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Carry-on Baggage

Minnesota television news usually doesn't lead with gore, but Paul's wreck begged for maximum play. The leader of Troop 445, Paul had just picked up his group's cookies at Ramsey County Girl Scout headquarters in White Bear Lake. He had taken out all the seats from his Dodge Caravan and neatly stacked the nearly two thousand boxes from floor to ceiling, like gold bricks in a vault. Paul was heading north on I-35 when he lost control of the van. State troopers think the wall of cookies somehow came tumbling down, startling or perhaps even disabling the driver, who smashed head-on into a Merita bread delivery truck parked on the shoulder of the road.

After impact, it looked as if a giant's pinata of baked goods had been broken over the freeway. The bread driver emerged from the roadside forest, his bladder relieved, to find a Caravan-turned-accordion and a confetti-like collection of dented bread loaves and boxes covering four lanes, a patchwork of yellow Trefoils, purple Samoas, orange Do-Si-Dos, green Thin Mints, red Tagalongs and a few blue boxes of the unpopular sugar-free Chalet Cremes. The rush-hour traffic backed up for miles. Though the wreck itself was contained on the shoulder of the road, the thousands of drivers, evidently unable to separate the cookies from a vision of pigtailed girls in uniform, refused to drive forward and run over the boxes. It was obvious to those first on the scene that Paul was beyond help, so they covered him with a flannel plaid blanket, then set about neatly stacking the unharmed boxes as they waited for the highway patrol.

"You're going to Costa Rica and you have no luggage?"

Suzanne lifted her dark glasses and stared with red, watery eyes at the ticket agent. "You are here to serve me, I am the customer, and it's none of your business how much luggage I have."

"It's my job to screen passengers for any security threats. This isn't your radio show, Ms. Stanley, you can't treat me like your guests. I'm in charge here."

"Mr. . . ." Suzanne squinted at the gold badge on his red jacket. "Mr. H. Simpson, you are about to single-handedly create a security threat on this very spot, because I'm about ready to kill you."

"I'm simply trying to . . ."

"You're a Republican, aren't you? I can tell by the way you hate people. Don't screw around with me, I'm not in the mood, not today." Suzanne's voice had grown louder, and she was starting to shake. "Do you know what I have in this backpack?" Suzanne jerked it off her shoulder, knocking a pile of luggage ID tags onto the floor. She zipped it open and yanked Paul from the darkness, dangling him in front of H. Simpson's face as if it were a simple bag of cut carrots. "I have my husband here, fifteen ounces of burned human bone and flesh. I'm going to Costa Rica to scatter his fucking ashes, okay? I don't need a suit and six blouses to do that!"

Back home, in Los Angeles, those standing in line might have ignored the whole confrontation altogether, or they would have snickered and watched the scene unfold with interest, but this was Minneapolis, the cradle of quiet civil obedience, and Suzanne's encounter with the ticket agent stopped every discussion in a radius of fifty feet. Her sound waves had become an invisible gas that froze everyone in place. Even after living in Minnesota for four years, Suzanne still was surprised at how people here would instantly freeze when they detected even the slightest confrontation in their midst, the same way some animals play dead when in danger. She still wasn't sure if it was meant as punishment or to be polite.

Suzanne easily and frequently shocked the Minnesota masses. During her morning show on KDZO, weekdays from six to ten, tucked between the traffic reports and the news, she became everyone's rude-but-righteous aunt from California who asked the questions good Minnesotans wanted to ask but didn't dare. She pushed one local congressman about his well-known but unreported drinking problem and asked him why he beat his wife. She got a mention in People magazine for interviewing the bishop of the upper Midwest in her hot tub ("I just want to show everyone that this man is human, he's not God, he's real and cute as can be, and he's got flabby arms like the rest of us"). Though her shows could border on the tasteless, most listeners found them palatable because they weren't mean in spirit, and they almost always had the type of underlying left-leaning, intelligent social message that Minnesotans love.

Her boarding pass in hand, Suzanne stepped into the women's bathroom. It was the first time she'd been off her feet, alone, for hours, the funeral that morning, taping two days of shows that afternoon, now a turnaround trip to Central America where she would scatter Paul's ashes on the beach at Manual Antonio, as was his request. On the toilet, Suzanne rested her face in her hands, massaging her stinging eyes with fingertips, and when she finally looked up to snag a piece of toilet paper, she discovered that her backpack, which she'd set on the floor at her feet, had disappeared.

Not sure what to do next, Suzanne walked into the Mile High Lounge beside the Delta information counter and ordered a margarita with salt, an old habit from her days in southern California, her single days.

They met six years ago, when Suzanne flew out for a friend's wedding in the Twin Cities. She noticed Paul immediately because he didn't look real. Frugal with his motions, dressed in a double-breasted pinstripe suit with ascot and his hair slicked straight back, Paul appeared to be a sepia-toned photograph propped up in the middle of the reception. Suzanne walked up and pinched his waist. "Just wanted to make sure you were real," she said.

Whenever Paul visited her in Los Angeles, Suzanne would introduce him as her "apparition friend" because he always had that crispy yesteryear look about him. It was such a contrast to Suzanne, who favored clothes the color of Burger King orange. Ever since she was a child, her Uncle Lou had called her Fireball, and indeed red-haired Suzanne had grown up to fit the description not only in appearance but also behavior; Suzanne had had the highest-rated television show in the L.A. market, and it was because she would call O. J. a liar and the governor a bigot right to their faces on the air, and they'd actually return to her show six months later, evidently fascinated by fire, wanting to bask in her warmth, reaching out to see how close they could get to her without getting burned.

"Are you Suzanne Stanley?"

Suzanne, startled as if someone had shaken her out of a light nap, looked up at the strange man standing beside her in the airport lounge. He had beautiful white hair tied back in a ponytail but wore a gray suit and unremarkable tie.

"Should I know you?"

"Just call me a faithful fan. What the hell happened to you? I haven't seen you in years."

"You're from L.A."

"Sunset Beach."

"I followed a penis to the frozen tundra." Suzanne quickly remembered that first breath of thirty-below air that stung like smoke from an unfiltered, and the miles of protective glass skywalks that made downtown St. Paul seem like a stuffy gerbil cage. They put everything under glass in Minnesota; there was no need to go outside. You could ride a carousel, walk to work, dip your toes in a meandering manmade river, buy an evening gown, go to business college, go to beauty college, and dine at a Thai restaurant, all without putting on a coat. For the first six months, before buying their house on the river in Afton, Suzanne moved in with Paul in his highrise condominium in Galtier Plaza. They decided to relocate after the evening that Suzanne, realizing she had not breathed fresh air in four weeks, panicked and bolted outside. She ran down Second Street for three blocks then ducked inside where she discovered an hour later that the redness in her cheeks was first-degree freezer burn and not the ruddy glow of exercise.

"Mind if I join you?"

"You know, I really do mind. I'm having one hell of a bad day. I can't even decide whether I should fly to Costa Rica, it's that kind of day."

"With all due respect this is the only chair left in here. I'm not some drooling fan, okay?"

The man dropped eye contact, quickly sat down and opened his briefcase, thus slamming the window of opportunity for expulsion. This was not Minnesota behavior, and Suzanne was impressed. He pulled out a copy of USA Today, flung it open and folded it so Suzanne could read the state-by-state roundup, and there he was, her Paul, in the one inch of type under Minnesota: Got milk? Good, because leaders of Girl Scouts USA assure the residents of St. Paul that another batch of cookies is on the way, after the delivery van driven by a troop leader crashed on Interstate 35 with more than two thousand boxes. Bakers in Macomb, Ill., say they bake extra for such emergencies."

At the time of their marriage, when they both were thirty-six, Suzanne told Paul she did not want children, that the only thing she ever wanted to nurture was a hangover and suicidal friends. Paul, a seventh-generation Minnesotan, admired her brazen selfishness.

Suzanne could not sit still, said she'd die if she ever found even one trace of moss growing on her back. Indeed, he knew she had the appetite of a fire, knew it from the time he noticed the piece of the computer-generated junk mail on her refrigerator door: Suzanne T. Stanley, do you want it all? Yes, Suzanne wanted it all, and with a big red marker she check-marked the box that said so: "Yes, I want it all!"

Paul was a perfect fit, a reference librarian with knowledge and curiosity of everything but not enough money to explore. Suzanne paid for trips they took at least once each month, to the Andes and Branson, Missouri, Lesotho and the Badlands. She was pleased to find someone stable but adventurous, someone who skittered across the planet so quickly it sometimes left her breathless and yards behind. In South Beach they'd bought a magnetic map of the world and decided to slowly but surely assemble it on their refrigerator at home, adding a new country whenever they made love there. They both took leaves of absence when they learned about Paul's lymphoma just after their completion of South America, and from that point on their travels took on the ferocity of a screaming meteor. They had sex in a dinghy on the Yangtze, in front of the teenage boy who rowed the boat. They would cross over borders, copulating in the backseats of taxis or local pickup trucks carrying farm animals.

They had finished half of Asia and nearly all of Africa when Paul said it was time to stop. "I'm tired of traveling. It's masturbation, and I'm tired," he told Suzanne on a trans-Atlantic plane ride. Paul looked out the window and stared at the darkness that stretched halfway around the world. "Have you changed your mind about having a child?" he asked her.

"God, no," Suzanne answered. "Why would I want to raise a child on my own? Get real, would you?"

That was the moment when Paul, in his mind, turned away from his wife and began walking in the opposite direction, slowly, but farther and farther every day. In a week she would be out of earshot, in a month out of sight. He came home to St. Paul, quit his job and bought a red minivan. He started work as a daycare provider in the downtown YMCA and became an assistant Brownie leader at the troop in his church. Suzanne gave him space, thinking he was pushing her away to make it all easier on her.

"What time is it?" she asked the man in the lounge.

"It's—three-thirty-five."

Whoever had swiped the backpack surely would have thrown it aside after discovering their take was nothing more than a Baggie of gray ashes, unless, of course, they thought it was some smokable exotic crop. She imagined Paul, distorted, elongated and wispy-white like a ghost, entering the lungs of some punk for a brief journey, then flying out his nose again.

Suzanne walked over to the pay phone near the bathroom and called airport police. They said they'd found no abandoned backpack, but she should try again in another hour or so. Suzanne returned to the table and sat down, where the man was eating a cellophane snack.

"You want a cookie?" he asked. Suzanne burst out with a laugh, grabbed his beer, then sat down and told him the story of her husband's untimely, highly publicized death; she owed him that much, making him listen to her emotional rambling of the past hour. She really couldn't even remember what she'd said, talking was so easy, always easier than listening. It's what made radio work so effortless. Suzanne's own laughter startled her; it had been so long since she'd last heard it. For a moment, perhaps the first time all week, she felt as if the fog shrouding her brain had lifted, clarity and brightness returning.

"So anyway, you can see why I feel like an absolute bitch, can't you?"

"No, I can't."

"I deprived the man I love of the single most important thing he wanted out of life, and now he's dead. I'd be so pissed if that happened to me." Suzanne took a drink of beer. "God, how pathetic. I sound like someone on Oprah, don't I?"

"Yeah, you do. Can I have a drink of that beer?"

"Yeah, well, here's the kicker," she said, handing him the Heineken. "And I'll only tell this to some joe I meet in an airport bar, because I'll never see you again, but I already have a child, and I wasn't a teenager, I was thirty years old. And now my kid, my daughter, is living out there somewhere, under somebody else's name and somebody else's roof, because I just didn't want to be a mom; I didn't have any fucking idea what a life is."

Suzanne closed her eyes to look at Paul. She wanted to see his head on her internal screen, large as the great Oz, and she wanted him to proclaim with wisdom why they met and intertwined for six years, what the purpose was supposed to be, because he would have the answers now and she did not, but all Suzanne could see was the mess of brightly colored cookie boxes and Merita bread scattered on the freeway.

"I think you should go on the trip anyway, for old time's sake," said the man. "Go live it up and have a blast for Paul. You still have your ticket, don't you?" Suzanne felt for the money belt beneath her shirt.

"Yeah, I do," she said, vacantly staring at the passersby, the fog returning.

"You'd better get going, I just heard the page for your flight. You want some help?"

"No, no I don't," she said, already walking toward the entrance of the lounge. Without a good-bye, she stepped into the river of people which swallowed, carried, then somehow dropped her two minutes downstream at the security checkpoint. Her flight would leave in three minutes.

As Suzanne stood in line to walk through the metal detector, she bumped into a round freestanding ashtray. She watched it circle slowly, melodramatically, on the bottom edge as it tried to regain its balance, then it tipped over and fell with a loud tinny bang, which attracted a handful of security guards in an instant.

"No, no, no, I can clean this up, I can do this." Suzanne dropped to her knees.

"Ma'am? Ma'am?"

"I said get the hell away—I can clean this up!" As if she were taking a drink from a mountain creek, Suzanne leaned over the mess, cupped her hands together and scooped out a load of fine white sand, ash and cigarette butts. She wondered which beach the sand had come from, and whose lips had last touched the Kool menthol, someone's daughter, someone's husband. Suzanne was amazed at the silkiness and coolness of the sand, which had started to escape from her hands, leaking in tiny, wavy lines back to the ground.

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