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.
Copyright © 2006 T.C. Boyle
Reprinted with permission.
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.
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T. Coraghessan Boyle was born and grew up in Peekshill, New York in the Hudson Valley. He received a Ph.D. degree in 19th Century British Literature from the University of Iowa in 1977, his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1974, and his B.A. in English and History from SUNY Potsdam in 1968. He has been a member of the English Department at the University of Southern California since 1978.
His books are available in a number of foreign languages, including German, French, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese, Danish, Swedish and Lithuanian. His stories have appeared in most of the major American magazines, including The New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, The Paris Review, GQ, Antaeus and Granta, and he has been the recipient of a number of literary awards.
He currently lives near Santa Barbara with his wife and three children.