“Excuse you,” she said.
McParland squinted at her. “Not at all,” he said.
She opened her mouth to speak but her lips hung still, like soft tomatoes.
“Move along,” McParland said.
“Jerk,” the woman said.
McParland held his hat in place and bent into the flow of pedestrians. A few blocks from the station he came to a shopping area thick with the smell of roasting sausage and nuts from sidewalk vendor carts. People carried bright bags and looked around here, though not at each other. He touched his moustache with forefinger and thumb. Boston again; perhaps it was only appropriate to seek redemption at the scene of one’s grandest humiliation. He had last come to Boston for money—its own form of redemption, perhaps; he had sat on the edge of a chair in the spring sunlight of a dark-wood and polished crystal parlor in a house on Beacon Street.
“It is my hope my daughter can be saved,” his client had said, pale, watery around the eyes, thin and tough with a strand of gray hair pasted across his round forehead.
A whiskered ancestor considered the room from a dark portrait hung above the sickly yellow fire sputtering in the fireplace.
“Of course,” McParland had said, thinking: For five thousand dollars I will try to save anyone.
The sound of a horse-drawn carriage making its way up the hill outside drifted in to them.
“You understand,” the client had said, sipping coffee from blue-white china, the edges of his collar digging into the loose skin on his neck, “that I want to know everything. Not merely where she goes and with whom, but the other whos as well—I want that entire perverted world delivered to me.”
“Yes, Mr. South,” McParland said, sipping coffee. “If it were a simple job, anyone would have done.”
Mr. South winced, lowered his coffee cup to the dark wood table, and took a folded check from the inside breast pocket of his jacket.
“As we agreed,” he said.
“Indeed, Mr. South,” McParland said, taking the check. That is a good year, right there, he thought. “You know, sir, when I was in Pennsylvania—”
“Yes,” Mr. South interrupted. “I have been told that you talk rather too much about your past glories. Let us hope you retain much of your former skill.” He raised his cup to his thin mouth.
McParland nodded deeply. “I will keep a strict account of my expenses,” he said, thinking: And I will live well.
“I expect detailed written reports every day and that you will be available to answer any questions I may have on twenty-four hours notice. Agreed? Fine. And, Mr. McParland, you will please use the kitchen entrance when you do come.”
Relax, McParland told himself. This is easy money. Easy money.
“Good day to you, then,” Mr. South said, lowering his chin to his stiff collar.
“Good day,” McParland said, standing up, putting on his hat, and walking slowly from the room, aware of the noise his cane made against the floor in the hall, of his slowness, of the missing piece of his heel as if it throbbed red through his shoe.
For what, McParland wondered in the crowd of shoppers, do I seek redemption? For having had to make a living? For being great? Who in their right mind could wish to be redeemed for such things? And yet, here he was. The argument in his mind was ever thus. Redemption was an infinitely corrosive word and he would not think of it anymore.
The sidewalk was narrow; McParland backed against a wall and let the crush of people pass him for a while. If you stood still, stone still, he wondered, for long enough—a million years, two million, two million measurements of earth and sun and sub-measurements of moon—would the spinning earth cause other people to revolve around you, would you become the smallest possible particle of firmament, the center of energy, the heart of the atom? Would your force, your particle in the very center bend others into a circle around you? But the bodies would be subject to their own cycles of decay and would disappear, leaving only energy. Dead dust rotating around the smallest particle.
He walked again and came to City Hall—“Old City Hall” a sign in front of it read. It was now a restaurant. He came to the rear of greenish King’s Chapel: At least they hadn’t turned that into a restaurant yet. Souls lingered at the doors, looking at commuters with gray eyes. Human beings are never so alone alive as they are in death, McParland thought.
Rumor had it that a messenger of God was coming to give rest, and that he would arrive at this church. McParland had followed enough of these rumors to enough places—Idaho, St. Louis, Chicago, even Los Angeles, for God’s sake—to know that no one really knew if there was a God, if there were messengers, if anyone ever really rested. This time he’d heard, too, that his former client’s daughter, an invert so at war with herself she hated her very sex was lingering, too, and had felt the pinch of the irrational hope that helping her now could somehow help him to his own rest, if rest there was. That was when the idea of redemption had lodged in him, and he had come to Boston again. Maybe the rumors were true. In Boston, it was said, even the living could see the dead if they looked. So, perhaps if any place could ever offer him a chance to rest it might be this lumpy old city that had always teemed with ghosts—and there were a lot of them now, clustered around King’s Chapel, some bright, some fading. But was that because of the rumor of God’s messenger’s imminent arrival or had the endless digging for the new highway simply excited the dead?
McParland stepped inside the church and removed his hat. From the balcony a small choir sang quiet folds of music. To his right a few tourists, chewing gum, breathing out the brackish gray of blasphemy, stared at the pew in which George Washington once sat.
“Oh, bother it all,” a voice exclaimed from a rear corner of the church. McParland turned to look. In the last pew in the far-right row, on its back, lay the marble bust of Mr. Frederick Gaines Roberts: deep eye sockets, strong, curving nose, bald head. Beside the bust sat the gray-eyed Mr. Roberts himself, his long fingers stroking his pate.
“Not Roberts complaining again,” a woman’s voice muttered.
“Mr. Roberts? Mr. Roberts? Are you quite all right?” a man’s voice inquired.
“No, I am not, Mr. Frye,” Mr. Roberts answered. “Though I do thank you for your consideration, which is in such marked contrast to certain—”
“Do spare us your complaint, Mr. Roberts,” the woman’s voice said.
“It’s not right to leave me like this,” Mr. Roberts said.
“I’m certain they’ll set you right very soon, Mr. Roberts,” Mr. Frye said. He approached the pew buttoned up in layers of shirt, vest, and coat, his slanted eyebrows contracted in a frown; he seemed to be sweating.
“Not soon enough,” Mr. Roberts exclaimed. He was, perhaps, slightly weaker of jaw than his bust.
“Do stop talking and talking about it,” the woman said from the stairs to the balcony, stamping her foot in irritation. Her face was small, her lips bright red.
“Stop talking about it? It has been close to six months, Miss Thompson. Six of their—”
“And before that you talked endlessly of the drip. All we ever heard about was the drip, drip, drip on your bust.”
“It is quite uncomfortable,” Mr. Frye interjected.
“Uncomfortable? How so? He’s been dead a hundred years—”
“Ninety-three,” Mr. Roberts corrected.
“Well, awkward,” Mr. Frye said.
“Would the three of you please stop having the same conversation over and over again?” an old man’s voice asked. “Spare us the outrage about your bust. I begin to wonder if they need hell as long as you are still here.”
“Dr. French,” Mr. Roberts said. “I knew your family, sir, and I have never understood how you came to be members of this church in the first place.”
“Oh! Indeed! Perhaps honest people should worship elsewhere,” French said. He was standing by the pulpit, glowing purple, tufts of gray hair protruding from his ears.
“You are so mean,” Miss Thompson called to Mr. Roberts.
“Who’s that?” Mr. Roberts asked, pointing at McParland.
“Are you from out of town, sir?” Mr. Frye asked.
“Speak!” Mr. Roberts demanded.
“Oh,” Miss Thompson giggled.
“Is this the place, then?” Dr. French whispered, moving to McParland’s side. “We are getting a lot of visitors these days.”
“It must be—we deserve a chance,” Mr. Roberts said.
McParland replaced his hat on his head and, nodding, wished them all a good evening. The voices of the choir filled the church.
“You see what you’ve done, Roberts?” Dr. French said. “Damn it, Roberts!”
McParland ached. He went into the hotel across the street and as he crossed the marble-floored lobby, his head still, he surveyed the people around him to make sure he hadn’t been followed. He saw only businessmen, tourists, one couple walking quickly, probably having affair, judging from how the man looked around. McParland took the stairs, leaning on his cane, his breath fluttery and his shirt damp. In an empty room, over a large television, hung a black and white photograph, taken from the top of a tall building, of old Boston: men in suits rushed along narrow streets under huge billboards, pressing hats to their heads; women in dresses of varying gray seemed to be walking less quickly.
McParland put his satchel down and parted the heavy curtains at the window. He stared at the church across the street. Beyond the black wrought-iron fence at the back entrance he could see the last row of sinking headstones in the graveyard disappearing in the deepening evening. He hung his overcoat and suit coat in the closet across from the bathroom, loosened his tie, and moved a chair so he could sit looking out the window. He stretched his legs.
So, Boston it is, he thought. Where and how did these rumors get started? Who could know. Who could help following them and hoping. Though he wasn’t at all sure he deserved hope, he knew he felt it. He took a packet of cigarettes and a small amber bottle from his satchel and sipped from the bottle. He lit a cigarette, and held the smoke in as he stroked his moustache. Commuters rushed past the church. A couple of tourists stopped to see if they could go inside. And the dead, coming and going, dressed as if they lived, flitted, drifted; frantic, angry, searching.
I deserve better, he thought. Traitor, he told himself. You deserved everything you got and now you deserve this. He sipped again from his bottle and smoked. Laudanum. The taste was bitter. Warm heart of the atom, warm sooty soft jelly center. Circles of measurement, strings of circles, centers of warm sticky lung-filled jelly. And all the people, here again, cycles of circles, circles of string, strings of atoms.
You’re a traitor, a mercenary, he thought. No redemption for you. His chest ached. His feet ached, even his missing heel.
He looked out the window. From the back door of the church, as if in tiny gasps of steam swept away by the strong wind, fluttered ripe green, sickly yellow, sapphire, crimson, gold. The headstones were obscured in darkness.
McParland closed his eyes and smoked and swept his tongue along his lips for bits of tobacco.