It was the end; how could he remain in denial?
Hap himself was the lead indicator. What he said on Tuesday about having two children a decade older than Eugene Chen. What he did yesterday—cancel his West Coast trip and then disappear from Romana’s radar in the middle of the day. What he did today—not show at the office at all.
Ted’s realization made for a somber day. He avoided talking to Jude since Jude was halfway checked out. Mariette was in DC for the day. Daria still seemed like a stranger to him—though he realized that everyone outside Hap was a stranger to him. His friends from old school and older old school with whom he drank every other night—he was hazmat man with them too.
Mid-afternoon on this somber day, he got a call and a request from Frank—a surprising one since Frank had never even talked about the place where he lived. Frank’s building wasn’t even a ten-minute walk from the office, but that was all Ted had known about it. “I debated whether to involve anyone else,” said Frank, “but I can’t do this on my own. I’m not digital.”
“Are you OK, Frank?”
Exactly what Ted suspected. “What about Hap.”
“He’s in trouble.”
Silence. “Just if you could come over here.”
Ted’s expectation about the filth and stench, the roaches and rodents that might prevail in Frank’s quarters was something he braced himself for. What he didn’t brace himself for was the thing most terrifying. Frank opened the door to reveal papers. Little pieces and big ones. Everywhere. In all stages of decay. Of course The Whiskey Priest would be a hoarder of papers; why did that not cross the mind of his Boswell? The door’s peeling metallic stick-ons said 5H, but it might as well have been 101.
A bed with floral sheets soiled in the dent—that was the room’s center. A recycling bin from some other state for the sea of bottles. An oak roll-top desk like a lawyer’s in an old movie. And then everywhere else—paper. Heaving from the desk’s unclosed drawers and smashed into dozens of milk crates creating an obstacle course on the floor. Books—mostly paperbacks—were stacked on their sides against every wall. Yellowed newsprint was stacked according to periodical—the Times, the Voice, the New York Review of Books. Frank was nothing if not consistent. He invited Ted to sit on the bed for want of a chair. When Ted sat, he could hear the rustling—roaches within the interstices of newspapers.
“Is it legal trouble with Hap?” he asked as he turned to make sure nothing was crawling out from under the covers.
Frank shook his head and then sat down beside him. “He’s had an incredible journey.”
Ted nodded and waited. “Probably not one like the two dogs and the Siamese cat.”
“I know he has two children.”
“Did he tell you?”
“No, not me. He told some college kid who threatened to jump on Tuesday.”
“Jump? You mean suicide?”
Ted nodded. “Put me through the ringer on the phone—Hap was there for it, thank God.”
“I’m assuming he didn’t jump.”
“He was in a fucking car, Frank. Parked! Dicking us around. I could’ve killed him. Really killed him.”
“Well, thank God for Hap.”
“Yeah, thank God.”
“We’ve got to help him, Ted.”
“Seven years ago,” Frank began, “Alan was dying of cancer. With a wife and two children. Lived outside Boston. They’d been pretty well off—Alan was in private equity—but they went through all their money when the illness dragged on. He was on expensive medications. He had a large life insurance policy, so the family was banking on the money. And then there was a miraculous turnaround. Alan got better. But the family wasn’t happy. His wife wanted a divorce. The kids were through with him.”
“So he set off alone on some kind of odyssey.”
“And now his wife in Boston is dying of cancer.”
“Isn’t she an ex by now?”
“I don’t believe they got a divorce.”
“That wasn’t too smart of Hap. They can still come after him for her debts.”
Suddenly the handle of the door to Frank’s room turned; there was a pause, and the door was slowly pushed open. A large woman with dyed red-orange hair stood at the threshold. Ted thought that if this were a Coen Brothers movie, something very bad would be happening very soon.
“Maxine,” said Frank, getting up, “this is the young man I was telling you about. My Boswell.”
The woman looked at Ted skeptically. “What’s a Boswell?”
Ted stood but hesitated in offering to shake her hand. “I write stuff down and post it online.”
“Ted,” said Frank, “this is Maxine, my neighbor.”
She began making dramatic gestures with her arms. “I don’t understand Frank—Frank’s way over my head. I gotta go down to the Mental Health Department and be fingerprinted.”
It seemed to Ted that all three statements constituted one thought.
Frank nodded, smiling. “Always a good idea to stay on top of these things.”
“You know,” Maxine said to Ted, “can I get your number in case something goes wrong with Frank?”
Ted knew that Hap the man paid Frank’s rent, gave him health insurance through Hap the company, and bought him the iPhone he barely knew how to use. Maxine should be calling Hap’s number if any. But then if Hap went back to his dying wife, it would fall to Ted to be responsible for Frank. That seemed so weird to consider—being responsible for someone else.
Could he do that, be responsible for Frank and his nauseating collection of papers? He didn’t want to give Maxine his number—not after Eugene. He didn’t want another crazy on his hands.
“I’ll tell you my number you call me,” she said, reaching up under her enormous print blouse to extract a phone from the pocket of her pants. “Take out your phone.”
He was trapped. He recited; she called. Then she left to get fingerprinted.
Frank settled into an enormous sigh. “Since we’re talking in the Living Will vein . . . ”
Ted shook his head vehemently. “No, we are most certainly not talking Living Will. Nothing is going to go wrong with Frank.”
“But I have a manuscript,” he said, leaning toward the desk and reaching to pull at an already open drawer under the open roll-top. The drawer popped out of its slot to rest on the desk surface, contents blooming abundantly—stacks of notebooks, wavy from so much moisture absorbed, their innards apparently heavily written on by hand. “Ted, anything happens to me, you must secure these.”
It was traumatic for Ted to even look. The drawer seemed to him like a box holding something that had been cut off a person. He looked at Frank instead. “Would you want me to have it published?”
“I’ll be dead, so I leave that to you. But I want you to be the one to take it and not anyone else. Can you promise me that, Ted? That you’ll come and get these notebooks?”
“Sure,” said Ted.
He could see the old man was relieved. “Brilliant!”
Ted smiled at being called brilliant.
“And for that I have a gift for you!” Frank exclaimed. “A book. Of course I need to find it first.”
The wrenching pain continued as Ted tried to avoid watching Frank hunt through stacks of paper and roaches—followed by the pain of realizing he would have to go home with the paper contained within a book.
What Frank ultimately plucked from his decrepit orchard was a very old hardcover. “It’s a first edition of Hardy’s Wessex Poems and Other Verses.” He smiled. “You will note that it contains the poem ‘Hap.’ ”
“Frank,” said Ted, shaking his head, “I can’t take that. If it’s a first edition it’s valuable. You can sell it.”
“Why on earth would I sell it when it can be cherished by someone close to me?”
Taking the proffered book, Ted felt like the world’s biggest shit for not wanting it. “Thank you, Frank.”
“And now,” said the priest, “we need to set our minds back to Hap.”
Ted stared down at the frayed corners of the book on his lap. “So you think he wants to go back to his old life?”
“I wish it were that simple.” He paused. “The trouble involves a person by the name of Panda.”
“He’s some kind of criminal in Boston, and it seems he is the boyfriend of Alan’s wife. Apparently Alan’s wife has asked this Panda to kill Alan.”
“No shit! Why?”
Frank shook his head. “I wouldn’t know the details. Alan seems to think it’s because she believes he ruined her life by not dying when he should have.”
“Fuckers.” He paused. “Sorry, Frank.”
“It angers me as well.”
“We have to go to the police.”
“I don’t think Alan wants the police.”
Ted shook his head. “This is getting weird.”
Frank, in thought, stared ahead intently. “We need to find out who this Panda is and have him arrested.”
“That’s why we go to the police.”
“I don’t think Hap wants to be exposed.”
“If someone shoots him he’ll certainly be exposed.”
Frank looked at him in anticipation. “But you told me you’d become like a detective yourself with the identity theft.”
Ted rubbed the back of his neck. “That could take time. I don’t know if that’s the route.” He bent his torso forward and put his hands over his head. Things were becoming so unreal. He got back up with a red face. “I don’t want Hap to get killed.”
Frank smiled and slapped Ted’s back. “Somehow I knew you would say that.”
Ted reached in his messenger bag for the iPad. After a few minutes of working his fingers he stopped and leaned back. “You’re not going to believe this.”
“You found him already?”
He shook his head. “There are four convicted felons in the metro Boston area who go by the name Panda.”
Frank rubbed his hands together with excitement. “So we look at them all.”
“To learn what?”
“Who his wife would associate with.”
“We don’t know anything about her except that she’s dying.” He paused. “And she’s a bitch.”
“Let’s work together on this,” said Frank, indicating that they should hunker down in the paper-contaminated room.
“OK,” said Ted, “but let me take you out to dinner and a nice gin and soda.”
On the street, Ted found the air blowing in from the West Side Highway especially sweet in relation to Frank’s building. “That student from Columbia,” he said. “He has family issues—cultural expectations because he’s supposed to be ‘Chinese-good’ and not ‘Caucasian-good.’ ” He laughed. “The lesser stature of Caucasian-good is hardwired inside him. His name’s Eugene.”
“Yet another fucking interesting New York story. Sometimes I think, Can’t we all just not have stories for a month? Take a story holiday. And all this name shit.” He stared at Frank. “Is your middle name Xavier?”
Frank laughed. “I guess it is.”
“Why is that? Why are all the Francises ‘Francis X.’? Why can’t it be Francis Maurice?”
Frank shrugged. “Maybe because there’s no St. Maurice.”
“I wish there was,” Ted replied, looking up to where the buildings stopped. “I’d pray to St. Mo in a heartbeat.”
“You would pray—really?”
Ted laughed. “I guess not. Since it’s still your Jesus chairing the board.”
Frank smiled. “That’s probably the best analogy of the Last Supper. A board meeting in which Jesus designates the stock options before the IPO.”
“And Judas shorts his boss.”
“And the boss dies and the company goes public.”
Ted laughed again. “I wonder if Jude will short his boss.”
Frank shook his head. “You need to learn your apostles, Ted.”
“They’re not my apostles.”
“Jude isn’t short for Judas. He’s the a.k.a. for the follower Thaddeus. Saint of hopeless causes.”
“That’s Jude all right.” He paused. “Daria has some jackass conception that names determine your fate. She asked me why my name was Ted Brand. As if I chose it.”
“She seems like a very nice young woman to me,” he said, nodding approvingly. “A happy one.”
“Oh, I’m sure. Got life right there by the teeth. I could tell from her smile.”
He laughed. “How did she end up with us then?”
“Maybe she was sent.”
“She’s . . . I guess . . . I don’t know. She’s trying?”
He nodded. “Trying is admirable.”
Ted rubbed the back of his neck in frustration. “Frank, I want to be trying. I really do.”
“I tell you, it’s like with your identity theft experience. It’s not enough to feel bad for those people. You have to do something, Ted.” He paused. “I know you Hap people watch videos of yourself over and over. Does it ever hit you sometimes when you see yourself saying these things that you yourself never practice?”
Ted laughed. “Yeah. It’s funny.”
“Do you think you chose to be Ted Brand in the hazmat suit then?”
He didn’t know what to say. “Should we have given those people some money? I mean back then when I was at Harvard. Would you have? Drew laughed at me, as if I was this idiot. ‘They’re just gaming you, Ted. They can smell money like wolves can smell fear.’ Drew grew up rich and he thought anyone poor was gaming the system for money. But maybe I might have convinced him if I tried.”
“Did you ask your grandparents for advice?”
It always turned his expression bleak thinking of them. “That was even worse. Here they’d been poor raising their kids, but they had no sympathy for people with money trouble. They acted like poor people were bad karma and they didn’t even want to look because the karma might come back to them. They wouldn’t even talk about it.” He paused. “Both of them died right after that.”
Frank sighed. “Well let’s hope that by the time you take possession of my notebooks, you’ll be doing things for people and not laughing on the sidelines.”
Ted turned to look at the priest. “Frank, that kind of hurt.”
He smiled and slapped him on the back. “Make sure you let me know when it really hurts.”