Over the past twenty-five years, T.C. Boyle has earned wide acclaim and an enthusiastic following with such adventurous, inimitable novels as The Tortilla Curtain, Drop City, and The Road to Wellville. For his riveting eleventh novel, Boyle offers readers the closest thing to a thriller he has ever written, a tightly scripted page turner about the trials of Dana Halter, a thirty-three-year-old deaf woman whose identity has been stolen. Featuring a woman in the lead role (a Boyle first), Talk Talk is both a suspenseful chase across America and a moving story about language, love, and identity from one of America's most versatile and entertaining novelists.
Release date: July 6, 2006
Publisher: Penguin Books
Print pages: 352
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ALSO BY T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE
The Inner Circle
A Friend of the Earth
The Tortilla Curtain
The Road to Wellville
East Is East
Tooth and Claw
The Human Fly
After the Plague
T.C. Boyle Stories
Without a Hero
If the River Was Whiskey
Descent of Man
T. Coraghessan Boyle
I would like to thank Marie Alex, Jamieson Fry, Susan Abramson and Linda Funesti-Benton for their generous help and advice.
Except where indicated, it is not my intention to represent a literal translation of signed English, as a number of writers have done in the past, quite admirably, but rather to approximate what is being communicated by means of standard English dialogue.
We are our language, but our real language, our real identity, lies in inner speech, that ceaseless stream and generation of meaning that constitutes the inner mind.
—L. S. Vygotsky, Thought and Language
I learnt man’s tongue, to twist the shapes of thoughts
Into the stony idiom of the brain,
I learnt the verbs of will, and had my secret;
The code of night tapped on my tongue;
What had been one was many sounding minded.
—Dylan Thomas, “From love’s first fever to her plague”
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.
BRIDGER WAS AT WORK, the morning obliterated by Starbucks and the twilit irreality of the long cool room at Digital Dynasty, seeing and hearing and breathing in the world within a world that was the screen before him. The scene—a single frame—was frozen there in a deep gloom of mahogany and copper tones, and he was working on a head replacement. His boss—Radko Goric, a thirty-eight-year-old entrepreneur wrapped in two-hundred-dollar designer shades, off-color Pierro Quarto jackets and clunky vinyl shoes out of the bargain bin—had underbid three other special effects companies for the contract on this picture, the last installment of a trilogy set on a distant and inimical planet where saurian warlords battled for dominance and human mercenaries shifted allegiance in observance of the tenets of an ancient warrior code. All well and good. He was a fan of the series—had seen the first two episodes six or seven times each, in fact, marveling at the detail, the sweep, the seamlessness of the effects—and he’d gone into the project with the best of intentions, a kind of euphoria even. But Rad (as he insisted on being called, and not Radko or Mr. Goric or Your Royal Highness) had given them zero leeway as far as the time frame was concerned. The film was due to premiere in less than a month and Bridger and his five co-workers were putting in twelve-hour days, seven days a week.
For a long while, he just stared at the screen, his chin propped on two pale fists that seemed to have gone boneless on him. The world was there, right there in front of him, much more immediate and real than this cubicle, these walls, the ceiling, the painted cement floor, and he was inside it, drifting, dreaming, sleeping with his eyes open. He was beat. Dead. His fingers were limp, his backside blistered. He’d been wearing the same socks three days running. And now he could feel an exhaustion headache building inside his skull like the turd-brown clouds that roiled Drex III, the planet he shaded and scored and polished to the gleam of a dagger’s edge with the assistance of his Discreet software and a finger-worn mouse. The coffee did nothing for him. It had been Banjo’s turn to go for Starbucks during coffee break, and he’d ordered a venti with a shot of espresso, and there it was, half-consumed, and all he felt was queasy. And sleepy, drowsy, narcoleptic. If only he could lay his head down, just for a minute…
But he had a message. From Deet-Deet. The icon popped up in the corner of his screen, and he opened it to find a cartoon image of a peg-legged pirate waving a cutlass, onto which Deet-Deet had grafted an outsized cutout of Radko’s head. The text read: Har-har-har, me hearties! You’ll all walk the plank if this project isn’t in the bag by the thirtieth—and no snoozing on the job!
This was the way they kept their sanity. The work was drudgery, piecework, paint and roto at twenty-five dollars and seventy-two cents an hour, before taxes, and while it had its moments of artistic satisfaction—like painting out the wires on the tiny flying bodies hurled into the scabrous skies by one nasty extraterrestrial explosion or another—essentially it was a grind. The head replacement shot Bridger had been working on all the previous day and into this soporific morning involved superimposing the three-dimensionally photographed face of the film’s action hero, Kade (or The Kade, as he was now being billed), over the white helmet of a stuntman on a futuristic blade-sprouting chopper that shot up a ramp and off a cliff to skim one of Drex III’s lakes of fire and propel its driver into the heart of the enemy camp, where he would proceed to hack and gouge and face-kick one hapless lizard warrior after another. It wasn’t exactly what Bridger had imagined himself doing six years out of film school—he’d pictured a trajectory more like Fincher’s or Spielberg’s—but it was a living. A good living. And it was in the industry.
What he did now was superimpose The Kade’s head over Radko’s—he had The Kade winking and grinning, then grimacing (the look when the bike lands amongst the saurian legions with a sacroiliac-jarring thump) and finally winking again—and messaged his reply: Scuttle the ship and bring me coffee, my kingdom for a cup, another cup. He added a P.S., his favorite quotation from Miss Lonelyhearts, which he made a point of inserting wherever it applied: Like a dead man, only friction could warm him or violence make him mobile.
And then, from the physical distance of two cubicles over and the hurtling unbridgeable interstices of cyberspace, Plum chimed in, and then Lumpen, Pixel and Banjo, and everybody was awake again and the new day that was exactly like the preceding day and the day before that began to unfold.
He was painting out the vestigial white edges around The Kade’s head and beginning to think about breakfast (bagel and cream cheese) or maybe lunch (bagel and cream cheese with lox, sprouts and mustard), when his cell began to vibrate. Radko didn’t like to hear any buzzing or carillons during working hours because he didn’t want his employees distracted by personal calls, just as he didn’t want them surfing the Web, going to chat rooms or instant messaging, so Bridger always kept his cell phone on vibrate, and he always kept it in his right front pocket so that he could be instantly alerted to the odd crepitating motion of it and take his calls on the sly. “Hello?” he said, keeping his voice in the range of a propulsive whisper.
“Yes, hello. This is Charles Iverson with the San Roque Police Department. I’m an interpreter for the deaf and I have Dana Halter here.”
“Police? What’s the problem? Has there been an accident or something?”
“This is Dana,” the voice said, as if it were the instrument of a medium channeling a spirit. “I need you to come down here and bail me out.”
“For what? What did you do?”
“I don’t know,” the voice said, the man’s voice, low-pitched and with a handful of gravel in it, “but I ran a stop sign and now they think I—”
There was a pause. The Kade stared back at him from the screen, grimacing, the left side of his head still encumbered with three-quarters of his white halo. Overhead, the barely functional fluorescent lights briefly brightened and then dimmed again, one tube or another eternally going bad. Plum—the only female among them—got up from her cubicle and padded down the hall in the direction of the bathroom.
Iverson’s voice came back: “—they think I committed all these crimes, but”—a pause—“I didn’t.”
“Of course you didn’t,” he said, and he pictured Dana there in some anonymous police precinct, her face angled away from the phone and the man with the voice signing to her amidst the mug shots and wanted posters, and the picture wasn’t right. “I thought you were supposed to be at the dentist’s,” he said.
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