Zoë Tamerlaine Lund
Every Chapter title in Book One is a slang or technical expression used on a film set. In Book Two, the Chapter titles are place names, or other words or phrases one might find on a highway sign, or on a map. I am presently choosing a concept for the Chapter titles in Book Three.
Posthumous note: In the years following this writing, Zoë
realized that 490 Book One actually stands on its own as a complete
work. The narrative leaves the reader at the start of a cross-country
journey, but the developments leading up to that embarkment constitute
a complete story in themselves.
How much do I give? How far do I go? Jesus answered with a quotable cipher. A short-hand calculus for the human and divine. 70 X 7 = 490. He put a real number on the unmeasurable, brought the unspeakable into the ken of language, and put a tag on the ultimate and unconscionable. Yet it's appropriate to map this intangible intersection where man and God cross. "490" is terrifyingly concrete. More real than life. Always. 490 kills. Gives birth. Changes things. Ever beyond our grasp, 490 is yet a profoundly human province. Consider the passion of 489. And what is 491?
Johnny McCarte, a forty-three-year-old trucker from Brooklyn, discovers a mysterious crate of film footage. He screens the first reel with Jo Stepp, his Black trucker colleague, and Jo's sister Amanda Stepp, a projectionist at a 42nd Street porno theater called The Pan. They meet late at night when the theater is dark, and all three are intrigued and moved by what they see. The footage features underground political movements of the early seventies, but from a personal, 'in-house,' even erotic perspective -- a sort of sexy, terrorist home movie. Johnny has heard many rumours about Amanda from his wife. He finds out that at least three of them are true. She is Black. She is a junkie. She is incredibly sexy and doesn't apologize. The newspaper clippings on the wall of her 'Tower' projection room indicate that she may be politically extremist, as well. Johnny has led a relatively sheltered life. He has worked for the same trucking company for nineteen years, and has been married to Annette for nine. He fears the unknown, yet is powerfully attracted to these strange, projected images and new Black friends. An intimate complicity grows between Johnny and the Stepps.
When Johnny returns home that night, his wife Annette confronts him about his wee-hours disappearance. He confesses about the footage, and once Annette gives his wacky tale credence, she gets excited and falls under the spell of this clandestine adventure. They make love for the first time in months. Johnny feels compelled to invite her to the next screening the following night. The intriguing footage may just re-ignite his marriage.
Annette and Johnny view the second reel with the Stepps. Annette is astonished because it records the immediate aftermath of the 1970 explosion at the townhouse on Eleventh Street in Manhattan. She is aware of this historical event, in which two Weather Underground militants accidentally blew themselves up while making bombs, and two other Weatherwomen escaped, to go underground. Annette was still a journalist in 1970, and had covered the incident for a small paper. (When she married Johnny, she aborted this budding career, masochistically, and of her own accord.) Unlike Annette, Amanda has a poignant reaction to the footage. Crying in the dark, she is obviously emotionally involved in the subject and imagery. Johnny quietly takes her side in the matter, against the crass, "What a story!" pretenses of his wife.
When the McCartes go home to Brooklyn, Annette proposes a plan to sell the footage to the C.I.A. for a thousand dollars a reel. This will get us out of the hole, she says, and we'll also "Do our patriotic duty." Johnny doesn't take this seriously, but realizes that the apparent renaissance of their marriage hinges upon Annette's rapport with the film. He prays that in the morning she will have forgotten her scheme.
She doesn't. Johnny reluctantly submits to her intrigue, and the McCartes set out to "drop" the first reel of footage somewhere in Manhattan. They choose to leave the film can inside a grand piano at a Steinway showroom. Annette does the deed. Next, they call up the C.I.A. (it's in the book), and inform the agency of their demands: "Make an announcement over Z-100 radio station at 10:00 P.M. tomorrow night, telling us whether or not you wish to continue buying back the rest of the twenty cans. Then leave a thousand dollars for us in the garbage basket at the South-West corner of Eleventh Street and Fifth Avenue."
That night, Johnny goes alone to The Pan to screen the third reel. Annette chooses to stay home out of spite, privately cursing "the junkie." This reel is quite different from the previous two. It contains highly poetic footage, and a Communiqué ordering "those who have come this far" to stop screening until they have completed "the first assignment." All further reels are to be viewed on the road. They must go to Alabama and break a chimpanzee out of the zoo. The Communiqué implores the reader to take this seriously, for "all will make sense in the end." This Alabama stop is only one of seventeen. The viewer must travel across country, follow the instructions to be found on each successive reel, view only one at a time, and successfully complete the tasks enumerated therein.
Johnny is captivated. Before he can speak about what he has seen, Amanda mounts his lap. They kiss and explore passionately, and Johnny experiences a Black woman sexually for the first time. Amanda saves actual intercourse for his return -- from a successfully completed voyage, as described in the Communiqué. She herself will not come along, for she "Has already made this trip," though, unlike Johnny, she "Didn't have no tour guide." Surprising Johnny, she tells him to bring along his wife. This trip, apparently, could serve as a shake-down tour in several ways. The final initiation rite of the evening is Johnny's first shot of heroin. Amanda shoots him up, and his first nod is a rather terrifying, though familiar journey to Woods Hole (Cape Cod) -- in the dream, a hole in the woods. There, as a child, Johnny had nearly drowned. "He knew that if [the waves] didn't pull him under, it was only because [they] had already made him theirs. He had swallowed the sea and it lived inside him. Never to be gone."
The next morning, Johnny can't get up the nerve to tell Annette that she must not sell the footage. He fears that she won't find the prospect of the upcoming voyage particularly enticing. Taking this crazy-sounding trip means losing $20,000. Money is Annette's priority. She's not in the mood for generous wagers.
The solution to Johnny's quandary comes, ironically, from Annette, herself. They need someone with whom they can leave the footage while they go and pick up the money on Eleventh Street. This way, the threat in their message to the C.I.A. -- "You mess with us; a third party will destroy the footage" -- will have some validity.
Annette proposes the Stepps as guardians of the reels, and Johnny immediately agrees. Now he has control of the footage and Annette will have to do what he says: Travel. He still has to summon the courage to tell her about it. Johnny meets Jo at a Howard Johnson's in New Jersey, and gives him the crate of film. Johnny realizes that the Stepps have become the most important people in his life, and that he is madly in love with Amanda. In other words, with a Black-junkie-terrorist. For this white, hitherto mainstream man, that's pretty heavy.
The Stepps and the McCartes prepare to receive the radio message and to pick up the money on Eleventh Street after 10:00 P.M. Inasmuch as the McCartes will probably be followed, Johnny arranges that Jo will wait for him and Annette at their rendezvous spot, a Brooklyn hang-out called Bob's Bar. There, Jo can receive phone-calls from the various protagonists and guide the operation. Meanwhile, Amanda will watch the proceedings from the street and try to tail any C.I.A. tailers.
Thus far, this Synopsis has followed the New York protagonists of the drama, the McCartes and Amanda and Jo Stepp. However, from very early on in the novel, the action has intercut between New York and Virginia, where several other people have long been caught up in the intrigue of the footage.
The first reel, "dropped" in that Steinway by the McCartes, is picked up by Jeffrey Close and Howard Sears, two middling C.I.A. agents. They take it back to D.C. There, a higher-ranking Officer named Oliver Gadsden requests this case. His superior, Nathaniel Gorham, a man of wide-ranging powers, teases Oliver about his choice of this assignment. This frightens Oliver, because he suspects that Nathaniel may know his secret: Oliver must find this footage and destroy it because he, himself, may be on it. Oliver had been a radical in the sixties and early seventies. Until the footage entered his life, his past had manifested itself more discretely -- in his feelings of unfulfillment, and in an obsessive relationship with his horse, Diana. She is named in memory of his forever unrequited love, Diana Oughton, a Weatherwoman who was killed in the Eleventh Street blast. Oliver's wife, Kate, knows nothing of this history.
Oliver has had a recurring nightmare from which he awakens in terror, shouting "Oyster! Oyster!" This phenomenon interrupted their wedding night, and has occurred repeatedly, ever since. Kate has never known what to make of it, and Oliver has given no hints. Of late, the dreams have increased in frequency. Oliver still won't talk, for this secret is the key to his clandestine past. In Oliver's youth, he wrote a poem which included a poignantly metaphoric reference to an oyster. Although the poem was oft-quoted in underground circles, even by Diana, Oliver himself was always kept on the outside. The oyster came to represent the challenge of his unrealized life.
Oliver finds out that there will be a screening of the first reel at the Company that afternoon. He fears that his face will appear on the screen for all to see, and that his career will be over before the day is out. In a panic, Oliver finally confesses his past to his wife. She is stunned, but also amused. "Isn't being a 'terrorist' sort of like being a junkie? Once a -- , always a -- ?" Even Kate has grasped the crux of Oliver's life. What was he? What is he now?
Now that Kate knows his secret, Oliver feels closer to her than he has in a long time. He decides that If he survives the imminent screening, she must accompany him to New York. There, he and his wife will track down the rest of the footage together. Oliver plans to view it first, then destroy the reels before they can be seen by Nathaniel and the Company. He is certain that discovery of his image on the film would mean the end of his career -- or worse.
At that afternoon's projection of the first reel, Oliver is relieved to find that he is all alone. But then Nathaniel gives Oliver an unpleasant surprise. Nathaniel had hidden himself at the back of the Company screening room. There, he had quietly watched the whole film, and observed Oliver's reaction to it. Oliver's face was absent from this first reel, but the images of nude women building bombs had made Oliver feel naked -- and want to be naked -- too. Nathaniel ignores Oliver's apparent disarray and reveals more clearly than ever that he sees Oliver as his successor. He seems glad that Oliver is going to New York, even though it is clear to both men that the operation may challenge Oliver's loyalties. Nathaniel doesn't even balk at Oliver's plan to travel with Kate. This entire experience evidently will serve as some sort of test for Oliver -- at least, as an "Operation Wild Oat". Nathaniel apparently believes that after dealing with the footage, Oliver will return to Washington and there inherit his destiny. Oliver senses that Nathaniel knows more about the film than he is telling. Oliver is quite right. (Nathaniel's far-reaching knowledge of the footage, the impending trip, and Oliver's supposedly secret past, only surfaces in Books Two and Three.)
Later that day, as his wife packs to leave, Oliver speaks with his gardener, a Haitian named Girard. Drunk, (yesterday was his forty-fourth birthday), Oliver is in a confessing mood. He gives Girard a lot of cash in advance (the Gadsdens may be away for quite awhile -- perhaps forever), and asks him to take charge of the Gadsden Estate and most importantly, to ride and care for Diana, the horse. Their conversation becomes increasingly intimate, until it is revealed that Girard knows about Diana's namesake. He also understands that Oliver may change his life in New York. Oliver, crying, and arm in arm with Girard, pours his heart out. Girard confesses wryly and without details, that he is his gardener "Because he likes to grow things, but turn earth over first." Also, he '"Is interested in the C.I.A." Girard introduces the concept of "Us." "Us" is the revolution and revolutionaries at once. "Us" is everything and everyone that Oliver never really was. "Us" is Diana. "Us" may be waiting for him in New York.
And not only in spirit. "Us" is also the name of a small circle of Black men, based in New York City. "Us" has vowed to avenge the murder, eighteen years ago, of Luther Stepp, Amanda and Jo's father. Luther Stepp was a Black militant, known for his personal insistence upon anonymity, his incorruptible motives, and his close ties with powerful criminals. He had repeatedly eluded capture, and posed a particular challenge to the powers that be. The members of "Us" and of the extended Stepp family -- Amanda's mother Selma, Selma's fiancee Jose, various other friends and relations -- are featured throughout Book One. At the beginning of Book Two, we will learn that Girard is actually a member of "Us", sent to work for Oliver, as Oliver is the closest "Us" has gotten -- as of yet -- to Nathaniel, whom they know has the blood of Luther Stepp on his hands.
That evening, the Gadsdens arrive in New York City. At 10:00 P.M., the requested C.I.A. reply is broadcast over station Z-100, confirming that the Company will purchase the remaining nineteen reels. The Gadsdens immediately drop off the first thousand dollar payment in the garbage basket at Fifth Avenue and Eleventh Street. Annette McCarte picks up the money while Johnny blocks her from enemy sight with the bulk of his eighteen-wheeler, "Redrig." Nevertheless, the Gadsdens see what's happening, and split up, the better to pursue the fugitive couple. Oliver tails Annette, while Kate approaches the parked truck and Johnny, inside. Howard and Jeff are also on the scene, assigned by the Company to keep track of the unpredictable Gadsdens. They separate, Howard tailing Oliver, Jeff to tail Kate. However, when Kate charms her way into Johnny's truck and they take off, Jeff is left alone and stranded, in the rain. Frustrated, he boards a bus which happens to head for the West Village. On the bus, he meets a man named Edgar Samson who will turn him inside out before the night is through. Meanwhile, Amanda has been watching everything and she decides to follow Howard in his pursuit of Oliver who tails Annette. Johnny and Kate drive to Brooklyn in Redrig.
It turns out that Kate knew Johnny in high school. Despite her Southern Blueblood marriage, she is a Brooklynite. They decide to go to Bob's Bar to talk over old times. Johnny doesn't realize that Kate -- or Katie, as he calls her -- is for all intents and purposes, C.I.A.
On the subway heading toward Brooklyn, Oliver, Annette, Howard, and Amanda share the same car. Oliver easily picks up Annette who finds the elegant, blond man very attractive. Amanda realizes that Howard, as well as Oliver, is C.I.A. She had arrived first on the scene at Eleventh Street, even before the Gadsdens had dropped off the cash. She observed them tarrying in front of the fateful townhouse and had overheard their surprising conversation. Oliver had actually knelt and paid homage, and then told his wife about the history of the house, Diana, and his "Oyster Poem." Amanda recognizes the poem from her own past and Oliver as the "Oyster Man." She wagers to trust him. Realizing that Howard has been sent to tail Oliver, (a sign that the Company doesn't trust Oliver, all the more reason he may be a potential friend), Amanda seduces Howard off the train, allowing Oliver to escape Howard's surveillance. She and Howard go to a bar called the Five Leaf Clover, while Annette brings Oliver to Bob's Bar, arriving there before Johnny and Katie, who are stuck in Bridge traffic and not minding it at all.
Neither Johnny nor Annette suspects the ulterior motive of their companions.
Jo, waiting for Johnny in Bob's Bar, witnesses Oliver and Annette flirting. When they leave, they make another appointment for tomorrow at 5:00 P.M. Next, Johnny and Katie arrive. Jo overhears their banter and puts the whole story together. The cross-coupling is both amusing and pitiful, for it is evident to him that all the players in the drama, including the C.I.A. couple, wish their opposite sex pairings were for pleasure, not business. Jo whispers to Johnny that he must make an appointment with Katie for 5:00 P.M. tomorrow. Johnny complies. Now both couples have made the same rendez-vous.
After Katie leaves the Bar, Johnny gets the low-down from Jo about what has been happening. Then they get a phone-call from Amanda who has been extracting a lot of information while drinking with Howard. The facts surface, the intrigue is laid bare, and a counter-plan crystallizes.
We realize gradually that, since the age of thirteen, Jeffrey has known that he is gay, but has never acted upon his feelings. Tonight, with Edgar from the bus, he makes love to a man for the first time. Jeffrey makes the same vow to Edgar as his CIA partner, Howard, has just make to Amanda at the "Five Leaf Clover" -- to get away from the Company and to be true to himself. The realization of this subversive goal seems far away indeed. We understand that the feelings that Jeffrey and Howard have for each other, though hostile on the surface, may blossom into love. That could certainly challenge their Company duties and bring reality to their identical secret wagers.
When the Gadsdens meet at their hotel that night, they share their experiences, and work out their initial jealousies and suspicions. Their mutual 5:00 PM appointment and other clues make them certain that their target couple has caught on to their motives and identities. They'll have to go to that meeting tomorrow night prepared for straight talk. Maybe they will be able to buy the film outright. They don't know, of course, about the impending voyage.
The McCartes have an even bumpier night. Annette is furious, crushed by the fact that her dreamboat, Oliver, was only using her to get information. Finally, she calms down, and starts to prepare for tomorrow's 5:00 P.M. meeting. She enters into a friendly complicity with her husband. Johnny then has to risk all, and tell her that they are not going to sell any more footage, but will take the trip, instead. A battle ensues, but at last, Annette gives in to the idea, intimidated by the Stepps' possession of the film. In the end, she finds the voyage intriguing. And of course, there's always the chance that this plan will increase her chances of getting close to Oliver, for whatever it's worth.
The McCartes, the Gadsdens and the Stepps attend the next day's 5:00 P.M. meeting. All discussion leads inevitably, with a little help from Amandan diplomacy, to the conclusion that the Gadsdens will accompany the McCartes on the journey across country. This is the only way that Oliver will be able to view the footage, (possibly containing his own image), and have a guarantee that it will never fall into Company hands. He also sees the voyage as a second chance at revolution. Meanwhile, the McCartes get the Company off their backs -- for as long as Oliver can convince Nathaniel Gorham that he's traveling as an infiltrator. As a proof of the Gadsden's sincerity, Amanda demands that Oliver hand over the remaining $19,000 to the McCartes. He had had it on him to try to buy the footage outright, but now it can be used for the trip. He accedes to Amanda's wishes and Annette is exuberant, having gotten her money after all.
The three couples go to The Pan and screen the first three reels of footage. Oliver realizes that he is, indeed, present on the second reel, but his young image is in the shadows and is not legible to anyone else. Plans are made to leave in Redrig tomorrow. Johnny will convert it into a sort of house-on-wheels. Amanda contributes her 16mm projector, enabling them to screen the reels consecutively, while on the road, as per the filmed instructions.
The next day, Johnny goes to "Fireman Ned's Dustfield", in New Jersey, to work on the conversion of Redrig. Ned, an eccentric junkman (whose true significance will be revealed in Books Two and Three), helps create a palace inside Johnny's 18-wheeler.
Meanwhile, the wives go on a shopping spree, buying all the provisions for the road. Their relationship is rather tense, especially when Annette learns that Johnny loved Katie in high school. The fact that his feelings were unrequited is little solace.
Oliver spends the day at The Pan, awaiting Amanda's shift, and watching porno movies while trying to sort out his life. He yearns to confess to Amanda that he can't figure out what his real motives are for going on the trip. He realizes that if he were to come back to the Company in the end, he'd receive a medal for superb infiltration, no matter what subversive thoughts he had had while on the road. He is still playing a double game and can go both ways. He wonders if he is a danger to the voyage.
When he and Amanda meet, she encourages him to go, quoting from his own "Oyster Poem":
Oliver accepts her advice -- and his ancient own -- and goes home to Katie.
The McCartes and the Gadsdens meet, and with the help of Jo and Amanda Stepp, load up their luggage and provisions. At The Pan, Johnny says good-bye to Amanda while Jo distracts Annette, who waits in Redrig.
The parting of Johnny and Amanda is full of both love and wicked premonition. Amanda presents him with a gun and a candlestick. She has also wood-stained the crate-within-a-crate in which Johnny first found the film, so that it can serve as a handsome table in the converted Redrig. Anguished at leaving, Johnny knows that he is going away so that he can come back and be with her. This is the way it's gotta be.
Everyone is stunned by Redrig's beautiful interior -- furnished with two beds, two tables, two chairs, a big cabinet, a complete kitchen, and rugs on the floors and walls. A generator has been installed and there are many efficient light fixtures. Curtains have been set up to provide several different stages of privacy. Each couple has half the space.
Jeffrey happens to catch a glimpse of Redrig, as it drives away from a supermarket where the travellers had bought final provisions. He understands that the truck and its crew are leaving the City, and that there is no possible way to catch up. But he and Howard will have to follow, even if they do it in form only -- that is, drive! Drive into America, reporting to the Company that they are on Redrig's trail. Actually, they are bound to drive into nowhere. With no leads at all, they will be following nothing but themselves.
Johnny's most impressive addition to the truck, created at Fireman Ned's, is the original painting on the truck's left side: A white screen is framed by a darkened stage, with violet curtains tied back on either side. The whole picture floats against the truck's natural red body. This will be the screen used for roadside projections of the film footage.
Just as Redrig hits the road, leaving New York City by the Verrazano Bridge, Amanda has a heroin nod back in Harlem. She sees the truck traveling through the prairies. As it rushes down the highway, on the painted screen, an impossible image has come alive.
Fire -- licking and leaping on the screen, even as the truck hurtles onward, the Heartland stretching to infinity on either side of the highway. Pastures Aflame.