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Chapter Ten

«Think of how gorgeous we're going to be when you wake up.» «Mom, it's me doing this, not you. » «Susan Colgate, I shucked a helluva lot of bunnies to correct that jaw of yours, and now is not the time to be ungrateful about it. Now hold on to my finger and count back from one hundred.» Susan held on to Marilyn's finger and retro-counted: «A hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven …» and closed her eyes. When she opened them, it was to find herself inside a cool, dimly lit gray room. Marilyn was in the corner smoking exactly half a Salem, extinguishing the remains and then lighting another («Butts are coarse, dear»), all the while avoiding the more intimate questions contained in a magazine quiz about the reader's interior life. She looked up and caught Susan's now open eyes: «Oh sweetie! We look fabulous, » and then she rushed over to proudly beam at Susan's face, stained from within by lost and dying blood cells — blue, olive and yellow — her broken and reset jaw stitched and swaddled. Susan touched her face, which felt disconnected to her, like a rubber Halloween mask. She found her nose was set in a splint. «My 'ose! Wha' 'appened?» «Happy birthday! I had the doctor throw in a new nose at the same time. We're gonna look sen sa tional.» «You let 'em mangle my 'ose ?» Her voice felt muffled, as though she were speaking from within a pile of carpets. «Mangle? Hardly. You now have the nose of JenniLu Wheeler, Mrs. Arkansas America.» «Id's …my 'ose.» She felt nauseous. Her jaws ached. «Don't get so exercised, sweetie.» Susan tried to move her body, which seemed to weigh as much as a house. She'd never felt gravity's pull so strongly. Marilyn said, «We have to stay here in the recuperation room for six more hours. How do you feel?» «Woozy. 'Eavy.» «It's the painkillers. I had them give you a double prescription with two refills. You know how Don the Swan's back can act up.» Don, Susan's stepfather had, over the years, evolved into a whisky-sunburnt, perpetually incapacitated repairman. «Don seems to be able to lift his SeaDoo and his bowling balls from the bed of his pickup 'enever he needs to.» «Susan! We're selling the SeaDoo to move to Wyoming, or are you conveniently choosing to forget this?» «I don't want to go to Wyoming,Mom. It was your idea. I'm fifteen. Like I 'ave legal say in the matter.» Marilyn smiled. «Oh! The treachery!» «Mom, I'm too 'ired to fight. Go get me a mirror.» Marilyn paused upon hearing this. Susan said, «I look 'at bad, huh?» «It's not a matter of good or bad, dear. I speak from experience. You're covered in bandages. You'll look like hell no matter what.» «Mom, just show me the stupid mirror.» Marilyn brought a yellow-handled mirror from the coffee table. Outside in the hallway bandaged figures were being trolleyed by on gurneys. Marilyn held the mirror up for Susan to see her face. «Ee-yuuu. I 'ook like a used Pampers balled up and stuffed in a trash can.» «Such an imagination, young woman,» said Marilyn, whisking away the mirror. «In three weeks it is going to be scientifically impossible for you to take a bad picture. Do you have any idea what that means? I've already lined up a photographer to come up from Mount Hood. An ex-hippie. Ex-hippies make the best photographers. I don't know why. But they do.» She lit up a Salem. «Speaking of JenniLu Wheeler, I heard that the night before the Miss Dixie contest, her eyes puffed up from too many cocktails with a handful of senators, and they put leeches under her eyes to suck out the puffiness. I never told you that one, did I?» «No. You 'idn't.» «She bled like a pig for two days, and she missed the title because of it. Or so the story goes.» «Lovely, Mom.» Susan relaxed and sunk into the mattress. A nurse stepped into the room and asked Marilyn to extinguish her cigarette. «Excuse me, young lady, but are we in Moscow right now?» «It's rules, Mrs. Colgate.» «Where's your manager?» Marilyn asked. «This is a hospital, not a McDonald's, Mrs. Colgate. We don't have man agers.» «Mom, this is a 'ospital, not the Black Angus. Stub it out.» «No, Susan — no, I won't stub it out. Not until I get an apology from this insultress. » «It's rules, Mrs. Colgate.» But the nurse lost her will to push the issue, and walked away. Marilyn took a deep victorious inhale. «I always win, don't I, Susan?» «Yes, Mom. You always do. You're the queen of drama.» «And that's a compliment?» Susan decided the smartest course of action was to shut her eyes and feign sleep. It worked. Marilyn returned to her magazine's personality quiz and smoked her victory cigarette. Susan mentally flipped through a catalog of Marilyn's seamless dramas, such as the time in the changing room she spritzed a tightly aimed spray bottle of canola oil at the swimsuit of Miss Orlando Pre-Teene after a close call in the talent contest. Susan played her Beethoven Für Elise, but Miss Orlando had played a Bach Goldberg variation, which could sway even the most musically naïve listener in her favor. As a result of the canola oil (to which Marilyn was never linked), Miss Orlando was forced to borrow Miss Chattanooga's one-piece and lost the pageant. Susan won a mink coat and a Waikiki weekend, both of which were exchanged for cash, and used to cover travel expenses and the household bills. The money was nice, but it was by no means the sole reason for pageantry. «Susan, there is no price tag that can be placed on accomplishment and superiority. Even if you were the richest girl on earth, do you think you could simply buy yourself a crown? Winners have an inner glow that cannot even be dreamt of in the soul of a nonwinner.» Marilyn called the pageant business «shucking bunnies,» even though the hutches in which she once bred rabbits to raise money for gowns were long a thing of the past — since Susan integrated Barbie into her essence and began winning solidly around age seven in the Young American Lady, West Coast Division. «Hey, sweetie, looks like rabbit pelting season sure did start today. The bunnies are hopping for their lives tonight!» When things were good, when both Marilyn and Susan were on the road, stoked to win, their systems charged with the smell of hair products, Susan could imagine no other mother more wonderful or more giving than Marilyn, and no childhood more exotic or desirable. School was a joke. Marilyn regularly phoned in and lied that Susan was sick. In lieu of school, she made Susan read three books a week as well as take lessons in elocution, modern dance, piano, deportment and French. «School is for losers,» Marilyn told Susan after spinning another yarn about kidney infections to yet another concerned vice-principal. «Trust me on this one, sweetie — you'll never lose if you learn the tricks I'm teaching you.» And Susan didn't lose. She reassured herself with this thought as her false sleep faded into real dreams. Chapter Eleven

Half a year after Susan's cosmetic surgery, Marilyn learned in a pageant newsletter that a judge previously unfavorable toward Susan would be on the panel at the upcoming Miss American Achiever pageant over the Memorial Day weekend at the St. Louis Civic Auditorium. Marilyn knew that this judge, Eugene Lindsay, had blackballed Susan after her performance of Für Elise in the talent segment of Country USA pageant at the Lee Greenwood Dinner Theater in Sevierville, Tennessee, the previous fall. After that night's events, from the other side of a freezingly air-conditioned banquette table at the Best Western lounge, Marilyn, drinking a double vodka tonic alone, had heard Lindsay's unmistakable TV-smoothened voice say: «I am so goddammed sick of these wind-up-toy midgets and their goddammed robotic renditions of Beethoven Lite. I hear them play that fucking tune so much that it feels like I'm in a purgatory engineered by whatever asswipe it is who chooses the on-hold music for the Delta Airlines ticket line.» Marilyn was taken aback neither by his language, nor the sentiment. But she was deeply surprised to hear such a blatantly truthful expression of the dark thoughts that lurked in the hearts of panel judges. She had wondered herself if Susan's Für Elise was maybe getting a bit thin, and by then had already initiated proceedings to have Susan perform a Grease medley. Eugene Lindsay was to Marilyn an almost unbearably handsome opponent, against whom none of the other pageant moms could be rallied («Why, sugar,» said one pageant mom, torn between propriety and carnality, «I'd let that man hug me ragged »). Although Eugene was a weatherman in everyday life, Marilyn knew that when he died, he'd likely land himself the biggest Ford dealership in heaven. Eugene went through life like a Great Dane or a speeding ambulance, exacting the unfettered awe of whomever he passed. He did the nightly weather on an Indiana NBC affiliate, and was hooked into the pageant circuit through his wife, Renata, a mail-order-gown specialist for the generously proportioned, who also sidelined in hairpieces. The day before the Miss American Achiever pageant, Marilyn insisted she and Susan spend the day visiting Bloomington, Indiana, Eugene Lindsay's home town. «It's research, sweetie. I want to check out Renata's store. It'll be fun.» Soon Susan would decide her mother was out of control, but on this trip she passively flowed along with Marilyn to Bloomington, the two of them surrounded by an asteroid belt of luggage as they strode through Bloomington's Monroe County Airport, Marilyn ensuring that the little clear vinyl windows on the gown bags faced outward: «So that passersby can know they are in the presence of star magic.» There were no cabs at the airport. A buzzing triad of fellow passengers from commuter flights stood on the taxi island pointlessly craning their necks as if, Manhattan-like, a fleet might momentarily appear. Shortly a single cab approached, and Marilyn pounced on its door handle, inflaming the triad. «Hey, lady — there's a line here.» Marilyn swiveled, removed her black sunglasses the size of bread plates, looked at her accuser point-blank and charged ahead. They checked in to their hotel, then visited Renata's nearby store, which was interesting enough. Susan thought that for somebody dealing in large-size pageant wear, Renata herself had about as much body fat as a can of Tab and three cashew nuts. Marilyn spoke with Renata, and Susan browsed through the far side of the store, which was filled to her pleasant surprise with regular craft-shop art supplies. Later that evening, up in the hotel room, Marilyn suggested they go for a drive. «We don't have a car, Mom.» «I rented one while you were in the workout room.» «Where are we going, Mom?» «You'll see.» «Is this something nasty again, Mom?» «Susan!» «Then it is, because you haven't said “sweetie” once yet, and whenever you fib, you drop the nice stuff.» «Oh sweetie.» «Too late.» Marilyn pursed her lips and looked at her daughter, swaddled in track pants and a gray kangaroo sweater. «Well then. Come along.» Marilyn brought two pairs of gardening gloves, a box of trash bags and two flashlights. They drove out into winding residential streets of a repetitive stockbroker Tudor design, the type that, when she was younger, Susan associated with the walrus-mustached plutocrat from the Monopoly board. Now she more realistically associated this sort of neighborhood with car dealers, cute amoral boys, sweater sets, regularly scheduled meals containing the four food groups, Christmas tree lights that didn't blink, the occasional hand on the knee, cheerful pets, driveways without oil stains, women named Barbara and, apparently, weathermen for regional NBC affiliates. «That Lindsay guy lives here?» Susan asked, looking out at a colonial with a three-car garage, as colorfully lit as an aquarium castle, surrounded by dense evergreens that absorbed noise like sonic tampons. «Shhh!» Marilyn had killed the car's lights the block before. «Just help me out here, sweetie.» They sidled over to the cans and Marilyn removed the lid from one. «Beautifully bagged. Like a Christmas gift. Susan — quietly now — help me lift the bag out.» The bag made a fruity, resonant fart sound against the can's inner edge as Susan hauled it out, and she laughed. Five beautifully wrapped bags of trash made their way into the car's trunk and back seat. Marilyn squealed away from the house, with her lights out for the first, almost painful, nervous puffs of breath. «Where now?» Susan asked. «A Wal-Mart parking lot.» «A Wal-Mart lot? Isn't that kind of public?» Marilyn turned on the lights. That's pre cise ly why we're going there. We'll look like two lady lunchbucket losers sifting through their own crap, most likely in pursuit of an eleven-cents-off coupon for house-brand bowling balls.» And Marilyn was correct. She parked within ten stalls of the store's main entrance, and not a soul gave a second glance to the mother-daughter team purposefully ripping through deep green plastic umbilical cords and placentas like industrial midwives. «What are we supposed to be looking for?» Susan asked. «I'll know when I see it. One bag at a time. Spread the contents evenly on the trunk floor. Good. Now hold open your bag and I'll put things into it, piece by piece.» Marilyn hawkeyed the items, which afforded a glass-bottom boat tour of the home and lives of la famille Lindsay. «Bathroom,» she said, «bloody Kleenexes, three; Q-tips, two; bunion pads, four, five,six; prescription bottle, contents: Lindsay, Eugene, Stellazine, a hundred milligrams twice daily, no refill.» «What's Stellazine?» «An antipsychotic. Powerful. Diggety-dawg, this is a keeper. » Marilyn's elder sister, a fellow escapee from their yokel origins, was a schizophrenic who, before jumping off the I-5 bridge in downtown Portland, had been a pharmaceutical bellwether for Marilyn. «Let's go on. Disposable razor, one.» Marilyn then found three 8-X-10s of Eugene's face, sandwiched together with a layer of Noxzema. «Dammit, why does he have to be so goddam handsome?» Susan grabbed one of the photos and her eyes sucked him in. She felt the way she had when she won a side of beef in her high school's Christmas raffle. «He is good-looking, isn't he?» «They always are, honey, they always are.» Susan snuck the photo into her pocket, then shivered. «You're cold, sweetie.» «No. Yes. Sort of.» «You sound like Miss Montana did in last month's pageant.» Marilyn laughed, and even Susan had to smile. «Only give declarative answers, sweetie.» The next bag must have been from Renata's bathroom, a perfect bin of high-quality cosmetics, items which earned grudging admiration from Marilyn. Next came several bags of kitchen waste: junk mail, coffee grounds, mostly unopened upscale deli containers and several cans of unpopular vegetables — beets and lima beans. One bag remained: «Come on, Eugene! Give me what I need. » It was evidently office waste: dried-out pens, a typewriter's correction ribbon, opened bill envelopes from Ameritech, Chevron, PSI Energy, Indiana Gas and — «What's this ?» Marilyn reached for an askew clump of similar-looking photocopies. She chose one at random, and began reading it aloud: « “Ignore this letter at your peril. One women in Columbus chose to ignore this and was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning a week later …” A chain letter.» Marilyn skimmed the copy. «Well and good, but why so many of them, Eugene? What the — ?» At this point her eyes saucered and her brain flipped inside her head like a circus Chihuahua. «Susan! Look! This weasel's been sending out hundreds of chain letters to dupes around the country — Canada and Mexico, too, and look — he always puts himself at the top of the chain on all the lists.» Susan was young and unfamiliar with chain letters. «Yeah?» «So even if a fraction of these suckers mail fifty bucks, he still scores big-time.» «Let me see.» Susan read the threatening letter more carefully. Marilyn, meanwhile, yanked out a folder cover: «KLRT-AM Radio, San Jose, California, All Talk, All the Time.» Inside the folder were printout lists of names and addresses, each crossed off. There were also folders from other cities — Toronto, Ontario; Bowling Green, Kentucky; and Schenectady, New York. «I get it — these are names and addresses of station listeners who filled out marketing cards.» «Why them?» Susan asked. «Think about it: if you've nailed down a file of people who enthusiastically identify with whacko call-in radio shows, it's not too much extra work to squeak a fifty out of them. Kid's play. Here, help me put these papers in neat piles. Eugene, I love you for helping dig your own grave.» They stacked and collated their booty. Back in the car Marilyn drove to a dumpster behind a Taco Bell and said, «Chuck the leftover trash in there.» Susan took Eugene Lindsay's rebagged garbage and daintily lobbed it over the bin's rusty green rim. At the hotel, Susan got fed up with Marilyn and her cache of papers. The TV was broken. She lay on the bed and tried to find animal shapes inside the ceiling's cottage cheese stippling. «Mom, are we with a host family or at a hotel tomorrow night?» «A hotel, sweetie.» «Oh.» «You'd rather we stay with a host family?» «Yes and no.» Yes because she got to peek into other people's lives and houses, invariably more normal than her own, and no because she'd also have to smell the host family, eat their food and have yet another host dad or host brother try to cop a feel or mistakenly enter the bathroom while she was having her shower,and she'd have to put a sunshine smile on everything to boot. Her mind wandered to a group of women who'd picketed the California Young Miss pageant earlier on that year in San Francisco. They'd called the pageant entrants cattle. They accused the mothers of being butchers leading sheep to slaughter. They'd worn meat bikinis. Susan smiled. She tried to imagine beef's feel on her skin, moist and pink, like the skin beneath a scab. «Mom — what did you think of those meat women in San Francisco? The ones with the flank steak bikinis.» Marilyn drooped the papers she was holding. «Angry, empty women, Susan.» Marilyn's temples popped veins. «Did you hear me? Lost. Absolutely lost. No men in their lives. Hungry. Mean. I feel sorry for them. I pity them.» «They looked like they were having fun, kinda.» Marilyn turned on her with a ferocity that let Susan actually see that human beings have skulls beneath their faces. Marilyn mistook Susan's horror for fear of what she was saying: «No! Don't ever think that — ever. Do you hear me?» «Geez, Mom, I was only joking.» «You'll never give that type of woman any of your time of day.» Marilyn returned to her job of cross-indexing Eugene Lindsay's mail fraud scheme, but her body was obviously now awash in stress chemicals. Susan felt like the young wolf who's just discovered the tender, delicious underbelly of the porcupine. The next afternoon they checked in to the hotel in St. Louis, whereupon Susan stayed up in the room to read comics while Marilyn confabbed with some other pageant moms, learning that Eugene was staying alone in the same hotel because Renata was stuck in Bloomington coping with demand for the following month's Big 'n' Proud convention in Tampa, Florida. With almost no effort, Marilyn determined Eugene's room number, and shortly after she knocked on his door. He answered, clothed only in argyle socks, striped boxers and an unbuttoned oxford cloth shirt. He was holding a scotch and Marilyn could see he had little hairs bleached gold by the sun on the tops of his fingers. Marilyn knew that Eugene was used to opening doors and letting in exactly whomever he wanted when he wanted. He saw Marilyn and said, «What is this — some kind of joke?» «No joke, Eugene.» She barged into his room. She took it by storm. «What the fuck? Lady — get the fuck out of my room. Now.» «No, Eugene.» «Did the guys at the station set this up? Is this a gag?» «It's no gag, Eugene, and I don't know any guys from any station.» She coquetted her head and sat with her legs crossed on the bed. Eugene gulped his scotch. «I'm not into mutton, lady. Out.» «Oh, Eu gene — you've mistaken my intentions.» «You're a show mom, aren't you? I can always tell you show moms. You're all nuts. You're all freaks.» He poured himself a new drink. «Is drinking a smart thing to be doing?» «I beg your — fuck it — I'm calling the hotel cops.» He moved to the bedside phone. «I'm not the one on Stellazine, Eugene. I'm not the one who's insane here.» His finger froze on the phone above the zero button. «You know, lady, I ought to — » «Oh, shut up, you talking hairdo. My name's not Lady, it's Marilyn, which doesn't mean much. What does mean something is that my daughter wins tomorrow's title. She's going to play Für Elise and it doesn't matter if Miss Iowa cures cancer on stage, or if Miss Idaho gets stigmata, my daughter wins. Period. And you will make sure this happens.» «This is a joke.» Eugene's face relaxed. «The guys at the station did set this up.» «No joke.» «You're good. » «There's nothing for me to be good at, Eugene. This is for real.» Eugene's face clenched and his voice assumed the cool metered speech of TV reason. «This is so totally Gothic, isn't it? You'd kill for your little proxy to win. I bet you and your little Miss …» «Wyoming.» The family still had yet to move to that state, but Marilyn had already begun creating technical citizenship by renting a small storage locker on the outskirts of Cheyenne under Susan's name. At the present moment she wanted to unbalance Eugene's thinking. «You're wearing a beef bikini, Eugene.» «Wha — ?» He reflexively reached for his privates, which had perhaps escaped containment. «Read these.» From her handbag she removed a bundle of photocopies and slapped them onto the bedspread, and from where he stood, Eugene could tell what they were. «How do we spell “mail fraud,” Eugene? We spell it F-B-I.» Marilyn walked to the door and yanked it open. «You're a big fish in an itty-bitty pond, Hairdo. But it's my pond. Give me what I want and it doesn't go beyond these walls.» She stepped outside and looked in. «I could otherwise care less about you. Turning you in would be like spraying sewage onto a burning house. It'd get a job done, but — well, you think it over. Good-bye, Eugene.» She shut the door. Onstage that night, the pageant flowed like soda. Susan made semifinalist, then finalist, played her Für Elise and then stood with the other finalists on the stage directly before the judge's stand. She felt lovely. She had learned to work with the new all-angle beauty her jaw correction and nose job had loaned her. And then, looking through the lights, one face opened up through the optical fog — a face that broke through and became disembodied from all others in the auditorium. It was Eugene — the trash man! — and he was looking at Susan with the same wise, knowing face as his 8-X-10 head shot. Her eyes linked with his, and for the first time in her life she felt sexual. She didn't just put on the pose, she felt naked, proudly naked, and she pulled her shoulders back as if to give more of herself to Eugene. She was being judged, and she knew she was coming out ahead. Eugene, meanwhile, looked at Susan. He wondered how he could have overlooked this scrumptious little gazelle at a previous competition.Für Elise ? Hell, she could play «Chopsticks» with a spatula and he'd vote for her. He pointed at Susan and then back at himself, smiled broadly with film-star teeth, then winked with the force of a blazing iron scorching linen. Susan heard music and she heard her name. And then a tiara landed on her head and she felt the reassuring cool fluttering sensation of the winner's sash draped from her right shoulder. Afterward, when the crowds had dispersed, Susan tried to locate Eugene amid the vanishing crowds under the ruse of looking for another show dog, Janelle, from Hawthorne, California. «Janelle?» asked Marilyn. «You hate Janelle.» «I don't hate anybody, Mom.» «Janelle hid your left pump in Spokane two years ago.» «They didn't prove that.» «Winning seems to make you so charitable. Testy, too.» «I'm not testy.» But she did feel nervous. She was panicking, as her eyes darted about looking for Eugene. Her stomach felt like a kite that was having trouble getting airborne. «Of course not, sweetie. Oh,look — there she is over there …» «Where?» Confused, Susan snapped her head in the direction her mother had pointed to. No Eugene there. «Gotcha.» «Oh Mom. » «Don't worry, sweetie. Whatever's going on, I'm not going to press it tonight. You're a champion.»

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