Each Monday at eleven o’clock, Lenny Weiss performed his favorite duty as executive producer of his hit game show, Anything for Money; he selected the contestants for that week’s show. He walked briskly across the stage set, the studio lights so white and glaring as to make the stage resemble the surface of the moon. In his silk navy suit, the man appeared to be a lone figure on the set, for his staff knew not to speak to him, or even look at him. He had become the king of syndicated game shows for his skill in finding the people who would do anything for money, people whom viewers would both envy and despise.
The assistants were in the holding room with the prospective contestants, telling them the rules: No one was allowed to touch Mr. Weiss. Mr. Weiss required a five-foot perimeter around his person. No one was allowed to call him by his first name. No one was to be drinking Pepsi, as the taste offended Mr. Weiss. Gold jewelry reminded him of his former wife, so anyone wearing such jewelry was advised to take it off.
He stood by the door for a moment before he walked in, imagining how the losers would walk, dazed, to their cars, looking up at the arid sky. They would try to figure out what they had done wrong, they would look at their hands and wonder.
Then he walked in, and they screamed.
He loved to hear them scream. They had tried to dress up, garishly; polyester suits in pale colors, iridescent plastic shoes. The air reeked of greed and strong perfume. Some of the women had had their hair done especially for the occasion, and their hair shimmered oddly, hardened with spray.
“We love you, man!”
“We’ve been watching since the beginning!”
A woman in a T-shirt that said DALLAS COWBOYS FOREVER lunged forward, grabbed his arm, and yelled, “Lenny!”
“Hands OFF Mr. Weiss!” shouted the security guard.
There was always one who was a lesson for the others. The door slammed and the woman was marched back to her life. They all listened to her heels clicking against the floor, first sharp and declarative, then fading. The others stood, solemnly, in the silence, as though listening to the future sound of their own deaths.
They were all on this earth briefly; for Lenny, that meant he had the burning desire to be the king of syndicated game shows, one of the ten most powerful men in Hollywood. He did not know what the others’ lives meant to them, just that they wanted what he had.
Now he needed to choose his contestants. They would be the ones with particularly acute expressions of desire and sadness; they would also have to photograph well under the brilliant lights.
“All right!” He clapped his hands. “You want to be rich? You want other people to kiss your ass? Well, listen. You’re going to have to work for it. Everyone!” He knew to change his requests for each new group; he did not want any of them to come prepared from rumors off the street.
“Unbutton your shirts!”
He knew this one was more difficult for the women, but that was not a concern to him. Some of the people stiffened, pawed gingerly at their buttons. Others tore through their buttons and stood before him, shirts loose.
“Take off your shirts!”
He lost a few more with this request. Others removed their shirts as though they had been moving through their lives just waiting for such an order. They stood before him, men and women, in bras and bare chests, some pale, some dark, some thin-shouldered, some fat.
“Repeat after me. Say: I am an idiot.”
He heard the chorus of voices start, softly.
Their seats had numbers on the bottoms; he knew immediately whom he would call back. He would call Number 25, the woman with the lustrous blond hair, and Number 6, the man with the compulsive smile. Lenny clapped his hands.
“Thank you. My assistant will contact those who we have chosen.” Lenny turned, almost running down the hallway. He walked around for fifteen minutes before he could get back to work.
He had grown up in Chicago in the nineteen-thirties, the only child of parents who had married impulsively and then learned that neither understood the other; Lenny dangled, suspended, in the harsh, disappointed sounds of the house. His father died suddenly when Lenny was eight. Lenny’s mother moved them to Los Angeles and got a job as a secretary at one of the movie studios. The boy was shocked by the clarity of the desert light, the way it made everything—the lawns, flowers, cars—appear stark and inevitable. His mother was the only person he knew in the world, and at first when he walked to school he was crazy with fear that she had also disappeared. He pretended he was collecting clouds to make a wall around her, and when the sky was cloudless he pretended he was sick. Then his mother brought him to the place where she worked. He sat on the floor watching her, and then everything else going on around her, too.
When he graduated high school, he became an errand boy on a soap opera, then a writer. He enjoyed making bad things happen to other people: troubled marriages, sudden illnesses, kidnappings. He married a woman who was impressed by his job and descriptions of various actresses on the set. They had a child, a girl. Then one day the producers gathered all the employees into a windowless conference room. “There’s no more show,” they said.
It was a bad time for hiring in any field, and he and his wife had little savings. He looked for work for six months without luck, setting his sights lower and lower, but already there was an odor of desperation on him. One night, his daughter was screaming with pain from an ear infection, but he was afraid to go to a doctor for what it could cost. The child’s pain so horrified him that he bolted out of the house.
He did not stop running for several blocks. Strangers walked down the street, their wallets bulging with money he wanted. The money was so close to him, he could almost smell its green dusky smell. His teeth were clenched very tightly, and his jaw hurt. Suddenly, he had an idea: he could rob a liquor store. He had thought about how to do this when he wrote his soap operas. The simplicity of this idea made him stop in astonishment. He could wear a stocking over his face and stuff a bottle in his jacket pocket as a gun.
There was a liquor store a few blocks away, and he stumbled toward it. Lenny stood outside the liquor store for a long time, the clear red letters announcing LIQUOR into the night air. He sobbed softly. His tongue tasted like a dry, bitter leaf. The other customers entered the store, noble in their morality and their innocence. He had become this: a man who would do anything for money.
Later, he would tell people that this was the moment he became God—for he had saved himself. Anything for Money could be a show in which contestants could do terrible, absurd things to receive vast amounts of money.
The next day, he waited for six hours outside the office of his former employer. When Lenny saw the head of programming, Mr. Seymour Lawrence, come out, he hurtled toward him, thrusting out a proposal. “Read this,” he told Mr. Lawrence. Lenny did not know why the man decided to listen to him, though he understood, in an honest part of himself, that it was simply a grand moment of luck. Later, he chose to describe this as a sign of his own inherent glory. Mr. Lawrence took the thin sheet of paper, folded it in half, and stuck it in the pocket of his blazer. Lenny watched him walk off. A month later, Mr. Lawrence bought the idea for the show.
Now he was sixty-five, the show’s executive producer, and his limousine took him from the studio to his home in the hills above Los Angeles. As a young man, he had never quite believed the success of Anything for Money, the way his longing formed itself into homes, boats, cars. He used to wake up, his heart pounding as though he was running an endless race. His daughter and wife were mere shadows to him, for he needed to get to the studio with an almost physical craving. He was there from eight in the morning to ten at night.
Thirty years ago, his wife, Lola, left. He blamed his wife’s leaving on her excessive demands; many of his colleagues’ wives had left them, too. The few times he had seen her since she left him, she looked entirely unfamiliar to him. It seemed that he had not been married to her but a look-alike who resembled her. She had come up to him at a party and said, softly, “You never knew anything true about me.” When she said this, he felt a deep wound, as though his honest attempts at goodness had been misunderstood. All his attempts at romance had been deeply clichéd—he bought her diamonds, midnight cruises, silk gowns. “All I wanted,” she said, “was a poem written about my eyes.” He stood before her like a little boy. Did this mean they had not loved each other?
His memories of his daughter were glazed with exhaustion. Charlene stood, naked, in the bathtub, water streaming down her tiny body, a pale angel absolutely convinced of her own glory; he could not believe she had come from him. Sometimes Charlene ran to him and clung to him with such fierceness, he felt a crumbling inside him. He was afraid she would see in his eyes the weakness of a lame dog and would laugh at him. She was a toddler running, stiff-legged, across the lawn, running as though the lawn were clouds and would tear apart if she stepped too hard; then she was six and running, legs outstretched, like a small antelope, in gaudy, colorful clothes; then his wife left and he could not see her running. She was gone.
Charlene believed that he had kicked them out of the house. That was what Lola had told her. He tried to explain to her that that was not the truth, but she said bluntly, “Mom said she asked you thirty times to stay at home for my five-year-old birthday. And you did not.” He did not remember any of these requests. He had thought he belonged to a family, but his wife and daughter had become strangers who could not be trusted.
Charlene had decided that he did not want her; but he had decided that she did not want him. She called him only to request money, which he always gave her. He once heard her on a talk show denigrating him with a fictional story: “My father was so self-centered he had a special mirror only he could look into. If anyone else did, he’d tell us it would crack.” Much audience laughter. Lenny would not hear from her for months, and then get a long letter, dissecting injuries done during her childhood; she had been arguing with him in her mind the whole time. Then, when he called her to discuss the letter, she would hang up on him.
The calls came more frequently immediately after Lola’s death. His ex-wife had died in a car accident fifteen years ago; she was gone and his remnant feelings for her were interrupted—he still had not divined whether they had loved each other or not. Charlene seemed to hope that, as her only living parent, he would have the capacity to read her thoughts. He sensed then how remote she felt from other people. When he could not read her thoughts, she reacted with anger so forceful it was as though he had told her he hated her.
Over the last fifteen years, he heard about her mostly through gossip items in the paper: Charlene Weiss sub eatery sinks. Charlene Weiss briefly hospitalized for alcohol abuse. Charlene Weiss has fling with Vance Harley, hunky new sitcom star. Charlene Weiss has daughter, Aurora Persephone Diamantina Weiss. A quote from the happy new mom: “I have reached a pinnacle of joy.”
She did tell him about Aurora. She had become pregnant by one of her many suitors and decided to have a child on her own. He received an elaborate birth announcement, a silver card with a photo of the baby girl swathed in white robes like a tiny emperor. The inscription below the picture said Aurora: A Child Who Will Be Loved.
For thirty years, he lived alone in his mansion on top of the Santa Monica Mountains; he had told his architect that he wanted to feel as though he could touch the entire city. He could see all the way to the Pacific Ocean, the expanse of ocean like black glass, all the way to the luminous blocks of downtown, to the cars pouring, twin rivers of red and white lights moving east and west, north and south. His loneliness had buried itself deep within him, and he experienced it as the desire to be in the seat of every car. The architect had set his living room at the edge of a hill, so that when Lenny looked out his twenty-foot-high glass windows, he almost believed he could fall into the trembling party of lights. He stood there many nights, his mouth hot with longing so primitive he could not name it; he was aware only of his quiet desire to thrust himself into the dark air.
The call came when he was having a limo meeting with the producer of the talk show Confess! His maid’s voice floated over the speakers.
“Mr. Weiss,” Rosita said. “Come home.”
“Why?” he said to the air.
“A child is here.”
Everything inside him became colorless, still.
When they reached his house, Lenny stepped out of his limo. His home was made of pale marble, and clear white wavelets from the swimming pool shimmered on its empty walls. Black palms, bathed in blue light, swayed in the warm wind. The bushes in his gardens had been trimmed to the shapes of elephants, giraffes, bears, and they made a silent, regal procession through the darkness. He stood for a moment, in the quiet that he had made, before he went inside.
The girl stood at the top of the stairs. He would not have been aware of her but for the ferocity with which she stood there, as though she had dreamed herself in this position for years. She was gripping the railing, staring at him. Her face was dim, but he could see her fingernails holding the rail—they were an absurdly bright gold. She ran down the stairs so fast he thought she might fall. She was standing in front of him, breathing hard.
“Grandfather, you’re real,” she said.
His legs felt insubstantial as water; he stepped back. He looked at Aurora. He believed she would now be about twelve years old. Her face had the hard, polite quality of someone who had been scheming quietly and fervently for a long time. Her auburn hair reached halfway down her back. She had Lola’s eyebrows, two arched U’s that gave her an alert, surprised expression. She had Charlene’s dark-blue eyes. They were the color of steel, and moved around restlessly, but had a hard gaze when they settled on something. He knew because they were also his eyes.
“Hello,” he said. He offered his hand. She shook it vigorously. He still had on the phone headset he usually wore so as not to miss any calls.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I was sent.”
She handed him a letter. The letterhead said:
BUENA VISTA REHABILITATION CLINIC
YOUR SECRETS ARE OURS
I am here for the next three months.
Take care of Aurora.
She likes chocolate.
I’m so tired.
Charlene’s signature resembled a tiny knot.
The letter’s tone was so polite he knew that someone had been watching her as she wrote it.
“Is this where your mother is?”
She nodded and moved toward the living-room window. “I read about this!” she exclaimed. “Your view. In a magazine about houses. It’s even bigger in real life.”
He wanted to stop her. She was standing against the window, pressing her fingers against the glass. He saw her make a breath on the glass, a pale oval, and the intimacy of the action made him want to walk away.
Two large suitcases sat in the foyer. He gestured toward the suitcases. “Carlos can take these up for you.”
Aurora darted up to one and grabbed the handle. “No!” she said. “I want to do this one myself.”
The bag was not actually a suitcase but a large green canvas sack. It bulged with odd, unidentifiable objects.
“You can’t carry that yourself,” he said.
She looked pleased, as if she’d predicted he would say this. “Then you help me.”
He did not remember the last time he’d carried anyone’s bag. “Rosita, call Carlos,” said Lenny.
“No,” Aurora said. She stood up straighter. “I want you.”
Rosita brought him a dolly and he pushed the bag into the elevator. The girl walked beside him, fiercely gripping the bag handle. The elevator rose to the second floor and the three of them walked and pushed down the hallway, Aurora gripping the handle of the bag the whole time with a nonplussed expression, as though she were walking a dog. When they got to a guest room, he stopped.
“You can stay here,” he said.
She walked in, dragged the bag into a corner. “Thank you,” she said.
“Good night,” he said.
Her eyelids twitched. “I’m not sleepy yet.”
He began to back away. “Hey, look,” he said. “I’m sorry. You’ll have to entertain yourself. You know.” He lifted his hands helplessly. “Sweeps. Nielsens. I don’t have time for baby-sitting. Rosita,” he said. “Aurora will be visiting us. Please bring her a hot chocolate.”
Aurora stepped back and looked down. She wrapped her arms around herself, tightly. She looked as if she had fallen from the sky.
He did not know what to say to her.
“Rosita, add some whipped cream to her chocolate,” he said.
Lenny woke with a shudder in the middle of the night. He sat, his heart pounding, in his bed. Then he got up and went to the kitchen. He sat in the blue midnight and drank a glass of milk.
He heard footsteps—peering out of the doorway, he saw Aurora in the foyer. The girl was walking barefoot, in her long johns, through the enormous room. She made almost no sound and moved through the darkness in a careful, fevered way. She did not merely look at the grand hallways but went up to the statues, lamps, and touched them tenderly, getting to know them. She moved urgently, disappearing into room after room.
He fled back to his room. He felt shaken, furious, wondering if he should wake Rosita, call the police. The girl had simply been walking through his house. Now it seemed that the clock was melting, the curtain could burst into flames. He lay awake for a long time, unable to get to sleep.
He woke up at six, far earlier than he believed the girl would wake up. After he made his way down the stairs, he realized that his headset was gone. He had left it on the kitchen table after his midnight glass of milk, and its absence made him feel broken off from the news of the day. He rang Rosita and asked her to look for it. He would give himself twenty-five minutes for breakfast. About ten minutes into his breakfast, Aurora walked in. She stood in the doorway; she looked as if she was trying to decide whether she should bow or curtsy or just barrel ahead.
“Hello, grandfather,” she said.
Her face was heavy with exhaustion but hopeful. She sat at the other end of the table. Before she did this, she moved a large crystal urn of flowers to the floor.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I want to be able to see you when we talk.”
He eyed her and ate a forkful of eggs. Rosita placed a croissant before her. Aurora was staring at him, drumming her fingers on the tablecloth.
“I have a question.”
“How does it feel to be syndicated in forty-three countries?”
“Forty-four. Somalia just signed on.”
“Your first episode of Anything for Money had the biggest television audience ever.”
“That is true.”
“How did you get Ringo Starr to do a guest spot?”
“He asked to come on.” He looked up. “Is this an interview?”
“I’ve read one hundred twenty-seven articles about you. In all the major magazines. More on the Internet. On the authorized sites.” She went through four slices of bacon. “Is it true that you only stock water in the back of the set so that contestants will get hungry and meaner?”
“No.” He lifted the paper in front of his face. “Anything you need, ask Rosita.”
“I would like an office.”
He lowered the paper. “For what purpose?”
“The production of my feature film.”
He folded the paper.
“I am currently in pre-production.”
“You are twelve years old,” he said.
“I know,” she said, as though that was a compliment. “I have read many books on the subject. I am writing a script. If you want to know the title, I can—”
He marched out of the dining room; she followed. He walked too fast. He was not used to waiting for another person, and he could sense her trailing behind him, trying to catch up.
He pushed open two doors embossed with a gold pattern identical to the doors of Il Duomo in Florence and walked into a room that overlooked the rose gardens.
“Your office,” he said.
She seemed surprised that her request had been obeyed so easily; then she walked in, hands clasped behind her back like Napoleon inspecting the troops. She walked to the window and looked outside. The morning sun fell in wide bright strips across the lawn, so that the pink and cream-colored roses gleamed like satin.
“Do you require use of a phone?”
“No,” she said.
“A fax machine?”
“No, thank you.”
She rose up on half-toe and then abruptly down again; later, he realized this was the gesture she used when she had more on her mind that she wanted to talk about, as though she were trying to make herself physically taller, give herself stature to ask for what she wanted.
“Your office,” he said. “Now. My headset.”
“My headset. I need it.” He smiled, trying to appear more relaxed than he felt. “Hey, I could be missing my biggest deal.”
“I don’t have it,” she said curtly. She sat stiffly in the office chair, like an executive calling a boardroom to order. “Now. Tell me your opinion. I want to describe the sky over a new planet that has been created by the explosion of a supernova. Should it be pink or yellow or blue?”
“Blue,” he said, helplessly.
She spun the chair. “Thank you. I have to get to work.”
Lenny drifted through his day at work with a dazed feeling. When he left, the sky was dark and furred with purple clouds. He told the chauffeur not to drive him home immediately, but around the city, and sat quietly in his seat, like a child who had been instructed to be still.
When he got home, he found the staff assembled in the living room. They were holding pieces of paper. Rosita was wearing a large pot holder on her head. Carlos was wearing a cape. He saw other staffers, whose names he did not remember: a gardener wearing a chiffon scarf around his neck, the pool man. Aurora was standing on a chair in front of them. They were listening to her.
“Rosita!” Aurora announced. “Your turn!”
“You, Count! You have cursed me!” She indicated her pot-holder hat.
“It is what the forces requested,” said Carlos, in a science-fictiony voice.
“Hello,” said Lenny.
There was a stunned silence. Rosita swiped the pot holder off her head. Carlos removed his cape and bowed deeply.
“What is going on?” asked Lenny.
“We’re rehearsing,” said Aurora.
“My movie.” She smiled. “They are all so good at their parts. I didn’t know they all wanted to be actors!”
He had not known they had any other aspirations at all. He studied them. They looked away, trying to erase the animation in their faces.
“Thank you, all,” she said. “Rehearsal’s over.”
He heard murmurings of thanks. Carlos took Lenny’s briefcase and walked, morosely, up the stairs.
“Rosita! I want my dinner,” he said.
“Can I have mine, too?”
“You haven’t had dinner?”
“I wanted to wait.”
“Children shouldn’t eat at nine o’clock,” he said. It occurred to him that he had no idea when a child should eat dinner.
“I always wait for my mom to come home.”
“When is that?”
“Six. Nine. Ten. Sometimes never.”
“What do you eat when it’s never?”
“Whatever’s around. Ritz crackers. Mints.”
“Rosita, give her some dinner,” he said. He went to his room.
He entered his bedroom and changed into his silk sweat suit. Then he looked for his favorite comb. It was not in his bathroom or his bedroom; nor could he locate his cologne. Standing in the middle of his bedroom, he wondered what the hell was going on. He went to the balcony and listened; she was still eating dinner. He walked down the hall to Aurora’s room and opened it. The green sack was on the floor; he unzipped it. It was full of little paper bags. Opening one marked MY GRANDFATHER LENNY, he found his headset and his comb and cologne. Lenny looked into the other bags. One was marked MADAME FOURROUT and inside was a postcard of Paris, a snapshot of what appeared to be a friendly baker, and a wooden spoon. Another bag said SAM FROM OXFORD and there was a snapshot of a college student and a silver pen engraved with the initials SNE. There were men and women of all ages and nationalities, and their toothbrushes, lipstick, office supplies. The people represented in the bags were from Paris, Milan, Athens, Buenos Aires, everywhere that Charlene and Aurora had lived.
He zipped up the sack and walked out of the room, embarrassed by what he had just done. Embarrassment was an unusual feeling for him, and he did not know what to do with it. Then his stomach clenched up in a way that was so acute it was like a physical pain; he had to sit down for a moment and wait for it to go away. In that bag, he saw the history of his own loneliness. He did not know why she had taken these objects from these people, but he believed he understood in some way as well.
Lenny did not come to the table for another half hour. He was shaken and did not want her to see him. But when he came into the room she was still there; she was waiting for him.
She was eating with painstaking slowness, carefully scraping the sauce from the poached salmon into a spoon and pouring it in an intricate design onto the grilled tomato. He was not used to anyone waiting for him at the dinner table. He was used to the mobs surging, gray-faced, in the holding room, staffers pacing, tense, outside his office. She was spelling her name in the sauce: AURORA.
He strode in quickly and took his seat. She had removed the urn again.
“I was a little hungry,” she said.
He could see, suddenly, that she was enormously tired, that she had been kept awake, or kept herself awake, far longer than she should have.
“So,” he said. “Time to get to know each other.” His laughter fell into the room. Rosita brought out a tray filled with glistening pieces of sushi. “Where were you and Charlene most recently?”
“Paris. Vienna. Argentina. We had a fine time—”
“What do you do there?”
“I hang around. I’m very sociable.”
“What does your mother do?”
“She is a busy woman.” She shook much more salt on her dinner than was necessary.
“Many people want to know her.” Her hand waved grandly in the air. “You know she started her own line of baby clothes. Le Petit Angel. She was going to work with Christian Dior—”
“Before she got thrown into rehab?”
“No!” she cried out, and her voice curved, suddenly, into a wail. They stared at each other, fearful, as though an intruder had entered the room. She looked into her lap and pressed her hands against her face. Then she glanced past him and said, quickly, “I...I want to talk about success. I want to be a success. I have my own theory—”
“What is that?” he asked.
She sat up straighter. “Success is about keeping your eyes open. Being organized. Having a plan. Getting to know people—”
“Success is luck,” he said. “Some people are winners. Some are not.”
She gazed at him with an expression that straddled opportunism and love.
“I have created the most successful show on television. One quarter of the world watches my show.” His voice was husky, honeyed; he wanted to convince her of something. “The ones who win, they’re lucky. They get the question they know how to answer, or they called the office the moment we needed to fill a show.”
“What about the unlucky ones?” she asked.
“The losers. Some people are winners, some are not. But we need them, too. So people are grateful not to be them.”
She was listening.
“We’re choosing contestants tomorrow in Las Vegas for a special episode there. To be broadcast opposite the Super Bowl.” He punched the air enthusiastically. “Why don’t you come see how I do it.”
He could not look directly at the joy in her face; it blazed, with a terrible brightness.
He took her in his private jet, the jet that he had Lockheed build for him on a special and secret assignment, a jet that was bigger and faster than anything that John Travolta or Harrison Ford owned. The plane flew with an exquisite smoothness, as though it were cutting through cream. The earth fell away, the ocean a swath of silver, Southern California suddenly tiny and silent and unreal; he looked out the window and he felt a sweet relief blow through him, as though the daughter who had shunned him had never existed, as though no one lived there at all.
He took a break from the planning session and grandly walked her around the plane, making sure the staff was watching. “This is my granddaughter Aurora—I’m telling her how to become a success. Aurora, here is the plane sauna. My staff tells me that any person of any stature must have one of these on a plane. Over here, here’s the plane game room. This is the biggest pool table in the sky—”
They landed in Las Vegas and set up their camp on a full floor in the MGM Grand. On the show, the contestants were going to run naked through a large, slippery pit filled with bills, trying to grab as many as they could. However, they would be allowed to use only their teeth. Some of the bills would be ones, but some would be thousand-dollar bills. Most of the plane trip had been consumed with discussion of whether to use olive oil or Crisco for the pit. The contestants would have to look good naked, be good at sliding on curved surfaces, and have large mouths. Hundreds of people showed up and were funneled to a conference room, where they were instructed to wait until Lenny arrived. He told Aurora to sit in the room with the contestants so that she could hear his staff prepare them.
The group looked like they’d been up late for too many nights—their eyes were rimmed violet, their hair desert-burned. They had been around the prospect of instant luck for too long, and they looked worn but grimly entitled.
Lenny walked in. “All right!” he shouted. “You want to do anything for money? Show me!” Their hungry eyes were set on him. “You, what’s your name?”
“What are you worth, Lily Valentine?” He pulled a wad of bills from his pocket. “Five dollars? Ten? A hundred?” He flicked the bill against her nose. “A thousand?” He let the bill fall to the floor. Everyone eyed it.
“You’ll be worth two of those if you can sing for me.”
Lily’s face flushed. “Sing?” she asked. She was in her forties, with pink-blond hair.
“ ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ Praise your great country.”
She took a breath and released it. “O—ooh, say can you see—”
“I can’t hear you, Lily.”
“By the dawn’s early light.” She had closed her eyes.
“Stop!” he said. An aide scooped the thousand-dollar bill off the floor.
“You call that singing?”
Lily began to cry.
“Are you winners or losers?” Lenny shouted at the group. “What are you worth? Just a few bucks?” He listened to his voice boom. “Bye, Lily, go home—”
There was a shuffling behind him. Aurora was standing up, hands balled into fists.
“STOP it!” Aurora yelled at him, and ran out of the room.
Everyone was still; Lenny burst through the door. She was walking with stiff steps down the hotel hallway.
“Stop!” he yelled. “Why did you do that?”
She spun around. “Why were you such a jerk to her?”
“Hey,” he said. “This is how I choose.”
She backed away, her face new and hard with fury. Fear flashed, brightly, inside him.
“What can I say?” he said, walking toward her. He held up his hands. “This is what I do.”
She turned and began to run from him.
“Wait,” he said.
He did not know where that word came from. He did not know why he wanted her to stop. He simply wanted to know something.
“Aurora. Please stop,” he said.
He remembered how, as a toddler, Charlene would run around the garden, kissing the flowers, the grass, the air. He remembered how she would run up to him and kiss him, her mouth wide open, as though trying to swallow his entire cheek.
“Aurora. Why did your mother send you to me?”
Aurora stopped. Her voice was hoarse. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
He stood, dizzy, watching her run from him; then he told his staff to take over for the afternoon. He walked through the hotel, past the slot machines, where the sounds of people hoping to change their lives were as loud as a thousand bees; he continued through the cocktail lounge, the cigarette smoke a silver fog, then through the numerous gift shops, filled with cheap and ugly artifacts priced so extravagantly the gamblers had to believe they had ascended to a superior place. Then he pushed through a hotel exit and stared, trembling, empty, at the aqua sky. He was so lonely each breath hurt. He had nowhere else to go.
It was dusk when he found her. She was sitting on a bench, staring at a fountain surrounded by arcs of blue light. He walked toward her slowly. He did not know what he wanted, but he felt just as he had many years before, when he was about to rob the liquor store—as though he wanted to change the universe. Then what he had wanted was practical. The universe he wanted to change between himself and his granddaughter was entirely different. It was a universe of feelings, and he did not know how to live in it.
“Aurora,” he said.
“What do you want?” she asked.
He stood in front of the girl: an expensively dressed man, sweaty, against a dark sky. “I’d like to talk to you,” he said.
He sat down and leaned forward, clasping his hands. He did not know how to begin. “What’s the title of your movie?”
It was the only question he could think of to ask.
“Danger,” she said, a thrilled edge to her voice. “This is the poster. It’ll have a picture of an exploding world. There will be huge clouds of smoke. People from other planets will pick up stranded earthlings in their rockets. The saucers will fly through violet rain—” Aurora’s face seemed naked as a baby’s. She awaited his response.
“Danger,” Lenny said, slowly, for it seemed like a beautiful word. “Danger. It is a great idea.”
The next day, the jet took them back to the mansion. They walked the grounds together and Lenny showed Aurora the whole estate, but mostly he listened to her tell him about her film. The girl spoke quickly, desperately. The plot of Danger was unclear but enthusiastic. It involved runaway missiles, a child army, aunts possessed by aliens, and other complex subplots. Lenny’s contribution to the conversation was not to interrupt. If he did, the girl became furious. Aurora had thought through many of the marketing elements: the poster, the commercial. She became so passionate during her description of the trailer for Danger that she got tears in her eyes.
He was not sure what to do together. His jet took them to Hawaii one weekend to swim with sea turtles, and to London the next for a lavish tea. He imagined intimacy would be like the sensation he had when the jet swung up into the sky, a feeling of vastness; but she was not interested in the green sea around Hawaii, the heavy, sweet cream spooned on a scone. Instead, she wanted to know the most peculiar details about him. What was his favorite color? What was his favorite vegetable? What kind of haircuts did he have as a child?
One day, she asked him what he was most afraid of in the world.
“You first,” he said.
“Spiders,” she said.
“Snakes,” he said.
She looked dissatisfied. “Something better,” she said.
These were lies; he did not know what he feared.
“Ticking clocks,” she said.
“When my mother doesn’t come home,” she said. “I listen for ticking clocks. I can hear them through walls.”
“When does she not come home?”
“I get scared I’ll be awake forever. I think I hear them down the street.”
She covered her face with her hands in a small, violent motion. She held them there for a moment; when she lifted her hands, her face was blank, composed. “Tell me what you’re afraid of,” she said, and it was an order.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“You have to say something.”
“I have to think,” he said, but he could not describe his gratitude at the question, for no one had ever asked him this before.
That night, Lenny could not sleep. He went to the kitchen at 2 a.m. for a glass of milk; again, he heard the girl’s footsteps. He watched her walk lightly through the foyer again. He waited until she had left and then followed her through the silent house. Aurora crept like an animal across the gleaming cold tile until she reached one of his coat closets. She knelt and picked up some of the favorite pieces of his wardrobe—his Armani loafers, his Yves St. Laurent gloves. She did this quickly, with a kind of efficiency, picking up items and dropping them. Suddenly, she grabbed two shoes and a glove; lightly, like a ghost, she ran back to her room.
For a while, he stood where he had watched her; he wanted her to take everything. He wanted to follow her, uttering words of impossible tenderness, words he could never say to his own child: I want to give everything to you.
He still had not figured out what he was most afraid of when, about a month later, she did not come to breakfast. He was surprised by her absence, but thought she was just sleeping late. He called from work to check in.
“She has the flu,” said Rosita. “She’s sleeping. Children get sick.”
He found it difficult to concentrate on his work, and came home early to see her. She was groggy with fever, but she mostly slept. The pediatrician said to give her fluids and not to worry.
A week later, she woke up, coughing; she could barely breathe. The pediatrician told him to take the girl to the emergency room.
They were borne together on a stale, glaring current of fear. The children’s wing of the hospital was like a haunted house: babies screamed as nurses held them down to take blood from their arms, children wheeled out from operations lay, eyes glazed, tubes rising out of their mouths. The parents walked slowly, like ghouls, beside the gurneys rolling their children out of surgery. They were not who he had planned to meet that day.
Aurora was with him and then she was in the pediatric intensive care unit. The flu had developed into pericardiomyopathy—an illness of the heart. The doctor brought the residents around Aurora’s bed to instruct them on Aurora’s condition, for it was so rare it had never been treated in the hospital before. Lenny could not watch this. He tried to call Charlene at the clinic, but an administrator got on the line and said, primly, “She left. She ran away two days ago with another patient.”
“Ran away?” he asked. “Why didn’t you call me?”
“We were waiting to see if she called us.” She paused. “We assume no responsibility once they leave the premises. There were mutterings about South America.”
“Find her,” he said, “or I’m suing you for so much money your head will spin.”
“What do you propose we do, Mr. Weiss? Send our counselors to South America? She wasn’t ready. We can’t force her. We’ll let you know if she contacts us.”
In his life, he had commanded budgets of millions of dollars, negotiated with businessmen on every continent of the globe. Now he had to act as Aurora’s guardian and he stumbled wildly across the hospital linoleum, as though the floor were made of air. He tried to ensure that Aurora would get good care from the nurses by offering them spots on his show. “We’re having a special episode. Pot of five hundred thousand dollars. You’d have a one-in-three chance.” Standing at the large smoky windows in the waiting area, he stared out at the cars moving down the freeways. Closing his eyes, he tried to change the course of the day, to will the cars to go backward, but they pressed ahead, silver backs flashing, leaving him standing there, alone.
When Aurora had stabilized a week later, the doctor called him into his office. The office was filled with diplomas and drab orange chairs. Lenny perched on the edge of the chair like a child. The doctor read the chart that Aurora’s pediatrician had sent him: “She was in Thailand two years ago,” he said.
“Her mother took her there,” Lenny said.
The doctor read the name of a disease Lenny did not know. “She wasn’t properly treated. Her heart was damaged. This flu did more harm.”
Lenny remembered a postcard Charlene had sent from Bangkok: Having a super time. Aurora loves curry. River rafting next week. He felt faint and a little sick.
“The news is bad,” said the doctor. “She needs a new heart.”
Lenny could not breathe. A sharp pain went through him, immense and shocking because its source was wholly emotional; it came entirely from his love.
“We’ll put her on the transplant list,” said the doctor.
“She has to wait her turn.”
He had not waited on any list for over thirty years. Lenny stood up. His hair was uncombed and his face gray with exhaustion, but he felt the large, powerful weight of his body in his expensive suit. “What’s your job here, doctor?”
“I am the head of pediatric cardiology.” He was a slim man, slightly balding. His eyelashes were long and curling. His desk glimmered with crystal paperweights.
Lenny turned away from the man’s desk. He was talking fast. “Let me ask you. What do you need in your wing?” Lenny asked.
“Let me tell you how I see the new wing of the hospital,” said Lenny, glancing at the doctor’s name-tag. “The Alfred J. Johnson wing. Twenty million dollars. A children’s playroom. Top equipment. A research lab. Endowed chairs.” He listened to the hoarse, meaty sound of his voice. “I am the producer of Anything for Money. Look at me.”
The hospital sent Aurora home with vague instructions: take it easy; no strenuous exercise. She felt weak, but she did not know how ill she was, and Lenny did not tell her. He did not allow himself to think about her weakened state. Instead, he indulged in feelings of pride at his wealth and ability to bend the rules. When he received the official letter, a few days later, he wanted to frame it, for it seemed to reflect some magnificence in his soul. The letter said: Aurora Weiss is number one on the list for available heart transplants. Please remain at this address.
Lenny called the doctor every day. He gave Lenny ghoulish harvest reports: a young boy killed in a car accident, a murdered teen. But none of these hearts had the right antigens that would match Aurora’s; they had to wait for the correct heart.
Waiting was what fools did; he decided to take things into his own hands. He stayed up all night, making calls. He spoke into a phone that did automatic translating to doctors in Germany, Sweden, France. His price soared. Thirty million dollars to be number one on the list. New wings. Top equipment. Huge salaries. High-tech playrooms. He shouted these offers into the phone at 2 a.m., imagining Aurora and Charlene’s gratitude that he had saved Aurora, how they would tell everyone that Lenny had saved his granddaughter by calling every doctor in the world. When sweetness did not work, he tried threats: sending investigators in to check on their records, lawsuits. He shouted his grandiose offers into the dark.
Aurora came into the room one night when Lenny was making his calls. She stood in her pajamas, staring, as he shouted into a phone.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
He put down the phone.
When he told her that her heart was not well and how he was going to help her, she went still; she seemed to have been waiting for years for someone to tell her that she was damaged. “I’m going to find one,” he said. “You know me. People know me and they want to help—”
She went pale, for she saw through this immediately. “I’m sorry!” she cried out. “Sorry, sorry—”
He saw, at once, how his daughter had behaved as a mother.
“Aurora. I’ll save you,” he said. “I swear it.”
But she did not let him touch her—she backed away from him with a dim expression, as though she were already disappearing, and believed this was what people had truly wanted from her all along.
He skipped work. He was sleepless. The right heart was not appearing for her. He tried to think about who would give up their heart for millions of dollars. Drug addicts, the terminally ill—but their hearts would not be in good enough shape. He sat behind the dark glass of his limo, grimly watching girls play soccer, wishing one of them would trip. He imagined taking his Mercedes sports car out and plowing it into a group of teenage boys running on the sidewalk, killing enough of them to give Aurora more of a chance.
He proposed to his staff a special episode: “Who Will Die for Money?” They would audition people willing to give up their hearts for a staggering pot of $5 million. His staff thought it was a PR stunt and called an audition. The holding room filled with an assortment of the homeless, individuals not in the best of health, and well-dressed, shifty types who seemed to think there was some way to obtain the money without dying.
They were all busily filling out their names and addresses when he got a call from Rosita.
“A heart has arrived on the doorstep,” she said.
He rushed home.
A man identified himself as a cardiac surgeon and a purveyor of black-market hearts. He was from the Ukraine. Dr. Stoly Michavcezek sat in Lenny’s living room, an ice chest on his lap.
“Whose heart was this?” asked Lenny.
“A man. Olympic-quality gymnast. Fell on mat and dead.”
“And you could operate? How long has he been dead?”
“Few hours. Payment up front.”
They transferred the heart to Lenny’s enormous SubZero freezer; then Lenny brought in a specialist from Cedars Sinai to look at the heart.
“This isn’t a human heart,” the doctor said. “This is the heart of a chimp.”
When he returned to the studio, the prospective contestants had all been dismissed and black-suited men from the Legal Department were waiting in his office.
“Lenny,” said one. “This has got to stop.”
Aurora worked on her movie obsessively; she spent much of her time in her room. When they had a meal together, he did most of the talking; he lied about how close he was coming to saving her. “There’s a doctor in Mexico,” he’d say, “a small hospital. International laws, they’re all we have to get around—” She ate very little and watched him like a child who had disbelieved adults her whole life.
One night, she burst out of her room and ran to her seat at the table. “My plot has changed,” she said. “Listen. There are seventeen aliens from the planet of Eyahoo. They have legs in the shape of wheels and heads like potatoes. Their planet is very slippery and they move very fast on their wheels. Often they bump into each other. Their heads are getting sore.”
“They need a new cousin who can make their planet less slippery. Their cousin is named Yabonda and she lives on a neighboring planet. She has long legs with huge feet that are very absorbent, like paper towels. They want to learn how to have feet like her. Now. Do you think they should maybe invite her to Eyahoo for dinner or just come and kidnap her?”
She leaned back in her chair, clasped her hands tightly, and watched him.
“What would happen with each?” he asked.
“If they asked her to dinner, she would be transported in a glamorous carriage made of starlight.”
“If they kidnapped her, it would hurt.” She stretched her fingers wide, as though trying to hold everything. “Tell me,” she said sharply.
When Aurora had learned about her condition, she stopped stealing. Lenny began leaving things out for her—his cell phone and toothbrush and car keys—in the hope that she would take them, but in the morning they remained where he had put them. He longed for her midnight rambling through the mansion, waking up to see which objects of his she would find precious.
One night, he heard her footsteps padding down the hall.
Lenny jumped out of bed and followed her. This time, Aurora seemed to have no particular direction, but went around the foyer like a floating, circling bird. Then she saw Lenny. They stared at each other in the dusk of the hallway, and the shocked quiet around them made Lenny feel that they were meeting for the first time.
“Something’s going to happen to me,” said Aurora, and she began to cry. “I don’t know what to take.”
It sounded as though the house were made of her cries. They echoed through the empty hallways. The girl knelt to the floor and threw up. The child’s distress made Lenny feel as though he himself were dissolving. Lenny lowered himself beside her and put his hand on the girl’s back.
“Take me,” said Lenny.
The girl stared at him.
“I’ll go with you,” said Lenny.
“Wherever. I’ll go, too.”
“How can you go?”
“I can find a way to do it.”
He did not know how to stop these words; they were simply pouring out of him. “Please. I’m telling you. Take me.”
“I don’t want to be by myself,” said Aurora.
“You won’t be,” said Lenny. “I’ll be there, too.”
When the dawn came, he was sleeping on the floor beside Aurora’s bed. He woke up, his promise only a vague cold sensation—then he remembered what he had said.
He got up quietly, and left the room.
It was just six in the morning. Lenny walked to his garage and got into his red Ferrari convertible. He shot up the Pacific Coast Highway, feeling the engine’s force vibrate through his body. The highway stretched, a ribbon reaching through the blue haze to the rest of the world. He felt poisoned by the girl’s presence in himself and wanted to get her out. He kept going north, the early sun melting the haze.
By eight, he had hit Santa Barbara. The main street was filled with a lustrous golden light, and the people strolling the sidewalks looked so contented and purposeful he wished they were all dead. He thought of the way Aurora stood on half-toe when she wanted something, the sweet, terrible optimism in the girl’s walk when she headed down the hallway, ready to go about her day. He wanted to get out of his car and rush out among the strangers and find a woman and have sex with her in an alley. He wanted to strip naked and run, singing, into the ocean. He wanted to slam his car into a restaurant and be put in jail. He drove back and forth down the main street for a while, hands trembling on the steering wheel.
He turned the car and roared toward where people knew him best: the studio. At 10 a.m., he walked through the doors and stood in the shadows, watching. Eight contestants were white-lit, hitting buzzers, shouting out answers to questions, and the producers and crew were scrambling noisily in the dark around the stage.
Lenny stared at the brilliant stage set. On this stage, he had seen a man auction off his wife’s bra for thousands of dollars; he had seen children thrust their parents’ faces into vats of whipped cream for five hundred bucks. He had stood in this brightness, watching others dimly fall around him.
“Lenny,” he heard. “Hey, Lenny—”
He stood in the corridor. The strangers in the glare gibbered like monkeys. Lenny shivered because he knew, at once, what would be unbearable; he could not be here alone.
Lenny had to turn around several times before he saw where the exit was. Pushing through the metal doors, he ran into the parking lot, jumped into his car, and drove home.
When the Ferrari floated up to the mansion, Aurora was sitting on the stairs. The girl was still, as though she had been sitting there for a hundred years. Her blue eyes were fixed on Lenny as he began to walk up the stairs.
“I thought you weren’t coming back,” said Aurora.
“I had to do an errand,” Lenny said.
He sat beside Aurora on the stair.
“We could have a house together,” the girl said. Her fingers dug into Lenny’s hand. “It could be just like your house. We could sleep beside each other, so you always know that the other’s there.”
Lenny looked out at the yard. Stars seemed to have fallen into the lawn. It was dark and wet from the morning rain and the brightness of the sky seemed to be caught in the grass. He looked over his yard to the hazy brown air over the city, to the people eating sandwiches or telling jokes or cursing or waiting at stoplights or saying goodbye. They seemed to live in another universe. He did not know what any of them were made of, what his daughter was doing, how much money he had.
“I have a new plot idea,” she said. “To help Yabonda.”
“What do you mean?”
“Her paper-towel feet have dried out,” she said. “Whenever she lifts her feet, they make a weird crackling sound. Everyone on her planet wants her to go away. They can’t stand the noise her feet make. It keeps them all awake. There is mayhem and murder.” She jumped up and put her hands on her hips; she was trembling. “She meets Glungluck, a kindly alien who was kicked off her planet because her ears, which resemble long straws, suck up everything around them, and people were losing their purses and keys.”
“Go on,” he said.
“They make a neighborhood,” she said. “They add other sad aliens, Kogo and Zarooom. They build big walls around their neighborhood, made of glass roses. The only aliens who can move in are other losers. They all have had bad luck. In their neighborhood, they can talk to each other. They make up songs and have contests. Nobody wins. When the good-luck aliens try to see through the wall of roses, they are jealous and lonely.”
He looked at her face. Her forehead was gray and creased, like an old person’s.
“I’ll produce,” he said.
He did not stop looking. He had kept the audition slips of the people who had been willing to give up their hearts for $5 million and he was meeting one, Wayne Olden, secretly, for lunch at a Fatburger in Hollywood to check him out. He was planning to take him in for a full medical exam; after that he would hand over organ-donation forms. Lenny had not figured out how he would kill the man, particularly to maintain the integrity of his organs. They were finishing up a hot dog when he received a call.
“I’m not feeling so well,” said Aurora.
“I don’t know.”
Lenny jumped up.
“I have to go,” he said to the man.
“You’re kidding,” said the man.
“Here,” said Lenny, throwing him a thousand-dollar bill. “That’s for lunch.”
The man looked disappointed. “I thought I was going to get five million bucks!”
Lenny’s Mercedes raced home. It was late afternoon, the shadows long and dark against the grass. She was sitting in a T-shirt and shorts by the pool. The late sun made her face look gold.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I just wanted to see you,” Aurora said.
He sat beside her.
“I don’t know what to have for dinner,” she said.
An expression of surprise crossed her face. It was as though she were witnessing a private, obscene act. Her arm jerked once and she fell out of her chair. She lay still on the grass, her eyes staring, empty, quiet, at the sky.
He said the child’s name. Again. Again. Aurora. Pink geraniums heaved in the warm wind. Aurora. He had not been able to answer Aurora’s question. The answer pressed out of him like a knife inside his gut. He wanted to tell her that they could have hamburgers for dinner.
He picked Aurora’s body up and carried her through the green exuberance of the garden.
Now Lenny was saying another word: Wait. He was in a great hurry. Wait. His voice felt like a shout, but it was almost a whisper. The world around him had become silent. It seemed the sky had lowered. He could not stand too tall.
He carried Aurora to his car and put her in the front seat. He seat-belted the girl in and covered her with a jacket. He did not want the child to get cold. He got into the driver’s seat and started the car. Wait. He had to belt the girl in more tightly so that she would not slide. His hands were trembling so hard he could not hold the wheel.
The police found them later, a man in his sixties and a girl. They were slumped in the car that had driven suddenly off the cliff in Malibu and crashed on the Pacific Coast Highway. The car had landed in the center of the highway, straddling the center divider, and traffic was slowed in both directions. The white and red lights from the cars made two rivers of brightness as the drivers glided north and south along the coast. Now the cars appeared to be following each other, stopping and starting, stopping and starting, as the drivers passed the wreckage and peered into the darkening night.