W. W. Norton & Company New York ? London
For Geoff, who said, "This is how to steal drugs." And Ina, who said, "This is lip liner." And
"This is silk georgette." And my editor, Patricia, who kept saying, "This isJanet, who said,
"not good, enough.
CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER SIXTEEN CHAPTER SEVENTEEN CHAPTER EIGHTEEN CHAPTER NINETEEN CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE CHAPTER THIRTY CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO
Where you're supposed to be is some big West Hills wedding reception in a big manor house withflower arrangements and stuffed mushrooms all over the house. This is called scene setting:where everybody is, who's alive, who's dead. This is Evie Cottrell's big wedding receptionmoment. Evie is standing halfway down the big staircase in the manor house foyer, naked insidewhat's left of her wedding dress, still holding her rifle.
Me, I'm standing at the bottom of the stairs but only in a physical way. My mind is, I don'tknow where.
Nobody's all-the-way dead yet, but let's just say the clock is ticking.
Not that anybody in this big drama is a real alive per-son, either. You can trace everythingabout Evie Cottrell's look back to some television commercial for an organic shampoo, exceptright now Evie's wedding dress is burned down to just the hoopskirt wires orbiting her hips andjust the little wire skeletons of all the silk flowers that were in her hair. And Evie's blondehair, her big, teased-up, backcombed rainbow in every shade of blonde blown up with hairspray,well, Evie's hair is burned off, too.
The only other character here is Brandy Alexander, who's laid out, shotgunned, at the bottom ofthe staircase, bleeding to death.
What I tell myself is the gush of red pumping out of Brandy's bullet hole is less like bloodthan it's some sociopolitical tool. The thing about being cloned from all those shampoocommercials, well, that goes for me and Brandy Alexander, too. Shotgunning anybody in thisroom would be the moral equivalent of killing a car, a vacuum cleaner, a Barbie doll. Erasing acomputer disk. Burning a book. Probably that goes for killing anybody in the world. We're allsuch products.
Brandy Alexander, the long-stemmed latte queen supreme of the top-drawer party girls, Brandy isgushing her insides out through a bullet hole in her amazing suit jacket. The suit, it's thiswhite Bob Mackie knock-off Brandy bought in Seattle with a tight hobble skirt that squeezes herass into the perfect big heart shape. You would not believe how much this suit cost. The mark-up is about a zillion percent. The suit jacket has a little peplum
skirt and wide lapels and shoulders. The single-breasted cut is symmetrical except for the holepumping out blood.
Then Evie starts to sob, standing there halfway up the staircase. Evie, that deadly virus ofthe moment. This is our cue to all look at poor Evie, poor, sad Evie, hairless and wearingnothing but ashes and circled by the wire cage of her burned-up hoop skirt. Then Evie drops therifle. With her dirty face in her dirty hands, Evie sits down and starts to boo-hoo, as ifcrying will solve anything. The rifle, this is a loaded thirty-aught rifle, it clatters downthe stairs and skids out into the middle of the foyer floor, spinning on its side, pointing atme, pointing at Brandy, pointing at Evie, crying.
It's not that I'm some detached lab animal just conditioned to ignore violence, but my firstinstinct is maybe it's not too late to dab club soda on the bloodstain.
Most of my adult life so far has been me standing on seamless paper for a raft of bucks perhour, wearing clothes and shoes, my hair done and some famous fashion photographer telling mehow to feel.
Him yelling, Give me lust, baby.
Give me malice.
Give me detached existentialist ennui.
Give me rampant intellectualism as a coping mechanism.
Probably it's the shock of seeing my one worst enemy shoot my other worst enemy is what it is.Boom, and it's a win-win situation. This and being around Brandy, I've developed a pretty bigJones for drama.
It only looks like I'm crying when I put a handkerchief up under my veil to breathe through. Tofilter the air since you can about not breathe for all the smoke since Evie's big manor houseis burning down around us.
Me, kneeling down beside Brandy, I could put my hands anywhere in my gown and find Darvons andDemerols and Darvocet 100s. This is everybody's cue to look at me. My gown is a knock-off printof the Shroud of Turin, most of it brown and white, draped and cut so the shiny red buttonswill button through the stigmata. Then I'm wearing yards and yards of black organza veilwrapped around my face and studded with little hand-cut Austrian crystal stars. You can't tellhow I look, face-wise, but that's the whole idea. The look is elegant and sacrilegious andmakes me feel sacred and immoral.
Haute couture and getting hauler.
Fire inches down the foyer wallpaper. Me, for added set dressing I started the fire. Specialeffects can go a long way to heighten a mood, and it's not as if this is a real house. What'sburning down is a re-creation of a period revival house patterned after a copy of a copy of acopy of a mock-Tudor big manor house. It's a hundred generations removed from anythingoriginal, but the truth is aren't we all?
Just before Evie comes screaming down the stairs and shoots Brandy Alexander, what I did waspour out about a gallon of Chanel Number Five and put a burning wedding invitation to it, andboom, I'm recycling.
It's funny, but when you think about even the biggest tragic fire it's just a sustainedchemical reaction. The oxidation of Joan of Arc.
Still spinning on the floor, the rifle points at me, points at Brandy.
Another thing is no matter how much you think you love somebody, you'll step back when the poolof their blood edges up too close.
Except for all this high drama, it's a really nice day. This is a warm, sunny day and the frontdoor is open to the porch and the lawn outside. The fire upstairs draws the warm smell of thefresh-cut lawn into the foyer, and you can hear all the wedding guests outside. All theguests, they took the gifts they wanted, the crystal and silver and went out to wait on thelawn for the firemen and paramedics to make their entrance.
Brandy, she opens one of her huge, ring-beaded hands and she touches the hole pouring her bloodall over the marble floor.
Brandy, she says, "Shit. There's no way the Bon Marche will take this suit back."
Evie lifts her face, her face a finger-painting mess of soot and snot and tears from her handsand screams, "I hate my life being so boring!”
Evie screams down at Brandy Alexander, "Save me a window table in hell!"
Tears rinse clean lines down Evie's cheeks, and she screams, "Girlfriend! You need to beyelling some back at me!"
As if this isn't already drama, drama, drama, Brandy looks up at me kneeling beside her.Brandy's aubergine eyes dilated out to full flower, she says, "Brandy Alexander is going to dienow?"
Evie, Brandy and me, all this is just a power struggle for the spotlight. Just each of us beingme, me, me first. The murderer, the victim, the witness, each of us thinks our role is thelead.
Probably that goes for anybody in the world.
It's all mirror, mirror on the wall because beauty is power the same way money is power the
same way a gun is power.
Anymore, when I see the picture of a twenty-something in the newspaper who was abducted andsodomized and robbed and then killed and here's a front-page picture of her young and smiling,instead of me dwelling on this being a big, sad crime, my gut reaction is, wow, she'd bereally hot if she didn't have such a big honker of a nose. My second reaction is I'd betterhave some good head and shoulders shots handy in case I get, you know, abducted and sodomizedto death. My third reaction is, well, at least that cuts down on the competition.
If that's not enough, my moisturizer I use is a suspension of inert fetal solids inhydrogenated mineral oil. My point is that, if I'm honest, my life is all about me.
My point is, unless the meter is running and some photographer is yelling: Give me empathy.
Then the flash of the strobe.
Give me sympathy.
Give me brutal honesty.
"Don't let me die here on this floor," Brandy says, and her big hands clutch at me. "My hair,"she says, "My hair will be flat in the back."
My point is I know Brandy is maybe probably going to die, but I just can't get into it.
Evie sobs even louder. On top of this, the fire sirens from way outside are crowning me queenof Migraine Town.
The rifle is still spinning on the floor, but slower and slower.
Brandy says, "This is not how Brandy Alexander wanted her life to go. She's supposed to befamous, first. You know, she's supposed to be on television during Super Bowl halftime,drinking a diet cola naked in slow motion before she died."
The rifle stops spinning and points at nobody.
At Evie sobbing, Brandy screams, "Shut up!"
" You shut up," Evie screams back. Behind her, the fire is eating its way down the stairwaycarpet.
The sirens, you can hear them wandering and screaming all over the West Hills. People will justknock each other down to dial 9-1-1 and be the big hero. Nobody looks ready for the bigtelevision crew that's due to arrive any minute.
"This is your last chance, honey," Brandy says, and her blood is getting all over the place.She says, "Do you love me?"
It's when folks ask questions like this that you lose the spotlight.
This is how folks trap you into a best-supporting role.
Even bigger than the house being on fire is this huge expectation that I have to say the threemost worn-out words you'll find in any script. Just the words make me feel I'm severelyfingering myself. They're just words is all. Powerless. Vocabulary. Dialogue.
"Tell me," Brandy says. "Do you? Do you really love me?"
This is the big hammy way Brandy has played her whole life. The Brandy Alexander nonstopcontinuous live action theater, but less and less live by the moment.
Just for a little stage business, I take Brandy's hand in mine. This is a nice gesture, butthen I'm freaked by the whole threat of blood-borne pathogens, and then, boom, the ceiling inthe dining room crashes down and sparks and embers rush out at us from the dining room doorway.
"Even if you can't love me, then tell me my life,”
Brandy says. "A girl can't die without her life flashing before her eyes."
Pretty much nobody is getting their emotional needs met.
It's then the fire eats down the stairway carpet to Evie's bare ass, and Evie screams to herfeet and pounds down the stairs in her burned-up white high heels. Naked and hairless, wearingwire and ashes, Evie Cottrell runs out the front door to a larger audience, her wedding guests,the silver and crystal and the arriving fire trucks. This is the world we live in. Conditionschange and we mutate.
So of course this'll be all about Brandy, hosted by me, with guest appearances by EvelynCottrell and the deadly AIDS virus. Brandy, Brandy, Brandy. Poor sad Brandy on her back, Brandytouches the hole pouring her life out onto the marble floor and says, "Please. Tell me my life.Tell me how we got here."
So me, I'm here eating smoke just to document this Brandy Alexander moment.
Give me attention.
Give me adoration.
Give me a break.
Don't expect thisto be the kind of story that goes: and then, and then, and then.
What happens here will have more of that fashion magazine feel, a Vogue or a Glamour magazine
chaos with page numbers on every second or fifth or third page. Perfume cards falling out, andfull-page naked women coming out of nowhere to sell you make-up.
Don't look for a contents page, buried magazine-style twenty pages back from the front. Don'texpect to find anything right off. There isn't a real pattern to anything, either. Stories willstart and then, three paragraphs later:
Jump to page whatever.
Then, jump back.
This will be ten thousand fashion separates that mix and match to create maybe five tastefuloutfits. A million trendy accessories, scarves and belts, shoes and hats and gloves, and noreal clothes to wear them with.
And you really, really need to get used to that feeling, here, on the freeway, at work, in yourmarriage. This is the world we live in. Just go with the prompts.
Jump back twenty years to the white house where I grew up with my father shooting super-8movies of my brother and me running around the yard.
Jump to present time with my folks sitting on lawn chairs at night, and watching these samesuper-8 movies projected on the white side of the same white house, twenty years later. Thehouse the same, the yard the same, the windows projected in the movies lined up just perfectwith the real windows, the movie grass aligned with the real grass, and my movie-projectedbrother and me being toddlers and running around wild for the camera.
Jump to my big brother being all miserable and dead from the big plague of AIDS.
Jump to me being grown up and fallen in love with a police detective and moved away to become afamous supermodel.
Just remember, the same as a spectacular Vogue magazine, remember that no matter how close you
follow the jumps:
Continued on page whatever.
No matter how careful you are, there's going to be the sense you missed something, thecollapsed feeling under your skin that you didn't experience it all. There's that fallen heartfeeling that you rushed right through the moments where you should've been paying attention.
Well, get used to that feeling. That's how your whole life will feel some day.
This is all practice. None of this matters. We're just warming up.
Jump to here and now, Brandy Alexander bleeding to death on the floor with me kneeling besideher, telling this story before here come the paramedics.
Jump backward just a few days to the living room of a rich house in Vancouver, BritishColumbia. The room is lined with the rococo hard candy of carved mahogany paneling with marblebaseboards and marble flooring and a very sort-of curlicue carved marble fireplace. In richhouses where old rich people live, everything is just what you'd think.
The rubrum lilies in the enameled vases are real, not silk. The cream-colored drapes are silk,not polished cotton. Mahogany is not pine stained to look like mahogany. No pressed-glasschandeliers posing as cut crystal. The leather is not vinyl.
All around us are these cliques of Louis-the-Fourteenth chair-sofa-chair.
In front of us is yet another innocent real estate agent, and Brandy's hand goes out: her wristthick with bones and veins, the mountain range of her knuckles, her wilted fingers, her ringsin their haze of marquise-cut green and red, her porcelain nails painted sparkle pink, shesays, "Charmed, I'm sure."
If you have to start with any one detail, it has to be Brandy's hands. Beaded with rings tomake them look even bigger, Brandy's hands are enormous. Beaded with rings, as if they could bemore obvious, hands are the one part about Brandy Alexander the surgeons couldn't change.
So Brandy doesn't even try and hide her hands.
We've been in too many of this kind of house for me to count, and the realtor we meet is alwayssmiling. This one is wearing the standard uniform, the navy blue suit with the red, white, andblue scarf around the neck. The blue heels are on her feet and the blue bag is hanging at thecrook of her elbow.
The realty woman looks from Brandy Alexander's big hand to Signore Alfa Romeo standing atBrandy's side,and the power blue eyes of Alfa attach themselves; those blue eyes you never seeclose or look away, inside those eyes is the baby or the bouquet of flowers, beautiful orvulnerable, that make a beautiful man someone safe to love.
Alfa's just the latest in a year-long road trip of men obsessed with Brandy, and any smartwoman knows a beautiful man is her best fashion accessory. The same way you'd product model anew car or a toaster, Brandy's hand draws a sight line through the air from her smile and bigboobs to Alfa. "May I introduce," Brandy says, "Signore Alfa Romeo, professional male consortto the Princess Brandy Alexander."
The same way, Brandy's hand swings from her batting eyelashes and rich hair in an invisiblesight line to me.
All the realty woman is going to see is my veils, muslin and cut-work velvet, brown and red,tulle threaded with silver, layers of so much you'd think there's nobody inside. There'snothing about me to look at so most people don't. It's a look that says:
Thank you for not sharing.
"May I introduce," Brandy says, "Miss Kay Maclsaac, personal secretary to the Princess BrandyAlexander."
The realty woman in her blue suit with its brass Chanel buttons and the scarf tied around herneck to hide all her loose skin, she smiles at Alfa.
When nobody will look at you, you can stare a hole in them. Picking out all the little detailsyou'd never starelong enough to get if she'd ever just return your gaze, this, this is yourrevenge. Through my veils, the realtor's glowing red and gold, blurred at her edges.
"Miss Maclsaac," Brandy says, her big hand still open toward me, "Miss Maclsaac is mute andcannot speak."
The realty woman with her lipstick on her teeth and her powder and concealer layered in thecrepe under her eyes, her pret-a-porter teeth and machine-washable wig, she smiles at BrandyAlexander.
"And this . . . ," Brandy's big ring-beaded hand curls up to touch Brandy's torpedo breasts.
"This . . . ," Brandy's hand curls up to touch pearls at her throat.
"This . . . ," the enormous hand lifts to touch the billowing piles of auburn hair.
"And this . . . ," the hand touches thick moist lips.
"This," Brandy says, "is the Princess Brandy Alexander."
The realty woman drops to one knee in something between a curtsy and what you'd do before analtar. Genuflecting. "This is such an honor," she says. "I'm so sure this is the house for you.You just have to love this house."
Icicle bitch she can be, Brandy just nods and turns back toward the front hall where we camein.
"Her Highness and Miss Maclsaac," Alfa says, "they would like to tour the house by themselves,while you and I discuss the details." Alfa's little hands flutter up toexplain, "... thetransfer of funds ... the exchange of lira for Canadian dollars."
"Loonies," the realty woman says.
Brandy and me and Alfa are all flash frozen. Maybe this woman has seen through us. Maybe afterthe months we've been on the road and the dozens of big houses we've hit, maybe somebody hasfinally figured out our scam.
"Loonies," the woman says. Again, she genuflects. "We call our dollars 'Loonies'," she says andjabs a hand in her blue purse. "I'll show you. There's a picture of a bird on them," she says."It's a loon."
Brandy and me, we turn icicle again and start walking away, back to the front hall. Backthrough the cliques of chair-sofa-chair, past the carved marble. Our reflections smear, dim,and squirm behind a lifetime of cigar smoke on the mahogany paneling. Back to the fronthallway, I follow the Princess Brandy Alexander while Alfa's voice fills the realtor's blue-suited attention with questions about the angle of the morning sun into the dining room andwhether the provincial government will allow a personal heliport behind the swimming pool.
Going toward the stairs is the exquisite back of Princess Brandy, a silver fox jacket drapedover Brandy's shoulders and yards of a silk brocade scarf tied around her billowing pile ofBrandy Alexander auburn hair. The queen supreme's voice and the shadow of L'Air du Temps arethe invisible train behind everything that is the world of Brandy Alexander.
The billowing auburn hair piled up inside her brocade silk scarf reminds me of a bran muffin. Abig cherry cupcake. This is some strawberry auburn mushroom cloud rising over a Pacific atoll.
Those princess feet are caught in two sort of gold lame leg-hold traps with little gold strapsand gold chains. These are the trapped-on, stilted, spike-heeled feet of gold that mount thefirst of about three hundred steps from the front hall to the second floor. Then she mounts thenext step, and the next until all of her is far enough above me to risk looking back. Only thenwill she turn the whole strawberry cupcake of her head. Those big torpedo, Brandy Alexanderbreasts silhouetted, the wordless beauty of that professional mouth in full face.
"The owner of this house," Brandy says, "is very old and supplementing her hormones and stilllives here."
The carpet is so thick under my feet I could be climbing loose dirt. One step after another,loose and sliding and unstable. We, Brandy and Alfa and me, we've been speaking English as asecond language so long that we've forgotten it as our first.
I have no native tongue.
We're eye level with the dirty stones of a dark chandelier. On the other side of the handrail,the hallway's gray marble floor looks as if we've climbed a stairway through the clouds. Stepafter step. Far away, Alfa's demanding talk goes on about wine cellars, about kennels for theRussian wolfhounds. Alfa's constant demand for the realty woman's attention is as faint as aradio call-in show bouncing back from outer space.
"...the Princess Brandy Alexander," Alfa's warm, dark words float up, "she is probable toremove her clothes and scream like the wild horses in even the crowded restaurants ..."
The queen supreme's voice and the shadow of L'Air du Temps says, "Next house," her Plumbagolips say, "Alfa will be the mute."
"...your breasts," Alfa is telling the realty woman, "you have two of the breasts of a youngwoman ..."
Not one native tongue is left among us.
Jump to us being upstairs.
Jump to now anything being possible.
After the realtor is trapped by the blue eyes of Signore Alfa Romeo, jump to when the realscamming starts. The master bedroom will always be down the hallway in the direction of thebest view. This master bathroom is paneled in pink mirror, every wall, even the ceiling.Princess Brandy and I are everywhere, reflected on every surface. You can see Brandy sitting onthe pink counter at one side of the vanity sink, me sitting at the other side of the sink.
One of us is sitting on each side of all the sinks in all the mirrors. There are just too manyBrandy Alexanders to count, and they're all being the boss of me. They all open their whitecalfskin clutch bags, and hundreds of those big ring-beaded Brandy Alexander hands take out
Physicians' Desk Reference with its red cover, big as a Bible.new copies of the
All her hundreds of Burning Blueberry eye shadow eyes look at me from all over the room.
"You know the drill," all her hundreds of Plumbago mouths command. Those big hands startpulling open drawers and cabinet doors. "Remember where you got everything, and put it backexactly where you found it," the mouths say. "We'll do the drugs first, then the makeup. Nowstart hunting."
I take out the first bottle. It's Valium, and I hold the bottle so all the hundred Brandys canread the label.
"Take what we can get away with," Brandy says, "then get on to the next bottle."
I shake a few of the little blue pills into my purse pocket with the other Valiums. The nextbottle I find is Darvons.
"Honey, those are heaven in your mouth," all the Brandys look up to peer at the bottle I'mholding. "Does it look safe to take too many?"
The expiration date on the label is only a month away, and the bottle is still almost full. Ifigure we can take about half.
"Here," a big ring-beaded hand comes at me from every direction. One hundred big hands come atme, palm up. "Give Brandy a couple. The princess is having lower back pain again."
I shake ten capsules out, and a hundred hands toss athousand tranquilizers onto the red carpettongues of those Plumbago mouths. A suicide load of Darvon slides down into the dark interiorof the continents that make up a world of Brandy Alexander.
Inside the next bottle are the little purple ovals of 2.5-milligram—sized Premarin.
That's short for Pregnant Mare Urine. That's short for thousands of miserable horses in NorthDakota and Central Canada, forced to stand in cramped dark stalls with a catheter stuck on themto catch every drop of urine and only getting let outside to get fucked again. What's funny isthat describes pretty much any good long stay in a hospital, but that's only been myexperience.
"Don't look at me that way," Brandy says. "My not taking those pills won't bring any babyhorses back from the dead."
In the next bottle are round, peach-colored little scored tablets of 100-milligram Aldactone.Our homeowner must be a junkie for female hormones.