Would you like a side of Death with that?
It was the Saugus Café, thirty miles north of downtown L.A., off old 99, the Newhall Road, one of three or four spots claiming to have laid the table for James Dean’s last meal, a slice of apple pie and a glass of milk if the legend had it right, before he drove his Spyder 550 on north over the Grapevine to Cholame and the Y intersection where a Cal Poly kid in a black and white Ford turned in front of him. The diner was borderline shrine. There were pictures of Dean all along the wall above the long counter, the one from Giant with his arms draped over the rifle across his shoulders like it was the top bar of the cross or something, the other famous one that everybody’s seen, Dean’s hand at his waist, middle finger and thumb curled to touch, index finger pointing off camera. Above the register was one of Dean leaning against the silver Porsche roadster in front of a gas station down in L.A. where he had picked up his mechanic that morning. That fateful morning… Isn’t that what they say? The two were on their way to a pro-am race up at Salinas when they bought it, when Mr. D waved the black flag. It was like they always said over the P.A. out at the old Saugus Speedway on hot Saturday nights, “The most dangerous miles drove tonight will be your trip here and home…”
But then again, as the racers like to say, it’s not the going fast that kills you…
It’s the sudden stop.
The waitress waited. “Would you like a side of beans with that?” she said again.
“What kind of beans?” Jimmy Miles said. The place wasn’t crowded. It was early afternoon. He could play with her a little.
“Ranchero beans,” she said.
“Pot beans,” Jimmy said.
“Maybe cooked with a little bacon.”
There was a fly, big and blue and buzzing, the size of a jellybean, flying in wack circles over the booth, slamming itself into the same spot on the plate glass window every half minute, trying to get out of there but not learning a damn thing from previous experience.
Jimmy knew a thing or two about that.
The waitress snatched it out of the air and snuffed it, dropped it onto the linoleum floor and flipped it under the table with the toe of her waitress shoe all in one seamless little… what would you call it? Dance?
“I guess I’d better,” Jimmy said. “And a beer. Whatever you drink.”
“I drink cherry Cokes,” she said.
She was the kind of waitress who didn’t write anything down and he was the kind of customer who hadn’t needed a menu so she just tapped the Formica twice with her short unpainted nails and stepped away.
“And pie,” Jimmy said after her. “Apple. And milk.”
“Why not?” she said without turning.
Jimmy looked out the window, across the street, at the old clapboard train station. It used to be across two lanes, now there were four and clotted with traffic. A hundred years ago, it had been a stage coach trail. Two hundred, a Mission trail, friars and priests. Five hundred, five thousand, and it would be indigenes with leathery feet, breaking the dirt down to dust.
The girl came back from the bathroom. Her eyes were red but she wasn’t crying anymore. She had a folded brown washroom towel in her hand, too rough to put to your eyes. She was maybe twenty-five, a Latina, but one who’d probably never been south of San Diego. Or maybe even Long Beach. She was wearing a Rayon dress, like this was the Forties. Or The Postman Always Rings Twice.
She hadn’t looked at Jimmy once since he’d come in, or at anyone else in the place, off on her own trip. As soon as she sat back down in the banquette, her food came, a tuna melt and a side of fries from what Jimmy could see. She smiled up at the waitress, an open-eyed look that almost asked the woman to sit down and talk about it, femme to femme. Almost. There was a lot of almost in the young woman’s story, from what Jimmy could already see.
“Anything else, hon?” the waitress said to her, like a nurse.
The girl shook her head. When the waitress was gone, the forced smile fell off the girl’s face. She arranged the two plates so it suited her, pushed the ketchup bottle forward an inch, and then picked up half the sandwich and took a bite. A big bite, like a teenager, like a teenager on a date. They usually didn’t eat, not like this, when they were sad or shaken and running like this. She reminded Jimmy of someone, though she didn’t look anything like the other one, a woman out of his past -- a face, a pair of eyes, a mouth, a shape still waiting in a room inside him anytime he opened the door. Maybe it was this girl’s appetite. She ate like the date she was on was the tenth date or the twentieth or some number past counting, as if she didn’t have to prove she was “lady-like” anymore. Like she loved you and knew you loved her, had seen her all kinds of ways. Like that other one.
Or maybe it was just that her dress was soft light blue, like the feeling she brought over you.
She never finished her food, stopped after those first big bites. She bothered the fries another minute, then gave up, pushing the oval plate away so she could put her hands on the table in front of her. She wasn’t married, or at least didn’t wear a ring. She didn’t wave for the bill, didn’t seem in much of a hurry to get back on the road, just sat looking out the window right past Jimmy at her car, a baby blue 70s Buick Skylark convertible that had been lowered a bit. A couple of minutes slid by like that, with her looking past Jimmy at the car, then the waitress appeared and pushed the ticket across the table to her. She looked at the slip of paper and took in a breath and slid out of the booth, as if it had been a note from the older woman that said, Honey, you’re just going to have to go on and deal with it.
Her eyes were leaking again before she reached the door.
Jimmy waited a minute or two and then left a twenty on the table and stepped out into the dust and the truck stink from the highway. The Skylark was already gone out of sight but it didn’t matter. He knew she wasn’t going anywhere but north. She wasn’t going to turn around and head back to Los Angeles, he knew that. She was hard-running and that meant north and there was really only one way to go.
The sun was bright, the light had a kind of aluminum sheen to it. It had been hot the last few days. Hot and dry. Jimmy reached in and opened the glove box and found a pair of beat up Ray-bans. Tortoise shell, almost red. He had brought the Porsche, the ’64 Cabriolet, the rag-top, and the top was down. It wasn’t the best car for this kind of thing, too showy, too one-of-a-kind, but something had made him pick it. He opened the door and let the wind blow through it a minute, cool off the seats before he got in it. It was September.
Dean died in September, didn’t he?
Because he knew he could catch up to her, Jimmy didn’t get back on the 5, instead took a right off Newhall Road and drove out past what was left of the old speedway. A little memory jag. There were the wooden stands, red and white, peeling a little but looking permanent. The track was a dead flat third of a mile asphalt oval, a “bullring” race track that had started out as a rodeo arena. A subdivision had built up around it now, plain Jane two story stucco houses with saplings staked in the yards, blank-faced houses, sand-colored, looking like the boxes real houses would come in. The last races had been run ten years ago but the owners had kept it up, rented out the facility for Sunday morning swap meets. A couple thousand people would come, even driving up from Los Angeles, church for believers in bargains.
But it was empty now, about as empty as empty gets. Where was the tumbleweed blowing through? Jimmy jumped a low chainlink fence on what they called the back-chute and walked out to the center. It was paved from one side to the other, cracking and not as black as it used to be but so hot his shoes smacked.
He looked up at the stands, found the row where he used to like to sit. The top row.
Where they used to sit.
It looked bad in the daytime. In the present.
So maybe it wasn’t about James Dean after all…
The Skylark girl (he’d learn in a minute her name was Lucy, Lucille) had taken the exit off the 5 onto California 46, headed west toward Lost Hills and Paso Robles, and now she blew right by the intersection where Dean had died and then on past The Memorial, a vertical slab of granite parked under an oak next to a café six miles along at Cholame.
Jimmy didn’t stop either, just hung back a mile. A little two-car caravan traversing Central Cal. There was enough rise and fall on the highway to give him a good look down at her every minute or so, to keep her in front of him without her seeing him.
He pulled off after ten or twelve miles of that.
“Did you do the Skylark?”
He was on the shoulder, directly under a whistling cell tower “camouflaged” to look like a spindly evergreen, which was particularly stupid given that this was in the middle of bare brown rolling hills, it the only “tree” for miles. Unless you counted the occasional oil derrick.
But the reception was good.
“I painted it for her,” Angel said. “For her boyfriend, actually. He give it to her.”
“Is he the problem?”
“You really are a detective.”
“So he let her keep it when he left?”
“I guess. She kept it.”
“I don’t know, bud,” Jimmy said, “I might be on his side, taking a man’s car.”
“What’s her name?”
When Angel told him, Jimmy sang, “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille…”
“Loose wheel,” Angel said.
Back in the day on those Saturday nights at Saugus Speedway, when one of the old clunker stockers would kick loose a wheel, send it bouncing across the infield, the announcer – Jimmy remembered his name, Virgil Kirkpatrick – would wait a beat and then say the line: “You picked a fine time to leave me, loose wheel…” And the crowd would laugh, like he was Jay Leno.
“I drove on out there,” Jimmy said. “The speedway. Jumped the fence.”
“And it was sad,” Angel said back to him.
“I can take sad,” Jimmy said.
“Not so much as you think,” Angel said.
“She’s headed toward Paso Robles, unless she just wanted to cut over to the 101 or the coast. Any idea why?”
“That’s why I’m paying you the big dollar,” Angel said.
“I haven’t been out of town in awhile,” Jimmy said. “It’s nice out here.” A wind had blown over the hill and the air smelled good, like the inside of a wooden box.
“Where did you pick her up?”
“She was right where you said she’d be, bright and early.”
“Eagle Rock,” Jimmy repeated. “She took a long time to pack the car, like she was waiting for me.”
Nothing whistled down the line for a second or two.
“How does she look?” Angel said.
“Like they all do,” Jimmy said. “One kind of them.”
“Spooked. Alone. Running. Trying to get from what was to what’s next. Way young to be so hurt. Or maybe I’ve just seen too many of them.”
“Or maybe you’re getting old in the soul,” Angel said.
“It’s about time.”
“She’s good-looking, huh?”
“She’s not a Sailor,” Jimmy said, almost a question.
“Tell me who she is to you,” Jimmy said.
“Nobody,” Angel lied. “Just a kid I wish wasn’t so down.”