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Chapter Thirty-five

The police dropped Susan off at home. She made a pot of coffee and phoned an old TV contact, Ruiz, now at the Directors' Guild. She had asked for John Johnson's home number, but Ruiz was hesitant. Susan reminded him that she was the one who arranged for his sister's nose job in '92, and so he gave her the number. The pen Susan was using had dried out. She was repeating John's number over and over, searching for something to write with, when the phone rang. It was Randy with news of the kidnapping. After she hung up, she stood amid her cheerful anonymous kitchen and her skin no longer felt the room's air-conditioned chill. Her ears roared with so much blood that she went deaf. The sink and the potted fern in front of her seemed unconnected, like a convenience store's surveillance camera image. Only her sense of taste seemed to still work, albeit the wrong way, as tingling coppery bolts shot forward from her tonsils. She'd been waiting for a moment like this since she severed connections with her mother in the Culver City legal office amid the shards of Gregory Peck's ashtray. She'd always felt that nobody ever gets off an emotional hook as easily as she had. The agitated chemical soup in her bloodstream thinned slightly. Her senses returned to her and she ran to the hallway, grabbed her purse and fished through it quickly: keys, wallet, ID, cell phone, photos and mints — that's all she'd need. She dashed out the door and into her car parked in the driveway, leaving the house unlocked and the coffeemaker still brewing. The sun had set and rush hour was almost over, but the Hollywood Freeway was packed five cars abreast, as tightly as a movie audience, all flowing at sixty-two miles an hour. She phoned Randy, and both of them screamed into their receivers, Randy demanding to call the police, Susan ordering him not to. They entered a cell hole and the line cut out. Susan called back, but her budget cell phone's drained battery began beeping. She told Randy she'd call again once she had recharged it in the cigarette lighter, which would take about three hours, by which time she would be near the California—Nevada border. «Randy, it's not your fault. She'd have gotten into Fort Knox if she'd wanted to.» «But Susan, why are you — » Vzzzt zzzst … «She'll be back in Wyoming, Randy. She wants this on her turf. It's how she — » Dzzzzzt … vvvvdt … The phone died, and Susan was alone with her thoughts in the car, driving east, seeing only a few stars and a few jet lights in the sky. She was furious with her mother, but she was also furious with herself for having been so vengeful and stupid in Cheyenne. She'd been so full of pride, twisting the financial knife, and most stupidly of all, mentioning grandchildren. Stupid, stupid,stupid. Something in her voice and eyes had given Marilyn the clue.Dammit. She slapped the steering wheel and felt nauseous with worry. She turned on the radio, but it made her head buzz to hear the outrageous opinions and meaningless chitchat that drenched the sky. She turned it off. She looked at the road signs. She was nearing Nevada. Randy said Marilyn had a one-hour lead, and Susan knew her mother was a speed demon, so she was likely a fair distance down the Interstate. Susan looked back over the past year for other clues as to why this craziness was happening. The biggest hint was that after Susan's return to Los Angeles from Erie, not once had she seen Marilyn in the news — either on TV or in print, aside from the endlessly replayed hugging scene on the front steps of Marilyn's house. Susan knew Marilyn's media embargo was her way of communicating by not communicating — of letting Susan know she was up for a challenge. Susan mentally tried to imagine the amount of money Marilyn lost by being silent and had a grudging admiration for her strength. Why couldn't her mother use her strength to clip newspaper articles and knit baby booties like everybody else's mother? She looked back over the day. She sighed and tried to hook her arm over the back seat to snag a bottle of orange juice in the back. The car swerved, another car honked and she pulled over to the shoulder and breathed deeply. She'd met John Johnson only that afternoon, what seemed like forever ago. It was the first real connection she'd made in so long. He was as colorful as guys got, with a cordiality and freshness she doubted he was even aware he possessed. And he'd seen her face in a vision! It was so sweet. Normally she'd have thought this was just a manufactured come-on line, but with him it wasn't. And Susan was moved that she could represent an image of …cleanliness to somebody else, somebody with whom she seemed to share such a unique set of experiences. And with John she'd also had that sexy charge-right-into-conversation feeling. And what fun it would be again to have a man's razor and shaving cream in the medicine cabinet. The next time John would hear of her it'd be in some tawdry, cheesy tabloid slugfest she'd always dreaded, with Eugene Junior used as a pawn. Randy was right. She ought to have brought the child into society more quickly. What were the rules on these things? If she told about Eugene, would she be tried as some sort of arsonist? If she had DNA tests done, proving the child was definitively hers, would people suspect Eugene Junior was the child of rape? The scenarios spun out of control in her head. Could she be deemed unfit to parent? Could the child be taken away from her? Randy. The phone was charged. She called; he was in the Valley house bathroom vomiting with fear, guilt and worry beside Dreama on the cordless phone. They wanted to come meet Susan, but Susan said, no, to stay there in case Marilyn called the house. Dreama was doing what she could to calm Randy. Susan drove through the night. By dawn her eyes were bloodshot and stung in the sunlight. Somewhere in central Utah she bought apple juice and a ham sandwich at a gas station. She ate, realized she was going to collapse if she continued right away, and took a tranquilizer from her purse, garnering a fitful spate of sleep in the parking lot. The cell phone jolted her awake. It was Dreama and Randy calling for news. She sped off again. Her map told her there were 1,200 miles between Los Angeles and Cheyenne. She spent hours dividing miles-per-hour into 1,200. It always seemed to come out to around a fifteen-hour haul. When she factored in the nap, she calculated she'd arrive in Cheyenne around 7A .M. local time. In Utah her engine died. She lost more than half a day there. She arrived in Cheyenne at sunup, ragged and starving. She showed up at Marilyn's old house, rang the doorbell, ready for war, and the new tenants answered, a pleasant young couple, the Elliots, getting ready for work. «Your mother moved out a year ago,» said Mrs. Elliot, Loreena. «We get people knocking here maybe once a week still, looking for either her or you. We certainly never thought we'd see …you here.» Loreena didn't mean any disrespect. Susan could only imagine how bad it looked, arriving in the morning not even knowing where her mother lived. They offered Susan breakfast, and she ate in the kitchen, which was eerily the same as it had been the morning of the reunion. Loreena offered a bath, but Susan declined, far too frazzled to lather and rinse her hair. Loreena offered her a clean outfit, which Susan did accept. While changing in the upstairs bathroom, she could hear a muffled conversation downstairs. Susan was paranoid about the police being brought into the matter. When she returned to the kitchen, she confessed that she and her mother had stopped speaking, but now she needed to connect with her. The husband, Norm, said the situation reminded him of his sister and his mother, and Loreena nodded. Susan and Loreena combed the phone books for all possible variations of Marilyn's surnames, maiden names, middle names and pet names, but their work yielded nothing. Susan then methodically scoured every street in the city — it was just small enough to do so — looking for a maroon BMW. After the sun had set, she conceded defeat. She phoned Randy, who was clomping about the Valley house packing things up, anticipating Susan's request for him to drive to Wyoming with Dreama. Susan assembled a degree of composure and thanked the Elliots, then spent the next twenty-odd hours in her car driving around Cheyenne. She phoned Randy's cell and told him she'd drive to Laramie, to the west, and meet them there. When they showed up, Susan collapsed into their arms in tears. She ditched her car in a gas station, and they drove in Randy's minivan back to Cheyenne. Randy and Dreama tried to calmly assess the situation and tried to decide what to do next. What confused Susan amid this was news of John Johnson's appearance at both Randy's house and then at Dreama's. This stopped her thinking dead, as if she'd been slapped. «He's not a creep,» Susan said. «He just …isn't. » «I never said he was, Susan,» Dreama said. «But he is a four-digit prime.» «Not numerology. Not now, Dreama.» Randy was cranky from the drive. «He was looking for me ?» Susan said. «He doesn't even know about Eugene Junior.» Susan mulled this over: John was looking for her. Once again her mind hit a wall. But now she had what felt like a new battery placed inside of her. Someone was looking for her — someone she herself had tried to locate. She looked out the window at the prairies. Suddenly they didn't feel quite so large and terrifying. Suddenly they didn't seem like a place in which she could be hopelessly lost. On the outskirts of Cheyenne, Susan took her turn at the steering wheel of the minivan. Chapter Thirty-six

Susan was holding Eugene Junior on the concrete ledge beside the propane tank. Her body felt deboned with relief, but the child showed no signs of anything other than simple pleasure. Randy had gone to calm the Exxon duty manager's nerves, worried that this sudden burst of people might constitute a situation of some sort. Ivan's cell phone rang; he answered it, began speaking Japanese, and withdrew inside the rental car. Dreama hovered by Susan, while John, Ryan and Vanessa crept up to the opened rest room door and stared in at the harshly lit, unkempt sprawl that was Marilyn, slouched on the toilet lid. Her eyes were wide and red. «Marilyn?» John said into the echoey tiled room. Marilyn didn't respond. «Are you okay?» The back of Marilyn's head rested against the wall. She turned toward John at the door. «Can I get you anything — Tylenol? Food? A blanket?» «No,» Marilyn said. «It's okay. There's nothing I want. Really. Truly.Nothing. » She looked at John and saw a resemblance to Susan's child, which was, in a way, a resemblance to Eugene Lindsay. «You're the father?» «No, ma'am.» «He's a beautiful child,» she said. «Sure is.» «Susan was more beautiful, though. She was. She was like a Franklin Mint souvenir figurine. People would gasp. » Marilyn then glared at Vanessa. «You. How'd you catch me? I knew the jig was up when you talked about the curtains. You don't look like the curtains type.» Vanessa gaped, unable for once to come up with a reply. Marilyn cut her thinking short. «To hell with it. I don't want to know. It'd probably scare the shit out of me anyway. I knew I shouldn't have stopped at Calumet for my bonus check.» She lit a cigarette. John thought she looked like a drag queen. «So what's the deal — are you guys cops or something?» «No. We're friends of Susan,» John said. Randy had just come back and told everyone that no police or state troopers would be forthcoming. «I ought to be in jail,» said Marilyn. She turned her head to look at the graffiti-free wall. «There's not going to be any charges, Marilyn,» John said. The Interstate traffic punctuated the sky with its dull Doppler-shifted roars. John remembered back to less than a week before — when he was the schedule-obsessed robot watching the CNN six o'clock news — and he remembered Doris's yelling at him to cough up the goods on his solo road trip. John put his arms out to Marilyn. Marilyn was disdainful. «Give me one good reason I should even come near you.» John thought a second and remembered Vanessa's telling him about Marilyn's polyandry. What was his name? He remembered and blurted out, «Duran Deschennes would have wanted you to be close to Susan.» Marilyn let out a thimbleful of air, and her face lost all harshness, briefly becoming young, and John could see the beauty she had obviously once been. She tottered over to him, as though walking on a wobbling dock. They went outside, where she and John sat down beside a transformer box and some scrub pines. «You know, I've been broke before, Marilyn,» he said. Marilyn nodded. «And I've been jobless before, too.» She nodded again. «But mostly I've had nobody to join for dinner at six-thirty every night,» he said. «That was the worst of it for me — sunset — six-thirtyP .M. and nobody for dinner.» Susan, Randy and Dreama were by the van, their breathing harsh and quivering. Ivan was still in the car speaking Japanese. Ryan and Vanessa were discreetly turned away from John and Marilyn, but still trying to take in each word, and John shooed them off like children past their bedtime. «Ryan, would you get Marilyn a cup of coffee. Vanessa, can you grab my coat from the car.» As they went off, Ryan whispered to Vanessa, «Oscar clip,» and Vanessa giggled. A minute later they were back. «Drink some coffee,» said Ryan. «It'll be good for you.» He handed Marilyn a paper cup filled with hot coffee. John walked over to Susan, who was holding her child upside down by the ankles. A cold breeze shot by and he buttoned up his jacket. Susan looked up and smiled and said, «Seems like a hundred years ago since our little walk together, eh?» «A thousand.» Randy and Dreama, fifth wheels, made quick hellos, and walked away with the two dogs. «So how'd you do it? Find my mother, I mean. I've been here in Wyoming going crazy for days now. I haven't slept in, like, forty-eight hours. How'd you even know I was looking for her?» «I didn't. I was looking for you.» He sat down beside Susan. «I had some luck and I followed a hunch or two. And the Hawaii Five-0 crime lab pitched in.» He pointed to Ryan and Vanessa. «Don't ever cross those two. They're so smart, even their shit has brains.» Susan brought Eugene Junior right side up and hugged him while smiling at John. «Never a dull moment when Mom's around, that's for sure. Hey, know what? I know your home phone number.» «Really now?» She told him. «Aren't you the sphinx.» John turned toward the child, who was fumbling with pebbles to his far left. «How old is … ?» «Eugene.» «Eugene?» «He was two last week.» «You gonna go talk to your mother?» «I suppose I have to.» Susan grabbed him by the arm. «You want me, you better see this, too.» The two walked over to Marilyn, who had the lost look of a seabird covered in oil. Susan was going to speak, made a false start and stopped. It turned out for once, Susan didn't have to say anything. Marilyn whispered, «I'm sorry about those pageants.» Susan made a noise, emptying her lungs of air and stress. She said, «Mom, look. If I ever hear you so much as a hint that my kid needs a haircut or has to go to the gym to develop brawny shoulders or even that he needs a dab of Clearasil, then I'm going to stop inviting you over for Christmas, okay?» Marilyn sighed. Susan and John went over to the minivan and sat down beside it, Eugene on Susan's lap. Susan said, «I got your number from a friend at the Director's Guild. I was about to call you when the shit hit the fan known as my mother.» She gave a lusty yawn. John picked up a piece of cardboard and played peekaboo with Eugene. «I can't act,» Susan said. John snorted. «Oh God, where did that come from?» Susan smiled. «Well, I don't want you getting it in your head you can save me from myself by starring me in one of your movies. I'm a crap actress. I really am.» «You can take lessons and — » «Stop. I don't want to be an actress. I never did. It just happened. I want my life to change, but not in that direction.» «So you still want to change, then?» John tried to ask this casually. «Well, yeah. Don't you?» «How about I'll stop if you stop.» «You think you can?» John thought this over. The wind seemed to get stronger, blowing down from the Rockies onto the Plains. «Look at us,» said John, «two clowns who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel.» Susan put her hands in her face and said, «Oh God, my mother is back in my life.» Ivan had finished his phone call and sidled over. He reached John and Susan just as their hands touched. «Mega Force blew them to bits in Nagasaki, John-O.» «Ivan, this is Susan. Susan, Ivan.» John's and Susan's hands were carelessly touching. «John-O, I tell you what — why don't I pile everybody into the rental car and take them back to Los Angeles?» Susan's eyes were as wide and as open as the cobalt sky above. «Okay,» John said. Susan got behind the wheel of the minivan and John jumped in and rode shotgun with Eugene Junior on his lap. Susan started the van and drove off. Looking back, John saw the mystified crowd, with Ivan preparing a plot synopsis for their next six hours. Susan, exhausted or not, was a confident driver. The three sped across the dark flat continent, nobody in the minivan knowing where they might be heading, just that they were heading away from where they had been before. Eugene Junior fell asleep in John's lap. John turned his head and looked out the window. Outside, there was a barbed-wire fence, a road sign sayingOMAHA 480, and John also saw what he thought were the eyes of an animal. He looked at Susan's reflection in the black window glass. John remembered once yelling at a cameraman on a film, whom he was convinced was color-blind. During a break John went off to props and brought back with him a piece of shiny black plastic. He gave it to the cameraman, and the cameraman asked him, «What's this for?» and John said, «It's something the Impressionist painters used to do. Whenever they were unsure of the true color of something, they'd look at its reflection in a piece of black glass. They thought that the only way they could ever see the true nature of something was to reflect it onto something dark.» Police lights erupted behind them, but the police were after another car, not theirs. Susan looked over at John and arched her eyebrows in conspiracy. John watched the pale black road, and he remembered a single moment during his time away in the wilderness. He wished he had told Doris about it — a single moment in Needles, California, months and months ago, facing west in the late afternoon. There had been a heavy rainstorm over just a small, localized patch of the desert, and from the patch beside it, a dust storm blew in. The sun caught the dust and the moisture in a way John had never seen before, and even though he knew it was backward, it seemed to him the sun was radiating black sunbeams down onto the Earth, onto Interstate 40 and the silver river of endless pioneers that flowed from one part of the continent to the other. John felt that he and everybody in the New World was a part of a mixed curse and blessing from God, that they were a race of strangers, perpetually casting themselves into new fires, yearning to burn, yearning to rise from the charcoal, always newer and more wonderful, always thirsty, always starving, always believing that whatever came to them next would mercifully erase the creatures they'd already become as they crawled along the plastic radiant way.

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