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Chapter Twenty-three

John, Vanessa and Ryan were driving from Vanessa's house to Randy Montarelli's out in the valley. The three were crammed into the front bench seat, Vanessa in the middle. John was sweaty and pulled a pack of cigarettes out from the car door's side pocket and lit one. «You smoke?» Vanessa asked. She made a serious, unscrutinizable face. «As of now, I've started again. I'm worried about Susan. I can't unstress.» Once in the Valley, John pulled the Chrysler into an ARCO station for gas and gum. He went to pay at the till, and on returning to the car found Ryan and Vanessa in the front seat giggling like minks. «Christ, you two.» «We're young and in love, John Johnson,» Vanessa teased. «People like you were never young, Vanessa. People like you are born seventy-two, like soft pink surgeon generals.» Driving along in the accordion-squeezed traffic of Ventura Boulevard, John said, «So, are you two wacky kids gonna get married or something?» «Absolutely,» said Ryan. «We've even got our honeymoon planned.» John considered this young couple he was driving with across the city. They were like rollicking puppies one moment, and Captain Kirk and Spock from Star Trek the next. Both seemed bent on discovering new universes. John thought that they were, in a way, the opposite of Ivan and Nylla, who he was convinced had married in order to compact the universe into something smaller, more manageable. «Where are you two clowns going to honeymoon then, Library of Congress?» «Chuckles ahoy, John,» Ryan replied. «We're actually going to Prince Edward Island.» «Huh? Where's that — England?» John was driving at an annoyingly slow speed in order to torment a tailgater. «No,» said Vanessa. «It's in Canada. Back east — just north of Nova Scotia. It has a population of, like, three.» «We're going to dig potatoes.» John put his hand to his forehead. «Dare I even ask … ?» «There's this thing they have there,» said Ryan, «called the tobacco mosaic virus. It's this harmless little virus that's lolling about dormant inside the Prince Edward Island potato ecology, not doing much of anything.» «Except,» said Vanessa, «it's highly contagious, and if it comes in contact with tobacco plants, it turns them, basically, into sludge. So what we're going to do is rent a van and fill it up with infected potatoes and then drive down to Virginia and Kentucky and lob them into tobacco fields.» «We're going to put Big Tobacco out of business,» said Ryan. «Romantic,» said John, «but it does appeal to my Lodge pesticide genes.» «Vanessa's dad died of emphysema.» «Don't make me sound like a Dickensian waif, Ryan, but yes, Dad did hork his lungs out.» «Vanessa likes to fuck things up with the information she finds,» said Ryan with a note of pride. «You know what, Ryan? I have an easy time believing that. I'm also going to light up another cigarette. Sorry, Vanessa, but I'm flipping out here.» Ryan shouted, «Hey — that's Randy Montarelli's street over there,» and John pulled into a leafy suburban avenue. The tailgater whizzed off in a huff. Randy's wood-shingled house was pale blue and tall cypress tree sentinels were lit with colored floodlights. «Well,» said Ryan as they parked across the street and peeked at the house. «We're here.» «We are,» said John. It was a quiet moment, like being on holiday, after flying the whole day and navigating through cabs and crowds, arriving in the hotel room, shutting the room and taking a breath. What came next was unknown, and John realized he hadn't given this moment much thought. He was stage-struck. «I just saw somebody move inside a window,» said Ryan. «We have to go down there,» said John. «Ryan …» said Vanessa. «Maybe we should wait here. Maybe John should be alone for this.» «No. Come, you guys — I need you.» Like clueless trick-or-treaters, they headed to the front door. From inside the house they heard a TV blaring, feet pounding an uncarpeted floor and a door shutting. John rang the bell before he had a chance to change his mind. All interior sound stopped. Vanessa rang it again three times quickly. A minute passed and still nothing. Ryan tried the doorknob to see if it was open. It was. «Shut the fucking door, Ryan,» said John. «Just checking.» «Hellooooo … ?» Vanessa called into the crack in the door. «Oh jeez,» said John. «You are such a chickenshit, John.» Vanessa cooed into the house, «Hello — we're from Unesco.» Ryan turned to Vanessa:«Unesco?» «It was the first thing that popped into my head.» «Right,» said John, «like you're Audrey Hepburn and ready to hand over a clod of Swiss dirt if they donate five bucks.» From down the hallway came the sound of somebody tripping over a small heap of suitcases. A man appeared, pale as linguine, in a black bodysuit, a cell phone dangling from his right hand. «Well, well, it's the Mod Squad. I'm Randy. You're John Johnson, aren't you? What are you doing here ?» «Perhaps we could come in?» John asked. «No. I — can't. I mean, I know you're famous and rich, but I don't know you personally. And I don't know these two here at all.» «I'm Ryan.» «I'm Vanessa.» «I'm sorry, but I still can't do it.» «That's okay,» said John. «We're looking for Susan Colgate.» Randy didn't flinch. «And why would you be talking to me about this?» «You are Randy Montarelli?» «I was.» «And you are Randy “Hexum,” then, too?» «Yes, but what is your point? It's a free country. I can change my name. So you guys know stuff about my past. I'm not scared or anything.» «We're not here to scare you,» John said. «Okay, but why are you assuming I've got something to do with Susan Colgate? Do you have any idea how random it is to have you three show up on my doorstep like this? Asking about some washed-up soap actress? I can already feel my spirit entering therapy as a result of this visit.» «So you're saying you don't know her,» said John. «I didn't say that.» «Do you know her?» «We've met.» «And?» «I used to work for Chris Thraice a few years ago when I came to L.A. As far as I know, he and Susan are still friends, but I don't think they ever talked much.» Randy added, «Hey, kids, I have an idea. I won't tell the cops that you were here if you don't tell them you were here, either.» «Deal,» said John. Randy's face changed like still water brushed by a breeze. «Wait …» He looked at John with a degree of calculation. «Maybe there is something you need to know — something you should have.» John, Ryan and Vanessa exchanged Hardy Boy glances. «Hold on,» he said, and headed down the hall, knocked a piece of luggage out of his way and entered a room. A minute later he returned with a sealed manila envelope and offered it to John. «I hope you're feeling better,» he said to John. «What was wrong with me?» John was taken back. «Well,» said Randy, «I recently heard that you were suffering from Jeep's syndrome.» «Oh jeez,» said John, «that's one of those bloody Internet rumors. Who starts those things?» «What's Jeep's syndrome?» asked Ryan. Vanessa said, «It's when an ingrown hair follicle above the anus becomes infected, causing a massive buildup of waste fluids, requiring a surgical excision and drainage. The most famous sufferer was English pop star Roddy Llewellyn, who once dated Princess Margaret.» «Did we really need to know that?» John asked. «Ryan did ask. And besides, I've heard the rumor, too. That's why I looked it up.» Randy handed John the envelope. «You should find this interesting.» He closed the door. A minute later they were back in the car. John was agitated, mad at himself for not having better strategized the encounter. «Shit, that guy's bailing town somewhere and he's our only clue. He could have Susan in those suitcases for all I know. Ryan, open the envelope. What's in it?» «It's a script: “Scratch 'n' Win,” by Randy Hexum.» «Shit — a script.» He slammed the steering wheel. Vanessa said, «I have another clue,» but at that exact moment Ryan locked bumpers with a car identical to John's own — same color, same year — and their car was hobbled onto the other like animals in heat. «Oh wow ,» mumbled a surf brat loitering on the corner with a friend, «two gay Chryslers fucking.» Chapter Twenty-four

One night back in 1986, Susan came within an eyelash of being introduced to John Johnson at a party Larry Mortimer had thrown. Larry was eager to showcase Susan and to network her with as many people as possible.Meet the Blooms was riding high, and of the eighties crop of «It Girls,» Susan was the one most coveted by the networks. For some reason there was a giraffe at the party. Susan heard somebody ask why, and someone else replied it was to help plug a disastrously overbudget chimp comedy that had tanked that weekend on 1,420 screens across North America. Susan was standing with people from Johnny Carson's production company. It was then that she noticed John speaking with that toilet-mouthed lady from Disney — Alice? — something about an Oxford don and a punt — and Susan deemed John dateworthy, and that he would be even more so once he had a few years to …ripen. She was going to ask Larry for an introduction when a woman on her right said, «Hel lo, Susan Colgate.» Susan turned to the speaker who was, according to the framed photos on Larry's desk, Larry's wife, Jenna Mortimer, lovely, with hair like spun black glass, baby-doll features, dressed in a black chiffon evening dress that featured the linebacker shoulder pads of the era. This look, combined with a flash of teeth, created an aggressive posture. «Hello — Jenna — Mrs. Mortimer. Hello.» «It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Susan.» «Oh — nice for me, too. How did we ever get this far without being introduced? Shouldn't Larry have done this, like, an hour ago at the very least?» «Cuckoo, isn't it?» said Jenna. «Larry can be so forgetful. Such a business this is.» «Larry's always talking about you.» «I'm sure he is.» She motioned toward a buffet table. «Have you had something to eat?» She was making it clear that she was the hostess. Susan was overeager to sound like an appreciative guest and she blurted out a dumb lie: «Yes, I had some cheese.» «But I'm not serving any cheese.» Susan was flustered. «Is your mother here?» asked Jenna, knowing full well that Susan lived on Larry's Kelton Street property. The truth was that at that exact moment Marilyn was scouring the streets of Encino hoping to find Don's car, hoping to find Don inside a bar with a slut, knowing there was a far greater likelihood of simply finding Don with a bottle, which was somehow worse. «No. It's a lovely party. Really beautifully done.» Susan felt mature using the words «beautifully done.» It was the way she thought rich people spoke. Jenna looked around. «It is, isn't it?» «And the giraffe!» «The giraffe just ate the neighbor's prize Empress Keiko persimmon tree. There'll be hell to pay tomorrow.» She looked at Susan appraisingly. «Clear shoes and nude hose — trying to lengthen our legs tonight?» «An old show dog trick. Miss USA Teen, 1985.» «Miss Nevada, 1971.» «No!» Susan smiled. «What a racket, huh?» She found herself beginning to like Jenna. «Oh yes. The crap I spouted during those pageants,» Jenna said. «I always thought the good thing about being Miss Wyoming was that I'd get to go last when they called out the states. You know, the letter W — and that I'd get to see the other girls' ramp-walking errors, and learn from them.» «Did you ever win Miss Congeniality?» asked Jenna. «Me? Never. I should have won Miss Why Am I Here?» «I always got Miss Congeniality.» «Did you?» Susan was curious. «Those nuns. Catholic school. They nabbed me when I was young.» «I didn't go to religious school. We're hillbillies in our family.» «The thing about Catholic school is that they manage to make you put a smile on absolutely anything.» «Yeah?» «Everything.» Susan now understood where Jenna was working the conversation. Larry saw the two women talking and bolted their way. «Jenna! Susan! I've been waiting for the special moment to introduce you.» «No doubt you have,» said Jenna. «Larry,» said Susan. «I didn't know that Jenna used to be a show dog, too. Jenna said, «It was actually me who put Larry onto you. I read about you throwing your crown back in their faces. I wanted to send you a box of roses and a trophy. I figured it'd take a personality like a freight train to pull off a coup like that.» «You ought to meet my mother, the locomotive.» Larry wanted to get the two women apart. «Susan,» he said, «I want you to meet this producer named Colin. He's from England, but he's still useful to us over here. Jenna, can I steal usan away from you?» «I have a choice?» Larry flashed teeth and escorted Susan toward the patio doors. Susan called back, «Bye, Jenna — nice to meet you.» Larry moved her around a corner and said, «Christ.» Susan said, «Larry, I can't see you anymore.» Her body began to feel as though it were rising upward like a helium balloon. A string had been cut. He wiped his forehead with a paper doily from a table of mineral waters. «We'll talk about this tomorrow.» «Yeah, we will.» Larry stood still and appraised Susan's face. «You're young. It'll pass.» «But I don't want it to pass.» «It's called getting older. I'll send you the coverage on it.» «Ryan O'Neal's here,» Susan said to change the conversation. «I'll introduce you.» And so the evening went on. Susan drank German mineral water — Sprudel-something, with a name like a pastry — and swished the water about inside her mouth, almost burning her tongue with bubbles — it tasted geological. She watched Larry squirm and lie to the people around him who were squirming and lying right back. «Susan, this is Cher.» «Hello.» «Susan, this is Valerie Bertinelli.» «Nice to meet you.» «Susan, this is Jack Klugman.» «Great. Hi.» «Susan, this is Christopher Atkins.» «Hey.» «Susan, this is Lee Radziwill.» «Hi.» The party felt like it went on all night, when, like most film industry functions, it actually ended around nine. She couldn't have known that the party was to be her high-water mark within the entertainment world's social structure. The morning after the giraffe party, a car from the production company picked Susan up at 6:30A .M. She sat in the back seat, memorizing her lines for the day. She performed her role. She stood for publicity photos with her TV parents and siblings. She had a fight with Larry and dead-bolted him out of the Kelton Street apartment. Days passed. Her strength passed. She let Larry in. She disgusted herself. She'd built no other substantial friendships during her TV blitzkrieg. It was either back to Larry or careen into outer space, and she couldn't face that. Any discussion of Jenna or divorce led to a brick wall which Susan acknowledged with the ever more edgy tag line, «Excuse me, Larry. Pope on line three.» Susan was never a particularly good actor, but at the start of the TV series, she did have a naturalness that stood out and looked good against her actor-since-birth costars. But the naturalness began to wear thin and she became increasingly self-conscious about her body, her face, the words that came out of her mouth and the overall effect she had on people. The scrutiny was a thousand times more intense than any pageant. Her encounter with Jenna at the giraffe party opened some inner sluice of her conscience, and her acting became abysmal almost overnight. She told Dreama: «It's like the part of my brain that used to allow me to do an okay acting job got all warped. It's merging with the part of my brain that makes up lies. I can just feel it. I get a simple line like, “Mom, I'm going to volleyball practice,” and it sounds forced, like it's filled with all this innuendo. My retakes per episode are up like crazy. The network thinks I have a drug problem. The cast thinks fame is wrecking my head. And the thing is, Larry knows it's all because of Jenna and keeping our big lie going, and it's kind of turning him off. And that's freaking me out and making it even worse.» Susan guested on Love Boat. She did a walk-on part in a James Bond movie. She was on the cover of Seventeen magazine. She had her wisdom teeth removed and discovered the Land of Painkillers. She mended the fence somewhat with Marilyn. Dreama also moved to Los Angeles and into Susan's apartment. Sex with Larry cooled considerably and, as Larry predicted, she grew older. Chapter Twenty-five

John sat beside his rescuer, Beth, in a security office adjacent to the private jet facility at Flagstaff's airport. Outside the wired-glass windows, in the warm gray air, hydro and aviation towers blinked rubies and diamonds. John was wearing clothes Beth had assembled from her husband's castoffs. His pale aqua shirt was crisply ironed and his skin was brown as if he were baking on the inside, like a bird just removed from the oven. His hair had been hacked off a few weeks before with a hunting knife in a Las Cruces, New Mexico, Shell station rest room. His eyes were clear and wide like a child's. Beth said to him, «I'm sorry about Jeanie and that tape. She's a wild one. I've never known what to do with her.» «It doesn't matter.» said John. Beth bought two weak coffees from a grumbling vending machine. «Here,» she said, «take one.» «Oh — no thanks.» «Go on.» John held on to his coffee with the same unsureness he'd felt when holding a baby for the first time, Ivan and Nylla's daughter, MacKenzie. A fuel truck drove by in a mirage of octane. Beth said, «Your friends really have their own private jet, then?» John nodded. «Jeanie never would have done it if she hadn't found out about that jet.» «It doesn't matter. Really. It doesn't.» Beth's daughter, Jeanie, had sold the tape of John's naked climb from the ditch and the hour that followed to a local network affiliate. It would be a lead story on a nationally broadcast tabloid show the next night. «What makes me mad,» said Beth, «is that she's going to use the money to pay for her boyfriend's car, not even her own. Dammit, she doesn't have to do that. Royce has a good job already.» «Young people.» «You said it.» A shrillness called out from the black air, and John, staring at the floor, placed it as quickly as a dog recognizes the firing pattern of the cylinders in his master's engine. It was Ivan and the G3. John heard it land and then taxi. He heard the heavy metal staff doors opening, footsteps and voices: Ivan, Nylla, Doris and Melody. «John-O?» John stood up and tried to raise his head, but his eyes were too heavy. «John-O?» Ivan crouched down and looked up at John. «We're here, John-O.» But John couldn't speak or look up. The coffee dropped from his hand and the cheap plastic cup rattled on the floor. Nylla, Doris and Melody kissed him on the cheek and John could smell their perfumes, so kind and decent that he choked. Ivan looked over at Beth, who was holding John's laundered clothes inside a paper grocery bag. «Are you … ?» «Yes, I'm Beth.» Ivan handed John over to Melody and Nylla. «Thank you for your …» «It was nothing. But your friend here, he's in a bad way.» Ivan handed Beth an envelope from which she pulled out a stack of hundreds. «Jeremy from my office got your address and numbers?» «He did.» There was nothing left to do but go out onto the tarmac and into the plane and head west. Beth said good-bye and hugged John, whose arms flailed out from him as if made from straw. The two younger women escorted John on each side up the stair ramp, and Ivan followed behind, a glen plaid jacket draped over his left arm. Soon they were up in the warm night sky, but John had yet to make eye contact with his old friends. «Johnny,» said Melody, «can you hear me okay?» John nodded. «You're not on drugs are you, John?» asked Doris. John shook his head. Melody said, «Do you want a drink? Ivan, where's that whisky? Pour him a shot.» She held a crystal glass up to John's lips, but the taste triggered a convulsion. He felt as if his chest were being crushed by ten strong men. «John,» said Nylla, crouching down beside him, «breathe. Breathe deeply.» «What's going on?» asked Ivan. «John,» Nylla continued, «please listen to me. You're having a panic attack. You're panicking because you're safe now. Your body's been waiting all this time until it felt safe enough to let go. And you're safe now. You're with your friends. Breathe.» John's stomach felt as if it had been given a swift boot. Melody sat on the floor and held him from behind as he rocked. «Johnny? Where've you been? Johnny?» John said nothing. He'd wanted those rocks and highways and clouds and winds and strip malls to scrape him clean. He'd wanted them to remove the spell of having to be John Johnson. He'd hoped that under a Panavision sky he'd wake up to find the deeper, quieter person who dreamed John Johnson into existence in the first place. But there was nothing any of them in the plane could say or do. They were just a few pieces of light themselves, up there in the night sky, and if they flew twenty miles straight up, they'd be in outer space. It was a quick flight and soon they were back at the airport in Santa Monica, and they drove into town. John's old house and its James Bond contents had been sold to pay off the IRS. With his royalties caught in a legal snag, he was cashless. As though traveling back in time, John returned to his old bedroom in the guesthouse. Doris was now a living, breathing mille-feuille of ethnic caftans and clattering beads. During his first few weeks home he tried to give the impression that all was fine with him, like a defeated nation embracing the culture of its conqueror. Each day he wore a suit and tie from a selection Melody bought for him. He went without drugs. To see him on the street one would think he was swell, but inside he felt congealed and infected. He felt as if he were soiling whatever he touched, leaving a black stain that not even a fire could remove. He felt as if people could see him as the fraud he knew he was. His skin was sunburned, his hair had grayed, and sunlight now hurt his milk blue eyes, which he was unable to look at in the mirror, as if it could only bring bad news. He tried finding shaded cafeterias in the drabber parts of Los Angeles, where there was no possibility of encountering old acquaintances. He occasionally spotted geriatric scriptwriters from the DesiLu and Screen Gems era beached like walruses in banquette seats eating Cobb salads, but he never made contact. John would sit and read the daily papers, but they held the same sterile appeal of grossly outdated magazines in a dental office reception area. He wanted to go home, but once he got there, he felt like a bigger misfit than he did out in the city. He tried but couldn't think of any single thing that might make him feel better. A few months passed, and nothing within him seemed to change. Then without at first being aware of it, he one day realized he was taking a measure of comfort in following a rigid schedule. He quickly developed a notion that he might just be able to squeak through if he could keep his days fastidiously identical. He told this to Ivan, who then lured John back to the production offices with the absurd promise that his days would be «utterly unsurprising.» Both Ivan and Nylla were at wits' end as to how they might reintegrate John back into L.A.Mega Force finished while John was away, was scheduled for release, and there was no doubt that it was going to hit big. Test screenings in Glendale and Oxnard evoked memories of the old days of Bel Air PI — yet to John it was nothing, not a flash of interest. Among industry people John was considered a mutant. Consensus had been reached that he really had been out crossing the country on some sort of doomed search. This made him seem charmed in an interesting but don't-get-too-close way. In a deeply superstitious environment, John was bad and good luck at the same time. If people wanted to do business, they went to Ivan. If they wanted a bit of gossip to pass along at the dinner table, they popped their heads into John's office. Around Doris, John felt like a burden. She'd come to enjoy her privacy and unaccountability over the years. While she was patient with John, he couldn't help but feel like an anchor roped around her waist — and yet the thought of being alone in a place of his own was inconceivable. Ultimately, beneath Doris's Darling! -rich exterior John also sensed a veiled hostility — and he couldn't quite identify its root. Until one night, just after John had returned home from the offices of Equator Pictures — six fifty-five, in time for the news on TV — Doris came through the door in a filthy mood. Her car had been broken into during her lunch with a friend at Kate Mantilini, and her favorite dress, just back from the cleaners, was stolen, along with a sentimental cameo brooch she kept in the dashboard's beverage caddie. She cut her fingers removing the pile of shattered glass strewn about the driver's seat, and she'd driven to Bullock's to meet another friend. There she realized, after waiting in a long lineup, that her credit cards and ID had also been swiped. She worried she was getting Alzheimer's because she hadn't noticed sooner. She had a fit, and during an angry drive to the police station, ran a red light, receiving both a ticket and a scolding from a traffic cop. She was mutinous. «Oh God , do I need a drink,» she blurted as she scrambled for the liquor cabinet. «Want one?» John said no. «You don't have to be such a priss about not having a drink, John.» «I'm — not — drinking — these — days,» he said in precisely metered tones. «Aren't you a saint.» Out the side of his vision, John watched Doris pour a Cinzano, gulp it down, pour another, this time with a lemon zest, gulp it down, and then in a more relaxed state, pour a third. He wondered what was going on with her, but he didn't want to miss the news. Doris was looking across the room at John, his posture self-consciously erect, sitting on a stool watching reports from some war-torn ex-Soviet province. It was like he was six and sick again, trying to be a good little boy. The emotions she'd been feeling about her crappy day did a 180, and without warning, her heart flew back to the New York of decades ago when John was the child who didn't want to be sick or a burden. The shutters were drawn, but late afternoon sun treacled in through the chinks. Doris had the sensation that the hot yellow air would feel like warm gelatin against her body were she to venture outside. She sighed, and suddenly she didn't want to drink anymore. She felt chilly and old. She wanted to slap John. She wanted to hold him, and she wanted to chide him for his recklessness and to tell him how much she wished that she'd been out there with him, out in the flats and washes and foothills and gorges, begging God, or Nature or even the sun to erase the burden of memories, and the feeling of having lived a life that felt far too long, even at the beginning. She called to him, «John …» He looked around. «Yeah, Ma?» «John …» She tried to find words. John pushed theMUTE button. «John, when you were away — out on your jaunt a few months ago, did you …» «Did I what, Ma?» «Did you find …» Again, she stopped there. «What, Ma? Ask me.» Doris wouldn't continue. «What is it, Mom?» John was now alarmed. And then it just flooded right out of her, in a rush: «Didn't you find even one goddam thing out there during the stint away? Anything?Anything you could tell me and make me feel like there was at least one little reason, however subtle, that would repay me for having been sick with fear all those nights you were gone?» Doris saw John open his eyes wide, religiously. She immediately felt queasy for having been so vulgar, and apologized, though John said there was no need for it. But John knew his mother was mad at him because he was still seemingly unchanged at thirty-seven, because he was still alone and because she'd pretty much surrendered hope that he would ever acclimate, marry and procreate like the sons of women in her reading group. «It's my back,» said Doris, thumping the base of her spine as though it were a misbehaving appliance. «It hurts like stink and I have the one Beverly Hills doctor who doesn't like to overprescribe for his patients.» «It's still that bad?» «As ever.» «I thought you were trying a new — » «It's not working.» «Can't you go to another doctor? Get more pills?» «I could. But I won't. Not now. I'd feel so — I don't know,slutty , openly hunting for drugs like that. And Dr. Christensen knows my life story. I'm in no mood to start from scratch with someone new.» «So you'd rather be in pain?» «For the time being? Yes.» Her temper was brushed over. When the CNN news ended, John had an idea. He went into his room and looked through his old address book. All these numbers and names and not a friend in the lot. John wondered why it is people lose the ability to make friends somewhere around the time they buy their first expensive piece of furniture. It wasn't a fixed law, but it seemed to be an accurate-enough gauge. He flipped through pages of numbers and memories and meetings and sexual encounters and deals and washed cars and flights booked Alitalia and Virgin, and tennis games catered — a small stadium's worth of people who would find John Johnson whatever he needed. He removed his working clothes and shed them into a pile in the corner. He was sick of being Mr. Corporate Office Guy. He rooted about his cupboard and found some old clothes Doris hadn't thrown out — old mismatched shirts and pants used for painting the kitchen drawers and for yard work. Every day was now going to be casual Friday for John. He returned to his old address book. In it he located the name of Jerr-Bear, a child actor of the Partridge Family era who as a grown-up had gone terribly skank, dressed in the homeless version of Milan's latest offerings, with matted hair that smelled like a barn. John tried to remember Jerr-Bear's full name and couldn't, yet he fully remembered Jerr-Bear's portrayal of the loyal son on a long-vanished cop show. Jerr-Bear may have gone skank, but the goods he carried were the finest. John looked in his bedside table and found eighteen hundred dollars remaining from a five-grand float Ivan gave him for the month. It was all in twenties and looked sleazy sitting in a heap the way it did. He dialed Jerr-Bear, and against the odds, Jerr-Bear answered. «Jerr-Bear, it's John Johnson.» «The happy wanderer!» «Yeah, that's me.» John heard chewing sounds. «Are you at dinner now? Do you want me to call back?» The thought of Jerr-Bear at a nonrestaurant dinner table seemed almost impossible for John to visualize. «Yeah, it's dinner, but big deal. What are you, a telemarketer? How can I help you, John?» «Call me back.» «Right.» Jerr-Bear maintained a complex system of cloned cell phones so as to avoid tapping by authorities. A minute later John's line rang. Even then, the two spoke in veils. «Jerr, what do you give someone who's in a lot of pain?» «Pain's a biggie, John. Life hurts. Specifically — ?» «Back pain.» «Ooh — most people need heavy artillery for that one.» «You have any artillery?» «I do.» They arranged for lunch the next day at the Ivy. Chapter Twenty-six

After the scuff with the other Chrysler, Vanessa took the wheel of the car and John sat in the back seat spinning theories about Randy and semipacked luggage. «Drugs. It has to be drugs.» «No, John,» said Vanessa. «There's nothing in Susan's banking or Visa card patterns that indicates a consistent drain of drug-caliber discretionary cash.» «You got her banking info?» «I gave her Susan's Visa number,» said Ryan. «It was in the video shop's computer. I mean, once somebody's got your Visa number, they can pretty well clone you.» «Not really,» said Vanessa. «In order to clone you they'd also need your phone number.» «Why do I bother even trying to generate ideas?» asked John. «You two are the most drag-and-click people I've ever met. You're wearing the pants here, Vanessa. Why don't you tell me what we ought to be doing next?» «Okay, I will. We are currently en route to the North Hollywood home of one Dreama Ng.» «She's a numerologist,» said Ryan. «Is she going to give us potatoes, as well?» «Oh, grow up,» said Vanessa. «Susan's been giving Dreama Ng twenty-five hundred bucks a month for a few years now.» «I told you, it was drugs.» «Your naïveté yet again sickens me,» said Vanessa, adding, «You, who spent maybe 1.7 to 2 million dollars on both drugs and drub rehab programs over the past six years.» «Oof. That much?» asked John. «Probably more. I wasn't able to access one stream of data out of Geneva.» Vanessa continued steering the car with a pinky around a sharp curve. «You know as well as anybody, John, that drug consumption only escalates. It does not remain stable month in, month out over several years. I also ran a check on Ms. Ng's finances, and, lo and behold, who do you think she signs over her check to each month?» «Drum roll …» said Ryan. «Randy Hexum. » «Well, I'll be fucked,» said John. «A bit less color, if you please,» said Vanessa. «Anyway, we're almost there. I already phoned ahead and made an appointment to get our numbers read.» «What else have you done that I don't know about?» «When you two were out unlocking the bumpers a few minutes ago, I phoned my brother Mark, and he is now parked across the street from Randy Montarelli's house, and you're paying him twenty-five dollars an hour plus meals so that he can maybe get an inkling where that luggage is headed.» «Where were you when I was making The Other Side of Hate ?» asked John. «If you'd been running things, it could have been a hit.» «No, John. It was unsavable.» Vanessa and Ryan plunged invisible peacock feathers down their throats. John went quiet. They spun onto and then off the Hollywood Freeway, and parked outside Dreama's apartment building. John had a déjà vu, but then realized it was actually a flashback to the beginning of his film career. The smell of Dreama's elevator was identical to the hallways of his first apartment in a building off Sweetzer, a blend of cat piss, cigarettes, incense and other people's cooking. Vanessa asked John, «What do we do once we're in there. John?» John shrugged. «We'll know when we get there. I hope. Look for clues.» «Hi.» Dreama answered the door. «Come on in. You're Vanessa?» «I am. This is Ryan and this is John.» «The apartment's a mess.» The most obvious aspect of Dreama's apartment was luggage on the kitchen table, evidently in the final stages of packing. «I'm sorry,» said Vanessa. «Are we interrupting you? Are you heading somewhere?» «Yes, but to be honest, I need the money. I hope that doesn't sound crass. I don't want you to feel exploited.» She moved a stack of dreamcatchers off a stool. «Where are you going?» asked Ryan, feigning nonchalance. A lying flash passed across Dreama's eyes. «To Hawaii. To a seminar on square roots.» «Hmmm.» «Well, let's get started. Who first?» «Me,» said Vanessa. «Vanessa Louise Humboldt, that's one N, two S's, with Louise spelled the normal way, and Humboldt spelled with a d , as in Humboldt County.» «Okay …» Dreama sat down and reached for a box of sparkly pencils and a light-powered calculator bearing a $1.99 price tag. «Do you always let people in here?» asked John. «Strangers? Right into your home?» «You're friends of Susan. That's good enough for me.» «Yes,John ,» Vanessa cut in, «Susan's been wanting us to do this for years.» Vanessa turned to Dreama: «Just ignore him. Susan says your accuracy is chilling.» «I guessed the Seneca plane crash the day before it happened.» «That's amazing,» said Ryan, who suppressed an itch to tell Dreama that his message on Susan's answering machine had been the last before the accident. «I got the message to her too late,» Dreama said, «but she made it anyway. Her prime number that day was so high she could have been struck by a Scud missile and walked away with no more than a nice new set of bangs.» «Prime number?» asked Vanessa. «That's how I work. With prime numbers — they're the ones that can only be divided by either one or themselves. Like 23, 47, 61 and so on. There's a prime number for all people and events.» Dreama's fingers twiddled the calculator's buttons. Her pencils produced spidery loopy letters and numbers so faint they were like strands of thin hair fallen onto the page. «What's mine? asked Vanessa. «Give me a second here.» She fiddled a bit more. «One hundred seventy-nine.» «That's good?» «That's excellent. You have strong instincts, you'll never lack money and, as I understand the psychic makeup of 179s, you'll probably go through your life with a man as your slave.» «Why a man?» «All 179s are het.» To emphasize this, she said, «It's a fact , but not one you should let dominate your choices.» «I'll remember that.» John was standing in a corner, pretending to read the spines on Dreama's CD rack, a blend of folk and earth sounds, as he tried to think up a probing question. He spun around, a touch overtheatrically, with his face caught in a patch of light coming off a paper lantern. «Your last name is Ng. That's a strange name — Asian — you don't look Asian. Is there a Mr. Ng?» Dreama was nonplussed. « “Ng” is the Cantonese word for the number five. I chose it for that reason, and also because it doesn't have any vowels. And there is no Mr. Ng anywhere. I'm a lesbian.» She paused. «Does it bother you … ?» «John.» «Does it bother you, John, to have a strong fertile woman shed her father's name and assume one on her own?» «Uh …» «What's your full name, John?» «John Lodge Johnson.» Dreama began doing John's number, then dropped her pen and stared. John asked what was wrong, and Dreama told him she'd made a mistake. She redid his numbers and said, «Well, I'll be …» Dreama looked up at him with fresh eyes now, as if he'd been revealed as the murderer at the end of the final reel. «I have to ask you a question, and you have to give me a straight answer. Are you lying to me?» «What?» «Are you here under false pretenses?» «What are you … ?» John was adrenalized. «Let me see your driver's license.» He pulled out his driver's license, just one month old, and handed it to Dreama. She looked at it, handed it back to him and said, «Sorry. I had to see if that was your real name — if this was a hoax of some sort. You're a 1,037, John Lodge Johnson. Do you know what that means?» «No. You tell me .» «You're a four-digit prime number. Most numerologists go their entire lives without encountering a four-digit prime.» Dreama grilled John, asked what he did for a living and took a distinctly arch manner with him. Ryan then asked to have his number done. It was 11. «Eleven?» «Sounds like you're set for a career in the dynamic and fast-growing world of fast food, Ryan,» said Vanessa. «Eleven?» Ryan was crestfallen. «Eleven is a perfectly good number,» Dreama assured him. «I hear 11s are really loyal,» said John. John paid Dreama, who gave them a sheet describing their prime number's characteristics. Dreama became fidgety and scuttled the three out of her apartment. Back in the car, John said, «Well, that was a fucking waste of time.» Vanessa's phone bleeped and she answered it. «It's my brother,» she told the other two. She finished the call and pressedEND . «Randy is in a minivan headed this way.» «Do you have your GPT?» asked Ryan. «What's that?» asked John. «My global positioning transmitter. It's the everyday equivalent of the black box they use behind the cockpit in jetliners. I keep it sewed into the hem of my purse.» She yanked a small black rectangle from her bag, smaller than a TV remote control. «A satellite can track me down at any place on earth plus or minus a freckle.» «You're giving it to me ?» «For a 1,037 you can be awfully dim. When young Randall's Ford Aerostar van pulls up in» — she looked at her wristwatch — «under two minutes, you are going to have to stick this onto the car without being seen. And as we seem to be fresh out of duct tape, what exactly will be your brainy plan to attach it to the vehicle, John?» John shut his eyes to concentrate. «A man, a plan, a canal — I was born in Panama, you know.» «Oh, shut up.» «Juicy Fruit.» He wrenched open the glove compartment and from it threw packs of unopened gum to Ryan and Vanessa, taking several for himself. Randy's van swung into a spot directly in front of Dreama's building and across from their car. The three watched Randy walk to the building's main door, buzz and head to the elevator. John gently opened the side passenger door and crawled behind the car. He roadrunnered across the street and fastened the GPT to the inside of the rear bumper with a cooling glob of his gum. The dogs, sensing John beneath them, grew frenzied, scratching at the windows and barking. Just then the apartment's door opened, and Randy and Dreama came out with her luggage. Both looked worried. There was nowhere for John to hide except underneath the van, where he quickly rolled, listening to the doors above him open and shut. Randy shouted at the dogs to sit. Finally, John heard the engine ignite and watched the van drive away, leaving him facing the sky where he saw the lights of jets preparing to land at LAX sweep in from the distance. Chapter Twenty-seven

In Erie, Pennsylvania, three weeks after Susan's arrival at Randy Montarelli's house, she floated down the stairs, her nightgown trailing. «Christ, Randy, my nipples feel like hand grenades. What are you doing up at» — Susan looked at the clock on the top right-hand corner of Randy's Mac — «four twenty-sevenA .M.?» Upstairs, Baby Eugene, three weeks old, screamed for milk. «Oh, you know, no rest for the wicked.» «Are we out of pineapple juice again?» «We are.» «Right. Do we have any Goldfish crackers left?» «Cupboard above the toaster.» «Good.» Susan foraged about. «What lies are you cooking up tonight?» «You just gave me a good idea. Here, let me try it out.» Randy read aloud the words he'd just typed into an Internet chat room: That's not what I heard from my friend who does the makeup on the Friends set. *He* told me that Jennifer Aniston delayed taping for three days because she had nipple fatigue. «Know what it reminds me of?» Susan asked, running her finger around the rim of a peanut butter jar. «Last month, when you started the rumor that Keanu Reeves has ‘reverse flesh eating disease.' » «That was a classic, wasn't it?» «It's like your brain doesn't know what image to conjure up.» Susan tasted the peanut butter and found it delicious. «That's the coolest kind of rumor,» said Randy. «Like the one I did about Helen Hunt — having the operation to remove the remains of a vestigial beaver tail from the base of her spine.» «Yet another classic.» Susan cradled a box of Ritzes and some apples in her arms. She kissed Randy's forehead, sprinkled crumbs onto his keyboard, then gallumphed upstairs. Randy was a rumormonger. Before the 1990s he thought of himself as a gossip, but more tellingly he considered himself a zero, some sort of alien love child abandoned on an Erie, Pennsylvania, tract house doorstep where he grew up clumsy and socially inept. Randy was 30 percent over the national recommended body weight for his height, and possessed a sensibility so totally not of Erie that he was unable to be even the class clown or a bumbling mascot to the cruel and good-looking girls. The only friends he ever attempted to make were the brassy, cynical girls with whom he dissected Mademoiselle and who seemed to have affairs only with married men — girls who bolted from Erie the moment they graduated high school. Checking out of Erie was an act Randy hadn't been able to do himself. It was a case of the devil he knew versus the devil he didn't. As a teenager, he had first seen the devil he didn't want to know in a 1982 TV news documentary. The devil was on-screen for perhaps fifteen seconds, but that's all it took. The devil still burned in his mind fifteen years later, in the form of a diseased gay clone, emaciated and mustached, wasting away as he guarded the gates of hell. He made bony come-hither disco dance hip sways, and his skin was pitted with prune-tinted Kaposi's sarcoma lesions. His eyes had become white jelly from a cytomegalovirus infection. In Randy's mind, somewhere around 1985, the image of the sick man acquired chaps and a cowboy hat. Around 1988, each time Randy thought of the sick man, the man began to wink back at Randy with dead white eyes. If the cowboy signified adulthood, then Randy wanted nothing to do with it. If that was the image that stood for sex, then Randy was going to be a monk. And so he hadn't left Erie, which, whatever else it didn't have going for it, was also seemingly lacking in people with AIDS. But then over the years he began to see the devil everywhere he went. On a trip one night in 1988 he kissed a trucker at a stop outside of Altoona. He shut down emotionally and spent the next five years waiting to die. When he didn't, he decided he was going to live, but his was to be a life without love or affection save for that which came from his two spindly café-aulait Afghan hounds, Camper and Willy. He'd bought them as puppies from the trunk of a 1984 LeBaron parked outside a Liz Claiborne factory outlet. Its driver was a hippie girl who said the puppies would be drowned that afternoon unless they found homes, because God had summoned her to Long Island where she was to cornrow the hair of teenagers as well as monitor the sunrise. As he aged and lost his hair and wrinkled, Randy figured he deserved no love or affection because he hadn't been brave or suffered or fought a good fight across the years. The newer, younger, more beautiful children arrived, and with annoying ease inherited the rubble of the sexual revolution, plus the freedom and the easy knowledge of love, death, sex and risk. Randy extracted his revenge on the world for poisoning both his coming-of-age and his youth, through the creation of lies and rumors. Locked inside his Erie town house at night, numbed by his day job doing payroll for a roofing company, he fed thousands of deceptions into a Dell PC which multiplied them like viruses, out into the world of electrons. Most of his rumors died, but some became self-fulfilling prophecies. Who could have known that young ingenue truly was so ripe to become a compulsive handwasher? And then one September night Susan Colgate fell into his life. He was watching Matlock, had a refreshing cucumber facial scrub on his face, and was drinking weak Ovaltine, when there was a thump on his front door. He braced himself — midnight jolts on the door, even in Randy's relatively safe neighborhood, were not a good sign. He looked through a small pane of a bay window and saw a pregnant woman, whom he didn't recognize, slumped on his doorstep. He raced to the door and opened it. The woman was evidently in great pain, and Randy carried her into the living room and lay her down on his two-week-old Ethan Allen colonial couch. He started to dial 911, but the woman screamed, «No!» and yanked the cord from the wall before he could even dial the third digit. She lowered her voice. «Please. Randy Montarelli. Help me. You were the only person I could think of to come to. I saved your letter.» Randy wondered what she could mean by a letter. She briefly calmed down, and Randy realized that this was Susan Colgate. «You're not dead!» Susan burst into tears. «Oh good Lord, you're alive!» Randy ran over to hold her tightly and he whispered, «Oh, Susan — Susan — please — you're safe here. Everything's going to be fine. Just fine.» «I'm scared, Randy. I'm so scared. » she grimaced, then yelped like a coyote. «Shit, the contractions are close. I'm landing any moment now.» A Boy Scout pragmatism seized him. «I'll get things ready. What do you need right away?» «Water. I'm thirsty.» «Right.» Randy raced into the kitchen, his thoughts scrambled like popcorn. Nothing in his life had prepared him for an event like this. He filled a plastic jug with tap water and relayed it to the living room with a plastic cup. He ran into the guestroom and grabbed a pile of down comforters and told Camper and Willy to stop whining. Random thoughts went through his brain. Susan was supposed to have been long dead. He clearly remembered his pilgrimage to Seneca, one of his few forays outside the Erie region. He then remembered reading in a magazine that Prince Charles wished he hadn't witnessed Prince Harry's birth. He'd wondered what it was Charles had seen, and now he'd soon find out and the idea made him woozy. Was that bourbon he smelled on her breath? He raced again into the living room; the TV was on. He turned it off. He laid the blankets on the floor but Susan's bag of waters had already burst. He ignored the stains on his couch and rug. Susan reached over sideways into her purse and pulled out Randy's letter. «Here …» she said. «You wrote this to me. It was the nicest thing I ever had anybody say about me. Come here, Randy. Hold me a second.» Randy hugged Susan tightly. She held him away from her and looked deeply into his eyes: «We're going to get through this okay, Randy. We've been having babies for a trillion years. This isn't something new. Let's just breathe and play it cool. Here …» Susan straightened out some blankets. «We're going to do just fine.» «Does it hurt?» Randy asked. «I've got some Vicodins left over from my root canal.» «I'll take them.» Randy ran into the bathroom and fetched them and some towels. Back in the living room Susan was screaming, «This is it, Randy!» The next twenty minutes were wordless. They became a grunting, shouting push-me—pull-you animal team, and a baby boy finally emerged in a squalling pink lump. Susan held him up to her chest and Randy severed the umbilical cord. All three of them cried, and by sunrise, they were asleep in the wreckage of the living room. That morning Randy phoned in and quit his job. He had become privy to some, but not all, of the details of Susan Colgate's precrash and postcrash life. By the afternoon he had the living room pieces hauled away. He ordered a vanload of groceries and baby furniture. He emptied his bank accounts. He stripped Susan's car of Indiana plates and replaced them with fakes he bought from a junkyard. He had momentum. The action made him thrive. He didn't feel like Randy Montarelli anymore. He felt like … Well, he wasn't sure yet who or what he felt like. That would come. But within the week he'd thrown away many of his clothes and knickknacks and photos and things that to him reeked of the old Randy — sweaters he wore out of duty to the relatives who joylessly gifted him with them every year; drugstore colognes purchased not because he liked their scent but so as not to inflame redneck strangers with overly exotic aromas; his high school ring, which he kept because it seemed the only piece of jewelry he'd ever have earned the right to wear. He also began legal proceedings to change his surname to Hexum, something he'd always wanted to do but had never found the will to act on. Randy had been offered this one doozy of a chance to rewrite himself, and he wasn't going to blow it. He'd kill for Susan and little Eugene if need be, and he hoped that in the near future Susan might go into further details on what she hinted was a plan for leaving Erie. In the meantime, Susan spent much of the first month either crying or locked in silence. Randy didn't push her. And the thought of Randy phoning somebody to announce this Bethlehemical miracle was out of the question. This was something for him alone: no mocking relatives or evil coworkers and chatterboxes from his model railway club allowed. «Randy,» Susan said, «why bother reading those infant care books? Any kid of mine is going to be tough as nails. His genes are made of solid titanium.» «We want the baby to be a god, Susan. We want him to glow. He has to be raised with care.» Whether to alert the authorities to the birth was not an issue. In Susan's mind, Eugene Junior wasn't to enter the public realm. He was to be unknown to the world and protected from its stares and probes and jabs. «Especially,» said Susan, whenever Randy broached the subject, «from my mother. » The more Randy had Susan and Eugene Junior to himself, the happier he was. He was a born provider, and now he had been blessed with souls for whom to care. Late one night in her fourth week in Erie, the trio was watching TV — an old episode of Meet the Blooms . Eugene was clamped onto Susan's left breast. The TV's volume was low. On the screen was an episode in which Mitch, the eldest child, develops a cocaine habit for exactly one episode. Susan watched the TV as if it were an aquarium, garnering neither highs nor lows — just a constant dull hum. A log in the fireplace burst aglow with new vigor. «Do you ever miss Chris?» Randy asked. «Chris? I barely ever think of him, the old poofter.» Randy's eyes goggled. «Poofter? You mean — no shagging ?» «Good Lord, no. I mean, I like Chris now, but at the beginning we were about as close to each other as you'd be, say, to some FedEx guy dropping an envelope off at Reception. Well, that's behind us now, isn't it? Far, far away.» She drained her glass. «But those pictures,» said Randy, «and all those stories that were in the tabloids week in, week out — ‘Chris and Sexy Sue's Hawaiian Love Romp' — big burly Chris with the scratch marks on his back. I saw them.» «Those scratch marks? His masseur, Dominic. I was over in Honolulu getting blepharoplasty on my eyes.» «Your tat too — it said,CHRIS ALWAYS .» Randy's disillusionment was growing more vocal. «But then I guess I didn't see it when Eugene was being born.» «No, you didn't. I had it done for a Paris Match photo shoot. It was laser-removed in 1996.» Susan stood up, shook her head as though her hair were wet, then positioned her body to meet Randy's full on. «Randy, look at me, okay? It's all lies, Randy. All of it. Not just me. Chris. Them.Whoever. Everybody. Everything you read. It's all just crap and lies and distortions. All of it. Lies. That's what makes the lies you spread so funny, Randy. They're honest lies.» The baby snored. A tape that had been spinning in the VCR without playing hit the end of the reel and made a thunk. Susan tried to change her tone. «Having said that, Randy, tell me, what's the big lie of the day?» Randy chuckled. «Whitney Houston.» «Oh dear .» «It's true.» «About her left foot.» «What about her left foot?» Susan played along. «You haven't heard?» «Break it to me.» «It's pretty weird.» «Just tell me!» «Cloven hoof.» «Oh Randy

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