ONE: SEARCHING FOR SUZIE SUNSHINE
CHAPTER ONE: CODY
Sonny heard the girl and them moving in next door, grunting and stumbling and swearing as they carried things up the stairs,
and then he heard the girl laugh. That was the thing that got him first. Her laugh, like notes on a guitar. He hadn’t thought of anything like that in years.
He went outside and leaned on the railing. Two long-haired boys—tattoos, earrings, shirts off,
skuzzy, as if covered with dusty fur—carried cardboard boxes full of sheets and blankets and stuffed animals, and the
two boys walked past him without saying hello or anything. He watched them trudge up and down the steps, carrying a futon
and an old triangle shaped China cabinet. Then guitar cases and amplifiers.
It was summer in Los Angeles and hot. The breeze wasn’t reaching here from the ocean four miles
away. Sonny watched them go back and forth, stepping between him and his back door, climbing up and down the stairs and crossing
the balcony, but the two boys didn’t speak and they didn’t look at him. Rude, he thought.
Then the girl came up the stairs, carrying a glass lamp in the shape of
a ballerina under a tall lacey shade. She was lean with long honey-blonde hair and low tight jeans that showed her belly and a thin lacey top that looked vaguely like the
lampshade. She was smiling and singing to herself.
When she got to the top of the stairs, Sonny spoke. “Hey.” He kept the excitement out of his voice.
The girl frowned and then Sonny realized he had the sun at
his back, so he took a step to one side.
“I’m your neighbor,” Sonny said, nodding toward his door.
“Cody.” She smiled, showing brilliant white teeth against her
dark tan, and stuck out her slender hand. “Cody Chase. You’ll be hearing about me.”
“Why?” Sonny smiled. “You wanted by the cops?”
She laughed, which is what he was after,
that gay tinkling sound, like music, like something in the back of his mind that he couldn’t quite remember. Something
lovely and far away.
silly. I’m a singer-songwriter. Gonna be somebody some day.”
“No shit,” said Sonny.
“No shit.” She smiled. She had blue eyes that were dark. Like the ocean out where it’s
Then the two boys came out of the apartment.
“What’s up, pops?” It
was the taller one, who looked like trouble.
“This is Kenny and his brother Bob,” Cody said.
“You shouldn’t be talkin’ to strangers,” said Kenny.
“Don’t be rude,” said Cody. “This
is our new neighbor.”
Call me Sonny.” Awkward, he shuffled his feet. The kid might think he was hitting on his girl. He put out his hand,
and the kid let it hang there.
got work ta do,” said Kenny, and the two boys slouched off down the stairs, their backs hairy like animals.
The girl shook her head and smiled at
Sonny. “You got to forgive them,” she said. “They don’t know any better.”
“Your boyfriend?” Sonny wished he hadn’t
“Yeah, from back home. Missouri.”
“You just movin’ out here?”
“Naw, we been here awhile. Kenny
doesn’t like it. Can’t find decent work, he says. Bob doesn’t like it either. He doesn’t have a mind
of his own.”
a tough town. Especially for young women.”
“That’s what I hear. But I been all right.”
“You sing in a band?”
“Yep: ‘The Dew Riders.’ Blue grass. Sometimes
I have to sing rock-n-roll.” She wrinkled up her nose.
minute later, Sonny was still standing there, watching the place where she had been, smelling her perfume, when the boys came
back up the stairs.
an inch here, pops,” Kenny said. They were carrying a dresser with the drawers still in it and it looked heavy, the
way they struggled and the looks on their faces.
Sonny stepped inside his apartment, where he turned on the TV with the sound off and sat in his big armchair. He listened
to them moving in and setting up, all that afternoon and into the night. He heard them pull the dumpster around below the
balcony and throw the empty boxes and packing down into it. In the evening he heard the guitars and then her sweet clear voice.
Somewhere in there they started drinking and it all got pretty loud.
Well, they’re tired, he thought, they been workin’ all day.
Then he heard her voice change, a hint of fear. She said,
“Don’t…” and he heard a slap and then her crying.
Enough a that shit, Sonny thought and got up and turned off the TV and went out onto the balcony.
Their back door was open. The three of them were in the kitchen. Young Bob sat on an old fashioned white wood chair and Cody
stood at the sink, crying, her hands on her face, her back to Kenny, who stood in the middle of the room, swaying, his hand
still up, as if he was going to hit her again. The air that came out smelled of pot and booze.
“That’s enough,” said Sonny.
“Oh, yeah?” said Kenny. “Buzz off.” He slammed the
door so hard the glass rattled in its frame.
Sonny knocked on the door. “Open up, or I’ll break it in.”
didn’t know where the anger came from; he hadn’t felt like that in years.
The door opened, and Bob stood there, stupidly,
his mouth open.
Sonny pushed past Bob, and Kenny came at him from across the room, swinging a heavy green bottle over his head. Cheap champagne, Sonny thought
and took three quick steps forward and raised his hand over his head, deflecting the bottle, which slid down his arm. He drove
a fist into Kenny’s belly. He felt his knuckles touch the kid’s spine. Kenny doubled over and crashed to the floor.
Then he jumped up and swung the bottle again. Sonny grabbed his arm and brought it down hard across the back of a chair. He
heard something crack, and Kenny’s eyes rolled back in his head and he went down.
Kenny was heavier than Sonny expected. He
put the kid’s good arm around his neck and carried him out the back door and rolled him over the railing so he landed
on his back on the cardboard boxes in the dumpster.
When Sonny turned around, young Bob was standing in the doorway, a big kitchen knife in his hand.
“What’re ya gonna do with that,”
Sonny said, “hurt yourself?”
“I…I… Ya cain’t do my brother like that.”
Sonny saw fear in the boy’s eyes. He feinted and pulled
back. The boy swung the knife and Sonny slammed the boy’s hand into the wall. The knife came loose and clattered to
the floor and the boy yelled, “Eee-ow, shit,” and his hand was dripping blood.
Cody handed Bob a towel and he wrapped his
hand in it and stood there and turned pale. He looked like he expected Sonny to hurt him again.
“Get your brother and git on outta here,”
said Sonny, not knowing where the words came from.
“But you can’t….”
“I see you around here again, I’ll break both your necks. Now git.”
“But we live here,” said Bob.
any more you don’t,” Sonny said. “Git your stuff and load up.”
Bob and Cody looked at each other.
is it?” asked Sonny.
his’n,” Bob shrugged, nodding toward the door.
“Will it get you to Missouri?”
“It got us
here,” said Bob.
Sonny helped Bob carry a dresser and some old ratty suitcases down the stairs and around to the old red pickup out front.
He watched as Bob wrestled his brother out of the dumpster and Kenny woke up crying out and he glowered at Sonny who watched
as they got in the truck.
b-b-be b-b-back,” said Bob, from behind the wheel. Kenny didn’t say a word as they drove off.
Sonny watched the truck rumble on down the street and disappear
around the corner.
Back up on the balcony, Cody was standing at the rail, one hand to her mouth, her eyes wide.
Sonny stopped and looked at her face. “He
hit you before?”
She nodded, her head bouncing like a ball on a string. “Every time he drinks.”
“How often is that – every night?”
He waited to see how she would take it.
Finally, she said, “What’m I gonna do now?”
“Get yourself a new boyfriend,” he said. “For
you, that should be easy.”
THE GOLDEN CHILD
The next morning, Sonny got out the postcard he had been carrying in his luggage for years. He kept it in a plastic
bag, which held it clean and neat so he could read it. On the front, was a picture of two horses racing, jockeys up and in
full stride, just at the wire, nose to nose, from Hollywood Park. On the back, it had been rubber-stamped at a dozen post
offices: Wichita, Kansas; Lexington, Kentucky; Hialeah, Florida; Sarasota, New York; and five or six other race-track towns.
years the card had been kicking around, from its first postmark in San Antonio. He had wondered how a card which must’ve
been bought in L.A. had been mailed in Texas. On the back it said, in Susan’s handwriting: “I been in some trouble,
daddy, but I’m OK now.” It wasn’t signed.
He put the card back in the top drawer of the dresser, which
he bought two weeks ago at Goodwill, and went outside and knocked on Cody’s door.
He invited her over for breakfast, and she
didn’t want to come at first, but he sweet-talked her, told he was sorry he ran off her only meal ticket, made his voice
real soft, and finally she said, OK, she didn’t have any food in the house.
He cooked an egg-white omelet with low-fat cottage cheese and chopped broccoli and carrots, and while
he was at the stove he could feel her watching him, wondering if she could trust him.
Finally, when he put the food on the table,
they ate in silence. He didn’t want to interrupt her thinking. Then she said, “I never had anyone stand up for
me like that.”
“‘Bout time you did.” He kept his voice low, so not to make a big deal of it.
She was silent and thoughtful awhile. Then
she said, “Why do you give a shit? I’m nobody to you. I’m just another girl in a big world full a girls.
What’s in it for you?”
He kept looking at his food. “I just don’t wanna see you get hurt, that’s all.”
“Is that all?”
eggs are good, don’t you think?”
“That’s hard to believe,” she said.
“You could do better than that white trash.”
“Maybe, but Bob was paying most a the rent.”
“Oh, I didn’t
think of that.”
“A course you didn’t, mister rescuer-man, mister ‘knight on a white horse’.”
He waited a minute,
to see how mad she was, and she dug into her omelet. Then he said, “I guess that makes me a horse’s ass.”
nodded, chewing, her mouth full. “Pretty much.”
He wondered how much she would blame him.
“What’re you doin’ in LA?” she said. “You don’t seem like you
Nobody belongs here, the way this place is. I come out here for a reason.”
“And what reason was that?”
“It’s personal.” He realized that sounded bad, as if he was pushing her away. “I’ll
tell you sometime. Not today.”
“You don’t know me well enough.”
“That’s right. I don’t know you well enough.”
She opened her mouth as if to ask again, but then she stopped herself. That
was good, he thought. She wanted to know more, but she was willing to wait. He liked that in a young person.
He gave her a ride
to her work, at a sprawling restaurant on Fairfax near the Farmer’s Market. The place looked like it had been an old
coffee shop, but it had been redecorated, the outside and even the windows painted black, and a large fake metal helmet hung
from the pole over the door that had once held the coffee shop sign.
“What do you do here?” he asked.
the day and sing at night.” She kept her head down, and he couldn’t see her eyes.
“You gonna be OK?” he asked.
She nodded, looking out the window. He thought she was crying.
She shook her head.
“You’re lucky, you won’t.”
He gave her his number and told her to call if Kenny came around and said he’d pick her up when she got off work.
OK,” she said. “I’ll get a ride.”
“Be careful who you hook up with,” he said.
“But I thought… Oh, never mind.”
He was in bed about 10:00 reading a book by Louie L’Amour,
his favorite. In the story, the hero had discovered a woman living alone in a cabin in the wilderness, and her man had been
killed, and the cabin was surrounded by Indians.
The phone rang, and Sonny grabbed it on the first ring, by long habit, thinking without reason that it might be his
daughter. At first when he heard the voice he thought it was Susan, after all these years. He had been half asleep, or he
wouldn’t have made the mistake.
The voice said, “I guess you were right. I could use that ride.”
He drove up Fairfax, through the narrow part where the traffic slowed, and
then past the delicatessens and the museums.
She was carrying a guitar case and her big bag from the morning.
“Thanks,” she said in the car. “I owe you one.”
“You owe me two,” he said.
She was suddenly suspicious. “Two what?”
“Two fried eggs, silly,” he said and smiled.
When they were walking up the stairs, she said, “Wanna
come over? I’ll sing you a song. Pay you back part way.”
Inside, she had managed to straighten up the place and even put a curtain over the front window.
The mess in the kitchen was all cleaned up. In her living room, the glass ballerina lamp was on, a pink bulb glowing softly
inside. She played the guitar, her hands slow and easy and confident, and her voice sweet and clear with a strength he hadn’t
heard before. She sang “Wildwood Flower,” and when she got to “…He’s gone and neglected his
wildwood flower,” he thought he was gonna cry, but he squeezed his lips together and stalled the tears. He didn’t
know if he was crying for her or for his long lost daughter or for himself.
He stood up. “I gotta go,”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“I made you sad.”
he said. “I was already sad.”
“I thought you got rid of Kenny
I wanted you for myself.”
just a kid.”
it that you want?”
just want you to be safe.”
an odd thing for a man to want.”
The next morning, he cooked breakfast again. Over pancakes made from scratch with soy and whole wheat flour, he said,
“You run away from home?”
She smiled up at him. “Yeah. Pretty much.”
“How come?” He sat down at the table and started to eat.
“Kenny came along and... My daddy messed around with me when I was
sorry,” he said.
was, I liked it at the time.”
I heard that.” He heaped unsweetened applesauce on his plate and then low-fat cottage cheese, next to the stack of flapjacks.
“An’ you’re still tryin’ to get over it.”
“Something like that.”
He gave her a ride that day and the next, and they got into a routine. He would cook in the morning,
and she would call at night, and he would pick her up, and she would sing for him, a different song each night. Then after
a week or so she got some groceries and they got to trading off. At his place, he cooked in old-fashioned cast-iron skillets,
and at her place she cooked in cheap aluminum non-stick pots and pans. At her place it was Toast-em Pop-ups and scrambled
eggs and canned ham, but he didn’t mind. After a three or four weeks she felt like family to him, and he even bought
a cast-iron skillet for her. As far as he knew, she never cooked in it. Then one night she didn’t call. He tried to
sleep but couldn’t.
About midnight, he heard a car in the drive and then footsteps coming up the stairs. Two sets, one light like Cody, the other
heavier, a stranger. A man.
A voice said, “You live here by yourself?”
“I surely do,” said Cody, her voice soft in the night.
It was the end of something, Sonny knew that. And he sensed
it was the beginning of something, too, and he didn’t know what that was going to be.
That night again he heard her singing, but
this time her voice was lighter, a tone that he hadn’t heard before. He had expected that. He just hoped she was making
a better choice this time. At least that’s what he told himself.
Later, to his sorrow, he heard them in the bedroom, panting
and grunting, the bed creaking and bumping into the wall. A sad song, he thought, a sad song. He didn’t
know why it made him so sad.
the morning he heard them talking, and then she was singing again. He knew they were eating Toast-em Pop-ups and that too
made him sad.
He had a cheap plastic deck chair outside on the balcony. In the morning, he was there reading the newspaper when he heard
a noise and looked up. A big tan kid came out of Cody’s and stuck out his hand.
“Jeff,” he said. “I wanted
to meet you, sir.”
Sonny didn’t like the tone in his voice. Phony kiss-ass. The kid was broad-shouldered and healthy looking. College type.
Chinos and a polo shirt and blonde hair slicked back.
Sonny stood up. The kid was taller by three inches. “You got a last name?” Sonny asked, squeezing the hand,
which was big and callused and hard as a two-by-four.
“Kingston. Jeff Kingston.”
“Let’s go inside,” Sonny said. He didn’t want the neighbors watching or eavesdropping.
In his apartment, Sonny had only the barest furnishings, things
he had picked up from garage sales and Goodwill – a couch, two chairs, a TV, a cheap dining set.
Sonny sat down at the dining table and Jeff stood inside the
door, looking around. “No offense, sir, but how long you lived here? It looks like a waiting room in a bus station.”
“Yeah, just like home. Have a seat.”
Sonny gestured toward the dining set,
but Jeff sat in the soft armchair, the one that Sonny sat in every night to read. It was annoying as hell.
“Sit over here, at the table.”
Jeff got up and moved, carefully, as if he didn’t know
what he had done wrong, and sat down at the chrome dinette.
Sonny caught himself pursing his lips, a habit his wife had hated. “What are your intentions
with Cody?” He hadn’t planned to say anything like this.
The kid laughed out loud, then saw Sonny’s face. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean
Sonny stood up.
“Get out,” he said.
left, swiftly, in two or three long strides.
Later, Cody came over alone. They sat on the old couch.
“Jeff’s all right,” she said, laying her hand on Sonny’s arm.
“I don’t trust him, and I think you should be
more careful, take a little more time.” He had trouble looking at her. “Christ, you just met him.”
“He’s been hanging around the club for weeks.”
She threw her hands up and then let them flop on the couch like pale dying fish. “None of ‘em are goin’
to be good enough for you. Jesus, you’re just my neighbor, for Christ sake.”
“He into drugs?”
“No.” She shook her head, looking straight at him.
“I hope not. I wouldn’t want to live next door to that shit.”
“Next door? What about me? God a’mighty.
He’s a good guy. Jesus, I don’t know why you give a shit, or why I even listen to you.” She looked disgusted,
and he hated to see her this way.
got up and went to the window and stood looking out at the backyard. A big dog was rolling in the grass, rubbing its head
on the ground and making a soft yowling sound.
Cody said, “You act like you want to be my dad.”
“Nope. I got a daughter already.” He kept his back to her, didn’t want her to see
his face. “Don’t know where she is.”
“What happened to her?”
“She ran away. She was 16.”
“That’s the age, if you’re gonna go.”
He turned and looked at her and came back and sat down beside her. “Yeah, I guess so. Is that
when you went?”
I waited till I met Kenny. I was 18. You mess with her?”
“You seem like you coulda been kinda hard on her.”
“You been looking for her.”
“Yeah, I been looking for her.”
“What do you expect to find, after all these years?”
“I just want to make sure she’s all right.”
“Oh, I see. Like me.”
He felt like turning her over his knee. “She never… she said
one time she didn’t get what she came for, out of our family, from me, I guess.”
“Not much. Memories. Rumors. People seen her.”
“You carry a picture?”
He showed her two photos that he carried, one showed her on horseback, the
other was from high-school.
doesn’t look like me. I thought….”
“No,” he said. “She’s small, five-one, and her hair is lighter.”
“What did she love?”
“Horses. Ever since she was a kid. She loved ‘em as much as
up and leave?”
I guess. Things were rough, but a lot of teenage...”
“I know. Anything I can do?” she said. Her voice was serious, and he liked the way she
was taking all this.
“Sure. Help me look for her. You never know….”
“What about Jeff? He gets around a lot. He goes to the
“No, thanks. Leave Jeff out of it.”
“You been to the police?”
“Years ago. They didn’t do anything. Hired a private eye. He went through all her friends, the places she had
been, the places she had marked in magazines she kept. Looked through her mail, return addresses, phone records, things like
that. Made a list of relatives. She always liked Uncle Mike, Margie’s brother. Nothing. She just disappeared. He worked
for a month. Cost me a fortune. I rented out the farm and took off. Rode the bus. Went to where a lot of runaways go—Times
Square and the Sunset Strip and the French Quarter. Nothin’. Nada. Zip. Margie said it was no use.”
“Is that what
happened to your marriage?”
He nodded. “Margie said we had to forget about her. Said she had made her bed and we should let her lay in it. Margie
wanted to burn Susan’s things and bury the ashes in the back yard. Have a little ceremony and say goodbye.”
sucked in her breath. “So did you?”
“No, I wouldn’t let her do that.”
“You’re never gonna give up, are you?”
Don’t see any reason to do that.”
“What was your daughter’s name?”
“Susan. Is, not was.”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry.”
“Susan Sonnenschein. The kids called her Suzie Sunshine.”
a name. I wish I had a name like that.”
“No, you don’t.”
Cody went home, and Sonny took a shower and got ready for
work, and put on his boots and his old straw cowboy hat and stood by the window looking out.
Sometimes the past seemed more real than the present. He remembered Susan had gone riding one afternoon and then it rained
sheets of water. She said it was raining cows and horses instead of cats and dogs.
went out in the barn and stood waiting, with the smell of the wet hay and the sound of the horses whinnying behind him, and
he thought about her and how he had wanted so much for her, and he found himself crying about what a bad father he had been
and how he was going to do better. All he wanted was for her to be his golden child, like when she was small. He was worried about her;
she had been gone a lot lately, riding off early and coming back late, up to no good, seeing a boy from a family of white
trash up by the river.
He heard the muffled
sounds of a horse running, and he was scared at first that something had happened to her, running blind in the rain like that,
and then she came galloping, splashing in the pools of water and the mud. She waved at him and it caught him by surprise and
she hopped down off the horse and ran and hugged him and mumbled something into his chest—and all he heard was something
about Uncle Mike—and his hat fell off and he was glad for the rain on his face to cover up the tears. Go on now, he said, go inside and
get warm, and he watched her run for the house and he wished she hadn’t run off so fast, but then he didn’t mind
tending to her horse.
He woke the
next morning and she was gone. He tried to get hold of Margie’s brother Mike but he had moved out of town. Mike probably
wouldn’t know anything anyway. It was the last time Sonny had seen her alive. Don’t think like that, he thought.
Don’t say alive, as if she’s dead. She’s not. She’s not dead. Not her. Not his golden child.