Four hours passed. The rain stopped. It became apparent that Billy was not only late, but possibly not coming at all. Maybe he’d bought a car and hightailed it out of town, or maybe at some point he’d phoned his mother and decided to skip the visit when he heard about “Charlene.” I finished all the coffee in the thermos, my brain fairly crackling from caffeine. If I smoked cigarettes, I could have gone through a pack. Instead, I listened to eight more installments of the news, the farm report, and an hour of Hispanic music. I pondered the possibility of learning the Spanish language by simply listening to these gut-wrenching tunes. I thought about Jonah and the husbands I’d known. Surely, if my heart broke again, it would sound just like this, though for all I knew, the lyrics were about cut worms and inguinal hernias, matters only made soulful through soaring harmonies. Altogether, I came perilously close to boring myself insensible with my own mental processes, so it was with real relief that I saw the car approach and pull into the curb in front of the house across the street. It looked like a 1967 Chevrolet, white, with a temporary registration sticker on the windshield. I couldn’t tell much about the guy who got out, but I watched with interest as he took the porch steps in two bounds and rang the bell.
Betty Christopher came to the door to let him in. The two of them disappeared. A moment later, shadows wavered against the kitchen light. I figured they’d sit down for a couple of beers and a heart-to-heart talk. The next thing I knew, however, the front door opened again and he came out. I slipped down on the car seat until my eyes were level with the bottom of the window. The cloud cover was still heavy, obscuring the moon, and the cars along the curb created deeper shadows still. He stared out at the street, taking in the line of parked cars one by one. I felt my heart start to thump as I watched him come down the steps and head in my direction.
He paused in the middle of the street. He moved over to a van parked two cars away from mine. He flicked on a flashlight and opened the door on the driver’s side, apparently to check the registration. I lost sight of him. Moments went by. I watched the shadows, wondering if he’d crept around the other side and was coming up on my right. I heard a muffled sound as he closed the door to the van. The beam from his flashlight swept over the car in front of me and flashed across my windshield, the light too diffused by the time it reached me to illuminate much. He flicked it off. He waited, scanning the street on both sides. Apparently, he decided there was nothing to worry about. He crossed back to the house. As he reached the porch, she came out, clutching a robe around her. They talked for a few minutes and then he got in his car and took off. The minute she went inside, I started the VW and did a big U-turn, following. I hoped this wasn’t all some elaborate ruse to flush me into the open.
He had already made a left turn and then a right by the time I caught sight of him two blocks ahead of me. We were driving along the back streets with no traffic lights at all and only an occasional stop sign to slow our progress. I had to close the gap or risk losing him. A “one-man” tail is nearly pointless unless you know who you’re following and where he’s going to begin with. At this hour, there were very few cars on the road, and if he drove far, he’d realize the presence of my VW was no accident.
I thought he was headed toward the freeway, but before he reached the northbound on-ramp, he slowed and made a right-hand turn. By then, I was only half a block back so I whipped over to the curb and parked, killing the engine. I locked the car and took off on foot, heading diagonally across the corner lot at a dead run. I caught sight of his taillights half a block ahead. The car was making a left-hand turn into a shabby trailer park.
Puente is a narrow street that parallels Highway 101 on the east side of town, with the trailer park itself squeezed into the space between the two roadways, screened off from the highway by a ten-foot board fence and masses of oleander. I was covering ground at a quick clip. The houses I passed were dark, driveways crowded with old cars, most of them sporting dents. The street lighting here was poor, but ahead of me I caught traces of light from the trailer park, which was strung with small multicolored bulbs.
By the time I got to the entrance, there was no sign of the Chevrolet, but the place was small and I didn’t think the car would be hard to spot. The road twisting through the trailer park was two lanes wide. The blacktop still glistened from the rain and water was dripping from the eucalyptus trees that towered at intervals. There were signs posted everywhere: SLOW. SPEED BUMPS. TENANT PARKING ONLY. DO NOT BLOCK DRIVEWAY.
Most of the trailers were “single-wides,” fifteen to twenty feet long, the kind that once upon a time you could actually hitch to your car and travel in. Nomad, Airstream, and Concord seemed to predominate. Each had a numbered cardboard sign in the window, indicating the number of the lot on which it sat. Some were moored in narrow patches of grass, temporary camper spaces for RVs passing through, but many were permanent and, by the look of them, had been there for years. The lots were stingy squares of poured concrete, surrounded by sections of white picket fence two feet high, or separated from one another by sagging lengths of bamboo matting. The yards, when they existed, harbored an assortment of plastic deer and flamingos.
It was almost eleven and many of the trailers were dark. Occasionally, I could see the blue-gray flicker of a TV set. I found the Chevrolet, hood warm, the engine still ticking, parked beside a dark green battered trailer with a torn awning and half the aluminum skirting ripped away. From inside, I could hear the dull thump of rock and roll music being played too loudly in too small a space.
The trailer windows were ovals of hot yellow light, positioned about a foot higher than eye level. I edged around to the right-hand side, easing in as close as I could, checking the area to see if any of the neighbors had spotted me. The trailer next door had a FOR RENT sign taped to the siding, and the one across the lane had the curtains pulled. I turned back to the window and got up on tiptoe, peering in. The window was opened slightly and the air seeping out was hot and smelled of fried onions. The curtains consisted of old cotton dish towels, with a brass rod threaded through one end, hanging crookedly enough to provide a clear view of Billy Polo and the woman he was talking to. They were both seated at a flop-down table in the galley, drinking beer, mouths working, words inaudible in the thumping din of music. The interior of the trailer was a depressing collage of cheap paneled walls, dirty dishes, junk, torn upholstery, newspapers, and canned goods stacked on counter tops. A bumper sticker pasted above the front door said, I’VE BEEN TO ALL 48 STATES!
There was a small black-and-white television set perched on a cardboard box, tuned to what looked like the tag end of a prime-time private-eye show. The action was speeding up. A car careened out of control, flipping end over end before it went off a cliff, exploding in midair. The picture cut to two men in an office, one talking on the phone. Neither Billy nor his companion seemed to be watching and the music must have made it impossible for them to hear the dialogue anyway.
I could feel a cramp forming in my right calf. I cast about for something to stand on to ease the strain. The yard next door was a jungle of overgrown shrubs, the parking space choked with discards. There was a set of detached wooden steps tucked up under the trailer door. I blundered through the bushes, my jeans and boots getting drenched in the process. I was counting on the thunder of music to cover the sound of my labors as I hefted the box steps, tramped back through the shrubs, and set the steps under the window.
Cautiously, I mounted, peering in again. Billy Polo had a surprisingly boyish face for a man who’d lived his thirty years as a thug. His hair was dark, a curly mass standing out around his face. His nose was small, his mouth generous, and he had a dimple in his chin that looked like a puncture wound. He wasn’t a big man, but he had a wiry musculature that suggested strength. There was something manic about him, a hint of tension in his gestures. His eyes were restless and he tended to stare off to one side when he spoke, as if direct eye contact made him anxious.
The woman was in her early twenties, with a wide mouth, strong chin, and a pug nose that looked as if it was made of putty. She wore no makeup and her fair hair was dense, a series of tight ripples that she wore shoulder length, brittle and illcut. Her skin was very pale, mottled with freckles. She was wearing a man’s oversized silk bathrobe and apparently nursing a cold.
She kept a wad of Kleenex in her pocket which she honked into from time to time. She was so close to me I could see the chapping where the frequent blowing had reddened her nose and upper lip. I wondered if she was an old girlfriend of Billy’s. There was no overt sexuality in the way they related to one another, but there was a curious intimacy. An old love affair gone flat perhaps.
The continuous rock and roll music was driving me nuts. I was never going to hear what they were saying with that stuff booming out all over the place. I got down off the steps and went around the other side of the trailer to the front door. The window to the right was wide open, though the curtains were pinned shut.
I waited until there was a brief pause between cuts. I took a deep breath and pounded on the door. “Hey! Could you cut the goddamn noise,” I yelled. “We’re tryin’ to get some sleep over here!”
From inside the trailer, the woman hollered, “Sorry!” The music ceased abruptly and I went back around to the other side to see how much of their conversation I could pick up.
The quiet was divine. The volume on the television set must have been turned all the way down, because the string of commercials that now appeared was antic with silence and I could actually catch snatches of what they were saying, though they mumbled unmercifully.
“… course, she’s going to say that. What did you expect?” she said.
“I don’t like the pressure. I don’t like havin’ her on my back…” He said something else I couldn’t make out.
“What difference does it make? Nobody forced her. Shit, she’s free, white, and twenty-one… the point is… getting into… just so she doesn’t think… the whole thing, right?”
Her voice had dropped and when Billy answered, he had one hand across his mouth so I couldn’t understand him at all. He was only half attentive anyway, talking to her with his gaze straying to the television picture. It must have been 11:00 because the local news came on. There was the usual lead-in, a long shot of the news desk with two male newscasters, one black, one white, like a matched set, sitting there in suits. Both looked properly solemn. The camera cut to a head shot of the black man. A photograph of John Daggett appeared briefly behind him. There was a quick shot of the beach. It took me a moment to realize that it must have been the spot where Daggett’s body had been found. In the background, I could see the mouth of the harbor and the dredge.
Billy jerked upright, grabbing the woman’s arm. She swiveled around to see what he was pointing to. The announcer talked on, smoothly moving the top sheet of paper aside. The camera cut to the co-anchor and the picture shifted to a still shot of a local waste disposal site.
Billy and the woman traded a long, anxious look. Billy started cracking his knuckles. “Christ!”
The woman snatched up the paper and tossed it at him. “I told you it was him the minute I read some bum washed up on the beach. Goddamn it, Billy! Everything with you comes down to the same old bullshit. You think you’re so smart. You got all the angles covered. Oh sure. Turns out you don’t even know what you’re talking about!”
“They don’t even know we knew him. How would they know that?”
She gave him a scornful look, exasperated that he’d try to defend himself. “Give the cops some credit! They probably identified him by his fingerprints, right? So they know he was up in San Luis. It’s not going to take a genius to figure out you were up there with him. Next thing we know somebody’s coming around knocking at the door. ‘When’d you last see this guy?’ Shit like that.”
He got up abruptly. He crossed to a kitchen cabinet and opened it. “You got any Black Jack?”
“No, I don’t have any Black Jack. You drank it all last night.”
“Get some clothes on. Let’s go over to the Hub.”
“Billy, I’ve got a cold! I’m not going out at this hour. You go. Why do you need a drink anyway?”
He reached for his jacket, hunching into it. “You have any cash? All I got on me is a buck.”
“Get a job. Pay your own way. I’m tired of givin’ you money.”
“I said you’d get it back. What are you worried about? Come on, come on,” he said, snapping his fingers impatiently.
She took her time about it, but she did root through her purse, coming up with a crumpled five-dollar bill, which he took without comment.
“Are you crashing here?” she asked.
“I don’t know yet. Probably. Don’t lock up.”
“Well, just keep it down, okay? I feel like hell and I don’t want to be woke up.”
He put his hands on her arms. “Hey,” he said. “Cool it. You worry too much.”
“You know what your problem is? You think all you have to do is say shit like that and it’s all okay. The world doesn’t work that way. It never did.”
“Yeah, well there’s always a first time. Your problem is you’re a pessimist…”
At that point, I figured I’d better cut out and head back to my car. I eased down off my perch, debating briefly about whether I should move the steps or leave them there. Better to move them. I hefted them, swiftly pushing through the undergrowth to a cleared space where the junk was stacked up. I set the box down and then took off through the darkened trailer park and out to the street.
I jogged to my car, started it, and did another U-turn, anticipating that Billy would head back the same way he came. Sure enough, in my rearview mirror I saw the Chevrolet make a left turn onto the main thoroughfare, coming up behind me. He followed me for a block and a half, tailgating, a real A-type. With an impatient toot of the horn, he passed me, squealed into another left-hand turn, and zoomed off toward Milagro. I knew where he was headed so I took my time. There’s a bar called the Hub about three blocks up. I walked into the place maybe ten minutes after he did. He’d already bought his Jack Daniel’s, which he was nursing while he played pool.