Bonnie Lincoln just wants to be left alone. To come home from work, shut out the voice that reminds her of some devastating losses, and unwind in front of the nostalgic, golden glow of her favorite TV show, Three's Company.
When Bonnie wins the lottery, a more grandiose vision—to completely shuck off her own troublesome identity—takes shape. She plans a drastic move to an isolated mountain retreat where she can re-create the iconic apartment set of Three's Company and slip into the lives of its main characters: no-nonsense Janet Wood, pleasantly airheaded Chrissy Snow, and confident Jack Tripper. While her best friend, Krystal, tries to drag her back to her old life, Bonnie is determined to transcend pain, trauma, and the baggage of her past by immersing herself in the ultimate binge-watch.
Release date: June 14, 2022
Publisher: W.W. Norton
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One’s Company: A Novel
My plan, my dream, the thing I feared saying aloud in the presence of another human, was this: I would buy property somewhere remote, on a mountain or deep in forested country, and on it I would build a replica of the Three’s Company apartment building. I would live in an identical re-creation of Jack, Janet, and Chrissy’s apartment where I would wake and eat, and bathe and sleep, and around the apartment building I would build the world seen on the show—the Regal Beagle bar, the Arcade Florists flower shop, Jack’s Bistro, Nurse Terri’s hospital waiting room, secretary Chrissy’s office building. It would be a small city. And I planned on living the lives of each character in succession, one after another, until the years ran out.
I would start my life over in the year 1977, when Season 1 began, and the décor of the apartment and everything around it would also start in Season 1, and it would be Season 1 for me, Bonnie Lincoln, a fresh start, the pilot season, for however long I wished. As the show progressed, I would, too, as would the surroundings, to reflect the series’ later seasons. This would all be thanks to the indecent amount of money I won. It was the largest amount ever won in a single national lottery, and I was the only claimant.
Jack, Janet, Chrissy, the Ropers, Ralph Furley, neighbors Larry and Lana, later roommates Terri and Cindy—they were my surrogate family by that time, impervious to death or harm, preserved forever in an eight-season arc. I wanted only to live among them, to breach the seam between sick reality and my favorite fiction, step through, and sew up the hole behind me. Oh, I had yet to work out the specifics, and there were many—how I’d maintain food or supplies, how I’d go about replicating the characters’ lives down to the minutest detail—but in my hungry fantasy these questions were inviting and juicy, beckoning me forward like a banquet table receding into the distance, laden with an endless feast.
The planning itself was its own odyssey, its own cocooning world. I spent days in my trailer making notes and gazing into the middle distance where, on the dingy twelve inches of my kitchen countertop, the last two bananas sat rotting on the stem. My dreams seemed crucial, urgent. Risky. I planned to manipulate time itself, to escape it and warp it, bend it to my will.
I had no intention of allowing any audience to see my creation. No tourists, no tickets. No, my escape would be real and total, fully lived and experienced by me, a lone human, and shared with as few people as I could get away with. Mine would not be a soundstage, or have any reference to cameras or lights, or acknowledge an audience or fandom; nor would it hint that it was a fictional show: I would live inside the show. I would burrow past plotlines or jokes, I would bury myself in it. I would figure out everything I needed to survive, alone, and then I could dismiss every other person on earth, living and dead, with one triumphant wave goodbye.
Before the lottery, before I discovered Three’s Company, I had worked at Scheele’s Market for twelve years, starting when I was twenty. Before that I worked at a shoe store at the mall in town, but when Krystal, my best friend since the second grade, told me that her dad was hiring at the local market that was only three minutes from my house by car, fifteen by foot, I applied and was hired.
The market was small. More like a convenience store, really, than a proper market. It was the nearest place to get any type of groceries or sundries without driving to the supermarket in town, and because of that it offered everything from coffee to hot deli food to lottery tickets and basic groceries, plus state-themed souvenirs and postcards for any passing tourist. It even rented out videos before the internet took over. Geannie and Jim had owned it for twenty years. There were three long aisles, mostly stacked with canned and boxed goods, and the store had been robbed only once before I started working there. That robber had been a local kid who pretended to have a gun by pointing his finger inside his coat pocket. Jim had almost laughed at him, the story went, but handed him a few twenties from the till, anyway. The few customers who had witnessed it always found a way to bring it up. It was probably the most exciting thing they’d ever lived through.
Mostly the market did business on cigarettes and chewing tobacco, plus the deli subs and soups I helped prepare. On Fridays and Saturdays we were open later than usual, until 10 p.m., for the beer sales, and I knew most of the customers by name and brand. In the mornings retired men would come in and buy a coffee and hang around, shooting the breeze for hours, trying to flirt with me or one of the summer helpers—usually a cute kid on summer break from community college who turned red and mute at the attention. When the old men tried out lines on me, though, I would play along and answer with something slightly bitchy, but in a clever way that they delighted in rejoining; I probably reminded them of some long-ago missed conquest they were never smart enough to deal with when they were younger and only now could fully appreciate. I admired them. Well, I admired the idea of being an old man. Now that they were old and nothing was at stake, they were freer, looser. They could get away with anything.
Hernan, Krystal’s brother, worked part time as a cashier on the weekends. During the week he worked construction and would occasionally come in after his shift was over, smelling like asphalt and sweating like a god. He was older than me, and sometimes, when we closed the market together, he walked me home as the days grew shorter. I lived for those times. The weather was always cold or getting cold on those nights, and he was taller than me but not by much, and thin, and his eyes were so brown they almost seemed red, and his voice was deep and resonant, a butter-in-a-barrel kind of voice. Unlike with the old men who hung around the store, I was quiet around Hernan, stricken with a crush that rendered me hot and wordless. I wanted to be his lover, his sister, his buddy, whatever would get me closest to him. Krystal would talk about him like he was a pesky little brother, though he was two years older than her, and I think it had something to do with the fact that he’d been adopted when he was five or six, when Krystal was three. Krystal always felt older than him, or that she had one up on him, I guess, having known her parents for three extra years. Even as adults she was always complaining about him. Hernan keeps doing this, she’d say, or Hernan won’t leave me alone about this, and I’d be sick with jealousy, longing to be someone Hernan would not leave alone.
Midway through the second year I worked there, my mother died after a long, liver-related illness, and Geannie invited me to stay at their house for a few weeks after the funeral. Krystal had recently moved out, eager to get away, and her bed was free. “Just come over so you won’t be alone,” is how Geannie put it, and, curious, I took her up on it. In this way I was welcomed into her and Jim’s lives in earnest. She felt so sorry for me, I could tell, though my mother’s tight-lipped, distant parenting style wasn’t something I exactly missed. In fact, it was quickly overshadowed by how Geannie and Jim treated me, which involved a lot of talking and affection, and making me feel like I was an individual human with opinions and feelings and an observable personality. Throughout my years of childhood friendship with Krystal I had always savored whatever crumbs of attention they had paid me between their hectic work schedules and hurried hellos and goodbyes, but only as an orphaned adult was I fully immersed in their love. The image of my mother hardly had time to fade before Geannie stepped in, and the handoff from mother to mother figure was so seamless that sometimes, in the years that followed, I had to remind myself that Geannie was not actually my mother.
On several occasions after I sold my mother’s house and got my own place, usually around Christmas, the Scheeles invited me to come stay overnight for a few days. I would lie in the dark in Krystal’s old bed, awaiting Christmas morning like a child, and as I listened to the lazy holiday music Jim had put on the downstairs stereo while they finished their glass of wine before bed—a habit that seemed impossibly fancy—I tried to brainwash myself into believing that I had grown up in that house, with both of them as my parents, and that I was very young, maybe eight or nine, and that the rest of my life was still a happy mystery.
Christmases with them were like a dream within which I could suspend myself, where time and reality would pause, and the air itself moved in a kinder, gentler way. They had annual routines that fascinated me: searching for and cutting down the perfect pine tree at their favorite local nursery; decorating it in a particular order (lights, then tinsel, then homemade ornaments that held significance, then the more elegant but less meaningful icicles and colored balls); shopping for sensible gifts with what seemed like endless money; Geannie taking a whole afternoon to make six kinds of cookies and two types of brownies. Each year when I first arrived she would invite me in, flushed and smiling, and I’d find the kitchen floured and happily shimmering, the air full of hot sugar and cinnamon. Elvis crooned in the background, keeping at bay the cold, fading December outside the window. The scene almost makes me cringe now, the sentimental perfection of it.
Perhaps the most fantastical thing was the snow village. Every December, Jim would drag out five long wooden pallets and set the miniature, lit-from-within ceramic buildings up in front of the Christmas tree. He arranged them in a way that mimicked hills and valleys, or perhaps suggested different neighborhoods, and covered them with rolls of wispy white batting. First he laid the small, figure-eight train track, making sure the train ran smoothly before he did anything else, in true methodical Jim form, and then began building the town around it.
The buildings were nothing like anything I had ever seen, and the town they formed was out of a Hollywood fever dream of no particular century or style, a hodgepodge of architecture and economic status, from a small fishing shack to a set of city row houses to a grand mansion or courthouse (I could never tell which), to a gothic stone castle that always sat near the back, as if it were bashful about its foreboding aura. Each small building would be placed on the fake snow in a similar pattern to the year before, though something always had to shift to make room for a new addition; the final Christmas I spent with them, the newest piece had been an ice pond. A mechanized magnet moved a small skater across the clear acrylic sheet of ice in figure eights, but it never traveled the same path twice. I found it utterly mesmerizing.
Somehow Jim would always make the buildings fit together in a pleasing way, and when he finished he would turn all the lights off in the living room and kitchen except for the Christmas tree, and call us in—Geannie, me, Krystal, Hernan, any of their other relatives who were in town, and the summer part-timers at the market were invited, too—and without much flourish but with much pride he would flip a switch, and they’d all light up, all at once, and the skater went round the pond, and the train went round its track, and the Scheele living room was turned into a place of surreal wonder and comfort, the glowing ideal of Christmas.
A subterranean longing would pass through me at those moments, a sharp, wrenching desire for wholeness, for the correct way of living. When I saw it up close it didn’t seem funny, or lame, or maudlin. It wasn’t anything but beautiful. Whenever I witnessed these moments of domestic perfection, the things that good people were born into, I had an odd feeling that I was floating somewhere beyond myself, in a far corner, watching my heart grasp at the scene like a drowning person inches away from a life jacket, clutching at the water of love, ecstatic and terrified.
Until this time in my life, with the exceptions of my parents’ deaths, library books, and a brief high school association I’d had with a boy more concerned with professional wrestling than romance, I had little understanding of how the larger world worked. Death and the wisdom of Bret “the Hitman” Hart were the extent of my lived experience. In many ways I was like a child, and I experienced Christmas at the Scheeles’ as a child: it was brand new to me, imitative of nothing, and it imprinted upon my heart the sincerest wish of any happy child who knows she is happy—that nothing would ever change.
But then the holiday would end, and life would resume. After I sold my mother’s house I had more money than I knew what to do with, and when I mentioned that I was looking for an apartment at work one day, Jim suggested buying a trailer, and offered to help me figure out the financing. I could have figured it out myself, but I let him help me. I loved sitting at their kitchen table, or standing around in the market during a lull, looking at paperwork and listening to him talk like he was the expert. I liked how his advice was quiet and simple, yet carried total authority, and that his creased forehead and deep hmm’s signaled hard and earnest concentration. He liked being useful, and I liked making him feel useful.
When I finished signing all the papers for the trailer, and after he and Geannie helped me repaint it and move some spare furniture in, the toilet stopped flushing on my second night there. And after he took me into town the next day to get a new toilet, ...
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