This world is full of broken things. Broken hearts, broken promises, broken men, broken people. This world, too, is a fragile construct, a honeycomb place where the past leaches into the present, where the weight of blood guilt and old sins causes lives to collapse and forces children to lie with the remains of their fathers in the tangled ruins of the aftermath.
I am broken, and I have broken in return. Now I wonder how much hurt can be visited upon others before the universe takes action, before some outside force decides that enough has been endured. I once thought that it was a question of balance, but I no longer believe that. I think that what I have done was out of all proportion to what was done to me, but that is the nature of revenge. It escalates. It cannot be controlled. One hurt invites another, on and on until the original injury is all but forgotten in the chaos of what follows.
I was a revenger once. I will be one no more.
But this world is full of broken things.
Old Orchard Beach, Maine
The Guesser removed the fold of bills from his pocket, licked his thumb, and discreetly counted the day's takings. The sun was setting, shedding itself in shards of burning red upon the sea like blood and fire on the water. There were still people moving along the boardwalk, sipping sodas and eating hot buttered popcorn, while others strolled along the beach, some hand in hand with another and some alone. The weather had changed in recent days, the evening temperature dropping noticeably and a sharp wind, a herald of a greater wind to come, toying with the grains of sand as dusk descended, and now the visitors no longer lingered as they once did. The Guesser felt his time there drawing to a close, for if they would not linger then he could not work, and if he could not work then he was no longer the Guesser. He would just be a small man standing before a rickety assemblage of signs and scales, trinkets and baubles. Without an audience to witness their display, his skills might as well not exist. The tourists had begun to thin, and soon this place would hold no appeal for the Guesser and his fellows: the hucksters, the nickel-a-ride merchants, the carnies, and the flimflam men. They would be forced to depart for more rewarding climes, or hole up for the winter to live on the summer's earnings.
The Guesser could taste the sea and the sand upon his skin, salty and life-affirming. He never failed to notice it, even after all these years. The sea gave him his living, in its way, for it drew the crowds to it and the Guesser was waiting for them when they came, but his affinity for it ran deeper than the money that it brought him. No, he recognized something of his own essence in it, in the taste of his sweat that was an echo of his own distant origins and the origin of all things, for he believed that a man who did not understand the lure of the sea was a man who was lost to himself.
His thumb flipped expertly through the bills, his lips moving slightly as he ran the count in his head. When he was done, he added the sum to this running total, then compared it with his earnings from the same time last year. He was down, just as last year had been down on the year before, and that year less than its predecessor in turn. People were more cynical now, and they and their children were less inclined to linger before a strange little man and his primitive-looking sidewhow. He had to work ever harder to earn even less, although not little that he was about to consider giving up his chosen profession. After all, what else would he do? Wait tables at a buffet, maybe? Work behind the counter at Mickey D's like some of the more desperate retirees that he knew, reduced to cleaning up after mewling infants and careless teenagers? No, that wasn't for the Guesser. He had been following this path for the best part of forty years, and the way he felt he figured he was good for a few more yet, assuming he was spared by the great dealer in the sky. His mind was still sharp, and his eyes, behind the black-framed lenses, were still capable of taking in all that he needed to know about his marks in order to continue to make his modest living. Some might term what he had a gift, but he did not call it that. It was a skill, a craft, honed and developed year upon year, a vestige of a sense that was strong in our ancestors but had now been dulled by the comforts of the modern world. What he had was elemental, like the tides and currents of the ocean.
Dave 'the Guesser' Glovsky had first arrived in Old Orchard Beach in 1948, when he was thirty-seven years old, and since then both his pitch and the tools of his trade had remained largely unchanged. His little concession on the boardwalk was dominated by an old wooden chair suspended by chains from a set of R.H. Forschner scales. A yellow sign, hand-painted roughly with a squiggly line drawing of Dave's face, advertised his occupation and his location, just for those folks who maybe weren't entirely sure where they were, or what they were seeing once they got there. The sign read: "The Guesser, Palace Playland, Old Orchard Beach, Me."
The Guesser was a fixture at Old Orchard. He was as much a part of the resort as the sand in the soda and the saltwater taffy that sucked the fillings from teeth. This was his place, and he knew it intimately. He had been coming here for so long, plying his trade, that he was acutely aware of seemingly inconsequential changes to his environment: a fresh coat of paint here, a mustache shaved there. Such things were important to him, for that was how he kept his mind keen and that, in turn, was how he put food on the table. The Guesser noticed all that went on around him, filing the details away in his capacious memory, ready to extract that knowledge at the very moment when it would most profit him to do so. In a sense, his nickname was a misnomer. Dave Glovsky did not guess. Dave Glovsky noticed. He estimated. He gauged. Unfortunately, Dave "the Noticer" Glovsky did not have quite the same ring about it. Neither did Dave "the Estimator", so Dave "the Guesser" it was, and Dave "the Guesser" it would stay.
The Guesser would guess your weight to within three pounds, or you won a prize. If that didn't salt your bacon and there were folks who didn't particularly want their weight broadcast to a good-humored crowd on a bright summer's day, thank you for asking and be about your business, just as the Guesser wasn't overly anxious to test the strength of his scales by dangling three hundred pounds of all-American womanhood from them just to prove a point then he was equally happy to take a swing at your age, your birth date, your occupation, your choice of car (foreign or domestic), even the brand of cigarettes that you favored. If the Guesser proved to be incorrect, then you went on your merry way clutching a plastic hair clip or a small bag of rubber bands, happy in the knowledge that you'd beaten the funny little man with his crooked, childlike signs weren't you the smart one? and it might take you a while to figure out that you'd just paid the man fifty cents for the pleasure of knowing something that you already knew before you arrived, with the added bonus of receiving ten rubber bands that cost about one cent wholesale. And it could be that maybe you looked back at the Guesser, wearing his white "Dave the Guesser" t-shirt, the letters ironed on in black at the T-shirt concession further along the boardwalk as a favor to Dave because everybody knew the Guesser, and you figured that maybe the Guesser was a very smart guy indeed.
Because the Guesser was smart, smart in the way that Sherlock Holmes was smart, or Dupin, or the little Belgian, Poirot. He was an observer, a man who could ascertain the main circumstances of another's existence from his clothes, his shoes, the way he carried his cash, the state of his hands and his fingernails, the things that caught his interest and attention as he walked along the boardwalk, even the minute pauses and hesitations, the vocal inflections and unconscious gestures by which he revealed himself in a thousand different ways. He paid attention in a culture that no longer put any value upon such a simple act. People did not listen or see, but only thought that they listened and saw. They missed more than they perceived, their eyes and ears constantly attuned to novelty, to the next new thing that might be thrown at them by TV, the radio, the movies, discarding the old before they had even begun to understand its meaning and its value. The Guesser was not like them. He belonged to a different order, to an older dispensation. He was attuned to sights and smells, to whispers that sounded loud in his ears, to tiny odors that tickled at the hairs in his nose and showed up as lights and colors in his mind. His sight was only one of the faculties that he used, and often it played a subsidiary role to the rest. Like early man, he did not rely on his eyes as his primary source of information. He trusted all of his senses, utilizing them to the fullest. His mind was like a radio, constantly tuned to even the faintest transmissions of others.
Some of it was easy, of course: age and weight were relatively simple for him. Cars were pretty much a done deal too, at least at the beginning when most of the people who came to Old Orchard for their vacations did so in American-made cars. It was only later, in the eighties and nineties, that imports would become more prevalent, but even then, the odds were still about fifty-fifty.
Occupations? Well, sometimes useful details might emerge in the course of the pitch, as the Guesser listened to their greetings, their answers, the way they responded to certain key words. Even while he was listening to what they were saying, Dave was examining their clothes and skin for telltale signs: a worn or stained shirt cuff on the right hand indicated someone who might have a desk job, and a lowly one if they had to wear their work shirt on vacation, while a closer examination of their hands might reveal the impression of a pen upon the thumb and index finger. Sometimes, there was a slight flattening to the fingertips on one or both hands, the former perhaps suggesting that here was someone who was used to pounding an adding machine, the latter almost certainly the sign of a typist. Chefs always had little burns on their forearms, grill marks on their wrists, calluses upon the index fingers of their knife hands, healed and semi-healed lines upon their flesh where the blades had nicked them, and the Guesser had yet to meet a mechanic who could scrub every trace of oil from the grooves of his skin. He could tell a cop simply by looking at him, and military types might just as well have arrived in full regalia.
But observation without memory was useless, and the Guesser was constantly taking in details from the crowds that thronged the seashore, from fragments of conversations to flashes of possessions. If you decided to light up, then Dave would remember that the pack was Marlboro and that you were wearing a green tie. If you parked your car within sight of his concession, then you were 'red suspenders Ford.' Everything was compartmentalized in case it might prove useful, for although the Guesser never really lost out on his bets, there was the small matter of professional pride and also the necessity of providing a good show for the watching folks. The Guesser hadn't survived at Old Orchard for decades just by guessing wrong and then fobbing off the tourists with rubber bands by way of apology.
He pocketed his earnings and took a last look around before he prepared to close up. He was tired, and his head hurt a little, but he would miss being here once the crowds were gone. The Guesser knew that there were those who bemoaned the state of Old Orchard, and who felt that the beautiful beach had been ruined by a century of development, by the arrival of rollercoasters and fun houses and merry-go-rounds, by the smell of candy floss and hot dogs and suntan lotion. Maybe they were right, but there were plenty of other places for folks like that to go, while there weren't so many where people could come for a week with their kids and live relatively cheaply while enjoying the sea, the sand, and the pleasure of trying to beat men like the Guesser. True, Old Orchard wasn't like it once was. The kids were tougher, maybe even a little more dangerous. The town was looking more tawdry than before, and there was a sense now of innocence lost rather than innocence recaptured. Ocean Park, the family-oriented religious resort that was part of Old Orchard, now looked increasingly like a throwback to another era, when education and self-improvement were as much a part of one's vacation time as amusement and relaxation. He wondered how many of those who came here to drink cheap beer and eat lobster from paper plates knew of the Methodists who had formed the Old Orchard Campground Association back in the 1870s, sometimes attracting crowds of 10,000 or more to hear speakers extoll the benefits of a virtuous, sin-free life. Good luck trying to convince the tourists now to give up an afternoon of sunbathing to listen to stories from the Bible. You didn't have to be Dave the Guesser to figure out the odds on that one.
Nevertheless, the Guesser loved Old Orchard. Through his little concession, he had been privileged to meet men like Tommy Dorsey and Louis Armstrong, and he had the pictures on his wall to prove it. But while those encounters represented the great peaks of his career, his dealings with ordinary people had given him consistent pleasure and had allowed him to stay young and sharp inside. Without people, Old Orchard would have meant far less to him, sea or no sea.
The Guesser was already putting away his signs and his scales when the man approached; or perhaps it would be truer to say that the Guesser became aware of his approach before he even saw the man, for his long-departed ancestors had not relied on their senses to play guessing games in flame-lit caves. No, they had required them to stay alive, to warn them of the coming of predators and enemies, and so their continued survival was dependent upon their constant engagement with the world around him.
Immediately, the Guesser turned casually and began taking in the stranger: forties, but looking older than his years; his blue jeans looser than was the current fashion; his T-shirt, white but stained slightly at the belly; his boots, heavy and suited to a motorcycle, not a car, yet without the wear on the soles that might have come from riding a hog; his hair, dark and greased back in a D.A.; his features, sharp and almost delicate; his chin small, his head compressed as if from long suffering beneath a great weight placed upon it, the bones in his face shaped like a kite beneath his tanned skin. He had a scar below his hairline: three parallel lines, as though the tines of a fork had been inserted into his flesh and dragged down towards the bridge of his nose. His mouth was crooked, permanently downturned on one side and upturned slightly on the other, giving the impression that the symbolic masks of drama had been bisected and their disparate halves fused together over his skull. The lips were too big. They might almost have been called sensuous, but this was not a man whose demeanor spoke of such things. His eyes were brown, but flecked with tiny white flaws, like stars and planets suspended in their darkness. He smelt of eau-de-cologne and, lurking beneath, the rank stink of rendered animal fats, of blood and decay and waste voided in the final moment when living became dying.
Suddenly, Dave the Guesser wished that he had decided to pack up fifteen minutes earlier, that his concession stand was firmly locked and bolted and that he had already put as much distance between him and his beloved scales and signs as it was possible for a man of his advancing years to do. But even as he tried to break eye contact with the new arrival, he still found himself analyzing him, drawing information from his movements, his clothing, his scent. The man reached into one of the front pockets of his denims and drew from it a steel comb, which he raked through his hair with his right hand, his left following along behind to smooth down any stray strands. He cocked his head slightly to the right as he did so, as though sizing himself up in some mirror visible only to him, and it took the Guesser a moment to realize that he himself was that mirror. The stranger knew all about Dave and his "gift", and even as he willed himself to stop the Guesser was separating the preening man into his constituent parts, and the man was aware of what was being done and was enjoying seeing himself refracted through the older man's perceptions.
Clean, pressed denims, but with dirt on the knees. The stain on the T-shirt, like dried blood. The earth beneath the nails. The smell. Sweet God, the smell . . .
And now the stranger was in front of him and the comb was being eased back into the tight sheath of his pocket. The smile widened, all false bonhomie, and the man spoke:
"You the guessin' man?" he asked. His accent had an element of the South to it, but there was Down East there as well. He was trying to hide it, but Dave's ear was too acute. The touch of Mainer to it wasn't native, though. No, this was a man who could blend in, when he chose, who picked up the speech patterns and mannerisms of those around him, camouflaging himself the way
The way predators did.
"I'm all done for today," the Guesser said. "Tired out. I got nothing left."
"Ah, you got time for one more," came the reply, and the Guesser knew that he was not being cajoled. He was being told.
He looked around, seeking a distraction, an excuse to depart, but now it seemed as if the stranger had cleared a space for himself, for there was no one else within earshot and the attention of those who passed was clearly directed elsewhere. They looked at the other concession stands, at the sea, at the shifting sands. They looked at distant cars and the unfamiliar faces of those who passed them by. They looked at the boardwalk at their feet and deep into the eyes of husbands and wives whom they had long since ceased to find interesting but who now held inside them some previously unsuspected, if fleeting, source of fascination. And had one suggested to them that they had somehow decided to turn their attention away from the little Guesser and the man who now stood before him, they would have dismissed the idea without appearing to give it a moment's serious thought, but to an observant person to someone like Dave the Guesser the fleeting expression of unease upon their faces as they turned away would have been enough to give the lie to their protestations. In that moment, they had become a little like the Guesser, some ancient, primal instinct woken from dormancy on a bright summer evening with the sun setting bloodily in the west. Maybe they truly didn't realize that they were doing it, or perhaps self-respect and self-preservation prevented them from acknowledging it, even to themselves, but they were giving space to the man with the slicked back hair. He exuded menace and threat and harm, and just to acknowledge his existence was to risk drawing attention to oneself. Better, then, to look away. Better for another to suffer, for a stranger to incur his displeasure, than to have him take an interest in one's own affairs. Better to keep walking, to get into one's car, to drive away without a single backward glance for fear that one might find him staring into one's eyes, his lazy half-smile slowly widening as he memorized faces, the numbers on a license plate, the color of the paintwork, the dark hair of a wife, the budding body of an adolescent daughter. Better to pretend, then. Better not to notice. Better that than to wake up in the night to find such a man staring down at you, blood warm upon him and a telltale light coming from a nearby bedroom, something dripping softly upon the bare floorboards within, something that was once alive there now alive no longer. . .
Dave knew then that this man was not so different from himself. He was an observer, a cataloguer of human characteristics, but in the stranger's case the observations were a prelude to harm. And now there was only the sound of waves breaking, and voices fading, and the noises of the fairground rides dulling and muting as the stranger spoke, his tone insisting upon the attention of the listener to the exclusion of all else.
"I want you to guess somethin' about me," he said.
"What do you want to know?" said the Guesser, and all pretence of goodwill departed from his own voice. It would serve no purpose here. They were equals, of a sort.
The man closed his right hand into a fist. Two quarters rose from between his clenched fingers. He raised the hand toward Dave, and Dave removed the coins with fingers that barely trembled.
"Tell me what I do for a livin," said the stranger. "And I want you to make your best guess. Your very best guess."
Dave heard the warning. He could have come up with something harmless, something innocent. You dig roads, maybe. You're a gardener. You
You work in an abattoir.
No, too close. Mustn't say that.
You tear things apart. Living things. You hurt and you kill and you bury the evidence beneath the ground. And sometimes they fight back. I see the scars around your eyes, and in the soft flesh beneath your jaw. There's a cluster of rough strands just above your forehead, and an inflamed patch of red at its base where the hair hasn't grown back properly. What happened? Did a hand get free? Did fingers grasp in desperation and tear a clump from your head? And even in your pain, was there not a part of you that relished the struggle, that enjoyed having to work for its prize? And what of those incisions below your hairline, what of them? You are a violent man, and violence has been visited upon you. You have been marked as a warning to others, so that even those who are foolish and distracted might know you when you come. Too late for the one who did it, perhaps, but a warning nonetheless.
A lie might be the death of him. Maybe not now, maybe not even a week from now, but the man would remember and he would return. Some night, Dave the Guesser would go back to his room and the stranger would be sitting in an easy chair in the darkness opposite the window, taking long drags from a cigarette in his left hand, his right toying with a blade.
"Glad you could make it at last. I been waitin' for you. You remember me? I asked you to guess somethin' about me, but you guessed wrong. You gave me a child's toy as a prize, a prize for beating the Guesser, but that ain't prize enough for me, and you was wrong to think that it was. I figure I ought to correct your misapprehension. I figure you really ought to know what I do for a living. Here, let me show you . . ."
The stranger opened turned his hands slowly for Dave, displaying the palms, then the backs of the hands, and finally the almost delicate fingers, a thin sliver of dirt visible beneath the tips of each nail.
"So tell me," he said. "Tell me true."
Dave looked him in the eye.
"You cause pain," said Dave.
The stranger looked amused.
"Is that so?" he said.
"You hurt people."
"You've killed," and Dave both heard himself say the words and saw himself from without. He was floating apart from the scene unfolding before him, his soul already anticipating the separation from this life that was to come.
The stranger shook his head and looked at his own hands, as though quietly astonished at what they had revealed.
"Well," he said at last, "I reckon that's worth fifty cents of any man's money, and no mistake. That's quite the tale. Quite the tale." He nodded to himself. "Uh-huh," he said softly. "Uh-huh."
"You want to claim a prize?" said Dave. "You can have a prize if I guessed wrong."
He gestured behind him at the rubber bands, the hair clips, the packs of balloons.
Take one. Please take one. Take 'em all, anything you want, just get away from me. Walk away and keep walking and never, ever come back here. And if it's any consolation, know that I'll never forget the smell of you or the sight of you. Not ever. I'll keep it with me, and I'll always be watching for you in case you come again.
"Nah," said the stranger. "You keep 'em. I was entertained. You entertained me."
He backed away from Dave the Guesser, still nodding, still softly "uh-huh"-ing.
Just as the Guesser felt certain he was about to be rid of him, the stranger stopped.
"Professional pride," he said suddenly.
"Pardon me?" said the Guesser.
"I think that's what we got in common: we take pride in what we do. You could have lied to me, but you didn't. I could have lied to you and taken one of them shitty balloon packs, but I didn't do that either. You respected me, and I respected you in return. We're men, you and I."
The Guesser didn't reply. There was nothing to say. He tasted something in his mouth. It was sour and unpleasant. He wanted to open his mouth and breathe in the salt sea air, but not yet, not while the stranger was nearby. He wanted to be rid of him first, for fear that some of his essence might enter him in that single breath, polluting his being.
"You can tell folks about me, if you like," said the stranger. "I don't much care either way. I'll be long gone before anybody takes in into his head to come looking for me, and even if they do find me, what are they gonna say? That some little sideshow huckster in a cheap T-shirt told them to look me up, that maybe I might have somethin' to hide or a story to tell?"
Now his hands busied themselves retrieving his pack of cigarettes from his jeans. The pack was battered, and slightly flattened. He shook a slim brass lighter from within, then followed it with a cigarette. He rolled the cigarette between his finger and thumb before lighting up, the lighter and the pack disappearing back into his pocket.
"Maybe I'll be through here again someday," he said. "I'll look you up."
"I'll be here," said the Guesser.
Come back if you like, then, you animal. Make no mistake, I'm scared of you, and I believe that I have good cause to be, but don't think I'm going to show it. You won't get that satisfaction, not from me.
"I hope so," said the stranger. "I surely do hope so."
But the Guesser never saw him again, although he thought of him often, and once or twice in his remaining years, as he stood on the boardwalk and appraised the passing crowds, he was conscious of eyes upon him and he felt certain that, somewhere nearby, the stranger was watching him, perhaps in amusement or, as the Guesser often feared, perhaps with regret for ever allowing the truth about himself to be revealed in such a way, and with the desire to undo that mistake.
Dave "The Guesser" Glovsky died in 1997, nearly fifty years after he had first arrived in Old Orchard Beach. He spoke of the stranger to those who would listen, of the stink of fats that arose from him and the dirt beneath his nails and the copper stains upon his shirt. Most of those who heard merely shook their heads at what they believed was just another attempt by the showman to add to his own legend, but some listened, and they remembered, and they passed on the tale so that others might be watchful for him in case he returned.
The Guesser, of course, had been right: the man did return in the years that followed, sometimes for his own purposes and sometimes on the orders of others, and he both took and created life. But when he returned for the last time, he drew the clouds around him like a cloak, darkening the skies as he came, seeking death and the memory of a death in the faces of others. He was a broken man, and he would break others in his anger.
He was Merrick, the revenger.
© John Connolly 2007
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