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Chapter 19

The early spring had been a false one, but by the 7th of May, things were set to right: days had turned to the outside, where, nearing dusk, Brother Frank might still be found for a warm hello before retiring to his room with a bottle of gin, WNYC, and the complete works of someone meriting a close reading via Dollar Store highlighter. On many days, however, Frank was already passed out by eight.

Alan asked Frank to meet him at Washington Square Park. He found the priest on a bench near the Garibaldi statue, looking like he’d already had a few. Frank was smiling but depleted of the enthusiasm to stand for a handshake. New Yorkers struggling to make ends meet seemed to Alan to have a special aptitude for being able to make drinks meet—many with some extra left over for Frank’s non-label gin. (The Whiskey Priest did not drink whiskey.)

As Alan sat beside him on the bench, Frank pointed to the center of the pedestrian thoroughfare. “There’s a fellow who arrives there with his piano and CDs on some days. He’s quite exceptional. People will sit, mesmerized, and then walk away without leaving him a penny. That’s quite exceptional as well—how they believe being mesmerizing is owed to them for free.”

Alan smiled. “Well, maybe the guy’s angel will come to see him someday.”

Frank liked this suggestion. “Oh, let’s hope!”

“Mine came this morning.”

“Oh, really?”

“She told me a man named Panda intends to kill me.”

Frank laughed. “That’s a joke, I hope.”

Alan shook his head.

Frank, fighting the effect of drink, leaned forward, concerned. “Maybe it’s time to tell me, Alan.”

Alan nodded with commensurate gravity. “Maybe we should walk. Are you up for it?”

A stroll with Frank was inefficient in terms of getting anywhere, but it had the pace and gestural amenities of a BBC series involving a well-meaning vicar, Kew Gardens, and any modern historical period except for recent.

The first time Alan saw Frank was at a diner on Lexington, not long after moving himself and his few possessions to New York. He immediately took to this diner and fell into frequency despite the scorn of another unavoidable regular, a woman who looked like Joan Didion. Every day she’d be there with the Times spread open on the table. She’d use the back of her fingers to flick the corner of a section that wouldn’t lie flat and then glare over her glasses at anyone who might be looking in her direction: Just try to take any part of this paper from me before I’m done with it. You could see she was well-off—the carefully colored blunt haircut; the sparkling clean, clear-frame glasses; the tasteful wedding ring. That was the strange part. She wore cashmere turtlenecks and lipstick on a mouth disappearing into crevices. Her distrust of all others—especially men—was waiting like a handful of upturned tacks.

And then one morning Alan noticed Frank drinking his coffee in the funny way he held the cup to accommodate delirium tremens. Was he a priest on the skids or just some homeless nut in a priest’s garb? A priest was exactly who Alan wanted to talk to but not in the way most people wanted to talk to a priest. Alan’s staring prompted Frank to speak. “You look lost, my friend.”

Now, as they walked in the park, Alan reminded Frank, “You know I have a family in Boston.”

Frank nodded. “Maybe it’s best to begin with what you did. The transgression.”

This made Alan laugh out loud. “What I did was this”—he paused. “Are you ready? What I did was set out to die of cancer and then fail to do that.”

“What do you mean?”

“I want to say the cancer went away, but I don’t know what the cancer did. I’ve never gone to see a doctor in the years since I stopped dying.”

“So, are you telling me this is a miracle?”

“Maybe. Or maybe it’s a miracle of modern science.”

“But you failed to die in any event.”

“There was a big insurance policy. My being sick bled us dry. My kids were twenty-two and twenty-three then—adults in your time and even mine. But certainly not in 2005. Neither had jobs and thus needed to be supported in their respective apartments. My wife had never really worked. She had some part-time thing at Kennedy Galleries, a store that sells museum posters in overpriced frames. She had no marketable skills beyond buying things that nobody needed—and that’s assuming she was even willing to work.”

“So what did they do when you stopped dying?”

“The kids had already stopped coming to see me. My son actually never came at all.” He paused to laugh to himself. “Because they had thought of me as already dead, and because I had no money, there was no place for me in their lives. My wife was livid.” He paused again. “Especially since she paid the head nurse at the nursing home to stop giving me my wonder drugs, which everyone presumed was the reason I’d been kept alive.”

“I’m confused. And did the nurse not do this?’

“Oh, she did it all right—cut off the drugs. But then what happened is I started getting better in the absence of these drugs, miraculously.”

Frank had placed the back of each hand on his lower back, to give himself wings but also to help him concentrate. “How do you know all this?”

“Because of that nurse—she’s the angel who came this morning. She confessed to taking the money—and then told me a guy named Panda is going to kill me.”

He shook his head. “Why does someone named Panda want to kill you?”

“Apparently he’s my wife’s boyfriend, and my wife is now dying of cancer. According to Nurse Tracy, Terry, my wife, asked this Panda, who happens to be a gangster, to find me and kill me so that I’d die before she does.” He paused. “I have to assume it’s because she thinks I ruined her life by getting sick—and then ruined it more by not dying.”

Frank tugged at his brittle, wiry hair, confused. “And how does Nurse Tracy know all this?”

“That I don’t know. She told me she has a friend who works at the nursing home taking care of Terry, but there’s something fishy with that. She didn’t want any money when I offered.” He paused. “She’s a poor woman, Frank. I don’t blame her for what she did. I was dying—everyone thought so. She seemed genuinely sorry this morning. She didn’t have to confess to me.”

“And how did she find you here?”

“That I don’t know either.”

Frank was troubled. “This isn’t supposed to happen with”—here he whispered—“with V2M.”

Alan laughed. “Well, maybe Tracy has something up on V2M.”

“Not so loud.”

Alan looked around, wondering who here would care to maliciously overhear them talking about what sounded like a vitamin. Besides, all sounds were drowned out by the precise and abrasive acoustics of skateboards near the fountain.

“Hear those skateboarders, Frank? There’s absolutely no other sound like that. The thick, veering wheels rolling and then that sudden smack.”

That was the sound of Ryan growing up, from age eleven or so. You’d hear him outside somewhere, and eventually the noises said you’d have to go out and tell him to please get off whatever his evolving mind thought it would be cool to skate on top of or off of. Once Alan came out to find Ryan between two cars in the driveway, propping himself with a hand on each, practicing some kind of twist maneuver that looked like he wasn’t doing anything at all with his feet, looked like he was intent on wasting his concealed concentration on nothing. “What are you trying to do with that?” he asked. “What will that get you to do, Ryan?” The boy never answered. Alan had never heard his son use the skateboarding argot he’d read about in Rolling Stone so long ago, trying to be the useful parent. Even then he told himself he had failed miserably as a father.

“Forgive me for seeming distant,” said Frank, “but this is a lot to comprehend.”

“I’ll say. Especially the part about the guy who wants to kill me.”

“What do you plan to do if it’s true? Have you looked into this Panda fellow?”

“I haven’t done much of anything since this morning. Like anyone would, I Googled ‘Panda’ and ‘gangster’ and ‘crime,’ but nothing came up. I called the nursing home Tracy mentioned and said I knew Terry Gleason and would like to visit. They said only immediate family were allowed in.” He paused. “So I know that part is true.”

“That was your name, Gleason?”

He nodded. “The Alan part’s legit.”

“Alan, you should be more worried about this assailant.”

He shook his head. “I don’t know, Frank. Maybe it’s time.”

“You should go to the police.”

“And tell them what? Who I really am?”

“Does this killer know who you really are?”

“I don’t know.”

They’d made it to the west side of the park. Alan pointed toward a vacant bench, and they sat down. Frank turned to him, with a look of consternation. “And you’re not afraid?”

Alan thought for a moment. “I guess not.”

Now Frank sat back, deep in thought. “Maybe this Tracy really is your angel.”

Alan shook his head, staring into the distance. “Whatever she did seven years ago, Frank, it got me out of there alive.”

Frank thought more. “And now she’s trying to help you come out alive again.”

“Or so it would seem.”

Frank suddenly became somewhat buoyant. “She’s your Magwitch, Alan.”

“What do you mean?”

“The convict in shackles whom Pip helps out at the beginning of Great Expectations. The scoundrel who becomes Pip’s secret benefactor. Returns to tell him when Pip’s living high on the hog—but of course terribly in debt.”

“I didn’t read the book.”

“But you know the story, don’t you?”

“The basic outline, I guess.” He paused. “But what happens when Magwitch returns? What does Pip have to do?”

“Try to save the convict’s life again—after having saved it at the beginning.”

Alan shook his head. “But that doesn’t make sense as a metaphor. Tracy Brown saved my life—ironically, by trying to off me for money. And now it’s my life needs saving again. So maybe I’m the Magwitch in this story and Tracy’s Pip.” He paused. “No more metaphors, Frank.”

Frank smiled. “But metaphors make everything bearable.”

“I don’t know if I want to bear anything anymore.” He stopped. “Maybe it’s time to go, let nature take its course.”

“Being killed by a panda is not nature taking its course.”

He laughed. “Eats Shoots and Leaves. Do you remember that book? My kids gave it to me one Christmas. It was a bestseller about grammar. Never read any of it. But the title refers to what pandas do. And maybe that’s what Terry’s Panda will do: eat, shoot, and leave.”

After some silence, Frank asked, “What was it like to just walk away from your life, your kids who gave you books?”

Alan’s eyes settled on a point straight ahead. “I was in no normal state when the decision was made, Frank. I’d been sick for two years—out of it for much of it.”

Frank nodded. “You were desensitized.”

“I felt like I was looking at my entire self from outside my body. When you get sick like that, you come to lose subjectivity with your body, the immediacy in the way you know it. So I already lost that hold on my body. But then I lost subjectivity with my mind as well, the part of my brain that talks to me, makes me laugh. I was separate and looking at myself.”

Frank had folded his arms, as if this would help him to focus his semi-inebriated mind.

“When I left that nursing home,” Alan continued, “I had gained a perspective that probably very few get to.”

“Did you have anyone to turn to?”

“Well, not really turn to, but I had one person who’d been a professional connection. Really it was two people who’d been professional connections. Two people and one Civic is what I had. I wanted to disappear, and yet I was indifferent to dying. Bored with it after so long.” He turned toward Frank. “Does that make any sense?’

Frank again seemed troubled. “What doesn’t make sense to me is that”—here he whispered—“you chose V2M when you really hadn’t done anything wrong. All these years I’ve thought you were atoning for some wrong you had committed.”

Alan shook his head. “Like I said, I wanted to disappear.”

“But V2M was not . . . well, it was not designed for that. It was not meant to be an option for the innocent, because you can . . . well, let’s just say there are consequences.”

“But I wasn’t innocent, Frank. My eyes were open. I didn’t want to lose that strange perspective, that strange existence—not for the creature comforts that come cheap. I suppose I actually wanted the unbearable lightness of being.” He laughed. “I reached out to the unbearable lightness of being.”

There was not much to reach out to wearing the clothes of that man who died at Paxton Place. He remembered the Civic had just a little over a half tank of gas. Between the ashtray and glove compartment he collected thirteen dollars in change. That’s what he had to work with: thirteen bucks plus a half tank of gas. He found in the jacket pocket a business card that wasn’t quite a business card: It listed the masses at St. Anthony’s Shrine. He knew the place—downtown Catholic church on a street abutting Filene’s. It was where the financial people went for their ashes once a year. He remembered stories of naive women leaving their handbags in the pews when they walked to the altar to receive the sacrament of communion. And then of course they returned to nothing.

Because he remembered those stories of women returning to nothing in a shrine named after the saint of lost articles, he drove there. He parked and fell asleep in a tow zone and saw three tickets pinned under the wiper when he awoke. The storefront church had metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and signs reminding worshipers they were being watched at all times. He sat through a mass and remained in a pew for a long time, probably several hours. His mind kept announcing “I am standing right now and leaving,” but his body wouldn’t comply.

And then he felt someone enter the pew behind him and kneel, so that the face was close to his ear. “I can help you.” He figured this was how people bought and sold drugs, so he ignored the whisperer. But then the voice elaborated: “I can help you disappear.”

Frank still appeared troubled. “All this doesn’t sit well with me.”

Alan turned to him. “What did you say it was called before V2M?”

Frank whispered, “Tarsus 31.”

“Yeah, that’s right. And why the 31?”

“That was the presumed age of Saul when he experienced the Damascus conversion.”

Alan laughed. “Did people call it T31, like a chromosome?”

“Alan, you have to keep your voice down.” He looked around. “They rarely if at all mentioned it by name. Same for V2M. It was spoken of in euphemisms, or as ‘the Program,’ like AA. We’re throwing the names around like . . . I don’t know what. Let’s just say it’s not wise.”

Alan shook his head. “It feels good to talk about it, Frank. I haven’t even said V2M since that first time I talked to you.” He paused. “That’s five years now.”

“Well it’s good that you’ve never talked about it to anyone else.”

“Why did they rename it?”

“Tarsus was never a meant for income,” Frank whispered. “It was instituted to help out men who’d been good friends of the church and were now in trouble with the law. Supposedly white-collar crime. You couldn’t go to Tarsus if you strangled your wife.”

Alan laughed. “No, I guess that wouldn’t do.”

“But the thing is, Alan,”—and here he lowered his lowered voice even more—“I know that some of the men who went into Tarsus had done terrible things, serious crimes. I heard that with V2M they ‘cleaned it up.’ ” He laughed as much as he could. “Cleaned up a felony.”

Alan looked around the park. “V2M was pitched to me was as a way to generate income—period. No morals involved. Don’t ask, don’t tell. They even told me the profit margin for the minimum fee was ninety-five percent, that the cost of onboarding could not exceed fifty thousand.”

Frank sighed heavily. “With Tarsus, they believed that for a man about to be punished for a bureaucratic crime, their brand of atonement was preferable to habeas corpus and due process of the law. It was cheaper overall, and taxpayers didn’t have to pay. The sinner is stripped of that which he most lunged after—money and a good station in life. But also his family, his history. You turned over all you had as alms—you destroyed your wealth and relationships. Few sane people would prefer that to jail. You begin again as a zero, as a man stained with discharge from the priesthood. Before all the abuse scandals, this fate wasn’t completely abysmal. But more recently—well, you went through it. I shouldn’t be the one talking.”

The whisperer at St. Anthony’s was a man named Bill Jagger. Looking back, Alan had no idea why the proposition didn’t make him break out in fits of laughter. It was so crazy and farfetched. But Jagger bought him lunch and found him a bed at St. Francis House, the men’s shelter. He met him for breakfast the next morning and brought decent secondhand clothes—the kind Terry gave away all the time, just to make room in the closet for new stuff with tags—new shoes and underwear, a leather wallet, a duffel bag. He joked that Mick was his cousin; he said he perfectly understood why Alan would want to disappear.

Alan learned later that Jagger was known to have “second sight,” a skill for picking them out, the candidates. Actually there were no candidates; everyone picked by Jagger produced the money and entered the program. Alan suspected that Jagger had gone through the program himself, that this was the reason for the second sight, for seeing what Alan was before the cancer. Alan had studied Jagger’s face to see if it was one he remembered from the papers, but nothing triggered recollection. But then he must have changed something with his looks. He was not infallible, however. He messed up royally in one respect: Alan had committed no crime. But there was no going back. An exception needed to be made for Alan Gleason.

First Jagger said he was affiliated with the church; then he said he was in the employ of the diocese. Finally he said he worked out of Rome. When he eventually broached nomenclature, he called it Vatican 2000, although on paper—figuratively, for there were no papers—it was “Vatican MM,” shortened to V2M. What it gave you was the unassailable identity of a former priest. You came out with the nine-digit social of a former priest, a record of education in a licensed seminary. You had to change at least one thing about your appearance. You were trained in an intensive three-week course on all the things a priest would know and do, and on the things he wouldn’t do—like swear unthinkingly. Alan learned that the fee depended on the individual, though the bare minimum was a million, and that recruitment was no longer limited to friends of the church but friends of friends of the church. And of course desperate-looking men sitting for hours at St. Anthony’s Shrine.

“Is there anyone who can give you a million dollars, Alan, no questions asked?” No. Alan kept saying no. “Are you sure, Alan?” “I know one very rich man professionally, and he’s dying.” “So maybe he’d be open to it. It couldn’t hurt to ask.” Alan had no idea why he allowed Jagger to coerce him. And he didn’t want to approach Carl Meacham himself, looking like death, so he turned to Todd. Through Todd, Alan got the million from Carl two months before Carl died. He paid up and went to the Berkshires for training at a monastery. Being that Alan was an exception, he got to do something that no one else in V2M had been allowed: pick his surname. He was given a passport and a Florida license and send packing. He said nothing of V2M for two years until meeting Frank, who, though a Franciscan, had achieved a high administrative role in the New York diocese before the defrocking, and thus and was privy to V2M.

Now Alan felt weary from all that couldn’t be seen through the hedgerow. “What do other men who go through V2M do with their lives, Frank? I wonder that all the time. Do they go back out and do the same kind of dirtbag things all over again?”

Frank rubbed his face with both hands. “I’m afraid I’m as much in the dark as you are on that.”

“Do they suffer?”

“We all suffer, Alan.”

“And why don’t any of them talk? How has this absurd operation remained a secret for this long?”

Now Frank resumed the edginess his drinking couldn’t stifle. “Lower your voice, Alan.”

He laughed. “Frank, come on. You think the church has spies?”

Frank conceded to laugh with him. “I don’t know who would be paying these spies.”

Alan thought for a moment. “How do they police it then?”

Frank slowly rubbed his hands together. “Too much intrigue for one night.”

“Too much intrigue for one life, Frank.”

Now the priest looked sad. “I wish I knew what to tell you, Alan.” Here he leaned forward, again lowering his voice. “But I would try—whatever you do—to forget V2M.”

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