For some reason, he knew right off. He didn’t recognize her from anywhere. She was a large woman and apparently had become more so during two years without work in Newark.
He nevertheless was stunned. He lived in a state of expecting it at any moment. To sustain this expectation for such a long time put you in a strange disposition—mortified in advance. Though mortified wasn’t quite the word. Resolved maybe? Was he resolved to go peaceably?
One day a couple years ago he came into his office, sat at his desk, and said aloud to himself “Hitler’s bunker.” He remembered reading that Hitler tested the cyanide that he and Eva Braun planned to swallow on his beloved shepherd, Blondi. It worked like a charm. And then Hitler’s dog-handler took all Blondi’s puppies into the garden of the bunker and shot them. He shot Eva Braun’s two dogs, some other woman’s dogs, and his own dachshund. His own dachshund.
There were so many metaphors, old and new. What was it really like to live a completely fabricated existence in plain sight, in full public view? Like with the Invisible Gorilla Test—viewers of the video focus on the people throwing the balls back and forth and don’t even notice the man in the gorilla costume walking across the stage.
Romana nervously entered, exited, and re-entered his office over this and that. He had a ten o’clock that had to be rescheduled.
“That girl—she think I a taker, don’t she? Just walk in here and be a taker.”
He excused himself and walked out to tell Romana that this would be a private meeting—that she should not interrupt regardless of the caller. He closed the door behind him.
She smiled and shook her head. “Man, don’t you look good. Real good.” She paused. “But ya know, I ain’t ever seen you before that time. I don’t know how good or bad you was for lookin’.”
He thought of all the romantic comedies he’d seen over the years, suggested by the woman he was with at the time. There would always be a line from the girl or the guy marveling at the kismet. How did you know it was me? How did you know where to find me? The purpose of a romantic comedy was for people to be found.
“And you OK,” she continued, “getting checkups with them docs?”
He shook his head. “I haven’t talked to a doctor in seven years.”
She smiled. “Well look at you then, Bionic Man.”
It felt to him that this had gone on a very long time, this chitchat with Tracy Brown from Newark. But it was only seventeen minutes ago that Romana had buzzed: “There’s a lady down here who wants to see you. She said to tell you she’s looking for Mr. Gleason.”
He thought it was going to be Alan Gleason’s wife. He was terrified of seeing her, the face on her, the protruding veins on her neck that formed his last memory. He braced himself in Hitler’s bunker. And then it wasn’t Terry at all.
It was her—Nice Nurse Tracy—whom he graciously welcomed into one of the iconic guest chairs facing his desk. “I put on some pounds since I been laid off,” she’d said, dropping her handbag to the floor with a thud. “That was two years ago. You might not know me right off.” Or maybe it was Tracy the Trash-Talking Nurse. “Fuck, but don’t this place look fine.”
It did look fine, his corner office—uninspiring view of Midtown, but a broad view nonetheless. The windows were the only ones on the floor that opened, allowing for air if such was desired. He contemplated popping one as he inhaled deeply and wheeled his chair in place behind the desk.
She was someone you’d never really see. And that’s because she was someone you maneuvered past with all her bags on the 4 and the 5: an overweight middle-aged black woman who wanted to sit down. You gave her your seat; you didn’t look back. You didn’t look back at the vinyl handbag and nylon and dirtied canvas tote bags and purchases in flimsy plastic she was trying to settle into place. You didn’t look back to see that her breasts and upper torso seemed dangerously heavy, dragging her forward in an uncomfortable pose of barely making do. You didn’t look back to see how hard it was for her to breathe let alone take care of so many others and their kids.
He sat awkwardly at the desk that came between them, like a child playing grownup. “I have so many questions. I don’t know where to start.”
She made a teasing gesture. “You wanna know how I found you?”
“First I’d like to know why you found me.”
She smiled. “Because you just waitin’ to be found here, wasn’t you?”
His smile was more stoic. “Maybe you’re right.”
It was hard for him to process that this was the woman in whose hands his existence had rested. Her eyes looked tired, but she still wore makeup. Her nails were manicured so that her fingers all seemed to flutter with white wings. She smelled pretty, like older woman did when you were inside a car with a bunch of them—a mix of someone’s favorite cologne and everybody’s deodorant.
“You was really wantin’ to die back then, Mr. Gleason. Yo’ body wanted it. I could see.”
He nodded. “And Paxton Place decided to help it along,” he said, “by giving me the wrong drugs.”
She shook her head, tightening her lips even. Then she leaned forward to make the chair creak. “I—was—you—angel—Mr. Gleason.” It came out as a whisper.
Her eyes remained fixed on his. He finally looked down at his hands resting on the desk. “I was a lucky man. In some ways.”
She nodded, satisfied. “Um-hmm.” Then she laughed. “Anybody really know what happened to that Mr. Gleason? He a missing person?”
He couldn’t look at her.
“And what about his kids—them two kids he got. They OK?”
He could not answer that, stuck as he was on the reality that he could no longer be Hap to himself; it would have to be Alan.
She lifted her arms high and wide. “You gotta explain all this to me, because I ain’t gettin’ it.”
“The concepts behind Hap?”
“All that stuff that goes on in corporations.”
He breathed in and exhaled heavily. “I suppose it’s just a way to make money.”
She laughed. “We all want a way for that!”
He made himself lean back in his chair, folding his hands across his suit. “So when did you leave . . . Quincy was it?”
“Dorchester,” she said. “Worked in Quincy, lived in Dorchester. But I come from down here, Jersey parts. My people from the city.”
“So you moved back.”
She nodded. “My mamma needed takin’ care. She was bad with diabetes and all. She passed from us last year.”
She shook her head. “She wanted to go.”
“And now you can’t find a job?”
“They wanna make me commute to get a job. Busses”—the B she spit with contempt, like some bad food. “I ain’t takin’ no two, three busses to get to a job that pays shit.”
“Maybe I can help with that.”
She gave him a look. “I got some disability with my back, but it don’t cover all of it.”
He tried to be forthright. “So why do you even care about me?”
She smiled and tilted her head. “Maybe I just wanna see what come ’a you—see how you turned out when you got saved at Paxton Place.” She shook her head. “You so happy they call you Hap.”
It made him uncomfortable to be stared at like that. “But you yourself,” he said, looking away, “you got . . . well, you were laid off, right? You all lost your jobs when they closed the place down.”
“Yeah,” she said, waving her fluttering fingertips in a gesture of boredom. “But I seen it comin’. That place a shit-hole. We all know’d it.”
“Still though, that must’ve been hard, having to find another job.”
She looked away. “I went to some other shit-hole up in Lynn. After a while, ’course.” She hesitated before looking at him directly. “And you know why it after a while, Mr. Gleason?”
He shook his head.
She looked down at her hands. “It because I got suh’hmm sweet.”
He nodded, as if to confirm that getting something sweet was what happened to people.
“It because I got suh’hmm sweet for doin’ a job for someone.” He could see she was struggling to find the words. “What I sayin’ is . . . is that someone else paid me at Paxton.”
He still didn’t understand what she meant and adjusted his stare to indicate so. Her stare, however, had turned bleary. Her eyes had begun to water.
“It was you wife, Mr. Gleason. Paid me.”
He leaned forward on his elbows. “She paid you . . . ”
She nodded. “She paid me. I did it.”
In the life that had sprung up in this new place—sprung up with the gusto and stamina of an invading species from Asia—he was prepared for anything and everything that might suddenly cut it down. But somehow he wasn’t prepared for this. Alan, Alan, I’m going to be gone for a while, OK? You’ve got the stuff you need, to make you comfortable. If you need something just ask for Nice Nurse Tracy. He now realized that’s why Terry was so shocked when she saw him sitting up in bed. It wasn’t just because he’d come back to life, but that she had paid to make this outcome all but impossible. She had paid—and she had been conned, swindled. She was an outraged consumer, wanting redress that could not be provided by the Better Business Bureau.
After a minute or so of floundering within this abyss, he managed to look up at his confessor. “But why . . . why all the others too?”
Now her face collapsed into the contours of the easy cry he’d seen too much of on CNN. He couldn’t help feeling harsh about it, harsh about her.
“I had me a few drinks one night,” she admitted through sobs and a veil of fingers touching various parts of her face, “with this fella Randy I know’d then. I’s feelin’ that I’s all done there at Paxton. I’s way up high, and I liked bein’ high. I felt the world way under my feet—you know what I mean? I be the God there for those dyin’ folks. They all dyin’. No one come to see ’em. Everyone know it the end of the line.”
He reached behind him to grab a box of tissues to place at the edge of his desk. “Maybe I do want to know how you found me.”
She again looked down at her hands. “I know another thing about you wife.” She stopped and, under much duress, reached down into her enormous handbag on the floor. She finally produced a tissue and blew her nose. “She in a nursing home where my friend Stacey works. Real high-end place near Boston City—but the good side.” She laughed. “The white side.”
She nodded. “Dyin’, Mr. Gleason. You wife got some bad cancer and she dyin’.”
It wasn’t that he didn’t know what to say, but that he didn’t know who he should be saying it to. “What’s the name—the place where she is?”
“West Newton Pavilion. But it ain’t on West Newton Street.”
He reached for a pen and wrote down the name. “You still haven’t said how you found me.”
She was able to laugh a little. “That’s just ways I got, you know?” Then, almost instantly, her expression turned somber again. “But I come here to give you some other news that’s hard for me to say.”
“What’s hard for you to say?”
She rapidly waved one of her hands like she was anxiously drying her nails. “That you wife . . . Terry. She got this boyfriend, see? Chinese guy. They say he Taiwanese and Filipino. He some kind of ‘Asian gangster’ they call him. So Terry got this bad-news boyfriend. And, well . . . she told him to find you and kill you so that you die before she do.”
It was hard to process—so much pure, unadulterated story. Like standing in line for a sandwich and hearing someone be brought up to date on half a season of HBO magic: he kills his boss, she takes the baby and the heroin, the cop is corrupt, the governor is his real father, the meth lab is in the funeral home, he shoots her in the face, the bodies wash up on Hilton Head.
“So this guy’s looking for me?” he asked.
She closed her eyes and nodded. “Um-hmm. Panda the name he go by.”
Somehow this offended him more than anything else—that Terry would have some gangster boyfriend named Panda.
“Are you somehow involved with Panda?”
Now she looked offended. “Mr. Gleason. I ain’t nothin’ to do with that man. I’s just here to tell you what he plannin’ on doin’.” She leaned forward. “I told you: I—is—you—angel.”
He wiped his hand across his forehead. “You said you were my angel. Past tense.” He paused. “Even though you took money from my wife to kill me.”
She shook her head. “You was dyin’, Mr. Gleason.”
He couldn’t stop a smirk from coming on. “I guess I forgot that it’s perfectly legal to kill someone who is already dying.”
“But it didn’t kill, did it?”
He sighed and widened his eyes as if to make them see what needed most to be seen. “Does he know where I am, this Panda?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. But the reason I come is to warn ya. To warn ya and . . . and to say I’s sorry for what I done back then.”
He found himself nodding, as if jogging his memory to recall what she did back then beyond snap gum, wear heavy perfume, swear every other word, and flip his body every which way like a frying strip of bacon.
He lifted his hands and shrugged. “So now what? I sit here and wait?”
She put her hand on the edge of his desk to grip tightly, helping herself up. “That what you need to decide, Mr. Gleason. I can’t tell ya how to live.” She paused. “You done real good for you’self here with this Hap business. Real good.”
He stood with her. Something made him reach down into a drawer for the checkbook he rarely opened.
When she saw what he held she shook her head. “Don’t want that money, Mr. Gleason, if that’s what you think.”
He looked down at the flawless leather rectangle in his hands. Immense guilt crept over him, starting at the back of the neck. “I’m sorry, Tracy.”
“I am too.”
He couldn’t take his eyes off the checkbook. “I have accumulated a lot of shit in life. I want to help you out.”
She shook her head. “I told you. I ain’t a taker—not no more.”
“I still may be able to help you find work.”
She laughed. “Maybe someday.”
He had Romana call her a car back to Newark. He took the elevator with her down to the lobby and shook her hand. Then he returned to his office and shut the door.
So here he was again in one lifetime—another situation. The possibility of death and no one on his team. It ought to feel familiar. Yet an alien sensation settled down upon his office, his bunker.
Was it true, this Panda story? If Nurse Tracy could find him, a contract killer certainly could. Or Panda himself if that’s how he operated. Was Tracy affiliated with Panda or Panda’s contract killer? Was this all some game—extortion? Was Terry really dying?
The one thing he didn’t think Tracy Brown would lie about was the most difficult to bear, even after this distance of time: That Terry had paid her to do it. If he had only known that . . . perhaps some of the guilt would have been lifted, perhaps he wouldn’t have suffered as much. But then perhaps he would have killed himself right then, at the start of the miracle. He’d come up to it at least four times. He now felt himself absurdly innocent—that was probably the sensation that seemed so alien as it settled onto his bunker.
Why did he do it—disappear? Maybe because it felt like his body was disintegrating before his eyes. Why did no one look for him? That one was easy: He had nothing, no worldly assets. People only look for you when there’s something to gain.
He’d traveled to Boston many times. But it was another man entirely going back there. Few would have cause to compare the before and after. There was the fact that he looked different from the pre-cancer Alan Gleason. The illness had obliterated so many of his distinguishing features. His hair, which had been blond but slowly going gray, went pure white, but then grew back in much darker, like salt and pepper. His face, which had seemed round, caved in when he was dying but then filled out in a different form at the cheeks. The heavy mannerisms of a financial services executive all but vanished.
There was also the fact that he talked and walked different from the pre-cancer Alan. And of course behind this the fact that he thought different. In his old life he didn’t do much reading beyond the Journal, the Financial Times, and Bloomberg. He read some of the bestsellers his wife and children gave him for birthdays and Father’s Day, but most of these books about World War II and underappreciated presidents and great naval battles and Soviet spy cases were unfinished or unstarted.
“I have often thought that there’s a great man locked up in Alan Gleason.” He remembered the day, the very moment Carl Meacham said this to him. He’d just been made senior managing director, and Carl had invited him for a drink at the Algonquin Club. “Why not get out of this racket and really do something?” Carl had asked. He was practically a billionaire, retired except for sitting on a handful of boards, mostly philanthropic. All Alan could do was make light of the situation as he lifted his glass. “I need to get to where you are first.”
Now he had something new to wonder: Was it the battle with cancer that constituted his crossing the Styx into this new life, or was it the odyssey following directly on the heels of that battle? After all, after the cancer it was another two years of near destitution and emotional anguish. But now it occurred to him that it wasn’t true he had no one on his team after he drove off in the Civic. It turned out he still had Todd Wilkins, not for advice or money but for his willingness to serve as trusted intermediary, that crucial character in any Shakespeare tragedy—young, noble, and non-blood-kin to the fated royalty. He could trust Todd even though it was an absurd amount of money he was asking Todd to propose to Carl Meacham, who by then was struggling with cancer himself.
Alan never thought it would happen, the stars lining up enough for him to successfully disappear—disappear penniless but disappear fully, without having to die first. And when it was about to happen, he said to his young, noble, and non-blood-kin intermediary in what turned out to be the last conversation of Alan Gleason’s life: “I have often thought that there’s a great man locked up in Todd Wilkins.” And there was—a great man who quit finance to work for the Obama campaign in 2008, the Patrick campaign in 2010, and now the Obama campaign again, only very much at the top. It turned out that Todd, too, was not a taker—not any more.