John's mother, Doris Lodge, had fallen in love with John's father, Piers Wyatt Johnson, a solemn Arizona horse breeder without family or history whom she met at a stable in Virginia, and whom she bumped into again by accident in Manhattan outside the Pierre Hotel, where he'd emerged having just brokered his first five-figure sperm contract. She fell in love with him because she saw this coincidental meeting with him as fateful, but more specifically because of a fairy tale he liked to tell Doris after they'd made love in Doris's one-room apartment on the fifth and top floor of a Chelsea walk-up, an apartment of the sort that had been attracting young Mary Tyler Moores with tams on their heads since the dawn of the skyscraper era. The room, the rental of which had required much finagling on Doris's part, was her first place of her own («Mummy,anything but the Barbizon — this is 1960, we have atom bombs, fer gawd sake»). Doris loved the apartment in the way all fresh young metropolitans love the simplicity of orange-crate side tables, and improvised spaghetti dinners eaten by the light of votive candles («Only a dollar ninety-nine for a box of forty-eight! My Lord, those Catholics have invented bargains») — this in an era when spaghetti in non-Italian households had the same subversive allure as stashed military blueprints and smuggled parakeets. «You see, it's like this, » Piers would say, beginning the tale, stretching his milky-white glute muscles on the lumpy mattress of Doris's brass four-poster, her only concession to her froufrou upbringing, «There was this lonely young heiress who was her father's prisoner on their estate out in the country. There was a large brick wall covered in ivy that circled the family's property.» «What was her name?» Doris would ask at that point. It was part of the ritual. «Marie-Hélène.» «That's so pretty,» Doris would say. «And she was indeed pretty. She was a catch. » «It's hard to be a catch,» Doris would sigh. Sunlight would stream in through the window, which overlooked a generic brick alleyscape of water tanks and a syringe-poke of the Empire State building above, a bevy of trash cans below, all of which seemed to cry out for wide-eyed sad painted kittens, perched and yowling. Piers's body hairs would catch the sunlight, like light filtered through icicles. «Absolutely,» Piers would add. «Abso lute ly.» Piers's stomach was taut as a snare drum, and he encouraged Doris to tap it with her fingers while he talked. «So anyway, Marie-Hélène spent her days devising schemes to escape, but her family was onto her. They hired extra guards and mortared broken glass onto the top of the brick wall. But then one day she was walking through the many halls of the family's mansion, despairing, when she passed an old oil painting of a forest scene with a hunter, and something about it caught her eye.» «What did she see? Tell me again.» «When Marie-Hélène looked at the young hunter, a strapping lad, she saw him wink at her. And then he spoke to her. He said, “Marie-Hélène, come in here — come here inside this painting with me — this is your escape route — through this painting.” Marie-Hélène was frightened. She asked the hunter, “How can I come live in a painting? What will we eat?” This made the hunter laugh, and he said, “We'll have everything we'll ever need in here. It's not like your world. In paintings, you can go visit other paintings. We'll go visit the feast paintings the Dutch did in the 1700s. We'll go have coffee inside an Edward Hopper diner. Please — come on in. I'm so lonely.” «Marie-Hélène said she needed to think about it, but the next day she came back to the painting, dressed in hiking clothes, ready for the forest. The hunter asked her, “Marie-Hélène, will you come into the painting and join me?” and she said, “Yes, I will.” » Piers wore Eau de Cédrat, a French citrus concoction that Doris said made him smell like Charles de Gaulle. His already sexy cigarette smoke would mix with his cologne like a spring fog alerting the bulbs beneath the soil to sprout. Piers would say, «The hunter then stuck out his arm and he pulled Marie-Hélène into the painting, into the forest, and slowly the two came together and Marie-Hélène planted a kiss on his lips. She pulled something out of her pockets, and the hunter asked her what it was, but she didn't reply. It was a book of matches and a bottle of her father's lighter fluid. She squirted the fluid out onto the floor of the mansion and lit a match and threw it onto the fluid. The house caught fire and Marie-Hélène said to the hunter, “Come on, let's go now. Don't look back.” So off they walked, away from the flames, and away from the world where Marie-Hélène could never return.» «The catch fights back!» Doris would say. Doris and Piers married against her family's wishes in a Manhattan civil ceremony. («Dor-Dor, he has no family — none. Life just doesn't work that way. Johnson — what sort of name is that?») The two traveled the world and then moved to Panama, where Piers had stud farm connections, and Doris became pregnant. One afternoon in her eighth month, Doris was taking an ikebana flower—arranging class in the living room of the wife of a Nestlé executive in Miraflores Locks. Without warning, she fell to the floor in labor pains, screaming like a gorgon, taking with her a zinc bucket full of untrimmed ginger stems. John's birth was so powerful and fast and hot — the air-conditioning had been broken and the room so sweltering — that for decades afterward Doris was unable to tolerate heat or anything that smacked of the tropics, living her life from one air-conditioned space to the next. John was born on the mahogany floor surrounded by tropical flowers and perplexed executive wives. At the time of the birth, Piers was checking out horses in the Canary Islands. His twin-prop plane was lost in a squall, and he vanished. Her family tsk-tsked and I-told-you-so'd. Her father assigned her to a small family-owned apartment on the Upper East Side, doled out a child-support allowance for young John, plus limited expense accounts at a few grocers and clothiers. Her days of waxy Chianti bottles, Japanese paper lanterns and peacoats were over before they'd even fully begun. She was to become a New York matron. She was to play the part of rich — she was bred to be rich — but she wasn't rich, and this powerless position defined her life. Yet she cherished her lovely memory of Piers in this red roast beef of a baby who wailed like the thrashed clutch of a Chevrolet. Thirty-seven years later, when John met former child star Susan Colgate, he skipped many pages of the family's story. John was a member of Delaware's Lodge clan — pesticides originally, and then all forms of agrochemicals, plastics and pharmaceuticals, eventually forming a monster that spat out everything from mousetraps to orange juice to nuclear weapons components. The firm was largely privately owned, and headed by Doris's uncle Raitt, who reigned from the family Tara in rural Delaware. The family had decided, though not in these exact words, that Doris was a flaky financial drain who had willfully strayed outside the clan's unspoken bounds. She was grudgingly tolerated at annual family events, and she often arrived alone, because young John was a sick child. John was home more than he was at school, frequently in the hospital with infected ears or sinuses or other microbial lapses, which Doris handled with a genial calmness. «Come along, John, I need to ferry you off to your quack for a checkup.» «Let me finish my breakfast first.» «What is that orangey glop you're drinking there?» She picked up the bottle of drink powder John had begged her to buy the previous week and read the label. « “Tang” — brilliant. I'll try some with Bombay gin tonight.» «It's for astronauts.» «Really? Then I must have a sip immediately because this afternoon I'll be off to see Raitt at the St. Moritz, and it'll take an extraterrestrial amount of energy to go and pry him away from the charms of Sixth Avenue long enough to discuss raising my allowance just slightly.» She sipped it. «Bravo! Now off we go.» John was an imaginative child, but his curiosity was often limited by illness to the confines of the apartment. When Doris was out, John would sneak into her room and go through her treasure box. It contained the shell of a baby turtle she'd eaten for breakfast with Piers in Kyoto in 1961 («I felt it wriggling down by my voice box, the little dickens»); before-and-after cosmetic surgery photos of saddlebag removal («Saddlebags are the Lodge family curse, Johnsy. Oh, to be a boy !»); the handwritten menu from her wedding dinner catered by an Andalusian chef recommended to her by Gala Dalí — unborn lamb in a mint coulis («Lambryos, darling, and don't go knocking it until you've tried it, and don't go giving me that Mutual-of-Omaha's-Wild-Kingdom face»). There was one of John's baby shoes (gilded, not bronzed), some seashells and a stack of girlhood horse-jumping ribbons. There was also a photo of Doris water-skiing with Christina Ford, one of Piers on his prized Chesapeake mare, Honeymoon, as well as a faded black-and-white shot, reverently framed and somehow out of synch with the other photos. It was seemingly taken near a stable — Piers was talking with somebody in the background — and showed Doris standing with Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, with Marie-Hélène lighting Doris's cigarette, a wicked grin on Doris's face. John didn't think it abnormal that his mother spent her days neither learning skills to make her employable nor making thrusts at wisdom. Rather, Doris preferred spending her time pursuing rich men, which she had been raised to do, with the uncritical instinct of terns who migrate from continent to continent each year. John found this fascinating. «Mom, why do you always go everywhere in a plane?» «What do you mean, darling?» «Like today. You went up the Hudson Valley and you could easily have taken a car, but you flew.» Doris preferred flying — even to nearby locales like the Hudson Valley or the Hamptons. «Darling, if there's one thing a man will never admit to a woman, it's that he is unwilling to pay for a plane ticket or charter a craft for the day. A man would sooner eat ketchup soup for a month than to not hire a helicopter to hop to Connecticut with a lady. Easiest just to order the plane and then tell him to pay once you're at the other end.» This was not a cynical statement from Doris. She had been taught this on her mother's knee. Relatives were somewhat kinder to John than they were to Doris, as families often prefer to skip generations when it comes to conferring affections, and John was a handsome, affable, if quiet, young boy. Spending so much time in bed, he soaked in abnormally large amounts of daytime TV programming — far more than the occasional episode of Love of Life or The Young and the Restless watched by the typical American teenager. John absorbed everything. TV loaned him a vocabulary and a tinge of sophistication lacking in others his own age. Relatives brought him presents and slipped him envelopes of money. John appeared grateful for these gifts in their presence, and, once they left, promptly gave the cash to Doris. She stashed it away in her mad-money Vuitton valise, up above her collection of Op and Pop outfits that began to infiltrate her sensibility across the decades. Doris liked arty men. She liked men who lived inside paintings. And these men tended to like Doris at first, when they thought she could buy their way out of paintings, but it usually took about one season before they discerned she wasn't in the Maria Agnelli league and elegantly dumped her. Doris was aware of this cycle, but it failed to harden her in the same way that the serial tribulations of soap opera characters left them similarly undented. With John, Doris was quite talkative about her family, its source of wealth and its role in the overall scheme of the world. John would squint and try to envision the Lodge Corporation, and he would briefly gather the impression of a massive diseased creature — a sperm whale in which all cells were infected and doomed. «Darling,all aspects of the Lodge corporation are malignant. Lodge food products are unnutritious and rot quickly. Children raised on Lodge baby formula quickly sicken and die. Lodge electronics fizzle, pop and quickly expire like thrushes hitting the front picture window. Untold thousands of Lodge factory workers routinely become emphysemic by breathing the solvents used in the making of Lodge footwear which, I might add, invariably render their wearers unstylish, lame and beset by fungus infections. Lodge service divisions give sloppy parodies of service at hyperinflated prices needed to pay for Lodge's vast overhead of union bribes, drugs, lynx fur coats and Bahamian holidays for executive wives. Lodge is a goiter on society, draining and taking, pustulant and mute.» John would egg her on: «What kinds of things does Lodge make, Ma?» «What doesn't Lodge make is the better question, darling. Lodge will make anything. Nothing is sacred: children's cigarettes, Holocaust boxcars, dairy products that are born timeexpired, Vatican City parking spots — just call Lodge. Each time somebody in America cries or dies, Lodge nabs its shaved penny from somewhere in the proceedings. Well, darling,that's Lodge. » When he was fourteen, John developed breathing problems, and spent, with minor exceptions, a year in bed while his lungs and bronchial tubes healed. He watched TV, read, chatted with Doris — he had no friends and his numerous cousins were conspicuously kept away from him. Tutors came in and kept him primed with the basics. He wasn't dumb and he wasn't a genius. He liked his world, and he didn't mind its limitations. John did wonder, though, how he could make up for the lost time in his life. Assuming he recovered, how might he catch up with all the other children who had been out in the everyday world — chasing balls? throwing sticks? shoplifting? John's notions of normal childhood behavior were sketchy. And he worried about Doris, who came close, but didn't «snag herself a may-un. » Would she ever be happy? What could he do to bring love into her life? TV had taught him that love was pretty much a cure for all ills. Doris put a good face on it all. John was the constant in her life, the one thing family could neither take away nor reduce. From her perspective, the more time John spent watching TV in the apartment away from hooligans, third rails and strange men in raincoats, the better. The year he spent in bed was certainly the longest of his life. When he was older and met other people who had accomplished great things during their stints on earth, he found that invariably, somewhere in their early youth, they had felt the experience of death or incapacity burned into them so deeply that ever afterward they gambled with all their chips, said fuck it, went for broke in the sound knowledge that wasting life is probably the biggest sin of all. John's illness made him value extremeness. As John was on the mend from his sick year, Uncle Raitt tried to corner the U.S. silver market and bankrupted the family in a scandal that spanned forty-six states, most of Europe and parts of Asia and even, in some complex unprecedented way, Antarctica. Overnight, Doris and John were homeless. A week later Raitt hanged himself from a chandelier in Delaware. Doris felt mainly relief; she no longer had to play the family game. Hours before the phone was disconnected, Doris made some calls. With her money stash she bought two Amtrak tickets to Los Angeles. A car picked them up at the station and drove them to Beverly Hills, where they were put up in the guesthouse of Angus McClintock, Ivan's father, a film producer who had come close to marrying Doris but didn't quite make the leap. Although there was no ring, they'd remained friendly and intimate through the years, and thus mother and son found refuge, far away from anything smacking of Delaware and lost angry families falling from the sky like a flock of burning birds. Angus showed them around his guesthouse, a four-bedroom Spanish Mission lair, and as he handed Doris the keys, something strange happened. It was the end of the day and the sun was low on the hill. John's skin color turned a Kruggerrand gold not available in Manhattan, and the sight of him as a gilded young prince took Doris by surprise. Without thinking she said, «You know, John, I don't think you're going to be sick anymore. It's over now.» «You think so?» «That's right — all over. You're in the land of gold.» «But it could come back at any moment.» «No. It's all gone now.» Doris looked at John and then to Angus, then prayed to the effect of,Lord, stick by me on this one. They entered their new home. Chapter Nine
As Susan walked away from her temporary hideout in the Galvins' house — clad in Karen Galvin's wig and sports gear — she was without credit cards, cash, a driver's license or any other link to the national economy. She touched her clean dry face, the face her mother had berated for its blank slate quality:(«Susan, without makeup your face looks like a sheet of typewriter paper. Next week we're getting that eyeliner tattooed, sweetie, and that's that»). Susan had once told her friends that being famous was like being Krazy Glued into a Bob Mackie gown, with an Emmy permanently grafted onto her right hand. But without makeup, she looked unconnected to that image. This fuzziness of identity might prove a small blessing in her new life, as it would allow her to roam freely. Susan's first step was to revisit the crash site, where cranes were lugging the final shards of fuselage onto flatbed trucks. A chess board of police and National Guardsmen shooed away gawkers. Without bodies and popped luggage strewn about, the jet fragments resembled plaza sculptures at the feet of Manhattan bank towers. Susan ate a chocolate energy bar and felt the warm Indian summer sun on her cheekbones. To her right she saw a burst of colors. She walked closer and found a series of impromptu shrines built of flowers, ribbons, flags, photos and teddy bears, placed by relatives and sympathizers. All those poor souls, thought Susan,gone, and yet here I am, as raring to go as if I were backstage in a spaghetti-strapped evening gown waiting to play Für Elise for a clump of Ford dealers. Inside a Ziploc baggie she saw a Sears photo portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Engineer, the Millers, as it turned out. Beside this lay a photo of Kelly the flight attendant who'd told Susan that 802 was her last flight before a holiday in Cancún. Someone had placed a stuffed rabbit wearing sunglasses and a bottle of Tia Maria beside it. Susan jolted with surprise when she saw a shrine to herself — a color photocopy enlargement of an old magazine photo mounted onto brown cardboard. In the photo she was fifteen, with heavily gelled New Wavey hair, singing Devo's «Whip It» at the Clackamas Mall, Clackamas County, Oregon. In the upper-left corner was her friend Trish, playing a Casio keyboard. Susan looked at her own eyes in the picture, heavily mascaraed, and with an intensity and a naïveté that made her smile. She remembered secretly applying it in the Orange Julius bathroom. She also remembered afterward, the battle royal with her mother, who thought Susan was to be performing a medley of songs from Grease. Susan smiled that this funny old picture, of all the Susan Colgate images in the world, would be singled out and stuck in the middle of a damaged Ohio sorghum field as her final tribute. There was a letter duct-taped to the bottom of the photo. At a glance, it looked to be like the ones she received in sackloads during the peak years of Meet the Blooms, letters that had often been postmarked U.S. Federal Penitentiary, Lompoc, or some fellow correctional facility. The letters frequently began with poems that were always sincere but almost invariably dreadful. This letter read: Susan, my name is Randy James Montarelli and I was born on the same day as you, September 4, 1970. You were kind of a yardstick in my life. There were a lot of people like me, I think, out in the boonies who followed your life's path as if you were a sister, or maybe because you managed to escape a junky life and go on to something better. Regardless, we were always out there cheering for you. Anyway, now you're in heaven and we're still down here and I think I'm too old to find another Susan Colgate, and so life is going to be just that much harder now. I live alone (I'm not the marrying type!) but I have two dogs, Willy and Camper, and an okay job. I guess I never thought you'd go first. Somehow that felt like part of the deal. This is so stupid and all, putting these words on a sheet of paper in Magic Marker letters, when nobody's ever going to read it, anyway. I don't live in Seneca. I live in Erie, that's in Pennsylvania. I drove down here last night (4 1/2 hours!) because if I didn't, I couldn't live with myself. I'm sorry your marriage to Chris didn't work out but you were too classy for him, anyway, and I know those party hound types, and they're all flaky in the end. No offense. I always knew you'd get into movies someday, too, and it was fun seeing you in Dynamite Bay just this past month. Well, I could go on here, but my throat feels all tight the way it did driving down here. My friend Casey (she works in the cubicle next to me at the plant) says I make it too easy for people to take advantage of me, but I don't agree. I know sometimes it looks as if I'm getting used, but I really do know what's going on. I'm running out of space here. Say hello to heaven for me, and Jon-Erik Hexum, too. Did you ever meet him? He was on an old nighttime TV soap and … well … that'sanother story. Cheers to you, honey.Your loving and loyal fan always,Randy1402 Chattanauqua StreetErie, PennsylvaniaPS: I found the Wyoming license plate for you at a yard sale the day your plane crashed. I think it was a sign of some sort. Beneath Susan's photo was the Wyoming plate, a Charlie Brown Pez dispenser with a dozen candy refills, a bottle each of shampoo and conditioner from a Marriott hotel, and a copy of TV Guide with the cast of Meet the Blooms on the cover. Susan knelt, looked both ways to ensure nobody was watching, took the letter, folded it up, slipped it into her pants pocket, and then put the shampoo and conditioner in her nylon sports bag. She walked away from the crash site, attracting not the slightest hint of suspicion from bystanders, and headed down the four-lane road in the opposite direction from the Galvins'. A bus stopped to discharge passengers and Susan got on, paying for her ticket with four quarters from the sports bag's bottom. She took a transfer and, at the bus route's end, hopped onto another bus which drove her into Toledo. She hopped off at a minimall adjoining the Maumee River, and as her feet touched the ground, she did some arithmetic and figured that if Flight 802 hadn't crashed, at that moment as she stood there in the minimall, she would have been driving to her herbalist after finishing her aerobics class in Santa Monica, then maybe heading home to see what the mail had brought, while checking her answering machine. Her answering machine. It was probably still connected. Over by the Blockbuster she saw a phone booth, and once there, she saw that the video store was having a 99-cent Susan Colgate tribute. She dialed her answering system's code numbers, figuring that the odds of anybody analyzing her phone account were minute. A series of bleeps revealed that she had five calls: «Susan, this is Dreama. I did your numbers for you and boy, is Thursday going to be a heckuva lucky day for you. As your numerologist, I advise, no, I implore you to rush out and buy as many lottery tickets as possible — and once you win, treat me to a new set of brakes for this heap of mine that keeps breaking down. Dinner at Chin's next Tuesday. Gimme a call.» * «Meese Colllllll gate … it's Ryan from West Side Video and you're six days overdue with The Breakfast Club and the Hitchcock three-pack. You know how cruel we can be to those who displease us. Oh, and I saw you in Dynamite Bay and you were really hot. Shoot. Now I've gone outside the boundaries by saying that to a customer, but still, you were really hot. I'm Ryan. Say hi next time you come in.» * A satellite beep followed by the sounds of hanging up. * Another satellite beep followed by sounds of hanging up. * Another satellite beep followed by,«Sooz …» It was Chris and another beep and his voice sounded highly drunk and highly high. «I …» In the background was muffled German and the sounds of a bar or restaurant. «You …» Something dropped with a clink on the German end. «I guess it's time for walkies, honey.» A man's voice asked Chris who he was speaking with, and he replied, «Max, in Santa Barbara.» Chris breathed for a bit and then hung up. Susan looked out onto the river, caramel and yellow under the dissolving yellow sundown. In the near distance she heard trucks and air brakes. Music blared from cars at the lot's other end — smoking, groping teens. She took her sports bag, hopped over a small pine shrub and walked down over cracked boulders and rusty industrial fossils to the river's edge. She tested the water with her fingers — cold, the temperature of a cheapskate's swimming pool. She then stripped off all her clothes and Karen Galvin's wig — wigs usually made her scalp itchy and sweaty in any role she played — and she gently walked into the Maumee River, her toes touching mud and rock, her inner legs electrified by the chill, her armpits flinching with shock, and then finally an otter's plunge into the brown broth, emerging far out in the middle, her head periscoping the view of Toledo. A short while later she washed her hair with Randy Montarelli's shampoo, then shook it dry. She dressed and rewigged herself. Susan walked up the bank and over to a commercial strip of fast food, car dealerships and complex traffic lights. It was now almost dark, and she was hungry, and tired of the chocolate energy bars. She strolled the sidewalk-free neighborhood as if seeing her country for the first time — the signs and cars and lights and shop fronts bigger and brighter and more powerful than they needed to be. She caught whiffs of fried chicken and diesel fumes, but having spent her only quarters, she couldn't buy food. She was starving. She walked for hours. She passed eighty Wendy's, a hundred Taco Bells, seven hundred Exxons, and then she came up on her nine hundredth McDonald's, where she decided to use the bathroom. On the way into the restaurant she noticed a crew chief walking out a side utility door and over to a dumpster where he tossed away a large tray of fully wrapped, unsold, time-expired burgers. Susan saw her chance. She walked to the dumpster and with an agile climb reminiscent of the aerobics class she might well that moment be attending in a parallel universe, she hopped inside and crammed the sports bag with warm, wrapped cheeseburgers.Loot. She heard voices approaching. She quickly dropped the bag and contracted herself into a ball beneath the closed right-side door of the dumpster and listened to teenage banter: «… gonna go over to Heather's after I lock up.» «She still sore at you?» «No way, man.» The second speaker threw two green waste bags into the bin, which rolled down onto Susan's feet. «I bought her a tattoo, and now she's real nice to me, like …» Whamp! The left lid crashed down. Susan heard a muffled conversation about women, plus the unmistakable sound of a key locking the door above her.