Frank shook his head and carried on walking, but the old man limped along beside him. âI can always tell when someone's lost. They have that look about them.'
âReally? What look is that?'
âThat lost look.'
âWell, let me put your mind at rest. I'm not lost. In fact I know exactly where I'm going and I really don't need anybody to help me. Particularly you.'
âYou're misunderstanding my meaning. When I say “lost,” I don't mean geographically lost. I mean lost in the sense that you don't know what the hell you're going to do next.'
Frank stopped, reached into his shirt pocket and gave the old man a ten-dollar bill. The old man took it and flapped it from side to side. âWhat's this for?'
âPhilosophical services rendered. Now will you push off and leave me alone?'
The old man pulled his mouth down in an exaggerated expression of dismay. âI'm not a panhandler, if that's what you're thinking. I can tell when people need guidance, that's all. I can see when they've reached an impasse.'
âWell, that's a very great gift. Now, if you'll justÂ .Â .Â .' He made a toddling gesture with his fingers.
The old man stayed where he was, so Frank carried on walking toward the pier. He had only gone a few paces, however, when the old man called out, âIt wasn't your fault, Frank!'
Frank felt a fizzing sensation in his scalp, as if he had touched a bare electric wire. He turned around and stared at the old man. â
âYou heard me. It wasn't your fault.'
âHow do you know my name?' Frank demanded, walking back to him.
âThat's a gift, too. See that girl on the roller-skates there? Her name's Helena. Go ask her if you don't believe me. See that fellow with the dog? Guy.'
âThis is a scam. Get the hell out of here before I call a cop.'
âNo scam, Frank. It wasn't your fault, and that's the top and bottom of it. What you have to do now is forgive yourself, and move on.'
âSo why should you care?'
The old man took out a filthy crumpled handkerchief and blew his nose. âI care because I care because I care. What's the point of having a God-granted gift if you never share it with anyone?'
âAll right, you know my name, or else you've guessed it, or you've seen me on TV. What does that prove?'
âI know more than your name, Frank. I know what's going to happen to you. I know the reason you're here, even if you don't. You'll cross the road and you'll never come back.'
Frank waited for the old man to explain what he meant, but he simply stood there smiling at him with his four brown teeth and a look in his one good eye that was almost triumphant. After more than a minute, Frank turned, hesitated, and then he walked away. The old man continued to smile at him until he disappeared amongst the crowds.
Frank leaned on the pier railing and closed his eyes and let the ocean breeze blow into his face. He could hear slowly moving traffic and the
of skateboards and people talking and laughing. He could hear the Pacific, and the monotonous clanking of yachts. He could hear the gulls.
Inside his head, soundlessly, The Cedars was still blowing up, black smoke growing up into the air like fir trees, bits of metal and bits of brick falling all around him. And Danny's blood-streaked arm, waggling from side to side as he ran along the street, silently screaming for help.
You'll cross the road and you'll never come back.
âHey!' said a woman's voice, very close to him.
He opened his eyes and blinked. A young woman was leaning against the rail just two or three feet away, although the ocean was sparkling so brightly behind her that he could see little more than a silhouette. The silhouette wore a wide-brimmed straw hat and a sleeveless white cotton dress.
âI'm afraid I don't know your name,' she told him.
that makes a change. Everybody else around here seems to know it.
âDon't you remember me?' she said. âWe met yesterday. When the school was bombed.'
He shaded his eyes with his hand. It was the young woman with one sandal. She was wearing brass-rimmed sunglasses with very tiny oval lenses, and a white ribbon around her neck.
âWell, this is one heck of a coincidence,' he said. âWhat are you doing here?'
âI guess the same as you. Trying to clear my head.'
âYou weren't hurt, were you?'
âNo, it didn't hurt. How about you?'
âMyÂ .Â .Â . uhÂ .Â .Â . my son died. I lost my son.'
âOh my God, I'm so sorry.' She reached out and touched his forearm. âYou must be absolutely torn apart.'
âHe was hit by a flying nail. I didn't even realize. You and I, we were talking, and all the time he was bleeding to death in the back of my car.'
âThat's tragic. I don't know what to say to you.'
âDon't worry, my wife does.'
you, does she?'
âBlame me? The way she talks, you'd think I planted that bomb myself.' He looked around. A suntanned young man in a blue and yellow T-shirt was standing not far away, eating an ice-cream cone. âAre you alone?' he asked. âOr is thatÂ .Â .Â .?'
She turned, and frowned, and then she shook her head. The young man lifted his ice cream to her in salute. âNo,' she said, âI'm all by myself.'
âMaybe I can buy you a coffee, or a drink.'
âAll right,' she nodded. âA drink. I think I'd like that.'
They crossed Palisades Beach Road together, and halfway across she took hold of his hand, as if they were already friends. A woman in a soiled floral-print dress was standing on the opposite side of the road with a shopping cart piled high with old newspapers and broken lampshades and 7-Up cans. As they crossed she cackled like a chicken and called out, âYoung love! Don't it make you want to throw up!' But the young woman still didn't let go of his hand.
Frank took her into Ziggy's, a light and airy bar with a blond wood floor and shiny stainless-steel chairs. On the wall behind the counter hung a strange painting of six women with blue faces, their eyes closed, their hair waving in the wind.
âI'm Frank,' said Frank, holding out his hand.
âHello, Frank. You can call me Astrid.'
âWhat does that mean? Isn't Astrid your real name?'
âWhat's in a name, Frank?'
Frank resisted the temptation to quote Shakespeare.
That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet
âThey do a great strawberry daiquiri here,' he told her.
âOK. Strawberry daiquiri it is.'
âYou said you lost somebody close to you.'
Astrid took off her hat and placed it on the table, with her sunglasses neatly folded in the brim. âIÂ .Â .Â . ahÂ .Â .Â . don't really want to talk about it, Frank, not today. Today I came out to think about something else.'
âYes, I'm sorry. Did you see the news? It looks like some Arab terrorist group is supposed to have done it.'
âJesus, though. I can't imagine how
could blow up innocent children like that. I mean, what kind of demonic thought process was going on in their heads when they decided to do it?'
Astrid looked at him with those pale, pale eyes. âEverybody's fair game, Frank, to people like that. All they think about is showing the world how aggrieved they are. They don't care who suffers. They don't care who dies.'
The server came over in shiny blue hot pants and Frank asked for a strawberry daiquiri and a Scotch. âBy the way, the police want to interview as many eye witnesses as they can find. I have their number if you want to go talk to them.'
âI don't think so. I didn't see anything.'
âCome on, you were right there beside me. You must have seen
. Maybe you think that it wasn't particularly important, but you never know. It might give the cops that one small piece of sky that's going to finish the jigsaw.'
Astrid said, âThe truth is, Frank, I wasn't supposed to be there. I was supposed to be someplace else.'
âOh. Oh, right, I understand. But couldn't you make an anonymous phone call?'
âI didn't see anything, Frank. Nothing at all.'
There was a long silence between them. Eventually Frank nodded toward the painting of the six blue-faced women and said, âWhat do you think
âIt's about women and their mystery. If you look at the faces for long enough, the eyes appear to open.'
âI didn't know that, and I've been coming to this place since day one.'
âThat's because you've never looked at it for long enough. Look at me, Frank. Go on, really look at me. Who do you see?'
âUmÂ .Â .Â . I don't exactly know what you're asking.'
âI'm asking you to
me, that's all. Describe what you see.'
âI seeÂ .Â .Â . What do I see? A young woman of maybe twenty-three, twenty-four years. Brown hair, blue eyes. Maybe a Swedish or a Polish mother, judging by your cheekbones. Sure of herself, independent. Lives on her own, maybe with a white cat.'
Astrid laughed. âSorry, no white cat. But what else do you see?'
âI don't know. I don't know you well enough. What do you do for a living?'
âA living? Nothing. Not now. But I used to pretend to be somebody else.'
âYou used to
? I don't think you and I are talking on the same wavelength.'
âOh, yes we are. Or we could, if you really wanted to. Tell me about you.'
âThere isn't much to tell. Frank Bell, very distantly related to Alexander Graham Bell. Very,
distantly. Thirty-four and one half years old.'
âThat's it? No career?'
âOh, you want my whole life story? OKÂ .Â .Â . my father used to run a hotel in Ojai so he expected me to run it after he retired.'
âBut you didn't?'
âNo way. I hated the hotel business. Hotel guests behave like swine. They steal everything, they break everything, and you should see what they do to the mattresses. So I took a job as a bartender, and then I cleaned swimming pools, and then I took dance lessons, and then I appeared as an extra in three episodes of
Star Trek Voyager
, wearing a red jumpsuit and a false nose and pretending to drink Aldebaran whiskey in Ten Forward.
âWhile I was waiting around the
set I wrote a TV pilot about two Mid-Western farm boys who always wanted to be famous rock stars. I sold it to Fox, made a success of it, end of story.'
If Pigs Could Sing
,' smiled Astrid.
âThat's the one.'
that show. I really adore it. Dusty and Henry, they're so kind of gentle and goofy, and I just
their grandpa. What's that song he always used to sing? The one about the limp?'
â“The Girl With The Left-Footed Limp.” It went to number ninety-seven in the Hot One Hundred. And straight back out again the next morning.'
Astrid reached across the table and took hold of both of Frank's hands. On her wedding-band finger she wore an emerald ring. If the emerald was real, thought Frank, it must be worth nearly ten thousand dollars. She looked as if she were about to say something but then she didn't.
âWhat?' he asked her as their drinks arrived.
âI was just thinking that you won't feel like writing that kind of stuff anymore, after losing Danny.'
âNot just yet, maybe. But nothing is ever really funny unless it really, really hurts.'
Afterwards, they walked along the beach together. Frank looked out at the ocean and said, âI think this has done me some good.'
A young boy turned cartwheels all around them, just like Danny used to. Frank watched him as he ran laughing into the surf, and then he turned to see that Astrid was watching him, too.
âYou're crying,' she said, and he hadn't even realized.
They walked a little further and then Frank checked his watch. It was almost two thirty. âI guess I'd better be getting back. I have a wife to face, funeral arrangements to think about.'
âDo you want to see me again?'
The wind blew his hair into his eyes. He was trying to read her expression, but he couldn't. âOf course I want to see you again.'
âTomorrow? Is that too soon?'
âNo! Well, no â tomorrow would be fine. Where do you want to meet? Do you live around here?'
âI used to, but not now. We can meet wherever you like.'
âI live in Burbank, but let's think. Do you know the Garden restaurant, on Sunset? A couple of blocks west of the Chateau Marmont.'
âNo, but I'm sure I can find it.'
âOK then, the Garden at twelve o'clock, how's that?'
âGood,' she said. Then, âSing it for me.'
â“The Girl With The Left-Footed Limp.” Sing it for me.'
Frank shook his head. âNot today. Maybe one day. But not today.'
hen he arrived home, Ruth's red Jeep was parked in the driveway. Margot and Ruth were sitting together in the conservatory, drinking green Chinese tea and smoking cigarettes. Ruth was wearing a black dress, which made her look even more like Morticia than usual, and Margot was wearing a white cotton pajama suit. They both looked up at him with undisguised disgust.