They called the office three floors below theirs “the storefront”—they being Hap’s central players. Their corner of the eighth consisted of the cold conference room, Hap’s impressive office with Romana occasionally installed at the desk out front, four offices plus one spare for the principals, and a small studio for videotaping.
For the first time since Daria began her intensive training, the three primary showpeople plus herself would be meeting with Hap in the conference room for a considerable block of time on Friday afternoon. She thought of them as showpeople because of what Quentin had said when she admitted, “Well I wouldn’t call them the best people I know”: “I thought there’s no people like showpeople?” Quentin already had a battery of names for them beyond Hapsters—Hap and the Family Stone was currently trending—but she needed some way to think of them beyond The Family, as that made her feel that they were intent on killing her.
Her toastmasters class taught by the Bengali guy who used to work for Microsoft, her private voice and articulation training with the caftan-wearing former drama coach who incidentally had obese Persian cats named Victoria and Albert, her work with Sumi to crib on interpreting scientific literature—all were proceeding as well as could be expected after ten workdays. Still, she hadn’t hit on any kind of “story” and was dragging along the one that Mariette had suggested—Girl Who Gets Fired at Practically Everything She Attempts—like it was Marley’s chains.
The showpeople plus herself had assembled around the table when Ted announced that he’d be playing a short video for their amusement.
“Is this the one of your mother?” asked Mariette.
Ted nodded with a grimace. “Boy’s best friend.”
When Hap entered, the room felt a bit warmer. He reached across the table to shake Daria’s hand while simultaneously popping the button on his jacket. “Daria, welcome aboard officially. It’s been a hectic couple weeks.”
After Hap had settled himself, Ted clacked at the room’s MacBook. “This is part of Jurgen’s show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Basel,” he said, not looking up.
Jude sprung to life above his phone. “Anik’s showing there, starting in May.”
“Who’s Anik?” asked Daria.
“Looks like they’ll overlap,” said Ted. “Such a small, cozy world.”
Hap was kind enough to lean toward Daria: “Anik Bonnot, a French artist who doesn’t like the French.”
The video started with a white title on black: “Lillian Brand Tomlinson.” When a woman appeared, Ted immediately drowned out her words: “She’s smashed as usual for these things.”
Daria thought how he had been right. She did know the face—from her mother’s Talbots catalogs a long time ago. The face and everything below had freckles—not drunken Lindsay Lohan freckles but older-lady freckles, like Isabelle Huppert. Daria’s mother thought her own freckles made her look like Isabelle Huppert. In reality, they made her look like Daria—only older, and fatter, and with a mustache.
He was the hive, the light bulb, the everything—and I really didn’t mind that. He loved to joke about whatever new group constituted his in-group conformity. Lawyers without Borders was one. He would tell reporters he worked for the law firm of Muddledom and Woolage. Never once let up on the ha-ha. As a celebrity trial lawyer, his most celebrated case was the one in which that cabinet secretary rubbed on hand lotion before chopping wood for a photo op. As we all know, the ax got flung out of his hands and slit the skull of a cameraman, just like an Indian with a tomahawk. This was in D.C.—lots of Redskins and “chop-chop” jokes.
“I SO remember that,” muttered Jude.
He retired to teach law at Harvard—the rationale for me being here in Cambridge of all places. He was so vital, viable, a behemoth at the table, always the last to leave after chugging the glass of Muscat ordered and ignored by the Polish ambassador. I miss him bad—I didn’t think I would.
Hap whispered, “She’s very articulate.”
“She’s slurring,” Ted snapped.
“Shhh,” whispered Mariette.
“Silencio,” hissed Jude.
No one wants to stay in the condo on Rowe’s Wharf—so nineties, the crass big-balled puce-marble kind of money. Someone died of a cerebral hemorrhage there. Drew couldn’t get rid of the place. Everyone, when they visit, wants to stay in the house on Craigie Street. Cambridge 02138. Property in the hands of dumpy old biddies—sitting in the dining room doing crossword puzzles from cheap, phone-book-looking paperbacks—Thousand and One Word Teasers! Acrostics Aweigh!—eating Ritz crackers with a big tub of Wis-Pride. At least that’s what his mother did. So much money that nobody knew about.
Beauty was my currency! Beauty was my currency, and though I often found myself lying in the gutter, I never devalued my real currency. Lillian is a grandmother’s name, but I wasn’t cut from the mother bolt, the granny bolt. I once was shrewd . . . shreeeewd! And now look at me. No, don’t look at me. I can fix it all. I can have things. I can buy things. This is a free economy. I can buy another life.
Apparently this was the end of the clip.
“How the hell is that considered art?” asked Mariette.
Ted stared down at the table like a butcher with a cleaver. “Anything that moved she’d let fuck her.”
“That’s the criteria for art?” Mariette pressed.
“That’s the criteria for Brown,” said Jude.
“She’s a piece of shit,” said Ted.
Daria had been unable to take her eyes off the formerly SML Ted, who now looked and especially sounded so alien. This was excruciating, she thought as she started to peel an enormous grapefruit.
“How about the grandma eating the Wis-Pride?” asked Jude.
“Bigger piece of shit even though they hated each other. The old lady died right after her son.”
After some silence, Mariette announced, “Everyone in this room who feels sorry for Ted Brand please raise your hand.”
Ted’s look said This is all mine. “Everyone in this room who did not kill their mother please raise your hand.”
Daria was horrified by the fact that she wasn’t all that horrified.
“You deserved that,” Jude told Mariette, who immediately reached into her bag on the floor and felt for something—probably a phone to check out of the conversation.
Daria attempted to make diplomatic chitchat. “Do you keep in touch with your stepfather’s children, your step-sibs?”
Now all three showpeople looked at her with extreme distaste.
She looked to Hap for some kind of support. He seemed amused by the whole thing.
“Don’t ever use that word again,” ordered Jude.
“What?’ said Daria. “Step-sibs?”
“Don’t!” yelled Jude.
“They’re horrible,” said Ted. “Smug, mediocre.”
Suddenly Mariette stood up, reached across the table, and slapped a yellow Post-It note on the back of Ted’s hand. He reacted exactly as would a girl with a giant water bug; the paper got flicked in front of Daria. On it Mariette had written “Note to self: cry me a river.”
Mariette smiled in a way that made her look like a nice person. She asked Ted, “Didn’t Lillian Brand say that other people’s children are like junk in the glove compartment?”
Now Daria was annoyed, digging into the grapefruit rind with her thumb. What the hell does anyone say to that? “Is she still in that house on Craigie?” she asked with intended kindness.
“If you stand on the sidewalk out front for more than two minutes,” said Ted, “she’ll call the police. And it’s not the real cops; it’s campus security. And they’ll come even though they have no jurisdiction. If Harvard security doesn’t come within fifteen minutes she’ll call Lesley. I mean, come on—Lesley is seriously slumming it.”
Daria couldn’t help thinking: One of them already killed her mother, another wants to kill his mother, and a third can’t get over his mother dying.
“Well,” said Hap in his rich, warm voice as he rubbed his hands together. “So how are things going with our new recruit?”
Daria deferred to the showpeople for an answer.
“We have a few clips to watch,” said Mariette. “We can workshop.”
Hap nodded for that to start. “I hate to tell you this,” he said tenderly to Daria, “but most of your workday will be spent answering emails.”
Jude grunted. “You can farm some of it out to Romana and Ramona.”
“We’re trying to give them higher-order work to do,” said Mariette. “So they can bust out of this racket and not spend their lives as the Hispanic quota answering the phone at law firms.”
Mariette queued the clips while Daria fiddled with the grapefruit. This was the reason she’d brought it: to keep her hands occupied through the agony. Only with the Ted situation, she’d been forced to begin the agonized peeling early.
They watched some clips in silence. She couldn’t believe what a disaster she turned out to be.
“We have some identified problems,” said Ted, who now looked to her like an air traffic controller ready to belch from his Big Mac.
Jude laughed. “How many hours do we have for this?”
She felt like crying. Where was the affirmation from Hap? She feared getting fired before she’d got a second paycheck.
Hap looked at her with the right amount of compassion. “Your audience has to believe you, Daria.”
She couldn’t stop herself from blurting out, “Nobody here even likes me!”
She had stopped peeling and set the grapefruit on the table.
Hap smiled but didn’t attempt to deny the allegation. “OK, here’s an exercise,” he said. “Mariette, Jude, and Ted will be nice to Daria. You need to show her how it would look like.”
He pointed to Mariette.
“Hey, Dar! I want to say first thing how AWESOME it is having you on board! We are so excited to be working with you and can’t wait till you’re a ready-for-prime-time member of the team. (Way to go, Hap!) And that should take no time at all given your ultra-impressive talents and acquired skills. But more so than just the Hap team, we’re thrilled to welcome you as a trusted member of The Family. Because—let’s face it—that’s what we’re all about around here, and with your genuine warmth and steady vibe, you will no doubt greatly enlarge the virtuous circle that defines all Hap endeavors.
“I wanted to tell you a bit about me. I was an English major at Harvard and thought I was going to be a poet. Me, with the iambic pentameter—crazy, huh? My favorite writers are Camus, Ralph Ellison, Isabelle Allende, and Anne Sexton. Though I didn’t travel the academic route, I’ve learned from life that the most real and true poetry exists in people’s lives and loves, and I’ve tried to draw out this art form in my relationships. So you might say I’m a versifier of people—which is not a bad bullet point to include on your résumé!”
Now Hap pointed to Jude.
“Daria, we are so very fortunate to have you as a mover and shaker of the Hap brand. We knew it when you saw you. You: Admirer of lifestyle enhancement brands and pop-culture spirituality diva. You: Someone who wants above all to put your special mark on the Hap brand and see our franchise fly off the shelves. You: Dedicated, heart and soul, to ensuring consistency in the Hap-branded voice across all social media channels.
“And you didn’t disappoint! You constantly let your imagination run wild. You can think on your feet, you refuse to crack under pressure, and you thrive in a fast-paced and rapidly changing environment. You’ve mastered the barstool pitch; you weave the golden thread exactly where it needs to go. Everything that comes from your mouth is stop-and-stare brilliant. You, my friend, are the face of the future at Hap.”
And finally Ted.
“Daria—dude! Everything Jude said, ditto here! You are awesome and we are awesomely lucky. I know you’re thinking of moving, and I have to say that it’s always a good idea to make a new start work for you across the board. If you need any of us to introduce you to our neck of the NYC woods, we stand psyched and ready to serve! I live in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, and all I can say is: Barclays Center, it’s ’a comin’ soon! Hap lives in the 30 Rock allusion milieu of the Upper West, and Mariette on a wonderful little street on the Upper East Side. Jude lives where no one in the world would expect to find him—Murray Hill. Yes, Murray Hill! Call him any time you want at Murray Hill 7-0700. That’s Murray Hill 7-0700.
“And thanks to my new pal Eugene, the Columbia student who texts me faithfully every day to tell me how grateful he is for the enlightenment come of my talk, you have another outpost to mine in Morningside Heights. So ask away!”
Again Daria felt like crying. They were so insanely good at it. She’d attended one of Mariette’s presentations that Wednesday, at a financial services accounting firm on Maiden Lane. She saw it with her own eyes—the warmth, the engagement. It was shocking and actually quite creepy. Like Ted Bundy with his arm in a sling. And now she realized that Hap could get the three of them to do anything. Or rather, the three of them would willingly do anything for Hap. She couldn’t imagine them doing anything else in the world except being with Hap.
“You need to be yourself up there,” Hap advised.
Jude laughed. “Daria, give us your diary. We’ll find things to make you human.”
Hap seemed inspired by this proposition. “What was your most traumatic job termination, Daria?”
Ted nodded. “What happened, Daria? Give us the details from forensics.”
Part of her was leery of another trap, but she was too diminished for the flight instinct to kick in. “The most recent was the worst in terms of nastiness,” she said, placing her lopsided grapefruit on the glistening table. “I was meeting with the CEO for our one-on-one. I had stayed up all night to finish this PowerPoint presentation to the Board and was going to show her. And then she puts her hands up hallelujah style, like some kind of flapper. ‘Let’s take a step back.’ ”
“Not good!” shouted Mariette.
“She even said, ‘It’s not you, it’s me.’ ”
“Code for no severance,” said Jude.
“Fucking yes!” Daria exclaimed.
“What was it like?’ prodded Ted.
Her eyes widened. “It was like a Mexican standoff with two people.”
“Good,” said Mariette.
“It was like entering a hornets’ nest with one hornet.”
“Better,” said Jude.
Hap pointed a finger: “Those are going in.”
Mariette looked her in the eye. “How would you sum up the organization in one sentence?”
This wasn’t hard. “They moved the organization out of the bus-terminal basement but could not take the bus-terminal basement out of the organization.”
Hap slapped his hand on the table. “There’s your hook.”
Daria was completely confused. “Isn’t that kind of negative talking about how crappy jobs are?”
“You’re doing higher ed,” said Ted.
Jude nodded. “They’re all freaked out because they think they’ll never get a decent-paying job. They want the enemy disarmed.”
She was thinking: And they’re right to be freaked out. I’m almost thirty and I’m fifty-eight thousand dollars in debt.
“You need to pick one disruption and focus the emotion,” said Hap. “The problem with most people when they’re angry is that it’s like tossing a match into a bag of fireworks.”
“The food was terrible,” said Jude.
“And such small portions,” added Ted.
Looking at her life from the perspective of now, Daria felt the whole thing to be disruption, a continual upheaval of feelings and allegiances. Hopes and dreams exploding and everything fizzling out. What she’d told Hap about having a life-changing moment at twenty-six—that seemed a lie. It’s always nice to believe that you made a transformation when in reality you merely failed. “Pivot” is what they call it. She couldn’t think of any disruption where she could show valid evidence of life improvement. There wasn’t any one thing like breaking with the priesthood and becoming a charming celebrity.
She remembered during her interview feeling that she could ask Hap anything. Now she let it rip.
“Why the épater la bourgeoisie for you?” she wanted to know. “Who was the bourgeois that did you wrong? The Church? God? People who are jerks?”
The showpeople looked to their leader, who seemed to take Daria’s question as something brand-new. After a half-minute’s deliberation, he declared, “Expectations.”
“Expectations about what?” she pressed anxiously. “Whose expectations?”
He did, now at least, look somewhat like a priest—a priest at a funeral home pondering a reply to something no one could answer. “Maybe expectations of how much we have to accept, how much we have to take without complaint. Maybe the idea from Michael Sandel—another Harvard guy—that we don’t own ourselves, our bodies. We are mere stewards, he says—better yet, custodians. We are only custodians of our bodies, like the guy who comes to the classroom to toss sand when some kid vomits. No matter how bad it gets, even when death is not exactly the worst option on the table, we’re no better than custodians with a mop. We’re expected to be grateful and happy we’re alive. Even when there’s absolutely nothing to lose, nothing to fight for. Even when there’s a universe that wants you ground down to nothing, body and soul.” He stopped himself. “I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you.”
Daria now saw it quite clearly, the mystery. It wasn’t that Hap had some backstory; it was that these three didn’t need to know it, didn’t want to know it. That they took him as he was, the glaring absence of warts and all.
She, however, wasn’t satisfied. “I need to know when you’re going to pull back the curtain on all this. It makes me nervous thinking there’s going to come a time, like in musical chairs, when everyone suddenly sits down, and some people won’t have chairs. When is eventually going to come?”
He leaned forward on his crossed forearms, displaying the beautiful cuffs of his shirt. “What I need, Daria, right now at least, is to grow this organization in the way people want. And for that, I really need to rely on you.”