How many lives are too many for one person to navigate—one and a half? two? two and a half with a twist? The conundrum was similar to what the Olympic diver faced down from up on the platform. A perfectly executed swan might appeal to the judges, but for the audience of iPhones, shock and awe were the least you could deliver. They expected a lot of thrill, uninterrupted, starting from that Speedo bulge.
It was July, and hot, but European-hot, which meant people nevertheless wore jackets and sweaters to make them sweat all the more. Alan knew if was foolish to have come to London a week before the Olympics, in the crush of the world’s thrill-seekers. His agent—a British national who worked in New York—owned a small, undesirable flat that she planned to occupy for the single-minded pursuit of party. But in the hours before her departure, it was determined that her appendix would have to come out. So she offered the flat to Alan, knowing his need to get away.
He’d been contemplating “How many lives?” because of Frank, who loved to talk about Henry James and Americans abroad—specifically, James’s obsession with the devastating realization of all the other (and conceivably better) lives a person might have lived had they gone abroad or not gone abroad. Happier, more fulfilling, less exhausting. But then James had snagged himself a good gig in that he could create these other lives—Isabel Archer, for instance—and have them do all the suffering for their bad choices. Alan managed to read a fair amount of James during his two years in Philly. One book he loved; most were a chore. He remembered throwing The Spoils of Poynton across the room because of one long sentence that just wouldn’t end, like “Pinball Wizard” without the payoff.
If Alan had not gone abroad in 2012, he would not have run into the two people he most wanted to see and talk to all the years of his exile. What were the odds of this happening now, an ocean and a lifetime away from infamous pain points? He’d been looking through the lens of the camera in what was known as “Albertopolis,” the area of South Kensington where the Great Exhibition of 1851 was staged, when all of a sudden he was looking at them, easily recognizable in a crowd, even though Gina was holding a baby and Neddy stood by with the collapsed stroller. He removed the camera from his face and thought that of course he would not bother them, would not penetrate their happy bubble of grandparent-hood.
They didn’t recognize him even though he stood staring. Maybe that’s what happened when you turned into a stalker—people pretended not to see you. With a camera around his neck he supposed he looked more old-timey tourist than stalker. He had both Jude’s Leica and Jude’s obsession—both handed to him. Here, you try.
Against his better judgment he gravitated toward his old friends. As he got closer he could see that all that tanning hadn’t done Neddy much good at this stop along the marathon route. He watched as the granddad took hold of the grumpy baby and blew in its tiny ear. Eventually Neddy’s eyes rested quizzically on something, some element of Alan that was familiar. “What the. . . ?”
The tears cascading like fireworks across Gina’s pretty face seemed a rigged detonation. She took him and the Leica into her arms. She smelled like good food.
“You know about Terry?” asked Ned, handing the baby back to his wife. Alan nodded and was suddenly embraced by his old friend. Neddy’s repeated slaps on the back he found strangely comforting, as if Alan and not the baby was the one needing to release a colossal belch. When he let go Ned had tears too. “You look good,” he said.
“But different,” Gina added.
Alan smiled and touched the back of the child’s head with his palm. “This must be Andrew’s.”
Gina made the baby bobble like a toy. “This is Nonna’s Penelope.”
“I’d never guess you to be here for the Olympics,” said Ned.
Alan smiled. “Me either. I’m here to take pictures.”
“You’re a photographer now?” asked Gina.
Alan shook his head. “Not intentionally. I’m here to follow around a woman dressed as a man.”
Neddy smiled with a wince. “Well at least it’s not the other way around.”
Gina looked at him sideways. “Are you telling us you’re a stalker?”
He smiled. “More of a Sunday stalker.”
Neddy continued with the face, but Gina snapped her fingers in recognition. “You mean the artist, don’t you?”
Neddy frowned. Gina looked at her husband in frustration as she bounced the baby in her arms. “Don’t give me that blank stare. You were just reading about her in the Herald-Tribune. You thought she looked hot in tweeds.” She looked at Alan. “Not temperature-hot. Let-me-listen-to-your-heartbeat hot.”
Alan smiled. “She complains that she’s old.”
Gina sighed and kissed the baby’s head. “I just became fifty. The world, it’s no longer my oyster.”
“Well she’s older,” said Alan. “And she’s done with oysters.”
“She your special lady?” asked Ned with a wry smile.
This caused Alan to laugh so hard he feared he’d never stop.
“Why is that so hilarious?” asked Ned, now laughing himself.
There was no way he could convey what had seared that into his memory—the Hyena’s I couldn’t help notice your special lady. Instead he said, “Look at you,” wiping an eye with his finger. “Not even asking where the fuck I was for seven years, just mining for gossip.”
“But French lady friends are always gossip.”
“This whole city’s gone Gallic,” said Gina. “They say that London’s the sixth largest French city in the world.”
Alan looked at the baby. “So is Penelope keen on the Olympics?”
“Andrew married a Brit,” said Neddy. “Her mother looks like Tracy Ullman.”
Alan smiled. “Does she impersonate Judy Dench?”
“I wish she’d impersonate a nice person.”
“Don’t ask us why we’re here,” said Gina, rolling her eyes. “Family politics.”
Ned shook his head at Alan. “So what you been doing aside from creating gossip?”
Alan’s eyes wandered away. “Not being a father, I guess.”
Gina’s expression turned grave. “Have you seen Meredith?”
He looked toward the ground. “If you mean do I know who she’s married to, yes.”
Neither could find encouraging words. “So what have you been doing, Al?” Ned finally asked.
Alan looked at the camera in his hand. “I assumed an identity—nothing bad. I just didn’t want to be Alan Gleason anymore.”
Neddy put his hands in the pockets of his pants, stuck out his lower lip, and nodded. “I don’t blame you.”
Gina, still with that grave sympathy, shook her head slightly as she stared at Alan, as if the gesture might help erase something. “Was it awful, Alan?”
He stood up straight and pointed the Leica at her and the pretty baby. “Everything’s awful, Gina.”
He could tell the people he met that he was Alan Gleason again—for better or worse. He’d gone back to his old social, which he now had a hard time remembering. The money he owed in taxes as Alan Gleason—or that Terry owed as Mrs. Alan Gleason—was seemingly insurmountable. But he had turned over a heap of cash, and his legal team was working with the IRS, which trusted him enough to permit him to leave the country. There was a plea bargain for the charge of identity fraud, mainly because the identity of Alan Hapgood belonged to no one, was conjured from thin air. And also because the identity of Alan Hapgood had paid a good deal in taxes. Signing over the royalties of three books also contributed to his Facebook status as broke.
But then Alan discovered that when your ideas were hailed as “made for social media,” money was somehow always forthcoming. His agent got him an advance to tell his story, without even asking if he wanted to do so. He didn’t want to. Immediately it begins, the Brand as cancerous cells colonizing your organs—opt-out rather than opt-in. He would never start this book.
Though he had reverted to his old nine digits, he would never again be that Alan Gleason. No one could be that Alan Gleason. It wasn’t that he was looking for something new at his age. The case at hand was retrieval—to go back and find out what he gave up in the first place. As an American abroad, he was always ready for someone to jump out from behind a piazza column and strike him repeatedly with the blunt part of an unlived life. Also ready for someone to shoot him in a crowd, with a telephoto lens or a high-powered rifle.
Who was it killed the notion of Francis X. Sullivan, S.J.? Was it someone from his earlier life—a hit from the West Coast? Was Frank involved in some kind of crime racket? Or was it related to V2M, the plain old deep church? If you set your sails by the compass of Tracy Brown, you might think V2M. After that last day in Hap’s office, she disappeared—from Alan’s orbit and apparently from Newark. When he went looking for her, he found armies of bill collectors doing the same. She had a record in Massachusetts, for criminal possession with intent to distribute, via an accomplice named Randy Hayes. And yet Alan believed she was his angel.
As for this Hap family, all four still had skin in the game after several months; they hadn’t killed themselves or each other, so that was a good thing. They now were going by Hap+Good, the thing he walked away from. No more of the Changing Your Life Today dog-and-pony to the drones at JPMorgan Chase. It was all Daria’s idea. She was a power, a funny mass of power.
On this summer day in the most expensive and shallow city in the world, that other expensive and shallow city seemed long ago and far away. Today’s object from the Stanford Eschey House was a printed handbill announcing William Morris speaking on the Central Lawn at Vicky Park, the People’s Park, where the Bathing Pond introduced poor East Enders to the concept of swimming. Because Eschey was interested in what Morris had to say, he ventured forth on July 25th, just as Alan and the Leica were doing now.
Suddenly he was distracted by a sound all too familiar—despite the throngs, the Babel of languages, the milling blobs of indistinguishable ethnicities. It was the whir of wheels and the repeated click-clicks from the masonry creases. He looked to see three skateboarders on the road around the lake—boys or young men done up in Dickensian garb. They sailed past in tailcoats and top hats.
Before he could ask himself why, he heard someone say, “They’re off to rehearse the opening ceremonies, aren’t they? Can’t wait to see that one.” Alan stared in the skaters’ wake, wondering why he’d maintained his ear for skateboarding arcana even when he no longer had a skateboarding son. You might as well try to scratch between the toes of an amputated leg. He knew, for instance, that the Holy Grail of skateboarding stunts was the 1080. To pull it off, you had to do three complete 360-degree revolutions in mid-air and then land cleanly. Alan heard that a twelve-year-old American had recently mastered the act. So much had changed since Ryan was twelve, and yet so much had stayed the same. No wonder his kids never wanted to grow up. No wonder they wanted to be Bart and Lisa forever.
Now he caught sight of a fourth skateboarder—the straggler to the earlier crew—this one a solitary dough boy with calves swaddled in ace bandages. The guy smoked standing straight as a pencil. Why did he know that term, dough boy? He knew there’d come a time when no civilian would know what you meant by dough boy.
Here, as if on cue, he caught sight of her—walking with intent, receding into history, going backwards as the only logical way forward. He had never even heard of Eschey before the spring, and here was this woman consecrating a portion of her life to his legacy. Eschey came from the Lake District, wrote four books, and was dead at thirty-one. He was a talented man who failed to live, failed to thrive. And why was that? Did he fail to love as well, or did someone fail to love him? Alan wondered how it could be worth this much effort to chase down the mystery after 112 years, how it could be worth such devout attention.
But as he followed Anik’s channeling of a youthful man’s stride, seemingly without a care in the world, he let the camera be his eye, repeatedly advising himself: Don’t overthink this. §