John finished dinner with Ivan and Nylla, then went down to the guesthouse. Doris, having declined dinner with crack baby MacKenzie, was asleep. For the first time since his return from his botched walkout he didn't feel cold dark steel down his spine. He thought back to the women he'd been with briefly during that walkout, then he thought of Susan. Turning the front door knob, it came to him that maybe he could sponge away the look of loneliness that he'd seen in Susan's eyes — and John was now pretty sure it was loneliness he'd seen, despite the smiles and the confidences. If he'd learned one thing while he'd been away, it was that loneliness and the open discussion of loneliness is the most taboo subject in the world. Forget sex or politics or religion. Or even failure.Loneliness is what clears out a room. Susan could be more to him than his latest box-office ranking. With Susan he might actually help for once, might actually raise something better out of himself than a hot pitch for a pointless film. Something moral and fine inside each of them might sprout and grow. He phoned and got her answering machine again. He hung up. He felt sixteen. When Susan didn't respond within an hour, John found his heart racing, his concentration shot. By midnight he was as buggy as he'd ever been on drugs, but without the distractions. He decided to forward his phone messages to his cell phone, then go rent tapes starring Susan. He wanted to see if the lonely look in her eye had always been there or if it was something new. He also just wanted to see her face.This is how fans feel about stars, he thought.So this is what it's like. To John, stars were just part of the flow of people through the house, like the maids, the agents and the caterers. But tonight he understood the allure of the tabloids and the fanzines. He drove Ivan's Chrysler sedan down into West Hollywood. Ivan and Nylla preferred the sedan because of its anonymity. It didn't look like a rental car, and it didn't look, as Doris had said, «ethnic or frightened middle class.» Traffic was tolerable; the night's darkness still felt clean. He found a rental place, West Side Video. On entering he saw it was the kind of shop where the manager asserts personality by laser-printing signs highlightingEVIL MOTHERS ,CUTE & DUMB , and arcane subcategories likeGORE FESTS andLEMONS , where John was genuinely amused to see his old turkeys,The Wild Land and The Other Side of Hate. He realized he had no idea what movies Susan had been in. He asked the clerk, name-taggedRYAN , if he had anything starring Susan Colgate, and the clerk squeaked with pleasure. «Meese Colllllll gate? I should think so. Right this way.» He led John to an old magazine rack filled with sun-faded tape boxes. Above the rack was a laser-printed sign readingST .SUSAN THE DIVINE . The top of the rack was camped up with altarlike candles and sacrificial offerings — Japanese candy bars, prescription bottles, a model Airbus 340 with a missing wing, and a mosaic of head shots of Susan culled from a wide array of print media. Ryan stood patiently, waiting for John's reaction, but John was silent, the inside of his brain firing Roman candles. He felt a sexual need to own the altar. «She's something, isn't she?» Ryan asked. «You did this?» John asked, looking at Ryan, a Gap clone — khakis, white T-shirt with flannel shirt on top. A pleasant Brady Bunch face. Like a gag writer at Fox. «With tender loving care.» «I'll give you a hundred bucks for it, right now.» Ryan was taken aback. «Mr. Johnson — I'm sorry, but I can't pretend I don't know who you are — this is my shrine. It's not like I can just give it away like that.» «Five hundred, but throw in the movies.» «Mr.Johnson. I made it. It's not like a joke or something. Well, maybe a bit of a joke. But I've been saving these clippings for years.» «Nine hundred. Half of what I've got. It's my last money. Everybody knows I'm broke. Even with Mega Force — that's in a trust.» «Don't tell me this! Too much information, Mr. Johnson!» «John.» «Too much information, John.» Ryan put his hands on his hips and watched as John scanned the titles on the boxes' spines. The store was empty. They could speak loudly. «John, I'm a stranger to you, but let me ask you something.» «Welcome to detox. Ask away.» «Are you, how shall I say, in love with Miss Colgate?» «What?» John was shocked, not by Ryan's forthrightness, but by the same sort of ping he used to get when he discovered whodunit in an Agatha Christie mystery. «Love? I — » «Go no further. It's okay. I work for the forces of good. And it doesn't surprise me, you know.» «What doesn't? I never said I was in love.» «Psh. You're like the old RKO Radio tower shooting out bolts of Susan.» «You're a ballsy little shit.» «Now, now.» Ryan could see John didn't mind. In fact, quite the opposite. «I mean, both of you have done disappearing acts. Her after the plane crash three years ago, and you earlier this year.» John wasn't going to fight it. «Go on. What's your point?» Ryan rubbed his chin and became professorial. «Well, this would have to be a new thing, wouldn't it? Because if it was even slightly old, you'd already have seen all her old videos by now.» «Bingo, Dr. Einstein.» «When did you meet?» «Today. At lunch. At the Ivy.» Ryan whistled, then relaxed his posture. «Tell you what, John. Rent all the videos and I'll report them as lost or stolen.» «Yeah?» «Yeah. And don't waste your last money. I'll throw in the altar, but there's a catch.» «It wouldn't be life on earth if there weren't a catch. «Qu'est-ce-que c'est, Ryan?» John found himself greatly liking this strange young man. «You have to answer a series of skill-testing questions after reading a script I wrote.» «Fair enough. Deal.» «Good. I'll lock up and we can scan these tapes out of the system and load this stuff into your car.» The two men carried the shrine by its ends over to the counter, where Ryan began to laser-scan the tapes' bar codes. John gave Ryan the address of the guesthouse, as well as his phone number. «Give these out to anybody and you're mulch. And let me ask you something, Ryan — why'd you make a shrine? You're not a stalker, because they don't make shrines — they stalk. What's your deal?» Ryan looked up from the till, was about to say one thing and then visibly stopped and began to say something else. «Oh, you know, we all need an obsession, and mine's La Colgate: 3184 Prestwick Drive, Benedict Canyon, Wyoming driver's license 3352511, phone unlisted but messages can be left with Adam Norwitz, the IPD Agency.» John stared at Ryan. «She rents stuff here.» John looked down at the tapes, some episodes of Meet the Blooms, Dynamite Bay and Thraice's Faces — On Tour with Steel Mountain. Crap. «There's another reason you like Susan Colgate. Mind telling me?» «Fair enough. An LAPD guy told me I was the last person to ever leave a message on her phone line before her plane crashed — a few years ago. I can't explain it. And now here you are tonight. So I'm bonding with her again.» The shrine fit neatly in the car's back seat. The air outside was surprisingly cold and John's skin felt clammy. «Here's the script,» said Ryan. «Yeah, yeah,» said John, grabbing it. «John — listen to me.» John stopped — he was unused to being addressed like this but didn't mind. «You're going to read this script and then you're going to get back to me right away. But that's not all.» «It's not, is it?» «No. You're also going to call me up whenever you need to, and we can talk about Susan.» «Do you have any idea how fucking psycho that sounds, Ryan?» «Psycho or not, I mean it. Other people aren't going to understand this when it breaks out. And it will. Not from me, but from you, because you're in love so you have a need to blab everything. Other people won't get it.» John laughed. «Okay, Ryan, you win. When my heart gets ready to sing, you can be my Yoko Ono.» «Good luck, Mr. Johnson.» John gave the thumbs-up and drove immediately to 3184 Prestwick, parked across the street and looked at Susan's small blue Cape Cod house surrounded by overgrown ornamental shrubs. A porch light was on, but otherwise it was dark. An hour crept by, and the only activity John noticed was a dog walker and three cars driving by. He gave up, and late in the night he drove back to the guesthouse. The streets were surprisingly empty, and at Highland and Sunset he noticed a fog, but then realized it couldn't be because Los Angeles almost never had fog. His cell phone rang, but the caller hung up. John conceded that something must be on fire. That night John didn't sleep. He read Ryan's script and drank raspberry juice cut with stinging nettle and mango. He looked at his cordless phone wondering what might be a remotely plausible time to call Susan. Seven-thirty? Too early. Eight? Yes. No. He'd look desperate. Eight-thirty?Uh, hello, Susan — yes, I know it's kinda early… . Nine? Yes — but how to get there through the ink and murk and smothering slowness of night? By six o'clock the sky was lightening and a few doves skittered about in the shrubs. He put down Ryan's script, «Tungaska.» It was good. A Texas woman inherits a strange metal hoop from her father, which looks like an unjeweled crown or a creweling hoop. She holds it up to the light from a TV set for a better look and suddenly licorice-whip tornadoes descend from the sky, smashing her Galveston subdivision into a landfill of cracked plywood, broken furniture, branches, toys and cars and clothing. Only the room in which she's sitting is spared. It turns out the hoop is a portal that converts human psychic energy into nuclear energy. John heard a hum up the hill — Ivan's treadmill buzzing to life at its usual six-thirty time slot. Company! He walked up to Ivan, who was also watching the morning news on an ancient 14-inch TV placed on its usual perch on a lawn chair. «John-O.» «Ivan.» «You look like shit. Up all night?» Ivan's treadmill was on 3 out of a possible 10. «Yeah.» This was not uncommon. «Watch anything good?» «Actually, no. I read something.» «You read ?» «A script, actually.» «My,my. High School Graduates Eat Steak. When was the last time you even touched a script?» John had to think. «Yeah, yeah. Whenever.» «Something we can use?» «I think so. It's okay.» «Okay good, or okay crap?» «Okay good. Okay great, actually.» «Spiel forth, pardner.» John started to describe the film. «What happens after the Galveston blowup?» Ivan was hooked. «We go back in time — to the famous Tungaska “meteor explosion” of 1909.» «Isn't that the one where half the trees in Siberia got knocked down?» «That's it — except it turns out it wasn't a meteorite explosion. It was this hoop thing.» «Not aliens, I hope. The market's supersaturated with alien shit.» Ivan timed some sort of pulse or throbbing in his body with his stopwatch. «Not aliens. The hoop is from Switzerland. From Bern, Switzerland. It's from 1905, and it was made by a voluptuous Russian Jew down the hall from Einstein's apartment. That was the year he discovered the Theory of Relativity.» «Vol up tuous? What kind of word is that? Where are we, John-O — 1962?» «Okay okay. But she's hot.» «She's hot ? Are we in 1988 now?» «God, Ivan. She's hot in a cold kind of way. Her parents died and she had to go back to Siberia from Bern. But when she's there, there's the accident — the Tungaska explosion.» «What kind of psychic energy creates an explosion that levels half of Siberia?» «The woman's first orgasm accidentally funneled through an amplifier ring within the hoop.» «Jawohl.» «Anyhow, she's at the center of the explosion, so she's safe. That's part of the deal. Imagine the special effects on this one, Ivan. Anyhow, by now the bad guys know all about this hoop.» «Who are the bad guys?» «A Swiss banking consortium just before WWII. The guys who were about to rake gold fillings out of the death camps.» «Go on.» «These banking guys want it. All of the governments want it, but she keeps both herself and her hoop hidden until 1939 and the war. She's sent to a death camp and the Nazis get the hoop. Then the Americans steal it from the Germans, and the Americans use it to nuke Japan. And after that the hoop moves to Nevada, where they suck in the gambling energy and the desperation energy from Las Vegas to do their nuclear tests. But then the woman's son, a ballistics scientist working there at the Nevada test site, makes these connections and realizes what the hoop is really about — and also that it belongs to him. «So he manages to swipe it — that's when the nuclear testing stops — in the eighties — and he smuggles himself and the hoop down to Galveston. But he has a stroke. His daughter, played by the same actress, puts the hoop into a luggage closet. It's when she's cleaning out the closet that she has the accident with the hoop up against the TV set. The tornado alerts the bad guys, and so there's this chase and it ends with a hurricane of blood. Fish turn inside out. Roses bloom at midnight. It's Revelations. At the end the woman takes the hoop to Hawaii and throws it into one of the live volcanoes on Oahu. Whaddya think?» Ivan was measuring his breath as his treadmill kicked into a hill simulation. «Sounds to me like there's lots of debris flying around in it.» «Debris? What? Yeah — I guess so.» «I was meeting with these nerds at ILM and SGI up in San Francisco before I went to Scotland. Their computers can do perfect flying debris and litter now. They're looking for a showcase for their new techniques and this sounds like just the thing. Story needs some work, though. Who's the writer?» «One of these young turks — Ryan Something. He's boiling hot right now.» «I haven't heard his name. Is there an auction on it?» «We have the option to make a preemptive bid.» «How much you think?» «Five hundred.» «Make it three. You feel good about this?» «First script in years to give my brain a hard-on.» «It's the first script you've read in years.» A bell rang, announcing somebody at the front gate. Ivan switched off the treadmill. «Come on, John-O, let's see who's here.» They walked around the patio, which was dripping with flowers and lush branches. Out front a police car was at the gate, one officer standing beside the car manning the intercom, another in the passenger seat. Ivan buzzed them in with a remote. The four of them formed a congress on the front steps. «Officers?» Ivan said. «Hello, Mr. McClintock,» the tall one said. «And you, too, Mr. Johnson. Do you have a moment, Mr. McClintock?» «Call me Ivan. Of course. What's this regarding?» «Doing a check. Do you own a white Chrysler sedan, license number 2LM 3496T?» «Yes.» «Were you driving the car last night around twoA.M . in Benedict Canyon?» «That was me,» John said. «Could you tell us where you were last night, Mr. Johnson?» «Easy. I was getting tapes at West — West — West Side Video on Santa Monica.» «What tapes?» «About ten of them. Susan Colgate stuff — Meet the Blooms, and some cheesy B flick.» The policeman shared a flickering meaningful glance. «What time would that have been, Mr. Johnson?» «The guy was just closing the shop. Around oneA.M ., I guess.» «What then?» «Then I — went and parked in front of Susan Colgate's house. For about an hour.» «Why was that, Mr. Johnson?» «Is something wrong? What's going on here?» John was getting edgy. «It's a routine check, sir. Why were you parked outside her house?» «John-O,» said Ivan. «Just talk, okay? We're not cutting a distribution deal here.» «She didn't answer my phone message. Susan Colgate. I thought she might be coming home late.» «You live here, Mr. Johnson?» asked the shorter officer. «In the house down there. With my mother.» The police looked down at the guesthouse, almost unchanged since the day John first saw it. «I lost my old Bel-Air tree-fort last year. You probably read about that in People. » «You didn't lose it, John,» said Ivan, «you gave it away. » «To the IRS. That's not me giving. That's them taking.» «Is that the Chrysler down there?» asked the tall cop. «That's it,» John said, his stomach turning to slime as he remembered the shrine still in the back seat. «There's a — oh fuck. You'll see.» The four walked down the hill, the police clicking into almost paramilitary action as they discovered the shrine in the back. One called HQ requesting something technical immediately. The other blocked John from the car. «Am I under arrest? Do you have a warrant?» John asked. «No. And we don't have to go through that if you agree.» «John, it's my property,» said Ivan. «Go right ahead, guys.» He looked in the back seat. The white towel around his neck dropped onto the gravel driveway and he didn't pick it up. «John-O, there's a goddam Susan Colgate parade float in the back seat of the car — you made this?» «Did you make the shrine in the back seat?» the cop asked. «No. I bought it from the kid at West Side Video. I think it's one of those campy queer things.» At this point Doris came out of the house, cloaked in shawls, her bunned gray hair a porcupine of flyaway hairs. «Oh Christ — it's my mother.» «Morning, darlings. Oh my — the fuzz.» «The fuzz ?» said John. «I'm merely trying to be contemporary, darling. Officers — has there been a crime?» There was mild confusion. A police photographer and forensics expert went over to the car. Ivan went back up to his treadmill and John phoned Adam Norwitz. «What the fuck is going on, Adam?» «Susan's gone AWOL. She had a sixA .M. makeup call for a Showtime Channel kiddy movie and she didn't show up. So the producer phones and screams at me, and I go racing from my gym straight to her house and the doors are all open. There's nobody there, but her car's still out front. The coffeepot was still on, but the coffee was like tar, like it'd been on for twenty-four hours. So I called the cops.You tell me what's going on. I nearly had to donate my left nut to science to get her that stupid part on Showtime, and she fucks it up.» «Compassion, Adam.» «Yeah, right. Is she doing a project with you? Is she jumping into a bigger pond now — no more time for the little fish?» «How can you make this woman's disappearance about you, Adam?» «Spare me the melodrama.» «Did you call the hospitals or anything?» «That's the cops' job.» Adam knew nothing. The police knew next to nothing. John refused to panic. Susan could be out on a tequila jag or maybe she was whipping one of those creepy Brit directors with birch fronds.She's not that type, he thought. He sucked in a breath, then phoned Ryan to buy the script. Chapter Sixteen
Their first flop was a love story:The Other Side of Hate. Nothing about it came easily. To begin with, Angus, in the final depressing stretch of prostate cancer, told him the title was wrong. «John, “hate” is a downer word, and it doesn't matter if you make Citizen Kane, a title like The Other Side of Hate is box office poison from the word go.» Doris had other concerns. «A love story?You, darling? Just keep making things that go bang and you'll be hunky-dory.» «You don't think I can do a love story?» «That's not it, darling. Love stories need to be made by …» «Yes?» «Oh, I have put my foot in it, haven't I?» «Love stories need to be made by … ?» «They need to be made by somebody who's actually been in love, darling, and I think I'd better have something very bubbly very quickly.» Over the years Doris's life had devolved into a pleasant timeless succession of sunny days, clay modeling, bursts of watercolor enthusiasm, gossip with a small clique of «card fiends,» and a well-worn path between her front door and the Liquor Barn a few miles away. John saw her twice a week and she remained a close confidante. «I've been in love before.» «With whom ?» «With …» «Really, darling, it's okay, and doubtless you'll one day find some lucky young starlet who'll sweep you right off your feet. And until then, keep blowing things up in Technicolor.» «Technicolor? I think I hear Bing Crosby ringing the doorbell.» But John wondered why he hadn't fallen in love. He'd been in lust and in like countless times, but not something that made him feel like a part of something bigger. The energy from his filmmaking — as well as filmmaking's rewards, the delirium of excess — it all conspired to mask this one simple hole in his life. It seemed to John that people in love stopped having the personality they had before love arrived. They morphed into generic «in-love units.» John saw both love and long-term relationships as booby traps that would not only strip him of his identity but would take out the will to continue moving on. But then again, to find somebody who'd be his partner on the ride — someone to push him further. That's what he'd held out for. And as the years went on, the holding out got sadder and more solitary. He began to hang out with people younger than he as older friends drifted away. But even then he sensed the younger crew were contemptuous — That fucked-up old wank who can't even get himself a girlfriend. He lives in a house like a nuclear breeder facility. Sure, he has hits, but he always takes his mom to the premieres. Ivan was less doubtful than Doris about the fate of The Other Side of Hate, but during the production cycle he was sidetracked by an onslaught of collapsing real estate deals in Riverside County, and wasn't able to assign himself fully to his usual preproduction grind of rewrites, casting changes, and cleaning up John's well-intended messes. The director and the lead actress discovered they were sleeping with the same script girl and subsequently refused to listen to each other. The male lead tested positive for HIV two weeks before shooting and arrived on the set with a new and medicated personality greatly at odds with the cavalier froth demanded by the thirteenth and final script rewrite. The grimness continued through the dailies, through the storm that bulldozed a third of the Big Bear location set and through John's initiation into the world of crystal meth on the eleventh day of shooting. After a profoundly dismal test screening in Woodland Hills, Melody said to John, «John, I know you meant well by this film, but if you want to do the right thing, go out and buy a can of glue and stick it onto the back of the negative and sell the whole thing as packing tape.» «Mel!» «Johnny, don't be a retard. It's crap. Burn it.» «But it's tender — lovely …» «Please. Don't even put it on video. Don't even dub it into Urdu. Burn it.» Angus died shortly thereafter and Doris came unglued. They hadn't been lovers for decades, but he'd been her good friend. She lapsed into a cloudy fugue. Ivan inherited the estate and Doris stayed in the house. The Other Side of Hate was released after John ignored what proved to be sound advice from Melody. The film was violently thrashed by media organs with the glee of vultures who have long awaited the giant's first fall. It died on opening weekend, taking in just under 300K, close to the amount John spent on under-the-counter pharmaceuticals in any given year. There were the inevitable industry backlash rumors that the golden days of Equator Films were over. Some viewed the film as a burp, others a death cry. John and Ivan were unable to rustle up even the faintest, most vaguely kind word from a 200-watt radio station in the middle of Iowa. («Slightly amusing!» KDXM, La Grange, Iowa.) Nothing was salvageable. All eyes were on the next film,The Wild Land, a historical saga set in early-twentieth-century Wyoming. The script was adapted from a best-selling novel by a two-time Academy Award—winning screenwriter. The cast was six of filmdom's most in-demand stars, all of whom got along famously with the Palme d'Or director. It came in on budget, with a sweeping musical score, and when it came out in theatrical release, it … flat-lined. It garnered none of the venom and acid of The Other Side of Hate. The film simply vanished, a response more deeply wounding than any of Hate 's hatchets and chain saws. After The Wild Land, John and Ivan had a dozen films in development. Time passed. Studios mutated and merged and vanished and some were born. Japan entered the arena. Tastes changed. New audiences evolved. The men had lost their footing. John completed construction of his high-tech fuck-hut, which had been ongoing for five years. He tried to clean up his substance act, and lost entire years at a time in the effort, the very name Johnson becoming industry shorthand for slipping and lapsing and falling. He lost interest in making movies. His world narrowed and his circle shrank. John began to feel like some old mirrors he'd seen in Europe, at the once-grand old palaces, the glass that had slowly, fleck by fleck, over the years shed the flecks of silver that had made them originally reflective. «Oscar season again,» sighed Ivan. «Is it March already?» They were in the back seat of a car, being driven to Century City for a morning legal meeting. Ivan was immaculately dressed and his skin had the shine of eight hours of drugless sleep. John's face looked like a floor at the end of a cocktail party. «What are we up for this year?» asked John. «Don't be facetious, John.» John was doing lines of coke from a small oval of safety glass he stored in his attaché case. He noticed Ivan give him a glower. «So what is your point, Ivan? I've got to stay awake. You know lawyers hit me like animal tranquilizers.» Ivan waited. A flatbed loaded with jumbo gold statuettes was headed off to the venue — a tourist's dream photo. The truck paused beside them at a light. John caught Ivan eyeing the statues. «No, no,no, Ivan. I can see that “I wish we had an Oscar” gleam in your eyes. Well,forget it. Oscars are for freaks.» «You can't honestly believe that, John.» «Oohhhhh, look at me — I've got a little statue for being this year's token Brit, or this year's on-screen hooker with a disability.Oohhhhh, look at me — in twenty-four hours nobody's going to remember my name.Oohhhhh, the studio can put lots of little Oscar™'s all over ads for my movie — not simply Oscars but Oscars with the little trademark ™'s up on top:Oscar™ 's.» He chopped up a crystal. «Oops — excuse me, I forgot to put the ™ at the end of it. Off to Alcatraz we go.» «John …» Ivan adapted his baby-sitting voice. «Go easy on that stuff. The guys we're meeting are ball-breakers.» «Oscars …» John began to mumble, not a good sign. Ivan began to brace himself for a crash-and-burn morning, and downgraded his expectations for the upcoming meeting accordingly. Ivan, like John, had been seduced by the rewards and extremes of filmmaking, but unlike John, he wanted a traditional life now. In his mind he was «officially disgusted» with his life up to that point. He was «officially through with carousing» and was now ready to begin «officially looking to settle down.» And it was at this point that he saw Nylla, at the foot of an office tower, tears trickling down her cheeks, swaddled in a printed silk scarf that fluttered over her right shoulder. Running up her neck and into her cheek was a mottled scar left by a massive jellyfish sting from off the Australian coast two years previously. Its trace had nipped her acting career in the bud. Her new agent, Adam Norwitz, had seen her jellyfish scar a month before and had finally succeeded, just minutes prior to her appearance on the sidewalk, in breaking her spirit. He convinced her that the scar would keep her out of work, «unless you want to do soft porn, in which case a scar like yours could be a definite asset.» Ivan stared at her silk dress, patterned with gardenias, fluttering in a warm wind, and he felt sorry for her. Meanwhile, behind him, John's sinuses and lungs clapped and glort ed. Ivan watched Nylla chew her gum. She removed it from her mouth, and instead of flicking it onto the hot concrete, took a small paper from her purse, and placed the gum inside the paper, and tucked the result in her purse. It was the cleanest thing he'd ever seen anybody do. «Look, she's crying,» said Ivan, entranced, as though witnessing the world's smallest rainstorm. He got out of the car. «Ivan,» John said, «isn't the meeting in the next tower over?» He heard Ivan ask Nylla if she was okay, and then say to her, «Can I help you out here? I'm Ivan. I'm on my way to a meeting, but I saw you here and …» She said, «Oh God, I must look like an idiot.» «No you don't. Not at all. What's your name?» «I'm Nylla.» «That's a nice name.» «It's spelled N-Y-L-L-A. My father came to the States from Europe after the war. He wanted to name me after New York State because the States had been so good to him. My mother wanted me named after her mother, Bjalla. And there's the result.» «I'm Ivan.» And they were married six months later. Chapter Seventeen
Eugene Lindsay, Ford dealer of the gods, was alone in bed making a list in a small notepad: No. 63: You can get almost any food you want at any time of the year. No. 64: Women do everything men do and it's not that big a deal. No. 65: Anybody on the planet can have a crystal-clear conversation with anybody else on the planet pretty well any time they want to. No. 66: You can comfortably and easily wake up in Sydney, Australia, and go to bed in New York. No. 67: The universe is a trillion billion million times larger than you ever dreamed it would be. No. 68: You pretty well never see or smell shit. He was writing a list of things which would astound somebody living a hundred years before him. He was trying to persuade himself that he was living in a miraculous world in a miraculous time. Having taken early retirement from his job as a local TV weatherman, he'd subsequently retreated for a decade inside his mock-Tudor house in Bloomington, Indiana. He made art from household trash and watched TV. He jotted the occasional thought in his notebooks, such as the evening's list. And in his basement he used a Xerox 5380 console copier and a CD-ROM—based computer to execute far more elaborate mail scams than he had ever dreamed of in the eighties. His wife, Renata, had years ago moved to New Mexico, where she paid the bills burning herbs for neurotic urban refugees. She abandoned decades of starvation dieting, and had grown as big as a pile of empties on the back stoop. She wore no makeup and made a point of letting people know it. When she divorced Eugene, she had asked for nothing, which confused and frightened him more than a nasty divorce fight would have done. No. 69: We went to the moon and to Mars a few times, and there's really nothing there except rocks, so we quit dreaming about them. No. 70: Thousands of diseases are quickly and easily cured with a few pills. No. 71: Astoundingly detailed descriptions of sex acts appear on the front page of The New York Times, and nobody is ruffled by it. No. 72: By pushing a single button, it's possible to kill 5 million people in just one second. Eugene looked at number 72. Something was wrong — what? He figured it out:buttons didn't exist a hundred years ago. Or did they? What did people do back then — did they pull chains? Turn cranks? What did they have that they could turn on? Nothing. Electric lights? Eugene didn't think so. Not back then. He made a correction: No. 72: By pushing a single lever, it's possible to kill five million people in just one second. He looked at his clock — deepest night — 3:58A .M. He dropped his pen and marveled at his body, lying on the bed, still well proportioned and lean, still dumbly beautiful and betraying no evidence of inner weariness. His bedsheets felt dry but moist, like the time he lay down on a putting green in North Carolina. Surrounding him was that month's art project — thousands of the past decade's emptied single-portion plastic tublets of no-fat yogurt, their insides washed squeaky clean, stuffed inside each other, forming long wavy filaments that reached to the ceiling like sea anemones. The finished piece was to go inside Renata's old gift-wrapping room, a concept she'd stolen from Candy Spelling, Aaron Spelling's wife — a whole room devoted to wrapping the nonstop stream of trinkets and doodads from her old gown business. Eugene had to take his weekly bag of trash out to the curb. He looked at his clock — 3:59A .M. now. He procrastinated and added to his list: No. 73: Bad moods have been eliminated. No. 74: You almost never see horses. No. 75: You can store pretty well all books ever published inside a box no larger than a coffin. No. 76: We made the planet's weather a little bit warmer. Trash time. Since the episode with the crazy pageant mother back in Saint Louis, giving any thing away to the trashman was cause for personal alarm. Trash night had never been the same since. To make his current bag of garbage seem fuller and hence more normal, he fluffed up its contents and carried the full bag, weighing no more than a cat, down to the front door. Eugene paused and tightened his robe, which bore the embroidered logo of the Milwaukee Radisson Plaza Hotel from which it was stolen during a meteorological conference. He darted out to the curb, lobbed the bag onto the concrete, then ran back to the door. On the way back to his room he beamed with a creator's joy at his three pillars made of Brawny paper towel shipping boxes, a trio that filled the front hallway from floor to ceiling. Take that, Andy Warhol. Cozily back in bed, Eugene heard an unmistakable thump from downstairs. He knew the noise couldn't be a tumbling mound of his art — he stacked his goods in stable piles, the way he'd seen them stacked in museums. Perhaps a raccoon had snuck in during his brief trash haul. Eugene reached for his gun in the bedside drawer and released the safety. Seated on the floor between the wall and his bed, he plotted his strategy. Then came another bump from below. Confident and collected, he slipped through the Brawny towel box totems. Sliding on his buttocks, he lowered himself into the foyer, lit only by the candle power of a half moon in the clear sky. He crouched behind some of the totems and scanned the living room. Somebody or something was rooting behind a 1:4-scale Saber fighter jet made of Bumble Bee tuna and SpaghettiOs tins. Eugene swept across the foyer like a cartoon detective. Stealthily he maneuvered to the base of the statue, its wheels resting atop a plinth built of stabilized Kraft Catalina saladdressing boxes. He was calm. He stood up and, with kickboxing speed, lunged over to the other side of the base shouting «Freeze!,» and pointed the handgun onto what appeared to be a drifter — a wino — who yipped like a squeak toy, and cowered against the boxes. Eugene flipped on the light switch, shocking the room and flaring his retinas. «Well fuck me, » he said. «If it isn't Miss Wyoming.» «Put down the gun, Ken Doll.» «Lordy! Miss Congeniality.» «Yeah, like I always keep a speech about world peace prepared.» «Hey — » The adrenaline was wearing off. He grew confused. «You're supposed to be — » «Dead?» she laughed. «Well, technically yes. » Eugene paused and crossed his arms while studying Susan, now hoisting herself up. «Boo,» she said. «I'm not a ghost. I'm real. I promise. Nice place you have here.» Perplexed, Eugene asked how she got in. «I scampered in while you were on the curb. I was sleeping outside your front door.» «You were sleeping outside my front door?» «No. I was waiting in the soundproof booth to answer a skill-testing question.» Eugene was still digesting the scene before him and was silent. Susan wanted a reaction and added, «Gonad.» He lit a cigarette and relaxed just a smidge. «I can see you're a feisty one. Ten out of ten for deportment.» «Oh, let it rest. I came here on purpose. What do you think. » «You came here ? Why here ? And as I said, you're dead. I saw the crash on TV a hundred times.» Susan stood up and removed the scarecrow's down jacket. «You've been doing weather for how many years now, Eugene — how many times are you ever right?» «I was a good weatherman.» «Was? I guess your station saw the inside of your house and decided to can you.» Susan was both pleased and surprised that she and Eugene so quickly fell into patter. More to the point, the sense of powerful first-crushiness initiated with «the wink» back in St. Louis was in no way diminished by the physical sight of an aged Eugene. He'd aged in the crinkly, weather-beaten manner of action heroes, sheepherders and five-star generals. His eyes remained as gemlike and clear as she'd remembered. He was also a kook and already kind of fun. «Susan, what could you possibly have come to me here for? I've never even met you.» «Where's Renata?» «Renata's not here anymore.» A good sign. Susan's insides thrummed. «You two split?» «Years ago. You didn't answer my question. Why did you come here of all places? You've gotta know dozens of people within hours of the crash site.» He threw up his arms. «Shit. Look at me, trying to be logical with somebody who's supposed to be a ghost, fer Chrissake.» Susan wondered herself why she had come there. All she'd known along the way was that she was in the Midwest and that Eugene's house seemed like the only safe place between the two coasts. She had no plan prepared for what came next. As this dawned on her, the lack of immediate response goaded Eugene. «So let me get this straight — you thought Renata and I would give you a blanket, some Valiums and a phone line to 911? Your crash was a week ago, Miss Wyoming. Something's not right here. If you wanted blankets and cocoa, the time limit on that expired five days ago.» Meanwhile, all Susan knew was that since her initial crush on Eugene she'd spent her life trying to find him in some form or another, mostly through Larry, and maybe now she wanted to see what the real goods were like. «Maybe I'm not sure myself why I'm here.» «Oh, this is nuts!» He let out a breath. «Are you okay? After the crash? No broken bones? No bruises?» «I'm fine.» «You're going to tell me what happened?» «Of course. Not now. Later.» «You hungry?» «Thirsty.» «Come on. I'll get you some water.» Susan brushed herself off and looked at Eugene's sculptures. «All this stuff made of trash. But it's so clean. How do you keep it all so clean?» «It's my art. It's what I do. Come on. Kitchen's this way. How'd you get here from Ohio?» The house was warm and dry. «It's pretty easy to get anywhere you want to in this country. All you have to do is find a truck stop, find some trucker who's flying on amphetamines, hop in the cab, drive a while, and then start foaming about religion — that way they dump you off at the next truck stop and you don't even have to put out.» «I remember seeing you on that stage, you know.» «You do ?» Susan was thrilled. «Hell, yes. The night you won, you would have even if your mother hadn't done her little blackmail routine.» Susan didn't want to dwell on Marilyn. «I'm thirsty, Eugene.» Eugene gave her some water. The kitchen ceiling's lights wore milk carton shades, beacons of missing children, and cast a yellow light on the sink. She checked the expiry date on one of them. «April 4, 1991. That's when you started to become Picasso?» «Sunshine, you're crazy as a fucking loon. And your voice. Your manner. You probably don't even know it, but you've become your mother. I only met her for maybe five minutes, but baby, you're her. » Susan closed her eyes. She had a small puff of recognition. «Oh God — you know what, Eugene? You're right. I actually do feel like her right now, the way she moves. Funny — this has never happened to me before. It took me a plane crash to bring out my inner Marilyn. All it took her was fifteen years being the youngest daughter in a hillbilly shack full of alcoholics.» She put down her glass. «Now where am I going to go sleep?» They could hear a garbage truck outside, bleeping and throbbing. Eugene was curious but exhausted. They inched back into the dining room. «My brain feels like Spam. Are you sure you're okay?» «Yeah.» Eugene became officious. «How'd you manage to survive that crash?» Susan took a sip. She was beginning to feel level. The sense of having taken flight was gone. «You know, I've been thinking about that for seven days solid. I drew ticket number 58-A and won. I don't think there's anything more cosmic to it than that. There just isn't. I wish I could say there was, Eugene.» «But where were you this past week?» Susan yawned and smiled. «Save it for the morning. I've been up thirty-six hours.» Eugene was too tired to probe further. «There's still a guestroom with furniture in it. Probably a bit dusty, but it ought to be fine.» Eugene led her there. Susan, meanwhile, was inwardly glowing: Eugene was single, retired and, like her, didn't have too much interest in the outer world. Once in the room, she lay her aviator glasses down on the bedside table and sat on the bed. «You know, if it hadn't been for Mom pulling that stunt with you, then I never would have stolen your 8-X-10 and fallen in love with you.» «Love!» Eugene seemed amused but then yawned. He said to Susan, «I phone in my grocery order tomorrow afternoon. Think of what you want to eat over the next week.» «Why not go out and just buy them?» «I don't like leaving the house.» Susan hadn't heard such good news in years. It was all she could do to contain her sense of sleeping on Christmas Eve. «Good night, Eugene. Thanks.» «Night, sunshine.» Eugene sighed and walked down the hall. He loudly thumped the top of a totem. «And the winner is …» he said, «Miss Wyoming. What a fucking ride. » At noon the next day Susan awoke to the sound of an electrical rhythmic thunking sound coming from the basement.Eugene's house. She rolled over and faintly purred. A minivan drove by outside. The rumbling beneath her, precise and gentle, continued. She found an old housecoat on the guestroom door peg and walked down to a paneled oak door beneath the main staircase. Blazing green-white chinks of light escaped from around the door's edge, as though the door were shielding her from invading aliens. She opened it and discovered the basement. Eugene was dressed in slacks, socks and a polo shirt, orchestrating the Xerox 5380 console copier's collation of hundreds of mail-outs. There were shelves of blank paper, file folders and CD-ROM's containing thousands of U.S. and Canadian names and addresses Susan would soon learn were culled by a demographics research firm in Mechanicsville, Virginia, accompanied by information on incomes and spending patterns. Eugene glanced up at Susan on the stairs. «Good morning, sunshine. Dressed for casual Friday, I see.» On the walls surrounding Eugene's work area were dozens of wood and velvet plaques of clouds and sun and snow and temperatures ranging from 230 up to 120. She walked down the steps and picked up a velvet sun. «Whoo-ee! I'm all sunny today.» She noted Eugene's flash of disapproval and placed the sun back in its correct orbit. «Thank you,» said Eugene, who continued with his clerical chores. Susan came up close to get a better peek at his documents, backing into Eugene. He turned around. «Can you work a copier?» «Back on the set of Meet the Blooms, whenever the writers got pissy and superior, I used to bring script production to a halt. You know how I did it? I wroteOUT OF ORDER on a sheet of scrap paper and taped it onto the copier's lid. All these people with IQs higher than Palm Springs temperatures, and not once did they consider challenging my paper signs.» She picked up a wooden plaque numbered 110º. «Did you ever use this one much?» «Near the end. A few times. Once the weather got wrecked.» «I guess you'd know.» She sat down on a stacking chair and watched Eugene. «When the show was canceled, Glenn, the head writer, loaded a commissary drinking straw with NutraSweet. Back on the set, he opened the copier's top and blew the NutraSweet into the machine, onto the drum. Killed the machine dead. They had to throw it out. It's like the worst thing on earth for copiers.» «This house is a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. We'll be having none of your white-collar sabotage during your stay here.» But he couldn't hold back a smile. The copier created a relaxing rhythm. Susan's eyes glazed and her thoughts wandered. «Did your TV station can you because you were nuts?» Eugene, sorting papers, spoke: «Nah. They didn't can me. I was injured on the job. I took early retirement.» «You were injured doing the nightly weather?» «As it happened, yes. You want to know what happened? I was crushed by a Coke machine.» «On the job?» «In the studio, so it was insured and unionized up the ying-yang. They installed a talking Coke machine which weighed, like, a ton more than a normal mute Coke machine. So this ugly little twerp with hockey hair shakes the machine back and forth, getting a rhythm going, until a can or two pops out, and the thing toppled down on top of him and it crushed him like a piñata. I happened to be passing by and my right foot got smashed. Look …» Eugene removed his sock, and Susan bent down to look at Eugene's right foot, which, with its scars and stitches, resembled a map of Indiana divided into small, countylike chunks. «Ouch City, Arizona,» said Susan. «You said it, baby. The kid was a goner, and I didn't walk for maybe seven months afterward. In the meantime they brought in a new guy with a fresher, perkier smile than me, who also focus-grouped like a royal wedding. I didn't have it in me to flog my butt around to the other stations. Too old. And if you're old in the weather biz, you either turn into a wacky eunuch real quick, or take a hike. So I hiked.» «Let me see your foot more closely.» She sat down. «Put it in my lap.» Eugene turned off the copier, and silence, like solidified Lucite, filled the air. He sat on a chair opposite Susan and hoisted his leg up and dropped it into Susan's lap. Susan said, «Mom trained me never to say a word or a sentence without imagining that a pageant judge is out there secretly listening in. So my whole life I've been followed by this invisible flotilla of soap opera actresses, Chevy dealers, costume designers and TV weathermen who scan my every word. It's a habit I can't shake. It's like those people whose parents made them chew food twenty times before swallowing, and so the rest of their life becomes a hell of twenties.» She looked Eugene in the eyes: «Does it hurt when I do that ?» The atmosphere for Susan took on the it's-not-really-happening aura of life's better sex. «No. Some of it I can't feel at all. And some of it feels like regular touching and …» Susan looked him in the eye and applied more pressure but was also more thoughtful, kneading both the bottom leathery pads and tender spots between the toes. «I saw you that night — at the pageant. You winked. Your wink almost bruised me,» Susan confessed. Her hands locked onto his ankles. She stared him down: «I've been through a lot this week. I need a shower, Eugene.» He led her up out of the basement. They reached the bathroom. Susan turned on the water, clean and hot, and in an instant they were naked and wet and all over each other like scrapping dogs. Susan felt her skin shouting with relief, as though it had been long smothered, and her insides felt like she was riding in a fast elevator. They slammed into each other, releasing unknown volumes of anger and lust and loneliness until finally the water went cold and they left the tub. Eugene opened a cupboard which contained, to Susan's surprise, fresh towels. A few minutes later, Susan was looking into Renata's old closet for something to wear. «I'm going to borrow one of these Bob Mackie gowns here. I see she left her stuff behind.» There were hundreds of dresses and outfits hanging from a dry cleaner's mechanized conveyor belt. The outfits did a dainty little jig as Susan turned the system on and off. «Boy, if Mom could see this. » «Christ, turn that thing off. The noise is like the theme song to a show I don't watch anymore.» «She can't have been that bad.» «You used to be married, too.» «Still am, technically. We never divorced.» «Rock star guy. Rough stuff, I imagine.» «Chris? Rough, yes, but stuff, no. He's gay as a goose. I married him so he could get a green card and so I could remain close to his Catholic and very married manager Larry Mortimer.» She stopped playing with the clothing rack. Eugene was dialing on the cordless, ordering groceries. «Oh God.» «What?» «You're real,» he said. «As opposed to … ?» He lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling fan. «I've got a good thing going here. My time is all my own. I don't have to deal with …» «With what?» «With people, » Eugene spat out. Susan looked at him. «I agree. You do have a good deal going here.» Now they were both looking at the ceiling and holding hands. Eugene asked her, «What did the focus groups say about you?» «What do you mean?» «You know. The focus groups. The ones they brought in to pick you apart so the network could figure out what makes you you. » Susan was intrigued. «Why?» «I'll tell you what they said about me. Then you tell me what they said about you.» «Okay, deal.» «Women said, “What's with his hair? Is it real? Is that his real color?” They said, “Ooh, me so horny, me want humpy astronaut.” They said, “I'd go metric for you, baby.” Guys weren't as descriptive. They just called me nothing, but once they saw my face, they knew the sports segment was over and could switch off the set.» He lit a cigarette then lay back and chuckled. «TV.Ugh. » Susan spooned into him. The sheets felt like cool pastry marble. She said, «Near the end they knew they had enough episodes to syndicate, so they stopped focus-grouping. But at the start I got stuff like “I can see the zits underneath her makeup. Can't you guys find her a putty knife? That's one helluva thick paper bag she's trying to act her way out of. Her tits are like fried eggs gone all runny.” That kind of stuff.» Their eyes caught and they both laughed. «I've gotta phone in this grocery order.» Eugene punched a phone number into the cordless, and the touch-tone beeps reminded Susan of a song she used to like back in the eighties.