G is for Gumshoe - Page 35/98

Lunch arrived and we paused to study our food, trying to figure out what it was. Rice and a puddle of refrieds, something folded with cheese leaking out, something fiat. I recognized a tamale because it was wrapped in a corn husk. This was real basic fare-no parsley, no orange slice twisted open and resting on the top. My plate was so hot, I could have used it to iron a shirt. The cook appeared from the kitchen shyly bearing a stack of steaming flour tortillas wrapped in a cloth. The two hospital meals had left my taste buds craving astonishment. I wolfed the food, slowing only long enough to suck down another cold beer. Everything was excellent, the sort of flavors that make you whimper. I reached the finish line slightly in advance of Dietz and wiped my mouth on a paper napkin. "What about your mother? Where was she all this time?"

He shrugged, mouth full, waiting till he could speak. "She was there. My granny, too. The four of us traveled in an old station wagon with our gear shoved in the back. Everything I know my mom or my granny taught me in a moving vehicle. Geography, geology. We'd buy these old textbooks and work our way through. Usually, they'd be drinking beers and cutting up, laughing like lunatics. I thought that was neat and learning was a hoot. Put me in a classroom, I withered from the quiet."

I smiled. "You were probably the kind of kid I was afraid of in school. Boys mystified me. I never understood where they were coming from. When I was in fifth grade, we used to give these plays every Friday afternoon. Improvisational stuff we'd rehearse in the cloak room. The girls would always do love stories full of tragedy and self-sacrifice. The boys had sword fights… lots of mouth noises and bumping. They'd stagger against the wall and then fall down dead. I couldn't figure out why that was fun. I didn't much like what the girls did, but at least people weren't getting stabbed with imaginary rapiers."

He smiled. "Were you raised in Santa Teresa?"

"I've lived there all my life."

He shook his head in mock amazement. "I couldn't even list all the places I've been."

"Were you in the service?"

"I was spared that, thank God. I was too young for Korea and too old for Vietnam. I'm not sure I could have passed the physical in any event. I had rheumatic fever as a kid…"

The waitress returned and started clearing our plates.

"Can you tell me where the ladies' room is?" I said to her.

"Gracias," she said, smiling at me happily while she loaded the tray.

"El cuarto de damas?" Dietz supplied. "Oh si, si!" She laughed at herself when she understood her mistake. She gestured toward the kitchen. I pushed back my chair. Dietz made a move as though to accompany me, but I stopped him. "God, Dietz. There are limits here, you know?"

He let it pass, but I noticed that he watched me carefully as I moved toward the back door. The damas did their business in a mop closet in the rear. While I was washing my hands afterward, I caught sight of myself in a shard of mirror that was propped up on the sink. I looked worse than I had the night before. My forehead was black and blue, my eye sockets smudged now with lavender. The red streaks beneath my eyes made it look like I had conjunctivitis. The dry desert climate had affected my hair, causing it to look like something I'd swept up from under the bed. I couldn't believe I'd been out in public without having people shriek and point. My head was starting to pound again.

By the time I reached the table, Dietz had paid the bill. "You okay?" he asked.

"You don't happen to have any pain pills, do you?"

"I have some Darvocet in the car."

He bought a can of Coke and we took it with us when we left. I watched him scan the parking lot as he unlocked the car. He opened the door for me, waiting until I was safely tucked in before he moved around to the driver's side. Once in his seat belt, he searched the glove compartment for the vial of pills.

"Let me know if this doesn't do the job. I've got prescriptions for everything." He checked a label or two, found what he was looking for, and shook a pill out onto his palm. I murmured a thank-you. He popped the can of Coke open for me and I washed the medication down. Within minutes, the pain began to recede. Shortly after that, I fell asleep.

I woke as we crossed the Ventura County line. I could smell the ocean before I even opened my eyes. The air was moist and briny, the surrounding countryside lush with green, a peculiar juxtaposition of junipers and palms. After the lean monotony of the desert, the coastal vegetation seemed lavish and strange. I could feel every cell in my body respond, drinking in the damp. Dietz glanced over at me. "Better?"