When John was young, back in New York, in the third grade on one of his few nonsick days, a math teacher named Mr. Bird, who also filled the roles of gym teacher and guidance counselor, took the entire shivering class out onto the playing field. He pointed out white chalk marks which outlined a large square. Onto each of these marks he made students stand in place, and once everybody was in their assigned location, he used a megaphone he'd brought to shout out the following words: «Class, look at the area in front of your eyes. This is called an acre. For the rest of your lives you're going to be hearing people talk about acres. Five acres. Three thousand acres. An acre and a half. Well,this is an acre. Look at it hard. Burn it into your memory because this is the one time in your life you're going to see a perfect, one-hundred-percent-pure acre.» John remembered that acre, cold and wet and trampled. Its size did truly stay in his mind, and as he crisscrossed the country on foot, he saw nothing but acres, on all horizons, all of them one hundred percent pure, one hundred percent empty and most of them ownerless. He was truly a Nobody now, the land was his. He felt like a king during his few good moments, but these decreased as he nose-dived deeper into the American landscape. The sex had ended. Most forms of communication had quieted. Women vanished from his life and he missed them with the dull hunger of homesickness. He caught only glimpses of them, sleek, well fed, possessing clear goals and usually behind a car window in the process of rolling it up. John knew that he'd become the cautionary story their mothers had warned them about. He longed for female company and the ability of women to forgive, to care about hurts, and their readiness to laugh and be amused. His mother, Melody, Nylla and even the Florida twins, whose names he'd forgotten. Nearly all of the Nobodies he saw were men. Women, he thought, had so many more ways to connect themselves to the world — children, families, friends. John was an expert at looking in people's eyes and knowing when they wanted something from him. Nobody gave him that look anymore. But he wasn't astute about looking in people's eyes and recognizing when they wanted to give him something. Sometimes he'd see a woman watching him as he walked from a Denny's rest room back to the counter, or in a grocery store, tending to squawking kids and errant grocery carts. What were they offering? A meal and a dose of love to get him to the next way station? Women became to him portals back into a better place he'd always seemed to have overlooked. Five drunk farm kids in a pickup rolled him one evening at sunset because he was there and they felt like doing it. His UPS uniform was Rorschached with blood puddles and he had to throw it into a gas-station litter bin. He spent his accumulated recycling money, fifteen dollars, on a discounted yellow T-shirt that readMY OTHER SHIRT IS A PORSCHE and a Corona beer wind-breaker that came free with a six-pack, which he drank, metabolized and pissed away in the space of one thunderstorm. One night in Winslow, Arizona, he met a friendly-enough guy, Kevin. They'd both been checking out the pickings around an Exxon station's groceteria. It was around sunset. One or two stars had risen in the sky. John had just found a pack of timeexpired hot dogs when Kevin said, «I've got a place not far from here. We can go eat there.» Kevin seemed friendly enough and John missed simple conversation. Truth be told, he hadn't had a profound thought in weeks. Home was underneath a sun-rusted bridge that crossed a dry gully, decorated with high school graduation graffiti, so-and-so-was-here felt-pennings, sun-rotted condoms and a mattress so verminous that John consciously swept his way around it, as if he might catch athletically hopping crabs. «Here. Get a fire going.» He helped John light a twig fire beneath an inverted Chevelle hubcap filled with the lame trickle of water dripping down the gully's bottom-most rift. The water came to a boil and John put his time-expired hot dogs into it and the two watched them cook and said nothing. John figured so much for conversation. They ate the hot dogs, shared only the most cursory of stories — mostly about planned trips, whether the other was headed east or west, or what the weather might do; neither offered up his past — and then the sky was dark. Kevin went to sleep on the mattress. John found a sandy nook high up in a corner underneath the bridge where it joined the road. He'd learned that there was little, if anything, for a Nobody to do past sundown. He fell asleep to the sound of the occasional vehicle passing overhead. Somewhere in the night he felt a jolt of pain inside his dream, and he woke up to find Kevin walloping him with a broken-off metal rear flap from a shopping cart. Kevin was spewing out random invective: «Take my hot dogs away from me, will you? Steal a man's food right from under his nose, you're no better than Detroit automakers …» Blood dripping from a gash in his cheekbone, John ran away, down the road, into flat landscape, nothing on either side, finally far enough away to feel safe. He scuttled off the road, into a patch of desert, found a rut, crept into it, heard small animals scurry away, and then once more slept. The next day in Flagstaff he ate a discarded hamburger for lunch. The meat tasted strange, but he ignored it. Four hours later he was walking down a gravel road in what he thought was the direction of a meteorite crater he'd read about as a sick kid in Manhattan, when his gut collapsed as if he'd been judo-chopped, and he keeled over, into a dry ditch alongside the road. He began to shit and vomit as though all the cells in his body were screaming to empty themselves of toxins. In the haze of illness he removed his pants, knowing he had to keep them clean, and clumped his still clean clothes in a heap above him. He lay on the gritty soil and his body exploded. He could see the mountains and the mesas on the horizons, and billions of acres. John tried to imagine a bunch of children — all the kids in Arizona — standing around the edge of this landscape so savage and broken and freshly ripped from the kiln, and imagined as he clutched his stomach that children might one day play on this desert, this blank space; but he knew they never would, the land would always outsmart them, always be just one notch more cruel. He asked the stars to give him some kind of word, but the stars gave nothing. Then he recalled being in the hospital a few months before — had it been so recently as December? — the night of his flu and the vision. He remembered seeing Susan Colgate on TV — before he conked out completely — and he suddenly realized that his vision of Susan's face was a rerun that had been playing on his bedside TV, and it meant nothing. His time on the road was a sham as well. His exercise in going solo was a cosmic joke. He was inside a hellish one-panel New Yorker cartoon captioned,«Her face was just some TV actress your neurons glommed onto.» And here he was, near death again, except this time he just didn't care. He fell unconscious, and when he woke up, he didn't know how much later, he saw the Milky Way and some shooting stars, and knew that the worst had passed, but his body felt like a chunk of salt licorice, as if all its moisture was gone. Then he heard an idling engine and a woman's voice. The woman was carrying a flashlight and she told him he was going to be okay, he could come with her. He forgot he was naked and crawled up the crumbling ditch. A man's voice said, «One wrong move, asshole, and I'll blow you into hamburger.» The woman said, «Eric, put that thing down and pass me the bag of groceries. Jeanie, get the blanket from behind my seat.» Jeanie, a teenage girl, was videotaping John. «My name is Beth,» the woman said. «Here …» She placed an Arapaho blanket around his shoulders and then opened a cardboard carton of orange juice. «Here, drink this up. You're dehydrated.» John guzzled the juice and collapsed on his knees. His teeth chattered. Beth retrieved his bundled clothing. He saw the man in a truck. «Eric, goddammit, help this guy out. Get out here.» Eric put down the gun and reluctantly helped Beth lift John onto the truck bed. She spoke to John over the bed's rim. «What's your name, hon?» He said, «John.» «John, you lie down and we'll have you home in a few minutes, okay?» John said, «Okay,» then lay back and watched the blinking red light of Jeanie's camcorder taping him. Then he tilted his head back and looked at the stars, and he began to cry because it had all been a waste and because the voice of Susan was only a sound buried under a laugh track he'd heard by accident in a stale white room. Chapter Twenty-one
Even the most anal of the 4A .M. bread-baking monks would be unable to compete with Eugene Lindsay's compulsion for getting his postal fraud mail-outs into the local postbox before morning pickup. Susan was drafted into this work pronto, and even when she was half a year pregnant, Eugene still had her lugging box loads of heavy documents and paper up and down the basement stairs. Susan could have cared less. For the first time in her life she felt as if there were no tightly coiled springs waiting to lurch out from beneath her skin. She felt as if she were on holiday. Added bonus: wild sex, up until the baby got too big. «Yooj, I feel like a Cambodian peasant or something, freighting these — what are they?» — she looked down at the envelopes in the box she was holding — «mail-outs to the Greater Tampa, Florida, postal region. I could drop Junior into the rice paddy and be back on threshing duty the next afternoon.» Eugene attended his Xerox 5380 console copier like a surgeon with a patient, bathed in strobes of Frankenstein green light. «Hey, sunshine, God bless Florida. All those seniors with nothing but free time and too many radio stations. They hand in their mailing addresses like they were spare change. Now let's get them up to the front door. Mush!» When winter came, the air in the house became drier, but the daily schedule went on unchanged. In December, when Susan had realized she was pregnant, Eugene forbid her to go near the microwave oven or to drink alcohol. Spring and summer came and went. She liked her job. She opened the daily mail, which Eugene picked up at a post-office box a few streets over. Inside the envelopes came crumpled money, sent in by superstitious radio enthusiasts whose names Eugene purchased from an old college pal who'd become a telemarketing whiz — suckers! Most often it consisted of two twenties and a ten, but sometimes Susan collected wads of ones and fives in dirty little clumps, likely scrounged from under the front seat of a teenager's car. What did these people want? What kind of cosmic roulette wheel did they hope to spin by responding to Eugene's fraudulent thrusts? Susan's stomach felt as if it contained a great big ski boot that rolled around inside her. The Seneca plane crash seemed like a lifetime ago, her precrash life, a miraculous story of outrageous behavior relayed to her the morning after a drinking binge blackout. The only real reminders she had of her former days were the passing glimpses of herself on TV-reruns of old shows — as well as the image of Marilyn, now dressed like a Fifth Avenue stick insect, hair chignoned regardless of time of day or season, scrapping it out in court with the airline. The crux of Marilyn's case was that Susan's physical remains were never found despite indisputable evidence she was on the flight (a GTE Airfone call and the testimony of four ground staffers) and that, unlike other family members of crash victims, Marilyn was alone in not having so much as a fingernail with which to memorialize her daughter. Susan saw Marilyn royally milking the situation for all it was worth. With public sympathy on her side she was likely to win her case. Eugene would egg Susan on. «You're going to just sit and let her rake in millions on this and do nothing?» But the topic was one that made Susan turn remote, and so he stopped forcing it. To Susan, the sight of her mother on camera was too distant, too unreal to enter into. Life in Indiana went on. Eugene ventured out to do his mailings and make minor shopping runs. Susan occasionally went along, but she was much happier cosseted away with her lifelong sexual paragon, helping with the family business. It wasn't even until her third month there that she realized she hadn't once had the urge to make a phone call. In early September, Susan was heavily pregnant and began to grow bored and cranky. «Hormones, Eugene. I get them hot and spicy like my mother.» She told him she wanted to take the car out for a spin. Eugene, testy after disassembling an overtaxed air conditioner in the basement, unsure if he might be able to reassemble it afterward, had no interest in joining her. A heat wave had made the basement the only cool area in the house. The floor was covered in wires and screws, one of which Susan stepped on, sharpening her own mood until it broke. «I want to drive to the Drug Mart and get some alcohol to cool my boobs. And it'll be fun to do some makeup, slap on a wig.» «What if you — » «Go into labor?» «Well,yeah. » «I'll bring the cell phone.» «Let me gas up the car then.» «Gas up the car?» He went around the corner from where he was rewiring the air conditioner and opened up some sliding doors to reveal several 55-gallon drums Susan hadn't seen before They'd been loaded through what appeared to be locked hatches in the ceiling above. «What the hell are these, Eugene?» «Gas. I panicked during the Gulf War. I stocked up.» «Are you nuts? Keeping these in the basement?» «Cool yer jets, sister. It's nearly all gone. You should have been here in 1991. It was like a refinery down here.» «This stuff's been down here the whole time?» «I only drive maybe three miles a month. So, yeah.» «That's not the point, Eugene.» «Go get your wig. The weather's making us both nutty. I'll gas the car.» Susan went upstairs to disguise herself. That day she was Lee Grant in the movie Shampoo, complete with frosted wedge-cut wig, and a beige pantsuit of Renata's modified to fit her smaller yet pregnant body. She also chose one of Renata's many purses, filled it with a small pile of clutter, makeup and baubles — her «pursey stuff» — and looked at herself in the mirror — sporty! Feeling a tiny bit better, she went into the carport, and called down to Eugene. «I'm going, Yooj.» «Can you pick me up some gum?» «Gum?» «Cinnamon Dentyne.» «Yes, my lord.» «Ouch!» «What's that?» «This goddamm wire just sparked in my hand.» «Careful now. See you in a half hour.» She got in the car, still slightly annoyed. The sun was almost down, but none of the day's heat had dissipated. And soon the alcohol would be an extra cooling treat. She parked at the strip mall and bought a few things at the drugstore. Her mind wandered. She thought about how soon it'd be before she'd be going there regularly for Pampers and breast pads. On impulse she bought a bottle of bourbon at the Liquor Barn next door, and then got back in the car. Sirens were flaring down the street and she heard a boom a few blocks away. She turned the corner onto her block to see the lower portion of the house completely ablaze, flames shooting out the windows like water raging down a river. More fire engines arrived, as if from the sky, just as Susan saw the top half of the house collapse into the bottom half. It was the plane crash repeated — the flames, the havoc, the unreality. She closed the car door tightly and walked toward the pyre. A fireman warned her to stay away, but she ignored him, stumbled over a fire hose and heard the firemen yelling at one another: * «Fastest fire I've ever seen. Zero to sixty in two seconds.» * «Almost like it was planned this way.» * «Anyone in there?» * «Won't know until tomorrow. Assuming there's anything left.» * «Family?Christ. » * «No. It's that old weather guy — Evan something. From back in the eighties.» * «Before my time.» * «Real coot. Lived alone. Collected trash, the neighbor said.» The front facade of the house tumbled into the barbecue pit that was once home. All eyes were on the fire, none on Susan, who felt trapped and damned in some sort of sick cosmic loop as she turned around and ran back to the car. She started the car. Already the show was ending outside — not much remained to burn. She pulled away, wanting to find a highway, any highway, crying furiously, hitting her face, bruising it in anger. She found the freeway and raced onto it. She drove with the high beams on because she knew she was now in some rarefied darkness. Susan remembered a New Year's Eve she'd once had, back in the eighties. She'd been in Larry's Jaguar and the two of them had gotten lost on the way to a party at Joan Collins's house. They'd already gotten a late start, and then the car needed gas. They'd taken the wrong freeway exit, and the net result was that at the stroke of midnight they were on the Hollywood Freeway, one car among hundreds — millions — around the world, driving through the night, through all the great changes, through those moments when one era turns into another. Her eyes became cosmetic blots. She couldn't see and she pulled into a gas station and washed her face in the rest room. She fumbled in her purse and cried when she found a small photo of Eugene among the other things. And then she found the folded-up letter she'd rescued from the shrine to her back at the Flight 802 crash in Seneca — Randy Montarelli of 1402 Chattanauqua Street, Erie, Pennsylvania. She went into the convenience store, full of rush-hour shoppers, stole a map and got back into the car and drove, north and then east, from Bloomington to Indianapolis to Akron to Cleveland. Around midnight she drove into Erie, Pennsylvania, where she pulled out the map and rattled through its flaps until she found what she wanted. Then, in what turned out to be a dozen or so contractions later, she banged on the front door of Randy Montarelli's town house. He opened it wearing a cucumber facial mask, with a TV blaring in the background playing a pretaped episode of Matlock. The odor of popcorn filled the air like hot salty syrup. Red-eyed, Susan ripped off her wig. Her hair was sticky, her brain racing. She crossed Randy's threshold and dropped herself onto the couch where she produced, before the TV program was over, a perfect baby boy. Randy's afghan dogs, Camper and Willy, were whimpering in the spare bedroom. Randy held the baby in his arms while Susan yelled at him to cut the umbilical cord, which he did. Chapter Twenty-two
«You hag, stop trying to change me. God dammit, I can't ever remember a single moment in my life when you weren't trying to twist me into something other than who I am.» «Are you through yet, sweetie?» They were in Denver for the Miss USA Teen competition. Mother and daughter were conducting their conversation through clenched teeth, mouths smiling. They were breakfasting in the Alpine Room of the Denver Marriott. It was seven-fifteen Thursday morning, at an orientation meeting and «Prayer Wake-Up with Turkey Sausage — Turkey, the Low-Fat Pork Substitute.» Such pre-event meals were standard pageant procedure, and at them, gown lockers and keys were assigned. Susan also filled out sign-up sheets to set up a time slot for a video photo-op tour of the city of Denver, the footage to be edited into a big-screen montage and shown during the Sunday night awards ceremonies. Meal time changes were announced, and lunch that day was to be shared with a local den of Rotarians. «So we can hook ourselves up with a fuck-buddy,» Susan laughed. «Susan!» Marilyn slapped her daughter, who smiled, because as with most slappings, it's the struck who wins the match. «Classy, Mom. Real swanke roo! I don't think anybody in the room missed it. There goes my Miss Congeniality trophy.» «Only losers win Miss Congeniality, Susan. Aim higher.» Since the move to Cheyenne a few months before, just after her cosmetic surgery, Susan had grown positively mutinous. She had no friends in that surprisingly flat and dusty Wyoming city, and her high school days were finally over after having received a C2 average from an exasperated McMinnville school, blissful to have Marilyn out of its hair. Susan lived her days as might the favored member of a harem, painting her toenails, foraging for snack foods and absorbing anything possible from the local library up the street, eager to broaden her world's scope and to learn of possible ways out of pageant hell: Thalidomide, the Shaker religion, witch dunking, the Yukon Territory and Ingrid Bergman. On the drive to Denver from Cheyenne, Susan did some math in her head. She realized that counting all of her wins over the past decade, little if any money was ever fed back into improving the Colgate family's quality of life. All the loot, she figured, was cycled right back into gowns, surgery, facials, voice and singing lessons. Susan had, until that math exercise on the drive down to Denver, thought of herself as the family breadwinner, the plucky little minx who kept her family away from the destructive intrusion of social workers and the rock-bottom fate of shilling burgers at Wendy's. She now understood that in continuing the pageant circuit, she was only fueling the fire of her own pageant hell. The Miss USA Teen pageant was a national contest, but not one that Marilyn would concede was A-list like Miss America, Miss Teen America — or even Mrs. America. The winner of the Miss USA Teen pageant would receive a Toyota Tercel hatchback, a faux lynx fur evening coat, $2,000 toward college tuition, and $3,500 cash, along with a gown endorsement contract. Susan had easily clinched the Miss Wyoming Teen title, and Marilyn acted like a crow raiding another bird's nest as Susan twinkled her way through a competition that was hokey, amateur and pushover. It was essentially four car-stereo speakers, a borrowed room at the community center (the sound of basketballs from the next room punctuated the event like a random metronome) and a feedlot of tinseled yokels who knew nothing about ramp walking, cosmetics, accessorizing, stage demeanor or the correct manner of answering skill-testing questions. The question asked of Susan had been: «If you could change one thing about America, what would it be?» Marilyn knew that the easy and obvious answer would be peace and harmony, but Susan's answer, delivered in tones Marilyn found suspiciously heartfelt, was, «You know what I'd change?» A pause. «I'd like to make us all stop squabbling for just one day. I'd have citizens sit down and talk about what it means to live in this country — all of us sitting down at the world's biggest dinner table, agreeing to agree, all of us trying to find things that bring us together instead of the things that keep us apart.» Storms of applause. Title clinched. Marilyn found that Susan had been difficult of late, alternately insolent, silent, crabby and apathetic. The Miss Wyoming title, rather than making Susan buoyant, merely threw her into some sort of moody teenage dungeon, and afterward each time Marilyn and Susan needed to talk about pageant business, Susan would merely roll her eyes, moo, and return to one of what was an ever growing pile of books with disturbingly uncheerful titles like Our Bodies, Our Selves and Mastering Your Life. The drive to Denver had been particularly taxing, owing to both Susan's sulkiness and to an Interstate pileup outside of Colorado Springs that left one trucker dead, six cars munched and a confetti of broiler chickens and Nike sneakers strewn across the median. The remainder of the drive was somber, and nearing the hotel, Susan seemed to have reached a decision of some sort, and cheered up once more, the way she'd been back before — back before when ? Marilyn watched Susan flow through that evening's pageant with a previously unseen ease. She walked like a Milanese model and held her head up high like a true Wyoming cowgirl. She was good, and Marilyn knew it and, like most show moms, kept one eye glued to her offspring, the other on the evening's quintet of semi-loser judges: the local modeling school doyenne, a drive-time FM radio jock, a disco-era Olympic gymnast, a walking hard-on from the local baseball team, his leg in a cast, and «Steffan,» a humorless local designer with a midlife-crisis ponytail. Marilyn looked at the faces of the judges, the speed and confidence with which they jotted their numerical ratings onto the score sheets, and knew Susan was a shoo-in as a finalist. Backstage during the final costume change, Marilyn couldn't help but preen: «Sweetie, you're just killing them out there.» Susan removed her key from where she and many other contestants stored theirs — duct-taped to her belly just above the pubic hair so as to preclude vandalizing of gowns and accessories in the locker areas. She and Marilyn prepared the final gown. «You'll never guess why I'm doing so well tonight,» Susan said. «Whatever it is, just keep on doing it.» «You sure about that?» «Win, sweetie, win. It's all there is.» Marilyn zipped Susan up and checked her hair. «Turn around — lint check.» Susan turned and the overhead lights blinked: time to get back onstage. «What's tonight's secret then, sweetie?» Marilyn asked. «Let me in.» Susan stood in the wings with the four other finalists, Miss Arizona, Miss Maine, Miss Georgia and Miss West Virginia. The stage lights glowed like the sun through a grove of leafy trees. «The reason is, » she said, just before the emcee called out «Miss Wyoming,» «that I no longer give a rat's ass.» Marilyn's heart chilled. Susan went onstage. With dread, Marilyn returned to her table, where a broad assortment of now drunk show moms and show dads were clapping with near Communist precision and zest. Trish, living in Denver that summer, was along for the evening's ride. She occupied a $45 seat to Marilyn's right. She asked Marilyn if she was okay. «Just fine, hon. Just fine.» The emcee introduced the skill-testing-question portion of the evening's events, and asked the five finalists to enter the «Booths of Silence,» which were actually a series of plywood stalls painted robin's-egg blue, fronted with a sheet of clear Plexiglas. Inside, Whitney Houston music blared to the exclusion of all other noises — just the sort of yesteryear propping that Marilyn thought kept this particular pageant entirely B-list. Susan was fourth out of her stall, having watched Miss Maine, Miss Georgia, and Miss Arizona come onstage before her. She left her booth, hearing the click of Plexiglas on plywood. She sashayed up to the green electrical tape strip that was her floor marker. She saw that the emcee was as handsome as Eugene Lindsay — Why is there never a woman emceeing these things? Why is it always some variation of a Qantas pilot crossed with a Pentecostal evangelist? His teeth, lips, Adam's apple and chin worked in symphony, and Susan heard: «Susan Colgate: A UFO lands in your back yard and a little green man pops out of it and says to you, “Hello, Earthling — please tell me about your country.” What do you tell this little green man?» Susan thought about this question. Why would an alien even know about the concept of countries? Were countries a universal concept? Did they have countries on Betelgeuse or on Mars? She thought about what a ridiculous spot she was now in. How many times had she been in just such an artificial situation where she was put on trial with fatuous, clownlike questions like something out of the Salem witch trials? Susan looked into the emcee's eyes and she could tell he was hosting the evening's event because he needed the money. Gambling debts? An addiction to sexual novelties or to Franklin Mint collectible ceramic thimbles? What was with his hair? Was that a trace of a scar on his left eye? Oh God, there still remained this idiotic question to be answered. The audience was so quiet. The lighting was so bright! Aliens… She thought of cartoon aliens endorsing presweetened breakfast cereals. Pictures of Mexicans flashed through her head. She recalled the moods she had when she was on the road, driving to pageants — the hotel rooms and freeways and taxis and forests and grocery stores and all of the people she'd ever seen across the country, churning, scrambling and going — going forth — into some unknown. She replied, «I'd tell that little green man that we're a busy country, Ken.» Marilyn safety-pinned the names of the emcees onto gowns before storing them in backstage lockers. «I'd tell him that we like getting things done here in the USA, and that we're always on the lookout for newer, better ways of doing them. And then, Ken» — Susan decided to speak to the emcee as a person and not a robot — «and then I'd ask the little green man if he'd take me for a ride in his UFO, and I'd say, “Take me to Detroit! Because there's tons of people there who'd like to learn from this little UFO ship of yours — because you know what? These UFOs look like a dandy new way of doing things faster and better. That's the American way.” Then, I guess, the two of us would lift off and cross this big country of ours. You might even call it a date. That's what I'd say, Ken. That's what I'd do.» Her smile was clean, her eyes direct, and the crowd loved her. Miss West Virginia was next. She was going to tell the little green man that the USA was a free country and that if he had a problem with that, he could leave, then and there. This was a negative reply and only garnered weak clapping, and sure enough, Miss West Virginia came in as fourth runner-up. Miss Maine was third, Miss Georgia was second runner-up and then, «In the event that Miss USA Teen is unable to fulfill her duties the first runner-up will assume those responsibilities. The first runner-up is Karissa Palewski, Miss Arizona, making Susan Colgate, the new, Miss USA Teen!» A flash of kisses, flashbulbs and roses. A sash. A scepter. The previous Miss USA Teen, Miss Dawnelle Hunter, formerly Miss Florida USA Teen, emerged from the wings with a platinum tiara which she nested and pinned onto Susan's hair. From all sides came clapping, and a gentle tickle in the small of the back from Ken propelled Susan up to the front where she was to make the briefest of acceptance speeches. Marilyn was at their table, electrified. The runners-up, or, as Marilyn would say, «the losers,» formed a sparkling multicolored backdrop behind Susan. The floor calmed. All was silent. Susan wondered how to be truthful without giving offense. She said, «Thanks all of you. Thanks so much. As we know, this is an important pageant, and winning means a great deal to me.» She paused here, looking for words. «And I think one of the traits we value most in any Miss USA Teen is honesty. So it's only fair I be honest with you now.» She looked at Marilyn, and waited an extra few seconds for full impact. «The truth is that I've got my nose in the books these days — I got a C- average in high school and I know I can do better than that — I'm even thinking of applying for college. I simply won't have the time to fulfill my duties as Miss USA Teen. To properly give justice to the role is a full-time job and requires a girl who can give it a thousand-percent dedication.» Susan was winging it now. «It's only from winning that I can see how sacred the role of Miss USA Teen is. And so, in the spirit of truth and pageantry, with a clear head and a happy heart I pass the crown on to Karissa Palewski, Miss Arizona Teen and now, Miss USA Teen. Karissa?» She turned around and beckoned Karissa who, so recently awash in loser's hormones, failed to immediately register her bounty. «Please come forward so I can pass along my crown to you.» The sound technicians sloppily cued up Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Marilyn's tortured «No!» was drowned out in the applause as emcee Ken shrugged and escorted Karissa to Susan for a transfer of the tiara, sash, scepter and roses. Mission accomplished. Susan hopped efficiently off the stage and said to Marilyn, «Sorry, Mom, but this is a jailbreak. I'm no longer your prisoner.» She left the banquet room while a confused Trish, justifiably wary of Marilyn's wrath, darted after her. A week passed in which Susan holed up at the home of Trish's aunt. Marilyn and Don were back in Cheyenne, where Don was making pay phone calls to Susan, as he didn't want any telltale evidence of communiqués with Denver on the monthly phone bill. «I've gotta tell you, Sue, your mom's pissed as a jar of hornets on this one.» Susan could easily imagine Don fumbling with a roll of quarters in a booth beside a shoe store. She said, «You know, Don — what else is new? I mean, you're married to her, I'm born to her. Neither of us has any illusions, and I just can't take her anymore. I'm out of high school now. Do you really want me hanging around the house for weeks on end with nothing to do but bask in Mom's loving glow?» There was silence on Don's end, and a cash register kachinged in the background. «I thought so. For the time being I'm here with Trish and it's a harmless enough life. I've got a job flipping dough at Pizza Slut. It's a start.» «Well, Sue, that sounds good to me.» Don possessed no initiative but considered any trace of it in others a good sign. «What else is new down there? I used to have a brother in Denver. He's in Germany now, Patches Barracks, outside of Stuttgart.» Susan said, «I hang out with Trish by the pool at the Y. She's into numerology now. She's changing her name to Dreama.» Susan could sense every fiber of Don's body instantly spasm with boredom. «Not much else, I guess.» «A guy called. From Los Angeles. An agent. Named Mortimer. Larry Mortimer. He says you should give him a call. He read about your chucking the pageant in the paper.» Susan took down the number and then she and Don exchanged polite good-byes, both happy to leave the business of what to do to calm Marilyn to some other call, another day. A few hours later, Susan and Trish, armed with fake IDs and Trish's aunt's Honda Civic, whooped it up in keggery bars and hot spots, releasing sugary bursts of energy with the fervor and desperation of the young. The partying went on for two weeks, after which Trish's aunt Barb suggested the two girls accompany her on a road trip to Los Angeles in her car. They could share in the driving duties. And so they left, and yet again Susan saw and participated in the country's landscape — hostile, cold and magnificent, dull and glowing. They pulled into Los Angeles around sunset, arriving in Rancho Palos Verdes on the coast just as a full moon pulled up over the Pacific. They were just in time for a dinner of sloppy joes at Barb's friend's house, and they watched the lights of Avalon over on Catalina sparkling in the distance. Dinner was almost ready and adults and teenagers scurried about. Susan found a quiet den and dialed Larry Mortimer's number. She connected to a personal assistant and then a few breaths later, Larry was on the line. «Susan Colgate? You're one brave woman to go and quit that pageant the way you did.» Susan was flattered to be called a woman. «It wasn't quitting, Larry. It was — well — there was no way around it. You go and do a hundred pageants and then write me a postcard. We'll compare notes.» «Such spark. You could really harness that — make it work for you.» «I'm happy enough just having my mother off my back.» «Have you ever acted before?» «Have you ever been in a pageant with cramps before? Or the flu?» «Touché. How old are you?» «I'm out of high school, if that's what you mean.» «No — I meant — » «With a beret and a kilt I look fourteen. With makeup, cruel lighting and two beers in me, I can pull off thirty. Easy.» «What's the most ridiculous pageant you ever did?» «I was Miss Nuclear Energy three years ago. I had this little atom-shaped electric crown over my head. It was pretty, actually. But the pageant was dumb. It was organized by men, not women, and the only other thing they'd ever organized was a Thanksgiving turkey raffle. The whole thing was so — corny. Instead of sashes we had name tags.» «We should meet. We should get together.» Susan's stomach made a dip, like cresting a roller coaster's first and biggest hill. She was excited. She hadn't expected this. «Why's that?» Barb passed by the door to tell Susan the sloppy joes were ready. «You could really go places,» Larry said. «Like where?» «Movies. TV.» «Be still my heart.» «Come into town. Tomorrow.» «We're going to Disneyland tomorrow.» «The day after then.» Susan had the sensation that this was just another emcee calling her up onto some stage where she would be judged again. After a few weeks of freedom from pageantry, she felt old strings being tugged and that spooked her. Trish, now answering only to «Dreama,» called Susan to the table. «Dinner time, Larry. I ought to go.» «What's for dinner?» «Sloppy joes.» «I love sloppy joes.» «It gives me cellulite.» «Cellulite? You're a child!» «I'm seventeen.» «Ooh. I'll back off now.» They were quiet. Larry asked her, «Meet me?» «What do you look like?» Susan asked. «If I were in a movie, I'd be a sailor like back in the old days, with a sunburn and a duffel bag, and I'd be on shore leave wearing a cable knit sweater.» Two days later Susan, Dreama and Barb met Larry for lunch at an outdoor café where the linen, china and flowers were white and the service was so good they didn't even realize they were being served. Larry was late, and when Susan saw him rush toward the table, her heart did a cartwheel. Larry was older, curly-haired, gruff and in a glorious twist of fate, a clone of Eugene Lindsay, the winking judge. Susan fell into a reverie. She hoped that Larry's breath would smell like scotch. She realized that Larry was to be her devirginizer, and a wash of sexual energy and nervousness bordering on static cling came over her. She caught his eye as he approached, and sealing his fate with Susan, he winked. «I'm late,» he said. «You're just in time,» she said. Their eyes locked and they held each others' hand a pulse too long. «Larry, this is my friend Dreama and her aunt Barb.» They shook hands, and Barb sized Larry up in a manner that was blatantly financial, embarrassing and amusing. Lunch was a blur. Afterward, Susan left with Larry, ostensibly to test for a new TV show. Once inside his Jaguar, Aunt Barb and Dreama out of sight, Larry told Susan that the test was actually for the next day. He then looked up at the sky innocently. Susan wasn't fazed. She told Larry this was pretty much what she'd figured.Oh God, she thought to herself,I'm a jaded harpy and I'm only seventeen. Mom did this to me. She's gone and turned me into … her. Larry asked, «So where do you think we might go now?» Years later, with hindsight, Susan would find it appalling that Barb had left her so readily in the hands of an L.A. predator. Later that night, after Susan and Larry had exhausted themselves in Larry's bed, they would briefly chuckle over the clunky roving eye Aunt Barb had focused on Larry, then phone Barb and say, «Barb? Larry Mortimer here. We're late like crazy. We didn't even get a chance to audition. The tests were slowed down by a union walkout. It'll have to be tomorrow. We'll be back at your hotel in an hour. Here. Susan wants to speak with you.» He passed the phone over the sheets to Susan. «Barb? Wasn't lunch today a dream ?» The next day at the actual audition, Susan clarified in her own mind one of the larger lessons of her life so far, the one which states that the less you want something, the more likely you are to get it. As she uttered her very first line, «Dad, I think there's something not quite right with Mom,» the character of Katie Bloom, two years younger than her, melted onto Susan Colgate's soul, and as of 1987, the public and Susan herself would spend decades trying to separate the two. Katie Bloom was the youngest of four children, a distant fourth at that. Her three on-screen siblings were played by a trio of better-known TV actors who couldn't seem to make the bridge into film, and they chafed madly at any suggestion that their Bloom work was «only TV.» Off-screen, the three were patronizing and aloof to Susan. On-screen they looked to their younger free-spirit sister Susan to give them a naive clarity into their problems, and as the years went on, their problems became almost endless. When Susan emerged as the keystone star of the series, it was in the face of outright mutiny by her costars. At the beginning she thought their coldness was the angst of tormented actors. Then she realized it was essentially fucked-up bitterness, which was much easier to handle. Far more difficult to handle was the issue of Marilyn's continued involvement in her life. The procedure, for insurance reasons, demanded that Susan live with a family member near the studio. The glimmer of TV fame quickly outshone the gloom of pageants lost. Marilyn and Don rented the upper floor of a terrifyingly blank faux-hacienda heap in deepest Encino. Susan did the easier thing and lived in Larry's pied-à-terre in Westwood. Thus, Marilyn's presence was minimized to that of a bookkeeping technicality. Larry was like all of the pageant judges in the world rolled into one burly, considerate, suntanned package. He knew how the stoplights along Sunset Boulevard were synched and shifted his Porsche's gears accordingly. He had a writer fired who called Susan an empty Pez dispenser to her face. He made sure she ate only excellent food and kept her Kelton Street apartment fully stocked with fresh pasta, ripe papayas and bottled water, all of which was overseen by a thrice-weekly maid. He lulled Susan to sleep singing «Goodnight, Irene,» and then, after he nipped home to sleep with his wife, Jenna, he arrived at work the next day and saw to it that Susan received plenty of prime TV and film offers. When she thought about her new situation at all, it was with the blameless ingratitude of the very young. Her life's trajectory was fated, inevitable. Why be a wind-up doll for a dozen years if not to become a TV star? Why not alter one's body? Bodies were meant to photograph well. Mothers? They were meant to be Tasmanian devils — all the better reason to keep them penned up in Encino. Every night she took two white pills to help her sleep. In the morning she took two orange pills to keep from feeling hungry. She loved the fact that life could be so easily controlled as that. Inasmuch as she had a say in the matter, she was going to keep the rest of her life as equally push-button and seamless. In the mornings when she woke up, she couldn't remember her dreams.