‘Two Men’ first appeared in September 1988, in the pages of the New Yorker magazine. Four years later, it would feature as the second story in Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which a certain portion of the global literati will tell you is the standout volume of stories of the last quarter-century. Narrated by an unnamed man reeling from his addiction to heroin and alcohol, it is, the critics say, a book which brought the ‘dulled sensibility’ and ‘too-big sentimentality’ of the addict to life, risking insensitivity to make something vital and new. ‘Two Men’ is only a dozen pages long. It moves with the pace of a bullet.
Within fifty lines, we are presented with a mystery and a problem: ‘the first man’ — a junkie who will not, or cannot, speak — appears in the back seat of the narrator’s little green Volkswagen. He isn’t supposed to be there. Who is he, and how are we going to get rid of him?
And we are presented with a threat: a jealous boyfriend — ‘a mean, skinny, intelligent man I happened to feel inferior to’ —is on the narrator’s tail and is bound to make ‘something painful and degrading happen’ soon. And then, we are shown the narrator’s gun.
It’s a cheap gun — ‘so cheap, I was sure it would explode in my hands if I ever pulled the trigger’. But the hunch is this is Chekhov’s rifle: it’s going to be fired at some point in the next dozen pages.
By the time we get back to that gun, there are, by my count, at least three conventional plot twists. We have encountered myriad mysteries and barely seen tragedies. We have toured the heroin houses, met the ‘ghost-complected women’, cruised the city in the company of friends sketched so briskly as to resemble already the chalk outlines of the dead. We have been put inside a consciousness that seems to give no thought to others any more; a consciousness ‘plagued’ by the senses, that would rather not pay too much attention to what is around it, because when it does, the world’s too much: you can hear ‘the seeds … moaning in the gardens’. But through this cracked consciousness we see glimmers of a fully lived past degrading into incoherence, and it is heartbreaking. The narrator looks at a woman in serious trouble, a girl ossifying young in her bra and blurred mascara. ‘I thought of going out in the fields with my wife,’ he tells us, ‘back when we were so in love we didn’t know what it was.’
We move at pace through the action because the narrator’s junkie consciousness does not require, or can no longer see, a coherent line of cause and effect. This is liberating for the reader; dare I say, it’s enjoyable; there’s a very guilty novelty to exploring the distorting world this way. We need not be delayed by how A led to B, how B affects C. But it can’t be held at bay: the catalyst to all this is illness — and that illness, that ill-logic, will lead to the agonising denouement, and back to that gun.
… Then, when you’ve finished ‘Two Men’, there is a very simple, unanswerable question: Who is the second man of the title? The ‘mean, skinny, intelligent’ boyfriend? The ‘first man’, whose second persona we learn as the story progresses? Or does the title refer entirely to the narrator, split as he is? But then: he isn’t split in two, is he?
He’s shattered into pieces; the whole is now unsalvageable. And so ‘Two Men’ is no Jekyll and Hyde. It is far more complicated, intangible and out-of-reach than that. And somehow, you suspect, a little truer.
I met the first man as I was going home from a dance at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall. I was being taken out of the dance by my two good friends. I had forgotten my friends had come with me, but there they were. Once again I hated the two of them. The three of us had formed a group based on something erroneous, some basic misunderstanding that hadn’t yet come to light, and so we kept on in one another’s company, going to bars and having conversations. Generally one of these false coalitions died after a day or a day and a half, but this one had lasted more than a year. Later on one of them got hurt when we were burglarizing a pharmacy, and the other two of us dropped him bleeding at the back entrance of the hospital and he was arrested and all the bonds were dissolved. We bailed him out later, and still later all the charges against him were dropped, but we’d torn open our chests and shown our cowardly hearts, and you can never stay friends after something like that.
This evening at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall I’d backed a woman up behind the huge air-conditioning unit while we were dancing, and kissed her and unbuttoned her pants and put my hand down the front of them. She’d been married to a friend of mine until about a year before, and I’d always thought we’d probably get mixed up together, but her boyfriend, a mean, skinny, intelligent man who I happened to feel inferior to, came around the corner of the machine and glowered at us and told her to go out and get in the car. I was afraid he’d take some kind of action, but he disappeared just as quickly as she did. The rest of the evening I wondered, every second, if he would come back with some friends and make something painful and degrading happen. I was carrying a gun, but it wasn’t as if I would actually have used it. It was so cheap, I was sure it would explode in my hands if I ever pulled the trigger. So it could only add to my humiliation—afterwards people, usually men talking to women in my imagination, would say, “He had a gun, but he never even took it out of his pants.” I drank as much as I could until the western combo stopped singing and playing and the lights came up.
My two friends and I went to get into my little green Volkswagen, and we discovered the man I started to tell you about, the first man, sleeping deeply in the back seat.
“Who’s this?” I asked my two friends. But they’d never seen him before either.
We got him awake, and he sat up. He was something of a hulk, not so tall that his head hit the roof, but really broad, with a thick face and close-cropped hair. He wouldn’t get out of the car.
This man pointed to his own ears and to his mouth, signaling that he couldn’t hear or talk.
“What do you do in a situation like this?” I said.
“Well, I’m getting in. Move over,” Tom said to the man, and got in the back seat with him.
Richard and I got in the front. We all three turned to the new companion.
He pointed straight ahead and then laid his cheek on his hands, indicating beddy-bye. “He just wants a ride home,” I guessed.
“So?” Tom said. “Give him a ride home.” Tom had such sharp features that his moods looked even worse than they were.
Using sign language, the passenger showed us where to take him. Tom relayed the directions, because I couldn’t see the man while I was driving. “Take a right—a left here—he wants you to slow down—he’s looking for the place—” and like that.
We drove with the windows down. The mild spring evening, after several frozen winter months, was like a foreigner breathing in our faces. We took our passenger to a residential street where the buds were forcing themselves out of the tips of branches and the seeds were moaning in the gardens.
He was as bulky as an ape, we saw when he was out of the car, and dangled his hands as if he might suddenly go down and start walking on his knuckles. He glided up the walk of one particular home and banged on the door. A light went on in the second story, the curtain moved, and the light went out. He was back at the car, thumping on the roof with his hand, before I got the thing in gear to pull away and leave him.
He draped himself over the front of my VW and seemed to pass out.
“Wrong house, maybe,” Richard suggested. “I can’t navigate with him like that,” I said. “Take off,” Richard said, “and slam on the brakes.”
“The brakes aren’t working,” Tom told Richard.
“The emergency brake works,” I assured everybody.
Tom had no patience. “All you have to do is move this car and he’ll fall off.”
“I don’t want to hurt him.”
We ended it by hefting him into the back seat, where he slumped against the window.
Now we were stuck with him again. Tom laughed sarcastically. We all three lit cigarettes.
“Here comes Caplan to shoot off my legs,” I said, looking in terror at a car as it came around the corner and then passed by. “I was sure it was him,” I said as its taillights disappeared down the block.
“Are you still all worried about Alsatia?”
“I was kissing her.”
“There’s no law against that,” Richard said.
“It’s not her lawyer I’m worried about.”
“I don’t think Caplan’s that serious about her. Not enough to kill you, or anything like that.”
“What do you think about all this?” I asked our drunken buddy.
He started snoring ostentatiously.
“This guy isn’t really deaf—are you, hey,” Tom said.
“What do we do with him?”
“Take him home with us.”
“Not me,” I said.
“One of us should, anyway.”
“He lives right there,” I insisted. “You could tell by the way he knocked.”
I got out of the car.
I went to the house and rang the doorbell and stepped back off the porch, looking up at the overhead window in the dark. The white curtain moved again, and a woman said something.
All of her was invisible except the shadow of her hand on the curtain’s border. “If you don’t take him off our street I’m calling the police.” I was so flooded with yearning I thought it would drown me. Her voice broke off and floated down.
“I’ve got the phone now. Now I’m dialing,” she called down softly.
I thought I heard a car’s engine somewhere not too far away. I ran back to the street.
“What is it?” Richard said as I got in.
Headlights came around the corner. A spasm ran through me so hard it shook the car.
“Jesus,” I said. The interior filled up with light so that for two seconds you could have read a book. The shadows of dust streaks on the windshield striped Tom’s face. “It’s nobody,” Richard said, and the dark closed up again as whoever it was went past.
“Caplan doesn’t know where you are, anyway.”
The jolt of fear had burned all the red out of my blood. I was like rubber. “I’ll go after him, then. Let’s just have it out.”
“Maybe he doesn’t care or—I don’t know. What do I know?” Tom said. “Why are we even talking about him?”
“Maybe he forgives you,” Richard said.
“Oh God, if he does, then we’re comrades and so on, forever,” I said. “All I’m asking is just punish me and get it over with. “
The passenger wasn’t defeated. He gestured all over the place, touching his forehead and his armpits and gyrating somewhat in place, like a baseball coach signaling his players. “Look,” I said. “I know you can talk. Don’t act like we’re stupid.”
He directed us through this part of town and then over near the train tracks where hardly anybody lived. Here and there were shacks with dim lights inside them, sunk to the bottom of all this darkness. But the house he had me stop in front of got no light except from the streetlamp. Nothing happened when I honked the horn. The man we were helping just sat there. All this time he’d voiced plenty of desires but hadn’t said a word. More and more he began to seem like somebody’s dog.
“I’ll take a look,” I told him, making my voice cruel.
It was a small wooden house with two posts for a clothesline out front. The grass had grown up and been crushed by the snows and then uncovered by the thaw. Without bothering to knock I went around to the window and looked in. There was one chair all by itself at an oval table. The house looked abandoned, no curtains, no rugs. All over the floor there were shiny things I thought might be spent flashbulbs or empty bullet casings. But it was dark and nothing was clear. I peered around until my eyes were tired and I thought I could make out designs all over the floor like the chalk outlines of victims or markings for strange rituals.
“Why don’t you go in there?” I asked the guy when I got back to the car. “Just go look. You faker, you loser.”
He held up one finger. One.
“He wants to go one more place,” Richard said.
“We already went one more place. This place right here. And it was just bogus.”
“What do you want to do?” Tom said.
“Oh, let’s just take him wherever he wants to go.” I didn’t want to go home. My wife was different than she used to be, and we had a six-month-old baby I was afraid of, a little son.
The next place we took him to stood all by itself out on the Old Highway. I’d been out this road more than once, a little farther every time, and I’d never found anything that made me happy. Some of my friends had had a farm out here, but the police had raided the place and put them all in jail.
This house didn’t seem to be part of a farm. It was about two-tenths of a mile off the Old Highway, its front porch edged right up against the road. When we stopped in front of it and turned off the engine, we heard music coming from inside—jazz. It sounded sophisticated and lonely.
We all went up to the porch with the silent man. He knocked on the door. Tom, Richard, and I flanked him at a slight, a very subtle distance.
As soon as the door opened, he pushed his way inside. We followed him in and stopped, but he headed right into the next room.
We didn’t get any farther inside than the kitchen. The next room past that was dim and blue-lit, and inside it, through the doorway, we saw a loft, almost a gigantic bunk bed, in which several ghost-complected women were lying around. One just like those came through the door from that room and stood looking at the three of us with her mascara blurred and her lipstick kissed away. She wore a skirt but not a blouse, just a white bra like someone in an undies ad in a teenage magazine. But she was older than that. Looking at her I thought of going out in the fields with my wife back when we were so in love we didn’t know what it was.
She wiped her nose, a sleepy gesture. Inside of two seconds she was closely attended by a black man slapping the palm of his hand with a pair of gloves, a very large man looking blindly down at me with the invulnerable smile of someone on dope.
The young woman said, “If you’d called ahead, we would’ve encouraged you not to bring him.”
Her companion was delighted. “That’s a beautiful way of saying it.”
In the room behind her the man we’d brought stood like a bad sculpture, posing unnaturally with his shoulders wilting, as if he couldn’t lug his gigantic hands any farther.
“What the hell is his problem?” Richard asked.
“It doesn’t matter what his problem is, until he’s fully understood it himself,” the man said.
Tom laughed, in a way.
“What does he do?” Richard asked the girl.
“He’s a real good football player. Or anyhow he was.” Her face was tired. She couldn’t have cared less.
“He’s still good. He’s still on the team,” the black man said.
“He’s not even in school.”
“But he could get back on the team if he was.”
“But he’ll never be in school because he’s fucked, man. And so are you.”
He flicked one of his gloves back and forth. “I know that now, thank you, baby.”
“You dropped your other glove,” she said.
“Thank you, babe, I know that, too,” he said.
A big muscular boy with fresh cheeks and a blond flattop came over and joined us. I felt he was the host, because he gripped the handle of a green beer mug almost the size of a wastepaper basket with a swastika and a dollar sign painted on it. This personalized touch made him seem right at home, like Hugh Hefner circulating around the Playboy cocktail parties in his pajamas.
He smiled at me and shook his head. “He can’t stay. Tammy doesn’t want him here.”
“Okay, whoever Tammy is,” I said. Around these strange people I felt hungry. I smelled some kind of debauchery, the whiff of a potion that would banish everything plaguing me.
“Now would be a good time to take him out of here,” the big host said.
“What’s his name, anyway?”
“Stan. Is he really deaf?”
The girl snorted.
The boy laughed and said, “That’s a good one.”
Richard punched my arm and glanced at the door, indicating we should go. I realized that he and Tom were afraid of these people; and then I was, too. Not that they’d do anything to us; but around them we felt almost like stupid failures.
The woman hurt me. She looked so soft and perfect, like a mannequin made of flesh, flesh all the way through.
“Let’s ditch him—right now,” I cried, hurrying out the door.
I was already in the driver’s seat, and Tom and Richard were halfway down the walk, before Stan came out of the house. “Lose him! Lose him!” Tom yelled, getting in after Richard, but the man already had a grip on the door handle by the time I’d started pulling away.
I goosed it, but he wouldn’t give up. He even managed to keep a slight lead and look around right at me through the front window, keeping up a psychotic eye contact and wearing a sarcastic smile, as if to say he’d be with us forever, running faster and faster, puffing out clouds of breath. After fifty yards, as we neared the stop sign at the main road, I really gunned it, hoping to wrench free, but all I did was yank him right into the stop sign. His head hit it first, and the post broke off like a green stalk and he fell, sprawling all over it. The wood must have been rotten. Lucky for him.
We left him behind, a man staggering around a crossroads where a stop sign used to stand. “I thought I knew everyone in town,” Tom said, “but those people are completely new to me.”
“They used to be jocks, but now they’re heads,” Richard said.
“Football people. I didn’t know they ever got like that.” Tom was looking backward, down the road.
I stopped the car, and we all looked back. A quarter mile behind us, Stan paused among the fields in the starlight, in the posture of somebody who had a pounding hangover or was trying to fit his head back onto his neck. But it wasn’t just his head, it was all of him that had been cut off and thrown away. No wonder he didn’t hear or speak, no wonder he didn’t have anything to do with words. Everything along those lines was used up.
We stared at him and felt like old maids. He, on the other hand, was the bride of Death.
We took off. “Never got him to say a word.”
All the way back to town, Tom and I criticized him.
“You just don’t realize. Being a cheerleader, being on the team, it doesn’t guarantee anything. Anybody can take a turn for the worse,” said Richard, who’d been a high school quarterback or something himself.
As soon as we hit the city limits, where the chain of streetlamps began, I was back to wondering about and fearing Caplan.
“I’d better just go after him, instead of waiting,” I suggested to Tom.
“Who do you think?”
“Will you forget it? It’s over. Seriously.”
“Yeah. Okay, okay.”
We drove up Burlington Street. We passed the all-night gas station at the corner of Clinton. A man was handing money to the attendant, both of them standing by his car in an eerie sulfur light—those sodium-arc lamps were new in our town then—and the pavement around them was spangled with oil stains that looked green, while his old Ford was no color at all. “You know who that was?” I told Tom and Richard. “That was Thatcher.”
I made a U-turn as quickly as I could.
“So what?” Tom said.
“So this,” I said, producing the. 32 I’d never fired.
Richard laughed, I don’t know why. Tom laid his hands on his knees and sighed.
Thatcher was back in his car by this time. I pulled up to the pumps going the other direction, and rolled down my window. “I bought one of those phony kilos you were selling for two-ten right around last New Year’s. You don’t know me, because what’s-his-name was selling them for you.” I doubt he heard me. I showed him the pistol.
Thatcher’s tires gave a yip as he took off in his corroded Falcon. I didn’t think I’d catch him in the VW, but I spun it around after him. “The stuff he sold me was a burn,” I said.
“Didn’t you try it first?” Richard said.
“It was weird stuff.”
“Well, if you tried it,” he said.
“It seemed all right, and then it wasn’t. It wasn’t just me. Everybody else said so, too.”
“He’s losing you.” Thatcher had hooked very suddenly between two buildings.
I couldn’t find him as we exited the alley onto another street. But up ahead I saw a patch of old snow go pink in somebody’s brake lights.
“He’s turned that corner,” I said.
When we rounded the building we found his car parked, empty, in back of an apartment house. A light went on in one of the apartments, and then went off.
“I’m two seconds behind him.” The feeling that he was afraid of me was invigorating. I left the VW in the middle of the parking lot with the door open and the engine on and the headlights burning.
Tom and Richard were behind me as I ran up the first flight of stairs and banged on the door with the gun. I knew I was in the right place. I banged again. A woman in a white nightgown opened it, backing away and saying, “Don’t. All right. All right. All right.”
“Thatcher must have told you to answer, or you never would’ve opened the door,” I said.
“Jim? He’s out of town.” She had long black hair in a ponytail. Her eyeballs were positively shaking in her head.
“Get him,” I said.
“He’s in California.”
“He’s in the bedroom.” I backed her up, moving toward her behind the mouth of the gun.
“I’ve got two kids here,” she begged.
“I don’t care! Get on the floor!”
She got down, and I pushed the side of her face into the rug and laid the gun against her temple.
Thatcher was going to come out or I didn’t know what. “I’ve got her on the floor in here!” I called back toward the bedroom.
“My kids are sleeping,” she said. The tears ran out of her eyes and over the bridge of her nose.
Suddenly and stupidly, Richard walked right down the hall and into the bedroom. Flagrant, self-destructive gestures—he was known for them.
“There’s nobody back here but two little kids.”
Tom joined him. “He climbed out the window,” he called back to me.
I took two steps over to the living-room window and looked down onto the parking lot. I couldn’t tell for certain, but it looked like Thatcher’s car was gone.
The woman hadn’t moved. She just lay there on the rug.
“He’s really not here,” she said.
I knew he wasn’t. “I don’t care. You’re going to be sorry,” I said.
*This story is taken from: Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, Picador, 2009.
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