That Terry would pay someone to finalize his death—that proposition never once occurred to Alan, though in the end it made perfect sense. It likewise never occurred to him that the reason Frank knew about V2M was because he himself had used it to disappear. That, too, had its logic. But then if Frank really did kill his partner, the fact that he would be accepted into V2M—or whatever it was called in 1997—was cause for serious concern. Maybe even outright panic, a condition Alan seemed unable to feel these days.
It pained him that he didn’t know Frank’s real story and probably never would. The circumstances of his death had already been sanctioned a Daily News Comedy of Errors—inept killer brutally attacked by crazy neighbor; the man behind it all named Panda, who is himself known to be a contract killer. And now the overlay of underground felon eking out a Howard Hughes existence in one of the last rooming houses of Hell’s Kitchen. (“As a friar!”)
To Alan, five years ago seemed only yesterday. He remembered telling Frank about St. Anthony’s Shrine in Boston and Frank interrupting him with a grave warning: “Don’t ever go to the one here, next to Francis of Assisi on 32nd. It’s a leper colony.” He had no idea what Frank meant back then, but now the cryptic comments kept coming back. Notebooks gone missing from a drawer. Frank telling him to lower his voice in Washington Square. Tracy Brown and her convoluted extortion plot. The question his mind wrestled with—“Should I turn myself in?”—was equally convoluted. Turn himself into who, and for what crime?
He had met with the family and put the ball in their court. He didn’t think he would come back to this office after today. He couldn’t believe he found himself alone in the same cul de sac twice in one lifetime. How could he disappear again? How could he disappear from a life so public, at the height of success, with so many stakeholders? Last time there was the buffer of illness and financial destitution; acquaintances had assumed the broke and broken man had at some point died. Now he was a very public generator of capital.
It was past six, and he realized he was alone—on the floor as well as with his predicament. The solitude reminded him to Google his wife. This time . . . well, there it was: “Teresa Hanniford Gleason of Waltham, 53.” He sat back in his chair.
Eventually the elevator dinged, and then the lock on the glass door could be heard clicking. After a pause he heard someone—someone breathing and moving heavily. The particular combination of sounds was familiar to him even though he’d been exposed to it only once before. He waited in the chair until the arrival at his doorway.
“What do you want?” he asked.
She stood, out of breath. It took a while for an answer. “New Anita Baker songs before I die.”
He shook his head. “I don’t have money anymore. It’s all out of my hands.”
She laughed. “You ain’t surprised to see me?”
“How did you get in?”
She was already positioning the chair in front of his desk. She wore orange today, a sweater with appliques, and her hair didn’t look the same. It was probably not her hair, but it was in age-appropriate style. She looked like how the producers of a daytime talk show would want a woman from Newark to look. For all intents and purposes, good. You probably wouldn’t kick her off a jury.
“You know that Panda man?” she said after she sat. “He a killer. Not just a gangster, but a killer people pay.”
Alan nodded. “I figured he was subcontracting.”
She laughed. “All them do that nowadays.”
“So who paid Panda to kill Frank?”
She shook her head and drew in her lower lip. “Panda, he already dead. Been shot.”
“How do you know?”
She smiled. “I come to tell you.”
He swallowed hard. “Tell me what?” Then he chastised himself with a brittle laugh, a quick glance away from her. “I suppose they’re going to shoot me too.”
She leaned forward, and in an intimate voice said, “Why you wanna do that, Mr. Gleason? Why you wanna fool with things like that?”
He acknowledged her gesture of intimacy only briefly, looking away again like a schoolboy called to task.
She shook her head at him as she sat back up straight. “Why’s all I’s askin’.”
He couldn’t conceal his discomfort. “Was I supposed to kill myself?” He couldn’t believe he’d become angry so fast. “Is the crime that I cheated death?”
She didn’t say anything for a minute, but she wore an expression of wanting to be philosophical. “You in Grand Central and you spill yo change purse.” She shook her head. “You gotta get down and pick it up. Some folks they help you. But you gotta get down, Mr. Gleason. You gotta go down and you gotta crawl when folks is walkin’ right over yo money and not givin’ you no respect.”
He smirked, casting his eyes about the room. “Yeah, absolutely right. Someone decided I play Job.”
“My pastor, he say: Penance. Penance when you do bad and penance when you do good.”
He shook his head. “I don’t buy into the suffering and reward salve of religion.”
“You think it all bad luck,” she said, “then what you do is keep makin’ the same mistakes.”
“I was trying not to hurt people,” he said firmly.
She looked contrite. “I’s sorry about you wife passin’.”
He had to laugh. “Yes, of course you’d already know that.”
She sighed. “And I’s sorry about the grandchil’.”
He looked down. “I’m not.”
“You be sorry for the chil’. Ain’t no love there for him.”
He looked at her. “What’s your story anyway? Were you born again? Did you come home to Jesus?”
This made her laugh—laugh and flutter her wing-like fingertips. “I done some bad shit in my day. But I’s always Tracy Brown.”
Now he couldn’t look at her. There was no place to rest his eyes. He laughed under his breath. “I’m nobody. Who are you?”
“I told you, Mr. Gleason.” She leaned forward. “I—is—you—angel.”
“Why do you call me Mr. Gleason?”
She sighed. “Just ways—black people, white people.”
“You had the balls to kill me. You should have the balls to call me Al.”
She laughed. “That don’t sound right like a name.”
“You’re the angel. You should know.” In a moment he found another way to make himself laugh. “Hark the herald Tracy sings. Your number’s up, Mr. Gleason.”
She pulled in her lower lip and closed her eyes. “That V2M some real bad shit.”
He was startled but tried to remain composed.
She shook her head again. “Why you wanna fool with things like that?”
He realized at this moment he would always be on the losing side of his desk with her. “You didn’t tell me what you want from me.”
She smiled. “I come to tell you.” She leaned forward. “I’s here for you, Mr. Gleason.”
He laughed. “Well I can breathe a big sigh of relief then.”
“You never wanna take nothin’ from people.”
He smiled to himself. “I took a million dollars from a guy.”
“What you want outa life anyways?”
His smile took a sarcastic turn. “I’ve always known what I don’t want.”
“But that ain’t wantin’.”
He sighed. “Well it worked for me.”
She laughed. “You jus’ passin’ through, right? No one to worry ’bout lovin’.”
“That’s not true.” He looked defiant.
“I loved my wife and children.” He paused. “I loved friends. I loved Neddy and Gina Sims. I loved people who were like children to me. Todd Wilkins—the best son a man could ever ask for.” He sighed. “I loved Frank. I love my family here.”
She nodded. “You loved that Ethylynn.”
He stared at her in a way that could pin her against a wall. “Yes, I loved Ethylynn.”
She sat resolute. “You gotta ask me for suh’hmm.”
“I want to know who killed Frank and why.”
“Frank a killer.”
He shook his head. “Frank put on the hair-shirt and never took it off. He wore his shame and transgressions out loud. He atoned for fifteen years—more than atoned. He took V2M seriously, not as a cover in self-serving pursuits but as an alternative punishment, a cross to bear.”
She laughed. “That sound like Jesus talk right there.”
“Frank talked Jesus talk.”
She shook her head. “You gotta ask. You gotta stop playin’ the role.”
“What role?” he snapped.
She sighed. “You ain’t ever wanna be a real person.”
How did she manage to penetrate this hallowed ground? How did she get to be the one asking questions? “What do you care about my spiritual well-being? What does Tracy Brown care about me?”
Again she shook her head.
And yet he realized she was absolutely right. He was always playing a role—or rather, what she said: playing the role. Alan Gleason the upper-middle-class husband and father, cocksure prick at IFCO, conducting his extramarital affairs in the wide open. Then it was the poor dying man tragically struck down in his semi-prime. Even when he was completely alone in Terry’s Civic he asked himself, Can I do this? Can I do the prodigal cast from the garden and make it work? Make it work, make it work, make it work?
“Wha-chu readin’ all that time you alone?” asked Tracy. “Wha-chu read so important?”
He looked at her, struggling to comprehend.
“Pick one,” she said.
“One a’ them books.”
“What do you know about the books I read?”
She nodded. “From the library.”
“The First Man,” he told her. He looked as if daring her to say something. “By Camus.”
She looked at him directly. “Why?”
“Because,” he answered slowly and carefully, “when the schoolboy, Jacques, is hit so hard by a priest that he almost falls over, he stares at the priest stoically, without a tear. Throughout his life, it would be kindness and love that made him cry, never pain or persecution.”
“You don’t cry?”
“I never cried until I got sick.”
“Never cried at anything. Until I was sick, lying there powerless and sick.”
“I ain’t ever seen you cry at Paxton.”
He swallowed hard. “I cried in the dark for myself because I was helpless, because I was pitiful. I cried because my son wouldn’t come to see me.” He paused. “And then I couldn’t cry anymore—my eyes went dry. The day I got up, sat up in bed, the tears fell by themselves. But they weren’t mine.”
“Not even when you was all alone?”
He shook his head.
“Not when Frank die? Not for Terry?”
He shook his head.
“Not for Ethylynn?”
“No,” he said, looking down, “not for Ethylynn.”
She laughed. “You ain’t cried for them animals?”
“Them ones you lost.”
“How?” He leaned halfway across his desk. “How, Tracy?”
“I had a sick cat.” She shook her head. “It hard to say goodbye.”
“How did you hack my life like this?”
She didn’t answer.
“I’m not going to pretend. I’m showing you my hand. Just tell me what you want.”
“When they poison a dog,” she said, shaking her head. “That’s jus’ the saddest damned thing in all of life. In all of life, Mr. Gleason.”
He stared at her in resignation.
“Poor, innocent old dog,” she added.
“Innocent,” he repeated.
“He really suffered with that end.”
Who were those people, the Gleasons? He almost wished he could ask her, for she might know the answer. They weren’t especially liked in their community. They weren’t especially nice to their community—or even civil to their community. When that happened to Critter, all Alan could feel was outrage at themselves, at himself as progenitor of this vacant gestalt with its recognizable genetic traits and lazy household idiosyncrasies. He remembered thinking in the parking lot of the Fresh Pond Animal Clinic how you could comfort yourself by saying you’d get a new dog, but you couldn’t say that about a new family. You could quit your job but couldn’t quit your family—at least he couldn’t do so. Your family wasn’t an action to be taken but an inhospitable climate to be endured—monsoon season without end. With Critter gone, erased from the landscape within twenty-hour hours, Alan found this climate infinitely bleaker and more oppressive. The cancer diagnosis arrived directly on the heels of this trauma. And in some sense he welcomed it like a visitor he’d been waiting for all his life.
“I wanted to leave when Critter did,” he told her.
Yes, he thought as these strange tears from 2005 appeared again in the presence of Nice Nurse Tracy. Leaving with Critter had seemed to him the only legitimate ending to the story, the only noble way for everything that had been going wrong forever to come to a final stop.