Resuscitation of a Hanged Man1980H
e came there in the off-season. So much was off. All bets were off. The last deal was off. His timing was off, or he wouldn't have come here at this moment, and also every second arc lamp along the peninsular highway was switched off. He'd been through several states along the turnpikes, through weary tollgates and stained mechanical restaurants, and by now he felt as if he'd crossed a hostile foreign land to reach this fog with nobody in it, only yellow lights blinking and yellow signs wandering past the car's windows silently. There was a single fair-sized town on the peninsula, a place with more than one shopping center in it and boarded-up seafood stands strung along the roadside, and the traveller, whose name was Leonard English, thought he'd stop there for a drink, just one drink, before going on. But he was drawn into a very interesting conversation with a man whose face got to look more and more like a dead pig's face in the dim red light. What they were talking about really wasn't all that memorable--it was more the man's face--but the drinks got slippery and English's money was all wet by the time he got out of there, and as he made a U-turnthrough an intersection the world seemed to buckle beneath him and the car's hood flew up before the window. English held the wheel and jammed the brake, waiting for the rest of this earthquake, or this bombing or God's wrath, to destroy the town. A shriek, like the tearing of metal train wheels along metal rails, died away. Somebody was opening the door for him ... but he was opening the door for himself, and now he was getting out of the car. There wasn't any cataclysm. It was just a town at night, quiet and useless, with buildings that looked like big toys or false fronts lit by arc lamps and backed by a tremendous bleakness. Somehow his Volkswagen had climbed up onto a traffic island. The whole thing would have been embarrassing, but he couldn't seem to form any clear picture of what had happened. Blood ran down his forehead and blinded half his sight. The air reeked: the tank was ripped and twenty dollars' worth of gasoline covered the asphalt. In his imagination it burst into flames. A cabdriver stopped and came to stand beside him and said, "You made a wrong turn." English did not dispute this.
To reach his destination at the end of the Cape, English engaged the cabdriver's services, services he couldn't afford any more than he was going to be able to afford this accident."He gonna chadge you exry," the cabdriver said.Chadge? English guessed the driver was talking about the old man who'd towed his car away, but what was he trying to say? "Right," English said."You from Bwostin?" the cabbie asked him.This was just what the policeman had asked him amid the wreckage, saying Boston
"Mr. Leonard English," the officer had said. Looking right at English's Midwestern driver's license, he had inquired after his origins: "You from Bwostin?" "I just got here from Lawrence, Kansas," English told theofficer. "Kansas?"
the officer said. "Lawrence, Kansas?"--and English said yes. A little later the officer said, "You're drunk. But I'm gonna let you off.""Drunk? I'm not drunk," English said."Yes you are, you most definitely are," the officer said, "or you wou'nt be arguing with me." With a certain vague tenderness, he was applying a Band-Aid to English's forehead.English said, "I'm a little tipsy. I don't understand what you're saying.""That's better," the officer said.English was glad when the policeman left him in the cabdriver's custody, because he felt cut off from the world here, and to be scrutinized by a powerful figure in a place he hadn't even seen in the daylight yet left him shaken. Properly speaking, this wasn't even a peninsula. He'd had to cross a large bridge to get here. It was an island. A place apart.And now, as they rattled toward this phony peninsula's other end, English was sitting up front with the cabdriver. English was dizzy, and on top of that there seemed to be an exhaust leak, but the driver kept saying, "You're A-OK now, brother." "No, I'm not," English said. They weren't in a taxicab. It was almost six in the morning and the driver was going in his station wagon to his home a couple of towns down the road, taking English dozens of miles out of his way for twenty dollars. "I like to drive," the cabbie said. He puffed on a joint wrapped in yellow paper.English turned it down. "Grass makes me feel kind of paranoid.""I don't get paranoid," the driver said. But he was a paranoid personality if English had ever seen one. "This beyond here, this is absolutely black," the driver said, pointing with the glowing end of his reefer ahead, to where the four-lane highway turned two-way. "No more lights, no more houses"--he drew a chestfulof smoke--"nuthin, nuthin, nuthin. We won't see no traffic. Not car one." Immediately the red taillights of another car shone ahead. "I think I know this guy." He stomped the gas. "I think this is Danny Moss"--pronounced Dyany Mwas--"is that a Toyota? Cheez, looka how fast this guy's running." They were doing eighty. "We're
gonna catch you, Danny. We're
gaining on this sucker." But they were falling behind. "Ain't that a Toyota?" he said. The red taillights ahead went right, and the cabdriver's gaze followed their course as he and his passenger sailed past the turn they'd taken. "Yeah, that's a Toyota! Yeah, that's him! Yeah, that's Danny Moss!"Actually, they hadn't come to any place of absolute blackness. In a little while the sun was up, burning without heat above the road, and before they reached Provincetown they sped through three or four more little villages, in one of which they stopped and had breakfast. It turned out that Phil, the driver, subscribed to the branch of historical thought characterized by a belief in extraterrestrial interference, previous highly advanced civilizations, and future global cataclysms, both human-made and geological. English now learned something about these things. "All the elemental phosphorus is gonna be like zero, completely gone. We'll be strangling each other in the streets for a little phosphorus," Phil said, "elemental phosphorus. The roads are gonna run with blood. Nobody even knows about it. Nobody's even surprised. Five thousand years ago on the earth they had a big cataclysm and a huge, what is it, whatyoucallit, megadeath.
Partly because of running out of some of these elements you need in your body, like phosphorus." He got into a philosophical talk with their waitress and told her, "I think our world could really be some form of Hell, you know what I'm saying?" The waitress saw his point. "There's so much suffering here on earth," she said. Phil knew all the waitresses, and it was after nine when they got back on the road.English fell asleep. When he woke up, the route had gone strange. White dunes made walls on either side of them. European music came out of the radio. They drove through a drift of sand.In a few minutes his head was clear again, and he was looking at the sandy outskirts of the last town in America. The sun was shining above it now. A tower made of stone rose up in the distance. The seaside curved north, to their left, and the wooden buildings were laid out solid, bright and still as a painting, against the beach.They followed the road into town and lost sight of the harbor as they came down the main street of shops. Now there were pedestrians moving alongside them in the chilly sunshine. The traffic crawled. "This crowd is nothing compared to summer," Phil told him. Half the shops appeared closed, and English had a sense of people walking around here where they didn't belong, in an area that might have been abandoned after a panic. Three ungainly women--were they men, in bright skirts?--danced a parody of a chorus line by a tavern's door, arms around one another's shoulders. Passing along the walks and ambling down the middle of the street were people in Bermuda shorts and children eating ice-cream cones as if it weren't under 60 Fahrenheit today. On the lawn of the town hall, surrounded by grey pigeons and scattering crusts of bread out of a white paper bag, stood a woman who was very clearly not a woman but a man: as if a woman wore football shoulder pads and other bulky protection beneath her very modestly tailored dress. Another man in a dress was mailing a letter at the blue mailbox just six feet away. And a cross-dresser on roller skates loomed above two others sitting on a bench, patting his brittle wig lightly with one hand, the other hand on his hip, while laughter that couldn't be heard passed among them. A very tall woman, who might have been a man, talked with a bunch of grade-school childrenout in front of a bakery. English cleared his throat. He had a chance to look at everyone until he was sick of their faces, because the car wasn't getting anywhere.Phil smacked the horn, but nothing happened. "Horn don't work. This is making me apeshit. I'm gonna run some bastards over."They found the source of the traffic jam four blocks down, where a huge-bottomed transvestite comedian on the balcony of a cabaret-and-hotel delivered his Mae West impersonation for free. "Move over, honey!" he shouted down to a woman in a halted convertible. The woman ducked her head in embarrassment and put her hand on the arm of the man driving. Around them the shoppers and tourists, variously shocked and mesmerized, or curious and entertained, laughed at the comedian with his cascading platinum wig and his stupendous, unexplainable breasts. Later that night English would see someone being carried on a stretcher out of the side doors of this building and through the wet, falling snow to an ambulance. And he would think of this man on the balcony in his evening gown making jokes about his potbelly, gripping it with a hand that glittered with rings while flapping his huge false eyelashes, and English wouldn't feel equipped, he wouldn't feel grown-up enough, to be told the whole story about this town.
Phil knew any number of people in Provincetown. He was connected all up and down the Cape. Long before the Pilgrims, English gathered, long before the Indians, way back past the time of cataclysms, even before the golden age of the extraterrestrial star-wanderers who had mated with monkeys to produce us all, members of Phil's family had arrived here and opened small dark restaurants with steamy walls and radios chattering and yowling in the kitchen, and had applied for liquor licenses which to this day they were denied because the grudges againstthem, though small ones, were eternal. What all this meant was that English wouldn't have to go to a motel. Phil had a cousin who ran a rooming house, freshly painted white and spilling winter roses over a knee-high picket fence, where English could stay cheaply.Phil insisted on carrying English's suitcase up the long stairs through an atmosphere of mingled disinfectant and air-freshening spray into a room that was small but not cheerless. There were big orange ladybugs printed on the white curtains. A faintly discolored portrait of John F. Kennedy hung on the wall above the desk. The bathroom looked harmless--blue sink, blue toilet, blue tub scoured nearly white. "All right, hey, not bad," English assured Phil, but it had every quality of the end of the line.Now that they'd travelled together and English was one of the family, with his very own room in Phil's illustrious cousin's house, Phil wouldn't accept a fare. English had to follow him down the stairs and out to his half-disintegrated yellow station wagon, insisting. Then he accepted the twenty-dollar bill that English pressed on him, and gripped the new tenant's hand with his, the money caught between their palms. His eyes were moist. They were two of the same sort, men past thirty without a lot to recommend them; but this happened to English every day. He had a feeling they'd stay strangers.After Phil was gone, English lay on the bed awhile, but he couldn't sleep because it was daytime and also a little too quiet. He wondered if everybody was at work. Then he remembered that it was Sunday. They'd passed a church, he and Phil, as they'd inched in Phil's vehicle down to the end of Commercial Street, the street of shops, and then in the other direction down Bradford, now his street, the street of his home. English hadn't really noticed, but he thought it might have been a Catholic church. He thought he would go to Mass.In his first few hours on this dismal Cape, before he'd even seen the daylight here, he'd managed to smash his car and put himself in debt to a strange and probably larcenous auto body shop. The idea of a fresh start took on value and weight as he splashed water on his face and, lacking any kind of towel, dried it with the corner of his bedspread, uncovering in the process a bare mattress. If Mass hadn't started at ten, it would be starting soon, at eleven.
It took English only a few minutes to walk there--St. Peter's, a Catholic institution. He hadn't missed the service. Under a sky the color of iron, people were lugging themselves like laundry toward the big doors of the church. A black arrow outlined in silver directed English toward a side door if he wanted to confess his sins.In a small room next door to the administrative offices, he found a priest bidding goodbye to an old woman and cleaning his spectacles on the hem of his cassock. English backed away as she passed out of the place, and now it was his turn to sit in the wooden chair, separated from his confessor by a partition with little metal wheels.This moment seemed to have swooped down on him from nowhere. He'd tried several times recently to make a good confession, but he'd failed. The problem was that about a year ago he'd more or less attempted to take his own life, to kill himself, and couldn't get started telling why.The priest, a small, preoccupied man, made the sign of the cross and awaited the rote utterances, praying to himself in a rapid whisper.But English had only one thing to confess. "I'm new in town--excuse me ..." Violently he cleared his throat. Now he noticed the room was full of flowers.The priest stopped praying. "Yes. Well, young friend. New in town.""I wonder if--Father, can we dispense with the ... ?" English waved his hand around, and was embarrassed to find that this gesture included the confessional and the cross. He'd meant only the formalities, the ritual. What he wanted was plain absolution."It's a nice quiet time of year to come," Father said in a puzzled tone.English waited a minute. The flowers smelled terrible. "I just went crazy," he said. "I committed--I killed myself.""Uh, you ..." The priest looked up through the partition's screen as if only now beginning to see he wasn't by himself. "In what sense," he began, and didn't finish."What I mean is," English said, "not killed. Tried,
I mean. I tried to hang myself.""I see," Father said, meaning, perhaps, that he didn't see.After a few seconds Father said, "Well then. You say you've tried to ... Is there something you've done about this? Have you sought help?""I am. I'm--I'm confessing.""But ..." The priest stalled again.English wondered how much time before Mass. Nobody else was behind him. "I mean ..." he said."Okay," the priest said. "Go on.""The thing is, I'm starting out here, starting over here." English had come too far. He wanted to find himself standing, without having moved, in the fresh air on the green lawn outside. It was December, but the lawns were still green. There were still flowers around town. He felt cut off from them and from all living things. "This suicide attempt is basically--that's the one thing I'm confessing," he said."Well then," Father said."I wanted to take Communion," English explained.The priest seemed weighted down with sadness, but it might only have been shyness. "I don't sense much commitment," he said."Can't I just--""But I think, do you see, given your--lack--""I wanted to confess. I wanted to take Communion.""Of course," Father said. "But--""I'll try again," English said. "I'll try later."He left the place quickly, embarrassment crawling up his neck as he found his way to the door. Somehow he'd succeeded in confessing his greatest sin, yet had failed to find absolution. He felt hurt by this failure, really wounded. He couldn't hold himself up straight. It was hard for him to walk.But his spirits lifted as he breathed the chilly air outside, where his fellow Christians ambled, most of them ignoring the paved walkway, across the lawn and through the church's double doors. He watched them awhile, and then, temporarily, he granted his own absolution. Self-absolution was allowed, he reasoned, in various emergencies. Wetting his fingers at the tiny font by the entrance and genuflecting once, he walked in among the aisles and pews with the touch of holy water drying on his forehead.It was larger, more vaulting, than the church he'd gone to in Lawrence. At the front, behind the altar, the middle of the huge wall telescoped outward away from the congregation, making for the altar not just a great chamber that had nothing to do with the rest of the place but almost another world, because its three walls were given over completely to a gigantic mural depicting the wild ocean in a storm. In the middle of this storm a bigger-than-life-size Jesus stood on a black, sea-dashed rock in his milky garment. The amount of blue in this intimidating scene, sky blues and aquas and frothy blues and cobalts and indigos and azures, taking up about half of the congregation's sight, lent to their prayers a soft benedictive illumination like a public aquarium's. The wooden pews were as solid as concrete abutments on the highway, the whispers of those about to worship rocketed from wall to wall, and English's awareness ofthese things, along with his irritated awareness of the several babies in the place who would probably start their screams of torment soon, and all the boxes and slots for seat donations and alms for the distant poor, and the long-handled baskets that would be poked under his nose, possibly more than once during the service, by two elderly men with small eyes whom he thought of against his will as God's goons, let him know that his attitude was all wrong today for church. But he was a Catholic. Having been here, he would forget all about it. But if he missed it, he would remember.There were as many as fifty people scattered throughout a space that would have seated four hundred. All around him were persons he thought of as "Eastern," dark, European-looking persons. An attractive woman with black bangs and scarlet fingernails was sitting behind him, and English couldn't stop thinking about her all through the service. To get her legs out of his mind he swore to himself he'd talk to her on the way out and make her acquaintance. Then he started wondering if he would keep his promise, which wonder took him to the wonder of her legs again, and in this way he assembled himself to make a Holy Communion with his creator.The tiny priest was a revolutionary: "I have been asked, the diocese has instructed us--all the parishes have received a letter that they are not to go out among the pews to pass the sign of peace." He seemed to get smaller and smaller. "But I'm going to have to just disregard that." A nervous murmuring in the congregation indicated they didn't know if they should applaud, or what. A couple of isolated claps served to express everyone's approval. "'I give you peace; my peace I give you.'" Were they already at that part? The priest came among the pews and passed out a few handshakes, and the congregation all turned and shook hands with those nearest them.It never seemed likely, it was never expected, but for English there sometimes came a moment, a time-out in the electric, arushing movement of what he took to be his soul. "A death He freely accepted," the Silly Mister Nobody intoned, and raising up the wafer above the cup, he turned into a priest rising before Leonard English like the drowned, the robes dripping off him in the sun. Now English didn't have to quarrel, now he didn't have to ask why all these people expected to live forever. And then the feeling was gone. He'd lost it again. His mind wasn't focusing on anything. He'd had the best of intentions, but he was here in line for the wafer, the body of Christ burning purely out of time, standing up through two thousand years, not really here again ... He was back on his knees in the pews with the body of Our Lord melting in his mouth, not really here again. Our Father, although I came here in faith, you gave me a brain where everything fizzes and nothing connects. I'll start meditating. I'm going to discipline my mind ...Everyone was standing up. It was over.He went out the front way with the other pedestrians, not because he was one, although he was, but because he was trailing the woman who'd been sitting behind him. She was easy to keep in sight, but she walked fast.She was halfway to the corner by the time he caught up. "My name's English," he told her."My name's Portuguese," she said."No, I mean, that's really my name, Lenny English." He couldn't get her to slow down. "What's your name?""Leanna.""I was thinking we could have dinner, Leanna. I was thinking and hoping that.""Not me," she said. "I'm strictly P-town.""Strictly P-town. What does that mean?" he said."It means I'm gay," she said.Had he been riding a bicycle, he'd have fallen off. He felt as if his startled expression must be ruining everything.She walked on."Wait a minute, wait a minute," English said. "You don't look gay. Isn't that against the law? It'd be easier if you gave some indication."She was amused, but not to the point of slowing down. "I must've been out of town when they passed out the little badges," she said."Couldn't we just have dinner anyway? I don't have anything against women who like women. I like women myself.""I can't. I've got some other stuff to do." She smiled at him. "Do you know what?" she said. "You left your wallet in the church.""My wallet?" He'd taken out his wallet to make a donation. Now it was gone from his pocket."It's sitting on the bench," she said. "I noticed when we all stood up.""Oh, shit. Oh, great. How come you didn't tell me?""I just told you," Leanna said.English wanted to talk more, but his anxiety was already carrying him back inside, against the tide of people flowing toward Bradford Street. He swiveled left and right, slipping through them sideways and apologizing convulsively, with an energy he'd lacked in the confessional: "Pardon me. Excuse me. Pardon me. Pardon me ..." M
onday was the day to become presentable, look alive, and appear at his place of employment. Last night's precipitation had been only somebody's idea of a joke about snow; the streets were dry and the air was sunny and fraught with health and the water in the harbor was blue.Anybody taking a minute to size up Leonard English, as hepassed shop windows and occasionally glanced at his reflection in them on the way to his new job, might have guessed he was no good at sports and lived in a room alone. On each quick examination of his image he changed the way he walked, or adjusted his shoulders, or wiped his hands on his pants.Maybe he was about to fail to impress his new boss. He was worried. The truth was that he hardly knew Ray Sands, who ran a private investigation agency and who also owned Provincetown's radio station.English was at a loss to trace his own path here to the very end of the earth and this new career. It was beginning to seem that the big mistake of his adult life had been giving up his work as a medical equipment salesman over a year ago. He'd drawn a fair salary for a single person, and above that a generous commission. He'd had unbelievably good health insurance--Minotaur Systems couldn't have afforded not to give its workers the best in coverage--and a big pension down the line, and plenty of variety in his workday, wandering all around the city of Lawrence and talking with doctors, university people, and hospital administrators.He'd enjoyed selling. He'd been treated fine. That hadn't been the problem. It was the equipment itself: gleaming, precise, expensive tools that seemed more like implements of torture than agents of healing.These incomprehensible gizmos had made him tired. They'd seemed to involve him--implicate him--more and more deeply in the world of the flesh. He'd started going to church again, maybe not too regularly, but at least sincerely, on his thirty-first birthday. That was the other world. The two were in conflict. The conflict sapped his strength. He'd found himself irritable, depressed; and then he'd made the decision that had married him to perpetual financial insecurity. Actually it hadn't been a decision. He'd taken a vacation, extended it with medical leave after his silly attempt at hanging himself, and then been let go.The try at self-murder he classified as an embarrassing phase of development, that is, nothing really serious.Somehow the spiritual things, questions like what was really wanted of a person and just how far God would go in being God--he couldn't have said what exactly, but he guessed it was the depth of these conundrums, the way he could spend an afternoon thinking about them and never get anywhere but feel he'd made great strides--something,
anyway, had dizzied him, and for a while he couldn't function. Stepping off a chair with a rope around his neck and hanging there for a minute had broken the spell.The same mesmerization had overcome him yesterday in the empty church when he'd gone back after his wallet. He'd found it undisturbed on the bench where he'd been sitting, but instead of leaving right away, he stood among the pews like a solitary farmer in a big, plowed field, holding it in his hand. The mural taking up three whole walls was scary now. From inside His blue storm, Christ called out to the believer to sail up against His rock and be shattered like a dish. What concerned English, night and day, was whether somebody would actually do that.Wondering about Heaven all the time made him drag his feet. After the medical instruments business, and then even life itself, had paled for him so dramatically, finding some new occupation he could settle down to wasn't easy. A stint with one of the temporary clerical services led him eventually to the Lawrence police station, where he worked for nearly eight months, interviewing the victims of crimes. Most of the victims of crimes were friends or neighbors or relatives of the perpetrators, and they ended up just the same, friendly or neighborly once again, still related and exchanging sheepish looks at sentimental family gatherings. But in the meantime, they wanted to be heard. He took down their statements, keeping them to the subject and boiling away the murky waters of personal history until what remained was stuff actually covered by criminal statutes. It washard work, and thankless. Everybody went away shocked because justice was never done.Three nights a week, in the hope of turning himself into somebody else, he took classes in radio announcing and studio electronics. He met a number of private detectives at an audio equipment convention in Kansas City, and was offered a job by Ray Sands of Provincetown. Sands was a retired Boston police detective with a one-man private agency, and he was taking English on as a radio DJ and as an assistant investigator, both positions part-time. Mainly, English gathered, Sands expected him to do things with listening and recording equipment--bugs.The night courses had given English a reasonable understanding of the kind of taping and editing a production studio might require of him, but about the gadgets and techniques of spying he knew next to nothing. He hoped he wouldn't be a disappointment to his new employer. The problem was, he really didn't know the man. He'd met Ray Sands only that one time, a couple of months ago, and the former police detective, who managed to outfit himself like a banker but still pinched pennies like a municipal hireling, booked him unconditionally after one lunch (Dutch treat) in Kansas City and two long-distance phone talks, both paid for by English.What clinched it for Sands was the idea that English had worked with the police. It meant--English sensed Sands believed this--that English shared that sacred understanding they all had, something to do with the irremedial rottenness of people everywhere. Did Sands really think that just because English had hung around one of their buildings for a year or so, he understood? Because to tell the truth, the minds and hearts of the police were a darkness to him. It made him uneasy to think that a false impression was the basis for his hiring. He certainly didn't want to be a disappointment--not least of all because it might leave him jobless, carless, stranded on a big sandspit with a lot ofstrangers among whom, it was turning out, were hundreds of transvestites and homosexuals--and he would have a word with Sands about that, too, he told himself as he wandered Bradford Street in search of the address.He found it on a side street a block from the harbor. Ray Sands lived in a small home with a high-styled entrance--double doors--and a nice enough yard, with a hedge. Out front, stuck in the lawn by the walk, was a sign announcing that he took passport photos.English wiped his hands on his pants and rang the bell. It was one you couldn't hear from outside, so you didn't know if it was broken and you should knock or if you should wait awhile and see if anybody came, or what. But Ray Sands opened the door right away and said, "Young man, you're late," as if English were dealing with the President. And Sands was dressed like a forgotten President, in a white shirt and dark necktie, and grey pants with suspenders."Well," English said, and started to tell about his activities of the past two hours: He'd had to get a sweater, and a watch cap; he hadn't been ready for this unearthly mix of warm sun and chilly sea breeze; he didn't know which shop, a lot of the shops weren't open ... Sands was taking him inside as he went on, taking him into the photography studio and sitting him on the stool before the camera and tripod, as if maybe Sands didn't know who he was and was bent on taking his picture for a passport application.Sands looked at him with sadness, less like a stern judge than a kindly doctor. He had that physician's air about him, the slowness of a man robbed of sleep for a century, the kind of subterranean eminence nurtured in the light of hospital corridors. "You don't think ahead."This was not, for English, a revelation. "You forgot to tell me about all this," he said, waving his hand at the world behindhim, all the cross-dressers and all the--for him, a guy from Lawrence, Kansas--alt the sexually disoriented people.Sands followed the gesture and looked at the wall, curtained to make a backdrop for official photos, behind his new employee. "I don't know what you mean to indicate.""This whole town is gay," English said. "I mean, it's very unusual to a person from Kansas. A whole town.""You get used to it," Sands said."I realize that."He was trying to think of something else to say, because Sands was saying nothing now, until he understood that Sands was listening to the sounds of somebody moving around in the next room, from which they were separated by a door. The door shuddered as if someone was tugging at it. Sands reached a hand to it and pushed it open, seeming to lower himself--he was a tall man--toward a child's small voice.An old woman whom English took to be Mrs. Sands, whose pink scalp shone pitifully through her white hair, stood there in some confusion. "Should I make some tea now, Bud?" She was heavy and feeble, with fat, doughy hands. A white lace shawl draped one shoulder and was falling from the other, and she was trying to catch it with a grasp that clutched air. "Some tea for the visitor, Bud?" She smiled like the blind, at a space where nobody was."Oh, no, thanks--no tea, thanks," English said quickly.Sands shooed his wife out with some remark that English couldn't hear and got back to his new employee as if there'd never been any interruption. "I imagine you'd better get familiarized with these recorders."I don't care if that's your wife, English felt like saying."We'll teach you a little photography, too. But that's for another day.""How about my shift at WPRD?" English said."We'll wait awhile. I've got some surveillance for you."
English picked up his first surveillance subject that evening as she strolled past the Chamber of Commerce, a small building that looked across a parking lot at a long pier made lustrous and a little bit unreal by the lights of Boston fifty kilometers across the Bay. It shocked him that he'd hardly unpacked but was already at work in a world he knew nothing about.He didn't enjoy lurking and loitering like a figure in a cheap movie, glancing every few minutes at the photograph of a stranger. Long-distance buses stopped here, and maybe he resembled a person waiting for one, but he thought he looked like somebody hiding unsavory ideas.When she passed by him she said, "Hello," a tiny brunette, jeans and knee boots swaying beneath a jacket of fur, who made him think, for some reason, of dimples. English didn't care that she saw him. As long as nobody guessed his occupation, he could tail the whole town. It was a metropolis of two streets, after all, and everyone saw everybody else six times a day.The idea was that this woman, Mrs. Marla Baker, had changed addresses recently. Now she lived somewhere on the town's east end. By waiting in a likely place and following her home, English was supposed to find out exactly where.Meaning to give her a head start, English stayed on the bench. Before he could get up, she went into the Tides Club just this side of the pier, and to keep her in view he didn't have to move at all. As she greeted the man at the bar who sat nearest the door, she shook her shoulders--a gesture to say it was cold outside. There was some discussion with the man, and then apparently they reached an agreement about the weather, because he got up and shut the door.There wasn't any public exit, as far as English knew, other than the door he was watching; and so all he had to do to pick her up again was sit on the bench. But he didn't. He paced up and down in front of it. He'd never followed anyone before,and even if it was easy in a town where recurring visibility aroused no suspicion, he was still completely untrained in how to stay on top of his quarry; or subject; he liked that word better, subject. He was getting cold, too. How did these private eyes keep from freezing?And now the night conjured up from the waters a gluey fog. It got in his lungs; he felt diseased. One minimal concession of fate was that they didn't have the terrible lowing of foghorns here that certain films had got him looking forward to with trepidation. The horns of the two lighthouses on the Cape's tip, blinking red and green across the water, were less dreadfully pitched, high and clear-toned, like sweet bells.The 9 p.m. bus arrived, all lit up inside. Nobody got off. There was no one aboard but the driver. He silenced and darkened and locked his vehicle. "Waiting for a package?" he asked English, holding his book of tickets in his hand beside his dead machine. "Waiting for my ship to get here," English told him. "Happy waiting," the bus driver said.Now English noticed somebody walking in the lee of shadow alongside the Tides Club, going up toward the little heart of town, but he couldn't make this subject out, except to say she was petite, like his own subject, Mrs. Marla Baker. As soon as whoever it was turned the corner, English jogged across the stretch of asphalt to the Tides, jerked open the door, and poked his head inside--a statue at the pool table chalked its cue, blank faces looked up at him out of a frozen moment--but she wasn't there. He resumed his jogging, up the block and around the corner.Far down Commercial Street she passed under streetlamps and alongside the illuminated windows of closed stores, visible and invisible, like a ghost. English walked, out of breath, until she took a left. Then he picked up his pace. It was still misty out, and when he took the same left onto a side street, the mistclosed behind him. He had seen fog, but had never witnessed a back lane that lurked in it, a red light blurring in it above a fire exit, or these back stairs draped with its still, pink scarves and saying everything there was to say about loneliness. He wanted to call out to Marla Baker, tell her that she wasn't alone and that neither of them was really invisible. But when the lane curved, a tavern came into sight and she went in. He saw her through the window among friends, two women, one of whom squeezed her furred shoulder--he could feel the dew of mist on it with his own fingers--while the other tried to pour beer into her mouth from a mug, and he could taste it.
The three of them, Marla Baker and her two friends, had a drink before they strolled, whooping and laughing together, down Bradford and then back in the harbor's direction, past the town hall. They were going to some kind of show at the Beginner's Dance Lounge, one of the biggest places, in terms of square meters, on the water.Cars choked Commercial Street, and the parking lot was jammed. Dozens of people lingered outside the Beginner's, making their deals. English's subjects all had tickets, and he didn't. The man at the door, dressed in white tie and tails and wearing purple lipstick and green eye shadow, told him they were sold out. English had to bribe the man with a twenty-dollar bill. "Daisy Craze" was the name of this well-attended extravaganza.English thought he'd be smart and take a table near the door, but he couldn't spot a single vacant seat. The bar ran along the back of the crowded room, and it looked like pandemonium in that region. People were talking away, a rubble of voices under a sea of smoke, and only those at tables near the stage were paying any attention to the show. In the yellow stagelights an elderly woman--actually a man outfitted as a Spanish dancing lady--leaned on the upright piano and lip-synced "The ImpossibleDream" as rendered by the recorded voice of Liza Minnelli, perhaps, over the crackly P.A. system. As the song grew more passionate she stopped leaning against the piano and, with movements gangly and frail, began to emote. She even mimicked the head jangle of the singer's violent vibrato. Below the hem of her dress, a man's gnarled ankles hobbled around in high-heeled shoes. She had a tendency to limp and stagger and lean to the right. But English saw that this was not a comic act. Deep feeling that was partly stage fright glistened in her eyes as she sang the finale: "Still strove
--with his last ounce of courage
--to reach--the un-reach-able ... stars!"
English was still hunting around in this battlefield for an empty seat. He found one, but somebody claimed it was taken. While people applauded the Spanish dancing singer, English located a chair near the bar, carried it overhead, trying to look as if he belonged here, and put it down where some people squeezed over this way and that to make room for him. He sat partly at their table and partly behind a supporting pole for the ceiling. He had to look on one side or the other of it to see anything. His subjects were only a couple of tables away.The mistress of ceremonies was the one he liked the best. He'd already grasped that they wouldn't be seeing any genuine females in this entertainment, but just the same she was a real woman, whatever her official gender. She was making a long thing out of introducing the next act, who was going to be Miss Shirley. "And I mean," she said, "this is a fine, fine imitation. This girl has really, really worked on this act." The MC wore her platinum hair in a matronly bun, but she was made up after the fashion of a chorus girl. Silver-sequined eye shadow fanned all the way up to her sketched-on eyebrows. Shivering golden earrings dangled. Her breasts were real. English had heard they did that with silicone injections. Her long midnight-blue and shiny dress clung to her paunch, but was kind. "Miss ...Shirley!" she said at last, and bowed off. She was poised and full of grace, and he was rooting for her.Miss Shirley was only a guy in a blond Brillo-style wig who dragged a teddy bear into the lights and lip-synced "The Good Ship Lollipop," the scratchy original Shirley Temple version. But it was funny, and it made a big hit.It was an amateur night. One by one they paraded themselves onto the stage and stalled there, brazen and embarrassed. The MC hung out onstage with a tall drink in her hand and said how badly these girls needed to be here, in a town where they could promenade along the streets in dresses, and get up on this stage and hide nothing about themselves. They were all in some kind of club, from places up and down the East Coast, and they were usually under tension, dressing up only in secret, and they needed this respite from the world. Some of them had wives in the audience. They were all living in a dorm-style situation in a couple of the hotels here in Provincetown. "They need
you to see them," she said. English noticed there were plenty of cross-dressers in the audience, too.The air turned thick and hot, the applause grew a beard of loud voices and got all out of proportion to the quality of the miserable acts, which were almost all lip-synced. When the record got stuck or skipped, the performer would get wild-eyed, wondering how to cope, but the audience just cheered each one through these difficult moments. English's brunette got up, snagging her fur jacket along with one hand, and was immediately lost outside the aura of the stagelights. He wanted to stay; he was having a nice time. But it turned out she was only visiting the bar behind them to get a drink. As for English, he drank nothing, because he considered himself on duty, until suddenly there was an apparition of a white-coated waiter before him, at which point he crossed the borders of sense, he couldn't have said why, and waded out into the Scotch-and-water.Next was a person whom English thought of as a cowboy, because by his flung-knee position, as he seated himself on a stool with his guitar, the man reminded English of nothing so much as a wrangler straddling a chair backward in the bunkhouse after a tough ride. His makeup had been washed away by sweat, and his coiffure was only a mess of hair drawn back into a ponytail by the use of a green rubber band. He was decidedly and happily masculine, but he happened to be wearing a Pop Art dress, with lightning bolts and whirling stars all over it, and black high heels, severe and schoolmarmish street shoes. This man played his guitar and sang, without benefit of a professional's recording, a song he'd written himself about how his older sister had started dressing him up when he was a little boy. "And the prison of manhood stepped aside for me," he sang, "and I could do all the things that only little girls could do. I could be loving. I could be soft. I could surrender and be weak." It was a sad song. Everybody was very moved. He was a great favorite.For English's money, the atmosphere was better than in an actual show. The worst acts were the best, and the good ones were a relief. Just to reward each one for the feat of getting finished without expiring, the audience shouted and pounded on their small, circular tables, everyone crammed knock-kneed around these toadstools at an alcoholic tea party presided over by a steadily more and more inebriated duchess. English himself drank until he felt the floor shift. Everything was happening faster than it usually did--a cigarette seemed to last ten seconds--but the MC was taking a longer and longer time between acts now, seizing this chance to fill everybody in on most of her past accomplishments and giving them the benefit of her thinking on quite a range of issues, including the veiled meaning of their lives. "I had a man," she remembered. "I
had a man." She raised her hands to put a stray lock of hair backinto her bun with perfect movements, holding her elbows forward as only a woman would. "I had a man," she sang with shyness. "But my man got drafted, and do you know, girls, he refused to tell them he was a fag?" Right, English thought, right for you, whatever I mean by that. He was feeling a great affection for all these people. Cut off by the sea from the steel mills and insurance companies who would never know them like this, they obviously felt a wholesome bond among themselves, the closeness of doomed cruisers on a sinking ship--"Do you know what I mean?" he asked one of the people he was sharing a table with, but he didn't know at which station of his thoughts his mouth had got on. "Do you get it?" He'd lost count of his Scotch-and-waters.The last act was going to be something special--"like I was, my dears, my dears--if you could have seen me!" the MC told them all. She wasn't choked up with grief; she observed with humor the train of years as it left her behind. She conjured up for them her youthful self and presented this ghost as she might have presented a daughter whose loveliness even she was astonished by. "I was the seventeenth
-highest-paid female impersonator in the world ... Europe--of course the girls in Europe might have given me a little competition. But don't you know, it might have been the other way, too--I might have given them
a little competition, don't you know? But I stayed in my own country." She looked at the audience steadily, and English remembered, from his own experience in a high-school production, that she probably couldn't see a single face. "Because I wanted to be Miss America."And in the same generous spirit, tainted only a little by matronly jealousy, she presented the young person whose future, she assured the audience, was assured.This last performer was beautiful and smoldering and sexy, in a lacy black corset and garter belt, high heels, net stockings.First she did a number that was fast and was supposed to be funny, but nobody laughed, everyone only applauded endlessly. She was a gifted dancer. For her second act and the evening's last number, she mimed a version of "My Funny Valentine." English was a little mixed up about his feelings as he watched her, because he felt weak in the arms with yearning. He caught sight of the subject Marla Baker, who was kissing one of her friends while around them the crowd applauded a parade of the night's performers, and he wished them well.Now Marla Baker was caught in a staring contest with--was it black-haired Leanna, the woman he'd talked with at Mass? --the two of them confessing everything with their eyes, tears streaming down their faces, in a moment of such intensity they seemed to have surfaced into sunlight and been frozen there ...Singing the Miss America song, the recorded voice of Bert Parks whispered under the cheering. The Leanna woman had disappeared. English headed for the facilities, seeing that Marla Baker, gazing off now with shiny eyes and not listening to the talk of her companions, still had a drink to finish on the table in front of her.Three or four men waited to use the john, but they were all so intoxicated, talking about nothing and struggling to make it clear, that he just went in ahead of them. The walls inside were completely papered over with magazine photos of naked boys, thousands of them striking every possible attitude and conveying intentions that, for all their being only photographs, made him uncomfortable. He went into the stall and leaned against the side of it, while his cigarette burned away rapidly like a fuse. Then he was trying to light another one, but the matchbook danced in his fingers and floated off, and the stall pitched forward and knocked him on the back of the head. He washed his hands, which felt as if they were dressed in big fat rubber gloves. His face in the mirror, ringed by dozens of photographed penises,seemed to be still in the process of forming. Over and over again he splashed his eyes with cold water.When he got out, the sleeves of his sweater were all wet. He'd lost Marla Baker.There were only a few people left in the place. There was a man trying to write a check at the bar, squinting at the mystery of his checkbook, two young fellows waiting for the man and both of them drumming their fingers with exasperation, there were two women across from one another at one of the little round tables, alone in a sea of little round tables, a bartender smoking a cigarette with a distant look of pleasure on his face, and out beyond the area of light, a waiter circling through vagueness with a dim white rag, as if he were surrendering.English had no idea what to do. He had a feeling it didn't matter.As he left the Beginner's he said hello to a young man and a young woman who clung to one another just inside the entrance, and the young man sobbed, "I don't want to die! I want to live
!"English would ask people--tomorrow. He would find out where Marla Baker lived just by asking people--tomorrow, not tonight. Tonight he was having trouble carrying out his first assignment, and some difficulty delivering his head out beyond the doors. O
ver the next few weeks the several squads of tourists in evidence on his arrival just disappeared. In the whole town only two or three restaurants stayed open for business, their windowpanes filmed with steam and bordered by grimy snow. Brief thaws came often, but Provincetown seemed, in general, arctic and bereft.His two jobs kept him busy enough, but in the evenings English didn't know what to do with himself. He felt the fires of a deadly boredom. When he didn't have night work he stayed late in the bars with the people whose malfunctioning faces floated above their beers, turning from his own image in the mirror to another one of him in the black window. By this time there were only a few taverns open, and he kept seeing the same terrible people over and over. In the cafés where he ate breakfast, the local fishermen drank coffee and argued about certain financial realities of the industry over which they had no control and about which, it seemed to English, they weren't entitled to have any opinions, or anyway, it began to seem to him, not such stupid ones; and they traded lies and passed judgment on their colleagues and rivals endlessly, until he believed he would get up and go over and tip someone's eggs into his lap, just to see.He was getting to be a creature of the night, spying till the zero hour, and then on Tuesdays and Thursdays working a shift at WPRD from two until six in the morning. His employment wasn't going all that happily. At the station they had only those two four-hour shifts for him, and he'd been doing next to nothing as Ray Sands's assistant investigator. His one investigation, in fact, still involved tracking Marla Baker--who turned out to be older than she'd looked at first, a middle-aged divorcee--from her apartment to her lover's house and back again, several times a week.On these occasions the lovers had dinner together, and English recorded their conversations with a mike taped to the window glass. They lay together on the living-room couch till midnight or so, these two bland middle-aged women, and talked, and embraced, and massaged one another with scented oils, and he recorded all this, too, with the same mike taped to the glass of a different window. It was the kind of thing he'd sworn neverto be reduced to, but he couldn't remember when, exactly, this oath had been pledged. Everything was softened in the candlelight of their romance, and unknown to them, he skulked outside with the clouds of his breath, adjusting the volume knob with frozen fingers. His ski mittens dangled by little clips from the sleeves of his black leather jacket, two limp, flabby hands that wrung themselves helplessly while their owner went around doing things he disapproved of.One night Marla Baker and her lover, whose name was Carol, had a visitor. It was the woman he'd spoken to in church his first day in this town and then pitifully invited to dinner--Leanna.The three of them held a kind of conference in the kitchen. All English witnessed, through a slim parting of the living-room curtain that gave him a view of the archway to the kitchen, were the stove, which slowly developed a face out of its dials and seams, and the torso of Marla Baker, with sweater sleeves pushed back to her elbows. He saw her hands put an orange kettle on the flame and then saw them take it away when it steamed. Under his blue knit watch cap he wore small Walkman earphones, and he heard everything they said. But it was the length of the silences, those clutching lulls in talk, that spoke the clearest.English had never realized, until he'd listened to recorded conversations, how much time people spend saying nothing, thinking about what they've heard and preparing what they have to say. But in this little gathering, made excruciating by Leanna's presence in a way never quite specified, these three women started and stopped a lot more than usual, agonized through their remarks about the tea, and choked up when they talked about the weather, as if they were making terrible confessions. English pressed his palms against the window to quell miscellaneous distorting vibrations.After that night, Marla Baker and Leanna started sleeping together occasionally at Marla's apartment. The first time it happened, English climbed a tree and put the mike on a fishing pole, nudging it close to Marla's bedroom window, and he listened. The two women undressed after a while and went to bed. They slept together as sisters might have, giving one another not so much pleasure as comfort. Marla and Leanna, Marla and Leanna--it had a nice sound to it. They'd been lovers once, but it hadn't worked out the way they'd planned. They certainly knew how to let themselves weep.English spent that evening straddling a branch, the tendons in his thighs at first uncomfortable and then, after a while, really on fire, wondering who was paying for this service, who was ultimately listening to these tapes, to what use was he or she putting them, what was this person like? Later he'd tell himself that if there was a beginning to his troubles, that was it: wondering.It was almost 3 a.m. He couldn't believe he was sitting in a tree with these items, which it would be impossible to explain if anybody asked: much worse stuff than, there was no comparison with, really, the medical implements he'd been convinced were soiling him a couple of years ago. Hadn't his experience as his own unsuccessful hangman turned his life around? At what point had he gotten this corrupt?English marked no thread of occurrences leading up to his halfhearted suicide attempt, no clear trail of his own footprints, but he did feel pretty certain that the finish of his employment in the medical world had begun with his introduction to the new surgical stapler Minotaur Systems had developed. This item was supposed to replace the old-fashioned sutures. Basically it was the same thing used around any office, but it was large and elaborate and wouldn't have looked out of place in the hands of an astronaut walking on the moon. English had looked forwardto learning all about it at a big sales conference in Chicago. But what should have been a fun and diverting trip to a medical lab near the city had soured very shortly after his cab let him off at the gate at the appointed hour. The laboratory, an offspring or cousin of the Minotaur corporate family, was out by O'Hare Airport in a sea of grass and corn bridged here and there by tiny cloverleaves of Interstate 90. There was desolation in the scouring sound made by distant jets that knew nothing about this place and in the whistling of the wind through the chain-link fence, a wind that also brought him the stink of urine and dog shit and the berserk exclamations of laboratory animals housed right there under the sky. Nobody had told him about this. Dogs running up and down their cages, kittens shivering in concrete corners, stunned rabbits, goats dangling wires from their ears, even a couple of blind sheep standing around in the straw, their eye sockets covered by bandages. English was still trying to swallow the shock of his own presence in a place like this as he was ushered into a room, in the laboratory proper, filled with whimpering, tranquillized dogs on small operating tables. There he was handed a smock and a scalpel and one of the new surgical stapling devices. The tiled floor was full of drains. As a child, he'd been bothered by certain noises in his bedroom closet. Now the closet was opened, and everything he'd imagined inside it came out and revealed itself to be his employer. He waited for somebody to point out how horrible this was. As soon as someone spoke up, he would, too. But nobody said a word. Under the direction of the laboratory's supervisor he took his place before one of the several dozen tables and put on the green operating cap, shower-curtain booties, and translucent surgical gloves that lay beside the drooling head of a fawn-colored dachshund, and, in the midst of fifty other green-garbed members of the Minotaur Systems sales force, he began tearing at this dog's belly with his scalpel, heavingout intestines and other organs and cutting into them and, from time to time, when directed, laying down the scalpel, picking up the surgical stapler, and learning about the variety of its uses.English had become something of a specialist in the area of sterilization devices. He could talk antisepsis with the best of them. But, because his field had narrowed this way, he wasn't like these other salespeople. They had all spent time in operating rooms and were not only accustomed to the sight of blood and at home with the idea of anybody else's physical pain, but they'd even, a lot of them, taken part in surgical operations on living patients, had taken the instruments they were selling into their own hands and shown the doctors just how they worked. The idea of opening up these dumb, tearful animals didn't faze these veterans, but English's eyes burned and he sobbed deep in his throat, watching his own gloved hands tremble and stab limp-wristedly at gristle. Nobody talked much. Blood sprouted from arteries in brief, graceful ejaculations, like fronds of seaweed, and pattered to the floor or fell across their gowns. The ripped lungs flapped and wheezed, salesmen and saleswomen occasionally exclaimed over the unexpected force of a death rattle and made the kinds of jokes that medical people always made, and the staplers clicked, the scalpels clacked on the Formica, and once in a while, because they were slippery, a scalpel got away from somebody and went tinkling across the floor. English heard all these noises acutely, though his head hurt as much as if his eardrums had burst. The building pitched, humming, back and forth. The grasses outside no longer seemed to lie down in the wind, but cringed before the sexual approach of something ultimate. Like a long curse a jet's sound passed close above the building toward the horizon. That an airport could go about its gigantic business in the same world as this laboratory seemed impossible, unless--and he didn't think thisso much as feel it as a self-evident fact--unless all things conspired consciously to do perfect evil.He couldn't stop this. There was nothing he could do. It wasn't his fault. This dachshund was finished, no matter what. The dog was already scarred down all four legs, and just above its tail and on top of its head two bald patches had been incised for the planting of electrodes. There was some undercurrent here that, even more than his job as a Minotaur salesperson, it was his nauseating privilege, his instinctive duty to do whatever the creatures who weren't dogs were doing to the dogs.With the same blind gesture of childhood games like pin the tail on the donkey, he pushed his scalpel into what he hoped was the poor animal's heart, and it expired like a balloon.The thing was, why had he submitted so mindlessly, why hadn't it occurred to him at the time to stop, to object, to get away? The experience gave him, in a way he couldn't explain, some slight appreciation of what rape might be like for the victim. And now, like a woman with a gun in her purse, he waited for somebody to try again. He wasn't going to let it beat him twice. He would do whatever he had to do.When Marla and Leanna had fallen asleep, that first night, English climbed down from the tree with his bag of tricks and his fishing pole. He'd been aroused, even in the cold, by the sight of naked women.On the way home he threw the tape cassette in a dumpster, and later he told Sands, "I got nothing." He told him, "I may be an idiot, but I'm not an acrobat." He told Sands he wouldn't work up that high, out on a limb. There was too much for him to juggle up there.
He might have wished that he'd turned from the butter of moonlight on the harbor to see her standing there with the sea taste on her cheek, but as it happened she was in the drugstoreon Commercial Street, buying something which she tried to hide from English when he said hello. Feminine protection evidently. She was dressed in a sweatsuit. She'd come from an exercise class. She smiled and seemed to give him the benefit of the doubt.Gusts of wind took their words away as soon as they'd stepped out the door:"Hello--""Hello--""Didn't I--""Yes--""Right, a few weeks ago, at Mass--""I told you we'd meet again--""Let's get a cup of java," he said, private-eye-style, guiding her into a doorway out of the weather.He got the idea that she was laughing at him. "Java," she said."That's right. Java. I thought you spoke Portuguese.""Is that Portuguese?""You tell me. I don't speak Portuguese.""What was your name again?""Lenny English. And you're Leanna, right?""How did you know?" Had she forgotten she'd told him?"Things like that get around." He liked that answer, but she seemed unimpressed. "I work over there at WPRD," he said desperately."Oh? Yeah? Have you got a show?""Well, I do classical stuff from 2 to 6 a.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays. And also I'm a production engineer.""Oh, 2 to 6 a.m., oh, I'm asleep by then."Sometimes you are, he felt like telling her, and sometimes you're not.Leanna insisted they go over to Fernando's, a café and bar clotted with hanging plants, and everywhere you looked a sign that read THANK YOU FOR NOT SMOKING, a phrase that alwaysseemed to resound in his head, like a dental tool. When they got there they went through a tangle of decision-making before taking a p
Denis Johnson is the author of six novels, three collections of poetry, and one book of reportage. His novel Tree of Smoke was the 2007 winner of the National Book Award.