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Excerpt

Excerpt

Talk Talk

She
was running late, always running late, a failing of hers, she knew
it, but then she couldn't find her purse and once she did manage to
locate it (underneath her blue corduroy jacket on the coat tree in
the front hall), she couldn't find her keys. They should have been
in her purse, but they weren't, and so she'd made a circuit of the
apartment --- two circuits, three --- before she thought to look
through the pockets of the jeans she'd worn the day before, but
where were they? No time for toast. Forget the toast, forget food.
She was out of orange juice. Out of butter and cream cheese. The
newspaper on the front mat was just another obstacle. Piss-warm ---
was that an acceptable term? Yes --- piss-warm coffee in a stained
mug, a quick check of lipstick and hair in the rearview mirror, and
then she was putting the car in gear and backing out onto the
street.

She may have been peripherally aware of a van flitting by in the
opposite direction, the piebald dog sniffing at a stain on the edge
of the pavement, someone's lawn sprinkler holding the light in a
shimmer of translucent beads, but the persistent beat of adrenaline
--- or nerves, or whatever it was --- wouldn't allow her to focus.
Plus, the sun was in her eyes, and where were her sunglasses? She
thought she remembered seeing them on the bureau, in a snarl of
jewelry --- or was it the kitchen table, next to the bananas, and
she'd considered taking a banana with her, fast food, potassium,
roughage, but then she figured she wouldn't because with Dr. Stroud
it was better to have nothing at all in your stomach. Air. Air
alone would sustain her.

To rush, to hurry, to fret: Old English and Latinate roots, the
same sad connotative stab of meaning. She wasn't thinking clearly.
She was stressed, stressed out, running late. And when she got to
the four-way stop at the end of the block she felt momentarily
blessed because there was no one there to stop for, yet even as she
made a feint of slowing and shifted from neutral to second with a
quick deft plunge of clutch and accelerator, she spotted the patrol
car parked just up the street in the bruised shadow of an
SUV.

There was a moment of suspended time, the cop frozen at the wheel
of his car, she giving him a helpless exculpatory look, and then
she was past him and cursing herself as she watched him pull a lazy
U-turn behind her and activate the flashing lights. All at once she
saw the world complete, the palms with their pineapple trunks and
peeling skirts, the armored spines of the yucca plants climbing the
hill, yellow rock, red rock, a gunmetal pickup slowing to gape at
her where she'd pulled over on a tan strip of dirt, and below her,
a descending expanse of tiled rooftops and the distant blue wallop
of the Pacific, no hurry now, no hurry at all. She watched the cop
--- the patrolman --- in her side mirror as he sliced open the
door, hitched up his belt (they all did that, as if the belt with
its Mace and handcuffs and the hard black-handled revolver were all
the badge they needed) and walked stiffly to her car.

She had her license and registration ready and held them out to him
in offering, in supplication, but he didn't take them, not yet. He
was saying something, lips flapping as if he were chewing a wad of
gristle, but what was it? It wasn't License and registration , but
what else could it be? Is that the sun in the sky? What's the
square root of a hundred forty-four? Do you know why I pulled you
over? Yes. That was it. And she did know. She'd run a stop sign.
Because she was in a hurry --- a hurry to get to the dentist's, of
all places --- and she was running late.

"I know," she said, "I know, but... but I did shift down..."

He was young, this patrolman, no older than she, a coeval, a
contemporary, somebody she might have danced alongside of --- or
with --- at Velvet Jones or one of the other clubs on lower State.
His eyes were too big for his head and they bulged out like a
Boston terrier's --- and what was that called? Exophthalmia. The
word came to her and she felt a quick glow of satisfaction despite
the circumstances. But the cop, the patrolman. There was a softness
to his jaw, that when combined with the eyes --- liquid and weepy
--- gave him an unfinished look, as if he weren't her age at all
but an adolescent, a big-headed child all dressed up spick-and-span
in his uniform and playing at authority. She saw his face change
when she spoke, but she was used to that.

He said something then, and this time she read him correctly,
handing him the laminated license and the thin wafer of the
registration slip, and she couldn't help asking him what was the
matter, though she knew her face would give her away. A question
always flared her eyebrows as if she were being accusatory or
angry, and she'd tried to work on that but with mixed success. He
backed away from the car and said something further --- probably
that he was going to go back to his own vehicle and run a standard
check on her license before writing out the standard ticket for
running the standard stop sign --- and this time she kept her mouth
shut.

For the first few minutes she wasn't aware of the time passing. All
she could think was what this was going to cost her, points on her
license, the insurance --- was it last year or the year before that
she'd got her speeding ticket? --- and that now she was definitely
going to be late. For the dentist. All this for the dentist. And if
she was late for the dentist and the procedure that was to take two
hours minimum, as she'd been advised in writing to assure that
there would be no misunderstanding, then she would be late for her
class too and no one to cover for her. She thought of the problem
of the telephone --- she supposed she could use the dentist's
receptionist as an intermediary, but what a hassle. Hassle. And
what was the derivation of that? she wondered. She made a note to
herself to look it up in her Dictionary of American Slang when she
got home. But what was taking him so long? She had an urge to look
over her shoulder, fix the glowing sun-blistered windshield with a
withering stare, but she resisted the impulse and lowered her left
shoulder to peer instead through the side mirror.

Nothing. There was a form there, the patrolman's form, a bulked-up
shadow, head bent. She glanced at the clock on the dash. Ten
minutes had passed since he'd left her. She wondered if he was a
slow learner, dyslexic, the sort of person who would have trouble
recollecting the particular statute of the motor vehicle code she
stood in violation of, who would fumble with the nub of his pencil,
pressing extra hard for the duplicate. A dope, a dummy, a half-wit.
A Neanderthal . She tried out the word on her tongue, beating out
the syllables --- Ne-an-der-thal --- and watched in the mirror as
her lips pursed and drew back and pursed again.

She was thinking of her dentist, an inveterate talker, with
eyebrows that seemed to crawl across his inverted face as he hung
over her, oblivious to the fact that she couldn't respond except
with grunts and deep-throated cries as the cotton wads throttled
her tongue and the vacuum tube tugged at her lip, when the door of
the police car caught the light as it swung open again and the
patrolman emerged. Right away she could see that something was
wrong. His body language was different, radically different, the
stiffness gone out of his legs, his shoulders hunched forward and
his feet stalking the gravel with exaggerated care. She watched
till his face loomed up in the mirror --- his mouth drawn tight,
his eyes narrowed and deflated --- and then turned to face
him.

That was when she had her first shock.

He was standing three paces back from the driver's door and he had
his weapon drawn and pointed at her and he was saying something
about her hands --- barking, his face discomposed, furious --- and
he had to repeat himself, more furious each time, until she
understood: Put your hands where I can see them.

At first, she'd been too scared to speak, numbly complying, stung
by the elemental violence of the moment. He'd jerked her out of the
car, the gun still on her, shoved her face into the hot metal and
glass of her own vehicle and twisted her arms round behind her to
clamp the cuffs over her wrists, the weight of him pressing into
her until she felt him forcing her legs apart with the anvil of his
knee. His hands were on her then, gripping her ankles first,
sliding up her legs to her hips, her abdomen, her armpits, patting,
probing. There was the sharp hormonal smell of him, of his contempt
and outrage, his hot breath exploding in her ear with the
fricatives and plosives of speech. He was brisk, brutal, sparing
nothing. There might have been questions, orders, a meliorating
softness in his tone, but she couldn't hear and she couldn't see
his face --- and her hands, her hands were caught like fish on a
stringer.

Now, in the patrol car, in the cage of the backseat that was
exactly like the cage they put stray dogs in, she felt the way they
wanted you to feel: small, helpless, without hope or recourse. Her
heart was hammering. She was on the verge of tears. People were
staring at her, slowing their cars to get a good look, and there
was nothing she could do but turn away in shame and horror and pray
that one of her students didn't happen to be passing by --- or
anybody she knew, her neighbors, the landlord. She slouched down in
the seat, dropped her head till her hair shook loose. She'd always
wondered why the accused shielded their faces on the courthouse
steps, why they tried so hard to hide their identities even when
everyone in the world knew who they were, but now she understood,
now she felt it for herself.

The color rose to her face --- she was being arrested, and in
public no less --- and for a moment she was paralyzed. All she
could think of was the shame of it, a shame that stung like some
physical hurt, like the bite of an insect, a thousand insects
seething all over her body --- she could still feel the hot clamp
of his hands on her ankles, her thighs. It was as if he'd burned
her, scored her flesh with acid. She studied the back of the seat,
the floormat, her right foot tapping and jittering with the
uncontainable pulse of her nerves, and then all at once, as if a
switch had been thrown in her brain, she felt the anger rising in
her. Why should she feel shame? What had she done?

It was the cop. He was the one. He was responsible for all this.
She lifted her eyes and there he was, the idiot, the pig, a pair of
squared-off shoulders in the tight blue-black uniform, the back of
his head as flat and rigid as a paddle strapped to his neck, and he
was saying something into his radio, the microphone at his mouth
even as the cruiser lurched out into the street and she felt
herself flung helplessly forward against the seat restraint.
Suddenly she was furious, ready to explode. What was wrong with
him? What did he think, she was a drug dealer or something? A
thief? A terrorist? She'd run a stop sign, for Christ's sake, that
was all --- a stop sign. Jesus.

Before she knew it, the words were out of her mouth. "Are you
crazy?" she demanded, and she didn't care if her voice was too
loud, if it was toneless and ugly and made people wince. She didn't
care what she sounded like, not now, not here. "I said, are you
crazy?"

But he wasn't hearing her, he didn't understand. "Listen," she
said, "listen," leaning forward as far as the seat restraint would
allow her, struggling to enunciate as carefully as she could,
though she was choked and wrought up and the manacles were too
tight and her heart was throbbing like a trapped bird trying to
beat its way out of the nest, "there must be some mistake. Don't
you know who I am?"

The world chopped by in a harsh savage glide, the car jolting
beneath her. She strained to see his face reflected in the rearview
mirror, to see if his lips were moving, to get a clue --- the
smallest hint, anything --- as to what was happening to her. He
must have read her her rights as he handcuffed her --- You have the
right to remain silent and all the rest of it, the obligatory
phrases she'd seen on the TV screen a hundred times and more. But
why ? What had she done? And why did his eyes keep leaping from the
road to the mirror and back again as if she couldn't be trusted
even in the cage and the cuffs, as if he expected her to change
shape, vomit bile, ooze and leak and smell? Why the hate? The
bitterness? The intransigence?

It took her a moment, the blood burning in her veins, her face
flushed with shame and anger and frustration, until she understood:
it was a case of mistaken identity. Of course it was. Obviously.
What else could it be? Someone who looked like her --- some other
slim graceful dark-eyed deaf woman of thirty-three who wasn't on
her way to the dentist with a sheaf of papers she had to finish
grading by the time her class met --- had robbed a bank at
gunpoint, shot up the neighborhood, hit a child and run. It was the
only explanation, because she'd never violated the law in her life
except in the most ordinary and innocuous ways, speeding on the
freeway alongside a hundred other speeders, smoking the occasional
joint when she was a teenager (she and Carrie Cheung and later
Richie Cohen, cruising the neighborhood, high as --- well, kites
--- but no one ever knew or cared, least of all the police),
collecting the odd parking ticket or moving violation --- all of
which had been duly registered, paid for and expunged from her
record. At least she thought they'd been. That parking ticket in
Venice, sixty bucks and she was maybe two minutes late, the meter
maid already writing out the summons even as she stood there
pleading with her --- but she'd taken care of that, hadn't
she?

No, it was too much. The whole thing, the shock of it, the scare
--- and these people were going to pay, they were, she'd get an
attorney, police brutality, incompetence, false arrest, the whole
works. All right. All right, fine. If that was what they wanted,
she'd give it to them. The car rocked beneath her. The cop held
rigid, like a mannequin. She closed her eyes a moment, an old
habit, and took herself out of the world.

They booked her, fingerprinted her, took away her pager and cell
phone and her rings and her jade pendant and her purse, made her
stand against a wall --- cowed and miserable and with her shoulders
slumped and her eyes vacant --- for the lingering humiliation of
the mug shot, and still nothing. No charges. No sense. The lips of
the policemen flailed at her and she let her voice go till it must
have grown wings and careened round the room with the dull gray
walls and framed certificates and the flag that hung from a shining
brass pole in limp validation of the whole corrupt and tottering
system. She was beside herself. Hurt. Furious. Stung. "There must
be some mistake," she insisted over and over again. "I'm Dana, Dana
Halter. I teach at the San Roque School for the Deaf and I've
never... I'm deaf, can't you see that? You've got the wrong
person." She watched them shift and shrug as if she were some sort
of freak of nature, a talking dolphin or a ventriloquist's dummy
come to life, but they gave her nothing. To them she was just
another criminal --- another perp --- one more worthless case to be
locked away and ignored.

But they didn't lock her away, not yet. She was handcuffed to a
bench that gave onto a hallway behind the front desk, and she
didn't catch the explanation offered her --- the cop, the booking
officer, a man in his thirties who looked almost apologetic as he
took her by the arm, had averted his face as he gently but firmly
pushed her down and readjusted the cuffs --- but it became clear
when a bleached-out wisp of a man with a labile face and the
faintest pale trace of a mustache came through the door and made
his way to her, his hands already in motion. His name --- he
finger-spelled it for her --- was Charles Iverson and he was an
interpreter for the deaf. I work at the San Roque School sometimes
, he signed. I've seen you around.

She didn't recognize him --- or maybe she did. There was something
familiar in the smallness and neatness of him, and she seemed to
recollect the image of him in the hallway, his head down, moving
with swift, sure strides. She forced a smile. "I'm glad you're
here," she said aloud, lifting her cuffed hands in an attempt to
sign simultaneously as she tended to do when she was agitated.
"There's some huge mistake. All I did was run a four-way stop...
and they, they" --- she felt the injustice and the hurt of it
building in her and struggled to control her face. And her voice.
It must have jumped and planed off because people were staring ---
the booking officer, a secretary with an embellished figure and a
hard plain face, two young Latinos stalled at the front desk in
their canted baseball caps and voluminous shorts. Put a lid on it ,
that's what their body language told her.

Iverson took his time. His signing was rigid and inelegant but
comprehensible for all that, and she focused her whole being on him
as he explained the charges against her. There are multiple
outstanding warrants , he began, in Marin County, Tulare and L.A.
Counties --- and out of state too, in Nevada. Reno and
Stateline.

Warrants? What warrants?

He was wearing a sport coat over a T-shirt with the name of a
basketball team emblazoned across the breast. His hair had been
sprayed or gelled, but not very successfully --- it curled up like
the fluff of the chicks they'd kept under a heat lamp in elementary
school, so blond it was nearly translucent. She watched him lift
the lapel of his jacket and extract a folded sheet of paper from
the inside pocket. He seemed to consider it a moment, weighing it
like a knife, before dropping it to his lap and signing, Failure to
appear on a number of charges, different courts, different dates,
over the past two years. Passing bad checks, auto theft, possession
of a controlled substance, assault with a deadly weapon --- the
list goes on. He held her eyes. His mouth was drawn tight, no
sympathy there. It came to her that he believed the charges,
believed that she'd led a double life, that she'd violated every
decent standard and let the deaf community down, one more hearing
prejudice confirmed. Yes, his eyes said, the deaf live by their own
rules, inferior rules, compromised rules, they live off of us and
on us. It was a look she'd seen all her life.

He handed her the sheet and there it all was, dates, places, the
police department codes and the charges brought. Incredibly, her
name was there too, undeniably and indelibly, in caps, under Felony
Complaint, Superior Court of this county or the other, and the
warrant numbers marching down the margin of the page.

She looked up and it was as if he'd slapped her across the face.
I've never even been to Tulare County --- I don't even know where
it is. Or to Nevada either. It's crazy. It's wrong, a mistake,
that's all. Tell them it's a mistake.

The coldest look, the smallest Sign. You get one phone call.

Excerpted from TALK TALK © Copyright 2011 by T.C. Boyle.
Reprinted with permission by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group
(USA). All rights reserved.

Talk Talk
by by T. C. Boyle

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0143112155
  • ISBN-13: 9780143112150