I offered him the beer, gladly. He nudged my hand aside.
“What have you done about the haircut?” I said.
“Mr. Smith had a really lousy haircut the afternoon before he died. His friend moaned about it at the morgue, remember? I knew only one really lousy barber could have done it.”
I told Crumley about Cal, the prizes promised William Smith, Myron’s Ballroom, Modesti’s, the big red train.
Crumley listened patiently, and said, “Flimsy.”
“It’s all we got,” I said. “You want me to check the Venice Cinema to see if they saw him out front the night he disappeared?”
“No,” said Crumley.
“You want me to check Modesti’s, the train, Myron’s Ballroom?”
“No,” said Crumley.
“What do you want me to do, then?”
“Stay out of it.”
“Because,” said Crumley, and stopped. He glanced at the back door of his house. “Anything happens to you, my goddamn novel never gets finished. Somebody’s got to read the damn thing, and I don’t know anybody else.”
“You forget,” I said. “Whoever stood outside your house last night stands outside mine already. I can’t let him do that, can I? I can’t go on being spooked by that guy who gave me the title I just typed on your machine. Can I?”
Crumley looked at my face and I could see his thinking was, apricot pie, banana cake, and strawberry ice cream.
“Just be careful,” he said, at last. “The old man may have slipped and knocked his head and was dead when he hit the water, which is why there was no water in his lungs.”
“And then he swam over and put himself in the cage. Sure.”
Crumley squinted at me, trying to guess my weight.
Silently, he went away into the jungle and was gone about a minute. I waited.
Then, far away, I heard an elephant trombone the wind. I turned slowly, into a drench of garden rain, listening. A lion, closer, opened his vast beehive valves and exhaled a killer swarm. A herd of antelopes and gazelles dusted by like a summer wind of sound, touching the dry earth, moving my heart to their run.
Crumley was suddenly on the path, smiling wildly, like a boy half-proud, half-ashamed of a madness unknown to all the world until now, this hour. He snorted and gestured two fresh beers up at six lilyhorn sound systems suspended like great dark flowers in the trees. From these, the antelopes, gazelles, and zebras circled our lives and protected us from the nameless beasts out beyond the bungalow fences. The elephant blew his nose once more and knocked my soul flat.
“African recordings,” said Crumley, unnecessarily.
“Swell,” I said. “Hey, what’s that?”
Ten thousand African flamingos airlifted from a bright freshwater lagoon back five thousand days ago when I was a high school kid and Martin and Osa Johnson were flying in from the wildebeest African trails to walk among us plain folks in California and tell great tales.
And then I remembered.
The day I was supposed to run full speed to hear Martin Johnson speak, he had been killed in a plane crash just outside L.A.
But right now, in Elmo Crumley’s jungle compound Eden retreat, there were Martin Johnson’s birds.
My heart went with them.
I looked at the sky and said, “What are you going to do, Crumley?”
“Nothing,” he said. “The old canary lady is going to live forever. You can bet on it.”
“I’m broke,” I said.
When the drowned people showed up later that day, it really spoiled the picnics all up and down the beach. People were indignant, packed their hampers, went home. Dogs that ran eagerly down to look at the strangers lying on the shore were called back by angry women or irritable men. Children were herded away and sent off with a reprimand, not to associate with such peculiar strangers ever again.
Drowning, after all, was a forbidden subject. Like sex, it was never discussed. It followed then that when a drowned person dared touch shore, he or she was persona non grata. Children might dash down to hold dark ceremonies in their minds, but the ladies who remained after the families had cringed off and gone away raised their parasols and turned their backs, as if someone with unruly breath had called from the surf. Nothing in Emily Post could help the situation. Very simply the lost surfers had come without invite, permission, or warning and like unwanted relatives had to be hustled off to mysterious ice-houses inland, at a double dogtrot.
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