|Excerpts > Summer 2003|
A Disney World
A Disney World
I called Raymond Hopwell again on one of the phones in the office at Oasis Gardens. This time I got through. If you say you’re a TV producer, it’s amazing how easy it is to get celebrities to take your call.
“Why should I talk to you?” Raymond protested softly, but notice -- he was talking to me. His voice was as rich and corrupt as rotting corn mash.
I was spoiled too, just not spoiled rotten. I knew my life at Dinsey World was Edenic. Outside the window, every plant was in the earth at the newly-opened Animal Kingdom and every herb. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, somewhere out there beyond the densely-landscaped bush, fourteen stories tall, constructed around re-enforced steel by a team of Imagineers who had come from all over the world.
“This isn’t Hard Copy, Mr. Hopwell,” I reminded him. “We’re PBS. I’m not beholden to commercial interests...”
“I want Hard Copy, young lady. I want The National Enquirer, someone who’ll pay for my story. Do you know what it costs to dodge the independent counsel?”
“I know what it costs the taxpayers to keep him in office. Forty, fifty million dollars for the last two years...”
“And you know that reptile hired a human snake to crawl into my office air conditioning vent and listen to my conversations...But he still found nothing, not one infraction, not an unpaid parking ticket, and then suddenly, he turns up an old car in a garage in downtown N’Warleans and the car’s got a plastic bag of my canceled checks from 1985 in the trunk....”
“That’s not what I want to talk about,” I murmured. I wasn’t interested in their games of gotcha. The independent counsel was scum. Vigilante scum, a lawyer turned preacher, the Stalin of a new American vice patrol. But I knew Hopwell was a sinner too. I had also been to Hitchberry, Tennessee, Hopwell’s hometown, and to Memphis, the state capitol, and I had heard the stories of how once long ago Hopwell had traveled north and south, east and west, with bags of money and bought the governorship for Marshall Dodge, now our embattled President. I had heard the stories of their seedy real estate investments while Dodge was running Tennessee, their cavalier attitude toward high public office and the many devious ways they’d found to funnel cash into Dodge’s national campaign.
“I loved the man,” Hopwell sighed. “I never thought he’d turn on me.”
“That’s what I want to talk about,” I said as the other line began to light up with an in-coming call. I was afraid it might be Louise Pearl, the woman I loved, breaking my heart. I asked Hopwell to hold.
When I said hello, Louise’s report was brief and brave. “The test came back ductal carcinoma in situ.”
“Where are you?”
“At my office in the Dolphin.” Louise was front office assistant manager at Michael Graves’ hotel, the fabulous one with four coral-colored guestroom wings, the unbelievable one with the two fifty-six foot dolphin statues on top -- designed, Graves said, to satisfy the needs of a convention of eight thousand proctologists, on the one hand, and an average eight year old boy, on the other.
“I’ll be right there,” I told her. Turning back to Hopwell, I said I’d had some terrible news. And then as can happen when you’re a reporter who’s been flirting with intimacy, but skirting it too, coaxing a stranger into confiding when you don’t plan to tell him anything about yourself, the dark miles suddenly glowed like a dying campfire and I confessed, “I’m going to need a lot of help.”
Even I could hear how naked I sounded. His answering voice was like velvet. “What can I do?”
“Meet with me. Tell me what happened between you and President Dodge. Not the subpoenas and indictments. Not the post-mortem. Not the independent counsel using you to bring him down. Not Dodge’s attempts to discredit you. Tell me about how you met, what you talked about late at night, how it started going wrong, and when the aching muscle of your breaking heart just couldn’t lift another stone.”
He said he’d think about it, and I caught a bus back to Crescent Lake. It was a perfect day in May -- hot and dry and sunny, the Friday of a weekend between the big school and college vacations so it wasn’t too crowded. Families with young children moseyed along Boardwalk, meeting with Mickey and Dopey and other Disney figures. With his picturesque hump and crooked grin, Quasimodo was winning all the popularity contests, and every kid out there wanted to have a picture taken with the friendly hunchback.
Having human beings mingle with cartoon characters was a big draw at the park, but just then it seemed wrong to me. All I could think of was the time Zippy the Pinhead deconstructed his frame with a chisel. He broke out and started wandering around the comics’ page. It’s like when your mother puts beets on the plate so their juice crosses into the mashed potato zone and gets the red mixed up in the white. Boundaries can be so very, very important. The line between life and death should be especially clear, and in my opinion, divided by an impenetrable wall. I, for one, had no plans for crossing over -- ever.
I jumped out at my stop and walked over to the hotel. I cross the lobby which had been cooled to perfection. The door to Louise’s office was slightly open, and she at her desk, looking like early Lauren Bacall. Her gorgeous red hair was falling from its chignon. A strand hung in front of her face. Charlotte, her secretary, stood helplessly by as Louise put the people in the business office through their paces.
“I know the Disney policy covers same-sex partners. But it’s not her breast, it’s mine. I need to know if my insurance covers a second opinion.”
“I’m furious...I’m so angry,” I stammered. “I’m going to do something.”
“What? Subpoena God?” Louise asked, tucking the phone receiver under her chin. “Gretchen, here’s the specialist in Atlanta. See if you can get him on the speaker phone.”
I could hear Lewiston, Maine in Louise’s voice. In her black linen suit and white silk blouse, the strands of pearls, she looked like upper Fifth Avenue, but her true hometown always surfaced when she was being the human propeller, being formidable, churning her blades to get something done, to get out of a bad place that in any way reminded her of the poor New England mill town where she was raised and her mother died of undiagnosed breast cancer.
“What did the doctor say?” I squeaked timidly.
“DCIS...it’s a lesion,” Louise started to explain, but broke off to blast the business office about statistics based on an important follow-up study of ten thousand breasts. “But my doctor wants to operate. No breast, no cancer,” she blurted.
I felt dizzy. The bird of paradise flowers burned orange and blue in a slim galvanized bucket on the window sill. I could hear the sound of ten thousand breasts coming through the lobby. Thanks to some innovative special effects, the breasts were wearing high-heeled sneakers, clacking castanets. Louise’s sister had a mastectomy three years ago. Today she was dead.
“Slow and careful wins the race,” Gretchen counseled. “I’ve got Dr. Richards on the phone.”
Soon Louise and Dr. Richards were talking about ductal carcinomas and lobular ones, invasive carcinoma and carcinoma in situ, words so shocking you wouldn’t even hear Marines use them in battle. I covered my ears so I wouldn’t hear these obscenities slung back and forth across the speaker. I squeezed my eyes shut. I didn’t want to see a world where such horror could be discussed. Finally, Louise put her arm around my waist and said the doctor would call tomorrow with some possible appointments; we could go home now.
We got into our turquoise Toyota and drove past the crowds lined up for France at the Epcot Center. Across the lagoon, behind the Eiffel Tower, Planet Earth’s silver geosphere gleamed like a great golf ball. When we got stuck behind one of the double-decker buses, Louise used her superior knowledge to pull around the bus and duck down a side street that led to the highway. It was a short drive to Buena Vista, an early Disney development for employees who wanted to live on the base. The carefully landscaped streets were laid out around a small man-made lake, now deepening towards cobalt blue as evening came on. The sound of a lawn mower drowsed through my open window. As we drove up to our tawny adobe house, the air smelled divinely of cut grass and hamburgers cooking on an open grill.
Louise pulled the car into the garage. She turned off the ignition, but didn’t move. “Are you scared?” I asked.
“I like my job,” she said. “But it doesn’t really use my brain. There are some openings at Tomorrowland. I could get into animation.”
“So you’re just postponing your worries until you have to worry, IF you have to worry,” I said.
“Yeah, major IFNESS, please,” she said, leaning toward me playfully and giving a few innocent blinks like Casper pitching woo.
“OK, I see that,” I said, though I didn’t think ifness was going to work for me.
I wondered what Raymond Hopwell would do in my shoes. He knew how to get things done, who to pay off, how to defraud the government, make bad loans, conspire to engage in sham bankruptcy. Surely, he could put this guy with that guy to get the state legislature to reverse a simple pathology report.
Louise walked in the door and tossed her jacket over my sculpture of the jazz saxophone. I got to put it in the foyer as the trade-off for accepting her Adirondack twig furniture in the living room. These were some of the things we’d brought from previous lives, mine batting around Greenwich Village right after college as a free-lance producer. That meant I temped during the day and talked big at night, which having grown up in the film world I knew how to do. I guess my family disapproved of my trying to start at the top and persuaded my Uncle Jack to hire me as the gofer on a location scout for Miramax at Disney World.
I met Louise in the central public relations office while I was researching permits, and she was the person to see. I couldn’t stop looking at her, and I felt something fatal. It was not just the flying blue ponies of fifth grade infatuation. I’d felt that for people before. I felt another emotion as well, something tender and painful at the same time, some sort of delicious wound which could only be cured by Louise’s presence. When I told Uncle Jack I was quitting as his gofer to go back to being a free-lance producer, he told me to get over myself. But I couldn’t live without Louise, so I stayed.
“Well, I’m very close to getting Raymond Hopwell to see me,” I said. Louise had gone into the kitchen. Her shoulders sagged as she stood in front of the stove. She was going to cook dinner, but I didn’t see how I could eat. “Getting an interview with a celebrity is like trying to date the football captain in high school,” I went on glumly. “It’s a dance. You both have something the other wants...”
“Provided you’re good-looking and he wants to go out with you anyway,” Louise interjected. I felt she was being unnecessarily dark.
“Interviewing is more than dating. It’s a business...”
“But were you saying it’s all about having to play hard to get?” Louise reached disconsolately for a box of dried pasta. I sat on the edge of the wooden rocking chair, watching her from the living room. She said, “How can you want to talk about Hopwell now?”
“I know that most people think it’s time for him to go away. But I want to go deeper. I want to know his secret.”
“What secret?” Louise asked, slowly filling a deep pot with water, slowly lifting it to the stove.
“The secret of his love, its breaking point...”
“His love!” Louise cried, tears springing to her eyes. “Don’t try to tell me Raymond Hopwell knows anything about love.”
“He loved the President. He would have done anything for him. He did too much, and he would have done more. But he broke, and that’s what my piece is all about, breaking points.”
“Oh Diane, don’t start an argument, especially not now.” Louise fell back against the white counter and sobbed into a kitchen towel. In another moment, she had collected herself, looked up and said quietly, “If something’s wrong, I’ll face it. But don’t make me waste my strength on this.”
I sensed I was ripe to make another call to Hopwell. I went upstairs. I sat stiffly on our vast, custom-made bed that was covered in layers of pale down and flowered cottons. I picked up the phone and dialed.
“Mr. Hopwell,” I said. “Hi, it’s Diane Stickton again. I want to make sure you understand my vision here.”
I explained for the first time the kind of depth I wanted to achieve in this piece. I was so sick of the superficial way the press dealt with crucial national events. I hated our whole descent into tabloid journalism, the nightly scoops on laws Hopwell had broken for Dodge, the women they had bedded, the whiskey they had drunk. I wanted to really get to know Hopwell. I wanted to make our friendship the focus of my story. The risk was all mine really. I was a free-lancer. I mean, I hoped PBS would air my documentary, but I hadn’t even approached them with the idea. I’d never even finished a film. I could afford to make movies on spec, having inherited a fortune after my parents’ murder-suicide. That should be the beauty from Hopwell’s point of view. I wasn’t interested in another sound bite. I wanted to get to know him. And if we succeeded, well, that’s what would go on national TV or maybe to the Sundance film festival, whichever bid highest. If Hopwell and I couldn’t hit off, we could forget the whole thing. No harm done.
There was a long pause in which I heard him inhale, blow smoke, rattle the cubes in a glass and take a sip. “OK, honey,” he finally said like an anthropologist arranging first-contact with a mountain people in New Guinea, a tribe that still didn’t know how Ben Franklin had put the key on the kite and started the industrial revolution. “I’ll take your case.”
“When?” I asked and sat forward, reaching for a pencil.
“Be at Denny’s at 10 am next Thursday. It’s the only Denny’s off the Hitchberry exit on Route 8- coming out of Nashville. You can’t miss it.”
It gave me some serious hope, a world outside of Louise and my problem to think and plan about. I ran down to dinner bubbling over with my good news. But nothing I said reached Louise, not my news-breaking gossip about the car they found in New Orleans with Hopwell’s old checks, not the excitement of having him agree to the interview, not my questions about possible cameramen from the pool of interns at the Disney Institute. We were walking on egg shells. I think we both slept badly. I know I did.
The next morning, I called in sick to the Oasis Gardens. Why go on temping when I finally had something big on my line? Louise called to say she had been able to get an appointment with the specialist in Atlanta. He had been confidence-inspiring and said DCIS had more than one approach. He wanted her at his office at 10 am the Thursday I was scheduled to meet Hopwell in Hitchberry.
“That sounds so hopeful,” I said. “Could I wait until you know more. If, you know, if you should, if...”
“But that’s what this specialist is all about,” Louise pled. “To find out what I should do if I do...”
“Can’t you change your appointment?” I guess we both asked at the same time because we both followed up simultaneously. “It’s the only time he’ll see me.”
“Louise finds you upsetting,” I said to Dr. Hopwell when we were finally sitting in his booth at Denny’s. “And I can understand that. You’re...”
“Infamous,” he finished for me. “She can’t understand why you would seek wisdom from someone who might be wicked.”
I was impressed. “Exactly,” I said. “That’s it exactly. Yet she won’t try to see my situation. It’s just that behind every cancer patient, if she’s lucky enough to have a partner, but that partner happens to be me, there’s a woman who needs round-the-clock emergency care.”
Hopwell smiled knowingly. The good doctor was everything I could have wanted in a therapist. He was stranger than I could have ever imagined, but so comforting. He was slim and pale and calm, so white he might have been dusted by Kabuki talcum, so calm and scathed under his blue Lenin cap, he looked -- in the words of Sartre about Genet -- as “if he had spent his life crawling backwards toward God.” With his great red eyebrows, he was like a Buddha from hell, the truth that wouldn’t quit no matter how hard the Bubba in the White House tried to get rid of him. In my circumstances, with so much uncertain at home, I felt empowered by this man. I felt I could tell him anything.
First we had to order. He wanted steak and eggs and hash browns and some breakfast vegetable like waffles with syrup. He was going to wash it all down with a chocolate milkshake. I asked for coffee.
“Where would you like to begin?” Mr. Hopwell asked.
“Bodies really make me anxious, the physical, you know, body fat and how to wear your hair and what color lipstick would look best, though that’s nothing compared to liposuction. That really takes the cake. I had specifically asked not to be a woman in this incarnation, but if that could not be avoided, that I at least be born without a body. I’ve lived as I could with my condition, that of being a woman in a woman’s body, but now my partner’s at risk of being pinned down. She’s at her doctor’s as we speak...”
A bright blonde waitress brought us our drinks. She set them on the table and returned to the grill. Dr. Hopwell sucked his shake meditatively through his straw. In another moment, the blonde was back with his platter of food. He tied a large linen napkin around his neck and lifted his knife and fork. “Tell me,” he said, starting to lift egg and waffle on to the steak on his fork. “Tell me again: what’s your line of work?”
“That’s a problem too,” I admitted. “I’m nothing. I have these ideas that I say I’m producing for TV, but the truth is I’m not even sure what a producer does beside talk on the phone.”
“Well, in my position, I see a lot of producers, and from what I can tell, much of film is phoning. How do you feel about that?” Dr. Hopwell asked and popped his forkful into his mouth. He began to chew slowly, never taking his eyes off mine.
“I feel ashamed. What good am I? I can’t do anything. I’m nothing. Maybe I should blame my stupid upbringing. My parents were in film. They were always on the phone. Our life was completely unreal what with the phoning, the taking meetings, the not taking meetings, the talking to stars, the chauffeurs, the limos, the manic-depressive roll of budgets being funded, budgets being bankrupt, I never learned what work really was. I can’t even understand the names of ordinary jobs. I don’t even know what a front office assistant manager does. What do you have to do to work up to that?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Dr. Hopwell said. “I’ve never made an honest living.”
“I understand. I’ve been going around calling myself something big -- a free-lance producer, but it just means I’m an unemployed phoner. Essentially, I just go around making crank calls as my way of not making a living. I can’t do anything.”
“So, naturally, you’ve turned to me, a public figure, to guide you through the crisis.”
“Yes, I guess,” I said. I hadn’t really thought about it, just acted and reacted, imploding and exploding, transforming myself through one frame after another, one whim at a time.
“We’re all sinners, Sweetheart,” he said, patting his mouth with his napkin. He asked the waitress to bring him coffee. Then he expanded on all he’d learned in his life of crime. “We know about being sinners here in Hitchberry. We’re all bottom feeders here. Hitchberry is where old carnies come to die. It’s Willy Loman territory. If President Dodge were here with me now, and you were not, if in other words he could talk to me privately out of the eye of the media, he would admit the pain we’re all always in. What have either of us done as we pushed him up the ladder but show a man can smile and smile and smile and still be a villain?”
“But Louise and I aren’t like that. We get better every day.”
“I think many ordinary private citizens do,” Hopwell said. “We thought we were different. We thought we could change things. Hell, I thought Dodge could change things. He was golden. I remember the first time I seen him, coming up the dirt road in front of my old house. The sun was behind him. I thought he was a god. We talked for two days. We had the same vision. Get rid of the machine. Give the system back to the people.”
“Well, pretty soon, we were spending money to buy votes from people who’d been bought by the old pols. It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it. So Dodge and I did it. That wasn’t such a big deal. Hell, we were better’n the old guys. But, you know, one thing led to another, and pretty soon it was laundering money and bank fraud and so on up the criminal food chain.”
“Not murder, I hope.”
“No,” he chuckled. “But we would certainly have tried to get away with it, if we had. Those were good years and good times. Going door to door across the countryside, meeting with old farmers who’d almost given up hope, handing them a thousand dollars and explaining how to account for that income by faking a bill of sale for some old farm implement.”
“What happened? It all sounds so perfect.”
“It was perfect. It was so god damned perfect, we got successful. That’s when we had to divide the labor. One of us had to do the dirty work, and the other one had to go around making speeches. That’s when the friendship began to die. I can’t remember what the straw was that made it break, but somewhere along the line, as he was talked about as a candidate, then made the candidate, and then damn if there weren’t people sniffing around at the piles of dirt on his back door step...Those piles of dirt were me. He pretended to clean the stuff up and disassociate himself, and we both understood, you know, that we had to do it that way, but pretty soon I got to having hurt feelings because he was so sincere acting in the way he denied ever having urged the bank officers to sign the loan that would pay for that little ole S&L...Then he had hurt feelings because I couldn’t understand why I had to go to jail for crimes we both committed...Around about that time, he stopped taking my calls...”
“That was awkward, wasn’t it?”
“As my Daddy used to say, there are no awkward situations for a gentleman.”
I hadn’t thought of that.
Hopwell smiled like a Zen master. “Did you get that on film?” he asked softly in his rotting corn mash voice.
“Are you kidding? That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. I can’t do anything. I can’t even comfort Louise.”
“Then what’s all this PBS stuff? How we were going to be friends and all? How that was going to be part of your film series?”
“I just told you how I lied. I crank called you, and you believed me.”
“Why, you pest,” Dr. Hopwell said indignantly. “You little media blood sucker.”
“But you know how it’s done. There’s no camera. I’m not even miked.”
“Hell, I figured you had the camera hidden like they do on Candid Camera, voyeuristic-like. So it would look like we were friends. You’ve wasted my time. Hard Copy coulda called while I was casting my pearls right here before swine...” There was more, of course, more and more invective as he pushed his plate away, adjusted his Lenin cap and stalked off. As he walked by the window, he turned with his parting shot, words I couldn’t hear, but tried to read from his big, slow-moving lips. It would take a while for me to realize what he’d actually said. First I watched him get into an aging black Ford sedan and drive out of the Denny’s parking lot. I paid the bill at the register, carefully folding the receipt for my expense account on the this project.
As I started back to Orlando, I began to have a vision. I saw that Louise would meet my plane and that she was going to be fine, maybe even that there had been a mistake in the interpretation of her biopsy. She was going to be smiling. She would forgive me. When we got to the white company limo, there would be a chauffeur at the wheel and champagne in a bucket on the floor. That’s when she told me she was taking me to an exclusive vacation spa in the Canadian Rockies. We would be flown there by one of Disney’s unique custom-crafted jets.
It all happened as I foresaw it would. I could not believe my dumb luck. Louise had a 100% clean bill of health. She hadn’t even had cancer.
“You didn’t have to arrange all this,” I said to her as the plane started down the runway on Pleasure Island. The cabin had been designed as a perfect replica of the toy maker’s humble cottage, reminiscent of an old cartoon that had inspired Louise to run away to WDW at fifteen, lie about her age and start her career turning burgers at Pinnochio’s fast food. Once she was launched on her mission to make the world a better place, she had never looked back.
We were strapped into rocking chairs for take off. There was a wonderful fireplace with glowing coals and a crude wooden table where a freshly-baked loaf of bread was cooling. The toy maker’s work bench was against the opposite wall, and it was covered with his tools and all the dolls and animals he’d just finished making.
“This is like a dream, Louise. It’s too much.”
“No, no, we need a second honeymoon,” Louise said as she leaned and kissed me.
And then, as the jet sprang off the ground, I saw Hopwell again. His big lips came into focus. They were saying, “You don’t know real from unreal.” He was pronouncing each word with full-fledged phonetic precision, “You’re even dumber’n Adam and Eve!”
Right away, once we were airborne, Louise pushed a button and our rocking chairs folded out and blew up into the biggest waterbed you’ve ever seen, and tiny winged fairies suddenly appeared from nowhere and delightfully, with tickly touches, helped us off with our clothes. And the cabin heated up with that yahoo-here-I-come-sister feeling as we fell on each other. In a flash, I was snuffling about her nooks and crannies, and she was rooting around in mine. As I pressed my cheek to her warm skin, I could hear faint, soft bubbling inside. I wondered if the sound was coming from the water in the bed, but, no, the blip and blop were part of Louise’s inner chemistry. Those were her cells, I realized, dividing and dividing, part of the divine plan famously unfolding before us, or more to the point, inside us: mirrors, mirrors everywhere, reflecting our immortality. No cancer! No way, Jose!