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Chapter Twelve

Susan felt the heat from the cooling cheeseburgers slithering from the trash bag beside her. Having recovered from the explosive clamp of the dumpster's lid, her ears now registered her own slow breathing and the rustle of the bagged trash looming above her like a potential Nerf avalanche. The smell — that was the strongest sensation, sickly sweet — ketchup, buns, fish, beef and potato mingled with their greases and liquids, varnishing the metal beneath her shoes. There was no light, and in its absence, the shapes she touched burst forth on her fingertips like crippled fireworks. She was hungry, but her repulsion for the dead food overrode her hunger. She tried shrinking herself, like a bird caught inside a house. And then she relaxed. A bit. She tried to make a seat for herself, batting her hands out into the trash bags and locating a springy one full of paper cups, foam clamshell containers and paper napkins. She sat on the bag in her corner. The smells around her were not diminishing, and her nose refused to acclimatize the way it would around a barnyard's manure. The smell wasn't enough to gag her, but it refused to be ignored. Her hunger grew worse, but the thought of eating one of the burgers cooling around her made her retch. She was thirsty, and the energy bars in her travel bag tasted like paste and required water to eat. She reached for her bag — her bag! She'd dropped it onto the concrete under the dumpster when the workers came by. She warbled with regret. Hours passed. Now she was unbearably hungry. She crumbled, and reached for one of the unsold burgers, its heat gone, recognizable as new only because of its wrapping. She ate it with as much gusto as she might eat Styrofoam packing peanuts. Her mouth felt like the inside of a catcher's mitt. She ripped open the bag beneath her and rooted through its contents until she came upon a waxed paper cup containing drink remnants. She found a dash of Orange Crush happily diluted with melted ice cubes and downed it in one swig. She rummaged more, culling inert french fries, packets of honey-mustard dipping sauce, prickly drinking straws and smudged napkins.Presto! An almost full medium-sized Diet Coke, metallic and body temperature, flat and wet. She drank it and then tossed the cup to the top of the heap. Then she needed to pee, and her hands fumbled in the trash in search of disposable commodes, two empty milkshake cups. Using folded cardboard, she built herself an impromptu shanty in the corner. For the shanty's floor she placed a buffer layer of dry garbage to insulate her from the dumpster's bottom, and to one side she built an avalanche shed, so as to be safe if the trash collapsed during the night. For a pillow she used folded cardboard, onto which she placed a bag full of crushed waxed paper cups. She was surprising herself with her adeptness at navigating inside her new world — in her new life she'd have to start at the bottom — this was her trial by fire. And so it was with a strange pride that she fell asleep, proud she could handle herself no matter what was tossed her way, and her sleep was dreamless. She was wakened with a stun-gunned jolt of fear by the industrial crash of steel on steel. Morning — a dump truck come to lift her and her new home away. She heard the locks above her being unlocked and then almost immediately the dumpster was jolted upward, and her body was compressed by the wall of trash bags that had been against the opposing wall. Her mind raced — a trash compressor — oh God. Within seconds she was upside down and drenched in trickling soda pops which percolated into her sleep nook. Then the bottom fell out of her world and she was briefly weightless while tumbling into a truck bed, pelted with waste, the morning sun blinding her. The bed was full, and mercifully it had no compressor. Feeling like Bugs Bunny, she poked her head up from her trash and looked over its edge and into the commercial strip she'd walked the night before, haloed in sunlight beaming in low from the eastern horizon. The truck moved onto an interstate with fresh, nonburger winds filling her nostrils and cleansing her hair of ketchup packets and salts and peppers. It was a long ride, and Susan lay atop the waste and felt the sun on her eyelids. The truck slowed down, changed gears, stopped, started, made various turns and then rumbled onto the dirt of a sanitary landfill. Trucks around her were beeping as they maneuvered themselves in reverse gear, as did Susan's. Its bed tilted up, up, then up some more, and yet again Susan felt weightless, scrambling up the dumping trash as though she were a monkey walking up a down escalator. She finally came to rest on the crown of a crest of a heap of trash. Sun — warmth — freedom. She could only see trucks, not people, and she walked down and through the cones of junk, seemingly groomed but utterly filthy. She came across a scarecrow for seagulls. She stole its mantle, a men's XL down ski jacket with felt pen stains around its hem, and small castanet of sporty ski lift tags chattering on its zipper. Inside its chest pocket was a pair of bad, cheap aviator glasses of the sort found in dime stores. She put them on. She swept her hair back and left the dump, smiling. She headed toward Indiana. Chapter Thirteen

The day John chose for his walkout, he didn't wake up in the morning knowing that would be the day. Rather, he felt a twinge — 10:30A .M. in the Staples parking lot, while closing the door of his Saab under a rainless sky — and realized the time was now. His soul creaked just a bit, like a house shifting off its foundation just ever so. It felt to him like the moment once a year when he smelled the air and knew fall is here; or like the moment when a tamed animal bites its master's hand and reverts to the wild. He shut the car door, and the annoying sonic blinks from inside stopped. Cindy and Krista had liquidated his chattels and were off once again to pursue their acting careers. He had $18.35 in his wallet, which he placed in the Muscular Dystrophy can by the cashier's till at Staples. He tucked his wallet, containing his driver's license, his credit cards, his various unmemorizable access code numbers, as well as home and studio security card swipes, discreetly inside a littered KFC box, which he dropped in a trash bin. He was wearing a blue cotton button-down dress shirt, a previously unworn pair of cocoa («Never chocolate,» as twin Cindy had informed him) slacks and a pair of shiny black loafers Melody had given him on a distant birthday. He removed his wristwatch and placed it on a bus stop bench. He wore no jewelry. He remembered his vision of Susan, its clarity and conviction. This reminded him of how he felt when he'd been called up onstage to receive his high school diploma. It had been years since he'd been sick or weak. Beneath his robe he was almost acrobatic with good health as members of the good-looking-girl-clique in the crowd behind him gave him cheeky squeals of reassurance that he was in fact a new person crossing a new line. He had the giddy sensation that came with knowing a part of his life was absolutely over and something assuredly more marvelous lay ahead. He walked east, and an hour later was soaked in sweat.Food. It was time to eat and rest. Some blocks ahead was a Burger King, and once inside, it dawned on John that he was moneyless, so he asked for and received a glass of water while he tried to make a dining decision. A quick glance at his reflection in a counterside mirror reminded him that he hadn't shaved that day, and was now entering that small pocket of time in which he would look raffish, and soon after that, unmedicated. «Can I help you, sir?» asked the manager with an air of understaffedness. «Not just yet. Thanks.» Staying any longer was pointless. In his enthusiasm to run away, he'd skipped over the subject of food, assuming that it would somehow just appear. Walking away from the restaurant's chilled cube of air, he couldn't help but notice the colorful composts of uneaten food that filled its numerous cans, and as he continued his eastward trek, he realized he'd have to quickly invent some sort of nutritious idea. The sun peaked and quickly fell to the horizon. The thrumming of cars was constant. It grew dark. The neighborhoods he passed through were consistently deteriorating, and soon even the fast food and gas outlets vanished. He was sweaty and thirsty and knew that by now he must be looking rather strange. He wondered how long his $150 haircut would keep him looking like Joe Citizen. His stomach cramped with hunger and dehydration. A mile farther, at a road junction he spotted a McDonald's. At least there he could shit and wash and devise a food plan. Knowing this, his steps resumed their earlier bounce, and in the McDonald's men's room he sploshed his deranged face with tap water and then entered the main dining area, occupied by a few seniors, three borderline homeless cases and a sullen clump of Asian teens busy flouting California's nonsmoking laws. The counter staff were almost medically, clinically bored, and listened to John's request for water as if he were a dial tone. But he received a glass of water, which bought him time, and then,eureka! — the teenagers took off, and in their wake left a Yosemite campground's worth of meal trash. Quickly, under the guise of muttering his moral outrage, he took the food trays and their remnants and stuck them into trash bins, carefully leaving behind the juiciest chunks of burgers, fries and nuggets, which he placed onto a paper place mat, folded up, and carried out of the restaurant like a disco purse. Outside, he scoured the vicinity looking for a place to eat and chose a small concrete piling behind the restaurant, by some rangy oleander shrubs overlooking the dumpsters and utility hookups encased in wire fencing. A helicopter flew overhead. He ate his food and then found a place to lie down, behind the oleanders, a spot free of urine, scraping together a pillow of bark chips that made his forearms itch. He smelled something oily. He felt the heartburnt wooziness of having taken the wrong carnival ride. At midnight the McDonald's lights went off. John watched two staffers come out back, fill the dumpster with plump white bags, and lock up the caged area. Like a coyote, he caught himself looking for any stray bits of food they might have dropped. Before he fell asleep, he figured the night staff would still be sleeping when the morning employees arrived to open up, and so wouldn't recognize the mumbling transient with a Fred Flintstone five o'clock shadow. John was a noble fool. His plan to careen without plans or schedules across the country was damned from the start. He was romantic and naïve and had made pathetically few plans. He thought some corny idea to shed the trappings of his life would deepen him, regenerate him — make him king of fast-food America and its endless paved web. Each day John felt dirtier and more repulsive. He stank. He'd tried to wash his underwear in a gas-station sink using granulated pink industrial soap, and he'd put it out across the top of a fence to dry, but it had blown onto a mound of sawdust on the other side. He learned how to avoid the police. He slept in hedges. He continued wandering east, neighborhood by neighborhood, out into the fringes of Los Angeles County. He came to hate dogs because they recognized him as a roamer and announced it with their barks. He scraped together aluminum-can money to buy — and he laughed as he did so — bourbon — cheap booze! Nice and sweet, and just as delicious and unsophisticated as the first time he'd tried it in his teens. In Fontana, a dead steel town sixty miles inland, he fulfilled Ivan's prophecy and stole laundry from a clothesline, a UPS delivery man's uniform which fit him surprisingly well. He scanned the house, and nobody was in. He jimmied the lock on a flimsy aftermarket side door. Inside, he showered, washed his hair, shaved and donned his new uniform. He bundled up his old clothing and wedged it between two plastic stacking chairs on the rear patio as he left. The UPS uniform was his ticket to respectability. With it, he was able to go almost anywhere in public, regardless of hygiene, with almost no scrutiny. It made him appear casual, industrious, sober, a charmed messenger. He made no friends, but to his surprise scored with a few women turned on by his UPS togs. He hated himself for having the experiences, not so much for their tawdriness, but because such flings felt as if they were against the rules — which made him suddenly realized he had rules, not something he'd expected. He felt moral, a distinctly new sensation. Maybe the road was changing him after all. His first tryst was with a woman — twenty-nine? thirty-two? — tense as an overstretched guitar string. She was reading a copy of Architectural Digest in the BP gas-station convenience mart. They locked eyes. John said, «I'd say the magazine started to go downhill when they shifted their focus from pure architecture to that of Homes of the Stars.» And off they went to her place nearby. She was terrifying in her need, and bayed like a stampeding elk when she saw that John wasn't wearing underwear. That night was his first sleep on a mattress in weeks, but he was promptly booted out in the morning when she left for her job processing spreadsheets at a Dean Witter office. The following night he scored again, this time with a frowzy-haired plump young mother strollering her eight-month-old past a Pottery Barn. She also lived close by, and offered John a meal afterward — lettuce and a packaged stroganoff casserole, which he ate without talking. The woman and her screaming child struck John as being so alone in the world. It hit him that his own form of loneliness was a luxury, one as chosen and as paid for as three weeks in Kenya's velds or a cherry red Ferrari. Real loneliness wasn't something an assistant scoped out and got a good price on. Real loneliness was smothering and it stank of hopelessness. John began to consider his own situation a frill. The only way he could ennoble it was to plunge further, more deeply and blindly, into his commitment to the life of the road, and garner some kind of empathy for a broader human band of emotions. The woman asked John to stay the night, but he declined, lest she become slightly attached to him and even lonelier when he left. In Riverside County he hopped a railway flatcar that carried him to Arizona under a milky night sky. The rhythm was calming and he slept, waking up to pink canyons and coral clouds. There was a fellow Nobody at the other end of the car, hovering over the car's edge to speak in sign language to an invisible friend. John made no effort to talk. It was an unwritten code among Nobodies that they not bother each other, and there were so many of them out there! Once John knew what to look for, he saw them everywhere. In the same way his brain erased telephone poles when viewing scenery, his brain had also blocked out Nobodies. Nobodies had surrendered their families, their childhoods, their jobs, their lovers, their skills, their possessions, their affections and their hopes. They were still human, but they'd become part animal, too. Two months into his trip, John was pretty much a Nobody, too. He remembered cruising with Ivan, in the old orange 260-Z, back in the UCLA days of pointless classes, sunshine, large houses filled with rock stars and no furniture, buckets of fried chicken and music that engraved itself onto his brain like script on sterling silver. They were returning from a failed party in the Valley, cresting the Hollywood Hills — Los Angeles lay before them. John had pulled the car to the side of the road and Ivan asked him what was the matter. John was silent. He had suddenly seen a glimpse of something larger than just a landscape. «John-O, c'mon, what's the deal? You're zoning on me, buddy.» «Ivan, cool down a second. Look at the city.» «Yeah. So?» «People built all of that, Ivan.People. » «Well,duh. » John tried to explain to Ivan that until then, he'd always unthinkingly assumed that the built world was something that was simply there. But now he understood that people made and maintained all of the roads as well as the convulsing pipes of sewage that ran beneath every building, as well as all the wires that carried electricity from the center of the planet into the hair dryers and TV sets and X-ray machines of Los Angeles County. And with this news came a further understanding that John himself could build something enormous and do the job just as well as anybody else could. It was a jolt of power. Ivan sort of got the picture. But not totally. John had always looked back on that moment as the one where he became a «big thinker.» But now, on the train at night, John felt as if he'd been leveled, humbled, like somebody gone back to visit the house they'd lived in as a child to find it turned shabby and unremarkable. Somewhere in Arizona the train stopped and John got off. Chapter Fourteen

Making hit movies was one of the smaller problems in John's life. Ivan handled the workaday stuff like budgets and wind machines and union haggling. John's role was to walk into a room where nothing really existed except for a few money guys who wanted a bit of glamour, a good dollar return and a few cracks at some industry sweeties. John would conjure up a spell for these Don Duncans, Norm Numbnuts and Darrens-from-Citicorp. He had to cram his aura deep, deep, deep inside their guts, spin it around like a juicer's blade, then withdraw and watch the suits ejaculate dollars. «People, this isn't about cash, this is about the American soul — it's about locating that soul and ripping it out by its root. It's about taking that root and planting it deep into the director's warm beating heart, hot pulsing blood feeding the plant, nourishing it until it flowers and gives us roses and zinnias and orchids and heliotropes and even, fuck, I don't know,antlers. And we sit and watch the blooms and we've done our part. It's the only reason we're here. We're dirt. We're crap. We're shit. But we're good shit. We're nothing but soil for the director to grow a vision. And we should be proud of it.» Usually, John would climb right up onto the meeting desk for this portion of the event. People rarely wanted details. They wanted hocus-pocus and John gave it to them. John had good hunches and he acted on them quickly, with almost alien accuracy. He believed that most people had at least a few good ideas each day, but that they rarely used them. John had no brakes. There was no lag time between his idea and its implementation. He was a film commando. Sometimes it frightened him how easily people would follow somebody who conveyed the appearance of direction or will. Bel Air PI was a reasonably low-budget buddy-cop film in which a has-been rust-belt homicide-detective-turned-PI partnered up with the mayor's daughter, a tawny renegade («Darling,» said Doris after reading the script, «your heroine is a tawny renegade. Whatever next! ») to establish a PI agency. Their first case was to search for the missing wife of a studio executive who was located in many KFC-sized pieces in an Imperial County lemon orchard. Drugs were involved. Betrayal. A final shoot-out and chase in which Cat and Dog stopped fighting each other to unite against the forces of evil and then Get It On. The movie relaunched the career of a faded seventies rock star and gave steroids to a film genre then on the wane. Almost immediately Bel Air PI 2 (Bel Air π²) was in the works, and John had drugs and dollars and pussy hurled into his lap. Bel Airπ² became a monster hit, bigger than the original, and was followed by an alien invasion thriller with a soundtrack that number one'd for five weeks, and a terrorists—occupy—Disneyland—style thriller that went ballistic in European and Japanese release but didn't work so well in North America, as copycat directors had glommed onto John's noisy, music-drenched formula. To John moviemaking wasn't formulaic. It was a way for him to create worlds wherein he could roam with infinite power far away from a personal history, free of childhood disease and phantom relatives. Wherever John went, the volume was up full. Once, John and Ivan drove John's car-of-the-month, a Bentley «the color of Grace Kelly's neck,» down to La Quinta for a Polygram executives' weekend retreat. They left the car parked in the desert while they searched for pieces of cactus skeleton Nylla wanted for her flower arranging. Once they'd been in the sun a while, John went to the car and brought back to Ivan's rock perch an armload of items. First was a laminated menu stolen from a Denny's. He rolled it into a funnel, and used it to send item number two, a half bottle of tequila, down his throat. He then reached for the third item, a rifle. He used it to fire five volleys into the car's skin, turning it into a fast, expensive sieve. Ivan yelled, «Studly!» John promptly vomited, and stopped having cars-of-the-month after that, settling on the gunshot Bentley as his distinctive final choice. John had a reputation to keep, and when he entered rooms, success and decadence swarmed about him like juicy gossip. John's one true friend across the years was Ivan. As an added bonus for Ivan, John came with a mother, Doris — a presence sorely missing in Ivan's life since his father got marriage out of his system just months after Ivan's birth. John and Doris had been living in the guesthouse for two weeks when Ivan was shipped home from an experimental boarding school near Big Sur. He'd been caught sniffing ether from an Orange Crush bottle. The ether had been stolen from the science lab by a student who traded it with Ivan for a set of puffy stereo headphones. «Why were you sniffing ether?» John asked on their first meeting, in the front hallway of the main house, the floor's stone so smooth and shiny and hard-looking that John thought that anything that dropped on it would shatter — glass, metal, feathers and diamonds. Having never been to California before, he believed he could feel the heat mending his body. «I was trying to get over something,» Ivan said. «What?» Ivan looked at this pale, scrawny, unfledged child, more ghost than body. Ivan decided from the start to take John into his confidence. He assumed that such an underdeveloped body could only harbor an overdeveloped mind. «I have this dopey paranoid fear about» — he paused — «the Ice Age.» «The Ice Age?» «Yeah.» John could hear Doris and Angus sitting in the living room, laughing away. Ivan went on. «I keep on seeing this picture. These pictures. A wall of ice like the white cliffs at Dover — scraping across Pasadena and then down Wilshire and crushing this house.» «Who told you that? It's a crock of shit. That's not the way it works. First thing that happens is that it snows — but then that snow doesn't melt over the summer. And then the next winter it snows again, and that snow doesn't melt, either. And then it snows maybe a few feet each year, and none of that melts. After a thousand years — a blink in the scheme of things — you've got a slab of ice a mile thick. But you're long gone by then. And if you were smart, you'd have moved to the equator the first year, anyway.» Ivan stood and smiled at John and from then on ceased worrying about the Ice Age. They turned and looked out at the flickering sprinklers in the yard through a small diamond-paned window. «What happened to you?» Ivan asked. «You look like you're dead or something. Like you're on a telethon.» From that point, John's body metamorphosed. He grew tall, almost brawny, but good health arrived too late in his adolescence to entrance him with team sports. He only cared about solo activities in which he could claim pure victory without the ego dilution of teams. John also stopped watching TV, superstitiously equating it with illness. John and Ivan aligned, making super-8 films as larks, the first of which was titled Doris's Saturday Night. It chronicled her cocktailed devolution from Delaware insecticide heiress elegantly tamping shreds of hard-boiled egg onto crustless toast triangles, loving the attention, then shamelessly hamming it up, becoming a haggard mal vivant gurgling fragments of sea shanties into the pipes beneath the kitchen sink. Their second film was more mundane. Angus said they needed to learn about sequencing and editing, so John and Ivan followed Angus through a typical day of work at the studio — capturing his meetings, lunches, drives around the city and a screening at night. It was edited together and shown with goofy subtitles at Angus's fiftieth birthday party under the title Film Executive Secretly Wearing a Diaper Because It Makes Him Feel Naughty, and marked their debut into the filmgoing community. John was a surprisingly confident young man, and a doer, not a thinker. This was an impulse Doris had encouraged him to hone. She didn't want John to be a Lodge in any way, and so fostered in him an enthusiasm for anything that went against the Delaware grain. She encouraged action, creativity and a strong dislike for the past. She had also talked Angus into removing Ivan from the private school system altogether, so both he and John could attend the local high school. Neither flourished, but both were happy enough there, and afterward both young men scraped their way through UCLA, spending the majority of their time making short films and chasing girls. John also experimented with cars. He bought the orange 260-Z from the proceeds of flipping successively more valuable cars, while Ivan drove a mint green Plymouth Scamp he bought from one of Angus's gardeners. When they were both twenty-four, they founded Equator Pictures, using Ivan's connections and a small loan from Angus. They quickly had their hit with Bel Air PI, making them both independently wealthy, independently powerful as well as dependent on each other. John was the unstoppable freight train. Ivan ensured that the vegetables served by craft catering were fresh, and slipped $500 to a crotchety neighbor beside a location shoot who refused to turn off his Weedwacker. One spring day, somewhere between Bel Air PI and Bel Air PI 2, John and Ivan were at an ARCO station filling up John's gunshot Bentley. 260-Z, his primary vehicle even though by now he owned the usual industry array of flash-trash cars. John said to Ivan, «I like to pump my own gas into my own car, Ivan. I always go to a self-service pump. Did I ever tell you why?» «To connect with the man in the street?» Ivan laughed. «No. Because I like to look at the numbers rev by on the gas pump. I like to pretend each number's a year. I like to watch history begin at Year Zero and clip up and up and up. Dark Ages … Renaissance … Vermeer … 1776 … Railways … Panama … zoom, zoom, zoom … the Depression … World War II … Suburbia … JFK … Vietnam … Disco … Mount St. Helens …Dynasty … and then,WHAM! We hit the wall. We hit the present.» «So what?» «This is what: there's this magic little bit of time, just a few numbers past the present year, whatever it is. Whenever I hit these years, then for maybe a fraction of a second, I can, if not see the future,feel it.» «I'm listening,» Ivan said. He was so patient with John. «It's like I get to be the first one there — in the future. I get to be first. A pioneer.» «That's what you want to be — a pioneer?» «Yes.» Ivan paused and then, with some consideration, asked, «John-O, have you checked your tire pressure?» «Nah.» Ivan got out of the car, got a pressure gauge from the attendant, and came back and checked the pressure. «You've got to do the little things, too, John. It all counts, big and small.»

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