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Hidden Bodies

Hidden Bodies

Hidden Bodies 34


  “You’re adorable,” I say, and I mean it. When we first met, I was uncomfortable. I thought all this shit with the palm fronds and the multiple bathrooms mattered. But childhood fucks you up, no matter what it looks like. I see that now. The closer we get to having the baby, the less hostility I feel toward my parents. I don’t resent my mom for dumping me at Key Foods anymore because I found warmth there. Poor Forty couldn’t find the warmth in here, this pink and green paradise, this Beverly Hills Hotel.

  Memories are all the same at their core; it’s just us trying to keep each other alive, the best parts anyway. We’re all pretending that Forty was a wonderful person and Love is saying something about Beverly Hills 90210, abut Brandon and Brenda Walsh, how they used to call Forty the anti-Brandon.

  Everyone who’s anyone is here. Agents, executives, producers, Joaq, and I am the one who Love holds on to, the one who has held it together, the one who will eulogize the man who was like a brother to me. The lights dim. A video begins, a tribute to Forty and “The Big Top” by Michael Penn plays, the song that closes Boogie Nights, and there are pictures of sober Forty and clips of drunk Forty and there is Forty skiing on the water and skiing on the mountains and he is laughing and he is a child and then he is an adult and then he is a child again.

  Life.

  I cry. It’s important that I show emotion, I realize this, but it’s also genuine. The song has always moved me, the circus sounds, the applause, the blunt sadness and the fatality of life, the way the song doesn’t end so much as it peters out. And now it’s his funeral song so it can’t be mine. Or maybe it can; maybe funerals are different from weddings and people don’t remember them and talk about them, blow by blow. The Michael Penn orchestral dirge slows down and the song slips into silence. The lights come up. It’s my turn. Love kisses me. I step toward the podium.

  “I think we all need a moment of silence,” I say.

  It’s the right move and I bow my head and everyone does what I do. I have never understood why an Armani suit should cost so much money until now, as I stand here anticipating, trying not to stare at Reese Witherspoon, and readying my pages. I take the mic. “Good afternoon,” I begin. “My name is Joe Goldberg and I am so blessed to know the Quinns, my surrogate family.”

  I eulogize the fuck out of Forty Athol Quinn and it’s lucky that I got a head start when I thought he had drowned in the desert. It had to be altered because of his freak end, but the rewrite is good. Great even and I should have a job writing eulogies. The best ones celebrate the person’s potential; they emphasize that person’s unique contribution to society. I talk about Forty calling me Old Sport the very first time we met.

  My audience is loving this and I seize this opportunity to educate them. I tell them about one of my favorite books and I’m sure most of them haven’t read it because most of these people focus their energies on reading fictional narratives. But there’s important nonfiction out there that’s useful at a time like this, particularly for Forty Quinn.

  “The book is called Life’s Dominion,” I begin. “And it poses a philosophical question. Anyone could stand up here and speak to Forty’s charming wit, his burgeoning brilliance, his generosity, his swagger, his madras shorts and madcap sense of adventure, his extensive knowledge of film and his idealist sense of commitment. We’ve seen his smile, his joy,” I say, pointing at the wall where his life just played out. “But what you can’t see in those pictures is Forty’s philosophy about life itself, and this is where I think I can best pay tribute to him by telling you about Life’s Dominion.” I take a deliberate, staged breath. “The book poses a question we face every day, all day. What is the right choice? A bus is packed with adults, all of whom have lived, all of whom have mortgages and children, attachments. And there is a stroller crossing the street. The bus can brake and go off the cliff and everyone dies. Or the bus can run over the stroller and the child goes.”

  Amy Adams tilts her head. Joaq is rapt. “Ronald Dworkin argued that there is no universal right or wrong because it’s valid to say that life is valued based upon what one has already done. But it’s also possible to say that life can’t be qualified, that the baby might have gone on to cure cancer, to win an Oscar.” I know my crowd. I see people whispering, wondering who I am. “Forty Quinn was a unique man. He was the baby in the stroller, the one with everything ahead of him, the potential we all know about, these scripts he sold, after working so hard for so many years to forge connections and get better. He earned his success and it would be remiss to say that anything was handed to him because he grew up running around here,” I say. Amy Adams nods.

  “Quinns give. And Forty gave us his stories, the ones he tried so hard to tell, year after year.” I shake my head. Megan Fox uncrosses her legs. She wants me. “I mention Life’s Dominion and Ronald Dworkin because something you might not have known about Forty Quinn was how much he read, how much he wrote, how passionate he was about learning.” That’s the thing about the charade of love; nobody gets mad when you don’t back up your lofty statements about someone’s triumphant life with tangible facts. I look at Love and she smiles. She likes this story I’m telling because the truth would be terrible. “He told me how much he learned from Life’s Dominion shortly before . . .” I trail off.

  Reese wipes her eyes and Love’s tears are soaking her dad’s jacket.

  “Let me say what we all know. Forty was a giant. He was a force. He was one of the people on the bus, one of us, a person with deep ties in the community, a person who spread his joy everywhere he went. Mrs. Quinn, if you’ll cover your ears, I can tell you how much they loved him at Taco Bell.” I get laughs through tears and I wait for my silence. “Very few people are able to straddle those quadrants of life. Forty is the only person I’ve ever known who could do that. He could play with toys, he could make you feel like the best was yet to come, and he could make you feel like what you’d done was worth everything.”

  I tear up and then I am closing. “Forty Quinn called me The Professor, but Forty Quinn was my professor.” Joaq smiles. We are going to be friends.

  “Once I asked Forty what it was like to grow up with so much privilege. He told me that it was hard. He told me that when you have parents who embody the best of human love, parents who love each other more as time passes, who live to love, that it was hard to be constantly misunderstood by people who assumed that his wealth was purely financial. ‘The thing about my parents,’ he said, ‘is they could have been working in the Pantry, behind the register, in the deli, and they would have provided Love and me with just as much love.’” I pause. Love is sobbing now. Reese Witherspoon is leaning forward and her agent husband has an arm around her. I fucking win. “Forty Quinn knew that love is all there is; everything else is transient, impermanent. If he had made it across that street, I can guarantee you that he would have gotten out of the jaywalking ticket. You could not say no to Forty Quinn. He was the other kind of yes man, the kind who makes us all want to say yes. Rest in peace, brother.”

  When I return to Love, she transfers her trembling body from her father’s embrace to mine. This is The Godfather and we spill out into a ballroom with bottles of Veuve everywhere and gigantic pictures of Forty that are projected onto the walls, changing. He is young, he is old but either way, he is dead. Yes!

  Everyone I’ve ever wanted to meet is here and they want to meet me and Reese Witherspoon wants to hug me—yeah, she does—and her husband wants to talk to me and Joaq wants to get a drink and Love is proud of her book-selling boyfriend, crushed and destroyed, but proud.

  Barry Stein takes me aside. “Do you like cigars?” he asks.

  “Absolutely,” I say, and he will be useful in my negotiations with Megan Ellison. I will get Stein to offer to buy my shit and then turn around and make deals with ME. For now, it starts with friendship. Forty is right; I won’t burn bridges. And first, I have to build them. I have to walk out onto the lawn and watch Barry Stein wrestle with his bowtie and search for a polit
e way to segue into business talk, as if there is a polite way to segue into business talk.

  He chews his cigar. He spits. “You know,” he says. “Forty and I, we kicked some ideas around lately. You and I, I think we should talk.”

  I nod. “Absolutely.”

  “I think his work should not die with him.”

  “Absolutely.”

  I smoke a cigar and Barry wants me to call his office and set up a meeting. Inside, the food is incredible. Kate Hudson is hugging me. There are crab cakes and antipasto and drinks that never stop, gimlets and steak tips that melt and cold chunks of lobster. Forty’s favorite songs play, most of them about the fucking drugs that almost killed him but didn’t kill him and George Clooney shakes my hand—Good speech, kid—and the greatest part of all of this is the beautiful truth of it.

  I killed it with my speech and I did not kill Forty Quinn.

  It’s silly to play games, to wonder how he might have lived. What was Julie Santos even doing in Beverly Hills? What if she had continued to go straight on Santa Monica, all the way to the Pacific? It’s like in Match Point with the tennis ball and then later with the ring. All of life is slightly dependent on magic. So is death. If his body had been found in the spring, if his skin had started to disintegrate, his shit staining the hot water, his body stuffed with cocaine, well, the funeral would be different. I mean, I would have killed it and found a way to bring the light, but it would have been a darker day. Thank God, if there is one, for Julie Santos and her left-hand turn.

  “Joe,” she says, and she is Susan Sarandon. She hugs me. She pulls away. “I just needed to do that.”

  I hope Reese saw and I hope Amy saw but what really matters the most is that Love saw. She wraps her arm around me. “You did so good,” Love says. “Do you even know?”

  It’s not the time for me to brag so I am humble, supportive, stroking her arm and kissing the top of her head and she steps away, family obligations.

  People like Forty Quinn are their own worst enemies, increasing the odds of an untimely death by chugging codeine, and with his death, I am liberated. I can go anywhere I want and I wander into the lobby, the pink and green of it all, freedom. I sit on a circular sofa and Love finds me. She plants herself on my lap. She strokes my hair. “Let’s stay at the Aisles tonight,” she says. “I don’t want to stay here. I want my own bed.”

  When a girl wants her own bed and she wants you in it, this is how you know it’s real. “Whatever you want,” I say, and I will give it four weeks until I tell her that I’m inspired by Forty’s work, that I think I’d like to try writing something on my own.

  I put my hand on her stomach. Forty can’t take this moment away, the quiet love in this ballroom and the inaudible sound of a new heart beating.

  54

  I wake up early. Happy. I’m still high on the funeral, on Kate’s ass, Reese’s eyes, Amy’s intensity, my baby. And I missed it here at the Aisles, the tennis court, the sand and the grass forever mixing, never melding. I’m a runner now and the beach looks different to me, useful. It’s my track. And what a great feeling it is to revisit the puzzle of your life and say, ah. I know what that beach is there for. It’s there for me.

  My body doesn’t want to sleep. I think it has something to do with all the change. The last time I was here, I killed Delilah. Love had no idea who I was, but she wanted to find out so she invited me to go to the film set with her. She stood on that beach and watched me coming in on the Donzi and she did not know where I had been or why I had been out there. The miracle of life, of the girl in my bed; she loves me more now than she did then. And now there is so much new love in my life, meetings and opportunities and purpose. I will take care of Love. I will honor Forty’s legacy and see his projects to fruition. I will be strong for my child and I will protect myself.

  I am too happy to be still and Love is like Sleeping Beauty. Her twin is dead; this will take a while. I kiss her perfect little forehead and I put on pink shorts with whales all over them and I put on a T-shirt and I grab my sunglasses and I leave Love’s room. I hum “Thunder Road” and I walk through the house that Forty will never walk through again—it’s real!—and I smile.

  Outside I walk down the path, barefoot on the sandy grass, the grassy sand. I hear the waves and they are slow and lazy and when I reach the beach, I am startled because there is a mist as dense as snow, a Stephen King kind of mist, thick and white. Suddenly I am a kid again and monsters could live in this mist and how surreal it is to hear the water but not be able to see it.

  I remember feeling this happy once, when I was a kid. Snow covered the streets and they were perfect and white, as if the world had been coated in vanilla ice cream. My mom said school was canceled and I could go outside. I’d seen snow before, but there was something about the snow that day. It was early, before the people would come and destroy it all, and I clomped outside and it was up to my knees and I was the first one to walk in it and I was so fucking happy to be first, to see my footprints, giant and deep, to know that I had all day, that there would be no school, no homework. There is magic in a snow day and how strange it must be to grow up in Southern California without that possibility. It will be my first question for Love when she wakes up.

  I walk into the mist toward the water and I hear a dog barking. Boots and Puppies. I whistle. The dog barks. He sounds afraid. “It’s okay,” I call out. “Come here boy.”

  But he only mews, sounding almost like a kitten. “Hey, little guy, it’s okay.” I pat the sand. I am reminded of the puppy in Single White Female that won’t run to Jennifer Jason Leigh, and then she kills the puppy because it didn’t love her. And then I think of Forty murdering Roosevelt, Love’s version, and Love crying when their parents gave Boots away, Forty’s version. There really is no such thing as the truth but there is such thing as happiness, and I can picture the amazed look on Love’s face if I brought her home this dog.

  Dogs like authority, so I command. “All right, get over there, pup. Right now.” But the whimpering sounds farther away. I start running, making my way through the swirling white, and fifteen yards in I stumble and stub my toe. Fuck. Sand is harder than you think.

  “Would you just come here already? I’m not gonna hurt you!” I keep going and the puppy is still crying out there, somewhere. “It’s okay! I’m here.”

  The ocean ebbs and flows beyond the fog and I hear the dog again, and I crouch. I want to be prepared to hug him, to get coated in puppy slobber, to be loved—this is why people in Franklin Village keep dogs—and I think I see him. He is as white as the mist, with a little black mouth and black eyes and a pink tongue coming into focus. The dog is panting, running, and I wonder what we’ll call him. He looks like a Charlie or a Cubby or a George. I whistle to him. He ignores me. Fucker.

  I laugh. What is wrong with me? It’s a puppy. It’s not a fucker. But then, maybe it is. Babies can be assholes and puppies can be fuckers. But you accept the risk when you make a baby, when you adopt a dog. I think I’ll write something about an asshole baby and a fucker puppy and it will be like one of those old-school Peanuts cartoons, where you can’t hear what the adults are saying because it’s all just sonic wonking.

  I clap my hands and that’s when I see a flash of white linen, a bright yellow shirt and I realize the dog isn’t alone. The puppy yelps and the human throws something, an electric green tennis ball. The human whistles and the human is female. I see her hair in the mist—blond, tangled—and I see her sharp shoulders and two long legs and

  Amy? Amy. Amy? Amy?

  She scoops the puppy that was going to belong to me and Love into her arms. She kisses the puppy and then she looks up. She startles.

  “Joe?” she says. She looks terrified, guilty. Time stops. I am in shock.

  She holds the puppy too hard and the puppy fights and the puppy has claws and the puppy wins. She drops the puppy and it runs and she stands there, frozen, and this bitch fucked me. Stole from me. Tricked me. Lied to me. Used me. She
wronged me and the nice people in Rhode Island—Liam & Pearl & Harry & Noah—and I loved her. I loved her but she didn’t love me.

  Amy? Amy.

  “What are you doing here?” she asks, and she thinks she’s pretty and clever, tucking her hair behind her ear, pretending to trust me, but people don’t change and I see her bracing to run. She doesn’t get to run away from me now the way she did then, not after what she did. She turns, hair flying, and instinct takes over. I spring forward. She runs but I’m faster and I knock her to the ground. She screams and I clamp my hand over her mouth and look into the eyes I know too well.

  She knees me in the groin and I react, loosening my grip, but I manage to grab her by the hair and pin her down in the sand. I cover her mouth again and she thrashes like a marlin and I can’t believe that after all these months, Amy is here.

  Her face has changed from all this sun, more freckles, smoother skin, longer hair, crusty mascara around her eyes, she was out last night. She is who I used to love. Who I used to covet. Who I used to want to kill, but who I forgot to worry about after I fell in love with Love.

  She kicks me again and I smack her face. “Don’t scream,” I say. “Understand?”

  She says yes with her eyes. They are as bright as I remember, even in the mist. I take my hand away.

  “Jesus, Joe, what are you doing?”

  “Shut up,” I command. I clamp my hand over her mouth. “You are not to yell. Do you understand?”

  She nods emphatically. “Joe, please,” she begins.

  I’m still getting reacquainted with her face, how crazy human faces are, how noses are all so different, some bulbous, some pointy. Amy’s is aquiline. I used to love her nose. I used to kiss her nose. Now I love Love’s nose.

  “Joe,” she says. “About the money . . .”

  “The money?” I can’t help it. It’s been so long, but it all washes over me again. The humiliation I felt when I found my computer in the cage, the keys I made for her, the note in Charlotte & Charles. “How can you think this is about money?”