Still Holding

Overview

Bruce Wagner has been hailed for his powerful prose, his Swiftian satire, and the scalpel-sharp wit that has, in each of his novels, dissected and sometimes disemboweled Hollywood excess.
In his most ambitious book to date, Still Holding, Wagner immerses readers in post-September 11 Hollywood, revealing as much rabid ambition, rampant narcissism, and unchecked mental illness as ever. He infiltrates the gilded life of a superstar actor/sex symbol/practicing Buddhist, the ...

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Overview

Bruce Wagner has been hailed for his powerful prose, his Swiftian satire, and the scalpel-sharp wit that has, in each of his novels, dissected and sometimes disemboweled Hollywood excess.
In his most ambitious book to date, Still Holding, Wagner immerses readers in post-September 11 Hollywood, revealing as much rabid ambition, rampant narcissism, and unchecked mental illness as ever. He infiltrates the gilded life of a superstar actor/sex symbol/practicing Buddhist, the compromised world of a young actress whose big break comes when she's hired to play a corpse on Six Feet Under, and the strange parallel universe of look-alikes — an entire industry in which struggling actors are hired out for parties and conventions to play their famous counterparts. Alternately hilarious and heartfelt, ferocious and empathetic, Still Holding is Bruce Wagner's most expertly calibrated work.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
James Ellroy Still Holding is Bruce Wagner's masterpiece.

The Washington Post What Wagner does, nobody does better. He is the Nathanael West, the Budd Schulberg of our time, the go-to guy for closely observed novels about a sun-soaked hellhole that may or may not be a real place.

"Still Holding finds the Nabakov of New Age Angeleno life in the best form of his career - which is saying something...Probably because of the ghettoization of the Hollywood novel, Wager has never received the Franzen-like critical adulation that he deserves. Then again, he has never particularly sought celebrity; he has simply made it his own territory, with as much genius and ferocity as Faulkner applied to laying bare the gloriously unsavory humanity of Yoknapatawpha County."

Elle

"Wagner's ability to limn the mercurial ways of Hollywood is astonishing, and he...writes with a fiery grace...A brutal phantasmagoria on the pleasures and perils of the dream factory."

Kirkus Reviews

"Wagner has the ...marvelous ability to be resolutely kind and unsparingly cutting at the same time, a contradiction played out hilariously in [Still Holding]."

Entertainment Weekly

"[A] scathing, keenly observed tragicomedy of manners."

W Magazine

"The effect is like a Buddhist El Greco, a coil of figures spiraling awkwardly heavenward against a garish backdrop...But it's a gorgeous freak show, and part of the pleasure is that Wagner seems to be having so much fun."

New York Magazine

"Bruce Wagner writes comedies of manners...and they're caustic enough to take the paint off walls, which is why they're so memorable...[Still Holding] is just sardonic enough to be hilarious and just serious enough to be scary."

— Janet Maslin on CBS-TV "Sunday Morning"

"Bruce Wagner is a moralist whose misfortune it is to have as his subject the self-crazed, affect free, excess-addicted world capital of amorality, Hollywood. His hard luck is our good fortune. In blazing, high-speed prose he tears into his subject with a taboo-breaking savage rage disguised as wild comedy. He is a visionary posing as a farceur."

— Salman Rushdie

"Still Holding is Bruce Wagner's masterpiece. It's the place where his razor-eyed contempt melts, and he extends to his Hollywood doomed and damned a horrible empathy and pity. It's a primer and a Baedeker of the corruption of media and the human cost of playing game. This book contains miracles of wit, laughter and social commentary. It's a Hollywood novel that embraces everyone who has ever wanted to be someone else. Wagner's heart and energy abound."

—James Ellroy

The New York Times
A millennial heir to Nathanael West, [Wagner] captures the stone-cold nihilism lurking just beneath the city's glossy, cellulite-free surface and the deceptions and self-delusions that fuel so much of the deal making in town … Mr. Wagner serves up these themes with his customary black humor and unforgiving eye, proving to fans of Force Majeure and I'm Losing You that his knack for satire is as cutting as ever. — Michiku Kakutani
The Washington Post
Still Holding, in other words, is for all its surface glitz and celebrity cameos a fable of the restless, millennial American self. That's why Wagner, very much in contrast to other purveyors of Tinseltown apocalypses, delivers his characters into fates that, in view of the big Buddhist themes broached in Still Holding, are modestly solitary and karmic rather than flashily retributive and cathartic. Indeed, Wagner structures his novel so as to override the familiar straight line of cause-and-effect plotting in favor of a mandala-like wheel of chance that always works to demolish his characters' most deeply cherished conceits. Rather than a Page Six takedown of celebrity pretense, Still Holding is an instructive study in what one character calls "the messy, fragrant anarchy of impermanence." — Chris Lehmann
NY Times Sunday Book Review
I'm Losing You put Wagner on the map as the most lucid and pitiless of Hollywood's novelistic observers; it was the kind of novel that gave the lie to Edmund Wilson's comment that those who write about Hollywood aren't insiders, ''and those who know don't tell.'' Wagner really does know Hollywood -- he's a screen and television writer (''Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills,'' ''Wild Palms'') and a director -- and at its best his prose reads like some unholy combination of Rick Moody, Anthony Lane and the Page Six gossip columnist Richard Johnson. That is to say, he's chilly, funny and cruelly eagle-eyed all at once. You can flip ''I'm Losing You'' open to any page and find a line as wicked as this one: ''Their love continued to grow the way nails were said to grow on a corpse.'' — Dwight Garner
Publishers Weekly
Alternately brilliant and cluttered, this baroque third volume of Wagner's loose Hollywood trilogy (following the much-praised I'm Losing You and I'll Let You Go), moves along in fits and starts, crammed with celebrity cameos and sharp social commentary. The fable follows the workaday, neurotically self-absorbed lives of wannabe actress Becca, who hires out for trade shows as a Drew Barrymore look-alike, and Lisanne, a pathetically overweight secretary who, because of her morbid fear of flying, takes the Amtrak back home to Albany, arriving minutes too late to say good-bye to her dying father. These two women find their lives inexorably shaped by the karma of 34-year-old movie icon Kit Lightfoot (People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive"), a Buddhist who has meditated every day for almost 13 years. Lisanne returns to L.A. pregnant after a one-night stand with her high school flame. Slowly withdrawing deeper into neurosis, she becomes obsessed with Buddhism after her boss sends her to deliver a mandala to Kit. Suffering a severely debilitating brain injury when a disgruntled autograph hunter hits him in the head with a bottle, rich Kit is, poetically, nursed back to health by his grasping father. Ambitious Becca is hired as a cameo corpse on HBO's Six Feet Under and winds up girl Friday to TV sitcom queen Viv, Kit's fianc , who is shacking up with Kit's best pal. The irony verges on the farcical as Kit struggles to get his life back and the identity of his attacker is revealed. Though Wagner packs his twists too tight, leaving the reader gasping for air, this convoluted chiaroscuro offers probing insights into the human condition. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Strivers in Hollywood: some rise to fame, others fall into the flames. Wagner slims down from the delirious labyrinthine excess of I’ll Let You Go (2002) with this shorter, sharper tale of those battling toward the top of the Hollywood heap. Receiving top billing is Kit Lightwood, a Brad Pittesque hunk of burning stardom who is finally looking to be taken seriously as an actor. On the other end of the spectrum is Becca, as clueless as they come and wanting to be a star. Because of her apparent resemblance to Drew Barrymore, Becca gets a job as a Drew look-alike for a talent agency that specializes in such things. It’s a strange netherworld she enters into, including two battling Russell Crowe imitators, an experience that heightens Becca’s tabloid obsession with the real Drew, whom she commiserates with in long sprawling interior monologues (a Wagner specialty). Circling around the outside of this narrative is Lisanne, an executive secretary in her late 30s with a pathological fear of flying. Her seemingly mundane life intersects with Kit’s later on, but for too much of the time Wagner keeps her bumping around the story with little connection to the drama at its core. Kit’s life takes a downward turn when an attack by a rabid fan results in a head injury that takes months of recovery—his slow return to the media spotlight is written with extraordinary grace and an almost frightening knowledge of the vicissitudes of the media monster. At the same time, Becca’s life starts on the ascent when she gets cast as a corpse on Six Feet Under, which leads to her getting a role in the new Spike Jonze movie, about celebrity look-alikes. Wagner’s ability to limn the mercurial ways of Hollywood isastonishing, and he still writes with a fiery grace. Occasionally, he gets lost in the bushes, but he always bursts back out with a fury. A brutal phantasmagoria on the pleasures and perils of the dream factory. Agent: Jennifer Rudolph Walsh/William Morris
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743243384
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 8/31/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.44 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Bruce Wagner is the author of The Chrysanthemum Palace (a PEN Faulkner fiction award finalist); Still Holding; I'll Let You Go (a PEN USA fiction award finalist); I'm Losing You; and Force Majeure. He lives in Los Angeles.

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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 1: Her Drewness

As a girl, Becca hadn't resembled Drew Barrymore at all. But now, at twenty-five, especially after gaining a few pounds, she had grown used to comments from bartenders and store clerks, and the half-startled looks from passersby.

That was funny because her mom had always gotten the Sissy Spacek tag, even if Becca thought that was mostly because of a bad nose job. Still, Sissy and Drew were worlds apart, physically. It was a subjective thing; sometimes people could see the Sissy, sometimes they couldn't. But no one ever seemed to have trouble with Becca's "Drewness." Her boyfriend Sadge, who on a good day looked like a piss-poor Jack Black, got his kicks from playing it up — like the time he booked a table at Crustacean under Drew's name. He made sure to get there first and had Becca come forty minutes later in huge sunglasses, head swathed in a knockoff Hermès scarf. They were high, and the maître d' wasn't thrilled. (He must have been on to them from the beginning because Sadge had been ushered to the "civilian" zone.) A few diners turned their heads when Becca arrived, but she didn't have as much fun as she might have because Jordana Brewster was in the house, just on the other side of the glass partition, with a trim bald man Becca assumed to be her manager. Whenever Sadge laughed raucously or cued Becca to ham it up, the aspiring actress felt foolish, as she was certain Drew and Jordana knew each other. Jordana didn't look over once, and the whole thing kind of threw water on it for her. Suddenly Becca felt cheap, like a character in her friend Annie's favorite movie, Star 80.

That was the week she saw Drew on a Jay Leno repeat. Her divorce from Tom Green had just been announced, but there she sat, surrealistically giddy about the marriage. She gushed that her husband had sent a dozen roses and a note saying good luck on the show, and the audience sighed. Jay volunteered that it was actually a statistic that comedians stayed married longer. Drew said how great was that. It was so horrible and depressing that Becca actually got nauseated then angry that someone in programming would have been so careless as to rerun that particular show. She thought it might have been deliberately perpetrated, like when those malicious video store clerks splice porn into animated classics. Jay Leno struck her as a good and decent man, and she told Sadge — who'd laughed throughout the segment until Becca hit him — it was the kind of thing that if it was brought to NBC's attention by Drew's management (she hoped), the talk-show host would definitely apologize to her personally. Becca actually considered being the "whistle-blower," but then her own career concerns overtook her.

•••

"That was great," said Sharon. "I think you've got the potential to be quite a comedienne."

She gave the word a Frenchified emphasis, and Becca was lost. Did she mean stand-up? She was too intimidated to ask for clarification. Maybe she meant Becca should be doing gigs at the Laugh Factory instead of wasting time trying to get movie and TV roles.

She decided she didn't care what the woman meant. She would simply persevere, perseverance being the one quality all successful actors had in common. She'd just gotten her SAG card and had finally found a commercial agent but didn't yet have the all-important "theatrical." Still, she thought of herself as a winner because only a month or so after a general meeting with Sharon Belzmerz, one of the big casting directors on the Warners lot, she had been invited back to do a taped audition for a WB pilot. Sharon's friend, Becca's acting coach, made the initial contact. What you always heard was true — it was all about personal connections.

"That was really fun!" said Becca. "Thank you so much for seeing me." She glanced at the video camera on the tripod opposite her. "Can I get a copy?"

Sharon smiled at her naïveté

"Well, the director has to see it first — then we usually recycle."

"Oh! That's OK," said Becca, hiding her embarrassment.

"You're really very good. Don't worry, you'll have tape or film soon. You'll have a whole reel."

On the Boardwalk

When her father had a stroke, Lisanne took the day off.

She worked for Reggie Marck in the penthouse offices of Marck, Fitch, Saginow, Rippert, Childers, and Beiard, at Sunset near Doheny. She was thirty-seven and had been Reggie's crackerjack executive secretary for thirteen years, beginning with his stint at Kohlhorn, Kohan, Rattner, Hawkins, and Risk. When he heard the bad news, he encouraged her to get on a plane and go home. That wasn't so easy. Lisanne had a profound fear of flying (a condition long predating 9/11). After a round of phone calls to her aunt, she went to the Venice Boardwalk to clear her head.

The shoreline was windswept and absurdly pristine. Since the bike path's renovation and the rebuilding of a few burned-out boardwalk apartment houses — not to mention the arrival of Shutters and Casa del Mar — the beach had lost some of its funky grandeur. There wasn't much to be nostalgic about anymore. The shops, vendors, and performers were forced to clean up their acts, and the city hadn't sanctioned Fourth of July fireworks on the pier in years because of the gangs.

Lisanne bit the bullet and took possession of her wistful stroll; she had some serious mulling to do. There was the dilemma of her father's grave condition, plus imminent jet travel....Still, it was diverting to take in the scene. Because it was a weekday, there weren't many people out. Interspersed with the homeless was an upscale cadre of citizens busily exercising their right to play hooky at watery world's end. They spun or sprinted past doing "cardio" or simply sat and stared at the passive ruthlessness of the sea whence one day they would return, if they were so lucky. Heads tilted, faux-contemplative, to regard the occasional chandelier of gulls.

Lisanne waited for a woman in her late forties to jog by before crossing the path. A tribe of drunks sat on the grass. One of them yelled, "You go, girl! You c'n do it! You c'n do it, girlie!" The runner pretended to ignore him, but Lisanne could tell the bum had found her prideful nerve. Later, she saw a different drunk approach a gorgeous twentysomething couple. The boy's pants slung stylishly low, and the drunk said, "Hey, your fuckin pants are fallin down your ass!" The boy, smiling and trying to be cool, decided to say, "I know," to defuse the harassment. His girlfriend was being cool too, but the drunk wouldn't have it. "Then pull 'em up! Pull 'em up!" It was like the commedias dell'arte that Lisanne had studied in school. The bums and winos were there to keep it real, to deflate the ego and remind that all was vanity.

Lisanne slunk away to avoid being heckled. She was forty pounds overweight — a perfect target.

She tried to imagine herself climbing onto a plane. As a girl, she didn't mind flying so much, though she remembered only a few trips. The 747s were so big and she was so small that somehow it was OK. But now it was different. Reggie would have to hook her up with his doctor for the big gun sleeping pills, and if she timed it right, she'd wake up as they touched down at Newark. That was the best of scenarios. Aside from the obvious fantasies of wind-shear-induced nosedives, messy hijackings, human-debris-scattered cornfield fireballs, and charismatic pilots greeting her with gin-laced coffee breath as she boarded, Lisanne considered some of her lesser concerns to be laugh-out-loud comical. What if the pills put her out so deep that her snoring became shamefully stertorous or she drooled on the passenger beside her? What if her throat closed up or she had a reaction to the pills and vomited in her sleep? No — try as she may, Lisanne couldn't see herself getting into some fucked-up cylinder and hurtling through space. She wasn't ready to play that kind of Russian roulette. In heaven or hell, the biggest bunch of losers had to be the ones who crashed while flying to be at the side of a stroked-out parent.

She would take the train.

Does a Dog Have Buddha Nature?

Kit Lightfoot was in his trailer, meditating.

He was thirty-four and had meditated at least an hour a day for nearly a dozen years without fail. Out of carefully enforced humility, he had never shared that statistic with anyone, though the urge to do so frequently came upon him. Whenever he felt the pride of a Zen valedictorian, he smiled and soldiered on, letting the feeling wash over him. Years of zazen had taught him that all manner of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations would arise and clamor for his attention before falling away.

His career as an actor had barely been launched when a friend turned him on to Buddhism. He took up meditating and, a short while after, visited a monastery on Mount Baldy. It was freezing cold, but there was wordless beauty and a stunning quietude that pierced him to the core. That was the week, he used to say, where he got a taste of stillness. Monks and dedicated laypersons came and went like solemn, dignified cadets amidst the ritualized cadence of drums, chanting, and silence — his unthinkable siren and dangerous new friend, for silence too had a cadence. (The hard poetry of silence, his teacher once said.) He watched a man being ordained and later found out he had once been a powerful Hollywood agent. Kit grooved to that kind of convert. He loved having blundered into this magisterially abstract Shangri-la of the spirit, a flawless diamond-pointed world that might liberate him from the bonds of narcissism, the bonds of self.

He got deeper into his practice. Between theater and film gigs he traveled to far-flung countries attending monthlong sesshins, awakening at four in the morning to sit on a cushion eleven hours a day when not immersed in the meditation of food preparation, tea ceremonies, groundskeeping. He was glad to be young and strong while learning the art of sitting in stillness. Older initiates had a hard time with zazen's physical demands.

It became well-known within the show business community, and outside it too, that Kit was a serious practitioner. He rarely discussed his thoughts or beliefs with interviewers unless the venue was a magazine like Tricycle or Shambhala Sun. He didn't want to trivialize something so personal or, worse, get puffed up in the process. There were enough celebrities talking about yoga and Buddhism anyway. He gave generously to the Tibetan cause and funded clinics and ashrams through an anonymous trust. That satisfied him more than any public discourse ever could.

In those twelve years of practice, Kit Lightfoot, the celebrity, was often the People's Choice. He'd finally been snagged by James Lipton (Hoffman and Nicholson were among the remaining holdouts) and photographed in Vanity Fair's Hollywood issue with the simple caption "The Man." He even won Best Supporting for a remarkable, artfully thrown away performance in a fluky, borderline indie lark filmed just before the death of his Buddhist teacher, Gil Weiskopf Roshi. After the fact, it seemed so perfect. It was Gil who had said: Throw it all away.

•••

It was Thanksgiving time, and a whore was at his Benedict Canyon home. That used to be his thing, but he hadn't been with a whore since the early nineties. And he'd never cheated on Viv.

They were coked up in the living room, and he laughed as she held the dog's head between her legs. It kept trying to break free, and that made the whore laugh too. "Jus' like his master," she said. "Real picky." She laughed again and released him, then stood to pee. When the whore came back, she knelt by the Buddha at the fireplace and lit a cigarette. There were flowers and incense and tiny photos of enlightened men. She asked about the altar, and Kit said reflectively that it was a gift from Stevie Nicks. Then he gave her a little flash-card intro — Zen 101. Stillness. Sitting. The Power of Now.

"You meditate every day?" she said.

"Every day. For fifteen years."

A Star Is Born

Becca was part of Metropolis, a modest theater company that leased space on Delongpre. The roof was undergoing repair, having been damaged in the rains, so the class was temporarily on Hillhurst at the home of one of its founders. Becca thought Cyrus was a wonderful teacher and a good director too. He was for sure an amazing promoter. Aside from agent and exec heavies, he always managed to get people like Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins to show up at openings.

For two weeks, she'd been working with Annie on a scene from a Strindberg play. She had never even heard of Strindberg until she met Cyrus but had to admit she loved Tennessee Williams more. She loved Tennessee's letters and poems and short stories — everything he wrote was so sad and beautiful yet filled with such tenderness. His women were at once tough and unbearably fragile, just as Becca imagined herself. She'd seen all the films made from his plays and liked This Property Is Condemned best. In real life, Natalie Wood was sad and beautiful too and just as tragic as anything. August Strindberg was brilliant and ruthlessly true to human nature, but sometimes he scared her, leaving her cold. She preferred Ibsen and Chekhov.

After rehearsal, they went to a coffee shop on Vermont.

"Did I suck?"

"No!" said Annie. "You were great. Why? Did you think you sucked?"

"I always think I suck."

"You so don't. You're always amazing. Cyrus loves what you do."

"You think?"

"Totally. He so totally does."

"You mean he loves the one line per play he sees fit for me to declaim."

"You'll get there," said Annie. "Anyway, do you see me majorly treading the boards? Do you, Miss Declaimerhead?"

Becca laughed. "I'm just so freaked out — about everything. Ohmygod, did I tell you Sadge might be going to Tasmania for this reality show?"

"No! What is it?"

"I don't even know."

"Where's Tasmania? Is that, like, near Transylvania?"

"Maybe Czechoslovakia?"

"I so want to go to Prague. You should go, Becca! You should go with him and use his hotel as a base. You could do absinthe. Like Marilyn Manson! It would be so rad."

"I don't think so, Annie."

"But won't it be good, though? I mean, weren't you saying you needed space?"

"Yeah. But it'll be weird suddenly being alone."

"Can't you not have a boyfriend for one minute?"

"It's pilot season, and I haven't gone up for anything."

"That's why you're freaked out," Annie said knowingly.

"I guess."

"But you saw that casting woman."

"It doesn't matter."

"What did she say?"

"That I could be a 'comedienne.'"

Annie scrunched her nose the way Becca loved. "What does that mean?"

"I have no idea."

"You should do open-mike night at the Improv," said Annie. "You could be the next Margaret Cho."

"I could waitress at the Cheesecake Factory and after work do open-mike at the Laugh Factory."

Annie laughed then said, "I think that rocks."

•••

ONE OF THE Metropolis ensemble players who guested on Six Feet Under got sick with the flu and gave Annie his tickets to the show's season premiere at the El Capitan. Becca splurged on a dress from Agnès B.

They lingered in the lobby, getting free drinks and popcorn before going in. Stars like Ed Begley Jr. and Brooke Shields were milling around. The air was electric with showbiz bonhomie.

When they entered the theater, the girls were led to a special roped-off area to sit among the luminaries. They were just an arm's length from Jeff Goldblum, Kathy Bates, and Pee-Wee Herman. The head of the network got up and said they had all made history and that the cast was the greatest ever assembled. He said the creator of the show was a dark, special kind of genius who had written a drama that was ostensibly about death but actually turned out to be profoundly about life. Then the creator, the ubiquitous Alan, a handsomely nerdy, sweet-faced man, took the stage to a tumult of applause. He comically prostrated himself, saying "Thank God for HBO!" and this time there was a thunder of laughter along with the applause. Becca had never been to the premiere of a television show and was confused when he began to speechify like it was the Academy Awards. He acknowledged this person and that, occasionally interjecting "Thank God for HBO!" and everyone laughed, hooted, and clapped their hands. The audience seemed so happy, healthy, and rich, and ebullient men were kissing each other on the cheeks and mouth. She felt like part of them, like part of the HBO family — she was among the roped off after all, and the same men smiled back at her whenever Becca caught their eyes, as if it were a given that she was one of their own. They were kind and open and not cliquish even though they had every right to be.

The "after-party" was across the street in the building where they held the Oscars. It was fun walking the short distance because there were lots of photographers and police, and pedestrians straining their eyes to watch the privileged make their crosswalk pilgrimage. They passed the Chinese Theater, and for little micromoments Becca pretended she was famous. It gave her goose bumps.

While Annie was in the rest room, a woman approached and asked if she was an actress. She was casting for a show and gave Becca her card.

When Annie came back, Becca giddily marched her friend to a corner before uncrumpling it from her sweaty hand to examine:

THE LOOK-ALIKE SHOPPE PRODUCTIONS ELAINE JORDACHE, FOUNDER/CREATOR HOLLYWOOD, CA

The Great Plains

Lisanne treated herself to a deluxe bedroom on the Amtrak. It was such an intense relief not to be getting on a plane that she found herself almost sensuously relaxed as they left Union Station. She would keep in touch with her father's caretakers by cell phone and with the office as well, fielding any questions the temp might have. Getting to Chicago took two days. Lisanne would change trains there, arriving in Albany within twenty-four hours.

She kept to her room, hunkering down with a paperback filled with transcribed tapes from the recovered black boxes of crashed airplanes. She laughed a little at her own morbidity — it was so Addams Family-bedtime-story of her — yet each time she dipped into the book, her decision to take the rails was sustained anew. Oh God, thought Lisanne. My fears are completely justified.

One of the transcripts was particularly harrowing. An Alaska Airlines jet on its way from Puerto Vallarta to San Francisco had plunged into the Pacific. It was clear from the dialogue that the captain knew they weren't going to make it. But what haunted Lisanne was his intercom announcement to the passengers. He said Los Angeles was off to the right and that he didn't anticipate any problems once he got "a couple of subsystems on the line" — this, after the plane had shakily recovered from a nosedive. Anticipated arrival to LAX, he said, was under half an hour. Lisanne presumed that, by the time of his speech, the doomed passengers, many no doubt injured from the free fall, would have been in a state of shock. For months, she read the account over and over, thinking of Flight 261 as a kind of ghost ship, its wayward souls' eighty-eight sets of eyes (the book's favored term, each airborne drama typically ending with "all souls aboard were lost") forever fixated on Los Angeles, condemned to circle a destination at which they'd never arrive. The moment the captain directed their attention toward L.A. — "off to the right there" — Lisanne imagined the last thoughts and wishes of the passengers focused upon the sprawling city with an incomprehensible, laserlike force, a desperate longing that may ultimately have outlived their physical bodies. (Maybe that was just her father talking. It was the kind of impassioned, fanciful theory he would have advanced over the dinner table, spookily transcendent, darkly romantic; the sort of argument that intimidated her mother and made her feel small.) Our intention, said the pilot to the control tower, is to land at Los Angeles.

On trains, one ate communally, but Lisanne didn't have the energy for small talk or passing personal histories so she took meals in her cabin. Once in a while, to break the monotony, she had coffee in the observation car. The tracks were dicey, and the cars shimmied and shook. Her body shook too, but Lisanne didn't feel self-conscious because so many people on the train were fat — L.A. wasn't the way Americans looked, this was how Americans looked. Cushy and invisible, safe from wind shear, she clicked into cozy "observer" mode....A family threaded its way through the shifting aisle. The studious-looking little girl said to the others, "Now, if you hold on as you go, you'll be just fine." Such a darling, so distinctly American: the budding caretaker. She reminded Lisanne of herself. A young man with a shaved head passed by, wearing a T-shirt that read PAIN IS WEAKNESS LEAVING THE BODY. She saw a hermit-looking fellow staring out the window, with a heavy slab resting in his lap. She thought it was a food tray before getting a closer look — he'd been whittling a finely detailed memorial to the police and firemen of September 11. "How beautiful," she said. She really did think it an extraordinary example of folk art. The hermit thanked her indifferently, never averting his eyes from the mysterious panorama of the Kansan plains. So American too, this eccentric! Americans all.

One thing Lisanne thought strange: They had traveled hundreds of miles through small and midsize towns, but she rarely saw a human being. The locomotive whooshed, clattered, or lumbered past clapboard houses, some abandoned, others half built, many clearly lived in, yet Lisanne never saw anyone in the yards or driveways — no scavengers or children, idlers or train watchers, no one working in the yard, or even seen through windows, baking, yelling, reading or restive, writing or resigned. She searched her mind, but there was no way to account for it. She thought of Alaska Airlines again — of ghost ships and ghost trains, ghost moms and dads on a ghostly plain. What was that movie she saw on pay-per-view and liked so much? Ghost World. That just about said it all.

The porter, a slow black girl, brought dinner. Lisanne fastidiously arranged the food on the metal tray that dropped down from the cold window of her private compartment. It was pleasurable to eat in solitude with the sun dipping and the scenic world moving by. Had she flown, she would have arrived long since.

Just before sleep, Lisanne thought of the family she'd read about in The New York Times who had perished in France, in a fire aboard a high-speed train. Only those in the deluxe sleeper car had died. The same thing happened in the States some years ago, but she couldn't get it up to care. Phobias were like that — either you had one or you didn't. Bed down, tucked beneath the requisition threadbare pink blankets, Lisanne felt safe and secure, certain she'd survive any old little fire or derailment that came her way.

•••

Just before arriving in Chicago, Lisanne showered in the closet-size bathroom. The water was nice and warm, and she smiled at the comic absurdity of hosing herself down in the upright plastic coffin of a train toilet. Looking at the big white folds of skin, she felt like an animal at the county fair. She laughed when imagining herself stuck in the stall, the dull-witted porter having to pry her out.

She had four hours to kill and went to Marshall Field's for lunch. The grandiose dining room was shopworn and depressing, so she ate lunch in an ill-lit, pretentious chain-boutique hotel with giant, ludicrously stylized chairs and lamps. After the meal, she strolled to the Sears Tower. It was windy, and her mind imbecilically repeated: The Windy City, the Windy City, the Windy City. She tried calling her aunt but couldn't get through.

It was good to get back on the train. She saw herself traveling like this forever, city to city, station to station, coast to coast, working for Amtrak incognito as a secret inspector in quality control, a plus-size spinster who kept to herself and legendarily took meals in sequestration. She thought seriously about changing her return ticket so that instead of coming through Chicago again she could take the southern route to Jacksonville then over to New Orleans.

By the time she got to Albany, her father was dead.

The Benefit

He flipped through the paper. Viv was still getting ready. The driver waited outside to take them to the benefit.

Kit was always looking through articles in the Times for movie ideas. Maybe there would be something to develop that he could direct. Shit, his friend Clooney had done it. Nic Cage and Sean, Denzel and Kevin — name the film and the chances were that some actor had "helmed." There was an item about a woman accused of feeding her young daughter sleeping pills and shaving her head in an effort to convince the community she had leukemia and was worthy of multiple fund-raisers. She even put the kid in counseling, to prepare her for death. Another told of two Wichita brothers who broke into a town house and forced a bunch of twentysomething friends to have sex with each other before staging executions on a snowy soccer field. At the bottom of the page was the story of a pole vaulter who had freakishly crashed to the ground and died during his run. The last thing he said before jogging to his death was, "This is my day, Dad."

"What's this thing we're going to?" Kit asked as Viv strode in, cocky and perfect-looking. He could smell the hair on her arms.

"A benefit for Char Riordan," she said. "She's a casting agent — so great. I love her."

"Television?"

She nodded.

Viv Wembley was as famous as her boyfriend but in a different way. She was one of the stars of Together, the long-running, high-rated sitcom.

"She cast me in my first play and my first TV movie. I was bridesmaid at her wedding on the Vineyard."

"So what's wrong with her?"

"Scleroderma."

"Gesundheit."

"Very funny."

"Sclerowhat?"

"Scleroderma."

"What is that?"

"I don't even know! It's in the tissues or something. She looks kind of like a monster — like she's rotting away."

"Always attractive."

"If I ever get anything like that, promise to shoot me."

"After I fuck you. Or maybe during."

She swatted at him as they got into the Town Car. When it pulled up to the hotel, the photographers shouted their names in a frenzy. Alf Lanier, a younger movie star in his own right and a friend of both, nudged his way over, doing jester shtick as the trio posed in a seizure of strobes.

"What the fuck are you doing here?" asked Kit, playfully sotto.

"Isn't this the Michael J. Fox thing?" said Alf.

"You are such an asshole," said Viv, with a scampish smile.

"You stupid cunt," said Kit to Alf, whispering in his ear to be heard above the vulturazzi. "Didn't you know this was the Lymphoma Costume Ball?"

"You guys better shut up!" said Viv, enjoying their banter.

Alf looked outraged and shot back to Kit: "This is the cystic fibrosis-autism thing, you insensitive prick."

"Oh shit," said the superstar, contritely. "I fucked up. But are you sure this isn't the bipolar Lou Gehrig tit cancer monkeypox telethon?"

They went on like that as Viv dragged them into the ballroom.

Fisticuffs

The office of the Look-Alike Shoppe Productions was on Willoughby, not far from where Metropolis had its theater. It was Saturday when Becca came in. Before taking the stairs, she noticed the dented Lexus with the customized plate:

Elaine Jordache, a hard fifty with jet-black, dandruffy hair, had predatory eyes that somehow still welcomed. She sucked from a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf cup festooned with lipstick. Glossies of actors covered every available wall space; Xeroxes and boilerplate contracts littered floor and desk in a parody of industry. She rid a chair of papers and bade Becca sit amid the shitstorm. If the phone rang, Elaine said she would have to take it — her assistant was out sick, and she was expecting an important call from Denmark. As it happened, she said, the Look-Alike Shoppe did a ton of business with Denmark.

"What did you think of the show?" she asked.

Becca was flustered until she realized Elaine was talking about the Six Feet Under premiere.

"It was amazing. Ohmygod, did you cast it?"

"A close friend of mine," she said, shaking her head. "A protégée. She handles the extras. She'll be doing principals soon, wait and see — they all just won Emmys. The girls who cast the show. They do a great job too. But you burn out doing a series. It's an assembly line. That's a fuck-load of faces, each and every week. They'll be wanting to move on." She took a long cigarette from an antiquey silver case, then shuffled beneath the contracts, hunting for matches. "Fun when you're younger, though. They really work you. Everyone wants a lot of bang for their buck. I've been with all the biggies — Altman, Ashby, Nic Roeg. Do you even know who Nic Roeg is?" Becca shook her head. "Well, why should you? My God, I worked with Nic when I was a baby — your age. Married to Theresa Russell. Were they the couple: hot, hot, hot! I've got a fabulous Theresa Russell, but I can't use her. Saw her on the street — not even she knows she looks like Theresa. Who's heard of Theresa Russell anymore?"

Elaine found a matchbook and lit up. She dipped into a steel file drawer and passed an eight-by-ten Becca's way — a pretty girl with wavy blond hair dangling from beneath a fedora, like a starlet from long ago. "There she is," said Elaine. Becca noticed some acne on the chin that should have been airbrushed. "That's my Theresa, for all the good it'll do me. I don't even know where she is. Phone disconnected. She was working at either Target or Hooters, can't remember which. Maybe Costco. I get all my kids confused."

"What is it that you do here?" asked Becca ingenuously.

Elaine literally threw back her head and laughed. "'Do'? I do look-alikes! Ground control to Becca! I mean, that's what it says on the card, right? Look-alikes. I cast look-alikes." Becca still seemed perplexed. "For trade shows and special events, OK? Meet-'n'-greets. Conventions. Comedy sketches. Ever done comedy?"

"I've done improv. I'm in Metropolis — the theater group."

Elaine wasn't impressed.

"Last week, Rusty was on the Leno show — my Russell Crowe. You know how Jay sometimes does movie takeoffs? Like Johnny used to. God, I used to book Johnny like crazy. He's got emphysema now, poor man. But he's richer than Croesus so I ain't gonna feel too bad. I flew Rusty to Japan just last month, they're crazy about Russell Crowe in Japan — and Drew too," she said, with a wink. "They did a nine-eleven memorial thing over there. I had my Russell, my Clooney, my Bette. She did 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.' Does she have a voice on her! I'm desperate for a Nicole — lost mine to pilot season, what can you do? I'd kill. I actually do have a couple of Ewans, believe it or not. Thought they'd be harder to come by. Audiences eat the duets up. But the Nicole really has to be able to sing. Moulin Rouge has become a cash cow for us. And," she said dramatically, "I've got a Cammie Diaz and a Lucy Liu...but no Drew." She inhaled deeply. "That's where you come in."

•••

That night, Becca made Annie go with her to a nightclub in Playa del Rey that Elaine recommended. Some of her people would be performing.

The show was a cavalcade of look-alikes. Most of them were tacky, but a few had natural talent as impersonators. Annie was stoned and couldn't stop laughing, but Becca was moved in a way she couldn't explain. A bad Kit Lightfoot did his thing, then a Russell Crowe came onstage in a cheap gladiator outfit and Becca thought him awful. He was muscle-bound and inelegant, his accent was absurd, and you had to squint even to imagine a resemblance. Her opinion of Elaine Jordache's judgment soured right there.

Toward the end, after a few peculiar acts — a lurid Celine Dion, and a ranting John McEnroe being interviewed by a long-haired Larry King — a second Russell Crowe took the stage. Becca thought this one to be nearly charismatic as the real thing. He did the hand-to-forehead tic of the character from A Beautiful Mind and spoke in "schizophrenic" tongues, a creative stream-of-consciousness monologue that Becca found funny and poetic, with pointedly scathing asides directed at his earlier, idiotic incarnation. This Russell was someone who didn't relish sharing the stage.

Afterward, the two girls went out for a smoke. Annie got woozy from the wine and the weed and they decided to go home. On the way to the car, Becca saw the second Mr. Crowe and called out, "You were amazing!"

"Thanks," he mumbled, head down, as if still in character.

She walked a little closer. "I'm a friend of Elaine's," she stammered. "Elaine Jordache. She told me you were in Japan — that you went to Japan."

He eyed her warily. "Oh yeah? That was no thanks to her. She's a cunt — worse — a Jewish cunt. And she's trying to fucking rob me."

His ears pricked like an animal's and he bolted, sprinting down the block. Annie gasped then broke into laughter, while Becca's mouth remained open in astonishment. They ran for the car and tussled awhile, Becca trying to wrest away the keys. Annie insisted on driving and made a screeching turnabout, stopping at the light in time to see the Russell chase down his inferior. He threw his shadow to the ground and pummeled him. Like puppet and despotic puppeteer, the weaker Russell squeaked and moaned, squirming under the rain of blows.

"Ohmygod!" muttered Annie, and floored it.

Sleepless in Albany

He had been dead just forty-five minutes when Lisanne arrived. The nurses stayed out of the room while the aunt and one of her father's neighbors sat vigil. All of the medical equipment had been disconnected.

His skin was like tallow. The aunt spread baby powder on the hairless, purple-bruised arms, draping a small towel over the genitals, then gave Lisanne the powder and gestured for her to do the legs. She wasn't sure why they were doing it, but it was somehow a comfort. His shins reminded her of slick wood handrails. The cologne of the talc commingling with death smells faintly sickened. His mouth twisted to one side, like that of a whispering conspirator in a medieval religious painting.

•••

After he had been cremated, Lisanne kept dreaming that she was a victim of one of those undertaker scams and that what she thought were the dusty remains of her father were actually those of animals or indigent men. Finally, to break the cycle, she went downstairs.

Her aunt sat in Dad's favorite chair half asleep, the cool, ash-filled vase poised on a thin shellacked table beside her. It took four hours — four whole hours to burn a body then grind its bones to dust. Lisanne picked up the urn, revolved it, then quietly set it down. She traced a half circle around it, then tapped the tabletop's veneer. Just the kind of piece people bring to Antiques Roadshow, she thought randomly.

Lisanne heated up milk in a saucepan. While her aunt slept, she padded to the library to browse the bookshelves so she might further distance herself from the soot of nightmare. Her father had been a professor, a learned man. She drew a forefinger over the spines: Poverty — A History; Wedekind's Diary of an Erotic Life; The Norton Dictionary of Modern Thought; The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa; The Book Lover's Guide to the Internet; a cool green, five-volume set called Mexico — A Traves de los Siglos; Hardy's Selected Poems. She never really knew him, nor would she now by his obscure and bloodless books. They would crumble soon enough, like the body of their collector, whose exit she'd been too late to observe.

"Why didn't you fly?"

The aunt appeared in the door like a dark oracle.

"Because it terrifies me."

Lisanne paused, wondering if she should go on. Why should she have to explain herself to this crone?

"And because I would have had to drug myself into a coma, which always makes me uncomfortable."

The old woman winced at her niece's low comedy but said nothing. She left the room.

Lisanne climbed the stairs and returned to the same bed she'd slept in as a girl — the same bed her mother chose to die in, ten years back. She had missed that death too.

She took half an Ativan and settled under the covers, imagining herself on a 747, first class, selecting wines and cheeses offered by the handsome steward...joshing with a flirty fellow passenger after a spate of turbulence...the uneventful landing...the connecting plane and swift arrival to hospital...Dad's deep-water eyes rising just once more to surface sea brightness at the unexpected sight of her, and the aunt's tearful relief as she entered the room...a convocation of hands prayerfully entwined as he shanty-sighed his last respirations, sinking back to the briny depths.

As the first wavy softness of the drug entered her bloodstream, Lisanne's thoughts drifted to her high school boyfriend. The aunt said Robbie had moved back to town six months ago. It was at least ten years since they'd spoken and she decided to see him before the train left for Chicago on Sunday night.

Command Performance

"What the fuck are we doing here?" asked Kit.

They were at a club on the Strip frequented by young television stars.

"My roots, baby," said Alf. "Television made me what I fucking am. Jus' loves comin back to look after the little ones." He scanned the room with a vulpine smile. "You're so mega, Kitchener. Your very fucking presence makes 'em nutsoid. Look at 'em! Look! Trying to be all cool and not make eye contact — sad but so sweet."

Kit looked around in exaggerated disgust. "I meet enough TV dickheads through Viv."

"Think you're gonna marry her?"

"Man, I don't know. It's hard. It's fucking hard. Sometimes I think that'd be...kinda great? You know, I love her — I really do."

"I know. I know. Great gal."

"Sometimes I think: OK. Let's do it. The whole yadda-baby thing. Because she's hot, she's in my blood, man. Other times, I just stare at the fucking ceiling. And it's like...whoa! Can't give up the whores."

Alf got quiet.

They erupted in laughter, tilting back shots.

"Still into the Buddhist thing?"

"Still into it," said Kit, by rote. He was used to the tepid inquiries. "I'm a lapsed Buddhist," he added with a smirk.

"Fallen monk."

"That's me, honey. After the fall."

"I read this interview with Oliver Stone? He said he was attracted to Buddhism because it wasn't on some morality trip like most religions."

"That's bullshit," said Kit. "Buddhism's all about morality. Right thought, Right action."

"I think I'm really gonna try it," said Alf.

"Uh huh."

"I'm serious — at least the meditation thing. Friend of mine has this machine, this mask and headset that put out these crazy lights and sounds. Very sixties, bubba. Supposed to put you in an alpha state without having to sit for ten hours a day. Kinda jump-starts you. He drops the shrooms, then straps it on. Cause I don't know if I could do that — the whole sit thing that you do. I mean, I got discipline but..."

"You're disciplined at getting blow jobs."

"From your daddy. And he's good, too. Guess you gave him a lot of practice. I was listening to these Joseph Campbell tapes on the way to Vegas. The ones with Bill Moyers? Downey's totally into them. We were on our way to see the Stones. Did you ever listen to that Campbell shit? He's a trip."

"Get thee to a monastery. I'll hook you up."

Kit flinched at his own words. He hated his behavior of late, the way he acted, spoke, thought. His only comfort was in telling himself that he was in the at-least-conscious throes of some sort of perversely pathetic karmic regression. For years he had been meticulous, impeccable, mindful — now he was frivolous and inane, wasteful, asinine. A flabby bullshitter: every gesture and every breath was false, vulgar, wrong. He was a poisoned well. It was becoming intolerable to be in his own skin. He'd long since betrayed the precepts and spirit of his practice. When he thought of Gil Weiskopf Roshi, his root guru, monitoring his lifestyle from the afterworld, Kit shuddered with embarrassment before noting that even his shame and remorse were bogus and hypocritical. This sort of masochistic digression formed the backdrop of his days.

Alf saw a friend come toward them from the bar. "Heads up for my man Lucas. Good little actor — got a Golden Globe."

Lucas was upon them. He said hello to his old friend, then turned to Kit, awestruck. "I just wanted to tell you what a big fan I am of your work."

"Thanks."

"And Viv's great, too. I just did an arc on Together. She's good people. Very cool."

Alf stood up. "Be right back. I see someone I think I want to fuck."

"Boy or girl?" said Kit.

"Girly-man," said Alf. He leaned over to Lucas and stage-whispered, "Try not to drool on my bro, OK?"

Kit wasn't thrilled to be left holding the bag with Golden boy.

"You're into Buddhism, aren't you?"

"Right."

Oh God here we go. Suddenly he felt how drunk he was.

"My sister's deep into it. She spent nine months at an ashram in the Bahamas. What's it called, the meditation?"

"There's different kinds."

"It starts with a v — "

"Vipassana?"

"Yeah! That's it — vipassana. That stuff is serious. She's way into yoga too. She's really close to Mariel Hemingway, who's completely addicted. She wrote this memoir? — Mariel, not my sister — with the chapter headings all named for yoga poses? Did you read that?"

"No."

He kept his ego in check. What was the point in dissing this nervous kid?

"So, how long you been knowing Alf?" asked Kit.

"We did this series, a summer replacement. Kinda were roomies — lived down the hill from Hustler's. On Sunset? Before that, we both tended bar at the Viper. Went on auditions together, slept with each other's girlfriends. You know the drill. Alfie's gone a little farther careerwise than I have. Can't complain."

"You won the Globe! That's pretty major. What was that for?"

"Savage Song."

"Right! The software guy with Tourette's? Man, I saw that. Viv thought you were amazing. Kept buggin on me to check it out."

"Thank you. I can't believe you actually watched that! Thank you. Yeah, that was difficult, cause there were, like, so many Tourette's flicks. It's hard to stand out."

"Ever think you'd fuck it up? I mean, you go out on a major limb when you do the disability thing. I don't think I have the chops."

"I researched it pretty well."

Alf came back to the table accompanied by a redhead with a tiny dragon tattoo on her neck. They ditzed around while Kit and Lucas hunched over, talking between themselves like new best friends.

"I kind of got to know a lot of those people. My accountant's actually got Tourette's."

"You have to do it," said Alf, having overheard. "You gotta reprise your Golden Globe-winning performance!"

"You mean, now?" said Lucas, a twinkle in his eye. Alf knew his buddy would do anything in front of The Idol, for a laugh.

"Kit, you gotta see this!"

"What?" said Kit, with a half smile. He swallowed another shot.

"OK, I'll show you," said Lucas. He spoke directly to the superstar, as if it were Kit, not Alf, who'd been egging him on. "But only if you put me in your next film."

"Done," said Kit, along for the ride.

Alf rubbed his hands together and said, "Let's roll."

Lucas stood and instantly adopted his small-screen persona, barking, spitting and spewing obscenities with startling spasmodic accuracy as the clubbers reacted first with stunned silence then shrieks, laughter, and war whoops.

Chagrined, Kit found himself laughing louder than anyone — to the starstruck onlookers it almost seemed like he was part of the show. He'd been feeling so miserable and so derelict, and now all his self-loathing tumbled forth with unstoppable fury.

Asses into Seats

Becca got to the L.A. Convention Center early. She went to the Subaru exhibit, but no one was there.

As she left the hall to find a coffee, Elaine arrived with a gaggle of look-alikes in tow. She was glad to see "Drew" — she insisted on calling her brood by their celebrity names — and quickly introduced her to Cameron, Louie (Anderson), Cher, and Whoopi. Shoving Cameron at her, she bemoaned that Lucy (Liu) had car trouble and wasn't going to make it. Today, the Auto Show would have to get by with just two Angels.

A few aloof staffers appeared and faintly sniggered while Elaine gathered the ducklings round for an impromptu seminar. Subaru had a Hooray for Hollywood! theme going, and the idea was for the look-alikes to encourage spectators to sit in the cars, kick the tires, and whatnot. Before Elaine even finished, Whoopi dived right in, spritzing a Japanese couple with Hollywood Squares-type zingers. The Louie was heartened and impulsively uprooted a prepubescent girl, forcibly settling her into one of the car's open trunks so that she stood in it upright. The dad took pictures of his bemused, giggly daughter.

The Cameron was awkward at first but in between entertaining consumers spoke excitedly to Becca of Elaine Jordache's Angels Master Plan. She was tall and had no ass. Becca thought the most Cameron-like thing about her was definitely her smile, which shone grotesquely without requiring cue. She wore clear braces (she said she was "currently under construction"), with a view toward making wideness and whiteness closer to Cameron's; the lips were chapped with grape-colored gloss ill-applied. Becca couldn't understand why the girl couldn't at least have given the mouth — her prime asset — a little more prep time.

Some kids came over and hassled them. "Are you supposed to be Drew Barrymore?"

"That's right," said Becca, extending an arm to one of the cars. She thought she may as well use them for practice. "Now be an angel and take a seat in the new Impreza — it never fails to impress!"

"Take a seat on my face," muttered his friend. They cracked themselves up until a mean-looking staffer sent them scurrying. Out of harm's way, one of the boys shouted: "Hey, everybody! Drew Barrymore! Over there! It's Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz of Charlie's Angels!" His buddy added, "Free blow jobs, free blow jobs! They're giving out free blow jobs!"

They disappeared into the crowd.

Becca introduced herself as Drew (per Elaine's instructions), showing browsers to their cars. All in all, people were kind, and flattering about her resemblance. She had read that a lot of Hollywood power-types came to the Auto Show — you never knew who you'd make an impression on. Her Southern charm and sunny spirit lightened everybody's load. She even won the staffers over.

After an hour or so, she took a break. She saw Elaine over by a customized SUV, having an argument with the handsome man who had impersonated Russell Crowe in Playa del Rey. Becca hid herself behind a display and eavesdropped.

"I told you to bring the armor!" she hissed.

"I said that I couldn't find it. I didn't want to be late."

He was docile — a far cry from his brutish behavior of the other night.

"Well, next time I say bring it, bring it. Or there won't be a next time. They specifically asked for the armor, and now I don't even know if they're going to pay for you, understand? If you ask for Mickey Mouse, you damn well expect the ears." She tapped her foot with irritation. "Start paying attention or there won't be a London and there won't be a European tour. Understood?"

"You're a little over the top, don't you think?"

"There won't be a European tour, Rusty! Am I making myself understood?"

He stared at the ground in the diffident way that had charmed Becca when they first met. "Understood."

Elaine stormed off.

Rusty — she wondered what his real name was but liked Rusty just fine — approached the Subaru space, defeated. She was reminded of the scene where Joaquin Phoenix stabs Maximus, mortally wounding him before their Colosseum showdown. Becca discreetly circled around so that they both approached the exhibit at the same time. When he saw her, he seemed to reach out and retreat all at once. She said hello, and he nodded in a way that broke her heart. Becca saw him deflate as he stood there in his shabby Beautiful Mind suit, watching the Louie cavort with people's kids. He listened to the other look-alikes introduce themselves by their celebrity names, and seemed to steel himself; then, in a remarkable rally, he approached a young black couple and vigorously said, "G'day, mates — I'm Russell Crowe. Come have a seat in the Subaru Baja! I assure you its south of the border qualities won't disappoint. As a real Insider, let me tell you this little vehicle's no croc — or 'Crocodile' Dundee! So c'mon over, put a shrimp on the Barbie doll and let me give you something strictly L.A. Confidential: I got half A Beautiful Mind to give this Gladiator" — arm sweeping toward polished passenger door — "an Academy Award — for Best Car of the Year!"

The Fireman's Fund

The cold, moldy, red-shingled string of cottages was called The Albany. A voice inside her — the snotty L.A. voice, the wry deadpan voice of her boss, Reggie Marck — said, Hey: it doesn't get much more imaginative than that.

Robbie wouldn't take her home, and she knew that meant he was involved. Though maybe not. Lisanne wouldn't ask. Maybe he had a roommate he was embarrassed to parade her in front of, the kind who would tease him about porking a porker. She understood. She'd never made love at this weigh-in. He seemed excited enough, and besides, she didn't care. She only wanted communion. She had almost forgotten what that was like.

He was an athlete in high school. It was torrid between them, but when Lisanne got accepted to Berkeley they broke up. Robbie stayed behind and drove an ambulance, with the idea of eventually enrolling in med school. When the company went bankrupt, he took the EMT course for paramedics in training and began working for the city. His story was that he injured his back lifting a gurney and wound up addicted to painkillers. He moved back in with his mom, inheriting a small amount of money when she died. Lisanne didn't want to know too many details.

The sex was still good. She got vocal and cried out to God. That surprised her. He went down on her, and that was rough; she instinctively covered the fatness of a thigh with one hand while drawing up folds of belly with the other. While he worked down there, she thought about enrolling in an obesity program at UCLA. You ate seven hundred calories a day for months and lost three or four pounds a week, the only drawback being that your breath stank as your body began to devour its stores of fat. There was a moment of embarrassment when he spoke up and said it looked like she had some discharge. She switched on a lamp, but it was only a small wad of toilet paper. He went back to his labors — nothing seemed to turn him off.

Robbie lit an après-sex joint and proceeded to get all happy. She smoked and choked. He asked if she wanted to come see his house (the one he had bought and was slowly fixing up) and glowed like a cheap guru when she assented. Her cohabitation theories might have been wrong after all.

The ride was freezing and quiet. The truck smelled of desuetude and cigarettes, old mud, junk mail, torn vinyl promises. She hadn't been this loaded in a long time. She became focused on the long, trembling metal stick that ruled the roost, the crystal of its eight ball cupped in Robbie's hand like an animal's heart. She watched the arcane, manly, unfathomable patterns of his upshifts and downshifts with the attention of an adept. The engine provided heat; there wasn't even a radio. Her ex seemed to lose impetus as they drove, but Lisanne thought maybe that was because there wasn't any more weed. Robbie clearly had a tolerance.

A light flurry of snow blew down as they pulled into the drive. It felt like high school, playing hooky to do something dirty.

"How long you been here?" she asked as they stepped out.

"About a year," he said. "My grandma stays with me."

"I thought Grannie was dead!"

"That's Mom's mom — remember Elsa?"

"Sure do," she said.

"Well, Elsa died about a year after Mom."

"That's terrible."

"Yeah, well, it was time for her to go."

"So this is your dad's mom?"

"Uh huh."

"I don't think I ever met her."

"She lived in Rochester. She's kind of a hermit."

When they entered, the house was filled with shadows. A cloud of perfume pressed on Lisanne like a rag of chloroform. A petite, hawklike figure watched them from the other side of the kitchen counter.

"Maxine?"

"Yes?"

Lisanne was suddenly self-conscious that she hadn't showered. Robbie's eyes were bloodshot. She felt dodgy and illicit.

"This my friend Lisanne, from L.A. — her dad died. I told you about her," he added. "We went to high school together."

"Hello," said Lisanne, brightening like a loser.

Perky whore.

The pot was still kaleidiscopically working on her.

"Hiya," said the woman.

Her features grew more distinct as Lisanne's eyes adjusted to the light. She looked around seventy, of slender frame and predatory countenance. She was meticulously groomed, and Lisanne pegged her wardrobe as vintage — Chanel or YSL.

"I was just getting ice cream," said Maxine. "Y'all like some?"

Robbie turned solicitously to Lisanne, who shook her head. In the full fluorescence of her stonedness, her man looked wild and bereft, startled to have put them in this wrong, weird predicament.

"Actually," said Maxine, "it's soy. They call it Soy Dream and it's raspberry. I am absolutely hooked and don't care who knows. Do I, Robert?"

"No ma'am!"

"Aren't I absolutely hooked?"

"Yes ma'am!"

"Hook, line, and stinker. Bell, book, and candle."

"May I use the bathroom?" said Lisanne.

She could feel her smile becoming fixed and ghoulish; Robbie pointed the way.

Lisanne listened to the voices engaged in low argument as she douched.

The Greenroom and Beyond

"He's been voted People magazine's 'Sexiest Man Alive' more times than anyone on the planet — and he can type too. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome...Kit Lightfoot!"

The supernova took the stage with his patented self-effacing panther walk. The band raucously played the well-known theme from an early megahit. There was a large contingent of fans and screamers toward the front.

They embraced. After the applause died down, Jay did his jokey debonair thing. "Those screams — if our viewers at home are wondering — are partially for me. Something in the aftershave."

Laughter. More swoons, hoots, and hollers.

"All right," Jay chastised. "That's enough now!"

He turned to his handsome guest. "So how the hell are ya?"

Hair-trigger whoops came before he could answer. Kit raised an eyebrow at the audience and chuckled. A few isolated screams.

"I'm great. I'm great, Jay."

First words greeted by more electric commotion (everyone was having fun, and fun was what it was all about) which gradually though never completely faded away.

"I saw you at a benefit last week," said Jay.

"For scleroderma," said Kit, nodding.

"Yes. For a lovely lady who Mavis, my wife, has actually known for years — Char Riordan. They're doing wonderful research."

"Yes."

"Making great strides. Do you go to a lot of those things? I would imagine you get asked to lend your name to causes."

"This business is so frivolous, Jay, and so many of us have been absurdly blessed. I mean, let's face it, I put on makeup for a living — "

"You could always work on Santa Monica Boulevard..."

"Don't quit my day job, exactly! But I think we get compensated on such a ridiculous scale, that we're...compelled...to do what we can. Otherwise, you're just a kid in a sandbox. I try to do my share."

Applause kicked in, soberly encouraged by Jay. "So you went last week — "

"I had a personal connection. Viv and Char — the woman being honored — are very, very close."

"That's of course Viv Wembley," said Jay, pausing to acknowledge the audience as they whooped and applauded. "In case the folks out there didn't know," he added with a wink. "The very lovely, and by the way very funny star of Together. And I want to get to some other things — it's well known you have an interest, a long-standing interest, in Buddhism, and you've agreed to talk with us a little about that tonight in connection with an upcoming event — which is something you rarely do and I'm thrilled you're going to enlighten us, so to speak. But first, I'm dying to ask you a question."

"Shoot."

"Someone told me you and Viv have nicknames for each other."

The audience hooted while Kit squirmed appealingly. "Who told you that?"

"Vee haff ways. Now come on, Kit, tell us what she calls you."

He hemmed and hawed. The crowd cajoled.

"She calls me Bumpkin."

The audience let out a happy groan. Warm laughter. Wolf whistles.

"Now come on!" said Jay, admonishing the mob. "I think it's very sweet." He turned back to Kit. "She calls you Bumpkin."

"That's right, Jay."

"And...what's your nickname for Viv?"

"I don't think we should go there."

The audience protested, then began to plead.

"This is a family show," Kit added.

Laughter. More pleading. Isolated begging whoops.

"Now, you were supposed to do a cameo on Together — "

"Jay! I thought we were moving on!"

"We are, but this is important. I heard Viv was mad because that cameo hasn't yet happened."

Kit looked at the host with keen-eyed admiration. "Oh, you are good. You are really good."

Audience laughter.

"Bumpkin's been a very bad boy," said Jay.

"Yeah, she's not too happy. But I'm busy! I'm in the middle of shooting a picture! I'm in a little bit of hot water here, Jay, help me out!"

"I'm trying to be sympathetic. But to most of us, being in hot water with Viv Wembley probably isn't the worst thing in the world."

"Think you're man enough to handle it?"

The audience laughed. Jay cracked up, blushing.

"When we come back, I want to talk about the Dalai Lama — he's a friend of yours, right? — and the important work you've been doing building clinics over there."

"Helping to," Kit added, with a modest smile.

"Where are they, India?"

"Yes," Kit said matter-of-factly. "India."

"For the refugees."

"For whoever needs them."

Jay looked straight into the camera and said, "Kit Lightfoot. Right here. Right now. Wearing makeup. So don't touch that dial."

How Verde Was My Valle

Rusty invited Becca to his apartment. They met instead at the Rose Café, a few blocks from where he lived. She wasn't ready to be alone with him just yet. There was something so tender about him but something dangerous too, like the actor he portrayed.

When she asked his real name, he said Rusty, without a trace of irony. He said he was from Sarasota. His father was a wealthy entrepreneur who, among other ventures, had been involved in business dealings with Burt Reynolds, a pal from college. About himself, Rusty used the term jack-of-all-trades. He had worked as a racetrack stable hand, a private nurse to the wealthy ("like the guy who killed that billionaire in Monaco," he said with a laugh), and a thief whose expertise was delivering the items on grocery lists of antiquarian books for reclusive bibliophiles. He was so disarmingly forthright that Becca didn't know which fanciful story to believe.

She immediately regretted asking if he had an agent. She should have known that Elaine Jordache was his lifeline to the business, such as it was. When Becca mentioned her work with Metropolis, Rusty said he did theater too, when he could, preferring it to the game of auditioning for film or television, which disgusted him. He asked if she was single, and Becca felt foolish because she told him about Sadge and how everything was between them — just blurted it out. He put his hand on hers and she laughed nervously then got teary-eyed, the two of them like an image from the cover of an old Pocket Books romance. He asked again if she felt like coming to his home. Becca shook her head. He smiled, pleased by her reticence.

"Then let's go to Magic Mountain."

She left her car in the lot.

•••

They were on the freeway, heading north. She wanted to be cool around him and not make any missteps. She was glad when he turned up the radio because it calmed her not to have to make conversation. He knew all the words to "Baby, I'm Yours," and even though half-goofing, his voice was sensuous and beautifully modulated. He kept looking over, winking devilishly. She felt like she was high.

Rusty took an off-ramp and after a few miles, they pulled onto the grounds of a sprawling hospital. When Becca realized that Magic Mountain had been a joke or a ruse, she got nervous. They parked and began to walk. To allay her fears, he began a little travelogue. He said that, fifty years ago, Valle Verde had been featured in a Brando movie about paraplegics in rehab. He had lots of Hollywood trivia like that in his head.

Rusty confidently threaded his way through a maze of polished linoleum corridors, with the occasional nod to a passing nurse. He was an old hand. No one stopped them or asked who they were visiting. Young, heavily tattooed men loitered in wheelchairs, alone or in quiet groups. Most of their heads were shaved. One bore the legend CLOSE COVER BEFORE STRIKING on his skull. Rusty said they were gang bangers whose luck had run out.

He led her into a patient's room. A brawny, shirtless man stood by the bed with an attendant. He looked at Rusty with cold hostility before breaking into a grin, as if for a moment he hadn't recognized him.

"Hey now," said the man.

"Hey now," said Rusty.

(Old Larry Sanders freaks.)

Becca hung back while the men embraced.

"Jesus, it stinks," said Rusty. "What'd you, just take a dump?"

"Nature's finest."

"This is my friend Becca — Becca, this is Grady."

"Hello, Becca."

"Hi."

"Grady Dunsmore, at your service."

His hand felt damp when she shook it.

"Need servicing? Give Grady a call."

"Hey now," said Rusty, chastising. "Heel, boy. Stay at your curb."

"Hey now."

Grady wobbled on his good leg while bracing himself against the slim Filipino man who was helping him dress.

"Wish I knew you were coming, motherfucker. Always so sly. Slip and slide. Stealth-Man."

"Into the night, baby."

"See, cause now I gotta go do my thing. My get-better thing."

"They gonna work you?"

"You better believe it."

"Put you through some major pain?"

"I already prepared." He voodoo-rattled a bottle of pills. "Gots to take the vikes before Ernesto puts me through my paces."

"How long you gonna be?"

"I don't know — forty-five? Maybe an hour. Can you hang?"

"Absolutely. I'll try on a prosthetic or two."

"Knock yourself out, Mad Max."

"Hey now."

"Eat me." Then, to Becca as he left: "Pardon my Spanish. And watch him closely. See that he doesn't steal any of my shit."

Copyright © 2003 by Bruce Wagner

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Table of Contents

Contents

BOOK ONE

The Three Jewels

BOOK TWO

The Three Poisons

BOOK THREE

The Three Mysteries

BOOK FOUR

Ground Luminosity

BOOK FIVE

Clear Light

CODA

Ordinary Mind

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