off condoms, magazine pages, articles of clothing—washed up on shore with each thrust of the waves.

“I remember. What you’ll find out is, only the lucky ones are able to forget.”

“Sounds heavy.”

“Line from a script I’m working on.”

Neither spoke for a while then. They walked along the beach, this whole other demotic, bustling life, one they’d never know or be a part of, encircling them. Skaters, muscle men and mimes, armies of carefree young variably pierced and tattooed, beautiful women. Manny’s latest project was about the Holocaust and he was thinking of Paul Celan: There was earth inside them, and they dug. These people seemed somehow to have dug free.

“I told you my story about Borges and Don Quixote,” he said to Driver. “Borges is writing about that great sense of adventure, of the Don’s riding out to save the world—”

“Even if it’s only a few windmills.”

“—and some pigs.

“Then he says: ‘The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.’”

They’d come back around, to the parking lot. Manny walked to a forest-green Porsche and unlocked it.

“You’ve got a Porsche?” Driver said. Christ, he didn’t even think Manny drove. Way he lived, way he dressed. Asking if Driver could take him to New York.

“Why’d you call, boy? What did you want from me?”

“The company of a friend, I think.”

“Always a cheap treat.”

“And to tell you—”

“That you’re Borges.” Manny laughed. “Of course you are, you dumb shit. That’s the whole point.”

“Yes. But now I understand.”

BOOK: Drive
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