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Chapter Thirty-one

Erie was having a bad winter that year and Randy's heating was on the blink. Randy, wearing several layers of sweaters, was channel surfing around dinnertime, chili vapors drifting in from the kitchen, when he found CNN announcing that Marilyn had settled her airline lawsuit for ka-ching -point-four million dollars. He whistled, slapped his thighs and yodeled,«Soozan-oozan-oo-AY-oo.» She came in from the laundry room, where she had been changing Eugene Junior's diaper, and watched the coverage stone-faced: Marilyn, her arm around her lawyer's shoulder, was emerging like a catwalk model from a Manhattan courthouse. «She's got gum in her mouth, the old crone,» Susan said. «You can tell because of the slight lump behind her left ear. She doesn't think people can tell, but I can. She thinks gum chewing develops your smile muscles.» Marilyn spoke into a copse of network mikes. She said that justice had prevailed, but dammit, she'd happily forfeit every penny of her settlement for the chance to speak to Susan again for even one minute. «Oh, Randy, this is so Oscar clip.» Randy's eyes darted between the screen and Susan's face. The trial had cast a spell on the house in the three months since Susan had arrived. She pretended not to care, but she did. Even on the days she claimed not to have read the paper, she was invariably up-to-the-minute on the trial's progress, and never lost a chance to assassinate her mother's character. More importantly to Randy, Susan had let it be known over the past months that once Marilyn finalized her suit, she, Randy and the baby would move out to California and put into action «Operation Brady,» which Randy hoped would be the next phase of his life. «Look, Randy, she's still wearing those cheesy Ungaro knockoff outfits, and she's even got those fake Fendi sunglasses she bought at the Laramie swap meet.» She smiled at Randy. «Well, there, pardner, looks like we're a packin' up and headin' west.» Their plan was not complex. Randy, Eugene Junior, and the dogs were to drive to Los Angeles. Once there, Randy would rent a Brady Bunch house in which he and Dreama would raise the baby in a deftly twisted version of nuclear familyhood. Susan would have to live close by until what could only be an enormous amount of fuss died down. Susan wanted to minimize any public glare Eugene Junior might have to endure. But most of all, Susan wanted to keep Marilyn away from the child. «That greedy old battle-ax's claws are never going to touch Eugene.Ooohh, that's going to torture her — more than anything — no access to Eugene. Finally I'll have a bit of youth I can take away from her. » Randy said, «Sooner or later the kid's going to need a Social Security number, Susan. I mean, technically, in the eyes of the U.S. government, Junior doesn't even exist.» «Randy, Eugene Junior is going to be a Stone Age baby. There's going to be no paper trail on him at all — not until things quiet down. It's going to be a tabloid shark frenzy. We can do paperwork then.» They worked quickly. On the day of her reemergence into the world, she drove down to Pittsburgh with Randy and Eugene Junior, and waved them off in an unparalleled spasm of blubbering. A chapter of her life was over as neatly as if followed by a blank page in a book. Then, wearing an anonymous, untraceable Gap outfit — unpleated khakis with a navy polo-neck shirt — she sauntered into a suburban Pittsburgh police station. She'd styled her hair in the manner she was famous for in Meet the Blooms, the lanky girl's ponytail, and despite the years, she looked deceptively young, and not too different from the way she once looked on the cover of TV Guide. She walked up to the front window and could tell right away that the female duty officer had recognized her — instant familiarity was a sensation Susan remembered from the heightened portion of her career. The officer at the counter, name-taggedBRYAR , was speechless as her brain reconciled what she was seeing with what she thought she knew. «Hello, Officer Bryar,» Susan said thoughtfully, as though she were about to offer a sample of low-fat cheese ropes at the end of a Safeway aisle. «My name is Susan Colgate. I — »she paused for effect — «I'm kind of confused here, and maybe you can help me out.» Officer Bryar nodded. «We're in — I mean, right now we're in, let me get this straight, Pennsyl vania. Right?» «Pittsburgh.» «And today's date — I read it on the USA Today in the box outside. It's — what — September 1997?» Officer Bryar confirmed this. Susan looked around her and saw a generic police station like one on the studio lot: flag; presidential portrait; bulletproof windows and video cams. She made a point of looking directly and forlornly into all of the cameras, knowing that the police department might well earn enough to finance a new fleet of patrol cars from selling the footage she was generating for them. She turned back to Officer Bryar: «Well, then. Last thing I remember I was heading to JFK Airport in New York to catch a plane to the Coast and now it's — Forget it.» A media zoo ensued, and Susan was grateful to be housed in a cell in an unused portion of the civic jail. Her life of privacy with only Eugene, and then Randy and Eugene Junior was over. Her holiday from the variety pack of Susan Colgate identities for which she was known had come to an end. A deputy brought Susan a small tub of blueberry yogurt and a KFC lunch pack of chicken and fries. Susan said thanks, and the deputy said, «I thought you were really good in Meet the Blooms. You were the best on that show.» «Thank you.» «I rented Dynamite Bay just three weeks ago with my girlfriend, and we watched the whole thing without even fastforwarding and we returned our backup video unwatched. She's not gonna believe I actually met you here.» Susan ate a fry. «What was your backup video?» «America's Worst Car Crashes. Reality TV.» The deputy walked away and Susan ate a clump of fries and then spoke to herself.Well, Eugene, am I going to screw my life up all over again, now? You think I've learned anything over this past year? She nibbled on a thigh, salty and greasy. She realized she was hungry and ate her lunch. Susan's public story, planned long in advance by her and Randy, was that she remembered not a thing between arriving at JFK Airport and reading the USA Today in the box outside the police building. She would tell people that the photo of Marilyn on the front page was perhaps the trigger. The police interviewed Susan for hours, and it yielded them nothing. Susan let it be known that she chose not to speak with the press as she sat safely within the cool, echoey stillness of the jail cell. For the time being, they could snack on the security camera images she'd provided. She also declined to speak with Marilyn. She was in no hurry because, as her story line went, she didn't feel she'd been missing. She felt no pangs of homesickness. The airline offered to fly her to Cheyenne that night. She accepted. The flight arrived past midnight, and at her request, she was to reunite with Marilyn the next morning. She said she was tired and confused and needed to sort things out in her head. She was put up at the local Days Inn, and she slept soundly. She woke up at six-thirty the next morning, showered, and put on a Donna Karan ensemble provided by the airline. She was driven in a minivan through Cheyenne, the city that hadn't really been her home. It had been an extraordinarily hot and dry summer, and the leaves on the trees looked exhausted and the roads were dusty. Already her bowels felt like lead and she missed Eugene Junior and Randy. In a dull, aching and carsick way, she missed Eugene Senior, too. He would have loved and applauded the performance-art side of the act Susan had planned for the morning. The vehicle approached an expensive-enough-looking Spanishstyle house with a maroon BMW and a Mercedes in the driveway. So this was the House on the Hill up to which Marilyn had leveraged herself. Trailers with satellite feeds circled the yard. Neck-craning neighbors stood behind yellow police tapes and the cameras rolled as Susan slowly walked up the front pathway to the house, toward the double doors inlayed with a sandblasted glass kingfisher holding a minnow in its beak. The doors opened and Marilyn emerged, eyes flooded with tears, and she stumbled toward Susan, who hugged her mother the way she used to hug first runners-up during the pageant days. If the pageants had trained her for nothing else, it was for this moment:Susan! Mom! It was mechanical. A pushover. The cameras needed this. The world wanted it. But what neither the cameras nor the world got to hear was Susan whispering into Marilyn's ear, jeweled with a gold nautilus shell earring, «Guess what, Mom? You really are going to have to give back every single penny you were set to receive from the airline. So that makes us even now, okay?» «Susan!» Don came out the doors and approached Susan, giving her a hug, with Marilyn barnacled between them. «Good to see you, Sue. We haven't had a single quiet moment since we got the news yesterday.» Susan laughed at this, then smiled at Marilyn, who was crying out of what Susan was now convinced was a real sense of loss. The press camera lenses whirred and zoomed and the apertures clicked and chattered among themselves. Susan, Don and the tearful Marilyn stood on the front steps of Marilyn's house. Susan said to the cameras, «Sorry guys. We need to go inside for a spot of privacy. See you in a short while.» Good old Sue! Always kind to the press. Marilyn, Susan and Don stepped in the house, and almost immediately Don fled to the cupboard above the telephone and pulled out a magnum of molasses-colored Navy rum. «It's woo-woo time,» he said, pouring four fingers worth of the liquor into a highball glass, which he topped off with cartoned chocolate milk. « ‘I call it a Shitsicle in honor of that wad of crap that got us here to Wyoming. I live on 'em. You want one, Sue?» «No thanks, Don.» «You sure? Aw, c'mon. We need to celebrate.» «No. It's too early,» said Susan. «Have it your way then,» said Don, a nasty new spark to his voice. He glugged down a sizable portion of his drink. Marilyn was mute. She stood by the kitchen table, her arms folded over her chest. Susan looked around the kitchen, bright and clean and dense with appliances, and by the telephone she saw an array of envelopes and letterheads from CBS, CNN, KTLA and assorted cable and network outlets. «It's been a busy year here, I can see,» Susan said. Marilyn opened her mouth, about to speak, and stopped. The three were as far away from each other as it was possible to be inside the kitchen. «You're wondering where I've been,» said Susan, «aren't you?» «It's a reasonable question.» Susan picked up a Fox TV letterhead with a note on it: DearMrs. Colgate Marilyn, Please find enclosed a check for $5,000.00, and thanks again for providing yet another compelling and inspiring story segment for our viewers. Yours, Don Feschuk VP Story Development «Maybe you ought to be talking to Don Feschuk instead of me,Mom. » «Don't be willfully cruel. It's not becoming.» «Today's festivities must have caused a bidding war. Who won,Mom ?» «CBS,» said Don. «Let me hazard a guess,» Susan said, not releasing her eyes from Marilyn's face. «An exclusive interview, scheduled for pretty soon, I'd imagine, so as to be ripe for tonight's East Coast prime-time slot.» «I didn't want pandemonium here,» Marilyn said. «It was a way of simplifying things.» «Heck, no — we wouldn't want pandemonium here, would we.Mom. » «Stop saying Mom like that.» Susan tried to remember the last time she'd seen Marilyn in the flesh. It was at Erik Osmond's accounting office in Culver City. Marilyn had called Susan a «bitsy little slut,» and Susan had called her a thief, and then Marilyn threw an ashtray as Susan was leaving the room. The ashtray had shattered and Erik shouted, «That was a gift from Gregory Peck!» Susan had shut the door and that had been it. Marilyn lit a cigarette. «You could have called.» «Are you dense,Mom ? I don't even know where the hell I was.» «I don't believe it.» «Then don't.» Susan found the Fendi glasses. «But aren't you the one faking it.» Marilyn came over and snatched them away from Susan. «Not these days,daughter .» «This is the most ornery homecoming I've ever seen,» Don said. «Don,» said Susan, «Look at it from my point of view, okay? As far as my brain is concerned, there was no last year. Suddenly I'm standing on a street in the middle of Pennsylvania, and then I'm whisked home to see Mummy here who, as far as I'm concerned, is the same thief who swiped not only the sum of my TV earnings, but who also made me shake my moneymaker onstage in front of an unending parade of Chevy dealers and small-time hairstylists for all of my childhood. I had no desire to speak to her a year ago, and I have no desire to speak with her now.» Don was somehow cast in the role of debating coach and nodded fuzzily. «Do you honestly think,» said Marilyn, «that I walked around that crash site — and don't try telling me you don't remember it, because I know you do — amnesia my ass — and saw those body parts and shoes and wristwatches and dinner trays piled up and charbroiled like so much pepper steak on the grill at Benihana's — that I could walk through all of that and wish my own girl dead? That I would say to myself,Hey Marilyn, your ship's finally come in but hey, too bad about the kid? » Marilyn walked over to the sink where Don put the rum and the chocolate milk, and she poured herself a drink and took a slug. The rest of the drink soon vanished. «I wouldn't wish that crash on anybody, not even my worst enemy. But I don't even have a worst enemy because I don't even have any friends . What do I have? Really? I have Don and I have you, and I don't really even have you. Yes, I almost made a shitload of money from your disappearance, wher ever you went to, but let me say here for the record,you disappeared.You vanished. It was torture, never having a true ending. All the money I made over the past year is mine. I didn't earn it, and maybe I didn't even deserve it, but I'm not ashamed of it.» Outside on the street, through the kitchen window's sheers, Susan saw a network van, and some guy beside it switching on a rumbling generator. «I wonder what those people out on the street think we're doing in here right now,» she said. «Oh, hugging, or some sort of crap like that,» said Marilyn. Susan thought of Eugene and Eugene Junior. A small wave of possible forgiveness lapped over her. «Mom, have you ever once, even for a fleeting moment, felt sorry for stealing my life the way you did?» «Stealing your life?» Marilyn plunked her glass down on the counter. «Give me a break. I made you what you are .» «What I am?» A small pin of hope pricked Susan's skin. Maybe she'd right now find out what it was she'd become. «You've got my full attention, Mom.Please, go ahead and tell me what I am.» «You're my daughter and you're tough as nails.» This useless reply dashed Susan's brief hope. «What a sack of crap.» «If it weren't for me you'd be driving a minivan full of brats to a soccer game in small-town Oregon.» «That sounds bloody marvelous. I might have wanted that.» «Bullcrap you would have. You were made for bigger stuff. Look at you now. And look outside the window. You're getting more coverage now than an embassy bombing.» «Is that all you care about? Coverage? What if I did have a bunch of kids, Mom. What if I did have a whole goddam Chevy Lumina vanload of squalling brats, and all of them looked just like you.» Marilyn paused a fraction before saying,«Kids ?» «And what if I never let you see them. Ever. What if I told them you were dead and they'd never know their grandma?» «You wouldn't do that.» «Wouldn't I?» Don cut in, «Guys, maybe we should take a break — » «Shut up, Donald,» said Marilyn. «Go ahead, Susan. Tell me more. What would you do to hurt me?» Susan, suddenly aware of how well Marilyn could read her, pulled back. «All I'm saying is that I'm not over it, Mom. The money. The lawyers. Those scenes we had. The everything. You know that, right?» Marilyn's index finger clickety-clicked the rim of her empty glass. «Fair enough.» «You own the house?» Susan asked. «The bank.» «You're going to have to sell it now. And all those chichi outfits I can just imagine you pigging out on and buying in New York.» «Yeah, we probably will. Make you happy?» «It does. I lived on bulk yogurt and three-day-old vegetables for years after the show ended. Larry didn't foot the bills. He dumped me pretty quick. I don't know what would have happened if the Chris gig hadn't come up. Everybody was laughing at me behind my back, and it was you who put me through all that.» Marilyn looked at her coldly. «Been practicing that one a long time, dear?» Susan decided to cut it off there. «I'm going to leave,» Susan said. «The airline's going to fly me to Los Angeles.» Susan paused and looked at Don with a question that came to her just then. «Did you ever meet Chris?» «He's an asshole.» Susan laughed. «Yeah, well, you're pretty well right on that score. But there's nobody can trash a hotel room as well as he can.» Susan blew Don a kiss and then paused in front of Marilyn. She shrugged, turned around and left. It hadn't been the triumphant touché fest she'd hoped for, but not much in life ever was. Three hours later she was back in Los Angeles; four hours later she was in Chris's house, alone; Chris was in South America. The house on Prestwick had been emptied after the crash, her things sold or given away. In just a year, the city Susan had known was gone. Larry Mortimer had quit managing Steel Mountain weeks after Susan's crash. He'd divorced Jenna and was living with Amber in Pasadena, producing CD-ROM games for preteens. She called and left a message that she was back, and he drove over to visit her, cutting through the gaggle of press people on the street. «Sue? Sue! It's me, Larry — open up.» «Larry …» Susan opened the door and was stilled as always by Larry's resemblance to Eugene. But this time she'd known Eugene the man, and Larry was a pale match for Eugene's quirky, arty crustiness. Larry was … just another Hollywood manager unit. Susan found herself trying to mask the flood of emotion she was feeling for Eugene. Larry mistook this for Susan's pleasure at seeing him and came toward her in a slightly seductive manner. Susan in turn gave him the most sisterly of hugs. He asked how she was feeling and they exchanged small talk. «How's Amber?» «Pregnant. The show dropped her because they didn't want to fit it into the script.» «Well, congratulations. You finally left Jenna, huh?» «Oh, you know.» «No, I don't know. Forget it. How's the band? Chris?» «The band ,» replied Larry, «is in physical, moral, creative and financial chaos. But then I've moved away from rock-and-roll management. Too many aneurysms every day.» Susan and Larry had migrated to the kitchen, where Larry poked around the fridge for something to eat. Neither was hungry, but it was a ritual they'd developed years before to squelch awkward moments. They talked some more about the comings and goings of various old acquaintances. «I checked, but there's no hope in hell of you getting any, how shall we say, “back wages,” from the Steel Mountain Corporation. There's nothing there to pay you with. And by the way, you'll have to do a photo-op with Chris and sign some divorce papers. I can make it a one-stop deal. He's back from Caracas on Monday.» «Adam Norwitz is supposed to be managing my life these days.» «Adam's become a bigger fish since you were here. Two pilots he was connected with got picked up.» «Life's so rich, isn't it, Larry?» «Snippy, snippy.» Larry found a can of house-brand cola. He looked at it, paused, and asked Susan, «Can this stuff go bad?» Susan shrugged and said, «Go nuts. Live dangerously.» Larry opened it, poured two glasses, they toasted her return and he soon left. An hour later Dreama came over. She was deeply lonely, without a focus and was only too eager to enter the new family fold. She was given instructions to meet Randy and Eugene Junior at the airport. Randy by then had officially changed his name from Montarelli to Hexum. He and the baby moved in with Dreama that night, and would hunt for a Brady Bunch house the next day. It was all Susan could do not to abandon all her plans, run to Dreama's and inhale Eugene Junior's sweet baby smell. Public interest in Susan's reappearance, at first blazing, died down to near nothing. Susan did nothing to encourage publicity, and at first Adam saw this as a clever device to jack up her price for an exclusive interview. But Susan rested firm, and Adam had a hard time forgiving her for blowing the chance to sell at the peak of public interest. Susan was able to rent her old Cape Cod house from the Steel Mountain Corporation, who'd bought it after the plane crash. It was eight minutes from Eugene Junior. She landed Randy a job in a music PR office as an assistant. He used this money to rent the agreed-upon house in the Valley. The Cape Cod house existed almost purely as an elaborate ruse to deflect any possible public awareness away from Eugene Junior. Susan was still trying to think of the lowest-profile manner possible of «taking Eugene public,» but finding a solution was proving difficult, as any solution meant a media deluge. Susan slept in her Cape Cod house at night. Otherwise it was useful only as a shell for her answering machine. It received calls, almost all from Adam Norwitz, to inform Susan of offers for the rights to tell-all cable network dramatizations of her life. These were offers she had to refuse because she publicly stood by her amnesia story, and technically she had no real story to tell. The only other calls were psychiatrists from around the world specializing in memory retrieval who had obtained her number on the sly. («I know it's bad form to sneak in the back door like this, but I think I can help you out, Susan Colgate.») «Christ, Randy, these losers think that ambushing me on my private line somehow predisposes me to like them. Whatta buncha lepers.» Randy agreed. His job had given him a small measure of media savvy. His office handled what press remained for Steel Mountain, and he brought back reports that the band's five members had succumbed to road fatigue, catastrophic drug use, hepatitis C, assault-and-battery lawsuits, and musical irrelevance. «My days are only a little bit starfucky. Mostly they're spent photocopying legal documents and fetching arcane health-food products from halfway across town. Starfucky's more fun.» Susan was cutting melon wedges into zigzag shapes for a barbecue at the Brady house. «Steel Mountain's really over now, isn't it?» «I don't want to be disloyal — they pay the bills,» said Randy, «but how much more energy is it worth to make five grizzled Liverpudlians with teeth like melting sugar crystals look like sexual and moral outlaws for kids maybe two decades younger than themselves? It's obscene past a point.» «How's Chris doing?» Susan asked. She and Chris rarely spoke. «My boss claims he has a few brain cells left.» «He was the brains of the group.» «But …» «But what?» «I don't know if it's the drugs or the album sales or the closet but …» «What? Is he hitting on you?» «No. Susan, I'm just an assistant, not like an agent or someone. But I hear his memory's like cheesecloth.» «Coke.» «He can afford it?» Five weeks later Chris was jailed in Nagoya, having been caught with a picket fence of coke lines beneath his nostrils during a police raid of an after-hours club. Three grams of coke were found in his jacket pocket and the Japanese correctional system threw the key to his cell down the well. Randy caught the news on CNN on a Thursday morning shortly after his return. Within days what remained of Steel Mountain's infrastructure was dismantled, and its legal bills were staggering. Susan had until the month's end to vacate the Cape Cod decoy house. Randy lost his job and his back pay and took on another PR gig at half of his previous salary. The baby was sick a few times, and Susan squeaked him through the pay-as-you-go medical system by disguising Dreama as a Canadian tourist flashing a wad of bills that were actually the remains of Randy's savings. Dreama kicked in her numerology money, but it only went so far. There were taxes. Rent. Groceries. Phone. Dog food for Camper and Willy. In the midst of this, Randy enrolled in a screenwriting night school course. He came to realize that his life's “narrative arc” was, like that of most everybody else in the world, cruelly and pitilessly dictated by the most mundane of financial straps and, in Randy's particular case, a troglodyte goon from a collection agency who showed up at his offices during a sales meeting, demanding either payment or return of the TV set. And so the money ran out. Everybody was doing what they could, but Susan decided it was her turn to bring home the bacon. She arranged a lunch meeting with Adam Norwitz at the Ivy. She was going to sell her privacy.

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