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Chapter Three

In the hospital John woke up long enough to hear the doctor tell a nurse that his lungs were plugged up with «about five cans of cream-of-mushroom soup,» followed by, «Christ, he looks awful. I've eaten steaks healthier than this guy. He's down to what,sixteen T cells? He looks familiar. Movie guy?» «Johnson. He did Bel Air PI. » «No way. What else?» «Bel Air PI 2.» «Oh yeah — that was one of the few sequels better than the original.» «Yeah, sure, but did you see The Wild Land ?» «Nope. Never heard of it.» «Join the club. Didn't even go to video. I think it went, like, straight to Malaysia.» «Wait — didn't this guy do The Other Side of Hate ?» «Guilty. It went straight to in-flight. They might as well have shipped the dailies directly up to the Boeing factory.» «He deserves Holy Retribution for that one. I flew across the country about eight times one year and that movie was like a curse on my life. It haunted me no matter what flight or which direction I was flying in.» «At least it paid for Fun Boy's toy box. Check the rope burns on the wrists and ankles.» The doctor and nurse inspected his body like it was a skimpy Christmas tree. «Well, like I say, whatever floats your boat. Time to Hoover out the lungs again. And monitor his CNS for the wobblies. This guy's pill soup. Christ, whatta mess. He's like the undead Sno-Kone that is Walt Disney.» The nurse turned on a suction tube, but turned it off when John made a noise. «Didnaw go vee-oh.» «He's saying something. What's he saying?» «Didnaw go vee-oh.» «It sounds like mush. Listen harder …» «I think he's saying, “It didn't go straight to video.” » «What didn't?» «Wile Lann.» «The Wild Land.» «Yoo azzhoe.» «Well, Doctor, I think he just called you a prince.» That it was something bacterial, and not, say, an overdose of five different prescription drugs mixed with cognac and two Slimfast strawberry shakes that nearly killed him was a fact not lost on him, regardless of what his medical team thought. The night he died was to have been a typical Thursday evening: out of the house around 11P .M., party with a friend of Ivan's who was coming in from New York, some guy with a hot play for sale — maybe take him up to Melody's for a quick hug or two. But John woke up around midafternoon feeling achy and nauseous, his thinking foggy, and he mistook this to be a bad reaction to the previous evening's methamphetamine, Serax and bondage. After all, a leather hood had chafed his Adam's apple. He seemed to recall a rope he pulled too hard. There was a sore at the base of his penis — ouch — was the skin surface broken? And the Vasarely ashtray as-expensive-as-a-new-small-car had been cleaved into three valueless chunks. Kay finished cleaning the kitchen and Saran-wrapped his lunch around sunset. He heard her car exit the driveway. A pulse of seasickness surged, and his breathing grew limp. He dragged his torso to the shower stall to vomit, afterward grabbing and chewing a stray Serax tablet lying beneath the sink's kick. He stripped while leaning crumpled against the slate tiles, then ignited the hot water faucet and felt what little food he'd had that day — seaweed, basmati rice, grapefruit, algae drink and six Kit Kats. Rinsing off his skin, he blacked out. When he came to, the water dowsing him was nearly cold and the sky outside had gone fully dark. He turned off the faucet. He was shivering and realized he was merely sick — sick! He hadn't been sick in decades, but his heart leapt with the knowledge that it wasn't drugs or excessive living that had his jaws chattering like a tree full of birds. He reached for the wall phone beside the toilet to slap the speakerphone button with his palm, triggering a dial tone that sliced the silence like a razor. Who to call? He had to think quickly because he felt numbers leaving him. Kay would be back home in Inglewood now, well into her second bottle of Chablis. Melody was over in Rancho Mirage organizing a fantasy weekend for bankers. Ivan was in Davos, Switzerland, nookying with investors. His mother? No way was he going to let her see him like this. His assistant, Jennifer, had quit yesterday when she found the nannycam that Lopez, his security man, had installed in the bathroom's plug-in deodorizer. («John, I can't believe you'd sink to accusing me of stealing your coke.» «But Jennifer, you were stealing my coke.» «Even still, how could you harbor such ugly thoughts about me in your head?») Bridge burned. And then John couldn't remember numbers, period, so he pushed the «Old Lady Button,» the one marked with the little red cross, and he croaked to the teenager manning the dispatch to «send me a goddamn ambulance,» which finally showed up what seemed like two REM cycles later, after he'd squirreled himself into a pair of track pants and scooped a Halloween sack of pills into their baggy pockets, which rattled out, one by one, as he inchwormed his way down the staircase to the front door just as the paramedics arrived, at which point he passed out again. Hours later, after the medical help had analyzed his career arc and removed the soup from his lungs, he lay in a cool, quiet room at Cedars-Sinai. Beside the bed there was a TV the size of a pack of Marlboros. He heard the sound of a laugh track, a few commercials, and then he used the sum of his strength to turn his head to watch. It was some piece-of-crap show from the early eighties. A bunch of has-beens. He was dizzy sick, feverish. He remembered being young in Kentucky with his mother when a freak tornado had hit. He had walked through a street across the town that had been flattened. A cow was lying beside a pickup truck with its hide sucked right off. A horse was stuck up inside the one standing tree, its leaves plucked off in the middle of summer. Thousands of perch flopped inside a swath of Russian thistle as though the earth had sprouted erupting, percolating sores. He suddenly felt sixteen years old again; his body was clean. He felt springy and he wanted to do somersaults off the high school's trampette. He wanted to ski a glacier. He wanted to climb the glass windows of the First Interstate Bank Tower with suction cups. He felt like flying. And so he flew, up above the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and Los Angeles, toward the sun, into the upper atmosphere where he rapped his knuckles on the Mir Space Station, and then he heard a woman's voice and saw her face. It said to him, «No, John. Time to go back.» «Oh, you have got to be kidding.» John kept propelling himself toward the sun. «I don't kid, John Johnson. It's not a part of my job description.» John turned and saw Susan's face and voice, so recently stolen from the TV. It was a lovely, TV-proportioned all-American face — the face of a child raised with tetracycline, baton twirling and kung fu lessons. «Like you run the studio or something?» «John, we're not here to cut a deal for Canadian and Mexican distribution rights. We're here to make you better.» «Better? I've never been better. Shit, I just rang the doorbell on the Mir Space Station.» He could feel himself falling back down to earth again, through the ionosphere and the troposphere and the creamy blue atmosphere. «Stop that!» he shouted. «And who are you — do I know you or something? Send me back up!» «Look at me, John.» «I'm looking. I'm looking .» «No you're not. You're looking for a way to get rid of me and fly back into space again.» «Okay, okay, you're good . But do you blame me? I don't want to go back down there to my crappy little life.» «Your life is crappy?» His body stopped where it was, his feet inside the atmosphere, his head out in space, as though he were wading in the planet. «It's not what I would have wanted, no.» «What would you have wanted, then?» «Like I keep that information at the top of my “To Do” list, or something?» «What would be wrong with keeping that at the top of your “To Do” list?» This gave John pause. «Nothing, I guess.» He looked east, toward the seaboard. «Hey, look at New York! You can see the lights! It's night there now.» The view was indeed splendid. «Sure, John, the world is beautiful. But you were telling me what you would have wanted to do differently in your life.» «I dunno. Be one of those guys who buy short-sleeve golf shirts with olive checks at the pro shop — the ones who drive their kids to judo lessons and then to the pancake house afterward.» «You?» «Well, it'd be a start. I see these guys on the San Diego Freeway on Saturday afternoons. They're married to soccer moms and they don't have affairs.» «John, let's be serious. Stop wasting my time.» «Okay, okay. Take a sip of water, fer Chrissake. Let me think.» «Oh Johnnnn, » the vision cooed, «I'm not a table full of suits from Disney.» «You know what?» John said. «I'd like to simply stop being me. I'd like to be somebody anonymous, without any luggage. I want a clean slate.» «So then go clean your slate. Enter your own private witness relocation program.» «It's too complex. You can't do it anymore. Too many computers and stuff.» «It's not complex. It's the opposite of complex. What could be simpler?» «Who are you?» «I'm not the issue here.» «I know you from somewhere. Sundance? Tristar?» «You're wasting your time.» «So what happens now?» «Back to the hospital.» «Oh.» «You sound disappointed.» John went quiet as an empty room. And then he said, «I want to see you again.» «I don't know, John.» «Please?» John's body began zooming down to California at telescopic speed. «I have a call on another line, John.» Whamp! He felt as though he'd fallen onto concrete. Two days later, he was lying on his hospital bed, wide awake, and his confidant-madam, Melody, was sitting across his dark private room watching Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman on the TV screen. «You're awake! Hel lo!» Melody shouted. She pushed theMUTE button and scampered toward him, kissing him on the forehead. «Melody — shit — what day is it?» «It's Saturday, you brute. You had the flu . And pneumonia. The doctors said they thought you had AIDS because you have almost no immune system left.» The sun had nearly set outside. A supply trolley rolled past the door. «You've been here all this time?» Melody looked guilty. «Well, only about ten minutes, really.» John flopped his head sideways, caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror. He closed his eyes. «Jesus.» Melody was rustling about in her purse and found some mints. «Want a mint?» John's stomach turned. «No.» «Spoilsport.» Melody popped a mint and then stared at John, who closed his eyes and tried to recapture the face and voice he'd just seen. Instead he heard Melody tell him what had happened and how sick he'd been, then bridge into snatches of gossip. The captive nature of the sickbed reminded him of his childhood illnesses. He didn't want to remember that, and he brusquely let Melody know it. «Excusez-moi. I'm just trying to be friendly. I didn't have to come down here, you know. Ivan called from Switzerland and put me on sentry duty. Me and all none of your friends.» «Mel — » «Oh shit.» Melody felt she'd gone too far. «I'm sorry, John. For what it's worth, your mother's been camping out here for forty-eight hours. I sent her home to sleep.» «Forget it.» «No. I feel terrible for being so mean when you're so sick.» Her eyes became frantic. «I know — I've got some wonderful welcome-back pussy for you — twins!» «I don't want twins, Mel. Shit, I don't want anybody. Or anything.» «How about a bit of toot, John?» Melody removed a pink plastic Hello Kitty heart-shaped box from her fetal calf leather handbag. «Straight from Miss Bolivia's falsies. Yummie, yummie.» She held out the box to John, and he slapped it with a wave that was just forceful enough to read as purposeful. The box fell onto the floor and exploded. «John! That was really stupid.» «Mel, please. I don't feel so good. I want to be alone.» «Oh cute — like a Simon and Garfunkel song. You remember who your friends are. And remember — twins! From Florida no less.» John stared at her. «I'm going to leave now, John, before you go and say something else stupid. I'll tell Nurse Ratchet outside that you're awake.Au revoir, Johnniepoo.» Chapter Four

Susan's earliest memory was powerful and clear. She was four and a half, and she was in the elevator of the Benson Hotel, Portland, Oregon, wearing a beaded strapless evening gown paid for with the proceeds of rabbits her mother Marilyn sold from hutches adjoining the double-wide trailer back in McMinnville. Marilyn had toiled for umpteen hours on each of the gown's beaded filaments, in between furtive glances at walls papered with gown photos ripped from ladies' magazines and specialized pageantry publications. Marilyn had also recently purchased a glue gun and she had had great plans for fastening sparkly objects to belts and accessories. Susan's face was heavily pancaked in a manner calculated to add fifteen years to her age. She was wearing a diagonal rayon sash across her chest readingPETITE MISS MULTNOMAH COUNTY — FIRST RUNNER-UP, and her face was so moist from tears it felt like an unsqueezed dish sponge. She remembered pushing a button for each of the floors. The doors opened sixteen times from penthouse to basement, each time revealing the absence of Marilyn. Earlier, just before Susan had gone onstage, Marilyn had clasped her shoulders, looked her dead in the eyes and said, «Only the prettiest and the best-behaved girl gets to win, and if you don't win, I'm not going to be here waiting for you afterward. Do you understand this? Is this clear?» Susan had nodded and gone onstage with the fluid military precision drummed into her on a mock catwalk Marilyn had chalked onto the concrete at the cul-de-sac's end back in McMinnville. And yet she hadn't won, and had no idea what mistake had caused her to lose. Once the elevator reached the lowest level, Susan pushed all the buttons on the pad again, and rose upward. When the doors on the main floor opened, she saw dozens of the mother-daughter molecules specific to pageantry, milling their way out the front door. Marilyn was speaking to the concierge. She looked at Susan exiting the elevator and, cool-as-you-will, said, «Oh my, a runner-up.» As Susan came closer she added, «I have a daughter, yes, but she's a winner, and you couldn't possibly be her because your sash saysFIRST RUNNER-UP , which means the same thing as losing.» Susan burst into tears. «Oh, shut up,» said Marilyn, and she gave her daughter a handkerchief. «You'll stain the dress. Come on. Let's walk to the car.» Susan followed, brimming with the shameful gratitude of a puppy in training. The night was cool, on the brink of discomfort. «Oh Sus an,» began Marilyn, «You know how long we worked on this one. It's been weeks since I've touched a bingo card with Elaine or even watched TV. I think of the time I spend trying to make you the winningest little girl in Oregon and I start to feeling like those inmates in orange jumpsuits picking up litter on the sides of the Interstate.» Bums heckled them as they walked through the town center. Marilyn looked their way and said: «They can't pave this city fast enough. Put a ten-lane freeway right through these old heaps, call it a mall, and gas those wretched winos.» Susan sniffled and her heels clicked on the sidewalk like a sous-chef's cutting knife on a board. «Don't you have anything to say?» asked Marilyn. «You're so quiet, like a Barbie doll, except Barbie wouldn't have muffed her lighting cue on the “Spirit of Recycling” dance routine.» Marilyn breathed a sigh like a deflating parade balloon. She lit a cigarette. «You could at least show a bit more spunk with me — fight back — a little bit of give-and-take.» But Susan remained silent. Susan was going to be Barbie. She was going to be more Barbie than Barbie, and in having made this decision, she unwittingly followed Marilyn's dancing lead. They reached the car, the sunroofed Corvair Susan considered the one truly glamorous aspect of her family's life. It appeared that Marilyn was not going to assist her, so as she got in, she carefully lifted and folded her dress so as not to damage it when shutting the door. Marilyn started the car, and they pulled out of the downtown core. «Okay then, Susan. Your ramp walking was pretty good. A good stride. And the makeup worked well under that lighting. A bit too tarty, maybe, but good.» «Mom?» «Yes?» «What's “tarty”?» Marilyn deemed it inappropriate to discuss tartiness with her four-and-a-half-year-old. She ignored the question. «Next time you're going to have to approach the fore-catwalk more naturally, and I truly think those bangs of yours are going to have to grow out some.» She looked over at her daughter. «Susan, your eyes look like two cherry pits spit onto the floor,» but Susan was drifting off to sleep. A gentle rain was falling and the wipers were slapping. «I was never able to enter pageants myself, Susan. I could only dream of them. The excitement. The dresses. The winning. I was stuck out in the boondocks with my wretched family.» She pulled onto the highway back to McMinnville. «I never had what you have now — a mother who cares for you and who wants you to win. And certainly not what you're going to have — a big success in life — and trust me, you're going to have it. Me, I'll never be the prettiest or the purest or the best, but you — you will. » Susan, sleepy, hoped Marilyn's good mood would stretch all the way home. «I shouldn't bitch. I did end up getting your father — your stepfather — but he's as good as a real father.» Her voice relaxed. «Don the Swan.» She looked kindly over at Susan. «Baby, you'll win next time, won't you, sweetie?» Susan looked up at her mother, rain splashing on the windshield and her small mouth emitted a calm, clear, and hopefully Barbie-like «Yes.» Chapter Five

«Suzie,do be a love and whack this evil little Kinder Egg into the Grand Canyon for me.» Chris handed Susan a 5-iron. It was near dawn and she, Chris, two band members and an arty black-and-white photographer named Rudy were sitting atop the tour bus in lawn chairs, sipping Benedictine and taking turns trying on silvery-orange nipple tassels that Chris, back in Las Vegas and crashingly drunk, had purchased from an off-duty lap dancer for $500. «Okay, guv,» said Susan, «but we'll never know what the little toy was inside the egg.» «That's the point, you evil,evil girl,» replied Chris. «Is the eggy-weggy properly teed up?» «Chris, your London vocabulary is really driving me crazy.» «Be that as it may, I repeat, is the eggy-weggy properly teed up?» Susan checked the foil wrapped chocolate egg perched on a Marlboro box. «Ready for action.» «Okay then, Sooz, it's time for whackies!» Rudy, sensing a trophy, slunk into a shooting angle behind Susan, then in tassels, while Chris called out, «Wait! Your tassels are a mess.» With the fingertips of one hand he held her nipples in place while using his other hand to rake the tinsel. «There.» «Thank you,husband. » «We Brits are so dominant, so forceful.» «Sun's almost up,» called Nash, the drummer. Susan moved into position. Far across the vast geographical sore, the first chinks of sunlight were breaking through the horizon's rock. Susan shouted, «Foreplay!» and walloped the Kinder Egg with such force that it vaporized and fell into the canyon as a mist. Rudy's flash coincided with the sunrise entering into her eye, and she wasn't sure which was which. The photo was a winner: faded child star now in second bloom as rock-and-roll mama. «Rav ishing,» said Chris. «You liar. You just like me because I got you a green card.» «You just like me because I let you sing backup vocals on tour.» «That's not true. I love you for the 10K a month you put into my savings account.» «You just love me for the manliness of my member.» Chris dropped his trousers and wagged his hips back and forth, establishing a lewd pendulum as the crowd on the roof shrieked in unison. And so went life on tour. Susan was alpha road-rat on the North American tour of Chris's band, Steel Mountain, the highly caste-conscious temporary family fueled by drinking, smoking, copious drugs and arcade games inside buses that stank of the ghosts of a hundred previous bands. Susan married Chris two years after the network canceled Meet the Blooms, and her TV career vanished in a puff of dust. Her then agent-manager-lover, Larry Mortimer, phoned her with news of the cancellation while she was in Guam shooting a Japanese commercial for a lemony sports beverage called Pocari Sweat («Hey team — let's Pocari!»). Larry was getting bored with TV and had just entered the world of rock management and had connected Susan to Chris. The match had its pluses and minuses. Chris had money and Susan did not. Her earnings from her years in TV had been squandered and lost by her mother and stepfather, a fact that she had laboriously kept out of the media. Also, Chris was gay, information that would surely have given surprise to his head-banging musical constituency. Above all, Susan was still in love with the Catholic, divorce-phobic Larry Mortimer. While once it had been easy to find reasons to be around Larry, now Susan needed a better pretext — marrying Chris to land him a green card restored her to Larry's inner-circle. The green-card deal with Chris seemed like just the ticket, and for a while it worked. But when Chris wasn't touring, he lived in London. Susan stayed in California, the partnerless weeks and months adding up across the years. She lived by herself most of the time, in Chris's Space Needle—like orb atop a pole that had the distinct aura of having been handed down from a long succession of emotionally adolescent, newly monied entertainment people. It had filthy shag carpets in longdiscontinued colors, appliances that probably hadn't worked since the dawn of TV dinners, and the impending sensation that the Monkees would pop in through a window at any moment and burst into song. In the Space Needle, Susan realized that the phone really didn't ring too often, and when it did, it was for Chris. Any scripts Larry sent her were for titty flicks. Their phone calls were many: «Oh, come on, Larry. We can do better than this. How hard can it be to land a TV movie?» «You're rock and roll now, Sue. You need to be a Young Mom for TV movies. You know — two kids — those new minivans people are driving. Fridge magnets. People read about you and Chris and the rest of those gorillas trashing a Ramada on a tour and it scares them off.» «I'm unbankable, Larry. Say it.» «You're crazy. I send you a dozen scripts a week.» «Slashers and titties.» «That's not true. They're entry points.» «Entry to nowhere. I'm stereotyped as either the sucky little Bloom daughter or the slutty rock bitch.» «I'm not going to have this conversation, Susan, because it goes nowhere.» «Don't hang up, Larry.» «Take acting lessons. Karate. Put on that blue lace number you wore for me down in Laguna Niguel and give Chris a peek. It's so hot, he'll switch.» «You liked that negligée?» «Liked? Ooh — Susan.» «I looked hot in it? You didn't act like it.» «I've got worries.» Larry went quiet. After a while, Susan said, «Can you come over tonight?» No answer. «Good-bye, Larry.» She slammed down the receiver and it rang almost simultaneously; she picked up the phone and barked, «Hel lo.» «Suzie, if you're going to be such a shit about a simple little ringy-dingy, then I needn't waste my time here.» «Hey, Chris. Larry's being a jerk. Where are you?» «At a chic little Kensington soirée, and it's so lofty I feel faint. I'm hiding in the library right now.» «Whose party is it, Chris?» «Guess.» «I'm not in the mood to — » «Think “palace.” » «No!» «Yes.» «Oh God. Oh God. I can't believe I'm going to ask you the question I'm about to ask: what's She wearing?» Susan's preoccupation with Larry's dwindling role in her life, for the moment, was deflected. «Steal me a pair of Her shoes and I'll never de-alphabetize your tapes ever again.» Chapter Six

Two weeks after John had left Cedars-Sinai, he was physically restored, but his old life and its trappings felt archaic, slightly silly, and woefully inadequate to meet the changes he felt inside — as if he were now expected to play CDs on a wobbly old turntable with a blunt needle. He kept trying to see his life as Susan saw it, or rather, how his life might seem to the woman in his vision, whose identity remained unknown. He was thumping out tuneless rhythms as he walked through the fuck-hut's slate and aluminum walls. Yes, he was experiencing a type of freedom associated with no longer caring about keeping up the appearance of wealth, but with this freedom came a rudderless sensation, one that made him giddy, the way he'd felt as a child as he waited for week upon agonizing week for the postman to deliver a cardboard submarine he'd sent away for — a device that had promised to take him far away into a fascinating new realm, but which upon arrival was revealed to be as substantial and as well constructed as a bakery's cardboard cake box. But ahhh , the waiting had been so wonderfully sweet. The sun had set. Another day was over. He'd spent the morning speaking with a lawyer inquiring about his will. He'd spent the afternoon at City Hall doing some paperwork. He was still thumping when the doorbell ran (two bars of Phillip Glass). It was the twins Melody had promised. He sighed and buzzed them into his polished-steel atrium. «I'm Cindy,» said the sister in the pink angora sweater with bare midriff. «And I'm Krista,» said the other in green. They looked at each other, smiled, and overstated the obvious: «We're twins!» «Yeah, yeah.» He showed them the living room with its suede walls and panoramic windows exposing a constellational view of the city lights below. «Can I fetch you drinks?» he asked, inwardly noting how many times he'd asked this same antique question. The girls exchanged looks. «Just one,» said Krista. «That's all we're allowed,» added Cindy. «Jack Daniels if you have it. With maraschino cherries. I just adore them.» «Why just one drink?» John asked. More looks were exchanged: «We've heard you can be demanding,» said Cindy, to which Krista added, «We're going to need our wits here.» «Wits?» said John. «Oh God,relax. Sit down. Look at the view. I don't want anything. Wait. Yes I do. I just want to talk.» «That's okay. We get that all the time,» said Krista. «What — guys who only want to talk?» «No. More like guys who don't want to feel like they're consorting with hell-bound floozies, who believe that a cozy chat beforehand will absolve them of moral contagion.» John looked at Krista:«Absolve them of moral contagion?» «I'm an educated woman,» said Krista. Cindy said, «Krista,don't. » «Don't what ?» asked John. There was a pause: «Don't be smart.» «Why not?» John asked. «It's a turnoff to customers.» John howled. «You can't be serious!» Krista said, «Mention politics or use a big word and a guy deflates like a party balloon.» «Now you've done it,» said Cindy. «You've done nothing, » said John. «I've got a degree in organic chemistry,» said Krista. «That's the study of molecules containing carbon.» «Thank you, Madame Curie,» said John. «What about you, Cindy, what do you have a degree in?» «Hot nourishing lunches,» Krista inserted quickly. «I have a degree in nutrition. Florida State University, class of '97.» «Phone the Nobel Committee,» said Krista. «Krista, just can it, okay?» «So what are you two baccalaureates doing in a fuckhouse like Melody's? There must be test kitchens all over America begging for a team like you two.» «Very amusing, Mr. Johnson,» said Krista. «We both want to act. In high school I did Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat — in drag, no less.» John's heart was sinking. «I'm good. So's Cindy. And this kind of thing just pays the bills.» «Look,» said John, «you've gotta know that if you hump one of us producer guys, you've humped all of us — which means there's probably all kinds of other junk you've done that the Enquirer 's going to zoom in on like a smart bomb the moment you get a walk-on part in a cable-access slasher. You won't even get a job as a body double in a Cycle dog food commercial.» «We'll take that risk.» «Okay,» said John. «You guys want to do some acting tonight?» Cindy winked at Krista: «Sure. And by the way,Bel Air PI was great. I saw it three times in a row in Pensacola this spring after my wisdom teeth got yanked.» «How do you want us to act, Mr. Johnson?» «Oh Jesus. How about normal. » This remark drew a blank. «Normal?» Cindy asked. «Like housewives? Like people who live in Ohio or something?» «No. Be yourselves. Talk to me like I'm a person, not a customer.» «We can do that,» said Krista, communicating with Cindy in what appeared to be their personal Morse of winks. «Yes — let's.» And so the three of them sipped drinks and watched the city lights for a moment or two. «My panties feel too tight,» said Cindy. «And my sweater's too hot,» added Krista. «I'm so hot. I'm going to have to remove my sweater.» «Cut!» John was upset. «I don't mean normal dirty talk. I mean normal. Like we're talking in a restaurant and there's no possibility of sex.» The twins had heard rumors at Melody's about some of John's kinkier scenes. Maybe this was how they started out. «I'm going to freshen your drinks,» John said, «and then you're going to tell me about yourselves. How you got to where you are now. Your life if it was a movie.» «More like a beauty pageant,» called Cindy as John jiggled with bottles and crystal glasses. «I was Miss Dade County,» said Krista. «And I was Miss United Fruit Growers,» added Cindy. «And we were both Junior Miss Florida Panhandle,» continued Krista. «One year apiece, one right after the other, but because we're twins people weren't sure if we were technically the same person.USA Today did a thing on us. It's real scary how evil the pageant circle is.» «Tell me,» John said, returning with the drinks. «Oh! Where to begin?» said Cindy. «At birth, I guess. The important thing is to have a hungry unfulfilled mother who needs a piece of herself up there on the winner's dais being bathed in adulation. There's no such thing as a child star by herself. Child stars exist only in conjunction with a stage mother. Earth and sun.» «We really lucked out in that department,» said Krista. «In her sophomore year at U. of F., Mom got the heave-ho from Godspell, and she vowed to wreak vengeance on the state of Florida. We're her weapons.» Said Cindy: «You have to have a mother pushing you the whole way from, like, two onward. For most of us show dogs, we're not even aware of how distorted and grimly fucked up we are until it's too late. They have to get you when you're young.» «And your mom has to buy and make you, like, a thousand little outfits a year,» said Krista, «and your mother has to make you dress like a stripper at the age of, like, five.» «Some parents will do anything. There's this actress out there — Susan — oh — what's her name, Kris? She's in the Where-Are-They-Now? file — the one who disappeared for a year.» «Colgate. Susan Colgate,» Krista answered. «Yeah. In junior high her parents moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, just to improve their chances of being able to represent an entire state in the national competitions. Yeah — Miss Wyoming. Ha!» «Missed her,» said John. «I don't pay attention to TV. It turned to trash in the eighties. I stopped watching it, period.» Music then swirled through the room's air — horns and jazz, and the lights dimmed to candle strength. «The lights are on a timer,» John said, but it didn't matter, because the room became smaller, the air charged like summer's eve, and the three of them clinked the ice that remained in their glasses. The sisters began to remove their angoras. «No, don't,» John said. «No. Let's keep it perfect.» And the girls said, «Fine.» «Come work for me,» he said. «What?» came the reply in stereo. «Be my assistants. I need help right now.» There was a pause. Krista said, «I don't know, Mr. Johnson.» «No. No. It's not a sex thing. I swear, no sex. You guys are smart and ambitious,» John said. «Is that what you look for in assistants?» Krista asked. «Fuck, yes. Smartness, hipness, alertness, greed and speed.» Krista continued: «Is this how you normally hire assistants?» «Nahhh. What I normally do is put ads in the paper advertising Eames furniture at ridiculously low prices.» «That's that 1950s stuff, isn't it?» asked Cindy. «Bingo. It's this furniture designed for poor people, but poor people never liked it, and the only people who know about it or care about it are rich or smart. So anybody who answers that ad really quickly is de facto smart, alert, greedy and hip.» «What's Melody going to say?» asked Cindy. «Mel has two ugly little brats I helped put through Dartmouth and Neufchâtel. She owes me.» «But then what about, say, the salary?» «See — I was right. You're a little bit greedy,» at which point the girls quickly huffed up and their spines straightened. «Relax. In the film business it's a compliment.» «So what do you want?» Cindy asked. «Truth be told,» John said, «the one thing in this world I want more than anything else is a great big crowbar, to jimmy myself open and take whatever creature that's sitting inside and shake it clean like a rug and then rinse it in a cold, clear lake like up in Oregon, and then I want to put it under the sun to let it heal and dry and grow and sit and come to consciousness again with a clear and quiet mind.» The CD player clicked and purred as it changed albums, and Cindy and Krista kept their bodies still. Cindy said, «Okay. I'll work for you.» Krista said, «Me, too. I'm in.» John said, «Good,» and music came on, Edvard Grieg, a flute solo. «What's going to be your next move then — John?» asked Krista. «I'm going to liquidate myself.» «Like going offshore or something? Taxes?» asked Cindy. «No. I'm going to erase myself. I'm going to stop being me.» John saw the look on the twins' faces, and it wasn't fear, but neither was it comprehension. «No. Not suicide. But suicide's cousin. I want to disappear.» «You've lost me,» said Cindy. «I'm going to start my own witness relocation program.» «Help us out here, John.» «It's easy. I don't want to be me anymore. I think I've gone as far as I can go in this body.» «In this body?» «Yeah.» «Who gets your money?» Cindy asked. «Probably the IRS.» «Who gets your residuals and your copyrights?» «I don't know. Crack babies. Jerry's Kids. Something like that. That's a detail. Think of the bigger picture here.» He would be gone. Completely. He would no longer be John Lodge Johnson. He would be — nobody — he would have nothing: no money, no name, no history, no future, no hungers — he would merely be this sensate creature walking the country's burning freeways, its yawning malls, its gashes of wilderness, its lightning storms, its factories and its dead spaces. «Ladies, my atom's stopped spinning. The twitching barnyard animal lies silent in a heap. The machine has stopped. » Cindy and Krista made ooh … noises. Two drinks later, John, Cindy and Krista were going through John's house, with Cindy pushing a SmarteCarte and Krista holding a clipboard on which she recorded each item John tossed into a box on the cart, the contents bound for the local Goodwill drop box. «DKNY blazer. Unworn. Charcoal.» «Check.» «Prada slacks, cocoa. Unworn.» «Check.» «Where'd you get a SmarteCarte?» Cindy asked. «Stole it from SeaTac Airport up in Seattle. I've spent so much on those goddamn things over the years — I put the SmarteCarte children through beauty school. They owed me one after all this time.» Cindy said, «You seem to put a lot of people through a lot of things, John.» The doorbell rang — it was his business partner, Ivan McClintock, with his wife, Nylla. John buzzed them in and called from upstairs, Ivan and Nylla climbed a series of chilly aluminum slabs that led up to the bedrooms. «John-O?» «We're in here, Ive.» The couple rounded a corner. «Guys, this is Krista and Cindy. Gals, this is Ivan and Nylla. Ivan and I have been making movies ever since we both had acne.» The group exchanged hellos, and the work of emptying John's wardrobes of conspicuously expensive clothing continued. «See anything you want, Ivan?» John asked, holding out a nest of ties. Ivan was doing his best to keep his cool. «Our styles are opposite, John-O. That's why we make a good team.» Nylla, pregnant and wrapped in one of her trademark silk shawls, asked, «John, Melody called Ivan at work and then me at home. She said you were making plans to — .» She paused. «Erase yourself or something. Something radical.» John was silent. Nylla persevered. «So what's the score?» A TV-sized Tiffany box full of enema tools clattered down from an upper shelf, bouncing on the sisal flooring and rattling onto the white limestone hallway. «Why don't we go downstairs?» John said to Ivan and Nylla. From the landing, he shouted back, «Remember gals-every thing goes.» They went into the living room. It was night outside. Ivan and Nylla drank in the view. «I never get tired of looking at the city, John-O. It's like we're flying over it, about to land at LAX.» «It's like upside-down stars,» said Nylla. John handed Ivan a scotch with branch water. Nylla took cranberry juice. Ivan said, «Melody phoned. She told me about your name change application.» «She narcked?» Nylla said, «Oh, don't be so corny. Of course she did. She's worried sick about you. We all are.» Ivan burst in. «Fortunately between me and Mel we have enough contacts at City Hall to retrieve your forms, no harm done.» «John,» said Nylla, «You were going to change your name to “dot”?» «Not “dot” — just a simple period. When I filed my Change of Name affidavit at City Hall, they told me I had to use at least one keyboard stroke. A period is the smallest amount of ink and space a name can be.» Ivan put his drink on a glass-block table and made I-told-you-so eyes at Nylla. «There's more, Ivan. I'm going to renounce my citizenship.» «Oh, John-O, that is a lousy idea — it's — it's — un-American.» «What country do you want to be a citizen of, then?» asked Nylla. The three sat themselves down on Ultrasuede couches in John's high-tech conversation pit. John clapped his hands and the fire started. «I don't want to be a citizen of any where, Ny.» «Can you do that?» she asked. «I mean, be a citizen of no where?» «I don't know. I'm seeing an immigration lawyer tomorrow. I'm wondering if I can get citizenship in Antarctica.» «Antarctica?» said Ivan. «Yeah. It's not like it has a king or queen or president or anything. I want to give it a try.» «I think Antarctica's presliced into pieces from the South Pole outward,» said Nylla, «and a different country regulates each slice. So maybe not there. Maybe you can get citizenship in a country that's so useless it's almost the same thing as being stateless. Some country that only exists when the tide's out.» «Nylla,» Ivan interrupted, «you're only feeding his bullshit idea.» «It's not bullshit, Ivan,» John said. «How about Pitcairn Island?» Nylla suggested. «One square mile in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, the most remote inhabited place on earth.» «My wife the Jeopardy champion.» «England owns it,» said John. «I checked.» Ivan asked listlessly, «How about one of those African countries held together with Scotch tape and Popsicle sticks?» «I'm considering them, too.» «John-O — if you renounce your U.S. citizenship, you'll have no protection. With citizenship, the U.S. government can step in and help you wherever you go. And besides, you'll always have your Social Security number no matter what else happens.» «Not if I renounce my citizenship. I do know that.» Ivan was sulky: «Just try renting a car with no credit card and a passport from Upper Volta.» «It's called Benin now,» said Nylla. Ivan glowered her way: «Please phrase your answer in the form of a question.» «Ivan, you're getting distracted. You're missing the spirit of the thing. I won't be wanting to rent cars anymore. I'll be completely gone. » «You're really pushing me with this new hobo kick, John-O. Sleeping in rain culverts and stealing fresh clothes from laundry lines is going to wear thin awful quickly.» «Ivan, let me pitch it to you: This is the road we're talking about — the romance of the road. Strange new friends. Adventures every ten minutes. Waking up each morning feeling like a wild animal. No crappy rules or smothering obligations.» Ivan was appalled. «The road is over, John-O. It never even was. You're thinking like a kid behind a Starbucks counter sneaking peeks at his Kerouac paperback and writing “That's so true!” in the margins. And if nothing else, Doris is freaked out by this totally.» «You told my mother ?» «Of course.» John paused. «Another drink, Ivan?» As he looked for ice cubes in the kitchen's two deep freezes, John considered Ivan and Nylla. He heard them talking back in the living room. They were now discussing carpeting: prices per square yard,World Book Encyclopedia —style. «I want the good type,» said Ivan, «the kind that looks like pearl barley packed together. Really smooth.» «But if the wool's too smooth, it looks like Orlon. It needs character. A bit of sheep dung mixed into it maybe.» «We're going to have Beverly Hills's first Hanta virus carpet?» «Sheep don't get Hanta virus. Just rodents, I think. And raccoons.» John listened in and ached to have somebody to discuss rugs and raccoons with. He felt intact but worthless, like a chocolate rabbit selling for 75 percent off the month after Easter. But it went beyond that, too. He felt contaminated, that his blood stream carried microscopic loneliness viruses, like miniscule fish hooks, just waiting to inflect somebody dumb enough to attempt intimacy with him. His mind wandered. There had to be hope — and there was. He remembered the woman in his hospital vision had made him feel that somewhere on the alien Death Star of his heart lay a small, vulnerable entry point into which he could deploy a rocket, blow himself up and rebuild from the shards that remained. In the second freezer John found the ice cubes clumped frozen together inside a sky blue plastic bag. He opened up the bag and tried to pry a few cubes away from the lump. Daydreaming, he wondered if he could ever be unselfconsciously chatty and loose with someone. If Ivan=Nylla, then John=blank. Maybe his mother Doris's years of prayers had begun to inch their way onto God's «To Do» list:Dear Lord, please take care of the late Piers Wyatt Johnson, a king among men. Also bless the pesticide industry, our boys in Vietnam, (still, even at the century's end)and please find a nice young wife for John, preferably one who doesn't mind the smell of cigarette smoke, which is so hard to find in California… . He heard Krista and Cindy come downstairs and begin chatting with Ivan, then returned his attention to the ice. He lifted up the bag of fused ice cubes and dropped it, shattering its contents into individual cubes. The noise was fearsome, and Ivan called from the living room asking if John was okay, and John called back, «Fine — couldn't be better,» and it was easy to take as many cubes as he liked. Chapter Seven

Standing alone on the sidewalk, John watched the police car drive Susan away. He was as still as a statue as the sun went down behind the hill. Had he left a car at the restaurant? No, Nylla had dropped him off there. So he decided to walk the rest of the way home. Home was temporary digs in Ivan's guesthouse, the house he grew up in and in which his mother still lived. John had been staying there since his return two months earlier from his disastrous experiment in hobodom. He headed along Sunset Boulevard and was oblivious to the stares of passing drivers, many of whom punctuated their cell phone calls with such comments as: * «Good Lord — it's John Johnson — walking — yes, that's right, with his feet — on Sunset!» * «Yow, he looks like crap — what were the numbers on Mega Force in the end? — yeee — that much?» * «Maybe he's doing his walking thing again — I mean, he looks like a Mexican gonna sell you a bag of oranges at a streetlight for a dollar.» * «Yes, I'm absolutely sure it's him — he looks really thin, or should I say, not sort of bloated like he was before detox number 239.» * «Wasn't he in the hospital? — pneumonia? AIDS? — no, if it was, we'd all know.» * «Maybe he's gone and found God again. Whatta case.» Ivan spotted John from his Audi and pulled over just past the corner at Gretna Green. «John-O, what the fuck are you doing? Hop in.» «Ivan, what do you know about Susan Colgate?» «Susan Colgate? TV — rock and roll. Get in the car and I'll tell you. Jesus, you smell like the carpet in a Gold's Gym changing room.» «I walked here from the Ivy.» «The Ivy? That's, like, a jeezly number of miles away.» «Ivan, what do you know about Susan Colgate?» Ivan cut the car back into traffic. «Later. Later. Did you see the weekend numbers from France and Germany? Whoosh!» «Ivan — » John was firm: «Susan Colgate.» «Everybody in town is going to think you've gone crazy again. Walking. On Sunset, no less. Shit.» «I don't care, Ivan.Susan. » «What — you want to, uh, cast her in a movie ?» «Maybe.» «You're gonna make her a star ?» They both laughed. Ivan pulled the Audi into his driveway, entered a code into his dash panel, releasing the gate. They drove through, depositing the car by the front steps instead of the garage. They got out. Ivan stopped and grabbed John's arm before he walked down the hill to the guesthouse. «God, whatta gorgeous day, John-O. Look at the light coming through that mimosa tree. It looks backlit, like it's on Demerol.» Both men sat down on the front entryway's limestone pavers and watched the late afternoon's solar aureoles around the plants and birds and insects of Ivan's garden. «Where were you coming from just now?» John asked. «Temple, temple, temple.» «Three times a week still?» «Sí.» The sprinklers kicked in by a dahlia patch. Ivan said, «So you're in love, then, John-O? With Susan Colgate — ha!» «I'm in …need. Desperate need.» «Where'd you meet?» «The Ivy. Today.» «Lunch? Today?» He whistled. «That's a quick turnaround.» «A half-year ago in Cedars when I, you know — she's who I saw when I died.» Ivan's body locked upon hearing this. «Now,John-O — I thought you were over that stuff.» «Over what, Ivan? I have no regrets, but what I did only took me so far. But Susan — she's it. She's gotta be the one.» Ivan was both worried that John was relapsing back into his despondency of the months before, and slightly excited at the idea his friend might be making an emotional connection, something he'd never done before. «What do you know about her, John-O?» «That's what I've been asking you. » «I think her agent's Adam Norwitz. She was with Larry Mortimer until a few years ago. An ugly split. She stalked him. And I don't think she's worked since the grunge era. Say, 1994. A slasher flick? No, wait, it's some new one — Dynamite Bay? I'm glad for you, but I've gotta say up front, John-O, she's real C-list. She can't act her way out of a paper bag.» «Ivan, you ought to know not to slag somebody's loved one to his face.» «Loved one?» «Word games.» They heard steps behind them — Nylla, holding a silent baby. «Having our funzies out here on the front steps, are we, boys?» «Hey, Nylla.» «John, hello. Will you be eating with us in the big house tonight?» «Nah. Thanks. I'm having Metrecal and celery with Ma down at the house.» «Congratulations on the French numbers over the weekend. Ooh-lah-lah.» «We did okay over there?» «John-O, I tried to tell you back when I picked you up at Gretna Green. Hey Nylla, guess what — John-O's in love! Lovesy-dovesy. Susan Colgate.» «Susan Colgate!» said Nylla. «Oh John, that's so weird. So exciting. I used to love her in that old show of hers,Meet the Blooms. » John's face confirmed the truth. «Well, I must say,» smiled Nylla, «nature works in mysterious ways to get us to propagate the species.» «They met at Ivy today at lunch.» Ivan couldn't contain himself. She's the woman I saw in my out of body experience when I was laid up in Cedars.» The smile muscles on Nylla's face changed like a tide, ebbing from real into phony. «Well then.Really now,» she trailed off. Ivan, sitting behind John, shot her a worried glance. «Be true to your heart. You two want to come in for a drink?» «I'm in. You, John-O?» «Nah. I'm going to go phone Adam Norwitz.» «Adam — » said Nylla. «Say hello for me. He represented me for about six minutes a few years ago.» «Hey. I was talking to his agency today,» said Ivan. «His number's still in my cell's memory.» He pulled out his cell phone and punched some digits. Two seconds later he said, «Adam Norwitz, please. John Johnson calling.» He handed the phone to John. «Here.» John gave Ivan the hairy eyebrow and took the phone. «Hello, Adam?» Adam was on: «John Johnson . Good to meet you today. How can I help you? And congrats again on Mega Force .» «Yeah, yeah, thanks. Hey, Adam, I need a home number from you. Susan's.» Adam hemmed and hawed as though his morals were in serious conflict. «Adam, don't give me that discretion routine. I need Susan's phone number.» «I'm not sure if I can …» «It's personal, not business. Call and ask her if it's okay if you want. And I'll owe you a big favor.» «Of course I'll give you her number. But it's not» — he rustled some papers into the phone's receiver — «right here right now. Give me five minutes, okay?» «Five minutes or no deal.» They hung up. Adam immediately called Susan's line and got her machine, where he left a message: «Susan! Swimming with the big fish now, are we? None other than your strolling companion John Johnson just phoned asking me for your number. He says it's personal.Hmmmmm. Well, just so you know, I'm going to phone back right now and give it to him. A protocol breach, but that's what I'm here for. And phone me, why don't you, and let me in on the buzz. I'm on cell all night. Bye.» Adam called back John and gave him Susan's number, which John wrote on the back of one of Ivan's business cards. He hung up. Ivan and Nylla stared at him. «Yes?» said John. «Call her,» said Nylla. «What, with you guys here?» «Yes, with us guys here.» John dialed and got Susan's answering machine. He whispered the words «answering machine» to Ivan and Nylla. And then he left a message: «Susan, it's John — Johnson. I hope you got home okay. Man, was it ever hot today and — oh jeez, I'm stuttering into your machine.» He paused to gather his thoughts. «Well, you know what I feel like today? It's like this: the last little while I've been feeling as if — as if I've come back from a long trip away — and I've been continuing on with my life again, but it's only today that I realized something went missing while I was gone. And I think it's you, and I want to see you again so badly I think I'm going blind. So call me.» He left his number. Nylla's eyes were beginning to tear. «Come inside and eat with us,» Nylla asked. «Please,» she added. The baby woke up and screamed. «I'll ask Doris, too.» And so John went inside to eat with Ivan and Nylla. Half a year ago, just as John left the city and became a dharma bum, the couple had had a daughter, MacKenzie. She wailed like a crack baby and had a cluster of medical firestorms that had left Ivan and Nylla frazzled, but especially Nylla. Sleepless nights and worries had made her a soccer mom, and Ivan was converting into a soccer dad. Their kitchen was a shambles and all the more pleasant for it. «Watch where you sit,» said Nylla. «I think Mac might have had a minor exorcism on that seat.» «Help us choose a name for the next one,» said Ivan. «No!» said John. «Congratulations.» Nylla rolled her eyes. «I feel like somebody's science project.» Ivan said, «I like the name Chloris — what do you think of Chloris — if it's a girl?» Before John could reply, Nylla asked, «Can Borgnine be a first name if you want it to be one?» «How about Tesh,» suggested John. «It'd work for both.» «Merveilleux!» Nylla spoke French. And so the two parents once again lapsed into banter and John pulled himself away ever so slightly.This is what Ivan wanted, thought John. This is a salve for him — his ability to lose himself in a family. And for Nylla, too. The year before, Ivan and Nylla had been like best friends, but now they were absolutely husband and wife. They were content with themselves and with the place their lives had landed. Their train had stopped and this is where they'd hopped off. John wouldn't dare mention to them the depression he felt when Ivan had told him he was getting married. It was a few years ago, during the emotionally murky period after having two films flop, and their industry currency had been much devalued. To John, two flops meant a time to change and evolve and go forward — but Ivan had chickened out. He'd invented himself as much as he was ever going to. He was going to take the Full Meal Deal and fade away and make medium-budget teen movies that opened big the first weekend and then died of bad word-of-mouth. It was like a slap to John, who had wanted to go on and on, reinventing himself, and had continued to try doing so. John suspected that his recent crack-up was precipitated by being, if not abandoned by Ivan, then certainly relegated to second place. He felt selfish even thinking about it, and tried to put it out of mind. But John did want to reinvent himself, still. Even at thirty-seven, after his castastrophic fuckup. John loved Ivan and Nylla, and he valued the world they'd built for themselves. Yet he knew that fairly soon, there in the kitchen, after Mac was given to the nanny and hauled upstairs, Nylla would gently grill John about Susan Colgate. She'd be careful not to dwell on the negative — his recent past — and then both she and Ivan would try to steer John closer to the road's center. John wasn't without hesitations in his feelings for Susan. He'd followed his instincts in big ways before, but with his two flop movies and his Kerouac routine, it seemed his instincts now only failed him despite Mega Force's current stamina. Yet with Susan he felt only pure emotion. There was nothing strategic about the attraction. It was a rush of feelings that could only be satisfied by establishing further closeness. He wouldn't make money from his feelings. He wouldn't achieve cosmic bliss — he would only be …closer to Susan. MacKenzie began to bellow like a Marine World exhibit, and Nylla and Ivan carted her up to her nursery. John picked up TV Guide and scanned its pages trying to locate reruns of Meet the Blooms, growing frustrated as he was unable to locate any.

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